I recently saw magician Derren Brown on TV talking about mediums. In the light of what – at best – could be called circumstantial evidence that mediums did indeed talk to the dead, he mused that perhaps scientific proof was less important to the bereaved than the comfort which they took from the idea that their loved ones were in contact.
He made the point that people who consult a medium are looking to believe and will search for information which supports their need.
This reminded me of a mindstretch® I’d delivered on positive psychology. I thought I’d made a fairly convincing case that there was considerable doubt – and certainly not enough replicable research results – that positive psychology would deliver on its promises.
In the session, I noted the key criticism was that research in positive psychology was often based on cross-sectional questionnaires and not longitudinal, and therefore it is impossible to claim any cause and effect.
Samples in positive psychology research (along with psychology research as a whole) are often small, increasing the statistical effect size of any findings. This encourages claims that sound more impressive than they really are. Audiences for these questionnaires are often white, middle class and college-educated, which throws doubts on how far the findings can be generalised across audiences.
Emotions in positive psychology research are seen as either black (bad) or white (good) with no view that, for example, anger may be destructive but can create feelings of power and energy, even release. Alongside this simplistic view of emotion are simplistic measurements – and if emotion is measured poorly, say critics, we are left with little real understanding of emotions and aggregated results which have little meaning.
Other critics feel that the whole thrust of the positive psychology movement is unabashedly American, and has a very Western concept of ‘self’. This is not consistent with a movement which claims it is global – the concept of self differs considerably in Eastern and Asian cultures.
I outlined the lack of reflection and self-critique of the movement which has resolutely resisted the calls of other academics to acknowledge these criticisms or even to defend its position. Finally, I spoke of the disturbing sale of positive psychology courses to cancer sufferers as a method of self-cure. This last example has no empirical-evidence base to support it at all and claims that it does have outraged physicians and oncologists.
All in all, I thought, a good list of reasons to view the claims of the movement with caution.
However, a little like those who sought messages from their deceased loved ones, my audience was still intrigued by positive psychology, even while they acknowledged the weight of the evidence.
To the extent that should a consultant come knocking, they would still buy? I asked. There were nods around the table from the same heads which had been shaken at poor research methodology and inadequate sample sizes.
Which got me thinking – are some ideas so intuitively appealing that regardless of the efficacy, we would buy them?
Positive psychology admittedly ticks a lot of boxes – who wouldn’t want to concentrate on the strengths of human beings, rather than their weaknesses? To bury the stick, and not even need so many carrots?
And I found myself remembering that the purchase of any type of consultancy or the advocacy of an idea doesn’t take place in a vacuum; it says something about a leader, about a leadership team, about an individual.
I’ve always known this, of course. In a small consultancy you never forget the mantra of "no-one ever got fired for hiring IBM". But somehow, as I research more and more into ‘new’ ideas which look more and more like some pretty old ones, I think I was of the view that the rational arguments (Does it work? Where’s the proof?) still hold some sway.
But the message of positive psychology is so optimistic, so human, so humane that it seems to bypass the normal rational processes that we imagine drive managerial decision making.
Or it may serve as an illustration that managerial decision making is like all decision making – not rational or calculated and based on careful consideration of the evidence, but influenced by emotion, prejudices, personal history and an awareness of self image. It is the idea, not proof or evidence, which ultimately encourages management to buy.
One final – and more positive – thought might be that it’s heartening to recognise that managers can still hope that there is an alternative management style which embraces rather than confronts the workforce – and that they’re willing to cross their fingers and jump to reach it.
Karen Drury is a partner in fe3 consulting, and she runs mindstretch® events on a regular basis. Her next session will be in Leeds in July. www.corporatemagnetism.com