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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.