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Seeing Red : Passion and Identity

Publié le 1 octobre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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An important change is taking place in psychology. A recent direction within psychology called “positive psychology” focused on understanding what makes life of people more fulfilling and worth living. It is believed that the concept of passion is one key factor in achieving that. Passion can fuel motivation, enhance well-being, and provide meaning in everyday life. On the flip-side, however, studies suggest that passion can also arouse negative emotions, lead to inflexible persistence, and interfere with achieving a balanced, successful life.

Rouge  Passion
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Passion greatly influences someone’s behavior. For example, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, taekwondo athlete Angel Matos of Cuba attacked the referee after losing his bronze-medal match. The athlete has been winning the match when he was disqualified for taking too long a break after a hit. The athlete angrily questioned the call, pushed a judge, then pushed and kicked the referee in the face (1). One possible explanation, according to psychologists, might be that being too passionate can lead to maladaptive behavior.
In 2003, Dr. Robert Vallerand and his colleagues proposed a Dualistic Model of Passion (2). They defined passion as a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they feel in important, that they invest time and energy in, and in which that have invested their identity. For example, a guitar player who loves playing music, values it greatly, and devotes a lot of time and energy to it would be considered passionate. In addition, he is likely to define himself as a “guitar player”. The Dualistic Model of Passion further posits that two distinct types of passion, an obsessive and a harmonious passion, can emerge depending on the type of internalization process that takes place (3, 4).

Previous research has found that harmonious passion is the result of an activity that has been internalized autonomously into the person’s identity (2). That is, the person sees the activity as being important in itself without any contingencies attached to it. Individuals are not compelled to do the activity but rather they freely choose to engage in it. A harmonious passion occupies an important, but not overpowering, place in the identity and is in balance with other aspects and activities of the person’s life. People with a harmonious passion have been found to experience positive emotions such as happiness both during and after engagement in the passionate activity (2), as well as a better concentration, feelings of being fully absorbed during activity engagement (2, 5), and report higher levels of well-being (6, 7, 8). For example, when confronted with the dilemma of playing guitar with his friends or preparing for tomorrow’s exam, the individual with a harmonious passion towards playing guitar can readily tell his friends that he’ll take the night off and prepare for the exam without thinking about the jamming session. With harmonious passion, people are able to decide not to play on a given day or in other words, engagement in the passionate activity can be seen as flexible.

In contrast, when the activity is internalized in such a way that it controls the person’s identity, an obsessive passion is formed. A controlled internalization originates from self-inflicted and/or social pressure attached to the activity, such as self-esteem and social acceptance. An obsessive passion may also develop if a sense of excitement derived from activity engagement becomes too high. Those individuals feel like they cannot help but to engage in the activity they love due to the internal forces that control them. Eventually, the passionate activity takes disproportionate importance and interferes with other aspects and activities of the person’s life (9). As a consequence, obsessive passion has been related to negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, shame) and feelings of guilt (2, 5), poor concentration (2), rumination (i.e., difficulty stopping thinking about the activity) (2), and rigid task engagement (10). For instance, an individual with an obsessive passion for playing guitar might not be able to resist an invitation to a jamming session with his friends the night before an important exam. During the jamming session, he might feel upset with himself for playing instead of studying for the exam. Consequently, he might have difficulties focusing on playing the guitar and may not experience as much positive affect as he could.

Getting a Red Card: Aggression in Sports

Can such aggressive behaviors in sports be explained with the Dualistic Model of Passion? What are the underlying processes that lead athletes to use aggression?

In a recent series of studies, Eric Donahue and his colleagues (11) assessed the relationship between the two types of passion and aggressive behavior in basketball. The goal of the first study was to differentiate the type of passion leading to higher levels of aggression. Using a self-report questionnaire, obsessively-passionate athletes reported higher scores on the reactive aggression subscale (i.e., intent to harm or injure other players) than harmoniously-passionate players.
The goal of a subsequent study was to gain a better understanding of the psychological processes underlying such behavior. Participants’ identity was manipulated in one of two conditions: namely identity threat and identity affirmation (12). The self-threat manipulation was designed to threaten the sense of competence attached to the athlete’s identity, while the self-affirmation manipulation was designed to enhance the athlete’s sense of competence.
This study found that obsessively-passionate players displayed higher levels of aggressive behavior than harmoniously-passionate players under self-threat. This is probably due to obsessively-passionate players trying to restore the integrity of their identity (12) since basketball is the central aspect of their identity. In the self-affirmation condition, no difference was found between the athletes because the players’ identity was not on the line. These results confirmed that obsessive passion originates from a controlled internalization where certain contingencies are attached to the activity, such as self-esteem or being perceived by other as a competent basketball player.

In line with what happened at the Olympics, the referee’s decision to disqualify the Cuban athlete threatened his identity and sense of competence. To protect his identity, the frustrated passionate athlete retaliated by kicking the referee in the face because his third place on the Olympic podium was taken away from him. This kind phenomenon can also be seen in everyday life situations.

When Passion Turns Red

Research findings have demonstrated that the Dualistic Model of Passion may shed light on the social phenomenon known as road rage (13).

In the case of an obsessive passion for driving, the activity is internalized in a controlled fashion in one’s identity (2). Those individuals are more likely to rigidly persist in the activity because it is the only thing that matters to them. When faced with an obstacle to the pursuit of the pleasant driving activity (e.g., a slow car in front of a driver or traffic jam), a driver characterized by an obsessive passion is unlikely to easily adapt to the situation. Indeed, obsessively passionate drivers are more likely to experience negative emotions (e.g., anger or frustration) and subsequent ill-advised behavior, such as aggressive driving behavior. By contrast, harmoniously-passionate drivers are not compelled to do the activity but rather they freely choose to engage in it (2). Because it is in tune with the person’s integrity, the activity occupies a significant, but not overpowering place in the person’s identity. This allows one to adapt efficiently to the changing circumstances of the road. When facing a traffic jam or the erratic behavior of another driver, harmoniously-passionate drivers should flexibly adapt to such situations without getting angry, frustrated or even aggressive.

Recent research supports this interpretation. More specifically, Frederick Philippe and his colleagues (13) examined the relationship between passion and aggressive driving behavior. Three main findings emerged from these studies. First, an obsessive passion for driving was associated with aggressive behavior, while a harmonious passion for driving was not. Second, this relationship held true in three types of context: in everyday situation, in the report of a recent real-life frustrating driving event, and when frustrating events were induced under controlled laboratory conditions. Finally, in the laboratory condition, results demonstrated that individuals with an obsessive passion for driving were more likely to get angry, which consequently led to more aggressive driving behavior.

Developing a Healthy Passion

These findings suggest that obsessively passionate individuals tend to be more aggressive than harmoniously-passionate individuals in general. It was found that one of the processes underlying such aggressive behavior is identity threat. As in the case of the Cuban Taekwondo athlete, obsessively-passionate athletes appear to protect their vulnerable identity by acting aggressively when their identity is being threatened. Who they are is defined by how well they perform in their passionate activity.

From a practical point of view, it seems that the development of a harmonious passion would thus be appropriate for young individuals. The social environment is an important factor in the development of passion. Therefore, parents, teachers, and coaches should refrain from using controlling statements such as “Winning is everything” or “You should play music instead of basketball”. Controlling statements put negative pressure on children and could eventually lead to the development of an obsessive passion or even undermine the development of a passion altogether. Moreover, significant adults should typically use positive feedback to encourage young individuals to commit themselves further in the activity and value it even more. Thus, the phrase “Did you have fun today?” would appear more appropriate than “Did you win?” in the early stage of activity engagement.


(1) “Cuban taekwondo athlete kicks ref, faces lifetime ban.” www.cbc.ca. 23 August 2008, 5 September 2008. http://www.cbc.ca/olympics/taekwondo/story/2008/08/23/olympics-angel-matos.html
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