Negative Affect (A Complete Guide)

In this article, we will discuss the negative affect and its consequences on a person’s life.

Affect is a term used to define emotions experienced by individuals.

This technical term explains how the experience of emotions influences behavior patterns of individuals.

What is Negative Affect?

Negative affect is a personality variable that explains the magnitude of negative emotions experienced by individuals.

Negative affectivity is an umbrella term which covers all negative emotions such as contempt, anger and disgust.

According to American psychological association, the negative affect is internal feeling or emotion that one feels when one is unable to achieve his desired goals or is not satisfied with his current situation.

The inclination to experience such emotions is known as negative affectivity.

Positive Affect and Negative Affect:

 These two affect were conceptualized through bipolar model that is individual either experience positive affect that is positive emotions or negative affect with intensity from mild to extremely severe.

This means that individuals can only experience one type of affect with particular intensity at one time.

Recent research showed that individuals can experience both affect at same time.

For example when your friend gets the post that you both applied for.

You will certainly be happy for your friend (Positive affect) and sad for your own self for not getting the job.

Thus there will both affect at one point but to varying degrees. 

This ability to experience both affect at the same time renders bipolar model ineffective and implies that instead of one there are two spectrums which explain the emotions experienced by individuals.

Research further indicated that dispositional traits of positive or negative affectivity are independent of each other but state of experiencing both affect is negatively correlated.

Causes of Negative Affect:

When a person starts to explore emotions felt by him, he can trace back to the cause of that emotions.

According to Schwarz, emotions provide us with the information about the world around us.

Negative affect makes an individual realize the surroundings and prepares him to deal with the danger in a positive and effective way.

There are number of causes that can make individual feel negative emotions such as:

·         Loss of job

·         Being stuck in traffic

·         Interview situation

·         Death of close one

Any situation in a person’s life can make them experience certain emotions to varying degrees.

Negative effects are associated with negative situations.

Negative affect and personality trait:


It is self evident that individuals who are more prone to experience sadness score high on negative affectivity.

They have a negative outlook towards life and are less likely to search for the meaning in life.

They are also more inclined to suffer from severe psychological disorders.

Also their positive affectivity is unrelated to their tendency to experience negative emotions.

Personality Trait:

Researchers have found the relationship between negative affectivity and personality traits.

Result indicated that negative affect have a high positive correlation with neuroticism and negative correlation with extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Individuals with lower self-esteem and those who are emotionally unstable experience more negative affect.

Measuring Negative affect:


Many questionnaires have been developed to measure negative affect in individuals.

The most commonly used one is PANAS; positive and negative affect schedule scale.

This scale is comprised of 20 positive and negative emotions such as happiness, enthusiasm, disgust or anger.

These emotions or affective states are measured on 5-point Likert type scale.

The score for either affective state is added which can range from 10 to 50. The higher the score, the higher individual experiences that particular affective state.

This scale can be used to measure the affective state the individual is experiencing currently or individual has experienced in last week depending on the research purpose.


Another scale that can be used to measure is the differential emotional scale in which 10 emotions of an individual are measured which the person is experiencing in the current moment.

These 10 emotions are as follow:

1.      Fear

2.      Sadness

3.      Interest

4.      Guilt

5.      Disgust

6.      Shame

7.      Contempt

8.      Surprise

9.      Joy

10.  Anger

Each emotion has 3 adjectives associated with it which is measured on 5-point Likert type scale.

The only issue with this scale is that it does not provide individual measure of positive and negative affect but it is quite obvious that which adjective is associated with which emotion.


Multiple adjective affective checklist is used to distinguish between pre disposition of affect or current affective state.

It contains 123 adjectives related to affect on which individual rate on Likert type scale.

This scale has five subscales including positive affect, hostility, sensation seeking, anxiety and depression.

Effects on negative affect on health:

Negative affect can greatly effect the physical and psychological health of human beings.

Negative affect and Physical health:

A study was conducted by Melanie M. van der Ploeg that showed implicit measures of positive and negative affect were related to cardiovascular activity.

Results further indicated that negative affect was correlated with increased systolic and diastolic blood pressure, lowered peripheral resistance and lowered recovery of blood pressure as compared to positive effect.

Staying in a negative affective state can lead to increased production of cortisol hormones also known as stress hormones.

Higher levels of cortisol hormone in a body leads to depleted cognitive functioning, impaired memory and damaged immune system.

Negative affect and brain chemistry:

Brain chemistry affects positive and negative affect which in turn affects brain chemistry.

This works as a feedback mechanism in which emotional state has a direct influence on brain activity.

A study using EEG technology showed that people experiencing negative affect perform worse on spatial tasks as compared to individuals experiencing negative affect.

This can be explained by activation or suppression of certain parts of the brain due to experience of affect.

Negative affect and psychological health:

 Negative affect can have impacts on a person’s psychological health.

Researchers have found a negative correlation between negative affect and a person’s psychological well-being.

Negative affect is also related to an individual’s self esteem. The higher the individual score on negative affect the lower will his self esteem.

Negative affect also result in distorted perception of one’s own self.

Results of study by Laura Mirams indicated that a person scoring high on negative affect had more negative perception of their own face than individuals with low negative affect.

Affective traits moderated the individual’s self perception.

Persistent negative affect can also lead to negative affect syndrome.

Negative Affect Syndrome:

 Negative affect syndrome involves having consistent negative emotions and moods to the extent that it can lead to disruption in everyday life and becomes hindrance in normal functioning.

Negative affect syndrome (NAS) is a very broad categorization than other specified disorders in DSM for other mood disorders.

Negative affect can be conceptualized through disruption in the normal functioning of the brain.

On a general level the function of the brain is to perform cost benefit analysis for the person for survival value.

Simply put to analyze the situation in terms of what an individual needs to do in order to get what he wants.

If the mind is unable to perform this function effectively, this results in lack of fulfillment of demands of the individual.

This lack of fulfillment of demands ultimately leads to constant negative emotions such as disappointment, melancholy and despair.

Reciprocity of Negative Affect:

 Phenomenon of negative affect reciprocity is also known as mutual escalation where the negative affect shown by one individual can instigate negative affect in another one.

For example if a child is angry, his peer would behave angrily too.

This effect is not limited to children but it can occur in romantic partners too.

Where infidelity by one person can lead to behavior of cheating in another or heated argument by one person can make another one angry.

Negative affect at workplace:

Negative affect is especially detrimental for the workplaces.

Employee work in shared close spaces in an organization thus phenomenon of reciprocity of negative affect leads to shared experience of negative affect by all employees.

Research has indicated that employees with high negative affect are more likely to see themselves as victim of aggression than employees with low positive affect.

Thus negative affect with aggression can become poison for the workplace.

Organizations with high negative affect have difficulty reaching its goals, lowered productivity, workplace deviance and reduced team work.

Benefits of Negative affect:

Persistent high levels of negativity are certainly detrimental for an individual’s physical and mental health.

But according to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, little negative affect have survival value for individuals.

Some Japanese undergrad students have grouped the benefits of negative affect in two major categories that is:

1.      Benefits to individual

2.      Benefits to interpersonal relationships

Negative affect can make an individual take a hard look at oneself to overcome those negative emotions that can help an individual have a better understanding of his inner world.

This make a person have self-acceptance and which leads to better self expression

In terms of benefits to interpersonal relationships, experiencing negative emotions can help people to better understand others and the world.

This inculcates humbleness and empathy in individuals, making him to have interpersonal relationships.

Recently researchers have found that negative affect have positive impacts on a person’s cognition too as it leads to increased memory and better communication.

It also changes the cognitive processing which results in broadening of perspective.

Being in a negative mood can also motivate a person to put in more effort to achieve a target.

Further positive effects of negative can be summarized as follow:

·         Individuals experiencing emotion of sadness pay better attention to minute details

·         Individual tend to seek mediation more when they experience anger

·         Individual experiencing anxiety handle problem in new and innovative ways

·         Individual experiencing guilt are more inclined to change negative behavior

·         Individuals who experience jealousy can make him to work harder to succeed/

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FAQs about Negative Affect

1.      What are the effects of negative affect?

Negative affect affects individual physical and mental health as well as his interpersonal relationships.

Having negative emotions consistently leads to increased cardiovascular activity and lowered self-esteem and psychological well being.

Also it has been well established by research that negative affect negatively affects interpersonal relationships by lowering individual’s trust on partner even if the partner had nothing to do with instigating the negative affect.

2.      How can I overcome the negative affect?

Best way to deal with negativity is acceptance.

A person first should the mindset that negative emotions are bad and needs to be avoided.

Negative emotions are natural and part of the growth process.

If dealt effectively negative emotions can have positive rather than negative impacts.

Acceptance of our own negative affect makes us better understand negative emotions of people around us resulting in better interpersonal relationships.

3.      Does negative affect affect memory?

Researchers have shown that negative affect is positively correlated with memory.

Research by Schacter showed that objects that are associated with negative emotions are better remembered than objects that are emotion neutral.

While experiencing negative effects, individuals tend to revisit the part of memory associated with negative affect.

 References negative affect syndrome Negative Affect

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