Perseus with Medusa;s Severed Head

A while ago, the group I belong to sat in front of a whiteboard and listed all the words for negative emotions that we could think of in the space of an hour. The list was long: 114 words. At a subsequent meeting, we attempted a list of positive emotions and only came up with a list of 75. We concluded that there was probably more words for negative emotions than for positive.

I recently discovered that this kind of analysis had been done academically. The earliest study, in 1992, by linguist Mark Leary, found that there are approximately twice as many words for negative emotions as for positive emotions (about 2,400 negative, 1,200 positive). Two other studies gave different results: Schrauf et al. (2010) suggested there was a 5:3 ratio of negative to positive, and Pennebaker (2011) a 3:2 ratio.

The different results probably indicate slightly different criteria for classifying words, but they are unanimous in finding a preponderance of words for negative emotions over positive ones. There was a significant amount of wiseacreing about these findings, with some commentators suggesting that negative emotions are more important for survival than positive emotions, and our language expresses this. Another idea was that negative emotions are more complex than positive emotions and, hence, naturally engender more words. And there was also a “culturally-based” theory that our culture places a greater emphasis on negativity than positivity, so naturally, this is reflected in language.

Of course, just counting words proves very little. There may be more negative words, but are they used? However, there have also been usage studies. A 2022 study published in the journal “PLOS One,” suggested a usage ratio of 3:2. A 2023 study, published in the journal “Psychological Science,” found that people use negative words more often than positive words in both online and offline communication. The study’s authors suggested that this is because negative emotions are more intense and attention-grabbing than positive emotions.

In the modern world, negativity pervades the media, and political discourse is typically based on negative imagination. Negativity sells and infects us accordingly unless we have the psychological strength to resist.

Maurice Nicoll pointed out that the Greek Myth of Perseus slaying the Gorgan Medusa represented a battle against negative emotion – the snakes in Medusa’s hair. If you looked directly at Medusa you were turned to stone (you became “petrified” and your being became entirely mechanical).

Perseus defeated Medusa by looking at her image in his reflective shield and then he beheaded her with a single blow. The winged horse sprang from Medusa’s neck as she was beheaded, although he was initially untamed. Pegasus is a symbol of the emotional center but it has to be tamed as it eventually was by Bellerophon.