Read with Skepticism

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Five years ago, I was unhappy. Positive psychology, the ‘science’ of happiness, offered hope that traditional psychology did not.

So I started this blog. I would research a topic and write up my findings, hoping to help both myself and others.

But three years ago, I stopped.

Not because no one was reading what I wrote. Fifteen to thirty thousand people visit each month.

I stopped because I had realized that in the ways that matters, positive psychology was just like traditional psychology – it was a scientific mess.

Some of the blame lies with the human brain. It’s probably the most complicated thing in the universe. But that’s not the problem. Rockets are incredibly complicated, but NASA managed just fine.

Why? Because the science and engineering off of which rockets are based have one advantage the brain does not – they can provide robust feedback.

Feedback is how a human learns. Ironically, the brain, the organ which guides that learning, is bad about providing feedback about itself. It’s incredibly opaque.

Science is a process of truth seeking. Make a prediction, run an experiment, observe the results.  The opacity of the brain turns the results of most experiments into unreliable nonsense.

Decades of work on complex statistical methods meant to overcome this problem have mostly failed. Not because the problem is insurmountable or psychologists are lazy and stupid. Because the incentives that guide research in the social sciences mostly lead to the production of garbage studies that fail to replicate.

Positive psychology is no exception.

Marty Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association (APA):1

APA presidents are supposed to have an initiative and… I thought mine could be “evidence-based treatment and prevention.” So I went to my friend, Steve Hyman, the director of [National Institute of Mental Health]. He was thrilled and told me he would chip in $40 million dollars if I could get APA working on evidence-based treatment.

So I told CAPP [which owns the APA] about my plan and about NIMH’s willingness. I felt the room get chillier and chillier. I rattled on. Finally, the chair of CAPP memorably said, “What if the evidence doesn’t come out in our favor?”

…I limped my way to [my friend’s] office for some fatherly advice.

“Marty,” he opined, “you are trying to be a transactional president. But you cannot out-transact these people…”

And so I proposed that Psychology turn its… attention away from pathology and victimology and more toward what makes life worth living: positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions. I never looked back and this became my mission for the next fifteen years. The endeavor… caught on.

So read what I’ve written with deep skepticism. As I learned more about epistemology I wrote more carefully, which I’m sure is why my newer posts are far less popular than my older, more enthusiastic ones.

I’ve considered taking this website down. Yes, I get emails from people thanking me for my work. But so, I’m sure, do the owners of websites talking about healing crystals.

In the end, I’m leaving this site up for two reasons.

One, I’ve put over a thousand hours into this site. Taking it down would be like erasing a piece of my soul.

Two, there are things that I meant to write that I never did. Perhaps one day I’ll have to courage and clarity to share them.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

danny

thank you, love what you do

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Dan

Amit, I just recently stumbled on your page and I find your posts to be exceptionally thought provoking and easily digestible. It’s a shame to see that there will be no new content. You wrote that you thought about taking the page down, what do you believe is the greatest potential harm of your message? I respect the integrity of discontinuing a successful venture such as this for the uncertainty of the science, but I believe readers have a lot to gain from your content. I hope to hear more from you in the future. Do you have anything else in the works?

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Chris Wilson

Amit. Thank you for not taking the website down. Thank you for sharing why you stopped writing and so succinctly stating your reasons that I am sure do not feel so simple internally. How has this exercise changed you? Thank you again for being the skeptic that you are and sharing your learning process.

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