Unmasking Jane Brody’s “A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health” in The New York Times

A recipe for coercing ill people with positive psychology pseudoscience in the New York Times

  • Judging by the play she gets in social media and the 100s of comments on her articles in the New York Times, Jane Brody has a successful recipe for using positive psychology pseudoscience to bolster down-home advice you might’ve gotten from your grandmother.
  • Her recipe might seem harmless enough, but her articles are directed at people struggling with chronic and catastrophic physical illnesses. She offers them advice.
  • The message is that persons with physical illness should engage in self-discipline, practice positive psychology exercises – or else they are threatening their health and shortening their lives.
  • People struggling with physical illness have enough to do already. The admonition they individually and collectively should do more -they should become more self-disciplined- is condescending and presumptuous.
  • Jane Brody’s carrot is basically a stick. The implied threat is simply coercive: that people with chronic illness are not doing what they can to improve the physical health unless they engage in these exercises.
  • It takes a careful examination Jane Brody’s sources to discover that the “scientific basis” for this positive psychology advice is quite weak. In many instances it is patently junk, pseudoscience.
  • The health benefits claimed for positivity are unfounded.
  • People with chronic illness are often desperate or simply vulnerable to suggestions that they can and should do more.  They are being misled by this kind of article in what is supposed to be the trusted source of a quality news outlet, The New York Times, not The Daily News.
  • There is a sneaky, ill-concealed message that persons with chronic illness will obtain wondrous benefits by just adopting a positive attitude – even a hint that cancer patients will live longer.

In my blog post about positive psychology and health, I try to provide  tools so that consumers can probe for themselves the usually false and certainly exaggerated claims that are being showered on them.

However, in the case of Jane Brody’s articles, we will see that the task is difficult because she draws on a selective sampling of the literature in which researchers generate junk self-promotional claims.

That’s a general problem with the positive psychology “science” literature, but the solution for journalists like Jane Brody is to seek independent evaluation of claims from outside the positive psychology community. Journalists, did you hear that message?

The article, along with its 100s of comments from readers, is available here:

A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health by Jane E.Brody

The article starts with some clichéd advice about being positive. Brody seems to be on the side of the autonomy of her  readers. She makes seemingly derogatory comments  that the advice is “cockeyed optimism” [Don’t you love that turn of phrase? I’m sure to borrow it in the future]

“Look on the sunny side of life.”

“Turn your face toward the sun, and the shadows will fall behind you.”

“Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day.”

“See the glass as half-full, not half-empty.”

Researchers are finding that thoughts like these, the hallmarks of people sometimes called “cockeyed optimists,” can do far more than raise one’s spirits. They may actually improve health and extend life.

See?  The clever putdown of this advice was just a rhetorical device, just a set up for what follows. Very soon Brody is delivering some coercive pseudoscientific advice, backed by the claim that “there is no longer any doubt” and that the links between positive thinking and health benefits are “indisputable.”

There is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. When facing a health crisis, actively cultivating positive emotions can boost the immune system and counter depression. Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control [Emphasis added.].

I found the following passage particularly sneaky and undermining of people with cancer.

Even when faced with an incurable illness, positive feelings and thoughts can greatly improve one’s quality of life. Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a Dallas-based author of several books for people facing cancer, including “Happiness in a Storm,” was a practicing internist when she learned she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, 27 years ago. During the next 15 years of treatments for eight relapses of her cancer, she set the stage for happiness and hope, she says, by such measures as surrounding herself with people who lift her spirits, keeping a daily gratitude journal, doing something good for someone else, and watching funny, uplifting movies. Her cancer has been in remission now for 12 years.

“Fostering positive emotions helped make my life the best it could be,” Dr. Harpham said. “They made the tough times easier, even though they didn’t make any difference in my cancer cells.”

Sure, Jane Brody is careful to avoid the explicit claim the positive attitude somehow is connected to the cancer being in remission for 12 years, but the implication is there. Brody pushes the advice with a hint of the transformation available to cancer patients, only if they follow the advice.

After all, Jane Brody had just earlier asserted that positive attitude affects the immune system and this well-chosen example happens to be a cancer of the immune system.

Jane Brody immediately launches into a description of a line of research conducted by a positive psychology group at Northwestern University and University of California San Francisco.

Taking her cue from the investigators, Brody blurs the distinction between findings based in correlational studies and the results of intervention studies in which patients actually practiced positive psychology exercises.

People with new diagnoses of H.I.V. infection who practiced these skills carried a lower load of the virus, were more likely to take their medication correctly, and were less likely to need antidepressants to help them cope with their illness.

But Brody sins as a journalist are worse than that. With a great deal of difficulty, I have chased her claims back into the literature. I found some made up facts.

In my literature search, I could find only one study from these investigators that seemed directly related to these claims. The mediocre retrospective correlational study was mainly focused on use of psychostimulants, but it included a crude 6-item summary measure  of positive states of mind.

The authors didn’t present the results in a simple way that allows direct independent examination of whether indeed positive affect is related to other outcomes in any simple fashion. They did not allow check of simple correlations needed to determine whether their measure was not simply a measure of depressive symptoms turned on its head. They certainly had the data, but did not report it. Instead, they present some multivariate analyses that do not show impressive links. Any direct links to viral load are not shown and presumably are not there, although the investigators tested statistically for them. Technically speaking, I would write off the findings to measurement and specification error, certainly not worthy of reporting in The New York Times.

Less technically speaking, Brody is leading up to using HIV as an exemplar illness where cultivating positivity can do so much. But if this study is worth anything at all, it is to illustrate that even correlationally, positive affect is not related to much, other than – no surprise – alternative measures of positive affect.

Brody then goes on to describe in detail an intervention study. You’d never know from her description that her source of information is not a report of the results of the intervention study, but a promissory protocol that supposedly describes how the intervention study was going to be done.

I previously blogged about this protocol. At first, I thought it was praiseworthy that a study of a positive psychology intervention for health had even complied with the requirement that studies be preregistered and have a protocol available. Most such studies do not, but they are supposed to do that. In plain English, protocols are supposed to declare ahead of time what researchers are going to do and precisely how they are going to evaluate whether an intervention works. That is because, notoriously, researchers are inclined to say later they were really trying to do something else and to pick another outcome that makes the intervention look best.

But then I got corrected by James Heathers on Facebook. Duh, he had looked at the date the protocol was published.

He pointed out that this protocol was actually published years after collection of data had begun. The researchers already had a lot to peek at. Rather than identifying just a couple of variables on which the investigators were prepared to stake their claim the intervention was affected, the protocol listed 25 variables that would be examined as outcomes (!) in order to pick one or two.

So I updated what I said in my earlier blog. I pointed out that the published protocol was misleading. It was posted after the fact of the researchers being able to see how their study was unfolding and to change their plains accordingly.  The vagueness of the protocol gave the authors lots of wiggle room for selectively reporting and hyping their findings with the confirmation bias. They would later take advantage of this when they actually published the results of their study.

The researchers studied 159 people who had recently learned they had H.I.V. and randomly assigned them to either a five-session positive emotions training course or five sessions of general support. Fifteen months past their H.I.V. diagnosis, those trained in the eight skills maintained higher levels of positive feelings and fewer negative thoughts related to their infection.

Brody is not being accurate here. When the  authors finally got around to publishing the results, they told a very different story if you probe carefully. Even with the investigators doing a lot of spinning, they showed null results, no effects for the intervention. Appearances the contrary were created by the investigators ignoring what they actually reported in their tables. If you go to my earlier blog post, I point this out in detail, so you can see for yourself.

Brody goes on to describe the regimen that was not shown in the published study validation to be effective.

An important goal of the training is to help people feel happy, calm and satisfied in the midst of a health crisis. Improvements in their health and longevity are a bonus. Each participant is encouraged to learn at least three of the eight skills and practice one or more each day. The eight skills are:

■ Recognize a positive event each day.

■ Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.

■ Start a daily gratitude journal.

■ List a personal strength and note how you used it.

■ Set an attainable goal and note your progress.

■ Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively.

■ Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.

■ Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.

For chrissakes, this is a warmed over version of Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie’s autosuggestion “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better. Surely, contemporary positive psychology’s science of health can do better than that. To Coué’s credit, he gave away his advice for free. He did not charge for his coaching, even if he was giving away something for which he had no evidence would improve people’s physical health.

Dr. Moskowitz said she was inspired by observations that people with AIDS, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses lived longer if they demonstrated positive emotions. She explained, “The next step was to see if teaching people skills that foster positive emotions can have an impact on how well they cope with stress and their physical health down the line.”

She listed as the goals improving patients’ quality of life, enhancing adherence to medication, fostering healthy behaviors, and building personal resources that result in increased social support and broader attention to the good things in life.

Let me explain why I am offended here. None of these activities have been shown to improve the health of persons with newly diagnosed HIV. It’s reasonable to assume that newly diagnosed persons have a lot with which to contend. It’s a bad time to give them advice to clutter their life with activities that will not make a difference in their health.

The published study was able to recruit and retain a sample of persons with newly diagnosed HIV because it paid them well to keep coming. I’ve worked with this population before, in a study aiming at helping them solve specific practical problems that that they said got in the way of their adherence.

Many persons with newly diagnosed HIV are low income and are unemployed or marginally employed. They will enroll in studies to get the participant fees. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I recall one patient telling a recruiter from UCSF that he was too busy and unable to make a regular visit to the medical center for the intervention, but he would be willing to accept being in the study if he was assigned to the control group. It did not involve attending intervention sessions and would give him a little cash.

Based on my clinical and research experience, I don’t believe that such patients would regularly show up for this kind of useless positive psychology treatment without getting paid. Paticularly if they were informed of the actual results of this misrepresented study.

Gregg De Meza, a 56-year-old architect in San Francisco who learned he was infected with H.I.V. four years ago, told me that learning “positivity” skills turned his life around. He said he felt “stupid and careless” about becoming infected and had initially kept his diagnosis a secret.

“When I entered the study, I felt like my entire world was completely unraveling,” he said. “The training reminded me to rely on my social network, and I decided to be honest with my friends. I realized that to show your real strength is to show your weakness. No pun intended, it made me more positive, more compassionate, and I’m now healthier than I’ve ever been.”

I object to this argument by quotes-from-an-unrepresentative-patient. The intervention did not have the intended effect, and it is misleading to find somebody who claim to turn their life around.

Jane Brody proceeds with some more fake facts.

In another study among 49 patients with Type 2 diabetes, an online version of the positive emotions skills training course was effective in enhancing positivity and reducing negative emotions and feelings of stress. Prior studies showed that, for people with diabetes, positive feelings were associated with better control of blood sugar, an increase in physical activity and healthy eating, less use of tobacco and a lower risk of dying.

The study was so small and underpowered, aside from being methodologically flawed, that even if such effects were actually present, most of the time they would be missed because the study did not have enough patients to achieve significance.

In a pilot study of 39 women with advanced breast cancer, Dr. Moskowitz said an online version of the skills training decreased depression among them. The same was true with caregivers of dementia patients.

“None of this is rocket science,” Dr. Moskowitz said. “I’m just putting these skills together and testing them in a scientific fashion.”

It’s not rocket science, it’s misleading hogwash.

In a related study of more than 4,000 people 50 and older published last year in the Journal of Gerontology, Becca Levy and Avni Bavishi at the Yale School of Public Health demonstrated that having a positive view of aging can have a beneficial influence on health outcomes and longevity. Dr. Levy said two possible mechanisms account for the findings. Psychologically, a positive view can enhance belief in one’s abilities, decrease perceived stress and foster healthful behaviors. Physiologically, people with positive views of aging had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of stress-related inflammation associated with heart disease and other illnesses, even after accounting for possible influences like age, health status, sex, race and education than those with a negative outlook. They also lived significantly longer.

This is even deeper into the woo. Give me a break, Jane Brody. Stop misleading people with chronic illness with false claims and fake facts. Adopting these attitudes will not prevent dementia.

Don’t believe me? I previously debunked these patently false claims in detail. You can see my critique here.

Here is what the original investigators claimed about Alzheimer’s:

We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”

I exposed some analysis of voodoo statistics on which this claim is based. I concluded:

The authors develop their case that stress is a significant cause of Alzheimer’s disease with reference to some largely irrelevant studies by others, but depend on a preponderance of studies that they themselves have done with the same dubious small samples and dubious statistical techniques. Whether you do a casual search with Google scholar or a more systematic review of the literature, you won’t find stress processes of the kind the authors invoke among the usual explanations of the development of the disease.

Basically, the authors are arguing that if you hold views of aging like “Old people are absent-minded” or “Old people cannot concentrate well,” you will experience more stress as you age, and this will accelerate development of Alzheimer’s disease. They then go on to argue that because these attitudes are modifiable, you can take control of your risk for Alzheimer’s by adopting a more positive view of aging and aging people

Nonsense, utter nonsense.

Let chronically ill people and those facing cancer adopt any attitude is comfortable or natural for them. It’s a bad time to ask for change, particularly when there isn’t any promised benefit in improved health or prolonged life.

Rather than Jane Brody’s recipe for positive psychology improving your health, I strongly prefer Lilia Downe’s  La Cumbia Del Mole.

It is great on chicken. If it does not extend your life, It will give you some moments of happiness, but you will have to adjust the spices to your personal taste.

I will soon be offering e-books providing skeptical looks at positive psychology, as well as mindfulness. As in this blog post, I will take claims I find in the media and trace them back to the scientific studies on which they are based. I will show you what I see so you can see it too.

 Sign up at my new website to get advance notice of the forthcoming e-books and web courses, as well as upcoming blog posts at this and other blog sites. You can even advance order one or all of the e-books.

 Lots to see at CoyneoftheRealm.com. Come see…



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