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5 Evolutionary Functions of Positive and Negative Emotions. On the Bitterness of Well-Being and the Sweetness of Difficulty

5 Evolutionary Functions of Positive and Negative Emotions. On the Bitterness of Well-Being and the Sweetness of Difficulty

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H. Komorowska

Are Positive Emotions Always Positive?

Affect experienced as positive is often truly positive in its impact on behaviour in the

sense that it reduces competitiveness and increases joint benefit in negotiations

(Carnevale & Isen, 1986), improves consolidation of long-term memories, raises the

level of creativity and correlates with holistic thinking as well as with more efficient

decision-making and problem-solving (Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999). It also ensures a

higher quality of interaction, leading to more openness to ideas or diverse options.

Positive affect correlates with high self-esteem which promotes goal achievement

(Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). Optimists tend to stress positive aspects

without distorting a general view of the situation and are less prone to be anchored in

earlier hypotheses. They also demonstrate ability to see advantages in opposite views. In

line with the broaden-and-build theory (Frederickson, 2004) positive emotions bring

about various kinds of positive thought-action results. The effects of positive affect, even

when favourable, are, however, context-dependent (Estrada, Isen, & Young, 1997).

As research demonstrates (Forgas, 1998, 2007), positive emotions, however useful

in many aspects, can also bring about problems. Superficial information processing,

ignoring sources of inconvenient information make optimists prone to simplifications

and mental shortcuts. Less careful observation makes optimists less valuable as witnesses (Forgas, Vargas, & Laham, 2005), while quick judgment, less systematic

thinking leads to unrealistic planning based on pathetic illusions and dispositional

hope. Lack of realism in decision-making is one of the most common dangers. More

positive self-assessment than that which would result from analyzing other people’s

perspectives, overestimated sense of control over situational factors and hope for a

happy future often lead to risk-taking behaviour and result in thwarted plans and

unexpected failure. Unrealistic planning is supported by filtering out negative information and feedback, denial and self-deception (Forgas & East, 2008; Taylor, 1997;

Wojciszke, 2013). Even self-esteem can produce problematic effects due to the

so-called self-serving bias (Blaine & Crocker, 1993) which distorts realistic evaluation

of an individual’s chances of success.


Are Negative Emotions Always Negative?

It is understandable that reactions caused by negative emotions are felt as

unpleasant. The natural tendency of those experiencing negative affect is to try to

suppress it, which—as psychology has demonstrated—does not solve the problem.

The typical reaction of parents, friends or teachers in contact with an individual full

of negative emotions is an attempt to reduce them. Reduction of negative affect,

however, does not mean stimulating positive emotions due to a phenomenon called

uncoupled activation. In fact, suppressing or reducing negative emotions, especially

under a cognitive load, may lead to their greater accessibility (Wegner, Erber, &

Zanakos, 1993; Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).

Difficulty and Coping Strategies in Language Education …


What is more, basic negative emotions have an adaptive function: fear brings

information about possible danger predisposing us to cautious behaviour and

reduces risk-taking; jealousy results in more care given to people, objects or ways

of acting; anger informs of personal boundaries being crossed and therefore inclines

us to facing and overcoming contradicting circumstances. They can all prove

useful, productive and perfectly functional in problem-oriented strategies (Carr,

2004; Heszen, 2014).

Even pessimism can have a positive function if geared towards strategies

focused on the problem. According to Gillham, Shatte, Reivich, and Seligman

(2001), pessimism and optimism are explanatory attributional styles rather than

personality features. Optimists tend to attribute failure to external, situational factors, while pessimists look for internal causes of the lack of success. In consequence, pessimists are more likely to benefit from an internal locus of control and

engage in productive activity aimed at finding a new solution. Their planning may

also be more precise, more realistic and based on much more solid grounds than

that undertaken by optimists who base their goals on expectations of positive

results, if not on dispositional hope (Snyder, 2000). In decision-making pessimists

take into consideration not only to the value of the goal and the usefulness of

methods available, but also internal aspects such as the degree of their perceived

self-efficacy. What is more, pessimists tend to be better listeners, less influenced by

confusing information and more reliable as witnesses. They are often better

negotiators due to their more matter-of-fact argumentation and as citizens prove to

be more oriented towards external norms of justice and fairness (Snyder, 2000;

Taylor, 1997), yet they might self-present as optimists in order to avoid social

exclusion (Helweg-Larsen, Sadeghian, & Webb, 2002).

Difficulty often elicits faster thinking and more efficient functioning; improved

performance may be attributed to a paradoxical effect of stress, better known in

SLA/FLT as facilitating anxiety (Piechurska-Kuciel, 2008). At the same time individuals with low self-esteem are more cautious in executing their decision which may

help them to avoid mistakes if not straightforward danger (Wojciszke, 2013).

Experiencing hardship and strain often results in the so-called posttraumatic growth

(PTG) manifested in a higher degree of resilience, better conservation of resources, the

sense of strength and dispositional optimism. The experience of being able to overcome difficulty through applying one’s own methods and designing new solutions

leads to considerable personality growth as well as to the broadening of the repertoire

of individual cognitive and emotional resources (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). This

tendency has been revealed even in individuals who had been subjected to extreme

stress, e.g., during terrorist attacks. In later years posttraumatic growth led many of

these individuals to engage in meaningful, pro-social activities (Hobfoll, Hall,

Canett-Nisim, Galea, Johnson, & Palmieri, 2007).

Guidance in the process of self-assessment and self-diagnosis, as well as help in

conducting a cost-reward analysis of risk-taking behaviour, can be of great help

here. Guidance, however, if it is to be successful, should be based on the knowledge

of how individuals typically deal with stress and difficulty.


H. Komorowska

6 Learner’s Difficulty and the Coping Process

The problem with individually perceived difficulty is that it polarizes reactions

leading either to avoidance of activity or to a decision to act (Gordon Randall,

2008). As the final result is context-dependent, behaviour of an individual facing

what he or she considers to be a true challenge is hard to predict. Perception of a

given situation as difficult may result in different types of behaviour influenced by

dispositional pessimism or dispositional optimism of the learner.

Avoidance, according to Le Doux (1998), is a result of information running

through one of the two amygdala pathways. This pathway is often referred to as a high

road activating fear reactions without conscious experience. This mode is quicker and

less precise, but elicits automatic reactions to what the learner perceives as danger. The

second pathway, called a low road, engages cortex structures guaranteeing a slower

but more precise analysis of the stimulus and activating a conscious reaction. As the

stimulus is precisely processed, it might also be considered safe, therefore unnecessary

reactions can be blocked (Le Doux, 1998; Wierzchoń, 2013). Teachers are advised to

support the latter, i.e., the conscious road.

Dealing with difficulty—similarly to coping with stress—takes place through the

employment of three types of strategies

– strategies focused on the problem, sometimes referred to as mastery;

– strategies focused on emotions, sometimes referred to as meaning and;

– avoidance strategies, often based on denial, social isolation or passive aggressive attitudes (Conte & Plutchik, 1995; Heszen, 2014; Zeidner & Endler, 1996).

Educators usually encourage learners to use both proactive and reactive strategies focused on the problem, especially those combining analysis and action, i.e.,

– preventive strategies, analyzing scenarios for the future and/or in predicting


– reflective strategies, devising a variety of ways out of a predicament and

overviewing possible scenarios;

– strategic planning, which entails production of a detailed agenda;

– search for assistance, resources, emotional and instrumental support (Folkman

& Moskowitz, 2004; Greenglass & Fiksenbaum, 2009; Jiang, 2011; Scheier &

Carver, 1988).

Autonomous, high-achieving language learners tend to use proactive strategies,

while systematic, successful, but not necessarily autonomous students—if need

arises—opt for reactive strategies to overcome difficulty. Both groups of learners

select strategies which work for them on the basis of an earlier appraisal of formerly

encountered situations. Low achievers and unmotivated students do not cope as

well mainly because of numerous problems with correctly assessing the degree of

difficulty and the type of the context, an exercise much less problematic for successful students.

Difficulty and Coping Strategies in Language Education …


Appraisal can be emotion-driven or cognition-driven (Heszen, 2014; Lazarus &

Folkman, 1984). Individuals tend to be predisposed to certain kinds of appraisal and

can, therefore, be characterized by a prevailing type of dispositional appraisal,

though both its source and the resulting assessment may differ across contexts,

which is why psychologists speak about situational appraisal (Aronson, Wilson, &

Akert, 2012). Each case of appraisal takes place in two separate stages referred to as

primary and secondary appraisal.

Primary appraisal requires analyzing the situation and defining it as either

manageable or problematic and taxing. In its course individuals ask themselves

questions such as ‘Is it difficult?’, or ‘Is it stressful?’. Secondary appraisal concentrates on first assessing chances of success in the process of dealing with

potential or real difficulty and then planning a concrete course of action. Here

individuals ask themselves questions such as ‘Am I likely to get this done?’ and ‘If

so—how to do it?’. The decision to act can again be either intellectually or emotionally driven, which depends on the learner’s predispositions (Lazarus &

Folkman, 1984).

Students’ decisions to act are not always task-oriented. Sometimes they are

geared towards improving relations with the school and the family, while sometimes emotional self-regulation is their only aim. The former case reflects external

motivation, while the latter shows underlying internal motives. When the situation

is assessed as manageable, task-oriented strategies are selected, even though

motivation might remain external. When the task is perceived as unrealistic,

avoidance strategies are employed with the aim to reduce negative feelings and in

this way emotionally self-regulate (Heszen, 2014; Heszen-Niejodek, 2004).

Coping strategies depend on an individual’s temperament which determines

actual energy levels (Strelau, 2004). These in turn influence activeness which raises

adrenaline levels and evokes positive emotions (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004).

These factors are obviously beyond the teacher’s control. Yet the role of the teacher’s support is significant, though the type of effective assistance given to students in difficulty depends both on the situation and on the personality of the


7 How Can Teachers Help Students to Cope

with Difficulty?

The teacher who wants to help students through difficulty needs to identify their

appraisal type to decide what kind of pedagogical activity would be appropriate.

When learners’ emotions govern the appraisal process, engagement of cognitive

processes may help them to break the vicious circle of negative affect producing a

pessimistic assessment which would in turn breed even more negative affect. The

teacher can assist in the formation of questions in the course of both primary and


H. Komorowska

secondary appraisal. Useful questions suggested by the teacher to be reflected on by

the learner are, for example, ‘Is it unpleasant?’, ‘How much effort will I have to

invest?’, ‘How much time will I need?’, ‘How can I go about it?’, ‘How many

scenarios can I think of?’, ‘Which one shall I decide on?’, ‘What is my action

plan?’. Looking for evidence for judgments presented may help students to correctly assess their capabilities and affordances.

Through a teacher’s assistance positive emotions can be elicited and the direction of influence is likely to be reversed. Good teacher-student rapport, constructive

feedback and more frequent, well-justified praise directed at concrete activities or

products rather than at the person of the learner will be of great help here. Caution

is, however, recommended when it comes to material rewards, however small, or to

scores as psychological research informs teachers that rewards reduce internal

motivation and may even demotivate students who tend to lose interest if rewards

are removed (Carr, 2004; Weiner, 2006). Gamification, so common today not only

in corporate contexts, but also in education, has been found to work against

long-term planning (Jiang, 2011), while too frequent feedback, although it may help

to develop skills, does not contribute to the promotion of learner autonomy.

Therefore, the teacher needs to identify and use an appropriate form, type and

amount of feedback.

Yet, other factors should also be taken into consideration. To guide students in

their process of coping with difficulty, the teacher needs to understand which

personality features can block learners’ efforts. Although correlations between

personality and coping strategies are not particularly high, individual variables tend

to moderate behaviour in situations perceived as difficult or stressful (Heszen,

2014). Certain personality features have been found to impede coping; low

self-esteem results in tendencies to filter positive feedback as incongruent with

negative self-evaluation, especially if positive feedback has been rare in the individual’s life experience. At the same time negative information tends to make more

impact than its positive counterpart (Peeters & Czapiński, 1990).

Educational support in language education can be achieved through offering help

in study planning, strategy training, assistance in the identification of preferred

learning styles, guidance in the process of selecting strategies appropriate in the

cost-reward perspective and an offer of counsel in decision-making. Encouraging

self-assessment and providing tools for the purpose such as, for instance, open

self-tests with scoring keys can prove useful. A vast array of tools and documents

provided by the Council of Europe and the European Centre for Modern Languages

in Graz such as The European Language Portfolio (Council of Europe, 2000), The

Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters (Byram, Barrett, Ipgrave, Jackson, &

Garcia Mendez, 2009), The Common European Framework for Reference for

Languages. Teaching-Learning-Assessment (Council of Europe, 2001) or

Framework of Reference for Pluralistic Approaches to Languages and Cultures

(FREPA/CARAP) (Candelier, Camilleri-Grima, Castellotti, de Pietro, Lőrincz,

Meißner, Noguerol, & Schröder-Sura, 2012) will be of great help here.

Sometimes the teacher’s support may not prove sufficient, especially when the

learner’s personality is not resilient, that is when there is no easy return to the state

Difficulty and Coping Strategies in Language Education …


of well-being after a period of effort invested in coping with difficulty (Carr, 2004).

Lack of success in educational guidance should not be immediately treated as the

teacher’s fault; the human evolutionary endowment predisposes us to a higher

intensity of negative emotions resulting from failure than of positive emotions

resulting from success (Buss, 1999). It is, however, worth noting that failure brings

considerably more disappointment when it is unexpected because the goal was

assessed as easy to achieve. It is less distressing if the aim to be achieved was

treated with due respect and no competition was involved in the learning process

(Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Fortuna, 2012). Teachers, therefore, need to formulate

their curricular objectives as mastery goals linked to a set of skills and competences

rather than performance goals attached to no more than set standards leading to

socially prescribed perfectionism and based on ranking which appeals to

competition-oriented students.

8 Conclusion. A Place for Positive Psychology


All the above does not mean that positive psychology has no place in SLA/FLT. On

the contrary, it draws our attention to the importance of individual variables both

affective and cognitive.

As far as learners’ affective and personality factors are concerned, the fact that

the effectiveness of teachers’ assistance depends on the context points to the role of

a teacher’s correct diagnosis of those of the learner’s personality characteristics

which are of special significance for success in coping with difficulty in language

learning. Four characteristics seem to be particularly important. What proves to be

crucial for successful management of difficulty as well as for social competence and

interpersonal communication is self-efficacy based on experience of control,

observation and social persuasion, as well as on a satisfactory physical and emotional state (Carr, 2004). Another personality trait important for the purpose is

hardiness or resistance, defined as the lack of sensitivity to negative stimulation

(Kobasa, 1982). One more personality variable which should not be ignored is

resilience, or flexible adaptability, i.e., an ability to go back to the neutral quo ante

state soon after an instance of failure. Last but not least, there comes the sense of

coherence defined as the ability to identify both the content and the value of

messages. A tendency to look for coherence increases the learner’s chances to

achieve comprehensibility of information, thus increasing the feeling of manageability, i.e., perceiving resources as sufficient for effective coping with difficulty and

ensuring meaningfulness. Requirements are then perceived as worth the effort,

while undesirable situations tend to be viewed as challenges rather than traps

(Antonovsky, 1995; Heszen, 2014; Seligman, 2002).

Artificial self-esteem formation and instantaneous help work against endurance

and perseverance. Caution is needed in dealing with positive affect. Teachers


H. Komorowska

enthusiastic about the correlation between self-esteem and success engage in what

psychologists call ‘recalibrating indicators’ and help students raise their self-esteem

and feel good without intensifying effort, engaging in well planned activity and

achieving satisfying results (Seligman, 2002).

Teachers’ efforts therefore, do not need to go in the direction of suppressing

negative affect, but should engage learners’ cognition, helping them to self-reflect

(Siegel, 2007), analyze the type of difficulty, assess to what extent they are interested in achieving a particular objective, locate human and material resources

available and plan detailed action. Inclining them to engage in self-oriented rather

than other-oriented perfectionism will help to reduce competitive tendencies.

The educational aim—apart from the didactic one connected with the development of language skills—is to help learners consciously combine emotional reactions to stimuli with a rational analysis of the situation in which they find

themselves, much like it happens in the state of FLOW in which engagement and

concentration is balanced with abilities (Czikzentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen,


Without teachers’ assistance learners are likely to find themselves at the mercy

of their own unrecognized affect. Often these are negative emotions, a situation

always difficult because—as psychological research tells us—bad is perhaps not

morally stronger than good, but we definitely respond more strongly to it. Research

on bad vs. good impressions demonstrates that negative stereotypes are quicker to

form, being at the same time much more resistant to being disproven. Bad

impressions and negative feedback have a stronger impact on individuals whose

main goal becomes to avoid unfavourable self-definitions rather than to pursue

favourable ones as this would imply conscious effort (Baumeister, Bratslavsky,

Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001; Peeters & Czapiński, 1990). Fear is multifaceted as it

embraces fear of shame, fear of losses in self-esteem, fear of the future, fear of loss

of interest and attention of significant others and fear of disapproval on their part

(Conroy, 2003). In language education fear will result in lower willingness to

communicate, less interpersonal contact, less intercultural competence and lower

fluency levels together with a tendency to ignore one’s problems and avoid difficulty connected with direct face-to-face communication. For all those reasons the

teacher’s assistance is invaluable in helping learners to persist in the face of

obstacles, those more or less frequent setbacks unavoidable in the course of their

school life.

Yet, as research on locus of control shows—we are equipped to change the

world not ourselves (Wieczorkowska-Wierzbińska, 2013). This increases the

probability that teachers will actively engage in shaping the appraisal-oriented skills

of their learners. In this sense positive psychology brings hope to optimistically

predisposed and resilient teachers.

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5 Evolutionary Functions of Positive and Negative Emotions. On the Bitterness of Well-Being and the Sweetness of Difficulty

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