Psychology Melbourne Blog

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When psychologists are a little too positive

Edited by Jill Wright,

The fact that Positive Psychology authority Professor Barbara Frederickson has been forced to "partially withdraw" her paper claiming a mathematically precise so-called "positivity ratio" leading to emotional flourishing, unfortunately doesn't seem to have stopped her from continuing to sell her 2009 book, Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio that Will Change Your Life, and inviting the public to establish their ratios with an online test measuring their emotions over a day.

Frederickson has issued a lengthy account of her "updated thinking" after a mere first-term graduate student, Nick Brown, read a 2005 article by Fredrickson and Chilean psychologist and consultant Marcial Losada as part of his course in applied positive psychology. Losada's equations tripped his crap detector.

That led to a fascinating collaboration with Florida psychology professor Harris Friedman and New York University physicist Alan Sokal  that culminated in a paper called The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking which comprehensively dismantled the equations, apparently drawn from a physics paper on fluid dynamics.

There are some absoring articles on the genesis of that paper at Narrative.ly and earlier at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The obvious question is why such patently un-top-notch research was praised by the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman , as "the real thing", and by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert as "a scientifically sound prescription for joy"? 

And aside from that, as Sokal, who contributed to the demolition job commented, how did it net 350 scholarly citations and pass muster with the editors of the prestigious journal, American Psychologist?

Some of the psychologists at Psychology Melbourne do use positive psychology, and we also offer classes on positive psychology.But it's important to maintain a critical focus on any theory.

It isn't the first time psychology research has been called into question. There's the recent example, for instance, of the fraudulent data concocted by former Dutch social psychology professor Diederik Stapel.

I have pointed in an earlier post to the way neuroscience and brain imaging are only now revealing the flaws in psychological research that led to the promotion of medication as the first line of treatment for depression.

Just as dangerous is the fact that, according to Geoff Cumming, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University, and author of Understanding The New Statistics: Effect Sizes, Confidence Intervals and Meta-Analysis, too many people don't understand statistical significance testing. He is a fierce advocate for supporting statistics with cognitive evidence that allow people to understand them.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.