The Sloppiness Of Studying The Self

by Matt Sitman

In a lengthy critique of psychologist Barbara Fredricksen’s Positivity – including news that a recent study found serious problems with the math underlying her work – Will Wilkinson hones in on a perennial problem with happiness research:

[M]ost work in the psychological and social sciences suffers from a lack of conceptual rigor. It’s a bit sloppy around the edges, and in the middle, too. For example, “happiness research” is a booming field, but the titans of the subdiscipline disagree sharply about what happiness actually is. No experiment or regression will settle it. It’s a philosophical question. Nevertheless, they work like the dickens to measure it, whatever it is—life satisfaction, “flourishing,” pleasure minus pain—and to correlate it to other, more easily quantified things with as much statistical rigor as deemed necessary to appear authoritative. It’s as if the precision of the statistical analysis is supposed somehow to compensate for, or help us forget, the imprecision of thought at the foundation of the enterprise.

It’s interesting that Fredrickson in Positivity avoids the term “happiness,” because she feels “it’s murky and overused.” One may say the same of “positivity.” There is definitely murk. According to Fredrickson, the constituents of positivity are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. But why these emotions? Why not others? As an inventory of positivity, this seems arbitrary.

Tania Lombrozo responds by defending the messiness of psychological research:

There’s a natural back and forth: we think about things a particular way, which motivates experiments, which in turn provide data, which leads us to refine and revise the way we conceptualize phenomena and theoretical entities. This dance between theory and experimentation is common to all science.

In the case of psychology, it is a particularly young field. It’s early days for the empirical study of many core psychological phenomena, including happiness.

So I agree with Wilkinson that psychological theorizing is often imprecise, and I share a craving for conceptual rigor. But some conceptual sloppiness may simply be a sign of immaturity, of psychology’s adolescent state. It’s an unavoidable step in achieving scientific progress, not the mark of a failed or floundering science.

Previous Dish on Fredrickson’s work here and here.