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Criticisms of 'traditional' psychology

The following is a list of some of the main criticisms Seligman and others advance against traditional, empirical psychology:
  • Traditional psychology has an underlying negative bias whereby it assumes that human beings are largely motivated by negative emotions such as jealousy or by self-serving ends. For example, according to such a view, Princess Diana did not campaign against land mines because she wanted to end human suffering but because she was narcissistic or motivated by rage against the Royal  Family.
  • Psychologists have operated within a disease model and have therefore spent time researching everything which could go wrong with the human brain and personality. This means they have spent little time defining positive human traits such as altruism or kindness. Largely as a result of psychologists bias, people in western society as a whole have lost the capacity to think in terms of virtue or good character.
  • Psychologists have spent much more time studying negative emotions such as anger or depression rather than positive emotions such as happiness or joy.
  • Psychology's emphasis on the negative side of life means it is, in Seligman's terminology, 'half-baked' as it does not adequately look at the whole range of human experience.
  • Psychology has focused on identifying and fixing weaknesses rather than identifying and building on people's strengths.
  • Traditional psychology renders individuals passive victims of things which happen to them in life. It does not tend to see them as being masters of their own fate or in control of their emotions.

Key Elements of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology has the following characteristics:

  • It is interested in what has been termed 'the science of optimal human functioning'.
  • It wants to learn what works from studying human success rather than human failure or weaknesses.
  • It focuses attention on positive subjective experiences such as happiness and well-being as well as positive human characteristics such as strengths and virtues.
  • It is not just interested in individuals but in how group structures such as organisations, families or cultures can induce positive emotion and encourage the use of strengths.

Criticisms of humanistic psychology

Some critics of Positive Psychology maintain that figures like Seligman ignore the work of humanistic psychologists such as Carl Jung or Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers who were influential in the 1960s and beyond and whose work on human potential cannot be dismissed as 'negative psychology'. But Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi do acknowledge the difference in these thinkers approach from traditional, empirical psychology, but they are still critical of humanistic psychology for two main reasons:

  • Humanistic psychology does not have an adequate empirical base or scholarly standard. This had encouraged the development of self-help books (on the inner child, for example) in the 'psychology' section of bookshops. In other words, it has spawned and encouraged a whole literature and practice which has little intellectual credibility.
  • Humanistic psychology has a tendency to concentrate on the self, and personal growth, at the expense of collective well-being. Seligman in fact dislikes any psychological concepts with the word 'self' as a pre-fix. (e.g self-esteem.) He argues that such psychology encourages too much of a self-focus. As Seligman maintains that 'the self is not a good site for meaning' he believes such a focus potentially sets people up for feelings of meaninglessness and hence depression.

As Positive Psychology develops it is becoming a broader church drawing people in from different perspectives and disciplines. Some Positive Psychologists (eg Alex Linley in the UK) are trying to affect a reconciliation of Seligman's work with Maslow's concept of self-actualization ' the idea that all people have innate impulses to grow and develop.'

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006

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