Do Positive Interventions Ever Backfire?
A few weeks ago someone started an interesting discussion on the ‘Friends of Positive Psychology’ Listserv by asking if using a gratitude activity had ever backfired. The question may have been prompted by a recently published study by Susan Sergeant and Myriam Mongrain in which a gratitude exercise not only did not work with particularly needy personality types, but also appeared to result in lower self-esteem. You can read a review of the research on the British Psychological Society’s website here. (Note that, as usual, there are limitations to the study which you need to take into account.)
Establishing Fitness to Purpose: 3 AlternativesThis again raises the question of fit (which we have covered several times before on PPND, and which Jeremy McCarthy recently discussed here), that is, whether positive psychology techniques, such as expressing gratitude, are suitable for everyone or whether they must be tailored.
It seems from the previous articles and comments on PPND there are three broad approaches:
- One size fits all: Anyone can benefit from doing any of the positive psychology techniques.
- Personalized: It’s possible, given the science, to find a specific approach to suit every individual. On the one hand this makes sense because we need to know if there are any exceptions to the general rule. But on the other there is no middle way with this approach. What you could end up with is “This exercise will work for those with personality type A and experience of X but not for those with personality type B or C and experience of Y or Z.” As we are all unique (aren’t we?), the level of detail to which you’d need to drill down to get a definitive answer could go on. And on. And on.
- The Half-way House: This is the way I describe Sonja Lyubomirsky’s best fit approach. In The How of Happiness she suggests choosing a happiness strategy according to whether there is a fit with your
- source of unhappiness
- your strengths
- your lifestyle
She then provides a handy diagnostic for person-activity fit to determine which four of the 12 empirically-based strategies in her book will be most valuable to you.
Reflections on Fitness to Purpose
I can see why option 1 (one size fits all) is attractive, especially if you’ve got slightly more knowledge about positive psychology than the person you’re talking to and you’re keen to broadcast it, but actually I only know one person who takes this approach – a colleague who insists on being the expert and that people should do the dozen or so empirically validated positive psychology exercises to the letter. I’m not advocating you should take this approach by the way, but as it happens, this person does seem to be pretty successful with it.
Option 2 (completely personalized) is also logically appealing. The right positive psychology technique, in the right way, at the right time, for the right person does make sense, doesn’t it? After all if someone broke a leg you wouldn’t prescribe a dose of statins to fix it. But can we deal with unhappiness, mental ill-health, or other deficits in the same way? Whether you work as a coach, therapist, counselor or psychologist, can you ‘see’ the client’s problem with the same clarity that a doctor read an Xray? I simplify to make a point, of course physical illness isn’t always straightforward to diagnose!
So that leaves us with option 3, Lyubomirsky’s half-way house, the person-activity fit. She states that “…there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier” because “Each individual is unhappy for a unique constellation of reasons.” However, she appears to be sticking with her twelve broad categories of evidence-based activity and is confident that persisting with your four best matches will pay off and boost your happiness. If not, she suggests trying other complementary activities, again selected from her original 12.
What’s interesting about Lyubomirsky’s approach is that fit is based on what you think and feel about the activity (“Will I enjoy it? Will I value it?”) and your motivation to do it, not on your innate personality characteristics. Perhaps the person-activity fit criteria really are a good proxy, but there is no suggestion that doing the ‘wrong’ activity could actually be harmful to your well-being (as occurred in the Seargeant and Mongrain’s study of highly needy people mentioned above), merely that it won’t work and that you’ll become demotivated.
So what is right? Does fit matter, and if so, how much? Are positive psychology advocates that bothered if a small group of people reacts badly to one of their techniques under laboratory conditions?
I don’t think any positive psychologist has ever given a cast-iron guarantee (even my colleague fights shy of that) but they certainly have led many hundreds of thousands of people to believe that greater well-being is readily within their grasp based on doing a small selection of activities. It would seem that there is a huge amount of work to be done, not just in terms of research but also in the way we present positive psychology to the public. Until then (paraphrasing Richard Lazarus) should we be surprised if the ‘science’ of positive psychology is continually criticized for promising a lot and delivering little?
Lazarus, R. (2003). Does the positive psychology movement have legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 93-109.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. London: Sphere. Quotations are on pages 69 & 71.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Sergeant, S. & Mongrain, M. (2011). Are positive psychology exercises helpful for people with depressive personality styles? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6 (4), 260-272
Gratitude Journal courtesy of Limevelyn
Scissors courtesy of trakygraves
Thanks for the great article Bridget! Maybe this is just my coaching training speaking, but I think we need to start from a client-centric point of view – and the first question is, does the client actually want to change? It takes some effort to create new habits, to stick to a new routine, to go outside one’s comfort zone and try new things – if the client isn’t into it, then it doesn’t matter much which positive interventions we suggest or “prescribe”.
And then I keep coming back to Seligman’s assertion that positive psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive. But if that’s true, then I don’t understand the “applied” component… because doesn’t applying pos psych necessarily imply that it’s prescriptive?
Definitely no guarantees!
Hey Lisa, I never believed the statement that it is descriptive, not prescriptive. It sounds defensive. A statement that positive psychology has the word positive in it but its an objective science.
More importantly, like you, this would be quite a hollow endeavor if in the end, it did not lead to concrete ideas about healthy human change. Why wouldn’t we want description to lead to prescription? And prescription can be as nuanced as Bridget describes.
Lets be honest, our values infect what scientists ask and what they study, just as they infect the philosophical assumptions and techniques of people on the frontlines working to improve people’s well-being.
You can be descriptive and prescriptive. And by doing so, it would be more honest and impactful. What’s important is to hold those prescriptions loosely because new data are always streaming in and its really hard to let go of biases, assumptions, and current practice. Bad ideas are hard to get rid of. Why? There is no such thing as unlearning.
Your article has stimulated my thinking. Human beings are all alike, but each is unique. We are uniquely disfunctional. Different sets of techniques may or not be helpful getting us to effective functioning. Moving into positive psychology,different sets of techniques may or may not be helpful in our unique search for meaning,value,beauty,growth, or whatever leads us to positive psychology.
A lot of the research on person-activity fit has focused on personality, looking for the type of people who might benefit from a particular technique. What this overlooks is other aspects of context, what are the right times and places for these techniques and how might practitioners help guide selections using this information. I think “fit” plays a large role but as researchers and practitioners we need to expand our definition of what “fit” means.
Hi Todd – certainly I believe in prescriptive AND descriptive – isn’t that what “The How of Happiness” is all about, and it seems to me that the PP community holds that book and Sonja Lyubomirsky in very high esteem.
I also agree that we want to hold prescriptions loosely – and that bodes well (I believe) for the role of a PP coach – that it is about the client and his/her needs and agenda. Now myself, I’m a big fan of training and corporate speaking, because you start anew with each engagement, bringing the latest and greatest each time. But I’m still going to share “prescriptions”, directly or obliquely, because that’s what people are looking and listening for!
We do the best we can…
Todd: I’ve recently been thinking that we need to stop saying that we’re not being prescriptive – quite the opposite, in fact. We need to prescribe, because when, under the guise of being “cautious,” we refuse to say what our research means for practice, we leave a huge vacuum when there is a strong demand for substance. People don’t choose not to apply our research just because we say they shouldn’t – they just interpret the implications for us, because we refused to do it ourselves. If we want to have an impact on what people think can/can’t be extrapolated from our work, we need to SAY what can/can’t be extrapolated.
Saying “we don’t want to be prescriptive” is like an invitation to other people to say whatever they want about our research. It’s bad information management.
Thank you Lisa! I think your response raises a number of interesting points, not least the role of the psychologist/positive psychologist. In the past it was the case that the psychologist (or counsellor/therapist/doctor etc) was ‘the expert’, and the client was there to take their ‘advice’; some practitioners still do work in that model. I don’t know if positive psychology practitioners lean more towards a client-centered perspective.
Your question about wanting to change is interesting – and reminds me of a comment I made on Jeremy’s article last week. There are some things that will benefit you (medical conditions excepted) regardless of whether you enjoy them or not, e.g. exercise & spinach (Jeremy’s examples) and mindfulness meditation. Which would suggest that clients would benefit from persevering even if they don’t want to do them….So how does that fit with a client-centric approach I wonder?
I think you are in agreement that there is a balance between prescription and description, and that the role of the coach/psychologist is to ‘hold those prescriptions loosely’. I know in e.g. coaching/counselling training people do a lot of work on surfacing their own values/beliefs etc so that they will be mindful of how they influence what goes on in the relationship with the client, but are positive psychologists doing this? It didn’t really feature in our MAPP training. How about in yours?
Acacia, agreed. more than that, from the beginning, PP has been descriptive and prescriptive. false advertising will only lose credibility.
think of how many models of strengths there are out there. prescriptive.
the idea that working on strengths has traction. prescriptive.
as Lisa says, all of the exercises in Sonja’s book and of course, her predecessors that led to many of the findings and exercises- Pennebraker, Emmons, [insert mindfulness thinker over the past few thousand years], Gable and Reis, etc.
Stephen, you are so astute. Would love for practitioners reading this to do just that and add to the list so we can go study them….
@Stephen – love the comment about expanding “fit”. This reminds me of the “golden mean” of strengths – in one situation, courage could be foolhardy, for example. We do need to keep the bigger context in mind at all times. And, to continue my client-centric theme, who better to collaborate with than the client who is living in that context?
I wonder if there is a different word to use rather than “prescriptive”. A prescription makes me think of the doctor who commands his patient to take two aspirin and call in the morning, and then chastizes that patient if those directives are not followed to the letter. I believe that, as positive psychology practitioners, we embrace a different model – where the practitioner certainly has knowledge and access to certain tools and insights, but we also collaborate with the client to better understand the context and personal fit.
So perhaps, strictly speaking in a certain semantic sense, PP is not “prescriptive” in that we actually don’t know that any specific positive intervention will absolutely raise the well-being for every individual that does it. (And I realize that the same holds true for a medical model – but that is where medicine comes from…)
What would another term be? Something that includes that notion of collaboration and co-construction of appropriate positive interventions for the client, and continuing support along the path?
Bridget – I don’t think the half way house is that useful. I think one of Sonja’s 12 is meditation. I have seen research that suggests that different types of meditation works for different people. For example highly neurotic people are better to play with focusing meditations. So based on Sonja’s approach you try meditation – but one that doesn’t suit your personality – its doesn’t work so you drop it and move onto the next of the 12. Seems like a road to no where.
Approaches 1 & 3 seem like a huge cop out and I’m not sure why you would hire a coach/consultant who uses these approaches.
Glad this article gave you some food for thought.
Your comment also brings home the point that ‘well-being’, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ (or whatever your positive goal is) is also unique to the individual. Whilst we may agree on what we call it, what is actually is will be different from person to person.
I broadly agree with you, and I do think further work needs to be done on what fit actually means.
At the same time I think ‘fit’ is often used as a get-out clause. And therefore we could also do with some more insight into the personal development which often occurs when you step out of your comfort zone. Is there a psychological definition of comfort zone/the bit outside of it??
I agree with Todd’s comments on prescriptive/descriptive. And think of the value that could come from getting out of the lab, prescribing and then measuring the results of the prescriptions. This is where we typically fall short, even in medicine. We don’t gather data on the real word applications. This is where we would learn about fit and context far faster than doing more RCTEs. Maybe we need a PP version of “patients like me” (google this if not familiar.)
Thank you for bringing together the thoughts from the Friends of PP listserv to create a new discussion here. It brings the discussion from that group to a wider audience.
Jeremy – I think you are being a little naive. Self help has always been practice driven but failed to test it – pp was meant to distinguish itself by adding the science. Pp can probably never fulfill this role as it has access to a limited test base ie psychology students
In reference to descriptive v. prescriptive, here’s an excerpt from “A Primer in Positive Psychology” by Chris Peterson:
“We decided not to adopt any given theory as our explicit framework because none of these could be fully evaluated in light of hard evidence. As I have already explained, our project was triggered in part by the lack of empirical tools.
We therefore labeled the project a classification as opposed to a taxonomy. The technical distinction is that a classification tries to be descriptive–demarcating a domain and describing its instances–whereas a taxonomy is based on a deep theory that explains relationships among these instances (Bailey, 1994). Positive psychology may someday produce a theory of good character that can undergird a classification like the one we created…but this is a future goal.”
Sounds like the argument in favor of description is that there are no testable unifying theories within Positive Psychology (at least as of 2006). Until that occurs (maybe it will be a synthesis of broaden-and-build, VIA, social intuitionism, and PERMA), PP is descriptive in that it attempts to describe a pleasurable, good, and meaningful life. We can use this data to infer recommendations for ourselves or others, but it is not prescriptive until there is underlying theory.
Kevin, that argument only flies if you ignore all the theories related to wellbeing in psychology and economics over the past 4 decades. See self-determination theory as an example. But why do we need a deep theory to move from the lab to practice? If its not prescriptive how did penn justify the creation of a $40,000/yr “applied” positive psychology program? Can’t have it both ways. Can’t say its just descriptive and then cash in on prescriptions to the public, schools, big business, the military, and more.
Oz, the opposite is true. PP has access to a broader base of test subjects because it is not limited to clinical populations and the breadth of applications is so diverse.
Todd, the way I understand it is that if a study is descriptive then it attempts to show how things really are, but if it is prescriptive then it attempts to show how things ideally should be.
So, it seems that Marty and the gang were just saying that PP was attempting to describe how flourishing people really behave (in order to apply that information to increase life-satisfaction), and it was not (at that time) using a theoretical or philosophical framework to prescribe interventions and behaviors (effectively saying this is how things should be).
If this is true, then all the MAPP graduates are telling their clients to build optimism, show gratitude, and develop deep interpersonal relationships because of studies that have shown that people who do that flourish/succeed more than people who do not. That is descriptive, not prescriptive.
PS I’m just a high school English and Social Studies teacher, and have never been formerly trained in psychology. I am considering applying to the Positive Psychology program at Claremont in the near future; maybe after that occurs I will better understand whether there yet are prescriptive aspects to the discipline.
Hey Kevin, we disagree on the definition of prescription. This terminology has been around for decades and deviates from your statements.
Telling people to build optimism, show gratitude, and focus on strengths is prescriptive. Just like a physician guiding someone to absorb more omega-3 fatty acids. Just like a personal trainer guiding someone through a routine to build their abdominal strength and cardiovascular system. Just like a dietician collaborating on a change in eating routine. Its an interpretation of the science and these interpretations are guided by interests, values, and biases.
The notion that PP studies provide absolutes and capture the truth is being overplayed. Thats the whole point of Bridget’s blog post as well as the additional comments above by Acacia, Stephen, and Jeremy.
What you call descriptive is based on empirical research informed by particular values and interests at the onset and these same values, interests, and biases affect the interpretation of the data. Once you tell a client to show gratitude, unless they are using the same methodology, unless you are using a similar context as the study, you are being prescriptive. And if you are using the same methodology, I would suggest retraining on how to collaborate better with clients and personalize interventions.
Keep in mind, I am all for description and prescription. I can hold both. What I don’t understand is the fear and incredible effort devoted to avoid the applications of science to help people (i.e., prescription). I believe its an attempt to make PP look more legitimate and I believe its dishonest and backfiring. Lets just refer to things as what they are (similar to my arguments in the hedonic-eudaimonic happiness debacle/debate).
Thanks for the discussion, Todd. I’ll look more in to the distinctions between descriptive and prescriptive. It sounds pretty interesting, and looks as if it is an important distinction to understand to avoid misunderstanding. I’ll probably also pick up a copy of your book on curiosity – I’ve been thinking that stimulating intellectual curiosity is one of the key components to engaging the interest of students.
Reading back over the conclusion of Bridgette’s article, I’m still struck that one of the difficulties with determining fit is the relative lack of broad theories within positive psychology itself. Integrating PP with other approaches (for example, Claremont’s Positive Developmental Psychology program) seems like an important next step, as it will lead to the development of more theoretical frameworks.
Hey Kev, and thanks for tickling my brain. A better way to think of why PP is prescriptive is the notion of opportunity cost. Every time someone suggests a PP intervention for a person, couple, or organization there is something else they are not doing. Time on strengths is time away from deficits. Time on optimism is time away from mindfulness. There are plenty of things that we now can move the wellbeing gauge from diet to exercise to sex to meditation. Thus, its disingenuous for PP to claim description and not prescription.
would love to hear more about the positive development psych program, never heard of it before. That being said, I do have a bit of a natural aversion to throwing the word “positive” in front of developmental psychology. Piaget, Kagan, Vygotsky, Ainsworth, Bowlby, Kohlberg, Rutter, Brofenbrenner, and others were all studying how kids develop from risk to resilience, from deficits to strengths. Quite an abundance of theories to build on. I would suggest that people interested in development just go into a developmental psychology program. I’m curious as to what you cut out from developmental psych that doesn’t fit with the “positive” agenda. if my kids need someone to help them out, I want them to know about all aspects of children’s psyche.
Alright Dr. Kashdan, I did some reading into descriptive and prescriptive disciplines and think that the problem is that there are different ways of thinking about the terms.
In philosophy and ethics you can think about morality in one of four fields:
Descriptive Ethics, which would ask, “What do flourishing people do?”
Normative (Prescriptive) Ethics, which would ask, “How can a person flourish?”
Applied Ethics, which would ask, “How can we apply what we know about flourish?”
Meta-Ethics, which asks, “What does flourishing even mean?”
Considering the roots of Positive Psychology in Phenomenology, I think that this is the framework that Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, and Peterson have in mind.
In reading about decision theory, it is considered a normative or prescriptive discipline because it seeks to identify the best decision to make assuming a rational decision maker, but other disciplines can be considered positive or descriptive when the attempt to describe what people actually do, since people often violate beliefs they claim to hold. Since you mentioned opportunity-cost, the economist part of you may lean towards this model.
And finally, in common usage somebody prescribes when they seek to advise, and describes when they seek to explain. So Tal Ben-Shahar advising people to keep gratitude journals is prescriptive, but when he looks to explain what Happiness is and how you can achieve it, he is being descriptive. In the comments thus far, this seems to be the general consensus of what prescription and description means.
So, if we were to take the ethical framework, when Bridget discusses “fit” in the article she is speaking of Positive Psychology as an applied discipline (not a prescriptive or descriptive one), but if we were to take the common usage of the words, applied is synonymous to prescribed.
As for Positive Developmental Psychology… It is one of the programs at the Claremont Graduate University where Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches (Positive Organizational Psychology is also offered there). I am all for the cross disciplinary approaches, and think that our knowledge and skills are enhanced through ambiguity and integration (Is this addressed in Curiosity??). I imagine that the program uses a general foundation in psychology to build an understanding of both the developmental and positive approaches, prior to the student developing their specialty in area that integrates the two. I don’t know enough about the programs yet to speak to the opportunity cost of integrating two different approaches in a systematic way.
Jeremy – I don’t think you undertand the issue. The average punter isn’t interested in being involved in PP studies – the only pool of peolple researchers hacve easy access to are psych students.
Can you say a little more about “the fear and incredible effort devoted to avoid the applications of science to help people (i.e., prescription)”. I don’t see much of this going on at all, in fact, the opposite. Am I missing your point?
I agree with you about the need for cross-disciplinary approaches – there hasn’t been enough of this to date as far as I can see. But that means much more than just seeing the same topic from the health model perspective….It may be unfair but the sceptic would say that ‘positive developmental psychology’ is mainly about marketing. The problem is that science doesn’t do ambiguity very well does it?
I googled Patients Like Me, frightening… On the plus side it made me very grateful that I’m fit and healthy! A PP version would be very interesting. You’d have to change the set up from ‘I have + noun’ in the disease model to ‘I am + adjective’ in the health model, which is interesting in itself.
Kevin, really nice analysis, thank you. A great resource for everyone who comes to PPND and spouts the phrase descriptive, not prescriptive.
As for the program you mention, I am all for interdisciplinary work and my behavior confirms this. But PP is not a scientific discipline, its a point of emphasis, a lens, a call to arms. Valuable but with the caveat that there is probably a necessary expiration date when its time to integrate and synthesize with the rest of knowledge that came before and continues to stream in elsewhere.
Would you be willing to take your comment above and turn it into an article for PPND? I think it is valuable, and I know that it is easier for people to find articles for reference than to find comments.
If so, be in touch (email the editor and associate editor.) I think it is almost ready to go.
Bridget, I think Todd is referring to the fact that the “descriptive, not prescriptive” message seems to be a prominent part of the marketing messaging about PP in an attempt to give it more empirical weight, but doesn’t really reflect the way it is being studied or applied.
Oz, I get your point, but don’t think this is unique to positive psychology. The overreliance on undergraduate research subjects plagues all of our social sciences. Here’s an article on this that came out this week: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/12/07/the-weird-evolution-of-human-psychology/. My point is PP has more access to other populations than other social sciences as evidenced by millions of participants in online surveys (e.g. VIA) or applications in military, education, and business where research data can be gathered. The question is whether researchers will choose to rely on the easy routes of online surveys and undergraduate research participants or do more real world applied investigations–but there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.
Kathryn, I like the idea of an article on “descriptive vs. prescriptive.” I agree with Todd that Kevin’s notes would make a good resource.
Great discussion with really important issues! This is the kind of debate that shows that PP has not only legs but also brains. Two ideas come out from my past experience: 1. The ‘descriptive vs. prescriptive’ issue reminded me of a old Paul Watzlawick joke concerning dualistic dichotomies (‘There are 2 kinds of persons in the world, the ones who believe that there are 2 kinds of persons and … the others’). I also enjoyed the mention to client centric vision in relation to the fit of the use of PP techniques. That reminded me of a Steve de Shazer remark on the type of clients as a previous condition to look for the fit of solutions oriented therapy. It might be useful to consider Shazer’s suggested homology: The ones who ask for PP interventions are really buying it? Just visiting? Or they were sent to it with an agenda of someone else? The PP/ solution oriented answer/intervention should consider the different positioning of the client.
Thanks for your response. Looks like another case of having it both ways. The more I think about it, the more it seems we are glossing over some important issues in PP our haste to, um, make money?
Loved the link to the article, by the way. This type of analysis should feature much more prominently. Do you happen to know what the population/demographic split of online surveys such as VIA is? Access to the internet still isn’t global, nor does everyone in the world speak English, nor do other cultures necessarily understand psychology the way we do in the West.
I disagree with your point about there being nothing to prevent people doing real-world research. When we did MAPP research it was incredibly difficult to get companies to sign up to participate, because there was nothing (immediate) in it for them. And then there’s ethics committees etc to contend with.
Thanks for the joke! I looked up some of Watzlawick’s other stuff and came across this
“The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions”
which I think is very pertinent in our discussion of the global relevance/application of positive psychology.
Thanks for bringing Steve de Shazar into the conversation. It’s interesting to consider whether PP techniques work only when the client is a ‘customer’ (i.e. recognises the problem and is cooperative/willing to change), or whether they also work if the client is a ‘complainant’ (ie recognises the problem and unwilling to change) or a ‘visitor’ (ie doesn’t recognise they have a problem).
I’m wondering whether some techniques (like physical exercise and spinach) benefit everyone (again, health issues and spinach allergies notwithstanding) whether they like them or not. Perhaps enjoying the technique, whatever it is, is immaterial in some cases.