Wednesday, January 12, 2005

HAPPINESS IS INCORRECT -- particularly in the "N.Y. Times"

By Martin E. P. Seligman (Prof. Seligman is deservedly one of the world's most eminent psychologists)

"I've been reading the New York Times every morning for more than forty years. When it still appeared on my doorstep in the morning during the Pentagon Papers incident, I knew that I still lived in a free country. I wish I could break myself of this reading habit. Why? Because the reporting of science, particularly of psychology, is so bad. I'll narrate the latest horror story first, and then try to put it in historical context.

On June 20th of this year, the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times carried, as its opening story, an article entitled "Against Happiness," by one Jim Holt. It warned that "Well-being might be bad for you," basing its thesis on an article that appeared in Psychological Science in May 2004.

The argument went like this: in the Psychological Science article, Mr. Holt told readers, "Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups..But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier you are, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he's a member of a minority group." The article goes on to use this as a fulcrum for condemning well-being and happiness as having undesirable consequences for society.

I was puzzled since I know the literature on the positive consequences of happiness (including increased altruism, leadership, physical health, success, lack of depression, etc.) pretty well. So I re-read the original Psychological Science. I could not find these data therein.

The Psychological Science article looks at the consequences of sadness, anger, and neutrality (not of happiness) on "bigoted" social judgments. Have a look: DeSteno, David, Dasgupta, Nilanjana, Bartlett, Monica Y. & Cajdric, Aida (2004) Prejudice >From Thin Air. Psychological Science 15 (5), 319-324. But I was worried that somehow I had missed something. So I emailed the first author.

Here is Dr. DeSteno's reply:

"Dr. Seligman is exactly correct. The article cited below does not contain any statements about happiness. Rather, our work focuses on the ability of the emotion anger to evoke automatic prejudices.

I believe Mr. Holt may have been referring to work by Galen Bodenhausen that is cited in a recent NYT Science Times article (from the end of April) that focused on the work of my lab. Dr. Bodenhausen discussed his work in that article which details the influence of happiness on the use of stereotypes; happiness has been shown to make individuals rely on stereotyped beliefs when making certain judgments under certain conditions. This is a very different finding from ours in which we demonstrate that anger can bias the automatic appraisal mechanisms of the brain and produce a new prejudice.

What I find most peculiar about this event is that I was contacted a week ago by someone from the NYT fact checking department who told me of the description of my research findings. I, of course, noted the error to him and gave him a correct summary of our research findings. He asked for a phone number where I could be reached as he felt certain that the author would want to speak with me regarding this point. No one subsequently contacted me."

The Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

A bit of journalistic carelessness? Perhaps. Holt excused his own reporting with "allowing for a little journalistic caricature," which seems to mean that he took a thesis that fit his ideology and ran with it without doing the tedious homework of reading the large literature on the social benefits of happiness (e.g., happy people are more altruistic than unhappy people). But the editors liked it anyway and I have seen a pattern in the New York Times over the last decade when it comes to the reporting of psychology in particular and good news in general.

I was outraged when Spiro Agnew referred to his enemies as the "nattering nabobs of negativism" and doubtful more recently when others condemned the press and many politicians as "professional pessimists." But maybe Mr. Agnew was on to something.......

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The Lake District national park authority put off a decision yesterday on a plan to drop guided walks and events on the grounds that they attract almost exclusively white and middle class people. A decision will now be taken at a special meeting later in the month. Officials said they had made the proposal after being encouraged by the government to appeal to young people from the inner-cities, disabled people, and members of the black and other ethnic minority communities under-represented among the park's visitors. The proposal was criticised by the volunteers who lead the walks and by bodies trying to get a wider range of people into national parks.

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