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Kool-Aid Psychology

How optimism trumped realism in the positive-psychology movement
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I am, by nature, an optimist. I almost always think things will turn out well, and even when they break I am confident that I can fix them. My optimism, however, has not always served me well. Twice I have been hit by cars while cycling— full-on, through-the-windshield impacts that were entirely the result of my blissful attitude that the street corners I had successfully negotiated hundreds of times before would not suddenly materialize an automobile in my path. Such high-impact, unpredictable and rare events are what author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans.” Given enough time, no upward sloping trend line is immune from dramatic collapse.

A bike crash as a black swan is, in fact, an apt metaphor for what the investigative journalist and natural-born skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich believes happened to America as a result of the positive-thinking movement. In her engaging and tightly reasoned book Bright-Sided (order on DVD Ehrenreich’s lecture at Caltech), she shows how the positive-psychology movement was born in the halcyon days of the 1990s when the economy was soaring, housing prices were skyrocketing, and positive-thinking gurus were cashing in on the motivation business. Academic psychologists, armed with a veneer of scientific jargon, wanted in on the action. (continue reading…)

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The (Other) Secret

The inverse square law trumps the law of attraction
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An old yarn about a classic marketing con game on the secret of wealth instructs you to write a book about how to make a lot of money and sell it through the mail. When your marks receive the book, they discover the secret — write a book about how to make a lot of money and sell it through the mail. (continue reading…)

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SHAM Scam

The Self-Help and Actualization Movement is an $8.5-billion-a-year business. Does it work?
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According to self-help guru Tony Robbins, walking barefoot across 1,000-degree red-hot coals “is an experience in belief. It teaches people in the most visceral sense that they can change, they can grow, they can stretch themselves, they can do things they never thought possible.”

I’ve done three fire walks myself, without chanting “cool moss” (as Robbins has his clients do) or thinking positive thoughts. I didn’t get burned. Why? Because wood is a poor conductor of heat, particularly through the dead calloused skin on the bottom of your feet and especially if you scoot acros the bed of coals as quickly as fire walkers are wont to do. Think of a cake in a 400-degree oven — you can touch the cake, a poor conductor, without getting burned, but not the metal cake pan. Physics explains the “how” of fire walking. To understand the “why,” we must turn to psychology. (continue reading…)

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