Teleology is theology. ~ Miguel de Unamuno
For nearly two decades Positive Psychology has churned along as a movement to reform, nay revolutionize, psychological science and practice. The movement is indeed a “movement” rather than a coherent set of theories or a principled framework. Its leading advocates loosely refer to foci on the positive for the sake of well-being and happiness of societies and their human members. Positive psychology is a movement in the sociological sense because it is organized around a charismatic leader, a person who appears to own and direct activity, outlook, and the definition of the movement itself. In his publications and lectures, Professor Seligman presents himself as a legendary, visionary figure, a prophet ahead of his time who has saved psychology from itself and who has seen the path to the good life.
I once took the trouble to study one of his books, only to find the author to be conflicted and incoherent (Krueger, 2012). One clear theme in Seligman’s then-autobiography was that it was he who had the say-so of what positive psychology was. To keep this claim alive, he redefined the movement several times lest he be overtaken my more productive researchers. Recently, we have seen another incarnation of positive psychology taking shape: Prospection. Seligman and colleagues published a book and went on tour. A student of mine, Thomas Mairunteregger, had occasion to attend a keystone event in Vienna, observe the dramaturgy, and contemplate its meaning. Here is his report.
Mairunteregger meets Martin's Seligman Machine
Sociologist George Ritzer (1996) coined the term The McDonaldization of Society to describe the increasingly efficient, quantified, predictable, and controlled transactions of modern life. I want to borrow and broaden Mr. Ritzer's term to include two additional things McDonald’s does so well: luring people in by advertising images of irresistible burgers only to then selling something that requires a lot of imagination if it is to be recognized as the advertised product. In my opinion, the concept of McDonaldization describes some recent developments in psychology: some scientist turn hucksters, making extravagant and seductive claims without sufficient corroborative evidence. Clients and consumers are drawn in and pay the price, often without realizing that they have been had.
In July of 2016, I worked for The Seligman Europe Tour 2016 and I will use the experience to illustrate what McDonaldization can look like. With 20 speakers, the two-city event (Hamburg and Vienna) was quite a show, reaching a total paying audience of about 600 professional psychologists. The grand finale was the Future Day in Vienna (€200 a pop). It was billed to unveil the next paradigm shift in psychology. Martin Seligman and Roy Baumeister took the stage to announce a new deal for psychological science and practice. Mr. Seligman described his views on the paradigm-shifting concept of prospection, followed by Peter Railton, who gave a philosophical account of the connection between desire and motivation and Chandra Sripada, who talked about neurological findings regarding on the default mode network, a circuit active during psychological rest and associated with mind wandering and daydreaming. Mr. Baumeister’s big message was that we have free will and that some psychologists (e.g., Baumeister & Seligman) are finally standing up and tell us that we do.
“Action is not driven by the past, but pulled by the future,” Seligman intoned, repeating a claim presented earlier in an article (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister & Sripada, 2013). Back then, the idea had a critical reception (e.g., Krueger, 2013). Fukukura, Helzer and Ferguson (2013), for example, noted that the notion of prospection was neither new nor compelling. Seligman and colleagues responded at the time (Sripada, Railton, Baumeister & Seligman, 2013), but no longer seem concerned. In a recent book with the sweeping title Homo Prospectus, they (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2016) are more concerned with selling ideas than with weighing the evidence. During Future Day, they incidentally contradicted some of their own replies to their critics. Seligman for instance complained that “modern cognitive psychology is just as deterministic as behaviorism and psychoanalysis,” whereas in their reply to Fukukuma et al. (2013), he proclaimed they were “agnostic on this question“ (Sripada et al, 2013, p. 152). Baumeister spent the better part of his talk arguing against determinism (see below). In Vienna, there was no agnosticism.
Future Day started with Mr. Seligman telling the story of how the new prospective movement came about (unless noted otherwise, the quote come to the Vienna lectures). When first promoting positive psychology (as, for example, in a TED talk) Seligman claimed that psychology was "not good enough" because it was too focused on the negative aspects of human experience (e.g., psychopathology, irrationality, or immorality). Since then "not being good enough" has grown into "something was deeply wrong." As Seligman sees it, psychology primarily focuses on the past and the present while neglecting the future and the processes involved in prospection.
Seligman is practiced in the art of the paradigm shift by assertion. A similar transition can be seen from his Authentic Happiness theory (Seligman, 2002) to the PERMA theory of flourishing (Seligman, 2011). PERMA is an acronym referring to the five domains positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment, which, according to Seligman, are the keys to happiness and well-being. There is nothing wrong with changing and refining a theory, but one might want to take note when each time the most recent version of a theory is said to hold the key to “realize your potential for lasting fulfillment.” This was the tagline of Authentic Happiness. I find this problematic because it shows that we are entering the promised land of self-help books. Where do you go from lasting fulfillment? Apparently to a “visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being.” This was the tagline for Flourish, the follow-up book to Authentic Happiness. Were all those who felt truly and everlastingly fulfilled after assimilating the lessons of Authentic Happiness tragically mistaken? Did they get it all wrong? Was there experience, if it was good, just the feel-good version of the placebo effect?
There is a pattern, much like what one sees in detergent commercials. The promise that "your sheets will be whiter than white” will in time be supplanted by an “all new formula that yields a formerly unimaginable degree of whiteness." In positive psychology, the circle closes with the rise of a new prospection theory; showing once again that we had got it all wrong. So what is new and improved here?
Imposed Free Will
Seligman stated, in a voice heavy with meaning, that “free will makes no sense in psychology as usual but within prospective psychology it is foundational. It must be studied.” Baumeister then stepped up to show the audience how free will fits into the new theory.
Baumeister dismissed a deterministic view of the world, calling it an "unworkable basis for psychological science [and] for living daily life" because “assuming possible futures violates determinism.” Actually, it does not. As agents in an (from our perspective) uncertain world we try to think of possible futures to prepare for what may lie ahead. But all the futures we can imagine may be flawed. All we can do is come up with as close as possible approximations to the one version that will actually happen. The challenge is not determinism; it's complexity. The moment the future turns into the present, all uncertainty and all possible different outcomes are gone. The problem lies on the side of the observer who needs to detect all the variables that led to this specific result; which, admittedly, is hard to do, especially in advance. As Niels Bohr put it, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” But the fact that we cannot see the future but can imagine different versions of it does not violate determinism. One might argue that you can decide which version of the future you want to pursue and to help come true and that this constitutes the act of free will. The problem is that 1) the versions of the future you came up with, 2) the decision of which to choose to pursue, and 3) how you want to pursue it were caused (determined) by a multitude of factors lying in the past (e.g., your genetic makeup and your experiences). Where does the free part come in?
Baumeister noted that humans face more complex choices than do other species of animal. While many non-humans also make choices, humans have free will because their tasks are more complex. Why should this be so? How does complexity entail freedom? Today’s smartphones are more complex than their single-function predecessors, and we may face more uncertainty dealing with them, but the engineering of the device has not left the constraints of necessity. When we talk about freedom, we need to be able to see where necessity ends and freedom begins. Baumeister fails to provide a criterion. He merely hints that “Some acts are freer than others.” To say that humans have some freedom whereas nonhuman animals have none illuminates little. When Baumeister asserts that “We can understand free will as being what is special and different about human choosing,” he finesses the question of which human choices are free and how they are free. Where is the tipping point at which human choice becomes so complex that we must conclude that it is free – and be correct in this conclusion? The theory, if it is to have any punch, must also explain how the children of unfree hominids transitioned into freedom.
Baumeister spins his story of freedom in moral terms. Free will, he asserts, is “responsible autonomy.” If we are the only species to have developed culture and society, than free will has evolved to make this so. People need to consciously and freely decide not to act on their animal impulses for society to function. Says Baumeister: “Free will is for following rules.” Pause for a moment to savor this claim – and note its implications. First, depending on personality, upbringing, social status, etc. not everyone is equally inclined or able to follow society’s rules. People with low anxiety levels might fear the sanctions for committing a crime to a lesser extent and, therefore be more likely to commit a crime (Ellis, 2005). Are these individuals less free in their decisions than people, whose anxiety levels keep them in check? Second, society’s rules and morals are (more or less) internalized by its members. These internalizations shape people's views – and, therefore, their actions – without them having to consciously think about those rules. Third, the rules people are supposed to follow depend on the specific culture or society they live in. According to Baumeister's logic, if you are living in a society in which homosexuality or its associated behaviors are deemed immoral and deserving of punishment, would it then be considered an expression of free will if a homosexual represses all those feelings and needs and decides to have relationships only with people of the opposite sex or to have no relationship at all? This seems like an oppressive kind of freedom and it reminds me of a quote from the late comedian Bill Hicks: “You are free; to do as we tell you.”
Baumeister was rather describing freedom of choice, which is not the same as free will (Bargh, 2008). With the exception of his rejection of determinism, Baumeister didn’t talk about the connection between his concept of free will and prospection and I felt that this topic was shoehorned in for its provocative appeal. The only substantial mention of the future came at the end of the presentation when he briefly mentioned research showing that people think about the future about a third of the time (Seligman rendered this proportion as “more than half”) and about how they feel differently about the future as it recedes into the distance; happiness goes down while feelings of anxiety, stress but also meaningfulness increase.
After this underwhelming experience, Seligman took up two topics with regard to prospection: depression and creativity. He started with Aaron Beck’s cognitive triad, which consists of negative thoughts about the self, the world, and the future. In Seligman’s view, negative future prospections are the most important leg of the triad. Instead of presenting new research evidence, he asked the audience to do research on it. He seemed content with a disturbing thought experiment: If a stranger splashed your face with acid the mere act ought not make you depressed since it was not your doing. The only thing that matters, he said, is the implication for the future (i.e., living with a disfigured face). Here Seligman seems to ignore the other legs of Beck’s triad. Regardless of whether it was the person’s own fault, finding oneself with a disfigured face can surely alter one’s view of the world. The victim might ask in what kind of cruel world such things can happen and the religiously inclined might question God’s benevolence. To state that these kinds of thoughts are irrelevant to the experience of depression is theoretically and empirically implausible, and it is arguably callous.
Seligman continued with the complaint that, while “good cognitive behavioral therapists” already work on negative future prospections, it is neither taught this way nor is it part of most therapists’ work. Even if this might be true for psychoanalytical and other approaches, since Seligman was specifically talking about cognitive behavioral therapy, this statement left me wondering about the novelty of Seligman’s proposal (as new and revolutionary were the themes of the show). After all, negative prospections have been one third of Beck’s Cognitive Triad since 1976 and the behavioral part in cognitive behavioral therapy tries to equip patients with new behavioral strategies to face challenging situations, so it is necessarily future oriented.
There have been several attempts, especially in positive psychology, Seligman’s former brainchild, to develop techniques to boost feelings of hope. However, these techniques have been found to be largely ineffectual in raising people’s experience of hope, let alone mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or psychological distress (Weis & Speridakos, 2011). But Seligman came equipped with new ideas, mentioned briefly without elaboration, such as Finding your strengths and meaning in life, Time Projection, Anticipatory Savoring, Positive Psychotherapy, and a new version of Seligman’s Three Good Things exercise. He briefly elaborated the last one. The original version of this exercise asks people to write down three positive things that happened to them during the day. In the new version, people write down three good things that they want to happen to them tomorrow and how they think they might happen. I see two issues with this. First, there is a great deal of uncertainty and the risk of getting disappointed as one cannot be sure that the things written down will actually happen. I am not sure what the improvement of this twist might be; all it does is give people potentially more stuff to cope with. Second, since Seligman never published a peer-reviewed study on the efficacy of the original exercise (Whippman, 2016) and as far as I know, no one else has. We don’t know if there is empirical support for this version of his exercise.
Seligman then introduced two additional speakers, an Austrian therapist and one of Seligman’s co-authors, to shed more light on depression and what to do about it. From the audience’s standpoint, this move was perplexing. Would you pay top dollar to see the Rolling Stones only to find a local amateur band get on stage at half-time? While this might be a nice gesture to the local band, the audience will have cause to feel short-changed.
The first speaker talked about various forms of therapy with prospective elements. His remarks made it clear that therapists have been using prospective techniques for decades. Did Mr. Seligman not realize that this history nullifies the claim that a prospective revolution is at hand? No one in the audience got up to note the contradiction. Were we all prospectively thinking we might be ridiculed for stating the obvious?
When Seligman returned to the stage, he turned to creativity and aging. He stated that in contrast to science and folk wisdom, he believes that creativity can remain high in old age. During the course of his life he has met eminent psychologists such as Aaron Beck, Donald Broadbent, or Jerry Bruner, who told him they were at their creative best during their sixties. Seligman, now a septuagenarian, no longer regards this belief as “a benign illusion.”
What deteriorates, as people get older, are conduction speed, memory, stamina, energy, and originality. Seligman believes there has to be a compensation. Creativity fits the bill. Seligman discerns two elements: originality and “a sense of the audience,” a kind of knowledge of what the audience expects. The compensation for all that is getting slower and less flexible are four things that tend to grow as you get older: general knowledge, specific knowledge, diverse experience and shortcuts/heuristics (for instance, when you know what parts of a scientific paper you can skim to get to the main information more quickly).
What Seligman is describing here – without calling it by name – is the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligence. This is an old idea (Cattell, 1963), the age differences in fluid and crystallized intelligence are well known (Horn & Catell, 1967), and the associations between these concepts and creativity appear to be the inverse of what Seligman claims according to recent research (Bergland, 2013). It is a meager harvest to settle for the suggestion ‘Look brightly into the future, not all of your systems are breaking down.’
Was that it?
By the end of the session, I was baffled but intrigued. The audience seemed in awe of what they had experienced. When I asked some about their thoughts, I heard expressions such as “so inspiring”, “mind blowing,” or “absolutely amazing.” For my part, I couldn’t replicate these sentiments. Throughout the event, I was waiting for the Big Bang of revelation, but it never came. Why not? Wasn’t the event billed as the unveiling of a new frontier in research and therapy that would change the psychological world forever? Instead, watching the presenters and the audience’s response, I felt as if I was trapped in a warped world of crowd psychology. The crowd eagerly submitted to the charismatic leader without a hint of critical reflection. There were over 300 trained psychologists, therapists, and clinicians in the room, but none managed even a few hard questions. No one asked why this was not just old wine in new bottles. What happened here?
This question brings me back to the creeping McDonaldization of Psychology. Advertising, fame, and rhetoric are powerful tools of persuasion and they can be used to get people to consume pabulum, and other junk that feels good when ingested but that will ruin your health. I submit that the same tools were being used here. Beginning with the promotion of the talk as the next big thing in psychology, to the illustrious speakers and their prophetic rhetoric, down to subtleties like the thoughtful, affirmative, and even surprised looks the speakers bestowed on one another on stage. In good Le Bonian tradition, Seligman and Co. worked hard to draw the audience into an ad hoc psychological ingroup, a brother- and sisterhood of the select few who have seen the future of psychology and personal happiness. The Seligman Europe Tour 2016 was rather a book tour, a tour, in which customers paid for the privilege of receiving the commercial advertisement. Seligman and friends made money. The great man himself commanded a fee of $30.000 for the Future Day plus expenses, in addition to selling books. Not a mean feat to get people to accept this – and cheerfully so.
Looking to the future, we anticipate converts to prospectivism to go out trying untested methods on an unsuspecting clientele. Some methods might work, but we already knew that before the prospectors came along. As the old saying goes, ‘What is true about these theories is not new; and what is new about these theories is not true” [attributed to Hermann Ebbinghaus].
Let's use our remnants of free will to be vigilant. That would be the right thing to do.
Bargh, J. A. (2008). Free will is un-natural. In J. Baer, J. C. Kaufman & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are we free? Psychology and free will. New York: Oxford University Press. (pp. 128 – 154).
Bergland, C. (2013). Too much crystallized thinking lowers fluid intelligence. [online blog post] Retrieved May 11th, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201312/too-much-cr...
Cattell, R. B. (1963). Theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence: A critical experiment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 54, 1-22.
Ellis, L. (2005). A theory explaining biological correlates of criminality. European Journal of Criminology, 2, 287-315.
Fukukura, J., Helzer, E. G., & Ferguson, M. J. (2013). Prospection by any other name? A response to Seligman et al. (2013). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 119-141.
Horn, J. L., &, Cattell, R. B. (1967). Age differences in fluid and crystallized intelligence. Acta Psychologica, 26, 107-129.
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Krueger, J. I. (2013). Do what you want. A psychological reconstruction of free will. Psychology Today, online blog post.
Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123, 349-367.
Ritzer, G. (1996). The McDonaldization of Society: An investigation into the changing character of contemporary social life (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
Seligman M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science 8, 119-141.
Sripada, C., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Seligman M. E. (2013). Reply to comments. Perspectives on Psychological Science 8, 151-154.
Weis, R., & Speridakos, E. C. (2011). A meta-analysis of hope enhancement strategies in clinical and community settings. Psychology of Well-Being: Theory, Research and Practice, 1, 5.
Whippman, R. (2016). The pursuit of happiness. Why are we driving ourselves crazy and how can we stop? London: Windmill Books.
Thomas Mairunteregger has a Magister (the Austrian version of a MSc) in Psychology and is currently finishing his MA in sociology at the University of Graz. Through an internship at a private psychology institute, which organizes psychological congresses, seminars and workshops, he stumbled into the Fast-Food world of Positive Psychology.