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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Martin Seligman on BBC2 Newsnight

Martin Seligman is in the UK promoting his book ‘Flourish’ (well, he might be doing other things, as well).
Fairly gentle interview with Paxman on BBC2 Newsnight, where he made reasonable (ie fairly practical, fairly not happy-clappy) points.
Paxman cited his well-being mnemonic: the acronym PERMA:

1. Positive Emotions
2. Engagement (or flow)
3. Relationships/social connections
4. Meaning (and purpose)
5. Accomplishment

My son (visiting) said “Doesn’t everyone know that already?” Maybe that just shows how well we brought him up – or maybe it shows how obvious lots of Positive Psychology is. I said: “Well, fifty years ago, most psychologists wouldn’t have thought that was obvious.” – and then I thought  ‘but maybe fifty years ago, many non-psychologists would have though it was obvious.’

Psychology laboriously uncovering what sensible, thoughtful people (like my son) already know – again?

I was impressed by Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness: it actually gives research evidence supporting the principles he suggests (and although the title might make you wince, it isn’t really about ‘happiness’).

His research lab has a web site at A lot of it is based around various scales and tests that I don’t find very exciting, but you can pick up the basic ideas without doing the tests.

Here’s a video of Seligman talking about positive psychology from elsewhere. I can’t find a clip from Newsnight. here are several good videos of Seligman on YouTube. His talk to the TED conference is a good start. He’s also on youtube=


Transfer of Learning in Infants but really: Inventive Developmental Psychologists
Press release from Ohio State university, about the work of Julie Hupp (pictured below):
Interesting in itself, but also a great example of how ingenious developmental psychologists  find effective ways of working out ‘what babies think’.

Julie Hupp, Ohio State U

The Science of Happiness

Oliver Burkeman‘s regular column in The Guardian on Saturdays: ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’, which is sort-of psychology, was about the ‘science of happiness‘ a month or so ago.

He criticises unrepresentative samples in positive psychology research, using a fun acronym that I hadn’t come across before: White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic countries – WEIRD – fair enough.
But he claims that there is also a philosophical problem: “even the best scientific studies can’t fully penetrate the experience of being you. [..] it does mean that to talk about happiness, science must translate what you mean when you say ‘I feel happy’ into something more objective: your responses to a questionnaire, say.”
Yeah; so? Isn’t that true of almost all psychology research (apart from that which depends on showing that the ‘happiness centre’ in your brain lights up when you see a basket of puppies – and I’ve already written that I think that kind of evidence is a bit spurious)? I think that applies to all of experience, and so to a great deal of psychology.
Have you tried discussing with your friends what ‘yellow’ means? How can you have any idea what someone else’s experience of colour is? Colour looks like colour: how do you communicate your (literal) world view? This is probably the reason why people with anomalous colour vision (the respondents formally known as ‘colourblind’) are often not aware of it. How can you tell that your world of colour is different from other people’s?
Well, of course, you can. If you persist in calling something ‘blue’ when other people think it’s ‘green’, and you don’t see the numbers in the Ishihara test, then your colour vision is objectively different from most other people’s. The fact that you still can’t access their experience to really know what that difference is may be philosophically interesting, but not much to do with whether you should be accepted for civil airline pilot training.
I think colour vision is an interesting case for these discussions, because there are problems and answers at all kinds of objective/subjective levels, from the language and thought stuff to the great problem of Yellow. Why do red and green make yellow? Completely unexpected, and maybe not answerable by psychological investigation, but once you know about the differential sensitivity of the photoreceptors in the eye, it makes perfect sense. One case where my ‘recording from neurones doesn’t tell us much about human experience’ argument falls over.
Just a small SoT point (though you’ll have recognised that all the preceding is part of psychology’s philosophical questions): towards the end of the article, Burkeman says this ‘highlights the possibility of strategies for happiness which are neither science nor pseudoscience‘, and mentions psychoanalysis, where ‘its focus on the unique properties of the client-analyst relationship might place it beyond meaningful experiment’. Yes: well… wouldn’t that apply to the ‘unique properties’of the ‘kid and his dog’ relationship – or is Burkeman saying something more useful than that? Please comment if you can see the point of his point here. My point about it is, you will have guessed, that we’re still reading about psychoanalysis on Saturday mornings, even after all these years.

“Singing to children may help development of language skills”

“Parents should sing to their children every day to avoid language problems developing in later life, according to a consultant. Too much emphasis in the early years is placed on reading, writing and numeracy, and not enough on the benefits of singing, according to Sally Goddard Blythe, a consultant in neuro-developmental education and director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology.
Singing traditional lullabies and nursery rhymes to babies and infants before they learn to speak, is an essential precursor to later educational success and emotional wellbeing”, argues Blythe in a book.  Song is a special type of speech. Lullabies, songs and rhymes of every culture carry the ‘signature’ melodies and inflections of a mother tongue, preparing a child’s ear, voice and brain for language.”

I always knew it was a good thing to sing to my children (they didn’t always agree) – but perhaps I shouldn’t sing Eastern European or African songs, if Blythe is right.
Of course, some of this has been known for a long time. Peter, Paul & Mary claimed back in the 60s that every children’s song should have three characteristics: simplicity, so the child could understand the song; repetition, to lull the child into a false sense of security; and pathos, to prepare the child for future traumatic experiences. Nice to hear a neuro-developmental education consultant (sort-of) confirm it – but is there actually any evidence for these claims?
if you read the rest of the article, you’ll find that the book is The Genius of Natural Childhood, to be published by Hawthorn Press  – and that’s the real point of this article. It’s a public relations promotion for an upcoming book, with an interesting hook to get journalists to think it’s worth writing about. On my ‘psychology & media’ third year option, we’ve tracked lots of ‘psychology’ stories like this. Lots of what you hear about psychology in the papers/TV comes from smart PR releases, some of which are just entertaining made-up stuff, and some of which are honest reports of carefully-carried-out research. You have to make up your mind which to believe. Often the killer question is ‘what’s the evidence’?
You might remember that one of the sources of the general knowledge psychology myths mentioned when I discussed this in the Schools of Thought lecture was ‘the media’. This is one of the ways those myths arise/get repeated.

In sprite of all that, I’ll still remind my children how useful it was that I sang to them when they were little (they won’t put up with it now).

Care Homes & Abu Ghraib (& the Stanford Prison Experiment?)

Here’s one commentary on the Winterbourne View adult care home abuse case:

The author, Christina Patterson, makes a comparison with Abu Ghraib, but doesn’t mention the Stanford Prison Experiment. Quite right too, I think. The issue here is clearly not obedience or following roles, the usual explanations in the SPE, though it might be conformity. She also points out the possible influence of the lead role plated by a bully:

In prisons, in police stations, in detention centres, in refugee camps, in care homes, in hospitals, and in offices, a bully gets some power. And other people, who are afraid of the bully, start copying the bully. Sometimes, the bully is just horrible, but sometimes the bully is violent, and sometimes the bully thinks that being violent is such good fun that he tries other things, too. Sometimes, he starts trying out different ways to torture someone, and the people around him start trying them out, too.

My version of this is the corrupting power of the Bad Apple. Patterson talks about bad apples, but misses the ‘one bad apple turns the whole barrel bad’ point, as do most people who use the phrase nowadays, but what she’s suggesting happened at Winterbourne View fits  the point exactly.

She also points out the other role in these circumstances:

In most places where very bad things happen, most apples are bad. At Winterbourne View, there was a good one. He was a senior nurse. His name is Terry Bryan. […]
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,” said the philosopher Edmund Burke, “is for good men to do nothing”. What he didn’t say is that it takes quite a lot of courage to speak out.

That’s another role (or another kind of person?) that you should be familiar with from the Schools of Thought lectures.

Happiness round the world and Maslow’s hierarchy

An international study of the various aspects/levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, by Louis Day & Ed Deiner (2011) suggests that, around the world, satisfying material needs is associated with rating life as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but the ‘higher level’ (in M’s system) needs were related to enjoying life and positive and negative feelings. Reminds me of Herzberg’s two-component system of ‘hygiene needs’ and ‘motivators’.
Day & Deiner found that positive effects could result from satisfaction of either set of needs – so not as hierarchical a system as M suggested.
Equlaity is important, too:

An important finding, Diener said, is that the research indicated that people have higher life evaluations when others in society also have their needs fulfilled.
“Thus life satisfaction is not just an individual affair, but depends substantially also on the quality of life of one’s fellow citizens,” he said.

Maybe this fits with Wilkinson & Pickett’s (hotly contested) ideas about the damaging effects of inequality in societies, described in The Spirit Level (

A little about D&E’s methodology:

The researchers turned to the Gallup World Poll, which conducted surveys in 155 countries from 2005 to 2010, and included questions about money, food, shelter, safety, social support, feeling respected, being self-directed, having a sense of mastery, and the experience of positive or negative emotions.

Quotes above from Medical News Today story about the research at

Ed Deiner’s website is at, and you can get him to send you copies of many of his papers from there (though I don’t think the one mentioned here is up there yet). A useful service: thanks, Ed.

Tay, Louis & Diener, Ed (2011) Needs and subjective well-being around the world  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology  no pagination specified. doi:10.1037/a0023779

Direct instruction or find out for yourself?

From Medical News Today:

“It turns out that there is a “double-edged sword” to pedagogy: Explicit instruction makes children less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery. A study by MIT researchers and colleagues compared the behavior of children given a novel toy under four different conditions, finding that children expressly taught one of its functions played with the toy for less time and discovered fewer things to do with it than children in the other three scenarios.”

The MNT article gives a summary of the research (presenting children with novel, multi-function toys and seeing how many functions they find/use).
The full paper is available at:
Perhaps we shouldn’t tell our students so much stuff….