The dark underside of positive psychology
Over the last decade the field of positive psychology has become a burgeoning area of research within academic psychology. Well known figures in positive psychology include Martin Seligman (developer of the well known learned helplessness model of depression and past president of the American Psychological Association), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (creator of the construct of flow), and Daniel Gilbert (author of the widely acclaimed Stumbling on Happiness). The field of positive psychology focuses on developing a scientific understanding of positive human experiences and virtues. Important research areas include happiness, optimism, fulfillment, compassion, and gratitude. The field positions itself in contrast to traditional approaches to mental health, which focus on psychopathology and treating mental illness. The roots of positive psychology can be traced to the field of humanistic psychology, which peaked in popularity during the 1960s. Well known pioneers of humanistic psychology included Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Fritz Perls. …
The power of the placebo
A recent New York Times article reports that a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients receiving one of the most commonly performed forms of knee surgery (arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus) did no better than those receiving a placebo treatment. In the study, patients with meniscus tears were randomly assigned either to the standard surgical procedure, or a sham surgical procedure, which involved making an incision without touching the meniscus. One year following treatment, the majority of patients in both genuine surgical and placebo conditions reported feeling better. Moreover, the majority of patients in both conditions said that they would undergo the same treatment again. The authors of the study conclude that their findings (taken together similar findings from previous studies) raise important questions regarding best practice standards of care for the treatment of knee problems.
From my perspective, the finding that the majority of patients in the placebo condition experienced the procedure as helpful, is just as important and perhaps more conceptually intriguing. …
About language, our society, madness…
Leslie Kaplan read the following excerpts from her plays after she gave the eighth William Phillips lecture on November 6, 2013 at Theresa Lang Student and Community Center/Arnhold Hall of The New School.
all my life I’ve been a woman
all my life
does that sentence seem
odd to me
“To write is to jump outside the line of the assassins.” - Franz Kafka
First of all I would like to thank the New School, and Edith Kurzweil who invited me to this eighth William Phillips lecture and gave me the opportunity to come to the prestigious New School.
My father Harold Kaplan was a great friend of William Phillips, who published his first short story, The Mohammedans, in Partisan Review, in 1943, and later his Paris Letters, and many other pieces, and I always heard about Partisan review and William Phillips at home.
I was born in Brooklyn, in 1943, but brought up in Paris. Before the war, my father was studying French literature at the University of Chicago where he had a scholarship. He started working for the radio in 1942, in The Voice of America (La voix de l’Amérique), with André Breton and Pierre Lazareff, and afterwards was sent to Algiers, where he was when I was born…
The rise, fall, and possible resurrection of psychoanalysis in the United States
For decades psychoanalysis dominated professional approaches to mental health in the United States and had an influential impact on our culture. Starting in the late 1960s, however, psychoanalysis has become increasingly marginalized. Here, I will argue that psychoanalysis has always contained both subversive and conservative threads. As the historian Nathan Hale argued, Americans modified psychoanalysis to solve a conflict between the more radical implications of Freud’s views and the conformist pulls of American culture. This process of domestication enabled Americans to enthusiastically embrace psychoanalysis for a period of time. But they did so at the cost of transforming psychoanalysis in ways that ultimately contributed to its decline. Yet, ironically, the current marginalizaton of psychoanalysis may contain the seeds of a more radical psychoanalysis that serve as a healthy and constructive counter-cultural force moving forward…
I feel for Jeremy Rifkin. In 2010, Rifkin, a public intellectual and best-selling author, published a remarkable book titled The Empathic Civilization. In it, Rifkin argues (1) that humans are soft-wired for empathic feelings toward others and that (2) this potential has to be fostered if we are to survive, as a species, on our precious little planet. The book is a tour-de-force, in which ideas, data from various disciplines and anecdotes are built upon to make a case for empathy. Rifkin is not always very precise, or even correct in reporting scientific findings, but by and large his thesis holds. Empathy is good for you, and for others, and as a society we should do our best to foster it. Yet, Rifkin’s ideas have been the target of a rather intense attack by several eminent scholars, notably psychologists Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, and philosopher Jesse Prinz. What’s not to agree with in Pinker’s ideas?
Bloom, Pinker and Prinz, echoed by New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, do not think that we should rely on empathy to build a better world. Let’s review some of their ideas.
A good start is Brooks’ article. The article elicited a host of reactions among readers and, not surprisingly, among scholars who formally study empathy. These scholars saw decades of research findings dismissed in an 800-word piece destined to a reading public of hundreds of thousands. Brooks builds his argument “against” empathy from Steven Pinker’s last book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and a chapter by Jesse Prinz, titled “Is Empathy Necessary for Morality.” The latter is a concise piece, which can be easily read over a 6 oz cup of coffee. Pinker’s is an 800-pages book, which deals with much more than this specific question, and requires a several gallons of coffee, and a great deal of determination, to be conquered.