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As positive psychology is a relatively new field, criticisms have arisen around the extent of its use. This is natural for a burgeoning field as researchers figure out the best uses as well as the limitations of different areas of research. It is crucial to acknowledge these critiques, and the weaknesses and limitations of positive psychology which they highlight, in order for the field to grow even stronger. Let’s dive right in.
Objective Research and Accurate Reporting
One critique focuses on the use of positive psychology as it relates to people with physical diseases, particularly cancer. Coyne and Tennen (2010), make it clear that the aim of their perspective is not to discredit the field of positive psychology, but rather to establish some of the field’s limitations. By knowing its limitations, the field can focus on problems it can work solve.
Coyne and Tennen(2010) focus their critique on four aspects of positive psychology: two of which deal with the effects of positive thinking on cancer outcomes, one discussing the effectiveness of benefit finding, and one critiquing whether the idea that traumatic or life-threatening experiences cause personal growth. These four areas were chosen “because they represent the most distinctive and provocative claims of positive psychology about cancer and because they enjoy considerable popularity” (Coyne and Tenne, 2010).
Most of the fault findings revolve around Coyne’s contention that some in the field of positive psychology are too quick to accept findings without examining them, sometimes picking the significant findings that underscore their argument rather than the conflicting research that shows the opposite.
For example, Coyne and Tennen (2010) point out that most literature does not support the premise that adopting a “fighting spirit” affects cancer outcomes, though some positive psychology papers have only focused on the findings that indicate that is can. Similarly, positive psychological factors like happiness and well-being have mostly been shown to have no effect on cancer growth, though some positive psychologists continue citing the few papers which show otherwise.
Coyne & Tennen then review benefit finding, colloquially known as ‘finding the silver lining’, and whether it has positive effects on cancer outcomes. The authors claim that benefit finding is meant to be a coping mechanism to reduce distress in cancer patients, not a mindset which one should adopt with the expectation of it slowing down the growth of their cancer.
As for personal growth following traumatic experiences, the authors claim that people cannot accurately self-measure how much they have grown over time, and that people tend to attribute growth to traumatic experiences when there is not in fact an objective causal relationship. The authors finish their criticism by calling on positive psychologists to base their research on “scientific evidence rather than wishful thinking”.
Wishful Thinking: Concerns About The Positivity Ratio
Along the lines of wishful thinking, another critique comes in the form of a paper called The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking (Brown et al., 2013). This paper is itself a response to three papers dealing with a “positivity ratio”, and the amount of influence those papers had on the greater field of positive psychology (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005, Losada, 1999, Losada & Heaphy, 2004).
Fredrickson & Losada (2005) findings are summed up by Brown et al. (2013) and claim that “an individual’s degree of flourishing could be predicted by that person’s ratio of positive thoughts to negative thoughts over time… termed the ‘positivity ratio’”.
The authors don’t necessarily take issue with the main idea of this ratio, but rather the way the authors justified the ratio, using a “mathematical model drawn from nonlinear dynamics” to claim a range of positivity ratios which would lead to a person’s flourishing. Brown et al. (2013) particularly disagree with the idea that the minimum positivity ratio is universal for every single person, “independent of all demographic and cultural factors”.
The fundamental case which Brown et al.’s (2013) critique presents, is their concern about the willingness and speed of the authors in accepting and believing they had found a universal truth of the universal experience, using mathematical models which they could neither adequately explain nor justify their use (Brown et al, 2013).
The authors end off by stating that they hope that the future application of mathematical models in psychology are justified either theoretically or empirically, and that more constructive criticism is directed towards positive psychology so that it can continue to correct itself and grow as a field.
Blow a New Tune: Not The Same Old Story
Becker & Marecek (2008) claim that positive psychology is just a retelling of old psychological schools of thought. The authors identify that positive psychology’s ideals are shared with several older movements such as New Thought and the Mental Hygiene Movement. Becker & Marecek (2008) share their scepticism of the leaders of the positive psychology movement who have not considering their new field in the context of these older movements and instead only see the connections with humanistic psychology.
They highlight a common thread behind contemporary positive psychologists and older schools of thought such as New Thought is a belief in American individualism. Claiming that more attention needs to be paid to the societal context around individuals instead of looking at people in a vacuum, as “indeed, there are circumstances, such as those surrounding the founding of America, in which treason and sedition are more honorable than patriotism and loyalty”.
Beyond positive psychologists’ perceived disregard of the historical context of the movement, Becker & Marecek (2008) also comment on their ignorance of decades of teachings from the field of social work. Particularly, social work’s role in understanding the context around an individual. Becker & Marecek (2008) also express that positive psychologists are ignoring teachings of similar fields for the sake of ‘feeling revolutionary’.
Finally, Becker & Marececk (2008) comment on how they believe that leading positive psychologists are not considering the role that privilege plays in flourishing, and have not acknowledged the fact that some may flourish at the expense of others.
While this strong disapproval from Becker & Marececk (2008) may come as a shock to some and a reminder for others it does beg the positive psychology community to consider their position, in terms of the history and previous psychology zeitgeist’s which have come before. To become aware of the unique developments that positive psychology can contribute to society while in turn acknowledging the context which has provided its foundation.
Take Home Message
These critiques of positive psychology focus on ideas that the field needs to be more careful with the way it uses other sciences along with the way it justifies itself, reporting all findings, using accurate measurement and holding objectivity as a core pillar going forward. Practitioners also need to consider the historical context of which positive psychology is just new bud on an aged tree. By considering all the other branches and the well established trunk, positive psychology can grow even stronger into its roots and blossom out into an even more influential movement for the future.
“Feedback, when given well, should not alienate the receiver, but should motivate them to perform better.”
What do you think are Positive Psychology’s weaknesses? What would you say are the most important factors to consider in growing Positive Psychology? We would love to hear your thoughts on this article, leave us a comment in the box below.
About the Author
Joaquín is a writer who was first introduced to psychology through behavioral neuroscience research. This research experience was focused on addiction with the hopes of ultimately helping people change their habits. Joaquín was born in Nicaragua, now lives in the United States, and believes positive psychology teachings can improve people’s lives in both countries. In his free time, he enjoys watching and writing about basketball.
Becker, D., Marecek, J. (2008). Positive Psychology: History In The Remaking?. Theory and Psychology, 18(5), 591-604. doi:10.1177/0959354308093397
Brown, N.J., Sokal, A.D., Friedman, H.L. (2013) The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: the critical positivity ratio. American Psychology, 68(9), 801-813. doi:10.1037/a0032850
Coyne, J.C., Tennen, H. (2010) Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39(1), 16-26. doi:10.1007/s12160-009-9154-z
Fredrickson, B.L., Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(9), 678-686. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678
Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30(9-10), 179-192.
Losada, M., Heaphy, E. (2004) The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765. doi:10.1177/0002764203260208