Independence of Affect

Independence of Affect Definition

Positive and negative affect are often referred to as the Big Two emotions. They each refer to superfactors of emotion, and according to Randy J. Larsen and Ed Diener, each consists of several subcomponents of different feeling states. Positive affect refers to all high-energy emotions that feel good or pleasurable. Some varieties of such positive emotions are feeling energetic, enthusiasm, engagement, and joy. The situation is similar with negative affect, which has subcomponents of high-energy ways of feeling unpleasant, such as anxiety, worry, and distress as well as fearfulness, anger, hostility, and disgust. As such, positive and negative affect are each composed of several subfactors of emotion that go into defining them.

Conceptual Distinctions

Independence of AffectOne important distinction concerns the difference between emotional states and emotional traits. Emotion states are feelings that come and go fairly quickly, often are intense, and their cause usually lies outside of the person. You might say you are in a state of anger and that you are angry because of a specific event. The anger may be intense, but it will likely dissipate. Trait emotions, on the other hand, last longer and refer the cause, in part, to some characteristic of the person. You might say, for example, that someone is an angry kind of person, meaning that this person is frequently angry or has a low threshold for becoming angry. This describes a characteristic of the person more than a particular state caused by some event in the environment. Positive and negative affect can be thought of as states or traits, as transient emotions caused by specific events or as relatively enduring characteristics of persons.

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The following example makes clear the distinction between states and traits. Consider the two emotions sadness and anger. In terms of states, people are rarely sad and angry at the same time. A person may be angry, but it is very rare for the person to simultaneously be sad. However, if one thinks about traits over a longer time frame, say, over the past 6 months, and ask the question how angry and how sad has a person been over the past 6 months, it is likely that a person reporting a high level of anger will also report a high level of sadness, just not at the same time. So in terms of traits, people who are frequently angry are also frequently sad. Again, just not at the same time. At a trait level, anger and sadness can be highly correlated (they are both part of the negative affect superfactor), whereas at a state level, anger and sadness are not correlated because they do not co-occur at the same time.

Another important distinction is between categorical and dimensional views of emotion. In the field of psychology, some researchers prefer to think of emotions as distinct categories. These researchers often have a list of specific emotions that they consider to be fundamental, usually between six and nine different emotions. These researchers do not clump emotions into positive and negative groups, but rather feel that it is important to maintain distinctions between specific emotions. On the other hand, another group of researchers find some value to the idea that all emotions fall along a few specific dimensions and can thus be grouped. Researchers who prefer to think about positive and negative affect as superfactors are in this camp.

An interesting finding is that there are many more negative emotions than there are positive emotions. It seems humans are constructed in such a way that there are only a few ways to feel positive but many ways to feel negative. For example, negative affect includes such emotions as anxiety, anger, fear, distress, guilt, embarrassment, sadness, disgust, and shame. All of these negative emotions may have distinguishable feeling states; anger feels different from anxiety, for example. Nevertheless, anger and anxiety are both negative. Plus, the empirical finding is that at a trait level, these negative emotions tend to correlate with each other. Researchers who believe in the dimensional approach find it useful to consider all negative emotions under the single dimension of negative affect and all positive emotions under the single dimension of positive affect.

Background and History

During the early parts of psychology’s history, emotion was a topic that received very little attention. When it was considered at all, emotion was thought of as disregulated cognition, as dysfunctional forms of mental activity. Starting in the late 1970s, psychology began a fresh consideration of emotion. At this time, positive and negative affect were thought of as separate ends of a single bipolar continuum. That is, it was thought that the more a person had of one emotion type, the less they had of the other. In fact, measures of positive and negative affect at this time were constructed in such a way that they ensured positive and negative affect would not be independent. It was simply felt at the time that positive and negative affect were the opposite sides of the same coin.

In the mid-1980s researchers began to question this view. They focused on constructing separate measurement scales, with positive affect being measured from zero to high levels and negative affect being measured on another scale from zero to high levels. Research began to accumulate showing that positive and negative affect were uncorrelated and correlated with other variables in different ways.

One way to think about the independence of positive and negative affect is to consider what makes you happy and what makes you sad. Those things that make a person happy, when they are absent, do not guarantee that person will feel sad. Similarly, those things that make a person feel sad, when they are absent, do not guarantee that the person will feel happy. In other words, the positive and negative affect systems appear to respond differently to different events in people’s lives. It is also likely that the brain centers that are responsible for generating the experience of positive and negative affect are separate. Reward circuits in the brain are partly responsible for positive emotions, and these positive emotions are transmitted through humans’ nervous systems by the neurotransmitter known as dopamine. In fact, dopamine is activated by those events that typically create pleasurable feelings. For example, many drugs of abuse, such as cocaine, activate the dopamine system and are responsible for the intense feelings of pleasure that accompanies the ingestion of this addictive drug. Dopamine is also activated by other events that generate pleasure; for example, a kiss from someone a person loves or eating a meal that a person particularly likes. Similarly, other brain centers, particularly the limbic system, are responsible for feelings of negative affect (fear, anger, hostility, etc.) and are potentially distributed through the nervous system through the serotonin neurotransmitter system. As psychology has matured and its consideration of emotion has continued, evidence has accumulated that positive and negative affect function differently, have different biological bases in the nervous systems, and are responsive to different events in people’s lives.


One consequence of the realization that positive and negative affect are independent is the creation of measures that tap each of these emotions separately. There are now a number of published measures for assessing these emotions, such as the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule. Another consequence of the independence of the positive and negative affect is research on the different operating characteristics of each of these emotional systems. One way to summarize this is the simple phrase that “bad is stronger than good.” For example, a life event that is negative, say of the value -1 will cause more negative emotion than a positive event of +1 will cause positive emotion. The psychologist Danny Kahneman has shown that losses are more powerful than equally strong gains; for example, losing $50 will make people feel sadder than winning $50 will make them feel happy. In other words, gains and losses of equal magnitude nevertheless result in negative affect and positive affect of different magnitudes. Another example from the social psychological literature is that a negative first impression will last longer than an equally positive first impression. There are many examples where bad is stronger than good. In fact, this effect is called the negativity bias; people respond stronger to bad events than they do to equally good events. However, another concept applies to positive affect, which is called the positivity offset. This refers to the fact that most people, most of the time, are in a slightly positive state. In other words, the default human emotional condition is not zero but slightly positive.

Another consequence of the independence of positive and negative affect concerns overall well-being. If psychological well-being is thought of as the ratio of positive to negative emotions in a person’s life over time, then it suggests that there are two routes to well-being. One route would be to maximize the numerator in this ratio, that is, to try to maximize positive affect. The other route would be to try to minimize the denominator, that is, to limit the amount of negative affect. These two routes to well-being are a consequence of the finding that positive and negative affect are independent.

Individual Differences

At a trait level, positive and negative affect correlate in different ways with measures of personality. Positive affect is highly correlated with Extraversion and many of its facets. For example, people high on positive affect tend to be very sociable persons: They are outgoing, like to be with other people, like being the center of attention, and tend to be talkative and engaging. Positive affect also correlates with high activity level: People high on positive affect tend to be lively and animated and engaged in whatever activity they are involved in. Finally, positive affect correlates with Agreeableness: People who experience high levels of trait positive affect tend to get along well with others, are cooperative, are consensus builders, and work well in groups.

Negative affect at a trait level also correlates with specific personality dimensions. People high on negative affect tend to be high on a personality dimension known as Neuroticism. Neuroticism describes a cluster of traits that includes being pessimistic, always thinking on the negative side of things, and expecting the worst to happen. It also correlates with being dissatisfied in general, with the tendency to complain a lot about anyone or anything. People high on this dimension also report a lot of psychosomatic symptoms, such as backaches, stomachaches, and headaches. And finally, people high in negative affect tend to worry a lot; they expect the worst to happen and they worry whether they will be able to cope with what the future holds.

These personality correlates of positive and negative emotion raise the interesting question about which is causing which. That is, from a correlation perspective, researchers don’t know whether personality is causing the emotion or whether there may be a third variable that may be related to both. For example, it could be that extraverts engage in the kind of activities that generate positive emotions, and it is these activities, not Extraversion per se, that are responsible for heightened positive affect. However, an alternative model is that extraversion represents a lower threshold for experiencing positive emotions. Research has come in on both sides of this debate. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that extraverts, in fact, do have higher levels of positive emotions in their lives and that people high on the dimension of Neuroticism have high levels of negative emotions in their lives.


  1. Larsen, R. J., & Diener, E. (1992). Problems and promises with the circumplex model of emotion. Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 25-59.
  2. Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063-1070.