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Are the ideas of positive psychology an example of the fundamental attribution error?

Two short pieces in The Guardian on 22 Feb, by David Harper, reader in clinical psychology at the University of East London,

The sad truth about the Action for Happiness movement
Being happy isn’t only down to the individual

and Peter Stratton, professor of family therapy at Leeds University (

Wellbeing is not about the individual – it’s about relationships
We won’t cure anxiety and depression by ignoring people’s social connections

Both raise doubts about simple-minded ideas from positive psychology. Harper, criticising Lord Lyard’s Action for Happiness initiative ( suggests that there are problems with the idea that action for happiness should focus on the individual:

…the approach is based on two flawed assumptions: that the source of unhappiness lies inside people’s heads – in how they see the world, and that the solution lies in change at the level of the individual.

Surely being put in positions of threat, powerlessness, deprivation* is likely to cause unhappiness, he argues, which some people might be able to overcome, but it’s unreasonable to blame those who are made unhappy by such things as being lacking in ‘resilience’ and ‘well-being’.

A person’s ability to make changes in their lives depends not only on the individual but on their social context – whether they have supportive relationships, a reasonable income and so on. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to attribute a person’s behaviour to individual factors such as intelligence or moral strength, rather than their social context such as poverty or child abuse. This is such a common research finding that psychologists have a term for it: the fundamental attribution error.

Harper points out the well-known case made by Wilkinson & Pickett in The Spirit Level ( that “mental health problems are highest in those countries with the greatest gaps between rich and poor, and lowest in countries with smaller differences”. This doesn’t really contrast with the other well-known findings that national ‘happiness’ scores aren’t much related to national GDP (for instance Inglehart & Klingemann,2000) – at least beyond a GDP per capita of about $13,000 in 1995 – and that US happiness didn’t increase noticeably between 1950 and 2000, although average buying power tripled over the period (Myers, 2000)†. One of the parallels of recent growth in wealth in both the UK and the USA is a considerable increase in inequality: could maybe possible positive effects of increase in income beyond $13,000 have been cancelled out by increase in inequality.

Harper suggests that:

To increase happiness we need firm action on inequality, rather than this vague Action for Happiness.

Stratton is also criticising the individualistic focus of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, the NHS treatment of choice for depression. If there’s

 a recognition that our problems of “social recession” are rooted in society’s undermining of our core human need for confirming and mutually supportive relationships….

[….] the things that matter are security, connectedness to others, authenticity and autonomy, and feeling competent. Can you imagine anyone achieving these without drawing strength and resources from family and other relationships? Can you draw from relationships without putting into them? Why, then, are we clinging to the notion that individually focused “cures” are what will turn us into a society of “happier” people?

Stratton quotes Madeleine Bunting in a 20 February Guardian article (February 20, 2012: not available online) Britain is at last waking up to the politics of wellbeing that our focus on the individual has left us with “an unpleasant cocktail of celebrity, cool, acquisitiveness and depression”.

Perhaps that means we should be thinking more about well-being as a collective social process: ‘positive sociology’ rather than ‘positive psychology’. This starts to sound dangerously like the ‘social engineering’ we’re all encouraged to be wary of ‡.

*For an extreme example, see the story posted by Marie Colvin from Syria this week – shortly before being killed herself in Homs: –and then wonder whether the stuff I’m talking about here really matters much.

† My well-being and happiness has definitely improved since I started working part-time and lost £20,000 or so in income, but I have the social support of the NTU choir (next performances 15 &16 April, Albert Hall, Nottingham and Birmingham Town Hall: tickets available from – and I still have enough money to go to see Toumani Diabaté when he comes to the UK, so I’m in a privileged position.

‡ I’ve always been puzzled by the fear of social engineering. You wouldn’t cheer up airline passengers by saying ‘thank goodness, Boeing has avoided the temptation to apply aeronautical engineering to this 787 Dreamliner: I feel much safer now’ or decide that your new phone is rubbish because Nokia persist in building circuits which follow the principles of electronic engineering. If there is such a thing as society (and Thatcher was wrong), what’s wrong with trying to work out ways to make it go well? And aren’t cities, road numbering, schools (state and private), elections, and the rules of etiquette all forms of social engineering, anyway?

Inglehart, Ronald & Klingemann, Hans-Deiter (2000) Genes, Culture, Democracy and Happiness  in Ed Diener & Eunkook M. Suh (eds) Culture and Subjective Well-Being Cambridge:  The MIT Press. Available at

Myers, David (2000) The Funds, Friends, and Faith of Happy People American Psychologist, 55 (1), 56-67


One response to “Are the ideas of positive psychology an example of the fundamental attribution error?

  1. molly November 6, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    I read the comments of a ‘diva’ who had come to understand that the people that you surround yourself with can make you or break you. This is very true. Part of your happiness is being around those who make you feel comfortable and not threatened.

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