Jeff Peters “has been engaged in as many schemes for making money as there are recipes for cooking rice in Charleston, S.C.” When told by a constable that the next place on his hit list “won’t allow no fake doctors to practice in town,” Jeff replies proudly, “I don’t practice medicine. I’ve got a state peddler’s license.” Nonetheless, Jeff finds himself in the home of the mayor, dispensing “scientific demonstrations…the triumph of mind over sarsaparilla, of the great doctrine of psychic financiering.” Ok, Jeff is a character in an O. Henry story, “Jeff Peters as a Personal Magnet.” But his misguided attempts to earn a living (while not getting caught) are an object lesson for anyone taking Positive Psychology to the public.
Secondly, his goal is not human flourishing but “psychic financiering”, the manipulation of people so that they will part with their cash. The Mayor is told he can be cured in only two treatments for a $250 fee, with which he willingly parts. But there is a twist.
Finally, Jeff is caught, not because there is proof that what he sells does not work, but because there are laws about who is allowed to practice “medicine” in that state.
So this begs the question, is Positive Psychology a practice that needs to be regulated? And if so, what would this look like? Business-as-usual psychology is governed by a whole host of state and federal laws, depending on what services a practitioner offers. Any of these licensed (or certified, if they work in public schools and not in private practice) professionals can say they offer positive psychology, the use of which is not regulated, unlike, say, “Child and Family Therapist.”
The downside of a lack of regulation is the “Resurrection Bitters.” People who have attended a lecture or read some great titles on the subject can take on the Positive Psychology brand to modernize their marketing, and given the “personal magnetism” that the fictional Jeff Peters employs, they may charge handsomely for it. Meanwhile, those with a mind for criticism can find numerous ways to undermine the value of what Positive Psychology can—and does—offer: an empirically-based approach to the study and practice of human flourishing.
The APA proposes to “develop a policy to address perceived lack of clarity among certification mechanisms available to psychologists who wish to identify themselves to the public as having a specific area of expertise. The intention of the policy is to provide guidance to psychologists who may seek specialty credentials and to protect the public from the adverse effects of credentials that do not actually measure competence.” This is just for the field of psychology. What about other fields such as business, medicine, education or coaching?
When a field is young, and its engineering is still under construction, regulation can be the response to preventing snake oil sellers from undermining what is both viable and valuable, but this comes at the cost of developing infrastructure. The field of coaching, for example, has the ICF in an attempt to codify what coaches do and how they are trained. There are competing organizations whose training the ICF recognizes, unlike the field of medicine which has the AMA and then specialty boards which set standards for further certification.
In an applied field such as Positive Psychology, we are creating research-based approaches within other fields. This is exciting, but a bit messy when we take our passion for PP onto Main Street. How do people need to have our work explained to them? What are integrity-fueled marketing tools that avoid making Positive Psychology look, as some critics purport, the next cult?
It is said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Most self-employed people will tell you that positive word-of-mouth advertising is the key to getting the right customers and staying in business. Jet Blue will tell you that a positive public relations campaign has not made up for bad publicity after their cancellations scandal.
I’d love to hear from people who are meeting the challenge of marketing not only their own work, but also branding the bigger message of Positive Psychology so that the flourishing future we envision will become a reality. Go team!
***For more on branding and why it is so important, see this article from the Wharton School of Business.
El Alma del Ebro courtesy of Paulo Brandão