Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive

Enron collapsed when it did for a reason. The business had the unfortunate luck of rising to power during the bull market of the 90’s. The company subsequently hid its ever mounting debt behind a rising stock price. So long as it looked legit on the outside, and investors continued to invest, it could smooth over massive losses – a strategy that was uniquely tailored to a bull market, but which threatened to crumble should the market falter. The company finally fell when after the internet bubble popped. Underlying its falling stock price was the fact that investors’ heads were no longer in the clouds. The public finally saw the company for what it really was - a sham. During bear markets, investors are more scrupulous and exacting - their minds are screwed on tighter.

Bad times are categorically different from good times. Negative news is more informative than positive news. Positive psychology doesn’t make sense. And this all needs to be taken with stride, as it’s easy to criticize without offering any solutions. In sum, we have more to learn from when things go wrong than when things go right.

This principle can teach us a lot. It’s obvious in some regards, but not in others. The best place to start is positive psychology, a field hell-bent on violating this principle.

Positive psychology is not so much a field as it's a movement. It’s the sort of movement that, in a funny way, could only happen in modern America. In the words of some of the movement's biggest supporters:

The science of psychology has made great strides in understanding what goes wrong in individuals, families, groups, and institutions, but these advances have come at the cost of understanding what is right with people. (Gable & Haidt, 2005)

…at the subjective level [positive psychology] is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. At the group level, it is about the civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance and work ethic. (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000)

That should give you a sense of positive psychology, it’s a feel-good science. Hopefully just reading that made you feel a little good.

The impetus for positive psychology is that we live in such a negative world: We’re surrounded by negative news. All too often people focus on others’ bad qualities, particularly psychologists. So they’re hoping to turn that trend around, and show the world – through scientific study – about the sunny side of humanity.

I can sympathize. We define ourselves by our positive qualities, not our negative ones. We accomplish more when we focus on the positive skills of ourselves and those around us. There’s something to be said for making a point of holding back unnecessary negativity and truly enjoying your time on this earth.

But inevitably positive psychology begs the question why are we so focused on the negative?. There’s actually good reason.

It teaches us more. It’s more urgent. At the very least, you have to admit that in life, the negative and positive are categorically different: The negative is not just the polar opposite of the positive, as it is in mathematics.

Examples abound, perhaps the most telling is that of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who suffered a spike blown through his brain (in the frontal lobes) in 1848. His survival – how he was functional, but newly irritable, forgetful, and obstinate for the rest of his life – is often credited with kick-starting modern brain science, a field that has benefited more from such brain lesions than from any other modern experimental manipulation.

We’re quicker to notice when things are wrong than when they’re right. This lesson was painfully drilled into me during summers when I waited tables. When you’re waiting tables, many things can go wrong, and patrons are quick to verbally (or nonverbally) point them out to you. Indeed, a good job waiting an individual table is not so much defined by an outright acknowledgment of such but rather by the lack of any complaint.

But there’s something else that annoys me about positive psychology. It’s not merely a flawed scientific approach, it’s the assumption that the positive side of life is worth spending so much time on, that it needs to be understood - indeed, that it can be understood - and that such a science can truly improve people's lives.

In this world, there are infinite different ways to succeed. But there’s a limited number of ways to fail. People don’t just randomly fail to thrive; they generally fail in some sort of systematic way. They fall into categorizes of sickness or mental disorders – categories that, granted, are man-made, but which still, I’d argue, genuinely represent the state of nature. Just like waiting tables, the best way to improve others’ lives is to prevent things from going wrong. Under those circumstances, mankind can thrive – we have for over 100,000 years.

The positive psychologist might retort that focusing on positive areas such as happiness is the best buffer against negative consequences like say depression or anxiety. Yet this is still interpreting the import of happiness from the perspective of the negative. Nonetheless, buffer has become a buzzword in positive psychology, with studies concluding that various positive traits “buffer” people from negative consequences. The word protect is used in a similar manner.

Take a study on emotional intelligence - an interesting construct in itself, which, unnecessarily, is for some reason tied up in positive psychology. The 2004 study found that male participants' emotional intelligence predicted negative behaviors such as drug use and social deviance. Concluded the authors, “Our findings suggest that emotional intelligence may protect males from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors.” The causal implication in the wording is high emotional intelligence prevents these behaviors, not low emotional intelligence leads to those behaviors. But once again, the positive side of something – in this case, high emotional intelligence – is often qualitatively different from its negative side – which here is low emotional intelligence. For instance, say you run a longitudinal study showing that depression at time one predicted suicide at time two. Would you suggest that a lack of depression buffered participants from suicide? Does a lack of depression prevent suicide? No, it would be more reasonable to interpret your results along the lines of depression causing suicide. Once again, there are many ways to be not depressed, and there are many ways to not commit suicide, but there are only a few ways to be depressed and to kill yourself. Another parallel can be found in cognitive psychology under Spearman’s law of diminishing returns, it holds that the construct of intelligence is empirically more sound for people who are less intelligent than for people who are more intelligent. In other words, there are a few tangible and quantifiable ways to be dumb, but there are many more ways to be smart.

The increased role of negative things in life is manifested in all sorts of ways, and in a sense it’s in who we are. We have more to lose from negative things than we have to gain from positive things. No one would ever publish a medical case study of an exceptionally healthy person. Sad music is almost always the more beautiful. Dante’s Inferno is incredibly stirring and moving. His Paradisio is a bore-fest.

This disconnect between the positive and negative in life is manifest on the national level as well. Socialists often take the role of the positive psychologist, with the goal of determining what’s best for people. It seems simple enough, but it fails by oversimplifying man's happiness. Just as case studies of things gone wrong are integral in medicine, examples of disastrous policy decisions can teach us much about economics. Sowell writes about Lenin’s early transformations in his approach towards implementing communism. At first, Lenin oversimplified human prosperity, not unlike positive psychologists. The result was an overwhelming lack of prosperity, which even Lenin was able to attribute towards his initial shortcomings.

On the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, V. I. Lenin declared that “accounting and control” were the key factors in running an enterprise and that capitalism had already “reduced” the administration of business to “extraordinarily simple operations” that “any literate person can perform” – that is, “supervision and recording, knowledge of the four rules of arithmetic, and issuing appropriate receipts.” Such “exceedingly simple operations of registrations, filing, and checking” could, according to Lenin, “easily be performed” by people receiving ordinary workmen wages.

After just a few years in power, however, Lenin confronted a very different – and very bitter – reality. He himself wrote of a “fuel crisis” which “threatens to disrupt all Soviet work”, of economic “ruin, starvation, and devastation” in the country, and even admitted that peasant uprisings had become “a common occurrence” under Communist rule. In short, the economic functions which had seemed so easy and simple before having to perform them now loomed menacingly difficult.

Belatedly, Lenin saw a need for people “who are versed in the art of administration”…Lenin warned his comrades: “Opinions on corporate management are all too frequently imbued with a spirit of sheer ignorance, an anti-expert bias.” (Sowell, Basic Economics, 2006, p. 164-166).

The fatal flaw of socialism is equivalent to that of positive psychology: That we can correct the wrong by simply actively pursuing the good. The flaw is in the assumption that man’s pursuits are as tangible, predictable, and manipulable as his shortcomings.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) P1030672.JPG, 06/30/2008, by Stanandlou; (2) 200811 bull market, 10/10/2008, by superciliousness; (3) Frankfurt Stock Exchange-Bear, 04/30/2007, by Leonieke; (4) Girasoles para los amigos/Sunflowers for the Friends, 12/31/2007, by Claudio.Ar-Hermes; (5) soledad, 12/02/2005, by Robotson; (6) Mike Butcher being judgmental, 10/21/2008, by Adam Tinworth; (7) Representation of Phineas Gages' leison, 2004, by Antonio Damasio; (8) sadness under a big sky, 05/04/2006, by goatopolis; Grosse tete-Big Head, 12/21/2005, by Gentil Garçon [sombres présages].

Video: (1) Music video of the song
Fake Plastic Trees, by Radiohead, released on the album The Bends, which was put out in 04/05/1995. Sphere: Related Content

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