Excellent reporting by the UK’s Observer newspaper last weekend has brought fresh attention to an academic scandal involving Positive Psychology and claims by distinguished scholars that they can calculate the “mathematics of happiness.”
The scandal first surfaced last July in the pages of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association, and generated a couple of media reports at the time, but otherwise died down following modest concessions by one of the authors concerned, who happens to be an associate editor of the journal.
But further reporting on the controversy last weekend revealed much more than academic incompetence and deception. It also exposed how questionable claims that sound impressive and seem scientific—and can generate millions of dollars in grants—can circulate more or less unchallenged in academia for years; how peer-review can flounder because of carelessness, lack of competence, or self-interest on the part of the reviewers; how subfields can turn inward and become self-protective; and why it often takes a complete outsider, with few or no ties to the subfield and nothing to lose professionally, to stop the rot and expose the fraud.
In this particular case, an article published by American Psychologist in 2005 claimed to be able to calculate the precise tipping-point distinguishing those who “flourish” in life from those who “flounder.” It even asserted that the ratio could be specified to four decimal places. If one’s ratio was greater than 2.9013 positive emotions to 1 negative emotion, then one was flourishing. It all looked as simple as that. As Andrew Anthony noted caustically in The Observer last Sunday, “The mysteries of love, happiness, fulfilment, success, disappointment, heartache, failure, experience, random luck, environment, culture, gender, genes, and all the other myriad ingredients that make up a human life could be reduced to the figure of 2.9013.”
The article in question, “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,” co-authored by Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada, respectively a distinguished psychologist at the University of North Carolina and a business consultant, went on to be cited more than 350 times in other academic journals. “Aside from one partially critical paper,” Anthony notes, “no one had seriously questioned its validity.”
The only problem with the ratio? It amounts to complete hogwash. Losada had plucked it from an earlier article of his on mathematical modeling, without adding data or variables. It was completely self-referring. There was thus no way for readers of American Psychologist to contest its accuracy.
Dazzled by the ratio's scientific-seeming implications, Fredrickson, whom Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, earlier dubbed “the genius of the positive psychology movement” and who has occasionally blogged for Psychology Today, took her and Losada’s research and turned it into a mass-audience book. The result, Positivity, carried a subtitle that doubtless now makes her cringe: “Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life.”
Puzzled by the absence of data explaining the equation and questioning the apparent simplicity of the happiness ratio, Nick Brown, a part-time psychology student in his fifties studying at the University of East London, investigated further and found that the scientific-sounding ratio came apart in his hands. Losada had in effect made it up. And Fredrickson, clearly impressed by the math but unable to challenge or reproduce it herself, not only adopted it wholesale but built an influential article and book around it.
The story of how Brown exposed such influential nonsense—along with the help of psychologist Harris Friedman and mathematician and physicist Alan Sokal, himself infamous for publishing a hoax essay exposing falsehoods in cultural studies approaches to science—has a fascinating, car-crash quality to it. It also reminds us of the cogency of Barbara Ehrenreich's still-relevant book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009). Losada has yet to respond publicly to the take-down. Fredrickson now concedes that the math is worthless, but continues to insist, in a face-saving move, that a happiness ratio exists even if she can’t quite pinpoint it herself. That in turn has generated assurances of further critiques by Brown, Sokal, and Friedman* that are bound to keep Positive Psychology in the news, if for reasons it doubtless would prefer to ignore.
* Update: November 25, 2014: Those critiques have since been published in American Psychologist. See "The persistence of wishful thinking: Response to 'Updated thinking on positivity ratios'" (Brown, Sokal, and Friedman) and "Positive psychology and romantic scientism: Reply to comments on Brown, Sokal, and Friedman" (2013).