Dalai+Lama+Speaks+Sydney+C9bRyEeThN3lAfter recent discoveries of mistakes in research by Barbara Fredrickson (see here and here) some people have criticized positive psychology. James Coyne, a professor and clinical psychologist working in Groningen and Pennsylvania, is one of its fiercest critics. He not only argues that positive psychology’s message is too simple (see here) but, as his tweets show, he also thinks 1) that positive psychology is dogmatic (and that the whole idea behind PP is based on a unjustified contrast with the rest of (negative?) psychology, 2) that positive psychology has a guru culture (in which, as he implies, Martin Seligman is the pope of positive psychology), and 3) that positive psychology is too much driven by commercial motives (many scientists within positive psychology would be more interested in selling books and training programs than in science). Coyne says: Positive psychology is applied ideology, not science (source). 


My idea about this: what appeals least to me in Coyne’s criticism is that he implies (and here and there also explicitly asserts) that some positive psychologies have bad intentions. Such assertions seem to me to be doubtful, hard to prove and useless. Other parts of his criticism, I agree with. Years ago, when I was a member Friends of PP mailing list, I frequently felt that there was some dogmatism, defensiveness and one-sidedness. Also, I am critical about how positive psychology has developed (briefly: too much emphasis on strengths and happiness, see here). What I don’t think is that most individuals within positive psychology have bad intentions or are mainly ideologically or commercially driven. I think there is another main explanation for how positive psychology has developed. That explanation refers to a mechanism of group polarization which happens as soon as people unite around a certain way of thinking.


Isolation leads to radicalization: Social psychologist David Meyers has explained this mechanism as follows: Interaction in groups of kindred spirits tends to amplify people’s initial inclinations. In isolation from moderating influences, group interaction becomes a social amplifier (see here). Due to this, people who self-segregate around certain ideas or values may radicalize more easily.


The solution-focused approach: What is said here about positive psychology is also relevant for other ways of thinking and working. The solution-focused approach is no exception. Within the field of solution-focused therapy and coaching people also form professional communities which are prone to the same type of social amplification of initial ideas and values. Within such communities critical thinking can become scarce, a pressure to conform can emerge, selective attention to evidence can happen, and  glorification of people can occur.  It is understandable that outsiders can sometimes get the feeling of and ideologically driven community or even a sect (someone once literally said this to me). That seems unhealthy to me.


What can be done?  Radicalization by self-segregation is undesirable. Essential for knowledge development are things like continued critical thinking, keeping on asking questions, changing one’s beliefs in accordance with new evidence, going against the glorification of individuals, keeping on challenging authority figures, and going against pressure to conform. Whether existing professional communities can manage to do this, I don’t know. Abolishing or fundamentally changing such groups may also help. Since the year 2000, positive psychology has not only manifested itself as an approach but also as a community. The latter has perhaps been a useful stepping stone in order to get a change in psychology going. But perhaps it is time for positive psychologists to drop the adjective ‘positive’ and start calling themselves just psychologists again. For solution-focused professionals the situation is comparable. The further development of the approach is served by critical questions, criticism, not following guru’s, challenging authority opinions, and not let commercial considerations make you hold on to outdated ideas.


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