The misuse of maths in psychology

“Think positively!” – a seemingly innocuous remark you might hear every so often… you might have even read it in one of those self-help books, or even from renowned psychologists of “positivity” such as Barbara Fredrickson. In 2005, Fredrickson and her colleague Marcial Losada published a paper in “American Psychologist” in which they calculate a “positivity ratio” using Lorenz equations.

In the paper, the authors mention that positivity ratios above 2.9013 are related to “flourishing mental health”. It turns out the this paper has recently been refuted and even partially withdrawn thanks to the judicious eye of Nicholas Brown, a part time graduate student from the University of East London who was able to see through the great misuse of mathematics. Brown was supported by Alan Sokal, an outspoken critic of postmodernism and professor of physics at New York University; and Harris L Friedman a clinical psychologist from Saybrook University and the University of Florida. Their paper is entitled “The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio.”

The Observer newspaper mentions that Fredrickson and Losada were given the opportunity of responding to the refutal… Only Fredrickson took the opportunity up. According to the Observer

“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.”

I guess is still the positive thinking that may be helping her…

It is great to see that the scientific process does work, unfortunately I am sure that the “positive ratio” pushers will continue to exploit the situation.

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