Here’s some illustrations I did for the website Narrative.ly for an article about Alan Sokal and others' skepticism about “the positivity ratio.” This ratio is the idea that you should have 2.9013 positive thoughts to every negative thought in order to "flourish" as a human being and have joy. You can read the article to get a (somewhat dramatic) account of the situation. It might leave you with some questions (I’d like to hear more about the guy becoming an “existentialist life coach”?)
This Chronicle article is also a good summary. Basically, a guy named Losada wrote a terrible paper where he acted like human emotions could literally be treated like the math equations of fluid dynamics, and acted like he understood the math, and convinced some psychologists who took his work and ran with it and convinced some corporations who now pay him to consult on ways better to exploit their employees. The takedown paper and his response to it makes him look like a big fraud, but hopefully he corrects his mistakes and goes on to flourish and find true happiness.
I have a few thoughts on this positivity ratio “affair” I want to get off my chest. (Wait, how did these thoughts get on my chest?) You can maybe figure out what those thoughts are by looking at these illustrations, but I’ll try to spell them out.
If there is a “stream of consciousness” why not “fluid dynamics of consciousness?” On a metaphorical level, maybe — but they should be careful about the wobbly tower of metaphors they’re stacking up here. This sloppy thinking should be called out, and it’s a shame it took Sokal, of all people, to do the peer-review work psychologists should have done. It seems Losada and the other fools who rushed in made some money off these mistakes, and that’s messed up, but then again people in a lot of fields make money off bad ideas all the time, so it’s not a uniquely tragic story or anything.
The whole thing is clearly based on mistaking a metaphor for more than a metaphor. Then there’s a lot of scotch-taping and hot-gluing exciting chaos mathematics onto the metaphor to make it seem more real. It’s a big mistake, and these people should be ashamed of the terrible job they did at being scholars and psychologists.
On the other hand, if we’re already calling thoughts “positive” or “negative,” or even isolating individual “thoughts” or “emotions” into objects that we can talk about and study, we’re already deep into the territory of metaphor. Nick Brown, the skeptical, literal-minded hero of all this reportedly said he started studying positive psychology because his life was “in a rut.” (And good for him! He read closely, took action, made new friends and a contribution to his chosen field.) It can be tricky even figuring out whether some thoughts are positive or negative. You fall into questions of form and content: “I don’t want to hurt myself anymore.” And now that we’re talking about it, these “atoms” and “particles” that physicists are always talking about –– those are definitely 100% real and not metaphorical at all, right?
I'm no trained psychologist, but I’m pretty sure it’s true, in a general sort of sense, that if you think more positive thoughts than negative thoughts, you’ll feel more positive. You’ll feel lighter and more optimistic. You might describe yourself as feeling better, or even happier. If we’re going to test this as a hypothesis, we’re going to have to count positive thoughts versus negative thoughts. So at this point, we’re already deep into metaphorical concepts and representations: me/not me -> thinking/not thinking -> a thought/not a thought -> positive/negative -> and numbers — once we get into the realm of numbers, and we start comparing the number of positive thoughts to negative, we have a difference, a ratio — we are basically doing math about our emotions. So why not differential equations? Well, let’s maybe not go that far — the Sokal paper gives good reasons why.
But I don’t think it’s necessary to totally throw out all of the mathematical metaphorical language for the amount of positive thinking it takes to reach the “tipping point” and become a happier, “flourishing” human being. No one is advocating exactly that, but it seems like an idea that is hovering in the background of reactions to the affair. Metaphors, like anything dangerous and powerful, should be handled carefully. Some positive psychologists have been exposed as something like con artists, but there’s confidence and then there’s confidence. We’re already in weird scientific territory when our goal is trying to figure out how to make humans happier and healthier and more confident (not to mention the trickiness of extrapolating from evolution, neuroscience, and measuring pupil dilation). It’s tricky studying human beings, and it’s tricky figuring out how to talk to them and listen to them. It’s hard to read them sometimes. They’re not open books (though it's hard to read books sometimes too). Sometimes they use metaphors, and sometimes those metaphors are also “literally” true. If you act as if you feel grateful and generous, even if you “really” don’t, sometimes you end up “literally” being more grateful and generous.
In the takedown paper, Sokal et al. take some pains to explain differential equations to non-mathematical psychologists and why Losada clearly didn’t understand what he was doing. They list several conditions under which differential equations can “validly” be applied and show that Losada’s observations of business meetings don’t really apply. They point out that “it is not surprising that most of the valid applications of nonlinear dynamics have arisen in physics and chemistry, where one can sometimes find systems that are sufficiently simple and isolated so that one can (a) identify a small number of relevant variables that evolve by themselves, and (b) write down the equation describing (at least to a reasonable degree of approximation) their evolution.” So in the discourses of physics and chemistry there are “sometimes” agreed upon situations, abstracted from the complexity and flux of reality, where “simple systems” can be “isolated” and math can be written down that describes this system to a “reasonable degree of approximation.” Does that sound purely scientific? Sounds like some levels of metaphors or representations might be involved. Who decides what is a “reasonable degree of approximation?”
The point I’m trying to make is the usual pragmatist one — that the modeling of reality which takes place in physics or psychology takes place in generally agreed-upon rules of discourse, where the number of levels stacked up of metaphors that are allowed in the description of objects varies according to what is reasonable and useful to the community. When someone points out inconsistencies in the discourse of a community, like the Sokal et. al. paper does, decisions have to be made about who is in and who is out, about which practices the members and institutions of the community will accept. The use and misuse of fluid dynamics that Losada etc. have introduced into psychology is one of these situations.
The Hippie and the Scientist illustrations I did are supposed to represent what I understand to be the pressures on the positive psychologist. On the one hand, if you use math and language of the “hard” sciences, you’re seen as like a “scientist” and obtain privilege and respect (as long as you aren’t called out on it). This seems like what may have tempted Losada and Fredrickson to perform like they did. On the other hand, if you only tell people, with just words, that they should try to feel grateful more often, and that this will lead to happiness, your work is "soft," therapy, and you’re like a hippie talking about peace and good vibes.
A psychological reading of the whole affair would be more interesting than a mathematical model, but there may be some difficulty agreeing on the right psychological models. Writers who study the “Positivity Ratio Affair” will certainly have a lot to argue about and uncover for years to come. The motivations of Frederickson and Losada? The motivations of Brown, Sokal, and Friedman? What psychological model should we use to understand this, in the takedown’s Concluding Remarks:
“Let us stress that our concern here is with the objective properties of published texts, not the subject states of mind of the authors (which might, however, be of interest to philosophers…). We do not, for example, have an opinion about the degree to which excessive enthusiasm, sincere self-deception, or other motivations may have influenced Losada and colleagues when writing their articles.”?
An artful use of language—saying what one is not saying, but kinda saying it at the same time... Is there a mathematics for that? And why do they say “philosophers” and not psychologists — or even artists?
Finally, it seems obvious to say this, but the whole thing about the ratio — of course it’s true that 3 positive thoughts to 1 negative thoughts is a good thing!! What are the alternatives? 2-2? 1-3? Those ratios obviously aren’t going to lead to positive thinking. Why couldn't the ratio have just been left as a metaphor for “more,” another way of saying the same thing? An illustration-in-words? Apples and oranges = apples plus oranges. “More positive thoughts leads to thinking positively.” Seen this way the whole thing seems so straightforward that almost every step in this story, the mistakes and the corrections and every dollar spent by universities for research and corporations for consultations, and every hour spent thinking and writing about this whole affair seems positively nuts.