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The Review

Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays.

From: Len Gutkin

Subject: The Review: Positive Psychology, or Positively BS?

“The curse of working in this area is having to distinguish it from Chicken Soup for the Soul.” That’s what UNC’s Barbara Fredrickson, who is prominent in the field of positive psychology (“We study people’s emotions, particularly their positive emotions”) told The Chronicle‘s Jenny Ruark back in 2009. Less than a decade later, another psychologist, Yale’s John Bargh, seemed less concerned about maintaining that distinction — at least judging from his 2017 book Before You Know It, which insists that “a warm bowl of chicken soup really is good for the soul, as the warmth of the soup helps replace the social warmth that may be missing from a person’s life.”

Bargh’s ideas about soup were mentioned recently in a guest column at The New York Times by the journalist Jesse Singal, whose new book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, accuses social psychology of systematic overreach in its quest for popular influence. The book’s most damning chapter focuses on the U.S. Army’s adoption, under the influence of the positive psychology godfather Martin Seligman, of a series of dubious treatments for combat trauma in veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As Singal tells it, Seligman turned the ear of high-ranking military officials eager for an easy and relatively cheap solution. (“This is not an academic exercise,” as one general put it. “I don’t want another study. This is war.”) Other more-cautious PTSD experts, like Duke’s Patricia Resick, went unheeded.

Singal’s book is part of a wave of critiques of social psychology, and of scientific findings more generally, issuing from both journalists (including The Chronicle’s Tom Bartlett) and scholars in the wake of John P.A. Ioannidis’s 2005 paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Ioannidis focuses on faulty statistical methods, an area of attack seized on by a growing contingent of so-called data thugs (“vindictive little bastards,” in the words of one psychologist) devoted to debunking research findings by purporting to reveal the statistical incompetence of researchers.

But for skeptics of social psychology in general, bad ideology is as important as bad math. On this view, positive psychology is less a science than a religion. As Ruark writes, “One person posting on the Friends of Positive Psychology listserv gushed that Martin Seligman had started ‘nothing less than a specieswide cultural revolution.’” Even its practitioners, like Sonja Lyubomirsky, have fretted about “cultlike” aspects of the movement. In psychology, the line between scientist and guru is hard to draw. And the line between guru and false prophet is even harder.

The Latest
  • The Review
    How the Army adopted an untested, evidence-free approach to fighting PTSD.
  • Chronicle Review
    Positive psychology has been embraced by an eager public, writes Jennifer Ruark, but popular, New Age offshoots cast shadows on the scholarship’s scientific integrity.

Recommended:

  • “He was fascinated by what he calls ‘metaphysical desire’ — that is, the desire we have when creature needs for food, water, sleep, and shelter are met.” At Church Life Journal, Cynthia L. Haven on René Girard, who has “never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic.” (From 2018.)
  • “Wine, spilled over the sabbath table. Because there no longer are any glasses, they, neighbors of the last thoughts, lie on the floor, smashed by policemen’s fists.” That’s Paul Celan, in Pierre Joris’s translation. For the centenary of the poet’s birth, Jewish Currents has assembled excerpts, essays by poets and scholars, and an illustrated dialogue by Anne Carson. Here’s Peter Cole’s evocation of the experience of reading Celan’s poetry: “Turn it and turn it, everything seems to be carried within its caustic purities. Everything and Nothing, syllable by broken, burrowing, burgeoning syllable. Ultimate futility and ultimate reality, Eros and irony, howl and hymn, all of history, and a tangible sense of a vital, not-quite-nameable force at once beyond it and at its core.”
  • “Unlike ponderously performative portraitists like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Neel did not objectify her subjects. She looked at them, and very often, they stared back at her.” At The Point, J. Hoberman on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Alice Neel exhibition.
  • “I think I turned out alright, as did the great majority of those in my cohort of bourgeois decadent romantics.” Justin E.H. Smith on the “HR managers of the human soul.” And at the Review, check out Smith’s essays on the moral contortions of the contemporary university and on social media’s consequences for scholarship.
  • “A global consensus on free-speech maximalism is unlikely to emerge anytime soon.” At Foreign Policy, Jacob Mchangama on new social-science data regarding attitudes toward free speech across the globe.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin

Len Gutkin is a senior editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press.