The Review: Positive Psychology, or Positively BS? – The Chronicle of Higher Education

“The curse of working in this area is having to distinguish it from Chicken Soup for the Soul.” That’s what UNC’s Barbara Fredrickson, who is prominent in the field of positive psychology (“We study people’s emotions, particularly their positive emotions”) told the Chronicle‘s Jenny Ruark back in 2009. Less than a decade later, another psychologist, Yale’s John Bargh, seemed less concerned about maintaining that distinction — at least judging from his 2017 book Before You Know It, which insists that “a warm bowl of chicken soup really is good for the soul, as the warmth of the soup helps replace the social warmth that may be missing from a person’s life.”

Bargh’s ideas about soup were mentioned recently in a guest column at The New York Times by the journalist Jesse Singal, whose new book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, accuses social psychology of systematic overreach in its quest for popular influence. The book’s most damning chapter focuses on the U.S. Army’s adoption, under the influence of the positive psychology godfather Martin Seligman, of a series of dubious treatments for combat trauma in veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As Singal tells it, Seligman turned the ear of high-ranking military officials eager for an easy and relatively cheap solution. (“This is not an academic exercise,” as one general put it. “I don’t want