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Positive Psychology-- Throwing out the Baby With The Bathwater

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This article is one of three articles regarding the Army "Spiritual Fitness" Test.

The first is by Jason Leopold, Army's "Spiritual Fitness" Test Comes Under Fire.

The second is Martin Seligman's Response to Truthout's Jason Leopold's Report on Army "Spiritual Fitness" Test -- a response by Martin Seligman, who emailed me, requesting that I publish it. He also emailed it to Jason Leopold and posted it to a positive psychology listserve I've been a member of for approximately ten years (some of my work with positive psychology appears on my website www.positivepsychology.net).

The third is my commentary Positive Psychology-- Throwing out the Baby With The Bathwater and the embedded video of the segment of the Keith Olbermann show which reported on this story.



In an article focusing on the military's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, Jason Leopold reports how an assessment portion of the program asks questions about soldiers' "spirituality," stating that the program "is under fire by civil rights groups and hundreds of active-duty soldiers. They say it unconstitutionally requires enlistees to believe in God or a "higher power" in order to be deemed "spiritually fit" to serve in the Army."

The article is highly critical of both Martin Seligman who was involved in the development and planning of the program.

Keith Olbermann reported on the story, citing the original work of truthout.




The video gives a good overview of the story, as told by Jason Leopold. Jason's Truthout article, which goes into more depth though in framing positive psychology in a negative way, primarily citing several positive psychology critics. This is why I am writing this article. After over 25 years in the field of positive psychology, I have a different view than Leopold, Barbra Ehrenreich and Chris Hedges.

First, here is what Jason wrote about positive psychology and Martin Seligman, who is a leader in the field and generally credited with being one of the primary founders of the field.


(Image: US Army)

"Dr. Happy"

CSF is based entirely on the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, a member of the Defense Health Board, a federal advisory committee to the secretary of defense, and chairman of the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, who the Army calls "Dr. Happy."

Seligman, who once told a colleague that psychologists can rise to the level of a "rock star" and "have fame and money," is the author of "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment." The Penn Resiliency Program, upon which the Army's CSF is based, "teaches cognitive-behavioral and social problem-solving skills and is based in part on cognitive-behavioral theories of depression by Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis" and Seligman.

Despite his "happy" reputation, in some circles, Seligman is best known for developing the theory of "Learned Helplessness" at the University of Pennsylvania more than four decades ago. As psychologist and torture expert Dr. Jeffrey Kaye noted in a report published in Truthout last year, Seligman and psychologist Dr. Steven Maier developed the concept of Learned Helplessness after they "exposed dogs to a situation where they were faced with inescapable electrical shocks."

"Within a short period of time, the dogs could not be induced to escape the situation, even when provided with a previously taught escape route," Kaye wrote. "Drs. Seligman and Maier theorized that the dogs had 'learned' their condition was helpless. The experimental model was extended to a human model for the induction of clinical depression and other psychological conditions."

Seligman's work in this area influenced psychologists under contract to the CIA and Defense Department, who applied the theory to "war on terror" detainees in custody of the US government, according to a report published in 2009 by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In May of 2002, the timeframe in which the CIA began to use brutal torture techniques against several high-value detainees, Seligman gave a three-hour lecture at the Navy's Survival Evasion Resistance Escape school in San Diego. Audience members included the two psychologists - Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell - who have been called the architects of the Bush administration's torture program.

Five months earlier, Seligman hosted a meeting at his house that was attended by Mitchell, along with the CIA's then-Director of Behavioral Science Research, Kirk Hubbard, and at least one "Israeli intelligence person." Seligman claims he was totally unaware his theory on Learned Helplessness was being used against detainees after 9/11 and denied ever engaging in discussions about the torture program with Mitchell, Jessen, or any other Bush administration official.

"Learned Optimism"

Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association (APA), began consulting with General Casey in September 2008 about applying the research he and his colleagues have conducted over the past decade to the benefits of his theories on "Learned Optimism" to all of the Army's active-duty soldiers. Seligman then met with Cornum in December 2008 to discuss creating the foundation for CSF as a way to decrease PTSD.

"Psychology has given us this whole language of pathology, so that a soldier in tears after seeing someone killed thinks, 'Something's wrong with me; I have post-traumatic stress,' or PTSD," Seligman said in August 2009. "The idea here is to give people a new vocabulary, to speak in terms of resilience. Most people who experience trauma don't end up with PTSD; many experience post-traumatic growth."

According to a report published in December 2009 in the APA Monitor, Seligman believes that positive thinking methods taught to schoolchildren who "were [conditioned] to think more realistically and flexibly about the problems they encounter every day" can also be taught to Army soldiers and the results will be the same.

Seligman said he is basing his theory on a series of 19 studies he conducted, which found that teachers who "emphasized the importance of slowing the problem-solving process down by helping students identify their goals, gather information and develop several possible ways to achieve those goals," increased students' optimism levels over the course of two years "and their risk for depression was cut in half."

But unlike studies conducted on schoolchildren, there is no research that exists that shows applying those same conditioning methods to the Army's active-duty soldiers will reduce PTSD. Seligman, however, seems to be aware that is the case. That may explain why he has referred to Army soldiers as his personal guinea pigs.

"This is the largest study - 1.1 million soldiers - psychology has ever been involved in and it will yield definitive data about whether or not [resiliency and psychological fitness training] works," Seligman said about the CSF program.

"We're after creating an indomitable Army," Seligman said.

Positive Psychology's Critics

While positive psychology, a term coined by Seligman, has its supporters who swear by its benefits, the movement also has its fair share of critics. Bryant Welch, who also served as APA president, said, "personally, I have not been able to find a meaningful distinction between [positive psychology] and Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking. Both emphasize substituting positive thoughts for unhappy or negative ones."

"And yet the US military has bought into this untested notion to the tune of [$125] million," Welch said. "This money, of course, could have been used to provide real mental health care to our troops. Instead, it is being used to tell military personnel that they can (and, thus, presumably should) overcome whatever happens to them on the battlefield with the dubious tools of Positive Psychology."

PTSD "is is not a mental state that can be treated by suggesting to the patient that he or she simply re-frame how they think about the situation, as Dr. Seligman suggests," Welch added.

Other notable critics include authors Chris Hedges and Barbara Ehrenreich, both of who say the practice has thrived in the corporate world where the refusal to consider negative outcomes resulted in the current economic crisis.

Hedges, author of the book "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle," wrote, "positive psychology, which claims to be able to engineer happiness and provides the psychological tools for enforcing corporate conformity, is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis."

"Positive psychology is a quack science that throws a smoke screen over corporate domination, abuse and greed," Hedges said. "Those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes, no matter the external reality, are seen as maladjusted and in need of assistance. Their attitudes need correction."

Hedges added that "academics who preach [the benefits of positive psychology] are awash in corporate grants."

Indeed, Seligman's CV shows he has received tens of millions of dollars in foundation cash to conduct positive psychology research.

According to a report published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "People credit a large part of positive psychology's success to the solid reputations of the field's leaders - and Seligman's ability to get science-supporting agencies interested."

"The National Institute of Mental Health has given more than $226-million in grants to positive-psychology researchers in the past 10 years, beginning with just under $4-million in 1999 and reaching more than nine times that amount in 2008," according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Seligman has equated his work for the Army to assisting the "second largest corporation in the world."

Multimillion-Dollar Contract

Seligman's biggest payday came last year, when the Positive Psychology Center received a three-year, $31 million, no-bid, sole-source Army contract to continue developing the program.

According to Defense Department documents, "the contract action was accomplished using other than competitive procedure because there is only one responsible source and no other supplies or services will satisfy agency requirement[s]. Services can only be provided from the original source as this is a follow-on requirement for the continued provision of highly specialized services."

In 2009, several months after receiving the green light from Casey to develop the CSF program, the Army paid Seligman's Positive Psychology Center $1 million to begin training hundreds of drill sergeants to become Master Resilience Trainers (MRTs), "certified experts who will advise commanders in the field and design and facilitate unit-level resilience training across the Army."

My Take on Positive Psychology
I became interested in positive psychology in the early eighties. I was tired of seeing a mental health model based entirely upon illness and pathology-- a reductionist system that was part of an illness-oriented health care model. Psychiatry was at the beginning of a new phase where it was developing diagnoses to match pharmaceutical drugs.

I felt it was possible and important to think about mental health in terms of positives-- happiness, good feelings, strengths, abilities-- instead of symptoms and afflictions. I believed that people could be helped by helping them move toward health and away from illness, rather than just treating and declaring war on illness.

In a similar vein, Dennis Kucinich has advocated for a Department of Peace as a counter balance to the War Department.

My work led me to measure smile muscle activity, to study the heartwarming experience, to explore the varieties of positive experience. Eventually, I registered www.positivepsychology.net and included a number of articles and writings on the subject. That was in the early to mid eighties. By 1996, I organized a meeting-- The Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology Meeting. The goal was to bring together people who were working at understand the art and science of helping people to feel and function at their best. There were no commercial sponsors, though the meeting was associated with a Neurofeedback conference that had a number of small businesses selling Neurofeedback equipment or training.

Since then, a number of Positive Psychology (PP) meetings have been organized, organizations formed, books written. Most of the researchers and practitioners want to help people to function better, to be more actualized and to reach their full emotional, mental and physical potentials.

That is the purported goal of the military's program. The problem is, that for the military, reaching full potential can mean becoming a better killer, one who is "resilient" in the sense of not being upset by doing or seeing the killing.

Every new tool, innovation and idea can be used or abused.

There are professional ethical standards. They include review boards that evaluate and approve experiments and organizations that set ethical standards. This episode is a challenge for Positive Psychology. It could be severely damaged by the coverage this story evokes. Or, it could respond to the story by assessing its standards and how it and its practitioners operate.

Use of psychological methods and even participation by psychologists in torture operations has been wrestled with by the American Psychological Association. One regular writer who has covered this issue is Psychologist Steven Soldz. Check the link to his archives to see the efforts he's made to clean up the role of psychologists and the APA in the realm of torture.

Researchers, Academicians and practitioners in the world of Positive Psychology need to take a similar approach-- assessing, investigating and then setting clear ethical guidelines.

I'm not making any accusations or assumptions. As one who has been in the PP camp for as long as I have, I am biased. But as a progressive publisher, who trusts and respects Jason Leopold and the people he's cited, I feel that it is essential that the questions Jason has raised be explored, that it is not acceptable for anyone to engage in character assassination. Chris Hedges, by the way, is a Pulitzer Prize winning former NY Times journalist.

My hope, in writing this article is to get you to see Positive Psychology as a tool and science like most, that can be used for good or evil. My personal experience with it has led me to believe it offers much good, not only in the realm of mental health and sports performance, but far beyond.

 

Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind.  Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives  one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big)  to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project. 

Rob Kall Wikipedia Page

Over 200 podcasts are archived for downloading here, or can be accessed from iTunes. Rob is also (more...)
 

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Can merge with promotion of a particular way of th... by Al Rodbell on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 6:09:46 PM
I have Huntingtons Disease. I have my own philoso... by Donnie McLeod on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 7:42:36 PM
New army recruit: Will it keep me from wantonly ki... by Ned Lud on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 7:21:14 AM
Yes.And the "make you feel better about yourself" ... by Lou Mains on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 9:07:15 AM
Seligman is a psychopath, who needs to locked up s... by Daniel Geery on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:20:44 PM
approaching that of Dr. Seligman, but it seems to ... by John Sanchez Jr. on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 10:32:18 AM
Armies, war and conflict are only possible because... by R. A. Landbeck on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 12:23:02 PM
As someone who has been working in the field of ps... by Sherwin Steffin on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 1:22:20 PM
OEN is not a scientific journal. My goal was not t... by Rob Kall on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:08:57 PM
1. What accusations did I make? If I improperly la... by Sherwin Steffin on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 5:48:42 PM
The US is still very much in Iraq. It has reduced... by Richard Pietrasz on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 8:16:08 PM
of Wayne Dyer, who work with both the head and the... by Daniel Geery on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:23:58 PM
This from undergrad days in mid 50s. Maslow had ca... by Sherwin Steffin on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 6:36:50 PM
and focused on exemplary folks rather than those w... by Daniel Geery on Sunday, Jan 9, 2011 at 11:37:42 AM
Examining individual items in the purported 5-item... by phidipidese on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:00:48 PM
was recently featured on a video clip using his pu... by John Sanchez Jr. on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 5:08:11 PM
Positive psychology (PP) is not a baby. It is OK ... by Richard Pietrasz on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 8:24:04 PM
..............(I'm unable to put a Dr. in front of... by Robert P. Philipps on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 8:43:49 PM