The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Kool-Aid Psychology

published January 2010
How optimism trumped realism in the positive-psychology movement
magazine cover

I am, by nature, an optimist. I almost always think things will turn out well, and even when they break I am confident that I can fix them. My optimism, however, has not always served me well. Twice I have been hit by cars while cycling— full-on, through-the-windshield impacts that were entirely the result of my blissful attitude that the street corners I had successfully negotiated hundreds of times before would not suddenly materialize an automobile in my path. Such high-impact, unpredictable and rare events are what author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans.” Given enough time, no upward sloping trend line is immune from dramatic collapse.

A bike crash as a black swan is, in fact, an apt metaphor for what the investigative journalist and natural-born skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich believes happened to America as a result of the positive-thinking movement. In her engaging and tightly reasoned book Bright-Sided (order on DVD Ehrenreich’s lecture at Caltech), she shows how the positive-psychology movement was born in the halcyon days of the 1990s when the economy was soaring, housing prices were skyrocketing, and positive-thinking gurus were cashing in on the motivation business. Academic psychologists, armed with a veneer of scientific jargon, wanted in on the action.

The shallow bafflegab of such positive-thinking pioneers as Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952) and Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich, 1960) or the “prosperity gospel” preachings of such contemporary “pastorpreneurs” as Frederick “Reverend Ike” Eikerenkoetter, Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen are predictably data-light and anecdote-heavy. But one expects better of respected experimental psychologists such as Martin E. P. Seligman, who almost singlehandedly launched the positive-psychology movement in academia that is, according to the Positive Psychology Center website, “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Ehrenreich systematically deconstructs—and then demolishes—what little science there is behind the positive psychology movement and the allegedly salubrious effects of positive thinking. Evidence is thin. Statistical significance levels are narrow. What few robust findings there are often prove to be either nonreplicable or contradicted by later research. And correlations (between, say, happiness and health) are not causations. Seligman and his colleagues drank the positive-thinking Kool-Aid, Ehrenreich shows, but she provides the antidote.

Take Seligman’s “happiness equation” (physics envy lives!): H = S + C + V (Happiness = your Set range + the Circumstances of your life + the factors under your Voluntary control). As Ehrenreich notes, “if you’re going to add these things up you will have to have the same units [of measurement] for H (happy thoughts per day?) as for V, S, and C.” When she confronted Seligman with this problem in an interview, “his face twisted into a scowl, and he told me that I didn’t understand ‘beta weighting’ and should go home and Google it.” She did, “finding that ‘beta weights’ are the coefficients of the ‘predictors’ in a regression equation used to find statistical correlations between variables. But Seligman had presented his formula as an ordinary equation, like E = mc2, not as an oversimplified regression analysis, leaving himself open to literal-minded questions like: How do we know H is a simple sum of the variables, rather than some more complicated relationship, possibly involving ‘second order’ effects such as CV, or C times V?” We don’t know, thereby rendering the equation nothing more than a slogan gussied up in math.

Isn’t positive thinking better than negative thinking? All other things being equal, sure, but the alternative to being either an optimist or a pessimist is to be a realist. “Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things ‘as they are,’ or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions,” Ehrenreich concludes. “What we call the Enlightenment and hold on to only tenuously, by our fingernails, is the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own inner algorithms of cause and effect, probability and chance, without any regard for human feelings.”

Feelings matter, of course, but the first principle of skepticism is not to fool ourselves, and feelings—both positive and negative—too often trump reason. In the end, reality must take precedence over fantasy, regardless of how it makes us feel.

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12 Comments to “Kool-Aid Psychology”

  1. Don Powers Says:

    I am a little annoyed by the treatment of Seligman and the “equation” H= S+C+V. When I read it my immediate understanding was that Happiness is a combination of the three other parts. Taking the “equation” as seriously as 12= 1+2+9 is weird. None of the components of this “equation” can be described with great precision therefore H = S+C+V just is a general idea.
    I enjoyed her book “Bright Sided”.

  2. Karen Tallant Says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to some of the problems of the positive psychology movement. As a bookseller, I have seen others have blindly waltz into this “thinking-will-make-it-so” fairyland, and have often wondered what happens when these misguided individuals are finally confronted with a world not made to their own specifications. As for Seligman’s “equation”, any reasonably intelligent human being should be insulted by his treatment of mathematics and his attempt to simplify human experience.

  3. John Says:

    If Seligman had been a bit better mathematician he would have written: H = H(S,C,V) Which means, in words, Happiness is a function of Set range, Circumstances & Voluntarily controlled factors. But it doesn’t state how each term contributes to happiness.

    Not only would this be more rigorous (ie. ‘right’ in a math sense) it would explain why Seligman wasn’t ‘scooped’ by ancient philosophers. If the actual contributions of S,C & V to happiness are highly complex and non-linear and multi-variate non-linear functions this relationship would be MUCH harder to unravel than a linear combination.

  4. Travis Says:

    I think this is a misreading or oversimplification of Seligman and the positive psychology movement, although I’ve not read deeply in that movement. While optimism and positive thinking are a part of it, it is not the type of Pollyanna-ish positivity that this article seems to imply.

    Positive thinking, to a psychologist, is more like ‘balanced thinking’, unencumbered by excessive negative focus or negative bias. It is intendended to reflect reality, without the morale-destroying negative filtering of events that characterizes much depressive and anxious thinking. Simply ‘thinking positively’ is not sufficient to bring success or happiness, or cure disease – at least, I’ve not heard people like Seligman claim so.

    The insight of the Positive Psychology movement is simply this: “Why should psychology only study pathology? Why not also give attention to human strengths and virtues, the attributes and behaviors that allow for success and relative contentment or happiness?”

    I don’t think Seligman is nearly as vacuous as this article makes him sound, and Positive Psychology is not at all synonymous with blind optimism or ‘the power of positive thinking’ or any other empty sloganeering self-help movement.


  5. Chris Benson Says:

    I have not read Ehrenreich’s book (yet – your review has piqued my interest!), but it sounds to me like she came to this debate with a chip on her shoulder. Picking on that “happiness equation” as if it were a mathematical treatise seems equivalent to beating up someone for saying that survival,S=f+s+c where f=food, s=shelter, and c=clothing.

    I agree that realism trumps both optimism and pessimism hands down, but given and either/or, I try to look on the “Bright Side.”

  6. Sarah Ross Says:

    Seligman’s equation IS regression-based, with each of the variables predicting happiness. There would be no need for each of the variables to be on the same scale. As Seligman stated, this obviously shows a misunderstanding of regression equations.

  7. mike Duquette Says:

    I havent read the books mentioned here but I would like to point out the ‘Secret’ books that are out are huge sellers and are causing people to believe suppernatural events can be caused by positive thinking. I think this is a dangerous idea and needs to be put in its place of absurdities.

  8. Henry James Says:

    Studying people who are successful at life and love seems rational to me because emulating their behavior could bring similar results. “Understanding,” “faith” and “belief” are fairly impotent words compared to “Prediction.” Prediction, based on past events, is what winnows the wheat from the chaff in science (and life) and Positive Psychology is what I have used to: Never pay interest on a credit card carried for 38 years, never have children I didn’t want, never suffer “addictions” after decades of narcotic use, live successfully with a partner for 37 years, manage our small business for 25 years, acquire undergrad and grad Behavioral Psych degrees, conduct well rated training programs, live with MS, etc. – all using predictive skills based on Positive Psychology. It helped engineer these outcomes which were then executed with human behavioral principles.

    My poor Catholic mother used to praise Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking when I was a kid, but I read him and thought he was ridiculous because he didn’t have any real methodology or convincing data. I couldn’t have expressed this very clearly at age 12 but I could tell Norman’s book didn’t predict anything real and was bullshit. Positive Psychology, on the other hand, seems very data based in comparison.

    I wish our educational system taught what might be called Positive Psychology Skills like Empathic Listening, Problem Solving (Individual & Group,) Relative Risk & Reward Assessment, as well as Logic and Philosophy, at every level. Kids would be much better equipped to communicate successfully and make decisions confidently than with the false pride of “Self Esteem” and the “Good vs. Evil” or “Disease Models” with which they are currently indoctrinated.

    Dr. Shermer, please take a second look and make sure you’re targeting the right animal. “Positive Psychology” doesn’t look like “Positive Thinking” to me.

  9. Michael Monterey Says:

    I think the main benefit of the article is zeroing in on the fallout and residue of “pop” psychology absorbed by the masses of nonprofessionals and dilletantes. Now, let me qualify that by adding that any professional psychotherapist or cosmologist who lacks thorough grounding in the essence of Tantric Buddhist psychology and ontology is woefully unprepared for serious problem solving in our ecocidally maniacal world. Kool Aid psychology certainly helped derail much of the great potential of the humanistic psycholgy movement for lay society, especially the New Age market segment and predatory Randian capitalists. We could quibble about the exact relevance and nuances, but Shermer’s insights and honesty breathe much needed fresh air into this increasingly polluted, imbalanced psychophysical field.

  10. Richard Parton Says:

    I find the article fairly poorly informed. The key thing is that ‘positive thinking’ and ‘positive psychology’ are conflated. This is a common misunderstanding, and I think understandable, though perhaps not in a publication such as the Scientific American. ‘Positive Psychology’, as a branch of psychology, is the study “the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive”, as the article correctly cites. The word ‘Positive’ in this context simply means that it is not the study of pathology (as Travis put it), which has primarily been the focus of the psychology of the past half century. It is true that especially ten or so years ago, researchers we would now call ‘positive psychologists’ (at the time they would not necessarily have recognized the term) did associate ‘positive thinking’ with happiness. There are numerous pieces of research showing pretty strong correlation with ‘happiness’ – Hills & Argyle in 2001 found a correlation of 0.75, which is pretty strong, contrary to the above article’s assertion the link is poor or poorly substantiated. There are plenty of other pieces of research which support this, published in good peer-reviewed journals. More recent work though, including specifically by Seligman, have shed more light on this link, and it is now accepted that simply ‘trying to think positively’ can be unhelpful, in fact this is closely tied to the ‘H=S+C+V’ formula. Personally I think he is unfairly criticized in the article, although I can sympathise with the argument that reducing happiness to what appears to be a simple formula can be misleading, although this is especially the case when it is taken out of context. In the publications of Seligman’s where I have seen this formula used it is more adequately explained as a way of trying to sum up the three domains or groupings which do indeed ‘add up’ to make 100% of the factors that are known to correlate with and predict the ‘happiness score’ you would give in a robust measure of happiness – which also is relatively well defined, contrary to what the article above suggests (see: – this is assuming you can accept the construct ‘subjective well-being’ as happiness, there is ongoing debate about this). Roughly: ‘S’is your personality, genetic factors etc, aka your ‘set range’ and contributes around 50%, ‘C’ is the parts of your environment and living conditions, aka your ‘circumstances’ which affect your happiness but whose affect you are not at liberty to alter, contribute circa 10%. The final portion is ‘V’ what is in your ‘voluntary’ control, around 40% – so in fact they do ‘add’, and Seligman has published fairly robust papers showing why it is formulated in this way. This is also why he referred Ehrenreich to beta weighting, though personally I think it would have been more constructive to describe what he meant.
    Anyway to return to the point, various pieces of research, including Seligman’s, show that (of course!) simply asking someone to ‘think positively’ is neither an effective therapeutic approach, and indeed there is a limit to which we can actually affect this (some of our ‘optimisim’ is bound up in the ‘involuntary’ areas of Seligmans formula, i.e. we aren’t at liberty to actually change it). Many positive pyschologists point out that ‘positive thinking’ may even be counter-productive, this can be summed up by a quote from Positive Psychologist Ed Diener that goes somewhere along the lines of ‘it might not be desirable for a person to be too optimistic, people may be better off when they are a mix of optimism and pessimism’ (sorry, I don’t have the exact reference to hand).
    Finally I should say that although I haven’t read Ehrenreich’s book, I can very much sympathise with what sounds like pretty poor and outmoded practice, I hope that that clinical practice catches up with the evidence and best-practice that already exists sooner rather than later!
    In conclusion I find the article misleading and poorly informed.

  11. PR Miller Says:

    H = S + C + V (Happiness = your Set range + the Circumstances of your life + the factors under your Voluntary control) makes as much sense as F = A + O + G (Fruit = Apple + Orange + Grape). The fact that some people actually buy this drivel and think that reading it is going to make them happier is a good indication of: A. How dumb some people are and B. How desperate people are to feel like they have control of their own happiness.
    Everybody wants to be happy, but happiness for many is very simply reaching a point in their life where they no longer have to have concerns and worries. I say “Good luck with that.”

  12. Tom Adams Says:

    Seligman says that his optimism techniques should be used when the risk is small and the payoff big, so you cycling through the intersection technique obviously does not apply.

    Seligman points out so-called realist are not as persistent as optimists in situations where success is unlikely but the risk is small and the payoff from success is big. So the optimist optimize their success better than the so-called realist.

    These are very fundamental points in Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism”. If you have read his stuff how could you have missed this?

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