McDonaldization of Positive Psychology: On tour with Marty Seligman

  • I am a failure. I tried repeatedly, but could not produce a blog post about Seligman and Tierney’s long-read We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment in the New York Times.
  • I distracted myself by getting absorbed in social media.
  • Serendipitously, I received an out-of-the-blue a Facebook message from Joachim Kruger that gave me something much better to discuss.
  • Kruger alerted me to his blog post that introduced me to the very apt concept McDonaldalization.
  • I will continue to follow his lead in applying this sociological term to the twists and turns, the quickly fading fads and foolishness of the marketing slogans of positive psychology.
  • But Kruger’s blog post also provided an insightful eyewitness account of his student, Thomas Mairunteregger about working on the The Seligman Europe Tour 2016. I can’t match that.
  • I give a brief account of my failed efforts to write about We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment, I then provide some juicy excerpts of Kruger’s blog calculated to get you to check it out for yourself.
  • Like me, you’ll probably want to go back to his blog posts for more. Maybe you can even join me in getting Kruger to sign up for Twitter.

Driven to distraction by Marty Seligman and John Tierney

I previously blogged about Jane Brody’s “A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health” in The New York Times.  I thought the Seligman and Tierney article would be the next installment at PLOS Mind the Brain on the promotion  of grandmotherly advice with positive psychology pseudoscience.

My Italian grandmother Nonna Lena always freely distributed such unwanted advice, but if I focused on Seligman, I could implicate grandfathers as well. But alas…

‘We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment’–the very title of this new New York Times article displayed the problem that would frustrate my efforts to write about it.

The title should not be confused with a testable scientific hypothesis, capable of being empirically tested and disconfirmed. It’s an advertising slogan. You know, like saying “Ajax is stronger than dirt.”

Similarly for the grandstanding:

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.


Going Latin is pompous. Going to bad Latin is discrediting.

Déjà vu, all over again. Howard Tennen and I earlier dealt with Seligman’s hogwash claim that his positive psychology was a desperately needed corrective for a dominant “negative” psychology. For decades, psychology has focused on both positive and negative experiences. It has accumulated methodologies that are neglected or misapplied in Seligman’s “positive” psychology.

hurt my brain

The antidote was my 1981 A Brief Introduction to Epistobabble. When I dashed it off for a magazine, I never dreamed it would have such a shelf-life and relevance.

Sometimes distraction is good, procrastination is even better at conserving resources otherwise squandered in useless tasks going nowhere.

“Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he’s supposed to be doing at that moment.” -Robert Benchley

will powerI am aware that John Tierney is hawking a self-help book he co-authored with Roy Baumiester. The duo claims to pose a better solution to retreating into distraction. If I listened to them, I should persist in getting through this ridiculous article and write my blog. It would be a weakness, a failure of willpower if I don’t.

Screw the unsolicited advice.

Anyway Tierney is the same guy who warns us of THE LEFT’S WAR ON SCIENCE: Climate activists step up campaign to cut funding to science museums. But for now, I won’t go there.

I let my mind wander to Twitter and Facebook. Bingo! Now I will summarize what I found that is said better than I was trying to say it. Gee, am I experiencing benefit-finding??

Seligman on Tour: Prospection comes to Austria

seligman on tour

Kruger immediately caught my attention with:

For nearly two decades Positive Psychology has churned along as a movement to reform, nay revolutionize, psychological science and practice. The movement is indeed a “movement” rather than a coherent set of theories or a principled framework. Its leading advocates loosely refer to foci on the positive for the sake of well-being and happiness of societies and their human members. Positive psychology is a movement in the sociological sense because it is organized around a charismatic leader, a person who appears to own and direct activity, outlook, and the definition of the movement itself. In his publications and lectures, Professor Seligman presents himself as a legendary, visionary figure, a prophet ahead of his time who has saved psychology from itself and who has seen the path to the good life.

[Applause Crowd Cheering sound effect]

Kruger soon introduces his student Thomas Mairunteregger, who “had the occasion to attend a keystone event in Vienna, observe the dramaturgy, and contemplate its meaning.”

Mairunteregger meets Martin’s Seligman Machine

Sociologist George Ritzer (1996) coined the term The McDonaldization of Society to describe the increasingly efficient, quantified, predictable, and controlled transactions of modern life. I want to borrow and broaden Mr. Ritzer’s term to include two additional things McDonald’s does so well: luring people in by advertising images of irresistible burgers only to then selling something that requires a lot of imagination if it is to be recognized as the advertised product. In my opinion, the concept of McDonaldization describes some recent developments in psychology: some scientist turn hucksters, making extravagant and seductive claims without sufficient corroborative evidence. Clients and consumers are drawn in and pay the price, often without realizing that they have been had.

Mairunteregger some wonderful details of what he observed on the tour. I am tempted to say I wish I was a fly on the wall, except I know I would’ve been bored to death. Or I would have become a nuisance with impertinent questions.)

Vienna was all about Seligman and Baumeister promoting their new book.  Check out Mairunteregger’s skeptical analysis. But here is his wrap up:

This question brings me back to the creeping McDonaldization of Psychology. Advertising, fame, and rhetoric are powerful tools of persuasion and they can be used to get people to consume pabulum, and other junk that feels good when ingested but that will ruin your health. I submit that the same tools were being used here. Beginning with the promotion of the talk as the next big thing in psychology, to the illustrious speakers and their prophetic rhetoric, down to subtleties like the thoughtful, affirmative, and even surprised looks the speakers bestowed on one another on stage. In good Le Bonian tradition, Seligman and Co. worked hard to draw the audience into an ad hoc psychological ingroup, a brother- and sisterhood of the select few who have seen the future of psychology and personal happiness. The Seligman Europe Tour 2016 was rather a book tour, a tour, in which customers paid for the privilege of receiving the commercial advertisement. Seligman and friends made money thrice. The great man himself commanded a fee of $30.000 for the Future Day plus expenses, in addition to selling books and tickets. Not a mean feat to get people to accept this – and cheerfully so.

Looking to the future, we anticipate converts to prospectivism to go out trying untested methods on an unsuspecting clientele. Some methods might work, but we already knew that before the prospectors came along. As the old saying goes, ‘What is true about these theories is not new; and what is new about these theories is not true” [attributed to Hermann Ebbinghaus].

Let’s use our remnants of free will to be vigilant. That would be the right thing to do.

Amen, bro’.

Thomas Mairunteregger has a Magister (the Austrian version of a MSc) in Psychology and is currently finishing his MA in sociology at the University of Graz. Through an internship at a private psychology institute, which organizes psychological congresses, seminars and workshops, he stumbled into the Fast-Food world of Positive Psychology.

Joachim I Krueger Ph.D.

Joachim I. Krueger, Ph.D.

Joachim I. Krueger is Professor of Psychology at Brown University (Ph.D. University of Oregon, 1988). His research is focused on inductive reasoning in social context. Topics include self-perception, intergroup relations, and game theoretic applications to social behavior. He has edited a volume on The Self in Social Judgment, Psychology Press, 2005 (with M. Alicke and D. Dunning), a festschrift for Robyn Dawes (Rationality and Social Desirability, Psychology Press, 2008), a volume on Social judgment and decision making (2012), and a special issue on rationality in Social Cognition (2009). Krueger believes that most research participants behave rationally in psychological experiments. From time to time, though, he enjoys a healthy dose of incoherence within himself and others. He is the second most interesting man in the world