The Great Positive Psychology Conspiracy: A Response to Shaw

The Great Positive Psychology Conspiracy: Response to Shaw

In 1789 the French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin famously opposed the death penalty citing the brutal and often botched methods of execution of his day.

Guillotin asked for a more humane approach, with the long-term hope of abolishing the death penalty.

Just imagine his horror at the onset of the French Revolution, when thousands of people were executed using the new improved device bearing his name, the ‘Guillotine’.

Those working in Positive Psychology (especially Martin Seligman) know how wronged he felt.

This rest of this article does not explore guillotines, but it does offer a thoughtful and humorous response to Tamsin Shaw’s article questioning the intent of Positive Psychology and its lead researchers.

Please leave a comment when you finish reading—we would love to know your thoughts regarding the integrity of Positive Psychology. 


Tamsin Shaw’s Argument

In 2016, Tamsin Shaw, a professor of European and Mediterranean studies and philosophy at NYU, published a 6500-word article in the New York Review of Books titled “The Psychologists Take Power.”

In her article, Shaw outlines a complex theory stating that Positive Psychology is working to impose a new conservative social agenda to subjugate western morality. While Positive Psychology has faced several criticisms over the years, this criticism is different than most.

World-renowned psychologist Martin Seligman’s offers his own response to Shaw’s article that can be read here. As a target of Shaw’s criticism, Seligman explains that he did not (shockingly) partner with the CIA to develop torture techniques. 

Psychologist Martin Seligman
Psychologist Martin Seligman. Image Retrieved by URL. Courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0.

Anyone who has read Martin Seligman’s work can see the humor (and pain) of this ridiculous attack. 

After all, that’s a big claim targeted at a person recognized in the field of science as a positive standard of ethical research with tangible and positive outcomes.  

One of Seligman’s co-researchers, Chris Peterson, said in 2013 that:

“criticism should be heeded when correct and valued even when incorrect because they are a sign the people are paying attention.”

We hope to value Shaw’s criticism, as it provides a space to dig into the ways positive psychology actually is an admired and ethical field.

It is not affiliated with the CIA to develop torture techniques, as one of these accusations claims. Deeply pained by these accusations, Seligman writes in his own response that:

“I have spent my life trying to cure and prevent learned helplessness, so I am horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such a bad purpose as torture.”


Key Points of Shaw’s Article

I think the psychology profession should have a right of reply. With each key point, I will supply just a few of the counterpoints that weaken the validity of Shaw’s claims. 

Shaw’s essay takes a lot of paraphrasing, but the key accusations include:

  1. Psychologists have a history of conspiring against western morality dating back to B.F. Skinner.
  2. Positive Psychologists like Johnathon Haidt are pushing for more conservative public morality (and for more conservatives) to join social psychology.
  3. Positive Psychology partnered with the CIA to develop torture techniques.
  4. Psychologists are blinded by neuroscience and don’t understand the human ‘moral compass.’


If your stomach is cringing at the daggers of these claims, hang in there. Before unpacking the lack of evidence in Shaw’s claim, we want to explore her key points.


Argument #1 – B.F. Skinner Ethics

Shaw begins by reminding us of B.F. Skinner’s (1904 –1990) designs on morality. The famous behaviorist did believe that the strategic use of rewards and punishments could reshape and improve human behavior.

However, Skinner’s Utopian and somewhat degrading, vision for a brave new morality was binned from within the psychology profession itself.

I have two favorite examples.

One is from the great champion of human dignity, Carl Rogers. Once during a conference discussion, Rogers began by congratulating Skinner on his famous theory. He then added, with mischievous irony, that such inventiveness was evidence of a truly original and creative thinking process–elements that didn’t exist in Skinner’s own theory… so he had in fact disproved himself.

Who knew Carl Rogers could be such a weasel and un-do elements of Skinner’s research with one clever retort?

Gopher Snake
Gopher Snake. Image Retrieved by URL.

A more comprehensive ‘kicking the butt’ of behaviorism belongs to the boot of Professor Martin Seligman himself. In his important book “What You Can Change and What You Can’t” Seligman reviews the evidence for the biological/genetic priming for certain psychological disorders.

In my second example, consider how people readily acquire phobias about snakes. This photo (to the above right) is of a harmless gopher snake—and it still may have made you queasy. 

So why do many people relate to a fear of snakes, but not a fear of slamming fingers on closed doors? This is because doors were not an evolutionary threat. 

Natural selection and behaviorism don’t mix; thus, genetic influences on human behavior contradict Skinner’s view that people are blank slates who are ripe for conditioning.

These debates were divisive at the time. Brave people risked their careers to challenge the dominant psychological paradigm of the day, in the name of clear and ethical science.

What makes the field of psychology strong is this tradition of demanding evidence, and understanding that truth-seeking science also means that as evidence changes, the science itself changes. This debunks Shaw’s claim that positive psychology continues a trajectory of suspicious motives.

Throughout history, psychologists challenge the research and findings of each other, as part of the process to move towards an understanding of the human psyche.


Argument #2 – Conservatism in Positive Psychology

Are famous psychology figures pushing for a more conservative public morality in social psychology?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Image Retrieved by URL, Property of Creative Commons 2.0.

No. But it is true that social psychologist Jonathan Haidt complains that he is the only conservative in the village and that the young people of today need a haircut.

However, Haidt’s actual argument is that conservative values have the potential to expand on our existing liberal models of morality and promote more diversity in research topics.

Fair enough: this fits with my left-wing conspiracy to have more conservatives in academia if that means less in the White House.

Shaw then draws a long bow linking Haidt’s views with those of the U.S military suggesting “his priorities appear to align closely with those of the Department of Defense.”

To support this conspiracy theory Shaw quotes military psychologist Michael Matthews, who described witnessing ‘pro-military’ psychologists not ‘feeling the love’ at the 2007 American Psychological Association (APA) convention where anger was turned “toward any psychologist who was perceived as pro-military.”

This is appalling. This exceeds my own behavior at conferences, plundering the free drinks and bravely calling anyone working for the gambling industry a fascist (not really, they already know).

However, back to Shaw’s claims of “taking control:” if pro-military or conservative psychologists really are ostracised by their own profession, it contradicts the claim those psychologists are “taking power.”

Perhaps Shaw should re-title the article “The psychologists attempted to take power but ended up looking lame and standing in the corner with no friends.”


Argument #3 – Positive Psychology Advised the CIA on Torture Techniques

This is a far more serious claim. Let’s begin by taking two calming breaths. Positive psychology informs us that deep breathing is good for us in times of stress.  

Before Shaw, American journalist James Risen made this argument in his book “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.” The claim is that that leadership officials at the APA colluded with the Pentagon during the Bush Administration to support torture.


The APA responded to these serious accusations by appointing federal prosecutor David Hoffman to conduct a far-reaching investigation.

The resulting 542-page Hoffman report found that several high-level APA officials, not connected to Positive Psychology, did collude with the military to change existing definitions of torture and to water down the ethical constraints on psychologists.

As a result, the APA officials involved in the scandal either resigned or were removed (some still protest their innocence) thus showing the investigation had real teeth.

Disappointing for the field of psychology but again, no Positive Psychology figures were involved. 


Argument # 4 – Psychology and Morality Have a Rocky History

Lastly, Shaw argues psychologists are too dazzled by advances in neuroscience that they don’t appreciate the deeper implications of the human ‘moral compass.’

There is a risk in placing too much faith in supposed moral compasses. Here’s why:

  1. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments into obedience showed that when people are told to inflict pain on a helpless stranger, they usually comply. Sad but true.
  2. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment similarly showed when people are given roles that call for brutality, they usually comply.


The parallels with the real world are disturbing.

Zimbardo’s work attracted renewed interest following the appalling cruelty perpetrated by the supposed ‘good guys’ at Abu Ghraib prison. No one should be surprised. These are hard lessons and it’s easier to forget them and retreat into protracted philosophical debates about moral compasses. But we mustn’t.

When we place our faith in the inevitable triumph of human morality, we forget to build stronger safeguards, anti-bullying laws, whistleblower protections, and transparent oversights when unequal power dynamics are in play.

I would suggest that psychologists understand morality, we don’t just trust it.

Sunlight is the better disinfectant.

Our supposed ‘moral compasses,’ like Bart Simpson’s textbooks, can still sometimes be returned in their original wrapper.


Remaining Criticism of Positive Psychology

At the heart of Shaw’s accusation is whether:

  1. Professor Seligman collaborated with two interrogation consultants contracted by the CIA; James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and if there was any collaboration
  2. Whether Professor Seligman instructed them in how his ‘Learned Helplessness’ model could enhance interrogation or torture techniques.


Let’s be very clear.

Professor Seligman agrees he delivered professional lectures and attended gatherings for the military, in which his well-documented theory of Learned Helplessness was presented.

Professor Seligman has consistently stated he presented his model only as a support for American personnel taken prisoner. That is, as a protective factor for those on the receiving end of the interrogation.

It was never offered as a way of enhancing the interrogation of others. While Mitchell and Jessen were in the audience at some of these talks, there were no private tutorials for them.  

Shaw, however, insists otherwise. She states that there were gatherings involving the above parties (readily conceded) and then distorts Professor Seligman’s involvement by quoting, very selectively, from the Hoffman report.

Here are two examples.

Shaw quotes from page 49 of the Hoffman report:

We think it would have been difficult not to suspect that one reason for the CIA’s interest in learned helplessness was to consider how it could be used in the interrogation of others.”

However, page 49 also says…..

Hubbard and Mitchell say that they never discussed interrogations with Seligman and did not provide him information about the interrogation program. Seligman agrees and says he thought their interest in learned helplessness related to its insights for captured US personnel we do not have enough information to know what Seligman knew or thought at the time. And because we do not see any evidence that this was connected with actions or decisions by or communications with APA officials, we did not spend further time investigating the matter.”

Note how the further context refutes any smoking gun.

In another example, in her more recent article “Moral Psychology: An Exchange” Shaw claims Professor Seligman was uncooperative with Hoffman investigators claiming: 

“Seligman was one of only three witnesses out of 148 who refused to speak directly with Hoffman’s investigators, demanding instead that they send him questions in writing…”

The actual quote from page 8 of the Hoffman report, states Dr. Martin Seligman also insisted on answering only written questions, although he proactively made himself available to us and answered our questions promptly.”

Again, the full quote provides a different story.

Of course, Professor Seligman had already responded to these accusations well before the Hoffman report. In his book ‘Flourish’ he states:

“This could not be further from the truth. I have never and would never provide assistance in torture. I strongly disapprove of torture. I condemn it.” P. 175.


“I am grieved and horrified that good science that has helped so many people overcome depression may have been used for such dubious purposes.” P. 176.

Personally, I would add that torturers (in some countries) make use of electrodes, but we don’t condemn Edison.


Professor Seligman and the U.S. Army

The truly significant role Professor Seligman has had with the US army is The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Initiative. This program teaches leaders and drill sergeants to treat their subordinates more humanly using the same supportive communication techniques used elsewhere in Positive Psychology.

Soldiers are also taught to identify and use strengths, to improve personal relationships, and to use CBT skills to fight stress and depression. The intention is to lower levels of depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide.

Indeed, Professor Seligman is influencing the U.S. Military from within, just not in the way claimed by Shaw.

And when it is shown that the lives of veterans have been saved (as well as families and marriages) I suggest Professor Seligman receives the Nobel Prize.


Closing Thoughts

Chomsky and others get credit for destroying behaviorism, but I wanted to emphasize attacks on behaviourism from within the psychology profession itself.

If you are not familiar with the work of Milgram and Zimbardo, this TED talk will amaze you. It might even challenge your ideas that evil is caused by a few bad apples instead of the barrel around them.

Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker reply by Tamsin Shaw (2016) in their article named Moral Psychology: An Exchange.

They describe Shaw’s work as follows:

“citation-free attribution, spurious dichotomies, and standards of guilt by association that make Joseph McCarthy look like Sherlock Holmes.”

That’s enough from me. It is time for you to make up your mind.

Share your thoughts and views with us by using the comment box below. 

Peterson, C. (2013). Pursuing the Good Life. 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. (1994). What you can change and what you can’t. Random House.

Matthews,  M.D. (2014) Head Strong: How Psychology Is Revolutionizing War. Oxford University Press.

Risen, J. (2014). Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Shaw, T. (2016) The Psychologists Take Power. The New York Review of Books.



  1. warren

    I am fairly certain Sin and Lyubomirksy’s (2009) meta-analysis has been found to be very wanting. Any other options?
    A lot of “good science” supported positivity ratio. No good again.
    Still waiting.

  2. Anat Carmel Kagan

    Sorry, but sometimes nonsense should be regarded as nonsense, and therefore – simply ignored. trying to argue the absurdity of such “accusations” is legitimizing their existence

  3. john waters

    Brad – interested in your thoughts on the templeton foundations (a right leaning conservative group) association with positive psychology? And then there’s positive psychologys involvement with the US military (the questionable morality of training people to be indifferent to the attocities of war).

    • Brad Desmond

      Thanks John. Two great questions.

      1. Dawkins would argue the Templeton Foundation exists to pay scientists willing to say nice things about religion. But then you need evidence they are getting bang for ideological buck. I don’t think PP has yet become a branch of the Church of England (I thought Marty was Jewish?) As an atheist myself I use PP in my personal and professional life all the time. Perhaps Templeton will give me 10 million dollars to research PERMA for humanist secular atheists? Perhaps not.

      2. U.S. Military. The only safeguards against atrocities are more transparent accountability measures. I used to work with Vietnam Veterans suffering PTSD. Some of their experiences are imprinted onto my own retinas. Until the day we make war redundant, and we keep sending men and women into this kind of horror I hope Positive Psychology can make soldiers more resilient. I could be playing more golf and applying for Templeton grants.

    • john waters

      Brad – I’m very familiar with the positive psychology research. The problem is the research is of poor quality – eg no placebo’s, biased samples, doesn’t last etc. For example Seligman’s classic depression study wasn’t replicated when a placebo was in place.

      Sorry I’m not a psychologist so will have to skip the APS – started down that road but the illness model didn’t work for me


  4. Shawn

    Thanks for the lengthy but informational text. I must confess that I too agree that there was a great conspiracy made between the CIA and APA. The torture, the changing of morality, and even the Neuroscience claim, are all quite accurate. I really couldn’t agree more with Shaw on this.

    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      Hi there Shawn. Beliefs are not nearly as interesting as arguments. Do you have any?

      • John Waters

        Seph – thats a little high handed isn’t it? How much of positive psychology is based on beliefs as opposed to evidence. Do you have any arguments supporting the effectiveness of Positive Psychology?

        • Brad Desmond

          John, the short answer is zero. None of PP is based on belief. Good science can only be supported by evidence. There are many scholarly journals presenting the latest studies. Anyone can subscribe, for example, to the Journal of Positive Psychology or any other journal.
          Or to put it another way, if you really want the argument in favour of PP, it is that there exists a body of evidence for its efficacy -in building wellbeing. It is open to any curious people to inform themselves further.

          • john waters

            Brad – nicely side stepped. The templeton foundation pushes a very right wing agenda.

          • john waters

            Brad – I also live in Melbourne

            Show me a decent study* and I’ll buy you a beer

          • Brad Desmond

            Hi John.
            The VIA institute has some research summaries in relation to strengths at work and general health and wellness.


            We can have that drink at the APS conference in September. I’ll buy. I quit beer during that stupid Feb-fast. Now I only drink scotch and cab-sav.

        • Seph Fontane Pennock

          John I appreciate grounded skepticism. Not skepticism for skepticisms sake – which I come across every now and then, sometimes via the comments on this website. I am convinced that as soon as one enters the realm of beliefs in any scientific/rational inquiry, one has already lost. Science has nothing, I repeat, nothing to do with beliefs.

          As far as the Templeton foundation goes: I do not know and I do not care. Motivated science will be exposed by replication, if not today then tomorrow. We have enough rigorous scientists in our field who are not afraid to point out the mistakes made by some of the most esteemed researchers in this field.

          Furthermore, I can highly recommend you to check out some of Spinger’s books:
          You’ll find there to be a shocking amount of evidence.

          Have a good one!

          • john waters

            As they say in the movies “show me the money”. Can you provide a study on a randomly selected sample of non college student students with a placebo in place that has a followup of at least 2 years that demonstrates the effectiveness of positive psychology.

          • john waters

            Come on Seph – show me the money. If these studies don’t exist then you are obviously lost in the wilderness.

          • Seph Fontane Pennock

            You are talking about ‘the effectiveness of positive psychology’ in general terms. What is it that you are referring to exactly John? Is it the effectiveness of mindfulness, meditation, positive emotions, laughter and humor, strength usage, fostering autonomy? Please be more specific.

            I appreciate skepticism. I do not appreciate blind hate. I’ve seen experienced it before and learned that you can’t argue with it. It’s like trying to have a rational discussion with a religious person; it’s as useless as it is frustrating. That’s why I invite you to be as constructive as possible, so that I can see whether I can give you a satisfying answer to your question.

          • john waters

            Phew – big statements like “blind hate”. I just want you to provide a study that showed that a positive psychology intervention improved peoples well-being in the long term. By the way meditation isn’t a Positive Psychology Intervention.

            It has been brought into the fold because it seems to be the only intervention that has some merit.

            As an aside you might find it useful to brunch up on the difference between correlation and causation.

        • Brad Desmond

          Sin and Lyubomirksy’s (2009) meta-analysis (N= 4,266) reviews the efficacy of 51 different positive psychology interventions. They conclude “clinicians should be encouraged to incorporate positive psychology techniques into their clinical work” and list the client cohorts (age, ethnicity) who show most benefit and which approaches and combinations of approaches produce best results. If you persist with this Tourette’s style ‘show me a proper study’ you are beginning to make Lord Monkton sound like that wheel chair guy. And still owe me a beer, I fancy a stein.

  5. David Shen

    Enjoyed your reply. Some people get a forum and you shake your head that the editors let them publish false claims. I guess it fuels controversy and therefore sales.
    I am reminded of the French professor who claims the Holocaust never happened.
    Or the French Freudian psychoanalysis community who treat transgender people as sick people. Transgender people are not; my adult child is living proof of that.


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