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Popular Psychology’s Poisoned Placebos

Jesse Singal's new book exposes the vapidity and pitfalls of the self-help fads of our failed elites.

The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, by Jesse Singal, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2021), 352 pages.

On April 11th, Lee Hart passed away at 85 years of age. In a tweet announcing her death, the New York Times wrote:

“Lee Hart, the wife of former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who stood by him when his front-running campaign for the presidency collapsed in 1987 amid reports that he was having an extramarital affair, is dead at 85.”

The “paper of record” commemorated an honest woman’s life by her husband’s betrayal; an act she bore the emotional cost for but had no responsibility in. Her life became a footnote in the errors of others, and no aspirations or accomplishments could trump that.

This is how society works now: It defines people by the smears against them, which any attempt to erase will only amplify. Even my raising it does so. But despite its importance, few books on the topic are worth reading. Passion and platitude trumps thoughtful consideration, so fiery titles and vapid content fill bookshelves instead.

Thankfully, The Quick Fix isn’t that; yet, if anyone were justified in writing a cancel culture a rage-snorer, it would be Singal. An accomplished science reporter, he has faced an endless barrage of defamatory smears for the crime of sensitively tackling an important subject. But rather than relitigate this, Singal considers a different kind of lie: the cheap theories that pop-psychology celebrities build their names on. Armed with meticulous research and a nose for skewed statistics, he is the field’s James Randi, debunking its trendiest, flakiest (yet most lucrative) ideas, and in the process indicting fields far wider than psychology.

From ‘get-fixed-quick’ schemes to the incendiary Internalised Bias Test, the ideas of his central seven chapters may differ in tone and application but share the same fundamental structure, best understood through two core concepts: the Replication Crisis, and ‘Primeworld’.

Put simply, for an experiment to provide evidence for a claim, it must not only do this once, but reliably provide the same results when repeated. If it doesn’t, then you have a serious problem. When most studies in a whole field fail this test, then you have a Replication Crisis. As Singal notes, 75% of social psychology experiments failed to replicate in a 2015 study, with studies overall only being replicated “a third to a half of the time”, and a 2018 study finding only 50% replicated. Though this is detailed in the penultimate chapter, Singal’s lead-up shows this to be an inevitability, not a surprise. Behind each idea is a tale of skewed statistics, immense exaggeration, anecdata over evidence, and deliberately vague terminology, with every safeguard failing and the gatekeepers buying the hype.

The answer to “how the hell did this happen?” is social, not scientific, in the concept of ‘Primeworld’, and it’s here that the The Quick Fix is at its strongest. Coined by Singal, it refers to the worldview where every issue, no matter how complex or ancient, can be explained by small psychological cues. Happiness and success is but one “quick fix” (and book purchase) away.

Struggling in school? How about some “self-esteem?” Feeling depressed? Here’s some “positive psychology.” Life’s difficult? Try “grit.”

Seemingly sane people have suggested that “power-posing”—doing superhero poses—can help women alleviate work-place gender disparities, under the pretense that it produces a testosterone boost. Despite its condescending sexism, it was championed by feminists and ‘girl-bosses’ everywhere, including Facebook VP Sheryl Sandberg. And despite its unfathomable stupidity, it was put forth by Amy Cuddy, who became a tenure-tracked professor at Harvard Business School and Rutgers University. But all these ideas come from elite institutions. The ‘Positive Psychology Center’ is at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard hosts the online Implicit Bias Test, and the mind behind ‘grit’ was awarded a MacArthur Grant. The cranks are in the academy.

To be clear, though they are propped up on comprehensively flawed data, these concepts aren’t completely vacant; most contain necessary, proverbial grains of truth. The ‘super-predator’ talk was founded upon a real, understandable concern about youth violence, the qualities of ‘grit’ sit at the Aristotelian mean between fool-hardy stubbornness and reckless flightiness, and ‘self-esteem’ broadly describes one’s sense of self. 

But these are intuitive and obvious, lacking the novelty and scientific specialness necessary to sell books and fill TED talks. ‘I’m doing this because I like it’ doesn’t impress anybody; but freshly-plucked eyebrows cock upon hearing that ‘studies’ prove your food or activity of choice increases self-esteem and, ergo, success.  The road to millions is walked one power-pose at a time. But, by trying to recast amorphous, situational terms as hard ‘scientific’ metrics, you suggest they are independent variables instead of effects, endow them with undue significance, and therefore stymie real solutions.

To some, this may amount to ‘so what?’ This is just Orwell’s foolishness of the intelligentsia that “no normal man” could believe: the fad ideas that serve as status symbols for “middle- and upper-middle-class strivers.” If you’re not among their numbers, why care? We don’t when the the irrational loon on the bus is a fellow passenger, but Singal establishes pretty damn clearly that he’s firmly in the driving seat, and this fundamentally corrupted, lazy thinking has spread far beyond psychology, infecting education, the White House, and—most chillingly—the military. 

As outlined in Chapter 4, the American war machine responded to the rising veteran suicide rates among its traumatized soldiers by instituting a ‘positive psychology’ program which, needless to say, was about as effective in alleviating shell-shock as saying “cheer up.” As Singal details:

“To actually treat PTSD often entails deprogramming the military’s very own messages. You need to make people realize they did not have control over situations that were in fact chaotic and violent and incomprehensible.”

Counselling sessions for soldiers are tough and emotional; but positive psychology sessions make for great photoshoots! So, the Army spent roughly half a billion dollars on it. Half a billion. As Singal writes:

“There may be no other single mental-­health intervention in the history of humanity that has cost this much, and the Army has almost nothing to show for it.”

This kind of ‘Primeworld’ thinking also labelled America’s violent children as unredeemable ‘super-predators,’ opening the door to life imprisonments or executions; and ‘helped’ struggling students by funding bunkum instead of teachers and class time.

And the worst is that it’s not going to stop. The press wants clicks, TED wants listener, books need buyers, and psychologists need speaking fees. Modest research doesn’t do any of that. And so, Harvard professors, celebrated novelists, and New York Times columnists will continue to applaud their peers, even though that isn’t gold the goose is laying. As Singal writes in the conclusion:

“All the incentives in the cycle point toward overclaiming, oversimplifying, and brushing aside countervailing evidence.” 

To Singal’s credit—and the book’s benefit—he doesn’t lean into this angle too much, trusting the readers to draw what inferences they may, and dedicating his energy to making his case bullet-proof. Considering the repeated failures of ‘experts’ during the pandemic—let alone in politics generally—this is enough to make for a devastating, unsettling documentation of elite failure. And yet, by pulling back, Singal’s objectivity and charitability also hamstrings him.

Reading Chapter 2 on ‘super-predators’, I was reminded of Christopher Hitchens’s 1999 Vanity Fair article on American execution of minors, ‘Old Enough To Die.’ Opening with “The United States of America executes its own children,” each word is soaked with embittered rage and moral disgust, and you finish feeling that the American promise was fundamentally violated, even decades after the Supreme Court declared such executions unconstitutional. Similarly, Chapter 4 reminded me of David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service and the documentary Of War and Men, and the harrowing way so many soldiers returned from the war, mental and emotional stability left behind in Iraq.  The toll of this thinking is immense, but Singal’s neutral prose keeps that individual cost at a distance.

The underlying intent is well seated. His clear, precise, caveating approach makes him far more credible than the emotive, hyperbolic claims he is debunking, and he couches each idea in its broader social context. He even notes where concepts are not necessarily unsound, including internalized bias, despite prominent ‘anti-racist’ zealots misconstruing its nature and scope. This neutrality is good; but you don’t lust for Soylent after bad curry, and you can write objectively and also be emotive and personal. Indeed, Singal’s best journalism—including his infamous but brilliant Atlantic cover piece—has been characterized by this balancing act. And yet, here he leans away, numbing the pain through aggregates, when all you want is for him to dive in.

But then again, I would not be expecting that were this written by anyone else. He knows better than most the personal cost of elite failure—in his case, in journalism—so I’m primed for him to focus on the further implications of his analysis; truly dive into the harm of Primeworld and how it has infected elite society. But he doesn’t need to, and by expecting it, I’m criticising him for a standard set by those who smeared him. I wouldn’t expect another science writer to dive into this, and that clearly isn’t the book he wanted to write.

What he has written is the most engaging pop-science book released in years—with evidently more science than its popular peers. It’s meticulously researched, carefully written, makes complex statistics accessible to a general audience, and even proposes some useful, applicable solutions both to address the underlying concerns behind the ideas and to strengthen the science. Plus, if you’re interested in reading more, you could draw a substantial reading list from the books he cites throughout.

Oh, and smuggled between its covers is the most alarming documentation of elite failure you’ll read anywhere; including in those fiery-titled bestsellers.

Ross Anderson was a 2020 fellow at Tablet magazine.