Promoting a positive psychology self-help book with a Wikipedia entry

to mama with loveThis edition of Mind the Brain continues an odd and fascinating story of an aggressive promotion of a positive psychology self-help book. In this chapter, I tell how the promotion is being aided by the author’s son creating a laudatory Wikipedia entry.

 The story can simply be appreciated as amusing. Or it can be used to raise the consciousness of readers concerning just what is involved in the promotion of sciencey self-help books. The story could raise readers’ level of skepticism about what they might have previously seen as a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm for the launch of books.

 The story can also be used to raise questions about the blurry lines between science, self-promotion of persons who traffic in the label of being a scientist, and commercial profitability.

 Is the science behind positive psychology self-help books being shaped and even distorted in the way it appears in the peer-reviewed literature and social media in order to make books and other commercial products like workshops and training for coaches more profitable? Do we need more routine declarations of conflicts of interest in scientific publications of persons writing self-help books?

I wonder how many people have ever thought of inventing a term and having a Wikipedia entry written for it in order to appropriate – claim personal credit for – a cherry picked literature. Having redefined the relevant scientific literature, such a clever person can then select and scrub the literature so that shines brilliantly with positive findings, excluding a considerable amount of negative findings and work done by others? All in the service of promoting a self-help book. Clever or crass?

Staking a claim on a piece of the scientific literature as your own.

eqd_natg_day_4__staking_her_claim_by_samueleallen-d5a0uziAppropriating an area of research under your new label, such as mental contrasting  or grit  allows you to choose to take charge of what studies to include as relevant and what to exclude. Others outside of your laboratory who take your appropriation seriously will miss a potentially larger relevant literature when they attempt a search with standard electronic bibliographic source like Google Scholar or Web of Science using the existing terms that are being replaced by a new one. They are not searching your concept, only the old one.

Naïve PhD students who were inspired to investigate the renamed, appropriated concept will need to cite the author’s work. Critics who are motivated to challenge the confirmatory bias included under the rubric of the new term will be faced with the problem that they did not actually investigate it, only an alternative topic for which they are trying to claim relevance.

Step1: Appropriate the literature, with a novel renaming of a corner of the scientific literature.

Step2: Write a self-help book.

Step3: Get your son to write an entry for Wikipedia promoting the concept. A loving son who will please his mom by citing her for 19 of the 20 citations included in the Wikipedia entry.

Some background.

I was persuaded by an extraordinary publicity campaign to purchase a self-help book, Rethinking Positive Psychology. With stories in prominent media outlets titled like

 The Case Against Positive Thinking

I thought I was buying a long overdue critique of positive psychology. Instead, the book represents a clever repackaging of the familiar wild claims of positive psychology gurus that life transformations await anyone doing their exercises. In the case of Rethinking Positive Psychology, the pitch is made that positive fantasies are not enough, but one only needs a simple and superficial consideration of the obstacles involved in achieving them and what could be done. Rather than any elaborate process of problem definition and consideration of coping options, the book calls for a swift application of a WOOP exercise – (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan).

stop thinkI quickly saw that WOOP is just a reheating of common old stuff in the self-help and clinical literature, like, for instance, the familiar Stop and Think of problem-solving therapy.

I read the book to the end on a long train ride, but from the outset I found that it was being misrepresented as being evidence-based. Over a series of blog posts at I am exploring the book’s promotion and the bad science in which it is grounded

Some of what is claimed as the science behind this book is not peer peer-reviewed. Readers have no opportunity to go to an outside source and decide for themselves whether claims are valid, bolstered in their confidence that the sources at least survived peer review. Some of what passes for the science behind the book likely predates the conception of the book and any deal with publishers. But some papers that are cited have a distinct quality of being experimercials concocted as part of the creation of a marketing advantage of the book as more sciencey than its competitors. We’ll come back to that in a later blog post.

The author of the book coined the term mental contrasting and the acronym WOOP to selectively appropriate and represent parta of a larger literature concerning implementation of intentions and positive fantasies. Relying on the author’s work alone, along with that of her husband, one would get the impression that they have together developed a whole literature that has produced results uniformly consistent with their theory and supportive of their self-help products.

Checking with Wikipedia

Only late in my investigation did I come across a Wikipedia entry for mental contrasting.

The Wikipedia entry prominently displays an exclamation point with a warning and a plea:

exclaimThis entry contains content that is written like an advertisement. Please help improve it by removing promotional content and inappropriate external links, and by adding encyclopedic content written from a neutral point of view. (April 2015).

The entry stakes out the self-help book author’s claim of the invention:

Mental contrasting (MC) is a problem-solving strategy and motivational tool that leads to selective behavior modification.[1] It was introduced by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen in 2001.[2]

There are 20 references included for the entry. Nineteen are to the work of the author of the self-help book.

How the Wikipedia entry got there was a matter of mystery and speculation until it occurred to me to click on the View History link for the entry.

keep you are my hero momIt revealed that the entry had been created by Anton Gollwitzer, described as a contributor who does not have a Wikipedia user page. He happens to have the same last name as the husband of the author of the self-help book. [*] Anton created his entry just at the time the self-help book was published.

Clicking on the talk link  for him, we immediately comes to a warning:

exclaimSpeedy deletion of “Woop (Scientific Strategy)”

A page you created, Woop (Scientific Strategy), has been tagged for deletion, as it meets one or more of the criteria for speedy deletion; specifically, you removed all content from the page or otherwise requested its deletion.

You are welcome to contribute content which complies with our content policies and any applicable inclusion guidelines. However, please do not simply re-create the page with the same content. You may also wish to read our introduction to editing and guide to writing your first article.

Thank you. — Rrburke (talk) 17:55, 27 October 2014 (UTC),

This was followed by another entry:

Your contributed article, WOOP (scientific strategy)

Which began

Hello, I noticed that you recently created a new page, WOOP (scientific strategy). First, thank you for your contribution; Wikipedia relies solely on the efforts of volunteers such as you. Unfortunately, the page you created covers a topic on which we already have a page – Mental contrasting. Because of the duplication, your article has been tagged for speedy deletion. Please note that this is not a comment on you personally and we hope you will continue helping to improve Wikipedia. If the topic of the article you created is one that interests you, then perhaps you would like to help out at Mental contrasting – you might like to discuss new information at the article’s talk page.

It was then followed by another entry:

Managing a conflict of interest

That began:

Hello, AntonGollwitzer. We welcome your contributions to Wikipedia, but if you are affiliated with some of the people, places or things you have written about on Wikipedia, you may have a conflict of interest or close connection to the subject.

All editors are required to comply with Wikipedia’s neutral point of view content policy. People who are very close to a subject often have a distorted view of it, which may cause them to inadvertently edit in ways that make the article either too flattering or too disparaging. People with a close connection to a subject are not absolutely prohibited from editing about that subject, but they need to be especially careful about ensuring their edits are verified by reliable sources and writing with as little bias as possible.

If you are very close to a subject, here are some ways you can reduce the risk of problems:

Avoid or exercise great caution when editing or creating articles related to you, your organization, or its competitors, as well as projects and products they are involved with.

Avoid linking to the Wikipedia article or website of your organization in other articles (see Wikipedia:Spam).

Exercise great caution so that you do not accidentally breach Wikipedia’s content policies.

This is getting more embarrassing. And then comes another entry:

exclaimNomination of WOOP (scientific strategy) for deletion

A discussion is taking place as to whether the article WOOP (scientific strategy) is suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia according to Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines or whether it should be deleted.

The article will be discussed at Wikipedia: Articles for deletion/WOOP (scientific strategy) until a consensus is reached, and anyone is welcome to contribute to the discussion. The nomination will explain the policies and guidelines which are of concern. The discussion focuses on high-quality evidence and our policies and guidelines.

Users may edit the article during the discussion, including to improve the article to address concerns raised in the discussion. However, do not remove the article-for-deletion notice from the top of the article. DGG ( talk ) 04:11, 29 March 2015 (UTC)

I can’t wait to see where all this is going. But is anyone else offended by this misuse of Wikipedia?


*I was wrapping up this blog post when I did a Google Scholar search did I should have done earlier. I found that when I entered the names Anton Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen, the first citation was

Gollwitzer, A., Oettingen, G., Kirby, T. A., Duckworth, A. L., & Mayer, D. (2011). Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children. Motivation and Emotion, 35(4), 403-412.

Angela Duckworth provided a wildly enthusiastic endorsement of the book.

I was once asked by educators to identify the single most effective intervention for improving self-control. Every scientist I spoke to referred me to the work summarized here – masterfully in with incompatible insight and warmth. Read this brilliant book and then go out and do what Gabriele Oettingen recommends. No changes the way you think about making your dreams come true.”

Duckworth has her own contract for a self-help book. Similar to Oettingen, she appropriated an existing literature under her term grit. Maybe Oettingen will return the favor of Duckworth’s endorsement and do the same for her. What a wonderful mutual admiration society the positive psychology community is.




10 thoughts on “Promoting a positive psychology self-help book with a Wikipedia entry”

  1. I guess the unethical are as stupid as most criminals. I’ll credit it them with this though, they applied positive psychology to their plan. Positive they wouldn’t get caught.

    However, they failed to implement their own ‘obstacles’ strategy and account for the heartless Wikipedia editors. Oh well, better luck next time; just keep smiling.


  2. I read the book (even got the WOOP app if I’m honest). As a layperson, I was struck by how unconvincing I found her evidence. Even so, I’m a sucker and thought “even if the evidence is weak, it sounds like common sense and maybe the app will be helpful.” Frankly, the app is fine, but I never ever remember to use it. Also, based on your posts, I’m starting to realize there is a cost to packaging simple ideas as “evidence based” when they aren’t actually evidence based. When reading the book I was most struck by how uncritical she seemed of her own experiments. She would do an artificial, not well controlled experiment in a lab with a few people and then jump to very broad conclusions about all of human nature. In fact, I was a bit shocked by how silly some psychological research seemed. After all, she spent years and years working in academia. Is this a rampant problem through all of psychological research? I know this sounds naive, but it seems like “fake science” dressed up as concrete proof. Is this really how it is at the higher levels of psychological research?


  3. Woops, they’ve done it again….

    Good grief! This one is really over the top – for one thing, way to be absurdly obvious with the wikipedia shenanigans! Couldn’t they have at least, I don’t know, asked a distant cousin or paid some neighborhood kid 20 bucks to post their entry!?

    I find it disheartening, though, that in cases like this one the huckster never seems to pay any real price. Like so many others, this wooping crow (not to be confused with the whooping crane) is well-credentialed, and her affiliation with a prestigious institution of higher education conveniently allows her to project legitimacy. Wrapped in the veneer of “accomplished academic,” she can peddle wishy-washy self-help crap and still have the top-tier of mainstream media fawning. It’s disgusting. No wonder positive psychology folks (among others, of course) keep doing this over and over again — they profit as snake oil salesmen while passing as distinguished scholar. Something like this should be scandalous; sadly, it appears to be quite the opposite – business as usual.


    1. Elizabeth Reed wrote: “Couldn’t they have at least, I don’t know, asked a distant cousin or paid some neighborhood kid 20 bucks to post their entry!?” No. Paying someone to write a Wikipedia entry about yourself or about your company is against Wikipedia rules and will get you banned from editing Wikipedia (if it is discovered). Editing an article on a topic you are connected to (or even an article about yourself) involves an obvious potential conflict of interest and is discouraged on Wikipedia, but is not against Wikipedia rules (although your edits will likely be reverted if other editors decide that you have a conflict of interest). Many of the most knowledgeable people on a particular topic are connected to the topic in a way that involves potential conflict of interest, and if Wikipedia were to prohibit all such editing it could eliminate valuable sources of information. Notice that Anton Gollwitzer has not been banned from editing Wikipedia. Many people have pointed out his conflict of interest, and his editing of the articles on his (and his family’s) research was arguably naive, but it was not unethical. On the contrary, one could argue that by editing under his real name, he edited Wikipedia in the most ethical way possible, by making his potential conflict of interest transparent to all and as a consequence taking full responsibility for the consequences of his edits. I am not qualified to judge whether the research is “snake oil” or not, as Elizabeth Reed claims (although I find the “snake oil” accusation to be potentially defamatory if false) but Anton Gollwitzer’s Wikipedia edits do not appear to me to be the work of a huckster; they appear to me to be the arguably naive actions of a very young researcher who has probably learned some valuable lessons from the situation.


      1. Ah, yes. The true heart of the matter here is, of course, Wikipedia’s editing policies, so thanks — very glad we’ve cleared that up!

        Re: the other point you raise: one man’s snake oil is another man’s applied kinesthetics. You say energy healing, I say WOOP. Good luck proving that’s a false equivalency.


  4. I’d like to point out that, especially concerning the first comment, that mental contrasting actually goes against positive psychology… sooo fail. Stop hunting James and do your own research! ❤


    1. Actually, this relabeling is all a marketing effort by an author who worked in Seligman’s lab and who got an endorsement from someone still there, Angela Duckworth, along with lots of other positive psychology celebrity endorsements. If you check, you will find that the entry for “mental contrasting” in Wikipedia has now been deleted. Appropriately so.

      Like most positive psychology self-help books, this one offers exaggerated promises of simple exercises yielding dramatic and enduring changes in levels of happiness, without strong research backing. WOOP it up!


  5. I have never thought about writing a self-help book. I think this is what my fiancee’s psychologist does for her because she will write things down when she has an anxiety attack. Writing a self-help book would be really helpful because then you can find solutions to your own problems.


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