Since positive psychology is a relatively new field, criticisms have arisen around the extent of its use.
This is natural for a burgeoning field as researchers establish protocols around the emerging science supporting this field. Criticism provides an opportunity to strengthen a field.
Critiques establish weak points and invite scientists to defend the validity of their field. It is crucial to acknowledge these critiques regarding the weaknesses and limitations of positive psychology.
So let’s dive right in: what are the biggest critiques of positive psychology?
This article contains:
1) Objective Research and Accurate Reporting
One critique focuses on the use of positive psychology is how it relates to people with physical diseases, such as cancer. Coyne and Tennen (2010) make it clear that the aim of their perspective is not to discredit the field of positive psychology, but rather to establish some of the field’s limitations.
For example, how do positive psychology and any of its tenets serve someone with cancer or other serious ailments?
By knowing its limitations, the field can focus on problems it can work solve.
Coyne and Tennen(2010) focus their critique on four aspects of positive psychology: two of these deal with the effects of positive thinking on cancer outcomes, one on the effectiveness of benefit finding, and one on whether the idea that traumatic or life-threatening experiences cause personal growth.
These four areas were chosen “because they represent the most distinctive and provocative claims of positive psychology about cancer and because they enjoy considerable popularity” (Coyne and Tenne, 2010).
Is positive psychology too quick to accept findings without examining them? Coyne and Tenne present worries with this, and the dangers of extrapolating data from a few case studies.
For example, Coyne and Tennen (2010) state how the idea of adopting a “fighting spirit” against cancer, as a solution to the disease, is neither scientifically sound nor uplifting. It runs the risk of implying that anyone who does not “beat cancer,” did not have the willpower or optimistic mindset.
Similarly, positive psychological factors like happiness and well-being have mostly been shown to have little effect on cancer growth, though some positive psychologists continue citing the few papers that show otherwise.
Coyne & Tennen review benefit finding, colloquially known as ‘finding the silver lining,’ and whether it has positive effects on cancer outcomes. Benefit finding is meant to be a coping mechanism to reduce distress in cancer patients, but perhaps is not a mindset to adopt with the expectation that it will reduce cancer growth.
As for personal growth following traumatic experiences, the authors claim that people cannot accurately self-measure how they grow over time. People often attribute growth from traumatic experiences when there is not, in fact, an objective causal relationship.
The authors finish their criticism by calling on positive psychologists to base their research on “scientific evidence rather than wishful thinking.” This is a fair thing to ask of any field rooted in science.
As the field grows, it has found greater strength in its attribution to scientific studies, and this does strengthen it over time.
2) Wishful Thinking: Concerns about the Positivity Ratio
Along the lines of wishful thinking, another critique comes in the form of a paper called “The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking” (Brown et al., 2013).
This paper is itself a response to three papers dealing with a “positivity ratio,” and the amount of influence those papers had on the greater field of positive psychology (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005, Losada, 1999, Losada & Heaphy, 2004).
Fredrickson & Losada (2005) findings are summed up by Brown et al. (2013) and claim that:
“an individual’s degree of flourishing could be predicted by that person’s ratio of positive thoughts to negative thoughts over time… termed the ‘positivity ratio.’”
The authors don’t take issue with this ratio, but rather the way that the authors justified the ratio. In other words, how a “mathematical model drawn from nonlinear dynamics” claimed a range of positivity ratios that may lead to a person’s flourishing.
Brown et al. (2013) disagree with the idea that the minimum positivity ratio is universal for every single person, “independent of all demographic and cultural factors.”
The fundamental case of Brown et al.’s (2013) critique is a concern about the use of mathematical models for concepts of willingness, and the research needs more justification of why and how these models are acquired (Brown et al, 2013).
The authors end by stating that future mathematical models in psychology should be justified, either theoretically or empirically. They also want more constructive criticism toward positive psychology.
After all, criticism is the best way for any field to correct itself and grow.
3) Blow a New Tune: Not The Same Old Story
Becker & Marecek (2008) claim that positive psychology is just a retelling of old psychological schools of thought. The authors write that positive psychology is not “that new,” but rather, emerges from several older movements such as New Thought and the Mental Hygiene Movement.
Becker & Marecek (2008) share their scepticism of the leaders of the positive psychology movement who have not considering their new field in the context of these older movements, and only see the connections with humanistic psychology.
A common thread between contemporary positive psychologists and older schools of thought such as New Thought is a belief in American individualism.
More attention could be paid to the societal context around individuals, instead of looking at people in a vacuum. After all, according to Becker and Marecek:
“there are circumstances, such as those surrounding the founding of America, in which treason and sedition are more honorable than patriotism and loyalty.”
Beyond this perceived disregard of the historical context of the movement, Becker & Marecek (2008) also comment on their lack of holistic consideration of well-being, such as where an individual fits into their broader social context. Social work’s role in understanding any individual could be better.
Becker & Marecek (2008) also express that positive psychologists are ignoring teachings of similar fields for the sake of ‘feeling revolutionary,” when instead, more strength could be rooted in connecting with these older schools.
Finally, Becker & Marececk (2008) comment on how positive psychologists are not considering the role that privilege plays in flourishing, and have not acknowledged the fact that some may flourish at the expense of others. How can everyone benefit from a field that assumes people have the time and resources to prioritize their well-being?
Overall, Becker & Marececk (2008) remind the positive psychology community to consider their position, in terms of the history and previous psychology histories that came before.
Positive psychology does not exist in isolation, but rather, in conversation from all these fields supporting and preceding it.
Take Home Message
These critiques of positive psychology suggest that the field needs to be more careful with how it uses other sciences to justify itself, and how universally it considers its message when not all people can access its ideals due to varying degrees of privilege and oppression.
Accurate measurement, scientific grounding, and objectivity are three core pillar going forward if the field wishes to grow. Practitioners also need to consider the historical context so that positive psychology can understand its roots, and develop into a more influential movement for the future.
All feedback can be taken as a chance to establish weak aspects of a field of study, and then pursue ways to make a field stronger. Simply said:
“Feedback, when given well, should not alienate the receiver, but should motivate them to perform better.”
What do you think are Positive Psychology’s weaknesses and the feedback mentioned? And how do you envision this field changing with time?
We would love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please leave us a comment in the box below.
About the Author
Joaquín is a writer who was introduced to psychology through behavioral neuroscience research. His research was focused on addiction with the hopes of helping people change their habits.
Joaquín was born in Nicaragua, lives in the United States, and believes positive psychology teachings can improve people’s lives in both countries. In his free time, he enjoys watching and writing about basketball.
Becker, D., Marecek, J. (2008). Positive Psychology: History In The Remaking?. Theory and Psychology, 18(5), 591-604. doi:10.1177/0959354308093397
Brown, N.J., Sokal, A.D., Friedman, H.L. (2013) The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: the critical positivity ratio. American Psychology, 68(9), 801-813. doi:10.1037/a0032850
Coyne, J.C., Tennen, H. (2010) Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39(1), 16-26. doi:10.1007/s12160-009-9154-z
Fredrickson, B.L., Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(9), 678-686. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678
Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30(9-10), 179-192.
Losada, M., Heaphy, E. (2004) The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765. doi:10.1177/0002764203260208