Critiques and Criticisms of Positive Psychology at the WCPP2015

critiques and critisism of positive psychology ippa world congress
Panel Members of WCPP

Some of the greatest minds within the field of positive psychology met to discuss its critiques and criticism at the World Conference of Positive Psychology.

If you were not in attendance, this article is for you.

You’ll find all of them categorized and listed below. Panel members: (from left to right)

 

This panel of incredible researchers addressed the main critiques of positive psychology.

The four main categories of criticism are around research issues, culture/values, manipulation/unethical issues, simplistic/narrow issues, and practice issues.

 

Research Issues:

  1. Research findings are often invalid, overstated, and misleading. Mis-analyzing data and misinterpreting, or over-claiming results, are common.
  2. Too much emphasis exists on self-report and cross-sectional survey data. Unconscious and non-rational phenomena are ignored.
  3. Positive psychology is not guided by an overarching theory or framework.
  4. Sweeping claims are made about human nature and the causes of happiness, often based on few studies of students.

 

Cultural/Values Issues:

  1. Positive psychology reinforces and is applicable only to the existing western socio-economic system and value system. It is Euro-centric or US-centric and emphasizes individualism, capitalism, and western definitions of happiness.
  2. Positive psychology represents the perpetuation of a values-based perspective, not rigorous science.
  3. Positive psychology has a white middle-class bias and ignores the plight of minorities and disadvantaged groups. Poverty, inequality, injustice, repression, and other societal problems are ignored.
  4. Positive psychology is ethnocentric and neglects cultural, social, economic, and situational context issues. The West is superimposing its dominance on the rest of the world.

 

Manipulation/Unethical Issues:

  1. Positive interventions manipulate clients and employees. People are made to feel good in order to coerce from certain outcomes.
  2. Happiness is a manipulative technique used to take advantage of workers.
  3. The values of positive psychology are not conducive to an increase in human freedom, but rather are conducive to conformity.

 

Simplistic/Narrowness Issue:

  1. Positive psychology is merely warmed-over “power of positive thinking” from the 1940s and 1950s. There is nothing new here, and the findings are mostly common sense.
  2. Positive psychology is merely a focus on “happyology,” or the oversimplified pursuit of happiness.
  3. Positive psychology implies that the rest of psychology is negative.
  4. The term “positive” connotes more pizzazz than substance, and the field has garnered attention merely because the term sounds interesting. (But there’s not much there…)
  5. Positive psychology bans negativity and negative emotions from scientific exploration and from workplace dynamics.
  6. Positive psychology treads on the domains of philosophy and theology, as well as humanistic psychology, but does it in a less-sophisticated and mature way. Partnerships with other disciplines—e.g., sociology, anthropology, medicine, political science, economics—have not been formed.
  7. Positive psychology is too individualistic in focus and neglects relational phenomena.
  8. Life is complex and a focus on only the positive is wishful thinking.
  9. Positive psychology is too superficial and fixated on happiness-related outcomes while being oriented towards prescriptions of universal rules for internal personal change.

 

Practice Issues:

  1. Many people practice positive psychology without a proper grounding in behavioral sciences and without being guided by professional ethics. Great harm can be done.

 

What do you think of these critiques of positive psychology? I’d personally like to conclude this list by saying the following:

About the Author

With his work in positive psychology, Seph Fontane Pennock has been able to help tens of thousands of practitioners and educators all around the world. Seph strongly believes that we can deal with most of life’s absurdities by leveraging human connection and challenging ourselves, instead of using dogma or pharmaceutical drugs.

Comments

  1. Henry Edwards

    Reassuring to see a critical eye toward PP. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright Sided takes on PP in Chapter 6. She does her research and eloquently critiques PP…and caught Martin Seligman on a really bad day. If half of what happened in her interview of him is true he still comes out looking not so good. Regardless, I am an avid supporter and practitioner of PP, and I use it in my work (classroom teacher) every day.

    Reply
    • Caitlin J.

      I think the criticism of positive psych takes it out of context. I think it’s great, Mr. Edwards, that you are using it as a teacher!!

      Reply
  2. Alice Nelson

    Critques aren’t supposed to focus on what is right in a discipline. Now, maybe because I come from a more philosophy than psychology foundation, I expect rigorous debate. And, as Kevin somewhat alluded to, all areas of psychology, in fact all areas of social science, and in fact even in the more “hard sciences,” reproducibility of research rates are abysmal. They are literally terrible. I can’t help but think that engaging in meaningful debate has the capacity to help make things better. Obviously it doesn’t address the myriad reasons research can’t be reproduced, but it is one dimension. Additionally, any field purported to exist for the sake of improving lives ought to take seriously critiques regarding ethics. Critiques should be welcomed, not feared. Frankly, I had to do an awful lot of poking around on the internet to find any criticism at all of positive psych, so it’s not exactly under assault, as far as I can see. I found all of one academic article, “The Negative Shadow Cast by Positive Psychology,” which was mainly concerned with comparing pos psych to humanistic psychology, through the lens of pos psych’s decontextualizaion of resiliency. And I found this page, which only gives bullet points about a conversation that appears to have occurred. Frustrating.

    Reply
    • warren

      Sokal and Brown, James C Coyne are authors that have critiqued aspects of PP. There are more about.

      Reply
      • Stephanie Diepering

        Hello Alistair,

        Thank you for sharing your article with us, it is vital to keep an objective perspective on PP. Would you be interested in writing a summery article of this paper for our blog? If so, please drop me an email at stephanie@positivepsychologyprogram.com. Look forward to hearing from you!

        Reply
  3. Kevin Tobin, Ph.D>

    As a licensed health care provider in psychology for more than 25 years, a licensed school psychologist, a graduate faculty member of a university that trains student in CBT and other evidence based interventions and as a practicing mindfulness meditator since 1974, I suggest that there is considerable value in many aspects of positive psychology. Neuroscience research by Richard Davidson and others at the University of Wisconsin have demonstrated that mindfulness and compassion training changes the dynamics of neural systems. Work by Robert Brooks on resilience has demonstrated that specific practices and interventions improves psychological health across a wide range of stressor conditions.General criticism of any field of psychology seems rather shallow. One can criticize behaviorism for being too “mechanistic” without looking at the vast number of studies that demonstrate it’s utility and empirical efficacy across a wide range of problem behavior. It is true that particular studies are poorly designed and controlled that purport to study some aspect of “positive psychology, ” but the same is true of every area of psychology. I have recently worked with a Nepalese colleague to compare and contrast the assumptions and methods of various Western psychologies including psychoanalysis, individual psychology, Gestalt psychology, behaviorism, with traditional Buddhist psychology that he was trained in. Being culturally sensitive does not mean disparaging one’s own tradition or alternatively extolling the superiority of one’s own school of psychology. For me it involves working with others of many ethnicities and backgrounds with inquisitive respect and careful reasoning.

    Broad criticism of a field seems to me to be an indicator of superficial understanding and a lack of experience. In Buddhist psychology this is called relative truth. From this point of view each person, family and subculture and culture has their own relative truth. However each thinks that their relative truth is really true and others relative truth is limited, false, or misleading. In Western psychology we see this as cognitive prototypes and confirmatory bias.
    Regardless of the frame of reference as professionals we need to strive to be aware of our biases and strive to appreciate the perspective and relative truth of others. Thereby our own frame of reference can expand and not remain so parochial.

    Reply
    • Gloria

      Kevin thank you so much for your comment here. As a student of a recent Certificate in Positive Psychology program who has been struggling on and off with depression and anxiety for years and now finds herself in nude life searching deeply for meaning and becoming deeply distressed at the general lack of real caring connection in the world, your wholistic survey here is of great comfort., With only a Bachelors degree in the study of communication and the life experiences of a stay at home mom leaning on spirituality the challenges of her children, the practice of yoga and a life with pets– I found Positive Psych to resonate, on a lot of levels. I found tools to use. But as I read these , I’m reminded that they aren’t focused much on what’s right with it. I guess the question is does it do more good than harm, and is it just an early chapter in the ongoing response to an ongoing world….

      Reply
  4. alice nelson

    Where can I find the actual details of the critiques? I am taking a positive psych course, and have been having these internal conversations with myself, esp re:ethical issues, ethnocentricity, and this sense that this is, indeed, an individualistic, reductive, almost ahistorical, capitalism-based response. Many of the critiques listed are the same I have been worrying about, and I would really like to get more information. If anyone can point me to transcripts or academic writings on these topics, i would appreciate it.

    Reply
  5. Arturo Juarez Garcia

    Where can I found the answer to all these critiques?

    Reply
  6. Arturo Juarez Garcia

    Where can I found responses to these all critiques?

    Reply
  7. Leonardo

    As a scientist in the Biology field, I have to agree with some of the issues and criticism on PP (yes, scientists can be too rigid
    and snob in their approach, but they have to in the name of prosperous science and knowledge). However, I see PP as a science in its infancy but with plenty of grounded and well demonstrated science already.
    I am fascinated about personal growth and well being. During my personal voyage, I listened to plenty of coaches and other “professionals” preaching very vague and fuzzy strategies to reach well being. So my hope is that PP can bring the science to light to support some of such claims (being aware that not everything can be scientifically demonstrated).
    Keep the good work rolling guys

    Reply
    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your journey and perspective Leonardo. It’s very interesting to see the different fields people who find PP come from. It might well be one of the fields strengths, especially when it comes to the wide application of its findings. Cheers!

      Reply
    • Reham Al Taher

      Leonardo,
      Very good points you make. But let’s take it one step further–How telling is it of the society we live in today that researching effective techniques to increase our growth and wellbeing is minuscule compared to the thousands of other techniques that are based on understanding others in order to get what we want?

      We need to start caring about ourselves and introspecting more, in order to really contribute positively to society. It reminds me of this video where a man asked, “If I had to ask you to list all the people you care about, how far down the list will you go before you mention yourself?”

      Reply
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