“It’s certainly not bareknuckle:” Comments to a journalist about a critique of mindfulness research

We can’t assume authors of mindfulness studies are striving to do the best possible science, including being prepared for the possibility of being proven incorrect by their results.

mind the brain logo

I recently had a Skype interview with science journalist Peter Hess concerning an article in Psychological Science.

Peter was exceptionally prepared, had a definite point of view, but was open to what I said. In the end seem to be persuaded by me on a number of points.  The resulting article in Inverse  faithfully conveyed my perspective and juxtaposed quotes from me with those from an author of the Psych Science piece in a kind of debate.

My point of view

larger dogWhen evaluating an article about mindfulness in a peer-reviewed journal, we need to take into account that authors may not necessarily be striving to do the best science, but to maximally benefit their particular brand of mindfulness, their products, or the settings in which they operate. Many studies of mindfulness are a little more than infomercials, weak research intended only to get mindfulness promoters’ advertisement of themselves into print or to allow the labeling of claims as “peer-reviewed”. Caveat Lector.

We cannot assume authors of mindfulness studies are striving to do the best possible science, including being prepared for the possibility of being proven incorrect by their results. Rather they may be simply try to get the strongest possible claims through peer review, ignoring best research practices and best publication practices.

Psychologists Express Growing Concern With Mindfulness Meditation

“It’s not bare-knuckle, that’s for sure.”

There was much from the author of the Psych Science article with which  I would agree:

“In my opinion, there are far too many organizations, companies, and therapists moving forward with the implementation of ‘mindfulness-based’ treatments, apps, et cetera before the research can actually tell us whether it actually works, and what the risk-reward ratio is,” corresponding author and University of Melbourne research fellow Nicholas Van Dam, Ph.D. tells Inverse.

Bravo! And

“People are spending a lot of money and time learning to meditate, listening to guest speakers about corporate integration of mindfulness, and watching TED talks about how mindfulness is going to supercharge their brain and help them live longer. Best case scenario, some of the advertising is true. Worst case scenario: very little to none of the advertising is true and people may actually get hurt (e.g., experience serious adverse effects).”

But there were some statements that renewed the discomfort and disappointment I experienced when I read the original article in Psychological Science:

 “I think the biggest concern among my co-authors and I is that people will give up on mindfulness and/or meditation because they try it and it doesn’t work as promised,” says Van Dam.

“There may really be something to mindfulness, but it will be hard for us to find out if everyone gives up before we’ve even started to explore its best potential uses.”

So, how long before we “give up” on thousands of studies pouring out of an industry? In the meantime, should consumers act on what seem to be extravagant claims?

The Inverse article segued into some quotes from me after delivering another statement from the author which I could agree:

The authors of the study make their attitudes clear when it comes to the current state of the mindfulness industry: “Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed,” they write. And while this comes off as unequivocal, some think they don’t go far enough in calling out specific instances of quackery.

“It’s not bare-knuckle, that’s for sure. I’m sure it got watered down in the review process,” James Coyne, Ph.D., an outspoken psychologist who’s extensively criticized the mindfulness industry, tells Inverse.

Coyne agrees with the conceptual issues outlined in the paper, specifically the fact that many mindfulness therapies are based on science that doesn’t really prove their efficacy, as well as the fact that researchers with copyrights on mindfulness therapies have financial conflicts of interest that could influence their research. But he thinks the authors are too concerned with tone policing.

“I do appreciate that they acknowledged other views, but they kept out anybody who would have challenged their perspective,” he says.

Regarding Coyne’s criticism about calling out individuals, Van Dam says the authors avoided doing that so as not to alienate people and stifle dialogue.

“I honestly don’t think that my providing a list of ‘quacks’ would stop people from listening to them,” says Van Dam. “Moreover, I suspect my doing so would damage the possibility of having a real conversation with them and the people that have been charmed by them.” If you need any evidence of this, look at David “Avocado” Wolfe, whose notoriety as a quack seems to make him even more popular as a victim of “the establishment.” So yes, this paper may not go so far as some would like, but it is a first step toward drawing attention to the often flawed science underlying mindfulness therapies.

To whom is the dialogue directed about unwarranted claims from the mindfulness industry?

As one of the authors of an article claiming to be an authoritative review from a group of psychologists with diverse expertise, Van Dam says he is speaking to consumers. Why won’t he and his co-authors provide citations and name names so that readers can evaluate for themselves what they are being told? Is the risk of reputational damage and embarrassment to the psychologists so great as to cause Van Dam to protect them versus protecting consumers from the exaggerated and even fraudulent claims of psychologists hawking their products branded as ‘peer-reviewed psychological and brain science’.

I use the term ‘quack’ sparingly outside of discussing unproven and unlikely-to-be-proven products supposed to promote physical health and well-being or to prevent or cure disease and distress.

I think Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer deserves the term “quack” for her selling of expensive trips to spas in Mexico to women with advanced cancer so that they can change their mind set to reverse the course of their disease. Strong evidence, please! Given that this self-proclaimed mother of mindfulness gets her claims promoted through the Association for Psychological Science website, I think it particularly appropriate for Van Dam and his coauthors to name her in their publication in an APS journal. Were they censored or only censoring themselves?

Let’s put aside psychologists who can be readily named as quacks. How about Van Dam and co-authors naming names of psychologists claiming to alter the brains and immune systems of cancer patients with mindfulness practices so that they improve their physical health and fight cancer, not just cope better with a life-altering disease?

I simply don’t buy Van Dam’s suggestion that to name names promotes quackery any more than I believe exposing anti-vaxxers promotes the anti-vaccine cause.

Is Van Dam only engaged in a polite discussion with fellow psychologists that needs to be strictly tone-policed to avoid offense or is he trying to reach, educate, and protect consumers as citizen scientists looking after their health and well-being? Maybe that is where we parted ways.

Creating illusions of wondrous effects of yoga and meditation on health: A skeptic exposes tricks

The tour of the sausage factory is starting, here’s your brochure telling you’ll see.

 

A recent review has received a lot of attention with it being used for claims that mind-body interventions have distinct molecular signatures that point to potentially dramatic health benefits for those who take up these practices.

What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.  Frontiers in Immunology. 2017;8.

Few who are tweeting about this review or its press coverage are likely to have read it or to understand it, if they read it. Most of the new agey coverage in social media does nothing more than echo or amplify the message of the review’s press release.  Lazy journalists and bloggers can simply pass on direct quotes from the lead author or even just the press release’s title, ‘Meditation and yoga can ‘reverse’ DNA reactions which cause stress, new study suggests’:

“These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed.”

And

“Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don’t realise is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business.”

[The authors of this review actually identified some serious shortcomings to the studies they reviewed. I’ll be getting to some excellent points at the end of this post that run quite counter to the hype. But the lead author’s press release emphasized unwarranted positive conclusions about the health benefits of these practices. That is what is most popular in media coverage, especially from those who have stuff to sell.]

Interpretation of the press release and review authors’ claims requires going back to the original studies, which most enthusiasts are unlikely to do. If readers do go back, they will have trouble interpreting some of the deceptive claims that are made.

Yet, a lot is at stake. This review is being used to recommend mind-body interventions for people having or who are at risk of serious health problems. In particular, unfounded claims that yoga and mindfulness can increase the survival of cancer patients are sometimes hinted at, but occasionally made outright.

This blog post is written with the intent of protecting consumers from such false claims and providing tools so they can spot pseudoscience for themselves.

Discussion in the media of the review speaks broadly of alternative and complementary interventions. The coverage is aimed at inspiring  confidence in this broad range of treatments and to encourage people who are facing health crises investing time and money in outright quackery. Seemingly benign recommendations for yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness (after all, what’s the harm?) often become the entry point to more dubious and expensive treatments that substitute for established treatments.  Once they are drawn to centers for integrative health care for classes, cancer patients are likely to spend hundreds or even thousands on other products and services that are unlikely to benefit them. One study reported:

More than 72 oral or topical, nutritional, botanical, fungal and bacterial-based medicines were prescribed to the cohort during their first year of IO care…Costs ranged from $1594/year for early-stage breast cancer to $6200/year for stage 4 breast cancer patients. Of the total amount billed for IO care for 1 year for breast cancer patients, 21% was out-of-pocket.

Coming up, I will take a skeptical look at the six randomized trials that were highlighted by this review.  But in this post, I will provide you with some tools and insights so that you do not have to make such an effort in order to make an informed decision.

Like many of the other studies cited in the review, these randomized trials were quite small and underpowered. But I will focus on the six because they are as good as it gets. Randomized trials are considered a higher form of evidence than simple observational studies or case reports [It is too bad the authors of the review don’t even highlight what studies are randomized trials. They are lumped with others as “longitudinal studies.]

As a group, the six studies do not actually add any credibility to the claims that mind-body interventions – specifically yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness training or retreats improve health by altering DNA.  We can be no more confident with what the trials provide than we would be without them ever having been done.

I found the task of probing and interpreting the studies quite labor-intensive and ultimately unrewarding.

I had to get past poor reporting of what was actually done in the trials, to which patients, and with what results. My task often involved seeing through cover ups with authors exercising considerable flexibility in reporting what measures were they actually collected and what analyses were attempted, before arriving at the best possible tale of the wondrous effects of these interventions.

Interpreting clinical trials should not be so hard, because they should be honestly and transparently reported and have a registered protocol and stick to it. These reports of trials were sorely lacking, The full extent of the problems took some digging to uncover, but some things emerged before I got to the methods and results.

The introductions of these studies consistently exaggerated the strength of existing evidence for the effects of these interventions on health, even while somehow coming to the conclusion that this particular study was urgently needed and it might even be the “first ever”. The introductions to the six papers typically cross-referenced each other, without giving any indication of how poor quality the evidence was from the other papers. What a mutual admiration society these authors are.

One giveaway is how the introductions  referred to the biggest, most badass, comprehensive and well-done review, that of Goyal and colleagues.

That review clearly states that the evidence for the effects of mindfulness is poor quality because of the lack of comparisons with credible active treatments. The typical randomized trial of mindfulness involves a comparison with no-treatment, a waiting list, or patients remaining in routine care where the target problem is likely to be ignored.  If we depend on the bulk of the existing literature, we cannot rule out the likelihood that any apparent benefits of mindfulness are due to having more positive expectations, attention, and support over simply getting nothing.  Only a handful  of hundreds of trials of mindfulness include appropriate, active treatment comparison/control groups. The results of those studies are not encouraging.

One of the first things I do in probing the introduction of a study claiming health benefits for mindfulness is see how they deal with the Goyal et al review. Did the study cite it, and if so, how accurately? How did the authors deal with its message, which undermines claims of the uniqueness or specificity of any benefits to practicing mindfulness?

For yoga, we cannot yet rule out that it is better than regular exercising – in groups or alone – having relaxing routines. The literature concerning tai chi is even smaller and poorer quality, but there is the same need to show that practicing tai chi has any benefits over exercising in groups with comparable positive expectations and support.

Even more than mindfulness, yoga and tai chi attract a lot of pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo about integrating Eastern wisdom and Western science. We need to look past that and insist on evidence.

Like their introductions, the discussion sections of these articles are quite prone to exaggerating how strong and consistent the evidence is from existing studies. The discussion sections cherry pick positive findings in the existing literature, sometimes recklessly distorting them. The authors then discuss how their own positively spun findings fit with what is already known, while minimizing or outright neglecting discussion of any of their negative findings. I was not surprised to see one trial of mindfulness for cancer patients obtain no effects on depressive symptoms or perceived stress, but then go on to explain mindfulness might powerfully affect the expression of DNA.

If you want to dig into the details of these studies, the going can get rough and the yield for doing a lot of mental labor is low. For instance, these studies involved drawing blood and analyzing gene expression. Readers will inevitably encounter passages like:

In response to KKM treatment, 68 genes were found to be differentially expressed (19 up-regulated, 49 down-regulated) after adjusting for potentially confounded differences in sex, illness burden, and BMI. Up-regulated genes included immunoglobulin-related transcripts. Down-regulated transcripts included pro-inflammatory cytokines and activation-related immediate-early genes. Transcript origin analyses identified plasmacytoid dendritic cells and B lymphocytes as the primary cellular context of these transcriptional alterations (both p < .001). Promoter-based bioinformatic analysis implicated reduced NF-κB signaling and increased activity of IRF1 in structuring those effects (both p < .05).

Intimidated? Before you defer to the “experts” doing these studies, I will show you some things I noticed in the six studies and how you can debunk the relevance of these studies for promoting health and dealing with illness. Actually, I will show that even if these 6 studies got the results that the authors claimed- and they did not- at best, the effects would trivial and lost among the other things going on in patients’ lives.

Fortunately, there are lots of signs that you can dismiss such studies and go on to something more useful, if you know what to look for.

Some general rules:

  1. Don’t accept claims of efficacy/effectiveness based on underpowered randomized trials. Dismiss them. The rule of thumb is reliable to dismiss trials that have less than 35 patients in the smallest group. Over half the time, true moderate sized effects will be missed in such studies, even if they are actually there.

Due to publication bias, most of the positive effects that are published from such sized trials will be false positives and won’t hold up in well-designed, larger trials.

When significant positive effects from such trials are reported in published papers, they have to be large to have reached significance. If not outright false, these effect sizes won’t be matched in larger trials. So, significant, positive effect sizes from small trials are likely to be false positives and exaggerated and probably won’t replicate. For that reason, we can consider small studies to be pilot or feasibility studies, but not as providing estimates of how large an effect size we should expect from a larger study. Investigators do it all the time, but they should not: They do power calculations estimating how many patients they need for a larger trial from results of such small studies. No, no, no!

Having spent decades examining clinical trials, I am generally comfortable dismissing effect sizes that come from trials with less than 35 patients in the smaller group. I agree with a suggestion that if there are two larger trials are available in a given literature, go with those and ignore the smaller studies. If there are not at least two larger studies, keep the jury out on whether there is a significant effect.

Applying the Rule of 35, 5 of the 6 trials can be dismissed and the sixth is ambiguous because of loss of patients to follow up.  If promoters of mind-body interventions want to convince us that they have beneficial effects on physical health by conducting trials like these, they have to do better. None of the individual trials should increase our confidence in their claims. Collectively, the trials collapse in a mess without providing a single credible estimate of effect size. This attests to the poor quality of evidence and disrespect for methodology that characterizes this literature.

  1. Don’t be taken in by titles to peer-reviewed articles that are themselves an announcement that these interventions work. Titles may not be telling the truth.

What I found extraordinary is that five of the six randomized trials had a title that indicating a positive effect was found. I suspect that most people encountering the title will not actually go on to read the study. So, they will be left with the false impression that positive results were indeed obtained. It’s quite a clever trick to make the title of an article, by which most people will remember it, into a false advertisement for what was actually found.

For a start, we can simply remind ourselves that with these underpowered studies, investigators should not even be making claims about efficacy/effectiveness. So, one trick of the developing skeptic is to confirm that the claims being made in the title don’t fit with the size of the study. However, actually going to the results section one can find other evidence of discrepancies between what was found in what is being claimed.

I think it’s a general rule of thumb that we should be careful of titles for reports of randomized that declare results. Even when what is claimed in the title fits with the actual results, it often creates the illusion of a greater consistency with what already exists in the literature. Furthermore, even when future studies inevitably fail to replicate what is claimed in the title, the false claim lives on, because failing to replicate key findings is almost never a condition for retracting a paper.

  1. Check the institutional affiliations of the authors. These 6 trials serve as a depressing reminder that we can’t go on researchers’ institutional affiliation or having federal grants to reassure us of the validity of their claims. These authors are not from Quack-Quack University and they get funding for their research.

In all cases, the investigators had excellent university affiliations, mostly in California. Most studies were conducted with some form of funding, often federal grants.  A quick check of Google would reveal from at least one of the authors on a study, usually more, had federal funding.

  1. Check the conflicts of interest, but don’t expect the declarations to be informative. But be skeptical of what you find. It is also disappointing that a check of conflict of interest statements for these articles would be unlikely to arouse the suspicion that the results that were claimed might have been influenced by financial interests. One cannot readily see that the studies were generally done settings promoting alternative, unproven treatments that would benefit from the publicity generated from the studies. One cannot see that some of the authors have lucrative book contracts and speaking tours that require making claims for dramatic effects of mind-body treatments could not possibly be supported by: transparent reporting of the results of these studies. As we will see, one of the studies was actually conducted in collaboration with Deepak Chopra and with money from his institution. That would definitely raise flags in the skeptic community. But the dubious tie might be missed by patients in their families vulnerable to unwarranted claims and unrealistic expectations of what can be obtained outside of conventional medicine, like chemotherapy, surgery, and pharmaceuticals.

Based on what I found probing these six trials, I can suggest some further rules of thumb. (1) Don’t assume for articles about health effects of alternative treatments that all relevant conflicts of interest are disclosed. Check the setting in which the study was conducted and whether it was in an integrative [complementary and alternative, meaning mostly unproven.] care setting was used for recruiting or running the trial. Not only would this represent potential bias on the part of the authors, it would represent selection bias in recruitment of patients and their responsiveness to placebo effects consistent with the marketing themes of these settings.(2) Google authors and see if they have lucrative pop psychology book contracts, Ted talks, or speaking gigs at positive psychology or complementary and alternative medicine gatherings. None of these lucrative activities are typically expected to be disclosed as conflicts of interest, but all require making strong claims that are not supported by available data. Such rewards are perverse incentives for authors to distort and exaggerate positive findings and to suppress negative findings in peer-reviewed reports of clinical trials. (3) Check and see if known quacks have prepared recruitment videos for the study, informing patients what will be found (Serious, I was tipped off to look and I found that).

  1. Look for the usual suspects. A surprisingly small, tight, interconnected group is generating this research. You could look the authors up on Google or Google Scholar or  browse through my previous blog posts and see what I have said about them. As I will point out in my next blog, one got withering criticism for her claim that drinking carbonated sodas but not sweetened fruit drinks shortened your telomeres so that drinking soda was worse than smoking. My colleagues and I re-analyzed the data of another of the authors. We found contrary to what he claimed, that pursuing meaning, rather than pleasure in your life, affected gene expression related to immune function. We also showed that substituting randomly generated data worked as well as what he got from blood samples in replicating his original results. I don’t think it is ad hominem to point out a history for both of the authors of making implausible claims. It speaks to source credibility.
  1. Check and see if there is a trial registration for a study, but don’t stop there. You can quickly check with PubMed if a report of a randomized trial is registered. Trial registration is intended to ensure that investigators commit themselves to a primary outcome or maybe two and whether that is what they emphasized in their paper. You can then check to see if what is said in the report of the trial fits with what was promised in the protocol. Unfortunately, I could find only one of these was registered. The trial registration was vague on what outcome variables would be assessed and did not mention the outcome emphasized in the published paper (!). The registration also said the sample would be larger than what was reported in the published study. When researchers have difficulty in recruitment, their study is often compromised in other ways. I’ll show how this study was compromised.

Well, it looks like applying these generally useful rules of thumb is not always so easy with these studies. I think the small sample size across all of the studies would be enough to decide this research has yet to yield meaningful results and certainly does not support the claims that are being made.

But readers who are motivated to put in the time of probing deeper come up with strong signs of p-hacking and questionable research practices.

  1. Check the report of the randomized trial and see if you can find any declaration of one or two primary outcomes and a limited number of secondary outcomes. What you will find instead is that the studies always have more outcome variables than patients receiving these interventions. The opportunities for cherry picking positive findings and discarding the rest are huge, especially because it is so hard to assess what data were collected but not reported.
  1. Check and see if you can find tables of unadjusted primary and secondary outcomes. Honest and transparent reporting involves giving readers a look at simple statistics so they can decide if results are meaningful. For instance, if effects on stress and depressive symptoms are claimed, are the results impressive and clinically relevant? Almost in all cases, there is no peeking allowed. Instead, authors provide analyses and statistics with lots of adjustments made. They break lots of rules in doing so, especially with such a small sample. These authors are virtually assured to get results to crow about.

Famously, Joe Simmons and Leif Nelson hilariously published claims that briefly listening to the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” left students a year and a half older younger than if they were assigned to listening to “Kalimba.”  Simmons and Leif Nelson knew this was nonsense, but their intent was to show what researchers can do if they have free reign with how they analyze their data and what they report and  . They revealed the tricks they used, but they were so minor league and amateurish compared to what the authors of these trials consistently did in claiming that yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness modified expression of DNA.

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I go through the six studies. But consider this, if you or a loved one have to make an immediate decision about whether to plunge into the world of woo woo unproven medicine in hopes of  altering DNA expression. I will show the authors of these studies did not get the results they claimed. But who should care if they did? Effects were laughably trivial. As the authors of this review about which I have been complaining noted:

One other problem to consider are the various environmental and lifestyle factors that may change gene expression in similar ways to MBIs [Mind-Body Interventions]. For example, similar differences can be observed when analyzing gene expression from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) after exercise. Although at first there is an increase in the expression of pro-inflammatory genes due to regeneration of muscles after exercise, the long-term effects show a decrease in the expression of pro-inflammatory genes (55). In fact, 44% of interventions in this systematic review included a physical component, thus making it very difficult, if not impossible, to discern between the effects of MBIs from the effects of exercise. Similarly, food can contribute to inflammation. Diets rich in saturated fats are associated with pro-inflammatory gene expression profile, which is commonly observed in obese people (56). On the other hand, consuming some foods might reduce inflammatory gene expression, e.g., drinking 1 l of blueberry and grape juice daily for 4 weeks changes the expression of the genes related to apoptosis, immune response, cell adhesion, and lipid metabolism (57). Similarly, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, and unsaturated fats is associated with anti-inflammatory gene profile, while the opposite has been found for Western diet consisting of saturated fats, sugars, and refined food products (58). Similar changes have been observed in older adults after just one Mediterranean diet meal (59) or in healthy adults after consuming 250 ml of red wine (60) or 50 ml of olive oil (61). However, in spite of this literature, only two of the studies we reviewed tested if the MBIs had any influence on lifestyle (e.g., sleep, diet, and exercise) that may have explained gene expression changes.

How about taking tango lessons instead? You would at least learn dance steps, get exercise, and decrease any social isolation. And so what if there were more benefits than taking up these other activities?

 

 

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.