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Critical Thinking | The Influence of Bad Ideas

June 16, 2021

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed explores a fascinating example of what appears to be a lack of critical thinking by some of the most powerful institutions in the country, including the United States military (see “Positive Psychology Goes To War,” Jesse Singal, June 7, 2021).

The English Department at Southern emphasizes critical thinking in all its classes, and the story of “positive psychology” is a test case for how clear thinking can be muddled by special interests and lack of sufficient evidence, leading to actual harm in the real world.

Singal points out the problem of “unskilled intuition,” the tendency for decision makers to believe experts in spite of the lack of evidence for the ideas being pushed by those same experts. Years ago, a researcher at a major American research university created a subfield of psychology called “positive psychology.”

This ideology claimed that instead of focusing on fixing broken people, psychology should focus on helping people maximize their potential.

The problem was that the field of Psychology itself was going through an identify crisis as more mental problems were being treated by medication rather than talk therapy. The field was threatened with irrelevance.

If the sick couldn’t be treated by therapy, why not aim at coaching the average person in how to be more successful? More positive? The lack of research evidence for the benefits of such an approach seemed not to affect the forward motion of the idea. The question, Can people be made happier through therapy? was not being examined critically enough.

As positive psychology gained ground, it became popularized and thus even more difficult to investigate. This subfield was turning into a money machine because people were responding with interest and support.

It became an easy-to-administer program of pop self-improvement in which hundreds of people could be “treated” at the same time. Elementary schools were investing money in helping very young students become mentally healthy. At the same time, rigorous scholarly investigation was turning up little evidence for the actual benefits of the approach.

Because of the growth of PTSD in the military, the Pentagon became interested in positive psychology. Deployments to war zones in the early 2000s were leading to a lot of difficult mental issues for returning soldiers and Marines. Something had to be done. Military leadership was determined to find a solution, and they found it in positive psychology, which offered solutions on a large scale.

The idea was to create mentally stronger soldiers from the beginning, who would apparently be able to avoid PTSD.

Unfortunately, the empirical data was not there. The best treatments for PTSD were known, but they took much more intensive one-on-one treatment. These treatments didn’t offer the big fix of positive psychology.

The competition for contracts with the military became a battle between the big players (positive psychologists) and the little players (individual therapists).

According to Singal, it is not surprising who wins this battle.

For Southern English students, this story represents an important lesson in critical thinking. Is truth on the side of the powerful and influential or is it on the side of the evidence for what works?

True critical thinking is the result of a love for truth and honesty, which in this world is often in short supply.