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Happiness may slow aging, improve health Being healthy can make a person happy, but happiness itself may also lead to better health, according to a new study.
Why Leaders Need a Triple Focus Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership. Talent here lies in the ability to shift attention to the right place at the right time, sensing trends, emerging realities, and opportunities. A leader’s field of attention—that is, the particular issues and goals she focuses on—guides the attention of those who follow her, whether or not the leader explicitly articulates it. People make their choices about where to focus based on their perception of what matters to leaders. This ripple effect gives leaders an extra load of responsibility: They are guiding not just their own attention but, to a large extent, everyone else’s. When we say a leader has “focus” we typically are referring to one-pointedness on business results, or on a particular strategy. But is such single-pointedness enough? What about the rest of the repertoire of attention? Leaders need strengths in three areas of focus: self (inner), people (other), and system (outer) awareness. Inner focus attunes us to our emotions and intuitions, guiding values and better decisions. Other focus smoothes our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate the larger world. But the challenge goes beyond that. The key is finding balance, and knowing when to use the right kind of focus at the right time. Combining data on attention with that on emotional intelligence and performance, this triple focus emerges as a hidden driver of excellence. Blinded by the prize To see where single-point focus can go wrong, take this example: The partner at a huge law firm drove her team crazy. She micromanaged, constantly second-guessing them, rewriting reports that didn’t meet her standards even though they were perfectly fine. She could always find something to criticize but nothing to praise. Her steadfast focus on the negative demoralized her team—a star member quit and others were looking to move laterally in the firm. Those who, like that too-critical lawyer, have this high-achieving, single-focused style are called “pacesetters,” meaning they like to lead by example, setting a fast pace they assume others will imitate. Pacesetters tend to rely on a “command and coerce” leadership strategy where they simply give orders and expect obedience. Leaders who display just the pacesetting or command style—or both—but not any others create a toxic climate, one that dispirits those they lead. Such leaders may get short-term results through personal heroics, like going out and getting a deal themselves, but do so at the expense of building their organizations. “Leadership Run Amok” was Harvard Business Review’s title for an article about the dark side of pacesetting, written by Scott Spreier and his colleagues at Hay Group. “They’re so focused on the prize,” Spreier told me, “they’re blinded to their impact on the people around them in the room.” Spreier’s article offered up that hard-driving law partner as a prime example of pacesetting at its worst. Such leaders don’t listen, let alone make decisions by consensus. They don’t spend time getting to know the people they work with day in and out but relate to them in their one-dimensional roles. They don’t help people develop new strengths or refine their abilities but simply dismiss their need to learn as a failing. They come off as arrogant and impatient. And they are spreading. One tracking study finds that the number of people in organizations of all kinds who are overachievers has been climbing steadily among those in leadership positions since the 1990s. That was a period when economic growth created an atmosphere where raise-the-bar-at-any-cost heroics were lionized. The downsides of this style—for example, lapses in ethics, cutting corners, and running roughshod over people—were too often winked at. Then came a series of flameouts and burst bubbles, from the collapse of Enron and the dot-com debacle on. This more sober business reality put a spotlight on the underside of pacesetters’ single-minded focus on fiscal results at the expense of other leadership basics. During the financial crisis of 2008 and onward, “many companies promoted strong, top-down leaders, who are good for handling emergencies,” Georg Vielmetter, a consultant in Berlin, told me. “But it changes the heart of the organization. Two years later those same leaders have created a climate where trust and loyalty evaporate.” The failure here is not in reaching the goal, but in connecting with people. The just-get-it-done mode runs roughshod over human concerns.   What drives you? Every organization needs people with a keen focus on goals that matter, the talent to continually learn how to do even better, and the ability to tune out distractions. Innovation, productivity, and growth depend on such high-performers. But only to a point. Ambitious revenue targets or growth goals are not the only gauge of an organization’s health—and if they are achieved at a cost to other basics, the long-term downsides, like losing star employees, can outweigh short-term successes as those costs lead to later failures. When we’re fixated on a goal, whatever is relevant to that point of focus gets priority. Focus is not just selecting the right thing but also saying no to the wrong ones; focus goes too far when it says no to the right things, too. Single-pointed fixation on a goal morphs into overachievement when the category of “distractions” expands to include other people’s valid concerns, their smart ideas, and their crucial information. Not to mention their morale, loyalty, and motivation. “Two years ago, I got some sobering performance feedback,” confides the CEO of a global office real estate firm. “I was great on business expertise, but lacking when it came to inspirational leadership and empathy. I had thought I was fine, so at first I denied it. Then I reflected and realized I often was empathetic but shut down the moment people were not doing their job well. I get very cool, even mean. … I realized my biggest fear is of failure. That’s what’s driving me. So when someone on my team disappoints me, that fear kicks in.” When fear hijacks him that CEO falls back on pacesetting. “If you don’t have self-awareness when you get hooked by the drive to achieve a goal,” says Scott Spreier, who coaches senior leaders, “that’s when you lose empathy and go on autopilot.” The antidote: realizing the need to listen, motivate, influence, cooperate—an interpersonal skill set that pacesetting leaders are typically not familiar with using. “At their worst, pacesetters lack empathy,” George Kohlrieser, a leadership maven at IMD, a Swiss business school, told me. Kohlrieser teaches leaders from around the world to become “secure base” leaders, whose emotionally supportive and empathic style encourages the people they lead to work at their best. How to develop a triple focus What stops leaders from growing beyond pacesetting? One hurdle is the implicit attitude at work that professionalism demands we ignore our emotions. Some trace this emotional blind spot to the “Protestant” work ethic, embedded in the norms of workplaces in the West, which sees work as a moral obligation that demands suppressing attention to our relationships and what we feel. In this all-too-common view, paying attention to these human dimensions undermines business effectiveness. But organizational research over the last decades provides ample evidence that this is a misguided assumption, and that the most adept team members or leaders use a wide aperture to gather the emotional information they need to deal well with their teammates’ or employee’s emotional needs. When Accenture interviewed 100 CEOs about the skills they needed to run a company successfully, a set of 14 abilities emerged, from thinking globally and creating an inspiring shared vision, to embracing change and tech savvy. No one person could have them all. But there is one “meta” ability that emerges from research on leadership: self-awareness. Chief executives need self-awareness to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and so surround themselves with a team of people whose strengths in those core abilities complement their own. This means inner focus. Companies also need leaders who have an other-focus—who understand the motivations of their employees and want to help other people be successful, too. For instance, they realize that if someone lacks a given strength today, they can work to develop it. Such leaders take the time to mentor and advise. In practical terms this means: Listening within, to articulate an authentic vision of overall direction—from the heart and to the heart—that energizes others even as it sets clear expectations. Paying attention to people’s feelings and needs, and showing concern. Listening to advice and expertise; being collaborative and making decisions by consensus. Coaching, based on listening to what the person wants from their life, career, and current job. These leadership styles, used in tandem or as appropriate to the moment, widen a leader’s focus to draw on inner, other, and outer inputs. That maximal bandwidth, and the wider understanding and flexibility of response it affords, can pay dividends. Research by the McClelland Center shows that more adept leaders draw on these as appropriate. The wider a leader’s repertoire of styles, the more energized the organization’s climate and the better the results. Of course that doesn’t mean that leaders can ignore other concerns, like market trends or innovation, to meet changing demands. But the same attention skills that can help manage one’s own emotions and work relationships can help leaders stay more flexible and allow for better outer focus. For example, two of the main mental ruts that threaten the ability to focus well on systems and trends are unquestioned assumptions and overly relied on rules-of-thumb. These need to be tested and refined time and again against changing realities. One way to do that is by practicing what Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer calls “environmental mindfulness”: constant questioning and listening; inquiry, probing, and reflecting—gathering insights and perspectives from other people. This active engagement leads to smarter questions, better learning, and a more sensitive early warning radar to coming changes. Another antidote is expanding your circle of connection beyond your comfort zone and inoculating against in-group isolation by building an ample circle of no-BS confidants who keep you honest. A smart diversification goes beyond gender and ethnic group balance to include a wide range of ages, clients, or customers, and any others who might offer a fresh perspective. Leadership builds on the basic mechanics of our mental life. Self-awareness, which fosters self-management, and empathy, the basis for skill in relationship, are fundamentals of emotional intelligence. Beyond these, systems science takes us to wider bands of focus as we regard the world around us, tuning to the complex systems that define and constrain our world. All that can be boiled down to inner, other, and outer focus. For leaders to get results they need all three kinds of focus. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided. And it’s not just leaders who benefit from a balance in this triple focus. All of us live in daunting environments, rife with tensions and competing goals and lures of modern life. Each of the three varieties of attention can help us find balance where we can be both happy and productive.
Toddlers' aggression strongly associated with genetic factors A new study provides greater understanding of how to address childhood aggression, and suggests that it is strongly associated with genetic factors in the child.
Cocaine users enjoy social interactions less Regular cocaine users have difficulties in feeling empathy for others and they exhibit less prosocial behavior. A study now suggests that cocaine users have social deficits because social contacts are less rewarding for them. Social skills should therefore be trained during the treatment of cocaine addiction.
Freedom is something to use or lose - we must fight the antisocial behaviour bill | George Monbiot Consumerism's petty liberties have made us inhumanly passive. We've forgotten what freedom is, and how easily it is lostThe question has changed a little since Rousseau's day, but the mystery remains. Why, when most of us now possess greater freedom than almost any preceding generation has enjoyed – freedom from tyranny, freedom from slavery, freedom from hunger – do we act as if we don't?I'm prompted to ask by the discovery that the most illiberal and oppressive instrument proposed by any recent government – injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance in the antisocial behaviour bill – has been attacked by Labour not because it is draconian but because it is not draconian enough. The measure was decisively rejected by the Lords last week. But if the government tries to restore this monstrous proposal in the Commons next month, Labour is likely to insist only that it is too timid.Why do we tolerate a politics that offers no effective choice? That operates largely at the behest of millionaire funders, corporate power and a bullying media? Why, in an age in which people are no longer tortured and executed for criticising those in power, have we failed to create viable alternatives?In the US Congress this year, for the first time a majority of members are millionaires. As the representatives become richer, the laws they pass ensure that they exercise ever less power over the rich and ever more power over the poor. Yet, as the Center for Responsive Politics notes, "there's been no change in our appetite to elect affluent politicians to represent our concerns in Washington".We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats; as the biosphere is trashed; as public services are killed or given to corporations; as workers are dragooned into zero-hours contracts. Though there are a few wonderful exceptions, on the whole protest is muted and alternatives are shrugged away without examination. How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?The question is not confined to politics. Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter-life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest. With the amount most of us spend on home entertainment, we could probably buy a horse and play buzkashi every weekend. But we would rather stare at an illuminated box, watching other people jumping up and down and screaming. Our political constraint is one aspect of a wider inhibition, a wider failure to be free.I'm not talking about thinktank freedoms here: the freedom of billionaires not to pay their taxes, of corporations to pollute the atmosphere or induce children to smoke, of landlords to exploit their tenants. We should respect the prohibitive decencies we owe to others. But there are plenty of freedoms we can exercise without diminishing other people's.Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves, but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.A few years ago, a friend explained how depressed he had become while trying to find a stimulating partner through online dating sites. He kept stumbling across the same phrase, used verbatim by dozens of the women he looked up. "I like nothing better than a night in on the sofa with a glass of red and a good DVD." The horror he felt arose not so much from the preference as from its repetition: "the failure to grasp the possibilities of self-differentiation".I wrote to him last week to see if anything had changed. Yes: he has now tumbled into the vortex that dismayed him. He dated 18 women in 2013, seeking "the short sharp hit which keeps you coming back despite the fact that the experience taken as a whole does not add up to anything worth having. My life ... is beginning to dance to the internet rhythm of desire satiated immediately and thinly". In seeking someone who was not trapped on the hedonic treadmill, he became trapped on the hedonic treadmill.Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?If so, it is a habit learned early and learned hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors. We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.De Tocqueville made a similar point about democracy: it threatens to enclose each of us "entirely in the solitude of his own heart". The freedoms it grants us destroy the desire to combine and to organise. To judge by our reluctance to create sustained alternatives, we wish neither to belong nor to deviate.It is not hard to see how our elective impotence leads before long to tyranny. Without coherent popular movements, which are required to prevent opposition parties from falling into the clutches of millionaires and corporate lobbyists, almost any government would be tempted to engineer a nominally democratic police state. Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose. But we seem to have forgotten what it means.Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at monbiot.comProtestPsychologyGeorge Monbiottheguardian.com © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
Electrical Brain Stimulation Can Instantly Improve Self-Control Self-control can be boosted using tiny electrical pulses from electrodes placed on the scalp, a new study finds.→ Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick"
Making a Mockery of Religious Freedom The notion that corporations need religious freedom raises a myriad of issues. Can a fictional person have faith? What happens if GM converts to Catholicism?read more
Hydrocephalus: sensors monitor cerebral pressure If the pressure in a patient's brain is too high, physicians implant a system in the head that regulates the pressure. A sensor can now measure and individually adjust brain pressure. The sensor
Forget about forgetting: Elderly know more, use it better What happens to our cognitive abilities as we age? If your think our brains go into a steady decline, research reported this week may make you think again. The work takes a critical look at the measures usually thought to show that our cognitive abilities decline across adulthood. Instead of finding evidence of decline, the team discovered that most standard cognitive measures, which date back to the early twentieth century, are flawed.
Responding to the Adolescent Push for Freedom Adolescent growth to independence depends on experiencing more freedom and taking on more responsibility. When the adolescent pushes hard for freedom and parents push hard for responsibility, inevitable (and honorable) conflicts develop because each party is pushing for what is needs to happen. read more
Girls often continue playing soccer with concussion symptoms New study shows young female soccer players may get more concussions than their high school and college counterparts, and many of them continue to play while they have symptoms.
Guns in home increase suicide, homicide risk People may have heightened risks of dying from suicide and murder if they own or have access to a gun, according to a new analysis of previous research.
Blue Monday, bad science and nonsense PR | Michael Marshall Michael Marshall: Blue Monday is just one example of bad science promoted by dodgy PR
Embracing Our Imperfect Life Embracing Our Imperfect Life. Listening to Leonard Cohen and learning to relish defeat. In my car on a sunny Vermont winter morning, I am listening to Leonard Cohen sing his view of reality: He says you can't be a hero in your own life and, more important, you can't be happy until you know how thoroughly broken life itself is... By Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D.read more
Mechanism identified in Alzheimer's-related memory loss Researchers have identified a protein in the brain that plays a critical role in the memory loss seen in Alzheimer's patients, according to a study.
Discovery of Quantum Vibrations Inside Brain Neurons Supports Controversial Theory of Consciousness Is your brain connected to the universe at a quantum level?→ Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick"
Too much sitting raises early death risk for women Older women who spend the most time sitting and resting have a higher risk of dying early, according to a new study.
The Narcissistic Politician To quote Nietzsche, "The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others." Politicians are not saints, and some can be narcissistic because grandiosity and entitlement are contagious. They may inspire or annoy us, but politicians can make big errors in judgement; and we all lose. Here's how we can do better. read more
The British amateur who debunked the mathematics of happiness The astonishing story of Nick Brown, the British man who began a part-time psychology course in his 50s – and ended up taking on America's academic establishmentNick Brown does not look like your average student. He's 53 for a start and at 6ft 4in with a bushy moustache and an expression that jackknifes between sceptical and alarmed, he is reminiscent of a mid-period John Cleese. He can even sound a bit like the great comedian when he embarks on an extended sardonic riff, which he is prone to do if the subject rouses his intellectual suspicion.A couple of years ago that suspicion began to grow while he sat in a lecture at the University of East London, where he was taking a postgraduate course in applied positive psychology. There was a slide showing a butterfly graph – the branch of mathematical modelling most often associated with chaos theory. On the graph was a tipping point that claimed to identify the precise emotional co-ordinates that divide those people who "flourish" from those who "languish".According to the graph, it all came down to a specific ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions. If your ratio was greater than 2.9013 positive emotions to 1 negative emotion you were flourishing in life. If your ratio was less than that number you were languishing.It was as simple as that. The mysteries of love, happiness, fulfilment, success, disappointment, heartache, failure, experience, random luck, environment, culture, gender, genes, and all the other myriad ingredients that make up a human life could be reduced to the figure of 2.9013.It seemed incredible to Brown, as though it had been made up. But the number was no invention. Instead it was the product of research that had been published, after peer review, in no less authoritative a journal than American Psychologist – the pre-eminent publication in the world of psychology that is delivered to every member of the American Psychological Association. Co-authored by Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada and entitled Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing, the paper was subsequently cited more than 350 times in other academic journals. And aside from one partially critical paper, no one had seriously questioned its validity. Fredrickson is a distinguished psychologist, a professor at the University of North Carolina, a winner of several notable psychology awards and bestselling author of a number of psychology books, including Positivity, which took her and Losada's academic research and recast it for a mass audience – the subtitle ran "Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life"."Just as zero degrees celsius is a special number in thermodynamics," wrote Fredrickson in Positivity, "the 3-to-1 positivity ratio may well be a magic number in human psychology."Fredrickson is the object of widespread admiration in the field of psychology. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and a bestselling author in his own right, went so far as to call her "the genius of the positive psychology movement". On top of which she is also an associate editor at American Psychologist.By contrast, Brown was a first-term, first-year, part-time masters student who was about to take early retirement from what he calls a "large international organisation" in Strasbourg, where he had been head of IT network operations. Who was he to doubt the work of a leading professional which had been accepted by the psychological elite? What gave him the right to suggest that the emperor had gone naturist?"The answer," says Brown when I meet him in a north London cafe, "is because that's how it always happens. Look at whistleblower culture. If you want to be a whistleblower you have to be prepared to lose your job. I'm able to do what I'm doing here because I'm nobody. I don't have to keep any academics happy. I don't have to think about the possible consequences of my actions for people I might admire personally who may have based their work on this and they end up looking silly. There are 160,000 psychologists in America and they've got mortgages. I've got the necessary degree of total independence."Armed with that independence, he went away and looked at the maths that underpinned Fredrickson and Losada's ratio. Complex or non-linear dynamics are not easy for an untrained mathematician to understand, much less work out. Losada, who claimed expertise in non-linear dynamics, was working as a business consultant and making mathematical models of business team behaviour when he first met Fredrickson.In Positivity, Fredrickson describes the moment when Losada explained how he could apply complex dynamics to her theories of positive psychology. "Hours into our lively discussion, he made a bold claim: based on his mathematical work, he could locate the exact positivity ratio that would distinguish those who flourished from those who didn't."So impressed was she by this boast that Fredrickson arranged a sabbatical from her teaching duties "so I could immerse myself in the science of dynamic systems that Marcial had introduced me to".There were several psychologists, versed in non-linear dynamics, who smelt something fishy about the maths in the published paper. Stephen Guastello, from Marquette University, wrote a note of mild complaint to American Psychologist, which it chose not to publish because "there wasn't enough interest in the article". Guastello feels now that he should have been more forceful in his opinions. "In retrospect," he says, "I see how I could have been more clearly negative and less supportive of what looked like an article that could move the field forward if someone would follow up with some strong empirical work."John Gottman, a leading authority in the psychology of successful relationships, wrote to Losada because he couldn't follow the equations. "I thought it was something I didn't know about, because he's a smart guy, Losada. He never answered my email," he says. Gottman also wrote to Fredrickson. "She said she didn't understand the math either.""Not many psychologists are very good at maths," says Brown. "Not many psychologists are even good at the maths and statistics you have to do as a psychologist. Typically you'll have a couple of people in the department who understand it. Most psychologists are not capable of organising a quantitative study. A lot of people can get a PhD in psychology without having those things at their fingertips. And that's the stuff you're meant to know. Losada's maths were of the kind you're not meant to encounter in psychology. The maths you need to understand the Losada system is hard but the maths you need to understand that this cannot possibly be true is relatively straightforward."Brown had studied maths to A-level and then took a degree in engineering and computer science at Cambridge. "But I actually gave up the engineering because the maths was too hard," he says, laughing at the irony. "So I'm really not that good at maths. I can read simple calculus but I can't solve differential equations. But then neither could Losada!"He went back over Losada's equations and he noticed that if he put in the numbers Fredrickson and Losada had then you could arrive at the appropriate figures. But he realised that it only worked on its own terms. "When you look at the equation, it doesn't contain any data. It's completely self-referential."Unfortunately, while his grasp of maths was strong enough to see the problem, it wasn't sufficiently firm to be able to mount an academic takedown of Fredrickson's and Losada's work. Yet that was what he wanted to do. Once he knew to his own satisfaction that their research was fundamentally flawed, he was not going to be content to let things pass. So he decided to seek the help of an academic mathematician. Not just any academic mathematician either, but one who had made a name for himself by puncturing the bogus use of maths and science in another discipline.Back in 1996, Alan Sokal wrote a paper called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity and submitted it to an academic cultural studies journal called Social Text, which promptly published the article. As the title suggested, the paper was dense with impenetrable theory. Among other things, it disparaged the scientific method and western intellectual hegemony and claimed that quantum gravity could only be understood through its political context.The paper, as Sokal quickly admitted, was a hoax, a deliberate pastiche of the sorts of nonsensical postmodern appropriations of maths and physics at which French critical theorists particularly excelled – among them Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Julia Kristeva. A major intellectual controversy ensued in which postmodernists stood accused of pseudo-science, absurd cultural relativism and the concealing of ignorance and innumeracy behind obscurantist prose. In response Sokal was derided as a pedant, a literalist and a cultural imperialist.Despite the counterattacks, Sokal gained a reputation as a formidable enemy of bad science. As such he was regularly approached by people who believed they had uncovered an intellectual imposture, be it in architecture, history or musicology."I don't think I'm a crank," Brown had said in his email to Sokal. "I am just this grad student with no qualifications or credentials, starting out in the field. I don't know how to express this kind of idea especially coherently in academic written form, and I suspect that even if I did, it would be unlikely to be published."But like many such requests, it began to disappear beneath a pile of other emails. It was only several weeks later that Sokal came across it again and realised that on this occasion he could help because it was in a field he knew something about: mathematics and physics.Losada had derived his mathematical model from a system of differential equations known as the Lorenz equations, after Edward Lorenz, a pioneer of chaos theory."The Lorenz equation Losada used was from fluid dynamics," says Sokal, "which is not the field that I'm specialised in, but it's elementary enough that any mathematician or physicist knows enough. In 10 seconds I could see it was total bullshit. Nick had written a very long critique and basically it was absolutely right. There were some points where he didn't quite get the math right but essentially Nick had seen everything that was wrong with the Losada and Fredrickson paper."Sokal did a little research and was amazed at the standing the Fredrickson and Losada paper enjoyed. "I don't know what the figures are in psychology but I know that in physics having 350 citations is a big deal," he says. "Look on Google you get something like 27,000 hits. This theory is not just big in academia, there's a whole industry of coaching and it intersects with business and business schools. There's a lot of money in it."The concept of positive thinking dates back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Throughout written history, metaphysicians have grappled with questions of happiness and free will. The second-century Stoic sage Epictetus argued that "Your will needn't be affected by an incident unless you let it". In other words, we can be masters and not victims of fate because what we believe our capability to be determines the strength of that capability.In one way or another, positive thinking has always been concerned with optimising human potential, which is a key component of psychology. But in the 20th century, confronting the great traumas of two annihilating wars, the psychology profession became increasingly focused on the dysfunctional and pathological aspects of the human mind. The emphasis was on healing the ill rather than improving the well.So it was left to popular or amateur psychology, and in particular that sector specialising in business success, to accentuate the positive. Books such as Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952, became huge bestsellers. By the 1970s and 1980s, self-help had mushroomed into a vast literary genre that encompassed everything from the secrets of material achievement to the new age promises of chakras, reiki and self-realisation.On becoming president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman set out to bring scientific rigour to the issue of self-improvement. In his inaugural speech, he announced a shift in psychology towards a "new science of human strengths"."It's my belief," said Seligman, "that since the end of the second world war, psychology has moved too far away from its original roots, which were to make the lives of all people more fulfilling and productive, and too much toward the important, but not all-important, area of curing mental illness."He called for "a reoriented science that emphasises the understanding and building of the most positive qualities of an individual". It was an optimistic period in American history. The economy was buoyant, US geopolitical power was unchallenged and no major conflicts were raging. As a result, there was almost a messianic note of global ambition in Seligman's address. "We can show the world what actions lead to wellbeing, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society," he declared.Suddenly a plethora of positive psychology books began to appear, written by eminent psychologists. There was Flow: The Psychology of Happiness by Mihaly Csizkszentmihalyi, who with Seligman is seen as the co-founder of the modern positive psychology movement; Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment by Seligman himself. And of course Fredrickson's Positivity, approved by both Seligman and Csizkszentmihalyi. Each of them appeared to quote and promote one another, creating a virtuous circle of recommendation.And these books were not only marketed like a previous generation of self-help manuals, they often shared the same style of cod-sagacious prose. "Positivity opens your mind naturally, like the water lily that opens with sunlight," writes Fredrickson in Positivity.Then there was the lucrative lecture circuit. Both Seligman and Fredrickson are hired speakers. One website lists Seligman's booking fee at between $30,000 and $50,000 an engagement. In this new science of happiness, it seemed that all the leading proponents were happy.But then Nick Brown started to ask questions.Around the time Brown first came across Fredrickson's work, a case came to light in Holland in which a psychologist called Diederick Stapel, who was dean of faculty at Tilburg University, was caught by his graduate students making up data. It turned out he'd been falsifying his research for the previous 15 years. Brown, who is currently translating Stapel's autobiography, got in touch with him and asked him why he did it."The way he describes it," says Brown, "is that the environment was conducive to it. He said, 'I could either do the hard work or put my hand in the jar and take out a biscuit'." It does a massive amount of harm to science when this sort of thing happens. Nobody's accusing Fredrickson of making anything up. She just basically invented her own method. Is that worse than inventing your own data?"After he had established contact with Sokal, Brown sent him a 15,000-word draft, which was much too long for publication. At first the professor agreed to give Brown advice on cleaning up the draft. He also told him that he should go to American Psychologist, and he contributed a pedagogic section, explaining the maths."I still wasn't thinking that I was going to be a co-author but Nick sent me drafts and I just liked his writing style," recalls Sokal. "It made me laugh. He had this gift for English understatement."Getting their critique of Fredrickson into the publication of which she was an associate editor was a tall order. To help him get across the line, Brown had already recruited Harris Friedman, a sympathetic psychologist who had doubts about Fredrickson's claims but was not sufficiently versed in maths to make a case on his own.Sending revised versions back and forth among themselves, the three men gradually composed what they considered to be a watertight argument. The initial title they submitted to American Psychologist was The Complex Dynamics of an Intellectual Imposture – an ironic play on Fredrickson and Losada's original piece. That was rejected by the editor because he argued that the word "imposture" implied a deliberate fraud on the part of Fredrickson and Losada.Sokal insists that this was never their intention. As Brown puts it in characteristic manner. "This particular paper wasn't an act of fraud and it wasn't about statistics. It's that someone had a brain-fart one day."Following much negotiation, Brown, Sokal and Friedman had their paper accepted by American Psychologist and it was published online last July under the only slightly less provocative title of The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking. Referring to the bizarrely precise tipping point ratio of 2.9013 that Fredrickson and Losada trumpeted applied to all humans regardless of age, gender, race or culture, the authors – in fact Brown, in this sentence – wrote: "The idea that any aspect of human behaviour or experience should be universally and reproducibly constant to five significant digits would, if proven, constitute a unique moment in the history of the social sciences."The paper mounted a devastating case against the maths employed by Fredrickson and Losada, who were offered the chance to respond in the same online issue of American Psychologist. Losada declined and has thus far failed to defend his input in any public forum. But Fredrickson did write a reply, which, putting a positive spin on things, she titled Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios.She effectively accepted that Losada's maths was wrong and admitted that she never really understood it anyway. But she refused to accept that the rest of the research was flawed. Indeed she claimed that, if anything, the empirical evidence was even stronger in support of her case. Fredrickson subsequently removed the critical chapter that outlines Losada's input from further editions of Positivity. She has avoided speaking to much of the press but in an email exchange with me, she maintained that "on empirical grounds, yes, tipping points are highly probable" in relation to positive emotions and flourishing."She's kind of hoping the Cheshire cat has disappeared but the grin is still there," says Brown, who is dismissive of Fredrickson's efforts at damage limitation. "She's trying to throw Losada over the side without admitting that she got conned. All she can really show is that higher numbers are better than lower ones. What you do in science is you make a statement of what you think will happen and then run the experiment and see if it matches it. What you don't do is pick up a bunch of data and start reading tea leaves. Because you can always find something. If you don't have much data you shouldn't go round theorising. Something orange is going to happen to you today, says the astrology chart. Sure enough, you'll notice if an orange bicycle goes by you."But social psychology is full of theorising and much of it goes unquestioned. This is particularly the case when the research involves, as it does with Fredrickson, self-report, where the subjects assess themselves.As John Gottman says: "Self-report data is easier to obtain, so a lot of social psychologists have formed an implicit society where they won't challenge one another. It's a collusion that makes it easier to publish research and not look at observational data or more objective data."In general, says Gottman, the results of self-report have been quite reliable in the area of wellbeing. The problem is that when it comes down to distinguishing, say, those who "languish" from those who "flourish", there may be all manner of cultural and personal reasons why an individual or group might wish to deny negative feelings or even downplay positive ones."It's a lot more complicated than Fredrickson is suggesting," says Gottman.After initially being turned down, Brown, Sokal and Friedman went through American Psychologist's lengthy appeals procedure and won the right to reply to Fredrickson's reply. They are currently working on what is certain to be a very carefully considered response. But it doesn't take a psychologist to work out that, given the nature of human behaviour, it's unlikely to be the last word.ControversiesPsychologyPeer review and scientific publishingHealth & wellbeingHappiness indicesAndrew Anthonytheguardian.com © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
When intensive care is just too intense The treatment patients receive in intensive care usually works but many are left with deep psychological scarsI still remember the first patient I saw in intensive care. A naked man, covered by a white sheet, was plugged into banks of machines through cables that radiated from his body. His face was covered by a breathing mask, his blood connected to bags of fluids. Muted and voluntarily immobile, so as not to break the fragile web that kept him alive, his eyes tracked me as I entered the cubicle. Intensive care can be a disconcerting place.As a treatment, it is remarkably successful. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the people who work in critical care is this simple fact: most people leave intensive care alive – despite being dangerously close to death when they arrive. Through a combination of dedication, decision-making and technology, critical care staff ensure that most people pull through. This is the result of years of careful research that has focused clinical practice on restoring the body's functioning as quickly and efficiently as possible.But recently there has been a dawning realisation that the impact of intensive care extends beyond the survival of the body. Dorothy Wade is based at University College Hospital in London and is one of the country's few intensive care psychologists. She led a recent study which found that more than half of patients assessed at follow-up had marked psychological difficulties. "We learned that patients were suffering from serious depression or having frightening flashbacks and nightmares to their time in intensive care," says Wade. "This badly affected their quality of life and also held back their physical recovery from their illness."In another study, recently submitted for publication, Wade interviewed patients about the hallucinations and delusions they experienced while in intensive care. One patient reported seeing puffins jumping out of the curtains firing blood from guns, another began to believe that the nurses were being paid to kill patients and zombify them. The descriptions seem faintly amusing at a distance, but both were terrifying at the time and led to distressing intrusive memories long after the patients had realised their experiences were illusory.Many patients don't mention these experiences while in hospital, either through fear of sounding mad, or through an inability to speak – often because of medical breathing aids, or because of fears generated by the delusions themselves. After all, who would you talk to in a zombie factory?These experiences can be caused by the effect of serious illness on the brain, but painkilling and sedating drugs play a part and are now used only where there is no alternative. Stress also adds to the mix but is often caused inadvertently by the way intensive care wards are organised. "If you think about the sort of things used for torture," says Hugh Montgomery, a professor of intensive care medicine at UCL, "you will experience most of them in intensive care. As a patient, you are often naked and exposed, you hear alarming noises at random times, your sleep-wake cycle is disrupted by being woken up for medical procedures through the night, you will be given drugs that could disorient you, and you will be regularly exposed to discomfort and feelings of threat."This has led to a recent push to reorient treatment toward reducing patient stress, and long-term psychological problems, without sacrificing life-saving efficiency. Take this simple example: a study led by consultant critical care nurse John Welch at UCL found that the pitch or tone of alarms on intensive care equipment has no relation to how urgent the situation is. Many frightening-sounding alarms are just reminders – this bag needs refilling in the next hour; don't forget to change the filter – and are often left until more important tasks are finished. But, to the uninitiated, it might sound as if death is imminent and no one is responding.Some stress is simply an unavoidable part of necessary medical procedures. Breathing tubes inserted through the mouth or surgically implanted through the neck are notoriously uncomfortable. And, despite the survival rates, people die in intensive care. A daunting experience if you're a patient in the same ward.Helping patients with their intense emotional reactions, whether they arise from hallucination, misunderstanding or medical intervention, normally happens on an ad hoc basis and for many clinicians it is a relatively new situation that hasn't been incorporated into standard training. In many intensive care units, the approach was to sedate patients for the whole of their admission. As this practice declined, for the first time, clinicians were faced with distressed, possibly hallucinating, awake patients.Wade is currently working with clinicians to take a more systematic approach to detecting and reducing psychological distress. "There have always been experienced or just naturally empathetic nurses and doctors in intensive care," she says. "We're trying to build on that natural care and compassion by teaching nurses and doctors more about the causes and nature of psychological distress... and training them with simple psychological techniques that could help to reduce immediate and long-term distress."For his part, Montgomery is less convinced about early intervention. He feels intensive care needs to be reorganised to reduce stress but psychological problems are best dealt with in follow-up clinics.The best time for treatment is the subject of an ongoing debate, but for the first time studies have been funded that will answer these questions. Intensive care is being rethought and may become, at least psychologically, less intense.NHSHealthPsychologyHospitalsVaughan Belltheguardian.com © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds