Jane Brody promoting the pseudoscience of Barbara Fredrickson in the New York Times

Journalists’ coverage of positive psychology and health is often shabby, even in prestigious outlets like The New York Times.

Jane Brody’s latest installment of the benefits of being positive on health relied heavily on the work of Barbara Fredrickson that my colleagues and I have thoroughly debunked.

All of us need to recognize that research concerning effects of positive psychology interventions are often disguised randomized controlled trials.

With that insight, we need to evaluate this research in terms of reporting standards like CONSORT and declarations of conflict of interests.

We need to be more skeptical about the ability of small changes in behavior being able to profoundly improve health.

When in doubt, assume that much of what we read in the media about positivity and health is false or at least exaggerated.

Jane Brody starts her article in The New York Times by describing how most mornings she is “grinning from ear to ear, uplifted not just by my own workout but even more so” by her interaction with toddlers on the way home from where she swims. When I read Brody’s “Turning Negative Thinkers Into Positive Ones.” I was not left grinning ear to ear. I was left profoundly bummed.

I thought real hard about what was so unsettling about Brody’s article. I now have some clarity.

I don’t mind suffering even pathologically cheerful people in the morning. But I do get bothered when they serve up pseudoscience as the real thing.

I had expected to be served up Brody’s usual recipe of positive psychology pseudoscience concocted  to coerce readers into heeding her Barnum advice about how they should lead their lives. “Smile or die!” Apologies to my friend Barbara Ehrenreich for my putting the retitling of her book outside of North America to use here. I invoke the phrase because Jane Brody makes the case that unless we do what she says, we risk hurting our health and shortening our lives. So we better listen up.

What bummed me most this time was that Brody was drawing on the pseudoscience of Barbara Fredrickson that my colleagues and I have worked so hard to debunk. We took the trouble of obtaining data sets for two of her key papers for reanalysis. We were dismayed by the quality of the data. To start with, we uncovered carelessness at the level of data entry that undermined her claims. But her basic analyses and interpretations did not hold up either.

Fredrickson publishes exaggerated claims about dramatic benefits of simple positive psychology exercises. Fredrickson is very effective in blocking or muting the publication of criticism and getting on with hawking her wares. My colleagues and I have talked to others who similarly met considerable resistance from editors in getting detailed critiques and re-analyses published. Fredrickson is also aided by uncritical people like Jane Brody to promote her weak and inconsistent evidence as strong stuff. It sells a lot of positive psychology merchandise to needy and vulnerable people, like self-help books and workshops.

If it is taken seriously, Fredrickson’s research concerns health effects of behavioral intervention. Yet, her findings are presented in a way that does not readily allow their integration with the rest of health psychology literature. It would be difficult, for instance, to integrate Fredrickson’s randomized trials of loving-kindness meditation with other research because she makes it almost impossible to isolate effect sizes in a way that they could be integrated with other studies in a meta-analysis. Moreover, Fredrickson has multiply published contradictory claims from the sae data set without acknowledging the duplicate publication. [Please read on. I will document all of these claims before the post ends.]

The need of self-help gurus to generate support for their dramatic claims in lucrative positive psychology self-help products is never acknowledged as a conflict of interest.  It should be.

Just imagine, if someone had a contract based on a book prospectus promising that the claims of their last pop psychology book would be surpassed. Such books inevitably paint life too simply, with simple changes in behavior having profound and lasting effects unlike anything obtained in the randomized trials of clinical and health psychology. Readers ought to be informed that these pressures to meet demands of a lucrative book contract could generate a strong confirmation bias. Caveat emptor auditor, but how about at least informing readers and let them decide whether following the money influences their interpretation of what they read?

Psychology journals almost never require disclosures of conflicts of interest of this nature. I am campaigning to make that practice routine, nondisclosure of such financial benefits tantamount to scientific misconduct. I am calling for readers to take to social media when these disclosures do not appear in scientific journals where they should be featured prominently. And holding editors responsible for non-enforcement . I can cite Fredrickson’s work as a case in point, but there are many other examples, inside and outside of positive psychology.

Back to Jane Brody’s exaggerated claims for Fredrickson’s work.

I lived for half a century with a man who suffered from periodic bouts of depression, so I understand how challenging negativism can be. I wish I had known years ago about the work Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has done on fostering positive emotions, in particular her theory that accumulating “micro-moments of positivity,” like my daily interaction with children, can, over time, result in greater overall well-being.

The research that Dr. Fredrickson and others have done demonstrates that the extent to which we can generate positive emotions from even everyday activities can determine who flourishes and who doesn’t. More than a sudden bonanza of good fortune, repeated brief moments of positive feelings can provide a buffer against stress and depression and foster both physical and mental health, their studies show.

“Research…demonstrates” (?). Brody is feeding stupid-making pablum to readers. Fredrickson’s kind of research may produce evidence one way or the other, but it is too strong a claim, an outright illusion, to even begin suggesting that it “demonstrates” (proves) what follows in this passage.

Where, outside of tabloids and self-help products, do the immodest claims that one or a few poor quality studies “demonstrate”?

Negative feelings activate a region of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved in processing fear and anxiety and other emotions. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, has shown that people in whom the amygdala recovers slowly from a threat are at greater risk for a variety of health problems than those in whom it recovers quickly.

Both he and Dr. Fredrickson and their colleagues have demonstrated that the brain is “plastic,” or capable of generating new cells and pathways, and it is possible to train the circuitry in the brain to promote more positive responses. That is, a person can learn to be more positive by practicing certain skills that foster positivity.

We are knee deep in neuro-nonsense. Try asking a serious neuroscientists about the claims that this duo have “demonstrated that the brain is ‘plastic,’ or that practicing certain positivity skills change the brain with the health benefits that they claim via Brody. Or that they are studying ‘amygdala recovery’ associated with reduced health risk.

For example, Dr. Fredrickson’s team found that six weeks of training in a form of meditation focused on compassion and kindness resulted in an increase in positive emotions and social connectedness and improved function of one of the main nerves that helps to control heart rate. The result is a more variable heart rate that, she said in an interview, is associated with objective health benefits like better control of blood glucose, less inflammation and faster recovery from a heart attack.

I will dissect this key claim about loving-kindness meditation and vagal tone/heart rate variability shortly.

Dr. Davidson’s team showed that as little as two weeks’ training in compassion and kindness meditation generated changes in brain circuitry linked to an increase in positive social behaviors like generosity.

We will save discussing Richard Davidson for another time. But really, Jane, just two weeks to better health? Where is the generosity center in brain circuitry? I dare you to ask a serious neuroscientist and embarrass yourself.

“The results suggest that taking time to learn the skills to self-generate positive emotions can help us become healthier, more social, more resilient versions of ourselves,” Dr. Fredrickson reported in the National Institutes of Health monthly newsletter in 2015.

In other words, Dr. Davidson said, “well-being can be considered a life skill. If you practice, you can actually get better at it.” By learning and regularly practicing skills that promote positive emotions, you can become a happier and healthier person. Thus, there is hope for people like my friend’s parents should they choose to take steps to develop and reinforce positivity.

In her newest book, “Love 2.0,” Dr. Fredrickson reports that “shared positivity — having two people caught up in the same emotion — may have even a greater impact on health than something positive experienced by oneself.” Consider watching a funny play or movie or TV show with a friend of similar tastes, or sharing good news, a joke or amusing incidents with others. Dr. Fredrickson also teaches “loving-kindness meditation” focused on directing good-hearted wishes to others. This can result in people “feeling more in tune with other people at the end of the day,” she said.

Brody ends with 8 things Fredrickson and others endorse to foster positive emotions. (Why only 8 recommendations, why not come up with 10 and make them commandments?) These include “Do good things for other people” and “Appreciate the world around you. Okay, but do Fredrickson and Davidson really show that engaging in these activities have immediate and dramatic effects on our health? I have examined their research and I doubt it. I think the larger problem, though, is the suggestion that physically ill people facing shortened lives risk being blamed for being bad people. They obviously did not do these 8 things or else they would be healthy.

If Brody were selling herbal supplements or coffee enemas, we would readily label the quackery. We should do the same for advice about psychological practices that are promised to transform lives.

Brody’s sloppy links to support her claims: Love 2.0

Journalists who talk of “science”  and respect their readers will provide links to their actual sources in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. That way, readers who are motivated can independently review the evidence. Especially in an outlet as prestigious as The New York Times.

Jane Brody is outright promiscuous in the links that she provides, often secondary or tertiary sources. The first link provide for her discussion of Fredrickson’s Love 2.0 is actually to a somewhat negative review of the book. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mind-reviews-love-how-emotion-afftects-everything-we-feel/

Fredrickson builds her case by expanding on research that shows how sharing a strong bond with another person alters our brain chemistry. She describes a study in which best friends’ brains nearly synchronize when exchanging stories, even to the point where the listener can anticipate what the storyteller will say next. Fredrickson takes the findings a step further, concluding that having positive feelings toward someone, even a stranger, can elicit similar neural bonding.

This leap, however, is not supported by the study and fails to bolster her argument. In fact, most of the evidence she uses to support her theory of love falls flat. She leans heavily on subjective reports of people who feel more connected with others after engaging in mental exercises such as meditation, rather than on more objective studies that measure brain activity associated with love.

I would go even further than the reviewer. Fredrickson builds her case by very selectively drawing on the literature, choosing only a few studies that fit.  Even then, the studies fit only with considerable exaggeration and distortion of their findings. She exaggerates the relevance and strength of her own findings. In other cases, she says things that have no basis in anyone’s research.

I came across Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Unabridged) that sells for $17.95. The product description reads:

We all know love matters, but in this groundbreaking book positive emotions expert Barbara Fredrickson shows us how much. Even more than happiness and optimism, love holds the key to improving our mental and physical health as well as lengthening our lives. Using research from her own lab, Fredrickson redefines love not as a stable behemoth, but as micro-moments of connection between people – even strangers. She demonstrates that our capacity for experiencing love can be measured and strengthened in ways that improve our health and longevity. Finally, she introduces us to informal and formal practices to unlock love in our lives, generate compassion, and even self-soothe. Rare in its scope and ambitious in its message, Love 2.0 will reinvent how you look at and experience our most powerful emotion.

There is a mishmash of language games going on here. Fredrickson’s redefinition of love is not based on her research. Her claim that love is ‘really’ micro-moments of connection between people  – even strangers is a weird re-definition. Attempt to read her book, if you have time to waste.

You will quickly see that much of what she says makes no sense in long-term relationships which is solid but beyond the honeymoon stage. Ask partners in long tem relationships and they will undoubtedly lack lots of such “micro-moments of connection”. I doubt that is adaptive for people seeking to build long term relationships to have the yardstick that if lots of such micro-moments don’t keep coming all the time, the relationship is in trouble. But it is Fredrickson who is selling the strong claims and the burden is on her to produce the evidence.

If you try to take Fredrickson’s work seriously, you wind up seeing she has a rather superficial view of a close relationships and can’t seem to distinguish them from what goes on between strangers in drunken one-night stands. But that is supposed to be revolutionary science.

We should not confuse much of what Fredrickson emphatically states with testable hypotheses. Many statements sound more like marketing slogans – what Joachim Kruger and his student Thomas Mairunteregger identify as the McDonaldalization of positive psychology. Like a Big Mac, Fredrickson’s Love 2.0 requires a lot of imagination to live up to its advertisement.

Fredrickson’s love the supreme emotion vs ‘Trane’s Love Supreme

Where Fredrickson’s selling of love as the supreme emotion is not simply an advertising slogan, it is a bad summary of the research on love and health. John Coltrane makes no empirical claim about love being supreme. But listening to him is an effective self-soothing after taking Love 2.0 seriously and trying to figure it out.  Simply enjoy and don’t worry about what it does for your positivity ratio or micro-moments, shared or alone.

Fredrickson’s study of loving-kindness meditation

Jane Brody, like Fredrickson herself depends heavily on a study of loving kindness meditation in proclaiming the wondrous, transformative health benefits of being loving and kind. After obtaining Fredrickson’s data set and reanalyzing it, my colleagues – James Heathers, Nick Brown, and Harrison Friedman – and I arrived at a very different interpretation of her study. As we first encountered it, the study was:

Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., . . . Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24, 1123-1132.

Consolidated standards for reporting randomized trials (CONSORT) are widely accepted for at least two reasons. First, clinical trials should be clearly identified as such in order to ensure that the results are a recognized and available in systematic searches to be integrated with other studies. CONSORT requires that RCTs be clearly identified in the titles and abstracts. Once RCTs are labeled as such, the CONSORT checklist becomes a handy tallying of what needs to be reported.

It is only in supplementary material that the Kok and Fredrickson paper is identify as a clinical trial. Only in that supplement is the primary outcome is identified, even in passing. No means are reported anywhere in the paper or supplement. Results are presented in terms of what Kok and Fredrickson term “a variant of a mediational, parallel process, latent-curve model.” Basic statistics needed for its evaluation are left to readers’ imagination. Figure 1 in the article depicts the awe-inspiring parallel-process mediational model that guided the analyses. We showed the figure to a number of statistical experts including Andrew Gelman. While some elements were readily recognizable, the overall figure was not, especially the mysterious large dot (a causal pathway roundabout?) near the top.

So, not only might study not be detected as an RCT, there isn’t relevant information that could be used for calculating effect sizes.

Furthermore, if studies are labeled as RCTs, we immediately seek protocols published ahead of time that specify the basic elements of design and analyses and primary outcomes. At Psychological Science, studies with protocols are unusual enough to get the authors awarded a badge. In the clinical and health psychology literature, protocols are increasingly common, like flushing a toilet after using a public restroom. No one runs up and thanks you, “Thank you for flushing/publishing your protocol.”

If Fredrickson and her colleagues are going to be using the study to make claims about the health benefits of loving kindness meditation, they have a responsibility to adhere to CONSORT and to publish their protocol. This is particularly the case because this research was federally funded and results need to be transparently reported for use by a full range of stakeholders who paid for the research.

We identified a number of other problems and submitted a manuscript based on a reanalysis of the data. Our manuscript was promptly rejected by Psychological Science. The associate editor . Batja Mesquita noted that two of my co-authors, Nick Brown and Harris Friedman had co-authored a paper resulting in a partial retraction of Fredrickson’s, positivity ratio paper.

Brown NJ, Sokal AD, Friedman HL. The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio American Psychologist. 2013 Jul 15.

I won’t go into the details, except to say that Nick and Harris along with Alan Sokal unambiguously established that Fredrickson’s positivity ratio of 2.9013 positive to negative experiences was a fake fact. Fredrickson had been promoting the number  as an “evidence-based guideline” of a ratio acting as a “tipping point beyond which the full impact of positive emotions becomes unleashed.” Once Brown and his co-authors overcame strong resistance to getting their critique published, their paper garnered a lot of attention in social and conventional media. There is a hilariously funny account available at Nick Brown Smelled Bull.

Batja Mesquita argued that that the previously published critique discouraged her from accepting our manuscript. To do, she would be participating in “a witch hunt” and

 The combatant tone of the letter of appeal does not re-assure me that a revised commentary would be useful.

Welcome to one-sided tone policing. We appealed her decision, but Editor Eric Eich indicated, there was no appeal process at Psychological Science, contrary to the requirements of the Committee on Publication Ethics, COPE.

Eich relented after I shared an email to my coauthors in which I threatened to take the whole issue into social media where there would be no peer-review in the traditional outdated sense of the term. Numerous revisions of the manuscript were submitted, some of them in response to reviews by Fredrickson  and Kok who did not want a paper published. A year passed occurred before our paper was accepted and appeared on the website of the journal. You can read our paper here. I think you can see that fatal problems are obvious.

Heathers JA, Brown NJ, Coyne JC, Friedman HL. The elusory upward spiral a reanalysis of Kok et al.(2013). Psychological Science. 2015 May 29:0956797615572908.

In addition to the original paper not adhering to CONSORT, we noted

  1. There was no effect of whether participants were assigned to the loving kindness mediation vs. no-treatment control group on the key physiological variable, cardiac vagal tone. This is a thoroughly disguised null trial.
  2. Kok and Frederickson claimed that there was an effect of meditation on cardiac vagal tone, but any appearance of an effect was due to reduced vagal tone in the control group, which cannot readily be explained.
  3. Kok and Frederickson essentially interpreted changes in cardiac vagal tone as a surrogate outcome for more general changes in physical health. However, other researchers have noted that observed changes in cardiac vagal tone are not consistently related to changes in other health variables and are susceptible to variations in experimental conditions that have nothing to do with health.
  4. No attention was given to whether participants assigned to the loving kindness meditation actually practiced it with any frequency or fidelity. The article nonetheless reported that such data had been collected.

Point 2 is worth elaborating. Participants in the control condition received no intervention. Their assessment of cardiac vagal tone/heart rate variability was essentially a test/retest reliability test of what should have been a stable physiological characteristic. Yet, participants assigned to this no-treatment condition showed as much change as the participants who were assigned to meditation, but in the opposite direction. Kok and Fredrickson ignored this and attributed all differences to meditation. Houston, we have a problem, a big one, with unreliability of measurement in this study.

We could not squeeze all of our critique into our word limit, but James Heathers, who is an expert on cardiac vagal tone/heart rate variability elaborated elsewhere.

  • The study was underpowered from the outset, but sample size decreased from 65 to 52 to missing data.
  • Cardiac vagal tone is unreliable except in the context of carefully control of the conditions in which measurements are obtained, multiple measurements on each participant, and a much larger sample size. None of these conditions were met.
  • There were numerous anomalies in the data, including some participants included without baseline data, improbable baseline or follow up scores, and improbable changes. These alone would invalidate the results.
  • Despite not reporting  basic statistics, the article was full of graphs, impressive to the unimformed, but useless to readers attempting to make sense of what was done and with what results.

We later learned that the same data had been used for another published paper. There was no cross-citation and the duplicate publication was difficult to detect.

Kok, B. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85, 432–436. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.09.005

Pity the poor systematic reviewer and meta analyst trying to make sense of this RCT and integrate it with the rest of the literature concerning loving-kindness meditation.

This was not our only experience obtained data for a paper crucial to Fredrickson’s claims and having difficulty publishing  our findings. We obtained data for claims that she and her colleagues had solved the classical philosophical problem of whether we should pursue pleasure or meaning in our lives. Pursuing pleasure, they argue, will adversely affect genomic transcription.

We found we could redo extremely complicated analyses and replicate original findings but there were errors in the the original entering data that entirely shifted the results when corrected. Furthermore, we could replicate the original findings when we substituted data from a random number generator for the data collected from study participants. After similar struggles to what we experienced with Psychological Science, we succeeded in getting our critique published.

The original paper

Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JM, Ma J, Cole SW. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2013 Aug 13;110(33):13684-9.

Our critique

Brown NJ, MacDonald DA, Samanta MP, Friedman HL, Coyne JC. A critical reanalysis of the relationship between genomics and well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014 Sep 2;111(35):12705-9.

See also:

Nickerson CA. No Evidence for Differential Relations of Hedonic Well-Being and Eudaimonic Well-Being to Gene Expression: A Comment on Statistical Problems in Fredrickson et al.(2013). Collabra: Psychology. 2017 Apr 11;3(1).

A partial account of the reanalysis is available in:

Reanalysis: No health benefits found for pursuing meaning in life versus pleasure. PLOS Blogs Mind the Brain

Wrapping it up

Strong claims about health effects require strong evidence.

  • Evidence produced in randomized trials need to be reported according to established conventions like CONSORT and clear labeling of duplicate publications.
  • When research is conducted with public funds, these responsibilities are increased.

I have often identified health claims in high profile media like The New York Times and The Guardian. My MO has been to trace the claims back to the original sources in peer reviewed publications, and evaluate both the media reports and the quality of the primary sources.

I hope that I am arming citizen scientists for engaging in these activities independent of me and even to arrive at contradictory appraisals to what I offer.

  • I don’t think I can expect to get many people to ask for data and perform independent analyses and certainly not to overcome the barriers my colleagues and I have met in trying to publish our results. I share my account of some of those frustrations as a warning.
  • I still think I can offer some take away messages to citizen scientists interested in getting better quality, evidence-based information on the internet.
  • Assume most of the claims readers encounter about psychological states and behavior being simply changed and profoundly influencing physical health are false or exaggerated. When in doubt, disregard the claims and certainly don’t retweet or “like” them.
  • Ignore journalists who do not provide adequate links for their claims.
  • Learn to identify generally reliable sources and take journalists off the list when they have made extravagant or undocumented claims.
  • Appreciate the financial gains to be made by scientists who feed journalists false or exaggerated claims.

Advice to citizen scientists who are cultivating more advanced skills:

Some key studies that Brody invokes in support of her claims being science-based are poorly conducted and reported clinical trials that are not labeled as such. This is quite common in positive psychology, but you need to cultivate skills to even detect that is what is going on. Even prestigious psychology journals are often lax in labeling studies as RCTs and in enforcing reporting standards. Authors’ conflicts of interest are ignored.

It is up to you to

  • Identify when the claims you are being fed should have been evaluated in a clinical trial.
  • Be skeptical when the original research is not clearly identified as clinical trial but nonetheless compares participants who received the intervention and those who did not.
  • Be skeptical when CONSORT is not followed and there is no published protocol.
  • Be skeptical of papers published in journals that do not enforce these requirements.

Disclaimer

I think I have provided enough details for readers to decide for themselves whether I am unduly influenced by my experiences with Barbara Fredrickson and her data. She and her colleagues have differing accounts of her research and of the events I have described in this blog.

As a disclosure, I receive money for writing these blog posts, less than $200 per post. I am also marketing a series of e-books,  including Coyne of the Realm Takes a Skeptical Look at Mindfulness and Coyne of the Realm Takes a Skeptical Look at Positive Psychology.

Maybe I am just making a fuss to attract attention to these enterprises. Maybe I am just monetizing what I have been doing for years virtually for free. Regardless, be skeptical. But to get more information and get on a mailing list for my other blogging, go to coyneoftherealm.com and sign up.

Unmasking Jane Brody’s “A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health” in The New York Times

A recipe for coercing ill people with positive psychology pseudoscience in the New York Times

  • Judging by the play she gets in social media and the 100s of comments on her articles in the New York Times, Jane Brody has a successful recipe for using positive psychology pseudoscience to bolster down-home advice you might’ve gotten from your grandmother.
  • Her recipe might seem harmless enough, but her articles are directed at people struggling with chronic and catastrophic physical illnesses. She offers them advice.
  • The message is that persons with physical illness should engage in self-discipline, practice positive psychology exercises – or else they are threatening their health and shortening their lives.
  • People struggling with physical illness have enough to do already. The admonition they individually and collectively should do more -they should become more self-disciplined- is condescending and presumptuous.
  • Jane Brody’s carrot is basically a stick. The implied threat is simply coercive: that people with chronic illness are not doing what they can to improve the physical health unless they engage in these exercises.
  • It takes a careful examination Jane Brody’s sources to discover that the “scientific basis” for this positive psychology advice is quite weak. In many instances it is patently junk, pseudoscience.
  • The health benefits claimed for positivity are unfounded.
  • People with chronic illness are often desperate or simply vulnerable to suggestions that they can and should do more.  They are being misled by this kind of article in what is supposed to be the trusted source of a quality news outlet, The New York Times, not The Daily News.
  • There is a sneaky, ill-concealed message that persons with chronic illness will obtain wondrous benefits by just adopting a positive attitude – even a hint that cancer patients will live longer.

In my blog post about positive psychology and health, I try to provide  tools so that consumers can probe for themselves the usually false and certainly exaggerated claims that are being showered on them.

However, in the case of Jane Brody’s articles, we will see that the task is difficult because she draws on a selective sampling of the literature in which researchers generate junk self-promotional claims.

That’s a general problem with the positive psychology “science” literature, but the solution for journalists like Jane Brody is to seek independent evaluation of claims from outside the positive psychology community. Journalists, did you hear that message?

The article, along with its 100s of comments from readers, is available here:

A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health by Jane E.Brody

The article starts with some clichéd advice about being positive. Brody seems to be on the side of the autonomy of her  readers. She makes seemingly derogatory comments  that the advice is “cockeyed optimism” [Don’t you love that turn of phrase? I’m sure to borrow it in the future]

“Look on the sunny side of life.”

“Turn your face toward the sun, and the shadows will fall behind you.”

“Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day.”

“See the glass as half-full, not half-empty.”

Researchers are finding that thoughts like these, the hallmarks of people sometimes called “cockeyed optimists,” can do far more than raise one’s spirits. They may actually improve health and extend life.

See?  The clever putdown of this advice was just a rhetorical device, just a set up for what follows. Very soon Brody is delivering some coercive pseudoscientific advice, backed by the claim that “there is no longer any doubt” and that the links between positive thinking and health benefits are “indisputable.”

There is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. When facing a health crisis, actively cultivating positive emotions can boost the immune system and counter depression. Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control [Emphasis added.].

I found the following passage particularly sneaky and undermining of people with cancer.

Even when faced with an incurable illness, positive feelings and thoughts can greatly improve one’s quality of life. Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a Dallas-based author of several books for people facing cancer, including “Happiness in a Storm,” was a practicing internist when she learned she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, 27 years ago. During the next 15 years of treatments for eight relapses of her cancer, she set the stage for happiness and hope, she says, by such measures as surrounding herself with people who lift her spirits, keeping a daily gratitude journal, doing something good for someone else, and watching funny, uplifting movies. Her cancer has been in remission now for 12 years.

“Fostering positive emotions helped make my life the best it could be,” Dr. Harpham said. “They made the tough times easier, even though they didn’t make any difference in my cancer cells.”

Sure, Jane Brody is careful to avoid the explicit claim the positive attitude somehow is connected to the cancer being in remission for 12 years, but the implication is there. Brody pushes the advice with a hint of the transformation available to cancer patients, only if they follow the advice.

After all, Jane Brody had just earlier asserted that positive attitude affects the immune system and this well-chosen example happens to be a cancer of the immune system.

Jane Brody immediately launches into a description of a line of research conducted by a positive psychology group at Northwestern University and University of California San Francisco.

Taking her cue from the investigators, Brody blurs the distinction between findings based in correlational studies and the results of intervention studies in which patients actually practiced positive psychology exercises.

People with new diagnoses of H.I.V. infection who practiced these skills carried a lower load of the virus, were more likely to take their medication correctly, and were less likely to need antidepressants to help them cope with their illness.

But Brody sins as a journalist are worse than that. With a great deal of difficulty, I have chased her claims back into the literature. I found some made up facts.

In my literature search, I could find only one study from these investigators that seemed directly related to these claims. The mediocre retrospective correlational study was mainly focused on use of psychostimulants, but it included a crude 6-item summary measure  of positive states of mind.

The authors didn’t present the results in a simple way that allows direct independent examination of whether indeed positive affect is related to other outcomes in any simple fashion. They did not allow check of simple correlations needed to determine whether their measure was not simply a measure of depressive symptoms turned on its head. They certainly had the data, but did not report it. Instead, they present some multivariate analyses that do not show impressive links. Any direct links to viral load are not shown and presumably are not there, although the investigators tested statistically for them. Technically speaking, I would write off the findings to measurement and specification error, certainly not worthy of reporting in The New York Times.

Less technically speaking, Brody is leading up to using HIV as an exemplar illness where cultivating positivity can do so much. But if this study is worth anything at all, it is to illustrate that even correlationally, positive affect is not related to much, other than – no surprise – alternative measures of positive affect.

Brody then goes on to describe in detail an intervention study. You’d never know from her description that her source of information is not a report of the results of the intervention study, but a promissory protocol that supposedly describes how the intervention study was going to be done.

I previously blogged about this protocol. At first, I thought it was praiseworthy that a study of a positive psychology intervention for health had even complied with the requirement that studies be preregistered and have a protocol available. Most such studies do not, but they are supposed to do that. In plain English, protocols are supposed to declare ahead of time what researchers are going to do and precisely how they are going to evaluate whether an intervention works. That is because, notoriously, researchers are inclined to say later they were really trying to do something else and to pick another outcome that makes the intervention look best.

But then I got corrected by James Heathers on Facebook. Duh, he had looked at the date the protocol was published.

He pointed out that this protocol was actually published years after collection of data had begun. The researchers already had a lot to peek at. Rather than identifying just a couple of variables on which the investigators were prepared to stake their claim the intervention was affected, the protocol listed 25 variables that would be examined as outcomes (!) in order to pick one or two.

So I updated what I said in my earlier blog. I pointed out that the published protocol was misleading. It was posted after the fact of the researchers being able to see how their study was unfolding and to change their plains accordingly.  The vagueness of the protocol gave the authors lots of wiggle room for selectively reporting and hyping their findings with the confirmation bias. They would later take advantage of this when they actually published the results of their study.

The researchers studied 159 people who had recently learned they had H.I.V. and randomly assigned them to either a five-session positive emotions training course or five sessions of general support. Fifteen months past their H.I.V. diagnosis, those trained in the eight skills maintained higher levels of positive feelings and fewer negative thoughts related to their infection.

Brody is not being accurate here. When the  authors finally got around to publishing the results, they told a very different story if you probe carefully. Even with the investigators doing a lot of spinning, they showed null results, no effects for the intervention. Appearances the contrary were created by the investigators ignoring what they actually reported in their tables. If you go to my earlier blog post, I point this out in detail, so you can see for yourself.

Brody goes on to describe the regimen that was not shown in the published study validation to be effective.

An important goal of the training is to help people feel happy, calm and satisfied in the midst of a health crisis. Improvements in their health and longevity are a bonus. Each participant is encouraged to learn at least three of the eight skills and practice one or more each day. The eight skills are:

■ Recognize a positive event each day.

■ Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.

■ Start a daily gratitude journal.

■ List a personal strength and note how you used it.

■ Set an attainable goal and note your progress.

■ Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively.

■ Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.

■ Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.

For chrissakes, this is a warmed over version of Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie’s autosuggestion “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better. Surely, contemporary positive psychology’s science of health can do better than that. To Coué’s credit, he gave away his advice for free. He did not charge for his coaching, even if he was giving away something for which he had no evidence would improve people’s physical health.

Dr. Moskowitz said she was inspired by observations that people with AIDS, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses lived longer if they demonstrated positive emotions. She explained, “The next step was to see if teaching people skills that foster positive emotions can have an impact on how well they cope with stress and their physical health down the line.”

She listed as the goals improving patients’ quality of life, enhancing adherence to medication, fostering healthy behaviors, and building personal resources that result in increased social support and broader attention to the good things in life.

Let me explain why I am offended here. None of these activities have been shown to improve the health of persons with newly diagnosed HIV. It’s reasonable to assume that newly diagnosed persons have a lot with which to contend. It’s a bad time to give them advice to clutter their life with activities that will not make a difference in their health.

The published study was able to recruit and retain a sample of persons with newly diagnosed HIV because it paid them well to keep coming. I’ve worked with this population before, in a study aiming at helping them solve specific practical problems that that they said got in the way of their adherence.

Many persons with newly diagnosed HIV are low income and are unemployed or marginally employed. They will enroll in studies to get the participant fees. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I recall one patient telling a recruiter from UCSF that he was too busy and unable to make a regular visit to the medical center for the intervention, but he would be willing to accept being in the study if he was assigned to the control group. It did not involve attending intervention sessions and would give him a little cash.

Based on my clinical and research experience, I don’t believe that such patients would regularly show up for this kind of useless positive psychology treatment without getting paid. Paticularly if they were informed of the actual results of this misrepresented study.

Gregg De Meza, a 56-year-old architect in San Francisco who learned he was infected with H.I.V. four years ago, told me that learning “positivity” skills turned his life around. He said he felt “stupid and careless” about becoming infected and had initially kept his diagnosis a secret.

“When I entered the study, I felt like my entire world was completely unraveling,” he said. “The training reminded me to rely on my social network, and I decided to be honest with my friends. I realized that to show your real strength is to show your weakness. No pun intended, it made me more positive, more compassionate, and I’m now healthier than I’ve ever been.”

I object to this argument by quotes-from-an-unrepresentative-patient. The intervention did not have the intended effect, and it is misleading to find somebody who claim to turn their life around.

Jane Brody proceeds with some more fake facts.

In another study among 49 patients with Type 2 diabetes, an online version of the positive emotions skills training course was effective in enhancing positivity and reducing negative emotions and feelings of stress. Prior studies showed that, for people with diabetes, positive feelings were associated with better control of blood sugar, an increase in physical activity and healthy eating, less use of tobacco and a lower risk of dying.

The study was so small and underpowered, aside from being methodologically flawed, that even if such effects were actually present, most of the time they would be missed because the study did not have enough patients to achieve significance.

In a pilot study of 39 women with advanced breast cancer, Dr. Moskowitz said an online version of the skills training decreased depression among them. The same was true with caregivers of dementia patients.

“None of this is rocket science,” Dr. Moskowitz said. “I’m just putting these skills together and testing them in a scientific fashion.”

It’s not rocket science, it’s misleading hogwash.

In a related study of more than 4,000 people 50 and older published last year in the Journal of Gerontology, Becca Levy and Avni Bavishi at the Yale School of Public Health demonstrated that having a positive view of aging can have a beneficial influence on health outcomes and longevity. Dr. Levy said two possible mechanisms account for the findings. Psychologically, a positive view can enhance belief in one’s abilities, decrease perceived stress and foster healthful behaviors. Physiologically, people with positive views of aging had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of stress-related inflammation associated with heart disease and other illnesses, even after accounting for possible influences like age, health status, sex, race and education than those with a negative outlook. They also lived significantly longer.

This is even deeper into the woo. Give me a break, Jane Brody. Stop misleading people with chronic illness with false claims and fake facts. Adopting these attitudes will not prevent dementia.

Don’t believe me? I previously debunked these patently false claims in detail. You can see my critique here.

Here is what the original investigators claimed about Alzheimer’s:

We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”

I exposed some analysis of voodoo statistics on which this claim is based. I concluded:

The authors develop their case that stress is a significant cause of Alzheimer’s disease with reference to some largely irrelevant studies by others, but depend on a preponderance of studies that they themselves have done with the same dubious small samples and dubious statistical techniques. Whether you do a casual search with Google scholar or a more systematic review of the literature, you won’t find stress processes of the kind the authors invoke among the usual explanations of the development of the disease.

Basically, the authors are arguing that if you hold views of aging like “Old people are absent-minded” or “Old people cannot concentrate well,” you will experience more stress as you age, and this will accelerate development of Alzheimer’s disease. They then go on to argue that because these attitudes are modifiable, you can take control of your risk for Alzheimer’s by adopting a more positive view of aging and aging people

Nonsense, utter nonsense.

Let chronically ill people and those facing cancer adopt any attitude is comfortable or natural for them. It’s a bad time to ask for change, particularly when there isn’t any promised benefit in improved health or prolonged life.

Rather than Jane Brody’s recipe for positive psychology improving your health, I strongly prefer Lilia Downe’s  La Cumbia Del Mole.

It is great on chicken. If it does not extend your life, It will give you some moments of happiness, but you will have to adjust the spices to your personal taste.

I will soon be offering e-books providing skeptical looks at positive psychology, as well as mindfulness. As in this blog post, I will take claims I find in the media and trace them back to the scientific studies on which they are based. I will show you what I see so you can see it too.

 Sign up at my new website to get advance notice of the forthcoming e-books and web courses, as well as upcoming blog posts at this and other blog sites. You can even advance order one or all of the e-books.

 Lots to see at CoyneoftheRealm.com. Come see…

Unintended consequences of universal mindfulness training for schoolchildren?

the mindful nationThis is the first installment of what will be a series of occasional posts about the UK Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group report,  Mindful Nation.

  • Mindful Nation is seriously deficient as a document supposedly arguing for policy based on evidence.
  • The professional and financial interests of lots of people involved in preparation of the document will benefit from implementation of its recommendations.
  • After an introduction, I focus on two studies singled in Mindful Nation out as offering support for the benefits of mindfulness training for school children.
  • Results of the group’s cherrypicked studies do not support implementation of mindfulness training in the schools, but inadvertently highlight some issues.
  • Investment in universal mindfulness training in the schools is unlikely to yield measurable, socially significant results, but will serve to divert resources from schoolchildren more urgently in need of effective intervention and support.
  • Mindfulness Nation is another example of  delivery of  low intensity  services to mostly low risk persons to the detriment of those in greatest and most urgent need.

The launch event for the Mindful Nation report billed it as the “World’s first official report” on mindfulness.

Mindful Nation is a report written by the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group.

The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG)  was set up to:

  • review the scientific evidence and current best practice in mindfulness training
  • develop policy recommendations for government, based on these findings
  • provide a forum for discussion in Parliament for the role of mindfulness and its implementation in public policy.

The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group describes itself as

Impressed by the levels of both popular and scientific interest, and launched an inquiry to consider the potential relevance of mindfulness to a range of urgent policy challenges facing government.

Don’t get confused by this being a government-commissioned report. The report stands in sharp contrast to one commissioned by the US government in terms of unbalanced constitution of the committee undertaking the review, and lack  of transparency in search for relevant literature,  and methodology for rating and interpreting of the quality of available evidence.

ahrq reportCompare the claims of Mindful Nation to a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis prepared for the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) that reviewed 18,753 citations, and found only 47 trials (3%) that included an active control treatment. The vast majority of studies available for inclusion had only a wait list or no-treatment control group and so exaggerated any estimate of the efficacy of mindfulness.

Although the US report was available to those  preparing the UK Mindful Nation report, no mention is made of either the full contents of report or a resulting publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, the UK Mindful Nation report emphasized narrative and otherwise unsystematic reviews, and meta-analyses not adequately controlling for bias.

When the abridged version of the AHRQ report was published in JAMA: Internal Medicine, an accompanying commentary raises issues even more applicable to the Mindful Nation report:

The modest benefit found in the study by Goyal et al begs the question of why, in the absence of strong scientifically vetted evidence, meditation in particular and complementary measures in general have become so popular, especially among the influential and well educated…What role is being played by commercial interests? Are they taking advantage of the public’s anxieties to promote use of complementary measures that lack a base of scientific evidence? Do we need to require scientific evidence of efficacy and safety for these measures?

The members of the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group were selected for their positive attitude towards mindfulness. The collection of witnesses they called to hearings were saturated with advocates of mindfulness and those having professional and financial interests in arriving at a positive view. There is no transparency in terms of how studies or testimonials were selected, but the bias is notable. Many of the scientific studies were methodologically poor, if there was any methodology at all. Many were strongly stated, but weakly substantiated opinion pieces. Authors often included those having  financial interests in obtaining positive results, but with no acknowledgment of conflict of interest. The glowing testimonials were accompanied by smiling photos and were unanimous in their praise of the transformative benefits of mindfulness.

As Mark B. Cope and David B. Allison concluded about obesity research, such a packing of the committee and a highly selective review of the literature leads to a ”distortion of information in the service of what might be perceived to be righteous ends.” [I thank Tim Caulfield for calling this quote to my attention].

Mindfulness in the schools

The recommendations of Mindfulness Nation are

  1. The Department for Education (DfE) should designate, as a first step, three teaching schools116 to pioneer mindfulness teaching,co-ordinate and develop innovation, test models of replicability and scalability and disseminate best practice.
  2. Given the DfE’s interest in character and resilience (as demonstrated through the Character Education Grant programme and its Character Awards), we propose a comparable Challenge Fund of £1 million a year to which schools can bid for the costs of training teachers in mindfulness.
  3. The DfE and the Department of Health (DOH) should recommend that each school identifies a lead in schools and in local services to co-ordinate responses to wellbeing and mental health issues for children and young people117. Any joint training for these professional leads should include a basic training in mindfulness interventions.
  4. The DfE should work with voluntary organisations and private providers to fund a freely accessible, online programme aimed at supporting young people and those who work with them in developing basic mindfulness skills118.
Payoff of Mindful Nation to Oxford Mindfulness Centre will be huge.
Payoff of Mindful Nation to Oxford Mindfulness Centre will be huge.

Leading up to these recommendations, the report outlined an “alarming crisis” in the mental health of children and adolescents and proposes:

Given the scale of this mental health crisis, there is real urgency to innovate new approaches where there is good preliminary evidence. Mindfulness fits this criterion and we believe there is enough evidence of its potential benefits to warrant a significant scaling-up of its availability in schools.

Think of all the financial and professional opportunities that proponents of mindfulness involved in preparation of this report have garnered for themselves.

Mindfulness to promote executive functioning in children and adolescents

For the remainder of the blog post, I will focus on the two studies cited in support of the following statement:

What is of particular interest is that those with the lowest levels of executive control73 and emotional stability74 are likely to benefit most from mindfulness training.

The terms “executive control” and “emotional stability” were clarified:

Many argue that the most important prerequisites for child development are executive control (the management of cognitive processes such as memory, problem solving, reasoning and planning) and emotion regulation (the ability to understand and manage the emotions, including and especially impulse control). These main contributors to self-regulation underpin emotional wellbeing, effective learning and academic attainment. They also predict income, health and criminality in adulthood69. American psychologist, Daniel Goleman, is a prominent exponent of the research70 showing that these capabilities are the biggest single determinant of life outcomes. They contribute to the ability to cope with stress, to concentrate, and to use metacognition (thinking about thinking: a crucial skill for learning). They also support the cognitive flexibility required for effective decision-making and creativity.

Actually, Daniel Goleman is the former editor of the pop magazine Psychology Today and an author of numerous pop books.

The first cited paper.

73 Flook L, Smalley SL, Kitil MJ, Galla BM, Kaiser-Greenland S, Locke J, et al. Effects of mindful  awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology. 2010;26(1):70-95.

Journal of Applied School Psychology is a Taylor-Francis journal, formerly known as Special Services in the Schools (1984 – 2002).  Its Journal Impact Factor is 1.30.

One of the authors of the article, Susan Kaiser-Greenland is a mindfulness entrepreneur as seen in her website describing her as an author, public speaker, and educator on the subject of sharing secular mindfulness and meditation with children and families. Her books are The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate and Mindful Games: Sharing Mindfulness and Meditation with Children, Teens, and Families and the forthcoming The Mindful Games Deck: 50 Activities for Kids and Teens.

This article represents the main research available on Kaiser-Greenfield’s Inner Kids program and figures prominently in her promotion of her products.

The sample consisted of 64 children assigned to either mindful awareness practices (MAPs; n = 32) or a control group consisting of a silent reading period (n = 32).

The MAPs training used in the current study is a curriculum developed by one of the authors (SKG). The program is modeled after classical mindfulness training for adults and uses secular and age appropriate exercises and games to promote (a) awareness of self through sensory awareness (auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, gustatory, visual), attentional regulation, and awareness of thoughts and feelings; (b) awareness of others (e.g., awareness of one’s own body placement in relation to other people and awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings); and (c) awareness of the environment (e.g., awareness of relationships and connections between people, places, and things).

A majority of exercises involve interactions among students and between students and the instructor.

Outcomes.

The primary EF outcomes were the Metacognition Index (MI), Behavioral Regulation Index (BRI), and Global Executive Composite (GEC) as reported by teachers and parents

Wikipedia presents the results of this study as:

The program was delivered for 30 minutes, twice per week, for 8 weeks. Teachers and parents completed questionnaires assessing children’s executive function immediately before and following the 8-week period. Multivariate analysis of covariance on teacher and parent reports of executive function (EF) indicated an interaction effect baseline EF score and group status on posttest EF. That is, children in the group that received mindful awareness training who were less well regulated showed greater improvement in EF compared with controls. Specifically, those children starting out with poor EF who went through the mindful awareness training showed gains in behavioral regulation, metacognition, and overall global executive control. These results indicate a stronger effect of mindful awareness training on children with executive function difficulties.

The finding that both teachers and parents reported changes suggests that improvements in children’s behavioral regulation generalized across settings. Future work is warranted using neurocognitive tasks of executive functions, behavioral observation, and multiple classroom samples to replicate and extend these preliminary findings.”

What I discovered when I scrutinized the study.

 This study is unblinded, with students and their teachers and parents providing the subjective ratings of the students well aware of which group students are assigned. We are not given any correlations among or between their ratings and so we don’t know whether there is just a global subjective factor (easy or difficult child, well-behaved or not) operating for either teachers or parents, or both.

It is unclear for what features of the mindfulness training the comparison reading group offers control or equivalence. The two groups are  different in positive expectations and attention and support that are likely to be reflected the parent and teacher ratings. There’s a high likelihood of any differences in outcomes being nonspecific and not something active and distinct ingredient of mindfulness training. In any comparison with the students assigned to reading time, students assigned to mindfulness training have the benefit of any active ingredient it might have, as well as any nonspecific, placebo ingredients.

This is exceedingly weak design, but one that dominates evaluations of mindfulness.

With only 32 students per group, note too that this is a seriously underpowered study. It has less than a 50% probability of detecting a moderate sized effect if one is present. And because of the larger effect size needed to achieve statistical significance with such a small sample size, and statistically significant effects will be large, even if unlikely to replicate in a larger sample. That is the paradox of low sample size we need to understand in these situations.

Not surprisingly, there were no differences between the mindfulness and reading control groups on any outcomes variable, whether rated by parents or teachers. Nonetheless, the authors rescued their claims for an effective intervention with:

However, as shown by the significance of interaction terms, baseline levels of EF (GEC reported by teachers) moderated improvement in posttest EF for those children in the MAPs group compared to children in the control group. That is, on the teacher BRIEF, children with poorer initial EF (higher scores on BRIEF) who went through MAPs training showed improved EF subsequent to the training (indicated by lower GEC scores at posttest) compared to controls.

Similar claims were made about parent ratings. But let’s look at figure 3 depicting post-test scores. These are from the teachers, but results for the parent ratings are essentially the same.

teacher BRIEF quartiles

Note the odd scaling of the X axis. The data are divided into four quartiles and then the middle half is collapsed so that there are three data points. I’m curious about what is being hidden. Even with the sleight-of-hand, it appears that scores for the intervention and control groups are identical except for the top quartile. It appears that just a couple of students in the control group are accounting for any appearance of a difference. But keep in mind that the upper quartile is only a matter of eight students in each group.

This scatter plot is further revealing:

teacher BRIEF

It appears that the differences that are limited to the upper quartile are due to a couple of outlier control students. Without them, even the post-hoc differences that were found in the upper quartile between intervention control groups would likely disappear.

Basically what we are seeing is that most students do not show any benefit whatsoever from mindfulness training over being in a reading group. It’s not surprising that students who were not particularly elevated on the variables of interest do not register an effect. That’s a common ceiling effect in such universally delivered interventions in general population samples

Essentially, if we focus on the designated outcome variables, we are wasting the students’ time as well as that of the staff. Think of what could be done if the same resources could be applied in more effective ways. There are a couple of students in in this study were outliers with low executive function. We don’t know how else they otherwise differ.Neither in the study, nor in the validation of these measures is much attention given to their discriminant validity, i.e., what variables influence the ratings that shouldn’t. I suspect strongly that there are global, nonspecific aspects to both parent and teacher ratings such that they are influenced by the other aspects of these couple of students’ engagement with their classroom environment, and perhaps other environments.

I see little basis for the authors’ self-congratulatory conclusion:

The present findings suggest that mindfulness introduced in a general  education setting is particularly beneficial for children with EF difficulties.

And

Introduction of these types of awareness practices in elementary education may prove to be a viable and cost-effective way to improve EF processes in general, and perhaps specifically in children with EF difficulties, and thus enhance young children’s socio-emotional, cognitive, and academic development.

Maybe the authors stared with this conviction and it was unshaken by disappointing findings.

Or the statement made in Mindfulness Nation:

What is of particular interest is that those with the lowest levels of executive control73 and emotional stability74 are likely to benefit most from mindfulness training.

But we have another study that is cited for this statement.

74. Huppert FA, Johnson DM. A controlled trial of mindfulness training in schools: The importance of practice for an impact on wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2010; 5(4):264-274.

The first author, Felicia Huppert is a  Founder and Director – Well-being Institute and Emeritus Professor of Psychology at University of Cambridge, as well as a member of the academic staff of the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education of the Australian Catholic University.

This study involved 173 14- and 15- year old  boys from a private Catholic school.

The Journal of Positive Psychology is not known for its high methodological standards. A look at its editorial board suggests a high likelihood that manuscripts submitted will be reviewed by sympathetic reviewers publishing their own methodologically flawed studies, often with results in support of undeclared conflicts of interest.

The mindfulness training was based on the program developed by Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). It comprised four 40 minute classes, one per week, which presented the principles and practice of mindfulness meditation. The mindfulness classes covered the concepts of awareness and acceptance, and the mindfulness practices included bodily awareness of contact points, mindfulness of breathing and finding an anchor point, awareness of sounds, understanding the transient nature of thoughts, and walking meditation. The mindfulness practices were built up progressively, with a new element being introduced each week. In some classes, a video clip was shown to highlight the practical value of mindful awareness (e.g. “The Last Samurai”, “Losing It”). Students in the mindfulness condition were also provided with a specially designed CD, containing three 8-minute audio files of mindfulness exercises to be used outside the classroom. These audio files reflected the progressive aspects of training which the students were receiving in class. Students were encouraged to undertake daily practice by listening to the appropriate audio files. During the 4-week training period, students in the control classes attended their normal religious studies lessons.

A total of 155 participants had complete data at baseline and 134 at follow-up (78 in the mindfulness and 56 in the control condition). Any student who had missing data are at either time point was simply dropped from the analysis. The effects of this statistical decison are difficult to track in the paper. Regardless, there was a lack of any difference between intervention and control group and any of a host of outcome variables, with none designated as primary outcome.

Actual practicing of mindfulness by students was inconsistent.

One third of the group (33%) practised at least three times a week, 34.8% practised more than once but less than three times a week, and 32.7% practised once a week or less (of whom 7 respondents, 8.4%, reported no practice at all). Only two students reported practicing daily. The practice variable ranged from 0 to 28 (number of days of practice over four weeks). The practice variable was found to be highly skewed, with 79% of the sample obtaining a score of 14 or less (skewness = 0.68, standard error of skewness = 0.25).

The authors rescue their claim of a significant effect for the mindfulness intervention with highly complex multivariate analyses with multiple control variables in which outcomes within-group effects for students assigned to mindfulness  were related to the extent of students actually practicing mindfulness. Without controlling for the numerous (and post-hoc) multiple comparisons, results were still largely nonsignificant.

One simple conclusion that can be drawn is that despite a lot of encouragement, there was little actual practice of mindfulness by the relatively well-off students in a relatively highly resourced school setting. We could expect results to improve with wider dissemination to schools with less resources and less privileged students.

The authors conclude:

The main finding of this study was a significant improvement on measures of mindfulness and psychological well-being related to the degree of individual practice undertaken outside the classroom.

Recall that Mindful Nation cited the study in the following context:

What is of particular interest is that those with the lowest levels of executive control73 and emotional stability74 are likely to benefit most from mindfulness training.

These are two methodologically weak studies with largely null findings. They are hardly the basis for launching a national policy implementing universal mindfulness in the schools.

As noted in the US AHRQ report, despite a huge number of studies of mindfulness having been conducted, few involved a test with an adequate control group, and so there’s little evidence that mindfulness has any advantage over any active treatment. Neither of these studies disturbed that conclusion, although they are spun both in the original studies and in the Mindful Nation report to be positive. Both papers were published in journals where the reviewers were likely to be overly sympathetic and not at him tentative to serious methodological and statistical problems.

The committee writing Mindful Nation arrived at conclusions consistent with their prior enthusiasm for mindfulness and their vested interest in it. They sorted through evidence to find what supported their pre-existing assumptions.

Like UK resilience programs, the recommendations of Mindful Nation put considerable resources in the delivery of services to a large population and likely to have the threshold of need to register a socially in clinically significant effect. On a population level, results of the implementation are doomed to fall short of its claims. Those many fewer students in need more timely, intensive, and tailored services are left underserved. Their presence is ignored or, worse, invoked to justify the delivery of services to the larger group, with the needy students not benefiting.

In this blog post, I mainly focused on two methodologically poor studies. But for the selection of these particular studies, I depended on the search of the authors of Mindful Nation and the emphasis that were given to these two studies for some sweeping claims in the report. I will continue to be writing about the recommendations of Mindful Nation. I welcome reader feedback, particularly from readers whose enthusiasm for mindfulness is offended. But I urge them not simply to go to Google and cherry pick an isolated study and ask me to refute its claims.

Rather, we need to pay attention to the larger literature concerning mindfulness, its serious methodological problems, and the sociopolitical forces and vested interests that preserve a strong confirmation bias, both in the “scientific” literature and its echoing in documents like Mindful Nation.

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?

NOTE

*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.

 

 

 

Do positive fantasies prevent dieters from losing weight?

Want to WOOP yourself into amazing shape, and fulfill your wildest dreams? Then get a self-help book telling you how through the Association for Psychological Science or the British Psychological Society Division of Health Psychology…Well not really, save your money.

I was like woopIn this issue of Mind the Brain, I discuss my tracking back into the scientific literature claims about positive fantasies and weight loss made for a self-help book promoted as science-based. I locate the study in which the claims supposedly arose. I find no basis for misleading and highly unrealistic claims. Rather than disseminating any science of positive psychology, the marketing effort for the book promotes unrealistic assumptions about what can be accomplished by dieters trying to lose weight. People who take these claims seriously can be demoralized by unrealistic expectations and encouraged to blame themselves when they can’t achieve what is presented as so simple. This promotion holds out the unwarranted promise that if people want to lose weight, they just need to buy this book, and integrate its simple exercises into their everyday life. If they have failed in the past, they can now succeed. Dieters are being exploited and made to feel bad.

Rethinking Positive Psychology  and an associated WOOP app were highlighted in a featured book signing at the annual convention of Association for Psychological Science. If you missed that opportunity, you still get to a site promoting the book through links at advertisements for the British Psychological Society Division of Health Psychology Annual Meeting.

The book/app package is organized around a simplistic idea. From the book’s preface:

Rethinking Positive Thinking presents scientific research suggesting that starry eyed dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The book then examines and documents the power of a deceptively simple task: juxtaposing our dreams with the obstacles that prevent their attainment. I delve into why such mental contrasting works, particularly available via subconscious minds, and introduce specific planning process that renders even more effective. In the book’s last two chapters, apply the method of mental contrasting 23 areas of personal change – becoming healthier, nurturing better relationships, and performing better at school and work – I offer advice on how to get started with the method in your own life. In particular, I present a four step procedure based on mental contrasting called WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan – that is need to learn, easy to apply to short-and long-term wishes, and is scientifically shown to help you become more energized and directed.

From the outset, the author tries to convince us that positive thinking or, more precisely, positive fantasies by themselves lead to negative outcomes. The research that is cited is almost entirely the author’s own and often consists of contrived laboratory studies with weak findings. A large body of null and contradictory findings from others is shoved aside. This is not about translating scientific findings into practical life strategies, it’s about selling a self-help product as more sciencey than the rest. Buyers beware.

Like me, you probably figure from everyday life experience, that positive fantasies are rather harmless (*) Asked the question, “Are positive fantasies good or bad, helpful or destructive?” we would probably answer “It depends.” By themselves, positive fantasies can have little or no effect, and when they do, effects can be positive or negative.

wOOP i got chicken soupCertainly we don’t want to get caught up in unrealistic fantasies, but who does succumb to them? Maybe you get suckered, if you have been taken in by Chicken Soup for the Soul or a Tony Robbins seminar and think that you can dream yourself to health and wealth. Of course, it helps to be realistic and have a workable plan, but we don’t need a self-help book to tell us that. This book provides very little useful advice about how we should cope with the obstacles we encounter.

Way back when I was in graduate school, there was a lot of excitement about using positive fantasies elicited from people as a way of predicting achievement motivation. Interest in the idea waned when it was shown that such assessments were generally unreliable. Any predictive value disappeared when IQ or productivity was taken into account. Keep that in mind as you read on: why should we think that fantasies elicited in contrived exercises should have much predictive value about things off in the future and subject to lots of other influences? Why would we presume that a fantasy elicited at the beginning of a weight loss program would predict what was actually lost a year later?

But the author is selling a book making a strong case that having positive fantasies are destructive of getting your goals achieved. An impressive publicity campaign hit major media outlets with a mind-numbing repetition of the same message. You could find it in pretty much the same thing being said in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the New Yorker, The Guardian, the Atlantic, Psychology Today, Huff Post, etc. etc.

le woopThere were also impressive endorsements from celebrity positive psychology gurus. Like the media coverage, these endorsements had a certain sameness suggesting the endorsers  were coached, if not outright provided with a script. Typical of these endorsements, Angela Duckworth, the author’s labmate and sometimes co-author back in Seligman’s lab gushed:

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.”

I wanted to track some wild claims in the book and promotion back into the scientific literature and see if they held up. A recurring claim about weight loss triggered my skepticism.

In USA Today: Positive thinking? It’s not enough to reach your goals

ROSY VISIONS CAN BACKFIRE

One of Oettingen’s earliest studies showed that positive thinking alone can backfire when it comes to losing weight. In that study, women in a one-year weight loss program who had the most positive fantasies about future slimness lost an average of 24 pounds less than women with less rosy visions.

In the Wall Street Journal: The Case Against Positive Thinking

In one of Dr. Oettingen’s studies, obese participants who fantasized about successfully losing weight lost 24 pounds less than those who refrained from doing so.

A difference of 24 pounds in a weight loss program is huge. Consult a 2015 meta-analysis  of weight loss in self-help programs. You will see that at six months participants in weight loss programs are typically better off than those in the control condition by only 1.85 kg or 4.78 pounds. At 12 months, any benefit of being in the self-help program has disappeared.

Another meta-analysis evaluated commercial weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem. Available evidence was limited and of poor quality, plagued by short follow-up periods of generally less than a year, high dropout rates, and the evaluation of outcome not being blinded to which participants had been assigned to the active weight loss program or a control condition.

Nonetheless, the review suggested that at 12 months, Weight Watchers achieved 2.6% more weight loss then education/control comparison treatments. Jenny Craig had 4.9% greater weight loss. Nutrisystem did 3.4% better than education/control groups. These figures are long way from a difference of 24 pounds.

Harriet Brown on Obesity
Harriet Brown on Obesity

In an exceptionally evidence-based recent Slate article, Harriet Brown argued that it was time to stop telling fat people to become thin. Even when dieters lose weight in the short-term, 97% of them regain everything they lost in three years. The article criticizes studies evaluating weight loss programs because they typically have too short a follow up period.

I was also skeptical too about the disadvantages the author of the self-help book attached to the positive fantasies that dieters have. Most participants in weight loss programs  have unrealistic fantasies about how much weight they will lose. But the fantasies do not strongly predict the modest amounts of weight they actually lose. So, there is no argument for targeting unrealistic expectations and fantasies if the intent is only to improve weight loss.

I started my search for the evidence behind the claims in press releases that women with positive fantasies lost 24 pounds less than women with less positive fantasies. Using the author’s name and “weight loss” in Google Scholar, I immediately came to the article to which I could eventually tracked the claim.

Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive?. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 167-175.

But I couldn’t immediately see its relevance and so I kept looking. I stumbled upon a non-peer-reviewed chapter by the author made available on the Internet .

The chapter cited the same 1991 weight reduction study with Tom Wadden at Penn. But the chapter made a claim that was not obvious in the original paper:

After one year, patients with high expectations lost about 12 kg more than subjects with negative fantasies. After two years, the respective differences were 15 and 12 kg. These patterns of results stayed on change when subjects’ weight loss aspirations, as well as subjective incentives to reach their spy weight loss, were covariates. The findings that supported our assumption that optimistic expectations and positive fantasies a different types of optimistic thinking, and they have differential effects on motivation and action. Apparently, images of getting slim and resisting food temptations he did weight loss. Subjects seem to daydream that weight loss had occurred without their having to make any effort.

jesus saysAnd then I stumbled upon a later peer-reviewed overview article that also reviewed the 1991 Oettingen and Wadden study. It converted the kilograms to pounds and elaborated:

Participants with positive expectations about losing weight (i.e., ‘‘It is likely that I will lose the indicated amount of weight’’) lost on average 26 pounds more than those with negative expectations (i.e., ‘‘It is unlikely that I will lose the indicated amount of weight’’). However, participants with positive fantasies (e.g., those who imagined shining when going out with the friend and easily resisting the temptation of the leftover box of doughnuts in the lunch room) lost on average 24 pounds less than participants with negative fantasies (e.g., those who imagined having disappointed the friend and having a hard time resisting the leftover box of doughnuts in the lunch room). In short, while positive expectations predicted successful weight loss, positive fantasies predicted little success in reaching one’s desired weight.

So I gave the 1991 paper a closer look.

The abstract stated

We investigated the impact of expectation and fantasy on the weight losses of 25 obese women participating in a behavioral weight reduction program. Both expectations of reaching one’s goal weight and spontaneous weight-related fantasies were measured at pretreatment before subjects began 1 year of weekly group-treatment. Consistent with our hypothesis that expectation and fantasy are different in quality, these variables predicted weight change in opposite directions. Optimistic expectations but negative fantasies favored weight loss. Subjects who displayed pessimistic expectations combined with positive fantasies had the poorest treatment outcome. Finally, expectation but not fantasy predicted program attendance. The effects of fantasy are discussed with regard to their potential impact on weight reduction therapy and the need for further studies of dieters’ spontaneous thoughts and images.

From the method section I learned

  • Subjects weighted average of 106.4 kg with a BMI of 39.1. The recruited with advertisements seeking women at least 25 kg overweight.
  • 13 subjects were randomly assigned to a very low calorie diet and 12 were assigned to a balanced-deficit diet.

Such a small randomized trial can’t reliably give effect sizes for anything. At best it can only suggest the feasibility of doing such a trial of a larger scale. Weight related fantasies were not manipulated, but they were measured:

Weight-Related Fantasy. Each subject was asked to vividly imagine herself as the main character in for hypothetical weight-and food-related scenarios. Two stories were designed to elicit fantasies about the subject’s weight loss, worse to others describing cows were tempting foods. Each story led to an unspecified outcome with subjects were asked to complete (in writing) by describing the stream of thoughts and images that occurred to them. Care was taken to make the scenarios open ended in order to elicit a variety of responses. One of the scenarios is described below:

You’re just completed Penn’s weight loss program. Tonight you have made plans to go out with an old friend whom you haven’t seen in about a year. As you wait for your friend to arrive, you imagine

Subjects rated the positivity, negativity, and intensity of their responses to each scenario, as well as their imagined body shape (using seven-point scales; 1 = low, 7 = high). After completing one scenario, they proceeded to the next. Scores were averaged across all four studies to form positivity, negativity, intensity, and body shape scales.

The study also assessed participants’ expectations of reaching their goal weight with three related questions:

(1) “How likely do you think it is that during this weight reduction program you’ll lose the amount of weight (that you have specified)?”; (2) “you feel that you will be successful in the weight loss program?” and (3) “how confident are you that after this program is completed, you will watch the amount of weight you indicated in question 1?” Questions were answered using 7-point scales (1 = low, 7 = high).

Results

The results suggested this exceptionally strict and long-term weight reduction program yielded some significant losses for both groups.

At weeks 17 and 52, weight losses for the very low calorie diet participants were 17.1 kg and 16.1 kg, respectively. Losses for the BDT balanced-deficit diet participants were 11.1 kg and 14.8 kg.

But where does the extraordinary claim about fantasies get support? That is really not clear from anything presented.

Weight-related fantasy predicted weight loss in week 17 (r = -.34, p = .05) but not in 52 weeks ( r = -.31, p = .09). But these numbers demonstrate the problem: with such a small number of participants, something can be significant at .34, but not at the trivially different .31. Beam me up, Scotty, nothing interesting happening here.

The authors then undertook multiple regression analyses that were inappropriate for a number of reasons. [Warning! Briefly getting technical ahead] First, with so few subjects, the equation was overfit with too many independent variables: initial weight, fantasy, and expectation were entered simultaneously in the first step; the interaction between fantasy and expectation in the second. Weight at weeks 17 and 52 were dependent variables of the two analyses, respectively. The second issue is that with expectations and fantasy correlated .45, entering both of these variables simultaneously would lead to misleading results, probably different than if they were entered alone.

In these dubious complex analyses, positive fantasies were not significant at 17 weeks, but were at 52 weeks. If anyone is still taking these analyses seriously, these are contradictory results. But who cares?

The authors then furthered their illusion by graphing the interaction effect, crossing fantasies with expectations. Think of it: they only had 25 patients and they nonetheless graphed participants after creating three groups (low, medium, high) based on fantasy scores and then 3 groups based on expectations(low, medium, high). We can’t take these results seriously.

So, I can find no basis in this study for the claim that women having positive fantasies lost 24 fewer pounds versus those having less positive fantasies. There was no randomization with respect to fantasies and no results justifying such an astonishing claim. We’ve got numbers, but not science here, and no basis for claiming that this self-help book is more sciencey than its competitors. But citing numbers is impressive, particularly when it’s so hard to find out from where they came.

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So we have the reality of most people who try to lose weight won’t succeed and certainly they won’t succeed in keeping it off. And probably at some point during that time, they fantasize about what would be like to be slimmer. We should give them a break. Instead, the author gives them reason to feel bad about themselves by suggesting that somehow WOOP could have saved them. Weight loss is that much under their control. And they can still save their dignity by buying this book. And if they don’t succeed in losing such weight, they just haven’t integrated the exercises of the book into the lives enough.

Okay, the author was capitalizing on a 1991 study that she’d probably completed long before she even thought about the book – Dare I say, before she fantasized about the book? – And the idea to try to turn the article into a promotion of the book was not a good one.

welcome to woop woopBut in a forthcoming blog, maybe not my next, I will critique another study that she published when she was working on the book. It serves as an experimercial in promoting the book. The study claims that a drop of only 1 mmHg in systolic blood pressure in women told to have positive fantasies about how they will look in high heels represents a serious sapping of energy that can be generalized to real world situations. Yep, experimercial . I’m going to introduce a new and very useful term to link the packaging together and publication of weak studies when they serve the promotion of commercial products. That’s a lot more of what positive psychology is about then we recognize.

Finally, why are supposedly scientific organizations like British Psychological Society Division of Health Psychology hawking a self-help book with a weak relationship to science that is likely to mislead consumers with its pitch?

Note

(*) British Psychological Society President-elect, Peter Kinderman says he is frightened by his positive fantasies of “winning Nobel prizes, winning Pulitzer prizes, being elected to this and that, being awarded knighthoods,” but he’s an odd bird.

 

More sciencey than the rest? The competitive edge of positive psychology coaching

sciencyIs positive psychology coaching better than what its competitors offer? Is positive psychology coaching the science-oriented brand or does it just look sciency? How do we judge?

In Mind the Brain, we have been showing that critical appraisal tools like risk of bias assessment for studies evaluating interventions and a vigilance for signs of confirmatory bias, p-hacking, and significance chasing are crucial in interpreting often untrusworthy scientific claims. Yet, these alone are not enough.

We have also been seeing the need to pay attention to the institutional context, like how journals decide what is publishable, and how universities require that professors prove their worth by publishing lots of papers and telling them where they should publish.

We need to look at the incentives for individual researchers. Do they get rewarded for telling like it is- publishing the fairest interpretation of all their studies  or rather for claiming breakthrough, newsworthy  findings even when the data don’t show that? We need to consider what is suppressed or radically distorted because of these powerful filtering processes. Or else place our faith in the fairness and thoroughness of the peer review process: it must be good science because it got through peer review.

We can’t understand what passes for science in positive psychology unless we grasp the larger context of the positive psychology community, the multimillion dollar industry associated with positive psychology, and incentives that the community and its industry offer to those claiming to provide the science of positive psychology.

Shaping what passes for science are the needs of thousands of positive psychology coaches competitively marketing their services. These coaches are themselves a market for positive psychology ”science,” and they promote their “science-based” products and services to individual clients and corporations. At both levels, claims become important of being more sciencey than competitors not sharing the brand of positive psychology.

A recent interview with a designated “positive psychology expert”, Lisa Sansom provides some fascinating insights into the sciencey branding of positive psychology coaching. Positive Psychology Coaching: 12 Urgent Questions Answered is available at PositivePsychologyProgram: Your One-Stop Positive Psychology Resource. At the outset, the interview promises to answer the questions

What is positive psychology coaching? How does it differ from regular coaching? When can I call myself a positive psychologist?

And more. In this blog post, I’m going to probe this interview to understand the distinctiveness of the positive psychology brand of coaching and its implications for what passes for science and evidence in positive psychology.

We will encounter some tensions. Calling oneself a coach does not require any background in psychology or research methodology. Yet coaches claim they interpret and apply scientific findings and promise that makes their brand better than the rest.

If coaches don’t have a background in psychology and the critical skills to interpret new findings, how are they going to do this? They depend on the eminence of those whom they consider scientists, not the actual evidence their research provide. Researchers may become gurus to an audience that cannot appreciate either whether authoritative statements by the researchers are faithful to their actual findings or whether any evidence is actually relevant to the pronouncements being made.

resident_science_guru_novelty_mug-r2eca08dfba82417d91c636949ef1a320_x7jg5_8byvr_324What a temptation! An audience that cannot tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable interpretations of the evidence, but will pay more for interpretations that help them sell more of their product and services.

Being an authoritative source has rich rewards in terms of opportunities for lucrative trainings corporate talks and direct-to-consumer marketing of their “science.” But success in this market benefits from claiming stronger findings than the spin and confirmatory bias required for publication.

i know more than you doPositive psychology research comes out of social and personality psychology that already has rampant problems with hype, hokum, and unreproducible findings. Do the temptations of the positive psychology market increase pressures on psychologists doing relevant research to produce simplistic, but seemingly unambiguous answers ? Think of having to match reporting of findings to the wonder, drama, and magic of advertisements for positive psychology products.

Positive psychology articles rarely if ever has declarations of conflict interest. Yet, we know investigators’ financial stakes in obtaining particular outcomes lead to exaggerated and simply false claims. Do investigators seeking market claims in positive psychology further contaminate troubled areas of personality and social psychology with undisclosed conflicts of interest? In other areas of social science, there is growing appreciation for the need for routine declarations of conflicts of interest. Some areas have seen dozens of errata and correction notices to articles that previously did not have a declarations.

The interview quotes a chapter by Carol Kauffman, Ilona Boniwell and Jordan Silberman  in giving a definition of positive psychology coaching:

“Positive Psychology Coaching (PPC) is a scientifically-rooted approach to helping clients. increase well-being, enhance and apply strengths, improve performance, and achieve valued goals. At the core of PPC is a belief in the power of science to elucidate the best.”

The interview keeps emphasizing that it is being rooted in science that distinguishes positive psychology coaching from its competitors.

So how does it differ from regular coaching?

On the surface, it might not look or feel much different to a client. However, what is different is that the PP coach continues his or her life-long learning in the field of positive psychology by staying engaged with the research, the literature, the researchers and other PP professionals.

The PP coach also adjusts his or her coaching techniques, methodologies, etc, accordingly when new findings are discovered. “Regular” coaches may not be as tied to the empirical evidence and research findings, and so their techniques and methodologies may change only as a function of their own experiences, or attending conferences where they learn from other coaches’ anecdotal experiences, or they may not change substantially at all.

And

Perhaps the one thing that is different, as I alluded to above, is that the PP coach also believes in staying close to the science and adjusting his or her approach (etc) accordingly. Coaches that are getting their PP from mass media books only are not getting the full richness and subtleties that are inherent in positive psychology research.

Yet no background in psychology is required to do this:

Overall, to be an effective PP coach or practitioner, one does not need a strong background in traditional psychology and one does not need to be a certified, qualified psychologist.

Even without a coach having a background in psychology,

the benefits to working with a PP coach who is well-trained and qualified are potentially that you will be drawing on a valid body of research (as opposed to just intuition and that individual’s personal coaching experience) and that your coach will know the why and wherefore of the practices, rather than just guessing that things might work for you.

27 factsSurfing around the PositivePsychologyProgram website, I encountered the free resource, 27 of Positive Psychology’s Most Fascinating Facts that advertised

To the point and easy to read (37 pages)

Written by academics, 100% science-based

More free PDF’s, Downloads, Videos…

 

 

Of course, I clicked on the

yes send mePNG

And opened to

Fascinating Fact #4: Positive psychology interventions have the power to reduce depressive symptoms.

Sin and Lyubomirsky’s meta-analysis is the single source. It is described as revealing

positive psychology really does increase wellbeing and sooth depression. Furthermore, the status of depression, the age of the participants and the intervention all had an impact on the effectiveness of the interventions. Because of this, clinicians are strongly encouraged to begin incorporating positive psychology techniques into their work.

You can find specifics here  of my evaluation of Sin and Lyubomirsky. I used the same standards I would apply to any other meta-analysis. I found it to be substandard work:

 Sin and Lyubomirsky provides a biased and seriously flawed assessment of positive psychology interventions. Uncritical citation of this paper suggest either subsequent authors are naïve, careless, or bent on presenting a positive evaluation of positive psychology interventions in defiance of available evidence.

But on to

Fascinating Fact #6: The principles and practice of positive psychology are relevant to brain injury rehabilitation.

 Positive Psychology actually has the ability to foster posttraumatic growth, meaning it can make injury sufferers over-all happier (even more so than they were before). Positive psychology allows individuals to re-assess what is important in life, live more in the moment, identify what they are grateful for and to develop personal and intra­personal goals for recovery. All this makes individuals with brain injuries more appreciative of all aspects of life and allows them to return to their social and physical lives faster.

These are patently ridiculous claims. They leave me thinking that we should all put in our advance directives that if we ever suffer traumatic brain injury, we must be protected from positive psychologists and coaches trying to help us to grow from the experience. And just what the hell do these coaches think they are doing in caring for persons with traumatic brain injury?

In the context of a great debate about positive psychology in cancer care, Howard Tennen and I concluded

We are at a loss to explain why positive psychology investigators continue to endorse the flawed conceptualization and measurement of personal growth following adversity. Despite [Chris] Peterson’s warning that the credibility of positive psychology’s claim to science demands close attention to the evidence, post-traumatic growth—a construct that has now generated hundreds of articles—continues to be studied with flawed methods and a disregard for the evidence generated by psychological science.

More recently, Patricia Frazier, Howard Tennen , and I published a commentary  on Jayawickreme and and Blackie’s updated Posttraumatic Growth as Positive Personality Change: Evidence, Controversies and Future Directions. We concluded that a lot of research had accumulated but it did not change our skeptical assessment. We suggested a lot less, but better research was needed.

thank youAnyone who assumes that psychological science will produce a set of 27 fascinating proven facts ready for application in interventions seriously misunderstands both science and psychological interventions.

Just look at any other area of psychological interventions. Research does not produce fascinating facts, but tentative findings, graded in terms of strength of evidence. That evidence is likely to be limited in quality and quantity and will probably have to be modified with new findings.

Taking a larger overview, we can expect that psychological interventions that are credible and structured will have modest differences among themselves and modest advantages over interventions that are simply supportive and delivered with positive expectations. And psychological interventions are most reliably effective when they are delivered to persons who are sufficiently distressed to register benefit.

The large literature concerning psychological interventions will be very disappointing to anyone seeking ways to produce dramatic change with simple interventions. Anyone or anything that guarantees this should be treated with great skepticism.

Look at the personality and social psychology research from which the positive psychology community draw. Findings are not robustly durable. Newsworthy dramatic breakthroughs typically prove to be false positives or simply nonsense. The shelf life of spectacular claims is increasingly shortened by critics waiting to show the tricks by which such magic was produced.

The positive psychology community may be collectively engaging in wishful thinking, but it attracts and richly rewards those who promise to fulfill the great hunger and pressing marketing needs for sciencey findings. And few in the community will understand the difference in what they get.

If the positive psychology community is serious about making a credible claim for the distinctiveness of their approach, I suggest that everybody drop the vague references to “science” and substitute “evidence-based.”

The  “evidence-based” brand is subject to lots of abuse, but the label at least invites application of some well specified principles for deciding the extent to which claims are indeed evidence-based and grading of the evidence by noncontroversial, established criteria. And to keep a grounding in being evidence-based, interventions need to adhere to the procedures that were validated. This is not a matter of jumping from a correlational study with college students to claims of dramatic effects being achieved in everyday life, as so much of the positive psychology literature does. It is a matter of being faithful –having fidelity to the manualized procedures of the original study.

Or is all of this analysis for naught because the claims of positive psychology being more sciencey than the rest are just vapid advertising slogans and not to be taken seriously? Some researchers notably pitch their work to this waiting audience that lacks the critical skills to evaluate. Should we treat their scholarship as less serious or should we scrutinize it more for bias because of their undeclared conflicts of interest?

DISCLAIMER: I am grateful for PLOS blogs providing me the space for free expression. However, the views I present here are not necessarily those of PLOS nor of any of my institutional affiliations.

Lucrative pseudoscience at the International Positive Psychology Association meeting

A plenary session dripping with crank science may be an outlier, but it’s on a continuum with the claims of mainstream positive psychology.

 Follow the conference attendees following the money, does it take you to science?

Imagine…

HMI-Bio-Speaker-Rollin-217x300Imagine a PhD student going to her first positive psychology conference, drawn by the opportunity to hear research oriented psychologists such as Richard Davidson and Jonathan Haidt in one place. But at the first plenary session she attends, Rollin McCraty is talking to an enthralled audience about “the science of what connects us.” McCraty says the heart radiates a measurable magnetic field which carries emotional state information, and can be detected by the nervous systems of nearby.”

Puzzled, she googles McCraty and comes to websites and articles making even more bizarre claims, like

 There is compelling evidence to suggest that the heart’s energy field (energetic heart) is coupled to a field of information that is not bound by the classical limits of time and space.

And even better

This evidence comes from a rigorous experimental study conducted to investigate the proposition that the body receives and processes information about a future event before the event actually happens (McCraty et al 2004a, b). The study’s results provide surprising data showing that both the heart and brain receive and respond to pre-stimulus information about a future event. Even more tantalizing are indications that the heart receives intuitive information before the brain, and that the heart sends a different pattern of afferent signals to the brain which modulates the frontal cortex.

“…about a future event before the event actually happens”? Wow, this puts Daryl Bem’s  claim of precognition to shame. But this claim cannot possibly prepare our PhD student for

A Tidal Wave of Kindness

In the fall of 2013, the IHM [Institute of HeartMath, where McCraty is Director of Research] launched the Global Coherence Initiative. The ambitious goals of this campaign are unprecedented: to quantify the impact of human emotion on the earth’s electromagnetic field and tip the global equation toward greater peace. While this may sound like a utopian fantasy, Dr. McCraty points out that science once again supports this possibility. “If the earth’s fields are a carrier, we are all coupled to this field, all the signals are out there,” he says. “So every emotion we experience is coupled to that field. This creates a global humanity field, if you will.” According to Dr. McCraty, this field is continually fed by our feelings, both positive and negative. The goal is to shift the balance toward the positive. “Any time we’re putting out love and kindness, that energy is not wasted,” he adds.

HeartMath graphThis is crank science far beyond the satire of Alan Sokal hoax article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. But we’re not done yet:

Current IHM research demonstrating the interconnectedness between people has Dr. McCraty very excited. Two studies going on in northern California and Saudi Arabia are monitoring HRV 24/7 to help quantify the interconnectivity between people and how it is affected by nervous system dynamics, the earth’s magnetic fields, solar flares, and even radio frequencies.

At the reception that evening, our PhD student desperately searches for familiar faces of other research oriented PhD students. She manages to find only a few among the oppressively bubbly crowd. And none of her colleagues actually went to the McCraty plenary. Some dismissed him as just pushing the merchandise of the very commercial HeartMath.

Who was attending the International Positive Psychology Association meeting?

Advertisements for the conference advised

who should attend

But any research-oriented attendees were disappointed if they sought first-ever reports of breakthrough, but reproducible science. Personal coaching and organizational and executive consulting themes predominated in the preconference workshops and presentations.

Elements of a trade show blended into a revivalist meeting. Hordes of “certified” life coaches and wannabes were seeking new contacts, positive psychology products, and dubious certificates to hang in their offices. These coaches had paid out-of-pocket, without scholarship for degrees from “approved” masters of arts in positive psychology programs (MAPPs) costing as much as $60,000 a year. Many were hungry. But there are inspiring -positive psychology is about inspiring- stories on the Internet of big bucks being made immediately:

make money

  • MAPP programs typically require no background in behavior science and provide very little training in critical appraisal of research or even ethics.
  • Graduates of MAPP programs general lack ability to determine independently whether claims are evidence-based. They are suckers for anything that superficially sounds and looks sciencey. They are as vulnerable as marital and family therapists who can be readily seduced by claims about therapies that are “soothing the brain” hawked by unscrupulous “neuroscientists” and self-promoters.

Indeed, just go to some coaching websites and see claims of being able to provide clients with wondrous transformations take takes little effort from them.

Positive psychology merchandise. Get certified as a trainer now.

The science is often superficial and even quack. Yet, to compete effectively in a crowded field, positive psychology coaches brandish a label of ‘we are more sciencey than the rest’.

the pp scientist

McCraty’s HeartMath promises that big time science backs its claims of effectiveness.

Over the years we have received numerous reports that coherence training has improved performance in a wide range of cognitive capacities, both short and long-term. These include tasks requiring eye-hand coordination, speed and accuracy, and coordination in various sports as well as cognitive tasks involving executive functions associated with the frontal cortex such as maintaining focus and concentration, problem solving, self-regulation, and abstract thinking.

A study of California correctional officers with high workplace stress found reductions in total cholesterol, glucose, and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BP), as well as significant reductions in overall stress, anger, fatigue and hostility with projected savings in annual heath care costs of $1179 per employee (McCraty et al 2009).

stand back scienceUnfortunately McCraty et al 2009 turns out to be a rather dodgy source

McCraty R, Atkinson, M., Tomasino, D., & Bradley, R. T (2009) The coherent heart: Heart-brain interactions, psychophysiological coherence, and the emergence of system-wide order. Integral Review 5: 10–115.

But why stop there?

Hospitals implementing HM programs implementing have seen increased personal, team and organizational coherence. The measures most often assessed are staff retention and employee satisfaction. Cape Fear Valley hospital system in Cape Fear, North Carolina, reduced nurse turn over from 24% to 13%, and Delnor Community Hospital in Chicago saw a similar reduction from 27% to 14% – as well as a dramatic improvement in employee satisfaction, results that have been sustained over an eight year period. Similarly, Duke University’s Health System reduced turnover from 38% to 5% in its emergency services division. An analysis of the combined psychometric data from 3,129 matched pre-post HM coherence trainings found that fatigue, anxiety, depression and anger were reduced by almost half. Another workplace study conducted in large chain of retail stores with in-store pharmacies that employed 220 pharmacists across multiple locations found a reduction is medical errors ranging from 40 to 71%, depending on the store location (HeartMath 2009).

Specific statistics, yes, but, alas, these data are not independently peer reviewed claims nor even transparently presented. They call upon our faith in HeartMath.

If your methods are so powerful, HeartMath, submit your evidence for legitimate peer review.

Shame on me for not doing a systematic review of this literature.

When I posted a critical comment about McCraty on my Facebook wall, I was quickly chastised by a “friend” whom I do not actually know:

Have you read the body of research published by HeartMath? Which articles have you critically reviewed and found flawed? Can you discuss that in detail? Do you know what the Global Coherence Project is? Do you know those methods, their datasets? Are you dismissing this on the idea alone, or on the details of their generated body of scientific work? Are you an expert on electrical fields generated by the human body? Do you know all the work on heart rate variability and its associations with human health and communication? Which part of that body of work are you taking issue with?

Dear Facebook “friend,” don’t you realize that the burden of proof lies on the quacks who wish us to believe ridiculous claims with zero obvious scientific basis? Evidence, please. No plausible mechanism means not worth a serious investigation. And by the way, does anyone know ‘their methods, their data sets,’ outside of HeartMath?

There is so much junk out there and so little time to evaluate it. Skeptics should not waste their time, when they quick-screen for plausible mechanism and find none. That eliminates the bulk of the nonsense bombarding us, even from successful academic positive psychology gurus. Sure, we might miss some dramatic breakthroughs, but prior probabilities are on our side.

The positive psychology – corporate – military complex

Touchy question in the positive psychology community: Was US Defense Department grant money used to reward psychologists for involvement in the CIA torture program for those who protected them from ethical sanctions? There has not been much discussion of this on the tightly controlled Friends of Positive Psychology listserv, only swift denials, but can others get in on the money? Can Rollin McCraty help? A good reason to go to his talk. But, first, some background.

Psychologist Stephen Soldz, Ph.D and colleagues produced a report, American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA’s ”Enhanced” Interrogation Program. The report contained a number of linked emails that included Paul Ekman, James Mitchell and…Marty Seligman.

Blogger Vaughan Bell states

 To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture. Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record.

But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence.

Seligman was reportedly awarded a $31 million US Army no-bid contract to develop ‘resilience training’ for soldiers to prevent mental health problems. This was surprising to many as he had no particular experience in developing clinical interventions. It was deployed as the $237 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, the results of which have only been reported in some oddly incompetent technical reports and are markedly under-whelming. Nicholas Brown’s analysis of the first three evaluative technical reports is particularly good where he notes the tiny effects sizes and shoddy design. A fourth report has since been published (pdf) which also notes “small effect sizes” and doesn’t control for things like combat exposure.

Money from the ineffective Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Progam has been an enormous bonanza for positive psychologists – and even critics willing to mute what they say. Is Rollin McCraty a useful way in? Aside from being Director of Research at Institute of HeartMath (IHM), Rollin McCarty is also Director of Military Training – the HeartMath website tells us – he is working with Major Robert A. Bradley (USAF, Ret., Director of Veterans Outreach.

HeartMath once had a million dollar grant from the US Navy. Their grant portfolio has apparently shrunk to a few thousand dollars. But HeartMath offers training and certification in nice sounding programs. Can hungry MAPP graduate attendees get trained and certificates suitable for framing and make big bucks through HeartMath? The hell with the science, there are sciencey claims that must sell.

We cannot tell how much profit HeartMath is making. We can only get the financial details on their not-for-profit institute, not their for-profit wing. The split between profit and nonprofit wings of training institutes making money and the secrecy is common in training enterprises a common organizational structure for entrepreneurs.

An outlier, but on a continuum with positive psychology (pseudo) science?

Rollin McCraty may be an outlier, but he still lies on a continuum with the most recognized scientists of positive psychology.

Barbara Fredrickson is considered a rock star in the positive psychology community. She has an endowed chair, lots of grant money, and numerous publications in journals where you would never find Mcraty. Yet her papers are often tied to her heavily marketed commercial products, though without the requisite declaration of conflict interest in her papers. Some of her claims have not fared so well with strong hints of shaky and even pseudo science.

Positivity ratio. Fredrickson and Losada (2005) infamously applied a mathematical model drawn from nonlinear dynamics and claimed that a ratio of positive to negative affect of exactly 2.9013 separated flourishing people from those who are merely languishing. Nick Brown, Alan Sokal, and Harris Friedman examined this claim and found

no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors.

In response, Fredrickson partially retracted her claim, where visitors can take a 2- minute test to determine whether they are flourishing or languishing and watch Youtube videos.

Meaning is healthier than happiness. Fredrickson and colleagues claimed to have used functional genomics to settle the classical philosophical question of whether we pursue meaning (eudaimonism) in our lives or happiness (hedonism). These claims echoed in the popular press  as

People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.

My colleagues and I (including Nick Brown and Harris Freidman) took a critical look and reanalyzed Fredrickson and colleagues’ data. We concluded

Fredrickson et al.’s article conceptually deficient, but more crucially that their statistical analyses are fatally flawed, to the point that their claimed results are in fact essentially meaningless.

The journal where the article originally appeared, PNAS has so far resisted a number calls, including one from Neuroskeptic for retraction of the original article.

Better health and relationships through loving kindness meditation. Much like McCarty, some of Fredrickson’s work makes strong claims about transforming people’s lives by changing cardiac vagal tone. She and colleagues claimed to have shown that practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) generates an “upward spiral” of mutual enhancement among positive emotions, social connectedness, and physical health. So,

“Advice about how people might improve their physical health . . . can now be expanded to include self-generating positive emotions.”

My group -again with Nick and Harris, but also James Heathers – took a closer look and reanalyzed the data. We found the study was actually a badly reported clinical trial with null results, evidence concerning the association of cardiac vagal tone and established valid parameters of physical health were contradictory, and carrdiac vagal tone was certainly not a suitable proxy outcome for health in a clinical trial, especially for persons of the age included in Fredrickson’s trial.

love 2Nonetheless, the first hit when I googled “Fredrickson loving kindness meditation” was another Fredrickson commercial website, Love 2.0  offering a book and other products with an eye-catching question:

What if everything you know about love is wrong?

It’s time to upgrade your view of love. Love 2.0 offers new lenses for seeing and more fully appreciating micro-moments of connection. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson gives you the lab-tested tools to unlock more love in your life.

Any wonder why the attendees at International Positive Psychology Association had trouble distinguishing between science and nonsense like what McCarty offered?