Broaden and Build Theory: Definition and Criticism

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

In this lesson you will explore what the broaden-and-build theory claims, some of the experiences that have occurred using the broaden-and-build approach, and a critical evaluation of the broaden-and-build theory.

Two Opposite Behaviors

Two children sit, side by side, in a comfortable playroom. They begin their experience in identical ways--enjoying the snacks, playing with the toys, smiling at the kind words from the babysitter, and generally having a pleasant time.

As the morning progresses, however, their individual reactions to their experiences change. While one of them seems to be experiencing increasing enjoyment in the pleasant environment, the other child grows restless, disconsolate, and angry.

The happy child continues to explore and find new ways to play. The babysitter's responses to her are all positive, with happy words, encouragements, and compliments.

As the second child's behavior grows increasingly negative, however, the babysitter's responses become increasingly narrowed and urgent, as she tries to settle the unhappy child. The child's focus on the toys also becomes increasingly narrow, with her focus seemingly limited to either throwing toys or striking the other members of the room.

These children may be displaying behavior explained by the broaden-and-build theory.

What is the Broaden-and-Build Theory?

The broaden-and-build theory, or broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, suggests that building up positive emotions within a person will tend to broaden that person's creative openness, understanding, and behavior. Joy makes you want to play, interest makes you want to explore, etc.

The theory was originally proposed by psychology professor Barbara Frederickson in the late 90's. Her work indicates that consistent choices that induce positive emotions tend to build up intellectual, social, and psychological resources. The positive emotional state tends to produce a higher level of knowledge over time, and social relationships grow and become richer as others notice and enjoy a person's joy, openness, and wonder.

Investigating the Theory

Emotions build in people as a response to various stimuli. For example, you may decide to watch a tragic film or listen to a sad song that creates a soulful sorrow within you. Or perhaps you watch a documentary about slavery that makes you angry. These emotional responses were programmed by your chosen behavior, and the broaden-and-build theory prsents the idea that they also begin to alter your behavior toward narrower, simpler choices.

As the 'fight or flight' resources begin to re-allocate within your body, your mind will abandon all attempts at creativity, joy, amusement, etc., in favor of more survival-oriented thoughts. You may curl up in a defensive posture. You may walk around, yelling or striking at things. You may treat others in a hostile fashion. All of these responses are based in the 'fight or flight' mentality, which was once directly related to your ancestors' survival.

Experiments conducted on random samples of people involved showing movies that would generate positive (happy, amusing, contented) responses, negative (angry, sad, pessimistic, fearful) responses, or neutral (interesting, but not emotional) responses.

Observing the subjects, researchers concluded that the people who saw the positive movies were much more prone to creative, expansive, possibility-oriented thoughts and behavior than either of the other two groups. Over time, subjects exposed to positive-emotion stimuli tended to develop increasing levels of social and intellectual resources. They would make more friends, establish better relationships, and tend to enjoy their lives more. They would learn more, remember more, and generally develop more intellectual resources. Those who observed negative movie-induced emotions tended to adapt behaviors that were less social, less creative, and less challenging for their minds.

Critical Analysis

It is easy to generalize the results of experiments--especially when the conclusions seem obvious. Although longitudinal studies (studies using multiple experiments on the same set of subjects to determine time-based results) have indicated that the long-term results of positive emotional responses are profitable, questions arise as to whether more attention should be paid to the need for balance of positive and negative emotions in the human life.

Negative emotions arise in people for good reasons:

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