Home All The Spirit Level (Book Review)

The Spirit Level (Book Review)

written by Coert Visser 22 February 2010

Coert Visser is a solution-focused trainer, coach, psychologist, and author. He posts daily on his blog on a variety of topics related to solution-focused practice, psychology, and science. Coert is a guest author. Full bio.

Coert's articles can be found here.

BOOK REVIEW: Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York, Bloomsbury Press.

Diminishing Returns of Economic Growth

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Kate Pickett

Kate Pickett

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two English epidemiologists, have written a provocative book on how high levels of inequality in societies are harmful for everyone within them.


Their research shows that while economic policies in developed countries stress the importance of economic growth, the contribution of further economic growth reaches a point of dimiminishing marginal returns. The relationship levels off between economic growth and certain objectively measurable outcomes, as shown for life expectancy in the figure below.

Relationship between Economic Growth and Well-being Measures (World Wide)

Level of Equality as a Better Predictor of Social Well-Being
According to the authors, national income per person and economic growth are not the most important predictors of societal thriving in developed countries. The level of equality explains a great deal more. Wilkinson and Pickett’s research shows the association between many health-related and social problems and the level of inequality of society.

Here is how they did their research. They gathered data from 23 of the richest countries in the world from the World Bank and gathered internationally comparable data on the following health and social problems:

  • level of trust
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction)
  • life expectancy and infant mortality
  • obesity
  • children’s educational performance
  • teenage births
  • homicides
  • imprisonment rates
  • social mobility

Here is an example graph showing how an index of these measures is related to income inequality.

Relationship between Equality and Social Measures (World Wide)

To cross-validate their findings, the researchers tested these findings in a new data sample which consisted of the 50 American states. This research confirmed their national-level findings. Below is a graph showing how the index of health and social problems is related to income inequality across the United States.

Relationship between Income Equality and Social Measures (United States)

The book contains many more graphs showing specific relationships between income inequality and separate measures of societal functioning. The slides are available online, as described below.


Why is this relevant for positive psychology?

Positive psychologists have done much research into how money is associated with happiness and some of their findings, at first glance, seem to be at odds with Wilkinson and Pickett’s findings. Berg and Veenhoven, for instance, found little relationship between income inequality and average happiness in nations. It seems paradoxical that income equality would be related to many objectively measurable problems but hardly at all with happiness. How can one be equally happy when objectively things are worse? What is going on here?

This question takes us back to the original formulation of positive psychology’s mission. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi wrote in 2000, “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise that achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities.” This wonderful definition supports research that studies any factors that might determine thriving.

In practice, however, positive psychology is usually more narrowly operationalized. For instance, on the Wikipedia page of February 15, 2010, it is defined as follows: “Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology that studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” This definition mentions only strengths and virtues as candidates for causal factors of thriving. It makes no mention at all of contextual, situational, or structural factors.

A broader perspective on thriving and its determinants

As psychologists, we have known for a long time how important situational factors are in influencing our perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, feelings, and performance. Wilkinson and Pickett’s research is another example of this, and it fits splendidly within the original definition of positive psychology in the sense that it contributes to the scientific understanding of how communities and their members thrive.

Also, it is an illustration of the limitations of using subjective criterion measures in research. Apparently, we can report well-being while objectively things are not going too well, both on an individual level and on a society level. We should not equate thriving or flourishing with subjective well-being. On this Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, writes:

“Flourishing goes beyond happiness, or satisfaction with life. True, people who flourish are happy. But that’s not the half of it. Beyond feeling good, they’re also doing good -adding value to the world. People who flourish are highly engaged with their families, work, and communities. They’re driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning.”

For positive psychology to thrive, it needs to move beyond a somewhat narrow focus on happiness and strengths and take into account a broader perspective on thriving and its determinants.


Berg, M. & Veenhoven, R. (2010). Income inequality and happiness in 119 nations. In search for an optimum that does not appear to exist. In: Bent Greve (Ed.), Happiness and Social Policy in Europe, Edgar Elgar.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Pickett, K. (2010). Why Inequality is bad for your health.

Seligman, M.E.P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology. An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 5-14

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York, Bloomsbury Press.

The charts in this article are used with permission from The Equality Trust site. See the site for reusable slides and conditions for reusing them – and a 3-minute puppet video about the book.

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Jacquelline Boerefijn 22 February 2010 - 2:42 pm

Thank you Coert!
Indeed a very interesting and relevant topic!

wayne 22 February 2010 - 9:42 pm

Coert – the definition of pp on the penn site is “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive”

Why do you think PP has been hijacked by the strenghts movement?

Coert Visser 24 February 2010 - 9:24 am

dear Jacqueline and Wayne, thanks for your comments!
Wayne, I am not sure I would put it like that but I do think there is room for improvement by broadening its focus.

Christine Duvivier 24 February 2010 - 9:45 am

Hi Coert, thanks for your great article and thought-provoking ideas. You lay out helpful information and make your points clear, which is great when I’m skimming quickly!

I completely agree that context is important. I agree with you that Positive Psychology hasn’t fully captured systems-thinking (although some of us PP’s in the field have) have, but I don’t understand why you say PP focuses only on strengths. There is an emphasis on individual psychology, but in the entire field of positive psychology there is extensive discussion on individual, company, and community thriving.

If your point is: let’s talk more about this, I agree.


erich hotter 24 February 2010 - 11:20 am

Hi Coert,

you raise very important questions: can there be a good life within a bad system? does pp (or psychology as a whole) in a way contribute to the stability of societies which produce so much inequality and misery instead of using their insights for questioning them?


WJ 24 February 2010 - 2:15 pm

Coert, I noticed that you are from the Netherlands which consistently ranks highly in life satisfaction poles.

From your experience in the Netherlands, how would you broaden the focus of PP.

Coert Visser 24 February 2010 - 2:46 pm

Hi Wayne,
Thanks for your challenging question. I’ll try to give a (beginning of) an answer. Here are a few ways which may be useful for broading the focus of PP:

1) do focus on building knowledge about thriving thriving (/flourishing)while acknowledging that thirving is more than subjective well-being (see article)

2) expand the focus on thriving of groups/organizations/communities (here is an example from positive organizational scholarship: http://bit.ly/adBuCX)

3) put more focus on other determinants of thriving than strengths and happiness, in particular situational determinants

5) focus more on an ideosyncratic, try+learn and doing what works approach (as opposed to a high standardization, plan+implement and strengths focus (more here: http://bit.ly/9ljdhF)

6) More actively seek cross-links with psychological research done outside the PP community. I often notice that many PP hardly know of work by researchers like Anders Ericsson – to name ane example. Another example: from the organizational psychology literature there is already evidence on the importance of equality for organizational functioning (see for instance Jeffrey Pfeffer’s work)

Here are, from the top of my head, some ideas about how PP may broaden its focus. I am not sure what they have to do with my being Dutch, hard for me to say anything about that

All the best,

Todd Kashdan 24 February 2010 - 2:53 pm

Coert, damn good response, especially 3, 5, and 6. I hesitate to respond as I am putting the finishing touches on an entire edited volume on this topic with Ken Sheldon and Michael Steger, “Designing the Future of Positive Psychology.” Needless to say, we build on the themes you mention.


Coert Visser 24 February 2010 - 2:59 pm

Dear Christine,

Thanks for your comment!

Sorry if I have not been explicit enough on this but I do not say that PP only focuses on strengths. I also do not object to strengths as a research topic (of course I would not). I DO however think PP has been over-emphasizing strengths as a research topic at the expense of other possible candidates.

My perception is that there is relatively little attention to company and community thriving within PP. I could absolutely be wrong about this. Please let me know examples of studies that have focused on company and community thriving.
I’d love to admit my perception is wrong here.

All the best and thx!

Coert Visser 24 February 2010 - 3:00 pm

Hi Todd,
thanks! You are very welcome to quote me 😉


Todd Kashdan 24 February 2010 - 3:29 pm

Coert, here is my thought on the issue being debated.
There appears to be a narrow view of positive psychology that dominates and a broader view. The narrow view appears to be in danger of dominating the field for people who lack substantative training in general psychology. I am not talking about undergraduate courses, I am talking about graduate degrees or the requisite reading that would be equivalent to these degrees. If you are only trained in positive psychology, you are liable to miss the importance of understanding emotions before diving into positive emotions. That is, basic definitions and structural models, appraisal theories, how emotions operate in memory and decision-making, etc. Before diving into healthy relationships, you need to understand basic concepts such as attributions, dual-process models, self and identity, cultural and evolutionary perspectives, stereotyping, automaticity and implicit processes, persuasion, social cognition and perception, etc.

A narrow view primarily involves people endorsing positive psychology or referenced by people endorsing positive psychology (1 degree of separation). In this narrow world, strengths do dominate. If you did an analysis of the percentage of references in PPND to people who describe themselves as part of positive psychology, it would probably be close to 75%. A broad view ignores the researchers and focuses on the research. In this broad world, strengths are one of many dominating topics. Plenty of research has been going on for years that never uses the term positive psychology. As an example, I just looked at the articles in this month’s issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that are relevant to positive psychology but likely to be missed if people are focused on researcher names instead of ideas:

A Culture of Genius: How an Organization’s Lay Theory Shapes People’s Cognition, Affect, and Behavior Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2010 36: 283-296.

Nonconformity Defines the Self: The Role of Minority Opinion Status in Self-Concept Clarity
Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2010 36: 297-308.

What Is Beautiful Is Good Because What Is Beautiful Is Desired: Physical Attractiveness Stereotyping as Projection of Interpersonal Goals
Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2010 36: 339-353.

Causal Uncertainty and Psychological Well-Being: The Moderating Role of Accommodation (Secondary Control)
Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2010 36: 371-383.

When Friends Make You Blue: The Role of Friendship Contingent Self-Esteem in Predicting Self-Esteem and Depressive Symptoms
Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2010 36: 384-397.

Giving Birth to Empathy: The Effects of Similar Experience on Empathic Accuracy, Empathic Concern, and Perceived Empathy
Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2010 36: 398-409.

Accuracy and Perceived Expert Status in Group Decisions: When Minority Members Make Majority Members More Accurate Privately
Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2010 36: 423-437.

Except for the first article listed, none of the above authors have shown up on the listserv or PPND. Also, notice the abundance of work beyond the individual to study organizations and communities. All this in only one issue of one journal.

What I am arguing for is stronger connections beyond the usual suspects to build a science of the good life. The breadth is there, the data are there, what we need are people that are willing to make the connections. Looking forward to seeing what people find outside the narrow confines of people defining themselves as positive psychologists. I am not discounting anything, anything at all, by positive psychologists, I am simply pointing out that there is a whole world out there that is being ignored by people studying and applying a narrow view of where PP lies….


WJ 24 February 2010 - 3:49 pm

Todd – I have to agree that there is a whole world of research out there.

wayne 24 February 2010 - 9:31 pm

Todd, I think you also need to know a little about psychophysiology and neuropsychology. Pyscholoy both maninstream, and PP seem to overlook this in the curriculum.

Todd Kashdan 24 February 2010 - 10:03 pm

Wayne, absolutely, even if it is hard to digest. Ken, Mike, and myself are wax ecstatic to get a chapter from Jaak Panksepp for our book where he provides an incredible synthesis of the neurobiological underpinnings of many positive psychology constructs. When I read his chapter, I felt ignorant and uninformed. Few authors make me feel that way….its a great feeling to discover such a large important gap in your knowledge base and start to fill it. I can’t wait until the world gets their hands on it.

WJ 24 February 2010 - 10:46 pm

Todd – Found this quote from Jaak – I like the guy

“Just to come back to one of my pet peeves–that psychology needs to become biologically-oriented. We have this wonderful discipline, but one where people seem to be doing the same thing over and over again, especially with the many verbal and pencil and paper approaches. Psychology departments have very few people that really understand the way the brain operates, and that is a great shortcoming of the area. If we all knew much more about the brain, we would be able to help kids with problems, as well as adults with problems, much better. We could finally become a solid science.”

Dave Shearon 24 February 2010 - 10:58 pm

Todd, you espouse an interesting belief system about “narrow” and “broad” views of positive psychology. I’d just point out that, as evidence for the broad view, you cite articles from one journal that has an individual subscription price of $258 per year. Not a problem for those few who have almost unlimited access to many such journals. But, to the extent you are taking those who are using positive psychology in the field to task for not writing about articles in such bulletins, I would suggest that it is less about views of positive psychology and more about access.

There is, of course, quite a conversation to have around the business model of such journals. Moreover, there is the interesting issue of knowledge developed in institutions substantially supported by taxes, governmental grants, and charitable (i.e., tax-deductible)contributions being locked up in journals generating private profits while excluding those who paid for the knowledge to be developed.

However, I agree with Christine that broader conversations are better. And I agree that LOTS of great researchers are out there doing work we need to consider. One of the best things about positive psychology to me is that so many researchers, you included, have written very good books to make their research available to the public. I would simply add that, in that regard, I have always found Tal Ben-Shahar’s books refreshing. Since he has chosen not to be a researcher, but focused on teaching, he brings an open approach to sources. I find he quotes folks that most positive psychologists don’t.

WJ 25 February 2010 - 1:05 am

Dave – I think what Todd is saying is that PP is much broader than the model taught at Penn

I acknowledge that it is difficult if you don’t have access to the latest databases. But there are ways to keep up to speed. There are various sites which publish summaries of the latest research. eg http://www.eurekaalert.org

Todd Kashdan 25 February 2010 - 8:49 am

Hi Dave,

You hit one of my least favorite parts of academia. Everything you write about journals is dead-on. Even though I am a minion, a flea in the academic world, I am doing my best to change this.

Of note, it speaks whirlwinds about you that you jumped right to the website to go read the abstracts.

Here are a few thoughts to enact change because that’s what I am trying to do with emails such as these:
1. you don’t have to pay an obscene $258 subscription fee. You can join the Society for Personality and Social Psychology for a mere $25 and get a full subscription to Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Personality and Social Psychology Review, and the Dialogue. Here is the link: http://www.spsp.org/membership/
This is an amazing deal.
2. most authors post articles on their website but if they don’t, email the authors. Scientists love to know that someone actually reads the garble they publish. You are bestowing a gift upon a scientist by saying you interested in their work can they email you a reprint. I have never met a scientist in my career who said no.

Thus, with a little resourcefulness, you can get around this evil corporate empire. But these suggestions are secondary to my main point that before specializing in (positive) psychology, IMHO you need to master some general psychological principles. My last class on the science of well-being was not on positive emotions, it was on basic affective science.

I have no idea what they teach in positive psychology graduate programs but I know that even after 5 years in a clinical psychology Ph.D. program, I was still left with major gaps in my knowledge base that I continually supplement with readings in social, personality, developmental, and neuro- psychology.

Thanks for the kind words about my book and other scientists (and Tal) who are doing our best to get the science to the rest of the world.

If anyone ever wants an article by me, just ask. I would say do the same to every scientist out there. Fight the status quo, to do the best work in understanding and helping people we have to remember that there are no maps. We should all be reading outside of our comfort zone all the time to build our discipline and practice.


Jacquelline Boerefijn 25 February 2010 - 4:17 pm

Thanks Todd, for your offer. Knowledge inequality might be as bad as income inequality. Being a teacher,I always cared about equal chances for everyone. I have seen the effort for equal chances deminish dramaticly in the Netherlands during the last decades.
The issue about how prescriptive PP could/should be might be interesting in this respect. I haven’t read the book yet, but I presume Wilkinson and Pickett wrote their book not just for the general audience, but towards Brittish policy makers too.

Coert, Wayne, Christine. Erich, WJ, Todd, Dave and others: How prescriptive do you think PP should be? And to what extend should we be poking policy makers with new findings like in “The spririt level?”

Dave Shearon 25 February 2010 - 10:31 pm

Todd, that’s a great tip on SPSP — I’ll pass it along. Any tips on replacing PsychInfo?

Wayne, summaries are nice, but when I’m working on an issue, I find them insufficient to allow me to compare and contrast the research to other areas.

Jacquelline, I’d be pretty slow to push too hard on policy based on the kind of research reported in this article. It’s interesting, and tantalizing, but… scientific research is not subjected to prompt cross examination. Over time, if the results are striking enough, and if it advances someone’s career to pursue them, efforts may be made to probe, test, and replicate them. I think that’s what we’ve seen with meditation/mindfulness/relaxation/calm/whatever — the results were so startling, others began to test the area and data mounted up. Now it seems pretty clear something is there, so researchers are digging deeper. To point out just one area in the research reported here, I’ve been involved in debates about relative educational performance of public school students in international comparisons for more than a decade. My conclusion is that it is virtually impossible to sort that out enough to draw meaningful conclusions. So I find it difficult to put much weight on whatever analysis was done using that data. Again, very interesting results, but, as they say, “more research is needed.”

Coert Visser 26 February 2010 - 4:18 am

Hi Jacqueline,

Thanks for your interesting comment. I like your thought provoking statement: “Knowledge inequality might be as bad as income inequality”.

Generally, I am reluctant about being prescriptive. A great value of psychology is that it can lead to more understanding about psychological phenomena. Distribution of this knowledge is essential. This does not necessarily mean we should be prescriptive. If knowledge is being made available to people they can convince themselves to use the knowledge and change. My reluctance about being prescriptive has to do with my belief that prescriptiveness often leads to a defensive response in order to protect a sense of autonomy.

There are of course great alternatives for being prescriptive. The solution-focused approach, as you know, is my favorite intervention approach. It does not need prescription in order to help people find out what works. (see my youtube page for some simple summary vids on the solution-focused approach: http://www.youtube.com/user/coertvisser)

WJ 26 February 2010 - 8:08 pm

jacqueline – I’m with Coert. I suspect that PP is too prescriptive in that it has a narrow range of intervetions that its applies to everyone. A good coach has the flexibility to assist people to find out what works for them.

Coert Visser 27 February 2010 - 2:31 am

Hi Wayne and Jacqueline,

Sonja Lyubomirsky said the following about that topic: “This is a theme that runs through my book. It is called PERSON-ACTIVITY FIT. You need the kind of strategy that fits your personality, your resources, your life style, your goals and interests.” (http://bit.ly/dg8qDc)

Coert Visser 27 February 2010 - 2:53 am

I was pleasantly surprised by how well a recent paper by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (http://bit.ly/9utFZc) agrees with some of the main ideas I tried to express here.

See for instance see these quotes from that paper:

“The main issue I want to address at this point is weather Positive Psychology should be mainly concerned about how to make people feel better about their lives, or weather it should be equally concerned about helping people have better lives. Some times the dialogue and discourse o Positive Psychology seems excessively concerned about feelings; about how people can feel better at the moment. But that concern is a dangerous one, I think; if that’s all we mean by Positive Psychology.”

“Unless some new rules are developed to decrease – not eliminating completely, but at least decreasing – material inequality, there is going to be a severe problem.”

WJ 27 February 2010 - 2:21 pm

Coert – my understandifg is that there is new research about to be published that found that greater improvements in life satisfcation were gained when the activity didn’t fit the person

Christine Duvivier 27 February 2010 - 3:19 pm

Hi Coert and all, great discussion, thanks! A few thoughts:
(1) When I talked about broader positive psychology, I was not thinking only about research that relates to individuals (although I love and truly appreciate all the links that you gave us Todd!). I was thinking about systems– which is part of my background in business– and I have gathered terrific research through my Penn education as well as elsewhere. A few examples: Appreciative Inquiry; all the great U of Michigan research on organizations (not a good name though,(pos. org. scholarship); people such as Richard Florida who spoke at the Gallup PP conference that MAPP students went to, Toyota and Mike Morrison’s work, community change in the Pacific Northwest…

(2) I agree with Todd that a better understanding of other individual dynamics, from traditional and neuro-psych, is crucial. I think, though, that it does depend on the realm in which a person adds value. For instance, I find that organization dynamics, particle physics, biology, economics and history are huge for the work I do. There is a broad, rich discussion in MAPP because most students are experienced in varied fields, but of course no program can go into depth in all these areas.

(3) I agree with Dave and the others who said “no” to your question on whether I would recommend that PP be prescriptive, Jacqueline. I heard a speaker at the IPPA conference who seemed to imply government shold be more prescriptive toward big business but then we miss the beauty of all the tiny businesses that actually innovate and create new jobs. There are too many examples where a prescription is off-base and I believe it’s far better to help people use the new information to find great solutions for themselves personally, their communities, and their societies.

Personally, I give organizations, communities, and individuals some “best practices” that I believe could suit them, but then I simply help them to determine which ones they will implement and/or tailor to fit their situations.

Thanks for all the great ideas and discussion!

Coert Visser 27 February 2010 - 4:25 pm

Hi Christine,

Thanks for your answer! I would love to find out more. Could you please mention or help me find specific empirical positive psychology studies that have been done in the last decade that:

1) have focused on organizational (or community) thriving as broadly defined as above (using dependent variables other than only measures such as subjective well-being, work satisfaction, etc) and

2) have included independent variables other than individual measures (well-being, strengths, personality etc),particularly including situational factors (work design, organizational structure, pay distribution, etc)?

Hope you can help!

Coert Visser 27 February 2010 - 4:26 pm

Hi Wayne, Oh? I’m curious about that… do you have more info?

WJ 27 February 2010 - 6:04 pm

Coert – Somene who attended the oz positive psych conference in February told me about it. Will let you know as soon as its published.

WJ 27 February 2010 - 6:07 pm

Christine – on a couple of occasions on this forum I have asked for research that supports the efficacy of AI – but to no avail.

I get lots of people asking about AI at my workshops but I have to say can’t find any research.

I would appreciate the references to any controlled studies.

Coert Visser 27 February 2010 - 6:24 pm

Hi wayne, Looking forward to it!

By the way, I very much appreciate the way you keep on making available research summaries

WJ 27 February 2010 - 8:24 pm

Coert – glad to help with the research. I don’t circulate all the research. lots more on my Thriving blog. http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/

Coert Visser 28 February 2010 - 10:35 am

thanks! i’ll follow that blog

Alexandra 28 February 2010 - 12:01 pm

Hey Coert

How about you change the Wikipedia definition about positive psychology? It’s an open source website, after all.

Coert Visser 28 February 2010 - 12:04 pm

Hey Alexandra, good tip, only.. Steve Wright already did it right after reading this article .. 🙂

How’s your trip around the world? Having fun?

Coert Visser 1 March 2010 - 10:59 am

Came across two interesting things that are related to this topic:

– Daniel Kahneman: “It is very hard to think straight about well-being”: http://bit.ly/dkKnqT

– Scientists Find First Physiological Evidence of Brain’s Response to Inequality: http://bit.ly/aMRPue

Christine Duvivier 1 March 2010 - 11:56 am

Hi Wayne, I haven’t seen any controlled studies on AI — and since you haven’t gotten responses, perhaps they do not exist. In the world of work, I operate on the basis of pragmatism (also descended from William James by-the-way, as are a number of things cited in PP). AI works better than any approach to large systems change I’ve used or beeen part of in the past 20 years (businesses and communities).

FYI, I didn’t know it until I was working on a paper using systems theory and pragmatism, but I learned that controlled studies can confirm hypotheses but they don’t create new knowledge. I thought that was interesting…


Christine Duvivier 1 March 2010 - 12:03 pm

Hi Coert, I started with systems in business (where we were most interested in “what works” so I was not looking for empirical studies but real-world cases. [As an aside, Six Sigma, Lean and TQM which saved Fortune 50 companies in the U.S. and elsewhere, did not come from academia or studies, but rather from practical application of statistics and then extensions from there within businesses– now it gets taught in universities but it wasn’t 20 years ago].

Here’s what I can share: there is a whole body of work, beginning with William James 100 years ago, moving to Jay Forrester and his team at MIT in the ’60s, continuing with Ackoff at UPenn, Peter Senge at MIT and probably many others I’ve forgotten. I don’t have empirical studies to give you, sorry to say. Perhaps some of them do.

U Michigan does lots of work on organizations — google “Positive Organization Scholarship” and you’ll find it. Also, as you undoubtedly know, so does Case Western/Cooperrider.

All the best,

Coert Visser 1 March 2010 - 12:23 pm

Hi Christine,

Thank you! My perception was that since its start, some 10 years ago, positive psychology research had been a bit one-sided in some respects (the above-mentioned respects). I know the group of researchers at Michigan University and I think they do interesting work.

My perception now remains that there is relatively little research on what makes communities and institutions thrive (again using different criterion measures than subjective well-being alone, for the above mentioned reasons).

I do see that research isn’t the only thing that is important and interesting. I have used the solution-focused approach for 10 years now and I think it is magnificent. I also believe that many important discoveries about effective change emerge outside of research contexts. But apart from the context of discovery is the context of justification. Nearly all practitioners will say their approach works very well (otherwise would they not change their approach). But our perception is by definition biased (if only because of unconscious self-serving tendencies). Research has an important role to play, as was recognized by the PP ‘founders’ (MS and MC).

By the way, research does not only have to be randomized controlled effectiveness studies. These can play an important role but so can targeted experiments, quasi-experiments, questionnaire research, micro-analyses of conversations, etc. etc. Together these research approach can certainly support innovation.

Again, thanks for taking the time to reflect on this and share your thoughts and ideas.


WJ 1 March 2010 - 2:51 pm


I agree that controlled studies don’t create new knowledge. You need to start somewhere. But controlled studies test whether it has merit. Isn’t it about time that AI was tested?

How do you know that your AI interventions aren’t just the Hawthorne effect.

Christine Duvivier 1 March 2010 - 5:01 pm

Hi Coert and Wayne, I completely forgot to mention Marcial Losada’s research on business teams measured business results. If you’re not familiar, I recommend looking at it. There are a couple of PPND articles by Marcial.

Wayne, thanks for clarifying– I didn’t mean to say AI shouldn’t be tested. Great idea and I’d love to see the results!


Coert Visser 1 March 2010 - 5:11 pm

Hi Christine, I know his work and I agree it is good example. thanks for mentioning it.

Coert Visser 19 October 2010 - 11:13 am

The NYT has an article on new research by Oege Dijk and Robert H. Frank (http://ow.ly/2VUMG ) also confirms that greater income inequality creates much harm:

– increases in symptoms of financial distress,
– larger increases in bankruptcy filings,
– higher divorce rates,
– longer commute times,
– reduced voters’ willingness to support even basic public services,
– crumbling roads,
– weak bridges,
– an unreliable rail system,
– and cargo containers that enter ports without scrutiny,
– poorly maintained dams.

Also there is no persuasive evidence that greater inequality bolsters economic growth or enhances anyone’s well-being.

Coert Visser 30 December 2010 - 5:19 am

Sam Harris: “Just how much inequality can free people endure?” http://huff.to/hdqifR

Coert Visser 14 June 2011 - 2:34 am

Income Disparity Makes People Unhappy: http://bit.ly/ijkCWu

Shigehiro Oishi, Selin Kesebir, and Ed Diener

“Income disparity has grown a lot in the U.S., especially since the 1980s. With that, we’ve seen a marked drop in life satisfaction and happiness.”

“The implications are clear: If we care about the happiness of most people, we need to do something about income inequality.” One way to accomplish that end, is with more progressive taxation.

Coert Visser 25 August 2011 - 2:35 am

Does PP still largely ignore the importance of economic inequality for well-being? I think so. Here is another reference: http://bit.ly/rj5fir

Economic inequality behind national differences in ‘self-enhancement’
Economic inequality is responsible for national differences in how people think about the self and how happy they are, a new research has found.

In the West, where people value independence, personal success, and uniqueness, psychologists have said, self-inflation is more rampant. In the East, where interdependence, harmony, and belonging are valued, modesty prevails.

Now an analysis of data gathered from 1,625 people in 15 culturally diverse countries finds that economic inequality is a stronger predictor of self-enhancement.

“We don’t know the precise mechanism, but it seems unlikely that it is primarily an East-West difference,” says University of Kent research associate Steve Loughnan. “It’s got to do with how your society distributes its resources.”

The study’s participants, university students, were asked to rate themselves from 1 to 7 on various personality traits-how much of it they possessed compared with the average student; and how desirable the trait was.

The researchers looked at the correlations between evidence of self-enhancement and the individualism or collectivism of a country, its “power distance”-the preference for an autocratic hierarchy versus relative equality of power-and its level of economic inequality.

Researchers found that virtually everywhere, people rate themselves above average. But the more economically unequal the country, the greater was its participants’ self-enhancement.

That’s what happens in “highly polarized economies, where wealth at the top is gross and deprivation at the bottom is stark,” Loughnan said.

But he says, the effect can be evinced experimentally even in egalitarian, self-effacing cultures, like Japan.

On the other hand, where resources are equally distributed, self-deprecation and blending in are more valued, he added.

The study will be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. (ANI)


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com