Pollyanna Principle

14,000 Things to be Happy About

The Pollyanna principle (also called ‘Pollyannaism’ or ‘positivity bias’) is the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones. At the subconscious level, the mind typically focuses on the optimistic. At the conscious level, it tends towards the negative.

This subconscious bias towards the positive is often described as the Pollyanna principle and is similar to the ‘Forer’ or ‘Barnum’ effect, a tendency for individuals to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people (an impulse that fortune tellers and personality tests take advantage of).

The name derives from the 1913 novel ‘Pollyanna’ by Eleanor H. Porter describing a girl who plays the ‘glad game’—trying to find something to be glad about in every situation. The novel has been adapted to film several times, most famously in 1920 and 1960.

An early use of the name ‘Pollyanna’ in psychological literature was in 1969 by Boucher and Osgood who described a Pollyanna hypothesis as a universal human tendency to use evaluatively positive words more frequently and diversely than evaluatively negative words in communicating. Empirical evidence for this tendency has been provided by computational analyses of large corpora of text. The Pollyanna principle has been observed on online social networks as well. For example, Twitter users preferentially share more, and are emotionally affected more frequently by, positive information.

The Pollyanna principle was described by psychologists Margaret Matlin and David Stang in 1978 using the archetype of Pollyanna more specifically as a principle which portrays the positive bias people have when thinking of the past. According to the Pollyanna Principle, the brain processes information that is pleasing and agreeable in a more precise and exact manner as compared to unpleasant information.

Matlin and Stang found that people expose themselves to positive stimuli and avoid negative stimuli, they take longer to recognize what is unpleasant or threatening than what is pleasant and safe, and they report that they encounter positive stimuli more frequently than they actually do. Matlin and Stang also determined that selective recall was a more likely occurrence when recall was delayed: the longer the delay, the more selective recall that occurred. However, the Pollyanna principle does not always apply to individuals suffering from depression or anxiety, who tend to either have more depressive realism or a negative bias.

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