Tag Archives: Angela Duckworth

Research Summaries: Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit–S)

This research summary will be especially attractive to those who have interest in psychometric and would like to see how the concept and measure of grit has evolved. In this paper, Angela Duckworth refines her measurement of grit and establishes the test-retest stability of the concept apart form predictive and  consensual validity.

Animation of a vernier caliper measuring a bolt

Animation of a vernier caliper measuring a bolt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

  1. The authors wanted to come up with a briefer version of the grit scale, which would have better internal consistency and still retain the predictive power and the two factor structure of Consistency of Interests and Perseverance of effort.
  2. As such they dropped 2 items each from both the factor items and retained just 4 items each for each of the factors. The decision to drop the items was taken on the basis of analyzing data across four studies as delineated in their earlier paper, whose research summary is present here.  The newer 8 item Grit scale called Grrit -S retained predictive power and showed the same two factor structure.
  3. Similar to their earlier paper, they did an online study measuring grit-S/grit -O, big five traits as predictors and career changes and educational levels as outcome variables. Grit -S correlated with conscientiousness, but was still able to predict the outcomes over and beyond conscientiousness.
  4. Using the same online procedure, they asked subjects as well as informants (their friends  family members) to complete the Grit-S/Grit -O measures and established the consensual validity of the scale.
  5. In another study with students, they measured Grit-S/Grit -O  for two consecutive springs and established the test-retest stability of the scale as well as its predictive validity where GPA obtained was an outcome variable and so was the number of hours watching television.
  6. The next study was similar to the West point study they had done for earlier paper, but with grit-S predicting who makes it through the beast barracks.
  7. The last study was again a followup study of the national spelling bee competitors, this time with a new cohort, and using a new scale and led to similar results, whereby girt predicted who reached which round etc. based partly on who practiced how much and had prior experience participating.
  8. So, if you were looking for some more areas/ examples of the predictive power of grit, this doesn’t add much to what Anagela et al had presented in the earlier paper, but it does reconfirm finding with a shorter measure that also appears to be a better measure of grit.

so, if you are the one who is fascinated by how scales evolve, do check out this paper here.

Research Summaries: Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness

If you have ever wondered what goes on to make an effective teacher, this research paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, throws some light on the issue.

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 - Dan W...

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 – Dan Waldman (left), left without a job as a high school teacher at Signature Centers High School in New Orleans when it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, has been hired by FEMA and is now at the LaPlace Disaster Recovery Center, 160 Belle Terre, and is in training to become a DRC manager. He is a member of the “Teach For America” program that places new teachers into inner city and low-income area schools around the nation. Win Henderson / FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Teaching is a stressful job; in majority of cases, you are not able to see the impact of your work immediately or at all; hence the frequent teacher burnout or high attrition.
  2. Traditionally its thought that competence in subject matter or certifications would be a good predictor of teacher effectiveness. However , these measures typically fail to distinguish those performing well from those performing just bare minimal.
  3. When one looks at other factors like personality factors, extarverted or ‘attractive’ teachers get better ratings from students/ observers; however they don’t have any real impact on actual student performance when measured by gains in knowledge.
  4. This study looked at grit, life satisfaction and optimism of teachers as predictors of their effectiveness which will distinguish high performing teachers from the mediocre.
  5. They conducted a prospective longitudinal study wherein, grit, life satisfaction and optimistic explanatory style of novice Teach for America teachers was measured before they started school year. The gains in academic performance of the students they taught was used as an indicator of their effectiveness at the school year end.
  6. Grit, the ability to work hard under challenging circumstances, may be relevant to teacher effectiveness as they do face constant challenges, and so this was measured using the 8 item short Grit scale.
  7. Happy people do well in a number of different work settings as those who are in a positive mood are more likely to work towards their goals;  also they have  more resources to cope with stress and challenges, as per broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Also, the energy and enthusiasm of those teachers satisfied with life may be contagious and make students happy and thus more productive. Life satisfaction was measured by Satisfaction with Life Scale.
  8. Optimistic explanatory style may be relevant as when faced with repeated challenges those with pessimistic explanatory style may become helpless and give up, as compared to those with optimistic style who may remain resilient.  This was measured using Attributional Style Questionnaire.
  9. All three positive traits predicted teacher effectiveness.  When all were simultaneously used to predict the teacher effectiveness outcome, only grit and life satisfaction were significant predictors. It thus seems that optimism works via grit and life satisfaction.
  10. As this is a prospective longitudinal study the results do hint at causality, though reverse causality like effectiveness leading to life satisfaction cannot be ruled out.
  11. The authors conclude by suggesting that schools should perhaps hire for grit, happiness and optimism too. This is where I get a little uncomfortable; in an ideal world, I would welcome anyone who has a passion for teaching (the passion part of grit is taken care of 🙂 ) and equip them with tools like training to increase perseverance, hope and happiness to make them more effective. I am always ambivalent about measuring a trait and then hiring for it. To be fair the authors also suggest interventions in schools to increase grit , hope etc of teachers. I wish there was more of latter than former in the world that we live in.

So if you found this interesting and want to dig deep, check out the original paper here.

Research Summaries: Empirical identification of the major facets of Conscientiousness

This research summary looks at a paper co-authored by Angela Duckworth, that tries to carve conscientiousness at it joints.

English: perfectionist measuring and cutting grass

English: perfectionist measuring and cutting grass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Conscientiousness is a personality trait that is present in most personality theories and measured by most personality inventories, the most famous of these being the Big Five or OCEAN model and as measured by Big Five Inventory (BFI)/ NEO-PI-R.
  2. Personality traits structure is supposed to be hierarchical with traits like Conscientiousness comprising of many finer aspects or facets. The NEO-PI-R is structured around 6 facets of conscientiousness, they being competence, order, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline and deliberation.
  3. Conscientiousness predicts a number of important life outcomes, however the relationship of different facets with different outcomes is not well established; nor are the number of facets of Conscientiousness agreed upon.
  4. Thus Angela and colleagues set forth to find out what was the underlying facet level structure of Conscientiousness and which facets predicted which outcomes. For this they used exploratory factor analysis and confirmatory factor analysis on data obtained from 291 adolescents. Conscientiousness was measured using items present in multiple scales from IPIP (international personality item pool).
  5. Exploratory factor analysis yielded an eight factor structure which was confirmed with confirmatory factor analysis.
  6. The eight factors were best described by the following construct labels: (a) Industriousness (“I make an effort”, “I am always prepared”); (b) Perfectionism (“I want to be the very best”, “I demand quality”); (c) Tidiness (“I like to tidy up”, “I leave a mess in my room” [reverse-keyed]); (d) Procrastination Refrainment (“I get to work at once”, “I am easily distracted” [reverse-keyed]); (e) Control (“I rush into things” [reverse-keyed], “I do unexpected things” [reverse-keyed]); (f) Cautiousness (“I think before I speak”, “I make careful choices”); (g) Task Planning (“I follow a schedule”, “I work according to a routine”); and (h) Perseverance (“I give up easily” [reverse-keyed], “I am easily discouraged” [reverse-keyed]).

  7.   Multiple outcomes of interest for the students were measured, these included absenteeism, CGPA, high stakes achievement results and teacher ratings of social behavior. All facets except tidiness predicted these outcomes. Perfectionism predicted scores in high stakes test even stronger than Conscientiousness as a whole. Industriousness predicted less absenteeism even strongly than Conscientiousness as a whole.
  8. Based on when the factors emerged and drawing a parallel with other lesser factor solutions, its apparent that following pairings can be done (my interpretation!) :
    1. Task planning (ordering tasks and time) and Tidiness (ordering possessions) make one group that can be called organization/orderliness. Task planning seems to be the dutifulness facet of NEO-PI-R.
    2. Cautiousness (prudence in VIA) and Control of impulses (self-regulation in VIA) make one group that is related to in-the-moment exercise of control, willpower and judgement. Cautiousness seems to be related to deliberation facet of NEO-PI-R.
    3. Industriousness (hard work {driven by harmonious passion?} where focus is on achieving quantity) and Perfectionism ( drive towards perfection {driven by obsessive passion?} where focus is on achieving quality) seem to make one group that is related to long term focus/ passion. Industriousness looks the same as Achievement-striving as per NEO-PI-R.
    4. Procrastination refrainment (decisiveness or starting things without waiting)  and perseverance (or finishing things that have been started, no matter what) seem to make the final group that is task-oriented. While procrastination refrainment seems like self-discipline of NEO-PI-R, Perseverance is more close to competence.
  9. To me the above eight factor structure of conscientiousness fits beautifully with my own ABCD model whereby I can see parallels with the Orderliness/organization related to Affect dimension and so forth.
  10. This research has real world implications. Given the limited time, if at all,  allotted by schools for positive education interventions, if one wants to increase odds of better outcomes, its wiser to focus on particular facets of Conscientiousness like industriousness, that are known to be associated with good outcomes, rather than poor predictor facets like tidiness, or even Conscientiousness as a whole.
  11. Bottom-line appears to be that teaching children tidy habits may be totally irrelevant,, in terms of valued life outcomes,  but making them appreciate the value of hard work and effort may really pay off!

if intrigued, here is the original paper.

Research Summaries: The Economics and Psychology of Personality Traits

Today’s research summary is about a paper co-authored by Angela Duckworth, that is at the intersection of psychology and economics. Though I have been following behavioral economics a bit, I still found the paper a bit challenging to read and comprehend and don’t claim to understand all the attached jargon, functions and mathematical formulations. The fact that the paper is 88 pages long wasn’t of help either 🙂 (the saving grace being that 20 or more pages were filled with references alone), so read the rest of the summary at your own peril!

An illustration of Spearman's two-factor intel...

An illustration of Spearman’s two-factor intelligence theory. Each small oval is a hypothetical mental test. The blue areas show the variance attributed to s, and the purple areas the variance attributed to g. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The paper aims to throw light on how personality affects (socio)economic outcomes and how concepts from personality psychology can be used in economic equations and modeling.
  2. To start with, an important socioeconomic outcome is success in life. IQ or cognitive ability is well established as a predictor of success in life/job,  and slowly but surely, a case is building up for the predictive power of personality traits like conscientiousness to predict success in life/job.
  3. Its useful to distinguish cognitive factors like Intelligence/IQ from other ‘non-cognitive’ factors like personality traits and motivation.
  4. Perry Preschool study which enriched the environment (an intervention aimed at increasing IQ) of disadvantaged kids with subnormal IQ, found that IQ gains for treatment group (which shot up initially) and control group became equal at age 10 , though the treatment group continued to be much more successful on many socioeconomic outcomes over their life cycle. This can be only explained if we admit that something other than IQ, maybe personality factors, were changed by the intervention.
  5. Psychologists use personality, motivation and cognitive factors to explain behavior and success of an agent. Economists however use concepts like preferences, constraints, incentives etc to explain choice/decision/ behavior and ultimately success in life.
  6. Cognitive factors are defined as ‘‘ability to understand complex ideas,to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought’’. The various tests like IQ tests that measure cognitive ability have led to identification of a general factor ‘g’ of intelligence. The factor structure of Intelligence is hierarchical;  as per one conceptualization, the second-order factors are ‘fluid intelligence’ and ‘crystallized intelligence“.
  7. IQ test are not a pure measure of maximal intellectual performance; for those getting low scores, appropriate incentives can increase their scores. Similarly test anxiety may affect performance; thus IQ measure is affected by factors like motivation and personality.
  8. Personality factors also have a hierarchical structure; the most common level contains the Big Five factors, below them are specific facets  and above them two super factors of plasticity and stability.
  9. The personality traits of Big Five have been arrived at using factor analysis and are more descriptive in nature, based around clustering of together of traits, adjectives or behaviors. The same can be said of ‘g’ which is again more descriptively arrived at. In contrast, economists prefer measures that have been built based around their predictive power in the real word. MMPI, Hogan personality inventory etc were on the other hand built with the specific aim of predicting real world outcomes.
  10. Economists, try to estimate preferences of agents and thus predict/explain their behavior etc. Some of the typical preferences studied are time preference, risk aversion, preference for leisure and altruism/ social preferences. Estimating these preferences help explain and predict behavior that deviates from a purely self-interested rational agent.
  11. Time preference is the preference for immediate reward over future reward. This is measured by the phenomenon of time discounting while making decisions.  For example, what would you choose 1 $ today or 2 $ tomorrow? 500 $ this week or 1000 $ next month? based on answers to questions like these (and maybe real world behaviors/ decisions too) economists can infer what is the rate at which you discount future utility for present utility. That function is hyperbolic in nature.
  12. Its seems “time preference is tri-dimensional, comprising three separate underlying motives: impulsivity, the tendency to act spontaneously and without planning; compulsivity, the tendency to stick with plans; and inhibition, the ability to override automatic responses to urges or emotions”. Its easy to see how the three components of time preference can be related to personality factors. Also important is to note that a person with low future vision or imagination may be constrained on this time preference dimension.
  13. Risk aversion is the phenomenon, whereby a sure or less uncertain outcome is preferred over an uncertain outcome.  For example, what would you choose  1 $ for sure or a 50 % chance of winning 2.2 $? Based on analyzing such decisions, one can again calculate, how risk averse a person is. This paradigm is however prone to framing effects.
  14. Those who show little risk aversion, also have poor outcomes like indulging in smoking, stealing and not wearing seat belts. The personality trait of sensation seeking, as developed by Zuckerman, is related to this construct.
  15. Preference for leisure is the preference to use time for relaxation etc over indulging in work or economic activity. Some people are driven to work hard and personality traits like Conscientiousness are really relevant here.
  16. Social preferences are preferences like inequality aversion where a monkey would not accept cucumber pieces for the same work, if another monkey is getting grapes instead. Doesn’t  make sense rationally, but economists can use social preference to get out of this hole!
  17. The big five as well as IQ are predictive of various life outcomes like leadership, grades, longevity etc
  18. Most personality traits as well as intelligence measures change with age- they are malleable and follow a pattern. For eg, fluid intelligence decreases while crystallized intelligence increases over the lifespan.
  19. Environmental factors like parental investment and social roles can be the mechanisms that lead to changes and stability in these traits.
  20. Preference factors, which are studied by economists, however are not clear as to whether they are stable or change with age and more research needs to be done there.
  21. The real contribution of this paper is in conceiving psychological traits as constraints under which economic decisions are being made.  For eg. low cognitive ability will constrain a person to figure out and get clarity about the issue at hand and he will be forced to choose in uncertainty and his risk aversion maybe causing him to make sub-optimal decisions.  The intelligent person has a richer choice set and intelligence is a constrain having real world implications; same is true for personality factors.
  22. Thus personality traits may be a form of constraints/ preferences and research in either psychology or economics around this shroud inform each other.
  23. Overall, despite its challenging economics jargon, I found this really useful; as someone interested in personality psychology, this provided a new perspective.

As always, do check out the original paper here.

Research Summaries: Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals

Today’s research summary is based on this paper which Angela Duckworth co-authored with Chris Peterson and colleagues, and where she first introduced her concept of grit and operationalized it by introducing the Grit Scale.

Monkey Grit

Monkey Grit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. One common thread running thorough Angela’s research is a (harmonious) obsession with finding out what leads to great achievement. A lot of earlier research in psychology has focused on the role of talent/ intelligence in high achievement, and that role is well established.
  2. Terman, for example, studied a group of highly gifted children in a famed longitudinal study which found that those who rose to prominence were more likely to exhibit “Perseverance, Self-Confidence, and Integration toward goals”, rather than mere high IQ. So, cognitive factors are just a part of the picture, and do not explain the whole picture.
  3. The other factors that  could influence high performance have been variously named as non-cognitive, personality or motivational factors. Among these, the Big Five personality trait of Conscientiousness keeps emerging in research linking personality with high achievement and work outcomes. However, conscientiousness may be multi-faceted with the achievement oriented facets that make one work hard, try to do a good job, and completes the task at hand, be more closely related to job performance than the dependability oriented facets that make one self-controlled and conventional.
  4. Thus Angela thought it worthwhile to introduce a new concept called Grit. which could explain why some people who have equal or lesser talent succeed over others who might have greater talent/ intelligence.   This is how they define Grit:
  5. We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

  6. Grit is different from Conscientiousness, but correlated with the achievement side of Conscientiousness. To me, conscientiousness seems to comprise both Grit and Self-control. Grit is all about staying course driven by long-term super-ordinate goals,  while self-control is more about not getting distracted and managing one’s impulses and emotions in the service of the currently activated goal. On can think of grit as sustained self-control in the service of a constant non-changing goal. The important thing to note is Grit is different from both self-control and conscientiousness.
  7. Across six studies Angela found that Grit predicted successful outcomes over and above Intelligence. Point to note that Grit and IQ/ intelligence are typically uncorrelated or even negatively correlated. The latter finding is explained by the fact that people having less IQ/ Talent may need to exercise and develop Grit more fully to achieve good outcomes. Three of these studies were longitudinal and the rest cross-sectional.
  8. Study 1 & 2 validated a 12 item Grit scale, which contained two orthogonal factors passion ( or consistency of interest) and perseverance of effort. The incremental validity of grit in predicting educational achievements (an outcome variable), over and above, IQ and conscientiousness, in a cross-sectional population was also ascertained. It was also found that older people were more gritty.
  9. In study 3, they looked at undergrads at UPenn and found that grit predicted overall CGPA and explained variance over and above that explained by SAT scores(proxy for intelligence).
  10. Study 4 and 5 looked at west point cadets (the analog of NDA cadets in India) and found that Grit predicted who made it through the beast barracks (the first summer training) better than self-control etc.  However, for those who stayed, self-control predicted better the CGPA at end of year one and MPS (Military performance score).
  11. Study 6 looked at National spelling bee participants and found that Grit predicted who will make to which final round.  Also the effect of grit was mediated by the study time or hours participants put on weekend preparing for this and  number or prior participation in the competition ( the more gritty you are the more likely you are to participate in more prior competitions and the more no. of prior participation, the greater your odds of success)
  12. Overall, this paper gave direction to a whole new field and established Grit as a valid concept with important outcomes and correlates.

If your interest has been piqued, you can check the full article here.

Research Summaries: Self-Discipline Gives Girls the Edge: Gender in Self-Discipline, Grades, and Achievement Test Scores

Today’s post summarizes a paper by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, that parses the same set of data, as obtained in their earlier paper (see research summary of that paper here), to come up with new insights about gender differences in self-control and scholastic achievement.

Dangal

Dangal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

  1. Girls, typically outperform boys when it comes to getting good grades overall and within each subject. this is true of US; however from what I have seen of Indian board results, the same is true of almost every board exam in India, be it CBSE, ICSE or State Boards.
  2. The girls however do not outperform boys on achievement tests like SAT or on ability test like IQ tests.
  3. If one were to assume that achievement and ability test are a better measure and can be used for predicting the grades, then girls grades as predicted by IQ etc fall shorter of what they actually achieve; and boys typically achieve lower actual grades that those predicted on the basis of their IQ. This phenomena is called underprediction and overprediction respectively.
  4. Traditional accounts of explaining this gender gap focus on how boys are better at achievement tests and are at an advantage. For example, as boys are expected to do better on such tests, girls face ‘stereotype threat’ which leads to poor performance by girls.
  5. Angela set out to find whether the undeprediction of grades for girls, and the advantage that girls have over boys when it comes to grades, might be due to gender differences in self-control. Specifically she surmised that girls are more self-controlled than boys and this factor could partially explain the female advantage when it comes to grades.
  6. I had lamented in my earlier research summary, that Anglea hadn’t defined self-control; she does in this paper:
  7. We use the terms self-discipline and self-control interchangeably, defining both as the ability to suppress prepotent responses in the service of a higher goal and further specifying that such a choice is not automatic but rather requires conscious effort. Examples of self-discipline include deliberately modulating one’s anger rather than having a temper tantrum, reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions, paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming, saving money so that it can accumulate interest in the bank, choosing homework over TV, and persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.

  8. Parsing the data from previous study they found that indeed VIII class girls outperformed boys when it came to grades achieved; that their grades were underpredicted if one looked at achievement test results; girls were more self-controlled than boys and that gender differences in self-control partially mediated the relationship between gender and grades. In study 2, they had administered an IQ test also, and that too underpredicted girls’ grades.
  9. To me, if we put the two papers together, one showing that self-control trumps IQ, and the second showing that girls have an advantage in grades due to self-control over boys, and we club this with the fact that in some IQ tests etc boys show a greater variance than girls on IQ, I think a safe bet for boys, is not to rely too much on IQ, but develop self-control too.  Both intelligence and self-control are immensely malleable, and depending on the type of test / grade that my be more meaningful criteria of academic achievement for you, you should develop either or both- but most important do not compromise on your love of learning, curiosity and creativity while being lured by these indices of scholastic achievement- these are way too important in their own way and without being a means to an end.

 

Research Summaries: Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents

Today’s research summary focuses on a very early article by Angela Duckworth, that first catapulted her to fame. Co-authored with Martin Seligmen, the article focuses on how non-cognitive factors like self-control are a better predictor of scholastic achievement than say cognitive factors like IQ.

Two college students wrestling (collegiate, sc...

Two college students wrestling (collegiate, scholastic, or folkstyle) in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Authors use the awkward term self-discipline in the paper, but all they really meant was self-control, defining which, and around which, a rich literature already existed. Angela clarifies as much in her new MOOC on Coursera, so don’t start wondering what this new concept means in psychological literature.
  2. Self-control (which the authors surprisingly didn’t define), as per VIA, is the ability to be disciplined and to regulate what one feels and does; it involves both feelings and actions; it is the ability to delay present gratification for future benefits, and it also about not getting distracted by temptations and able to focus on the task at hand. It is the opposite of being impulsive.
  3. The present studies (two of them) focused on class VIII students and were partly driven by Angela’s observation as a math teacher that hard working students who could control their impulses, sometimes fared better than those who could grasp concepts easily. That drove part of the hypothesis.
  4. Earlier works has shown that Self-control, as measured by Marshmallow test, in 4 year olds, can predict positive life outcomes decades later; similarly, in college students out of 32 measured personality traits (like extraversion, energy levels etc), only self-control predicted later CGPA more robustly than earlier SAT scores. Thus, it was reasonable to hypothesize that self-control in eighth graders will predict academic achievement better than IQ.
  5. Self-control is a difficult thing to measure accurately. Thus, they used self-reports, teacher reports, parent reports as well as a test that gave students hypothetical choices between a small reward now or a big reward later. Angela actually wanted to do an age appropriate  test similar to marshmallow test with the eighth graders, but Marty was skeptical; in the second study they did include a behavioral measure of delay of gratification task, whereby they actually handed out 1$ envelope to students with a choice of  keeping that or returning it now to get 2$ next week.
  6. Academic achievement was measured by grades achieved at end term, attendance, selection into a high school program, and achievement test scores.
  7. IQ was measured using a standard IQ test; keep in mind that IQ is a very narrow assessment for a part of broader cognitive factors/ intelligence.
  8. What they found was that self-control not only predicted academic achievement and who would improve school grades over the class term, but that it was twice an effective predictor than IQ (explained twice as much variance).
  9. This is an important paper as it makes the case for enhancing and working on the self-control of students, for better academic performance. Self-control, by all means, and like any other character strength, is malleable and can be increased by proper interventions.
  10. This paper is personally relevant to me, as last year I worked with IXth class students on their character strengths and this year I am working with VIII class students focusing on their character strengths.  Although the results, I believe, will be applicable and generalize to other age groups, its heartening to note that at least for VIII class, barring cross-cultural effects, there is proven research showing that increasing strengths like self-control pays big dividends.

if the above has you wanting to read more, go to the source- the original article can be found here.

Research Summaries: Positive Psychology in Clinical Practice

Review articles are themselves supposed to be a summary of a field of inquiry, so it appeared queer summarizing a review article; but here I go. This post summarizes a 2005 review article appearing in Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. As it is more than a decade since the publication of this article by Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth and Tracy Steen, I think it is appropriate to see how far the field has come since then and what still remains to be done.

  1. Positive psychology (PP), in this article, is seen through the triple lens of focusing on subjective well-being or pleasure; flow, engagement, and strengths; and meaning in life. This is as contrasted with the traditional deficit focus of clinical psychology whereby one looks at diathesis (genetic vulnerability for disorders) and stress (environment acute events like death of a loved one and chronic conditions like poverty) to figure out causes of diseases and suffering. While not denying the importance of ‘fix-what’s-wrong’ , positive psychology takes a ‘build-what’s-strong’ approach.
  2. Antecedents of positive psychology can be seen in most earlier movements within psychology. For e.g., if one were to focus on Psychoanalysis, Freud’s pleasure principle, Adler’s ‘healthy’ strivings motivated by social interest and Fromm’s productive orientation, all relate to some aspects of the new positive psychology paradigm. However, Humanistic psychologists, like Rollo May are more closely and directly related to the positive psychology movement, with conditions for self-actualization (Maslow) or fully functioning person (Carl Roegrs) laying the groundwork for PP.
  3. Its usually insinuated that humanistic psychology was not empirical or evidence based, however research showing that people grow most when they live an authentic life aligned with their values;  or the co-opting of Jahoda’s six processes that lead to mental health by Carol Ryff et al in their wells-substantiated measure of Psychological well-being suggests that humanistic psychology had enough teeth.
  4. PP tenet no. 1: positive states and emotions and factors are not merely the lack of or inverse of negative states or emotions or factors. Thus, mental health and mental illness are two separate though correlated entities. Reducing your anger will not make you automatically more loving and caring; getting out of depression will not necessarily make you flourishing and happy.
  5. The authors try to fit their new framework of the Pleasant life, the Engaged Life and the Meaningful life into the earlier conceptualization of PP as consisting of a focus on positive states, traits and institutions. Please note that this framework has been subsequently extended to include the Accomplished life and the Connected (relationships) life in the newest PERMA model.
  6. In therapy, its important to note the buffers and resources a person has and measures of well-being can indicate the actual or potential positive functioning. They can also elucidate differential predictors. For e.g. positive satisfaction with life predicts less acting out in youth when stressed.
  7. Self-report measures like Satisfaction with Life scale, need to be conjunct with informant reports, experience sampling methods (ESM) etc to get a more cohesive picture. VIA survey can be used for identifying character strengths that can be useful in therapeutic context by providing therapists an insight into what strengths can be used for planning and executing interventions.
  8. Flow or engagement states can be identified using ESM and semi-structured interviews etc. However measuring the degree of flow is challenging to this day, I believe. However identifying the activities that lead to flow experiences may aid in therapy by making the client move towards more of such experiences.
  9. To discern how meaningful or purposeful one finds life, one can use narrative techniques like asking the client to treat his or her life as a book and give chapter titles, main characters and future possible plots to that life-as-book. Existential traditions do focus on meaning as a way to diagnose and treat and their marriage with PP leading to PP2.0 is the newest thing in town.
  10. PP makes sense in therapy as positive emotions or events undo the effects of negative emotions or events. No mention is made of the (in)famous 3:1 ratio (3 positive for each negative event or interaction)  required for the same! Resilient people also typically experience more positive emotions, hence PP in clinical practice makes sense.
  11. Many therapists are already using PP stuff like instilling hope, courage, authenticity in clients and these are perhaps the non-specific factors that ensure that any therapy works better than placebo.
  12. Active PP interventions can also help in therapy.  Some of the interventions reviewed were the early Fordyce’s ‘Act like happy people’ intervention, the ‘3 good things’ or gratitude journal based interventions (which have proven to be one of the most effective interventions), writing about intense positive experiences (which nobody talks about nowadays) , the random acts of kindness interventions, Gratitude visits, At your best write-ups, bibliotherapy and using strengths in a new way everyday. Results show that while most interventions lead to short term gains in happiness, (even placebo do), for long term gains, interventions that can become habits like counting 3 good things daily or  deploying strengths in a new way daily, work better.

 

The promise of positive psychotherapy is still to be fulfilled, though progress is being made in that direction. If you are a therapist planning to include PP approaches in therapy or a mental health service user or caregiver, you probably should read a bit about this new filed. For others too, if the paper seemed exciting check it out here.