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Karen Drury

fe3 consulting

Internal Communication advisor, executive coach

Read more about Karen Drury

Testing positive: Evidence and debate around positive psychology


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.

4 Responses

  1. Let’s not get too caught up in a title

    A thought provoking post Karen thank you.

    Although I have seen Harvard’s professor on ‘positive psychology’ Tal Ben-Shahar speak I’ve not read the books and would like to make a more general observation.

    I do think we set ourselves up every time we try to name something. It’s as if in the naming we allow others to put a box around it and try to make sense of it and say what is and isn’t in the box. For me it’s that act of naming that means we lose connection with the original intention and it starts to take on a life of its own. Suddenly the box contains tools that will work for all people in all situations and will save the world – others then spend a lot of time shooting holes in the whole box – not even miracle drugs can stand that scrutiny.

    So my take on positive psychology, granted based on one talk, was – let’s not concentrate on why things don’t work lets concentrate on why they do. Which is certainly the basis of great modeling. I can see many situations where that makes sense and the talk gave many examples of changes in school children based on ignoring what was contributing to them not achieving at school and giving them the conditions to help them achieve.

    I’m sure as with any discipline Positive Psychology has grown beyond what was originally intended. I’m also sure it contains tools that won’t work in certain situations with certain people and others that do. As my personal preference is knowing thru experience rather than research then I’ll just take the things that work for me and hope others do the same – let’s not get too caught up in a title.

  2. references

    I have a list of references – happy to send by email.




  3. Positive psychology

    I am very intrigued by your article. The common sense knowledge is that pos.psych. is the new and fresh psychology. I have come across these two books:

        * Linley, P. Alex, Susan Harrington, Nicola Garcea, eds. 2010. Oxford handbook of positive psychology and work.
        * Biswas-Diener, Robert and Ben Dean. 2007. Positive psychology coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients.

    that purports to hold the evidence based facts about the movement. You are quite strong in your views that there is very slim evidence at best. Could you please direct me at some research that backs your claims so that I may check for myself?

    Many thanks

    Per-Egill Frostmann

    executive coach

Author Profile Picture
Karen Drury

Internal Communication advisor, executive coach

Read more from Karen Drury

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