When it comes to proposed solutions to life’s problems, whether on an individual or societal scale, the four most commonly used words these days are “According to a study . . . ” This phrase is used by journalists and media outlets; we certainly use it a lot in AoM articles. And it’s used in the rationales that are forwarded for implementing some new program in a school or other institution.
My guest, however, questions whether we really should be lending the research of social psychologists and behavioral scientists so much weight.
His name is Jesse Singal and he’s the author of The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. Today on the show, Jesse explains how social psychology has come to such prominence in our culture, the role things like TED talks have played in its rise, and yet how the replication crisis calls into question the legitimacy of the field’s growing influence. We discuss why the solutions sometimes offered by behavioral science are both seductive and flawed, and how this dynamic played out in the self-esteem movement of the 1990s. We then discuss if another fad of social science, power posing, actually works, before turning to how the problems of positive psychology are exemplified in a program the military adopted to help soldiers with PTSD. We end our conversation with whether the idea of grit is all it’s cracked up to be, and how ultimately, there are no quick fixes to life’s big problems.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What caused the rise of social psychology in modern culture?
- What is “prime world”?
- Why the replication crisis is hurting psychology
- What was the premise of the self-esteem movement of the 80s and 90s? Why was the movement so powerful?
- What’s the state of power-posing today?
- Are researchers incentivized to publish bold claims?
- Are scientists aware of the critiques of their claims? Are they combatting it?
- The positive psychology trend
- Why psychologists have turned to helping people who are healthy to start with
- Social psychology and PTSD
- Why is the idea of grit coming under fire?
- How the media and popular culture exacerbates social research
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Does Meditation Deserve the Hype?
- Stop Hacking Your Life
- Life Hacking, A Reexamination
- John Vasconcellos
- The Self-Esteem Movement at 20 Years
- Selfie by Will Storr
- New Thought Movement
- The Power of Positive Thinking
- Power Posing Is Back
- The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner
- Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
- Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness
- Got Grit?
- The 6 Types of Grit (And How to Develop Them)
- Reach Your Peak
- When Grit Isn’t Enough
Connect With Jesse
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When it comes to proposed solutions to life’s problems, whether on an individual or societal scale, the four most commonly used words these days are, according to a study. This phrase used by journalists and media outlets, we certainly use it a lot in our AoM articles, and it’s used in the rationales that are forwarded for implementing some new program in a school or other institution. My guest, however, questions whether we really should be lending the research of social psychologists and behavioral scientists so much weight. His name is Jesse Singal, he’s the author of The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.
During the show, Jesse explains how social psychology has come to such prominence in our culture, the role things like TED Talks have played in its rise, and yet how the replication crisis calls into question the legitimacy of the field’s growing influence. We discuss why the solutions sometimes offered by behavioral science are both seductive and flawed and how this dynamic played out in the self-esteem movement of the 1990s. We then discuss if another fad of social science, power posing, actually works before turning to how the problems of positive psychology are exemplified in a program the military adopted to help soldiers with PTSD. And we end our conversation with whether the idea of grit is all it’s cracked up to be and how ultimately, there are no quick fixes to life’s big problems. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AoM.is/quickfix.
Here we go. Jesse Singal, welcome to the show.
Jesse Singal: Hey, thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: So you had a new book out called The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, and you basically put under the microscope a lot of these psychological studies that have come out, that blogs have written about, publications have written about, and put them under the microscope and see if the claims are really what they say they are. How did you end up doing a deep dive into the claims of some of our most popular social psychological research?
Jesse Singal: Yeah, back in 2014, I very much lucked into a job helping to launch and edit Science of Us, which was New York Magazine’s behavioral science website. And it’s funny ’cause I think when they launched it, they wanted to be like to expose readers to all of these cool new ideas psychologists were generating, but I quickly realized a lot of these ideas were pretty shoddy and over-hyped and I slipped into a little bit of a debunker role, which the magazine, to its credit, supported me in that. So, yeah, from there, my agent suggested turning it into a book and we’ve been really fortunate that it’s worked out.
Brett McKay: So what do you think happened there? Because I noticed that too, I’d say around like 2005-2006, you just saw all this stuff coming out from the world of behavioral science and just getting really hyped up. What was going on then that caused behavioral psychology, behavioral science, soul psychology, psychology become such a thing?
Jesse Singal: Yeah, man, that’s sort of the million dollar question. So part of it is that social psychology in particular, which I think is the epicenter of a lot of this, they got really good at just selling their stuff, realizing there’s a market for us to send journalists our studies, TED Talks became big, that was a really big vector for that stuff, and journalists sort of played along. If you’re a journalist and you write about science every day, Harvard, Penn, Stanford, a million other schools, they’re sending you their studies and saying, “You will not believe what I found. This could revolutionize education, this could help end racism.” And it’s easy to just swim along with the tide ’cause you need to publish five articles a day these days, and most journalists aren’t really trained to identify weaknesses in scientific findings. So I think it was this big confluence of factors, but a lot of it was like TED Talks, social media, the explosion of all sorts of media in general.
Brett McKay: And you call this a worldview that a lot of popular social psychologists hold, and the boosters of this, I think book publishers, the websites, they have this worldview and you call it prime world. What do you mean by that?
Jesse Singal: Yeah, so a prime is this idea that the world around us is influencing us in these subtle or unconscious ways. And the classic example of this was a study from the ’90s, where if you see words pertaining to old people like wrinkly or slow, it will physically make you walk slower. That was the claim at the time. That turned out to be false, it didn’t replicate, but prime world is the idea that stuff like that and stuff like our unconscious biases are the reason for things like racist outcomes or gender inequity in the workplace. And what’s convenient about this worldview is if those are the problems and those problems can be solved by social psychologists, that’s a pretty big market for social psychologists to help institutions solve the problems or help the government solve its problems. My view is, when you look at a problem like racism or gender inequity in the workplace, that’s caused by way more complicated factors than people being a little bit biased or people being primed in the wrong way. I don’t think those factors are non-existent, but things are usually way more complicated than that. And I’d argue, we now know that social psychologists are not very good at solving most of these problems, ’cause over and over an idea will burst onto the TED Talks stage, and then five years later, more research comes out and it’s like, “Why were we excited about that in the first place?”
Brett McKay: Well, you talk about that one of the things that social psychology has been experiencing in these past 10 years, they call it the replication crisis. What is that for those who aren’t familiar with it?
Jesse Singal: Yeah, so if I come up with a wonder pill, the Jesse Singal wonder pill, and I publish a study showing that it makes you grow two inches taller. One interpretation is that the pill makes you grow two inches taller, it’s an incredible wonder pill, everyone’s gonna buy it. The way science works is that someone can then come along and say, “I’m gonna try to replicate this study. I think this guy might be full of it. I think if I run that same study back, maybe with a bigger sample size, maybe a little bit more carefully, we’ll find his pill doesn’t make you grow at all.” What’s happened in psychology and particularly social psychology, is that you can take a study published in a top journal, Nature or whatever, and only about half the time does it replicate. That means a huge number of published psychological studies are just sort of noise. They seem to be a signal, but they’re really noise, and what that means is that these entire subfields of psychology are sort of built on sand, and psychologists have realized they have a major problem on their hands, if their field is gonna be credible.
Brett McKay: So as you said, the thing that’s appealing about this stuff is that oftentimes the solutions that these studies come out with are easy. So school districts, corporations, they’re like, “Well, we got this problem on an institutional level, instead of having to really think hard about this stuff and make some hard changes, well, we can just implement these little nudges and it will fix it.” And you’re saying, “Well, no, it could help, but it’s not a panacea.” And so let’s talk about some of these popular psychological findings that you put in the microscope that we’ve tried to institutionalize. And you start off with if you’re a kid who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, you’re probably familiar with this, it’s the self-esteem movement. And I think, I wanna start off here because I think it sort of sets the pattern of these quick fixes that we’ve seen in the past 20 years. So what was the psychological premise behind the self-esteem movement in the ’80s and the ’90s?
Jesse Singal: Yeah. This very colorful California State Legislator named John Vasconcellos, who was just a real hippy, he sort of floated from idea to idea, interesting guy, people should Google him, he found this small body of theorizing and research suggesting that if people have low self-esteem, all sorts of negative stuff ensues. It can make them criminals, it can make them do worse in school. He actually lobbied the Governor of California to set up a California self-esteem commission. I forget the budget. I wanna say they had like $300,000 a year, they hired people. They convinced themselves and most of the country and some of the rest of the world that one of the most important things you can give someone is self-esteem, ’cause there are these studies showing that people who had higher self-esteem had better life outcomes. And I was exposed to this too. I have a vivid memory from kindergarten or first grade of doing a self-esteem exercise. But it just became a craze. Everyone became convinced that self-esteem was the key to fixing society in many ways, to the point of people saying, “Well, if someone commits murder, it’s ’cause they don’t have high self-esteem.” And people believe this stuff.
Brett McKay: And then when did the research start coming out, saying, “Nah, there really isn’t. That’s bogus.”
Jesse Singal: So around the turn of the century, there was this sort of ambitious effort to really review the research in a careful way. So technically, that’s when this big paper was published, led by a guy named Bob Meister, social psychologist. If you look closely at the research that was published along the way, there was never good proof of this stuff. And this is what often happens, it is like a body of research will build up that people don’t look into closely enough, but then when you sort of aggregate it and look at it carefully, you realize a lot of the studies were flawed. And in this case, there was never really a reason to think that boosting people’s self-esteem, if we can even do that easily, which we don’t think we can, or there’s no way to, would lead to good outcomes. It’s more complicated than that. For example, it might be that kids who do better in school, their self-esteem goes up as a result. So it’s not their self-esteem causing good grades, it’s good grades causing self-esteem. That was the sort of complexity in the literature that people sort of ignored a lot of the time.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there was one thing too. People who murder or commit crimes often have high self-esteem. They think they can get away with it, so they just don’t… The rules don’t apply to them.
Jesse Singal: I would never try to murder someone, ’cause I know I would be caught right away. I don’t have high self-esteem.
Brett McKay: Right. I thought it was interesting till you delve into how there was an official report done, and there was… They had this one legitimate guy, I think he was from Stanford, and he was saying, “Yeah, there’s something there, but it’s not as strong as we think it is.” But when they talked about it publicly, this California representative, they just buried that stuff, and they just focused on the positive results and buried the negative results.
Jesse Singal: Yeah, this guy named Will Store, a British journalist, did some amazing journalism on this, and I sort of stole it from him. But yeah, this guy named Neil Smelser, who… Smelsner, maybe, was a sociologist at one of the UC systems, and there was a meeting in a motel room south of San Francisco where he was gonna tell all the fans of self-esteem who’d been pushing this idea whether or not it was justified. And what he told them in that room was, “No, it’s not. You guys are over-hyping this.” But they selectively cropped his quotes to quote this preeminent scientist as saying, “Yup, this is very exciting.” And that really added legs to the whole self-esteem movement. And it was a really good example of how I think lay people like us view science as this sort of pure heavenly process where it’s just about the data, it’s just about the evidence. But science isn’t done by robots. It’s done by humans. And humans have their own agendas and incentives that can nudge them away from the truth.
Brett McKay: And I love that you do this sort of philosophical genealogy of the self-esteem movement to show people why it was so appealing to Americans. Can you walk us through some of that? Why was the self-esteem thing… Why did we like, “Yes, that’s the thing that’s gonna solve all of our problems here?”
Jesse Singal: Yeah. There’s something uniquely American about the idea that if you can just sort of change your outlook on life, it’ll fix everything. This goes centuries, probably, but I trace it from a late 19th century movement called New Thought, which was sort of this transcendental… They would have been hippies in the 1960s. They thought that you could use your mind to sort of control matter, and it just evolved and wound through the 20th century. It ended up with The Secret, that’s an Australian woman who Oprah promoted. She basically thinks if you visualize yourself having a new car, you can get a new car. So self-esteem is a little bit more scientific than that, but it’s the same idea that all you have to do is change your mindset, and amazing things will happen. Oh, and then the other big book there is The Power of Positive Thinking, which I think is still selling hugely today. That’s a mid-century book that says the same thing, just change your outlook, think in a more positive way, and riches will fall into your lap.
Brett McKay: The self-esteem stuff’s still going on. It was funny, I was driving my kids to school today, and on the way, I was like, “Hey, what are you guys doing today?” My son, he’s in fourth grade, he’s like, “Oh, we got this assembly thing. It’s all this positive talk. They have these… Chant these things, You are you and you are great.” And he’s like, “It’s so dumb.”
Jesse Singal: Spoken like the true son of a podcaster, I gotta say.
Brett McKay: It’s so dumb. But yeah, it’s still going on. What’s crazy about this is there’s this one guy, this crazy California State Rep, he ended up shaping curriculum for an entire generation of Americans. You and I both got the self-esteem treatment because of this one guy.
Jesse Singal: Yeah, it’s crazy. And I gotta say, we don’t need to go down this road, but if you look at some of the sort of interventions and ideas that are currently percolating in schools that are newer, it’s sort of the same thing; where if you’re like, “Where did this come from?” You can trace it back to one random pamphlet someone wrote in 2000, and no one… I don’t know why schools are such a site of social engineering and experimentation. But it does worry me when people are using these interventions on kids that are just sort of unproven. Not that it’ll do any harm, it’s not gonna hurt your kid to chant, “I am great,” or whatever, but [chuckle] you’d think we’d be a bit more science-y about it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I get it because the point you make in the book is that organizations and institutions, there’s these big problems, and they want to solve them, and this is like… Like it’s all, “Well, if I can just… We chant ‘You are great,’ then that might help.” But that’s not gonna help.
Jesse Singal: Yeah. I co-host a podcast too, and let’s say we wanted to… Me and Katie, my co-host, wanted to get more advertisers, we would look on the internet and we’d find whoever seems to be best at drumming up ad dollars, but we wouldn’t really have the expertise to know who to pick. It’s the same thing; if you’re a school and you have problems and you want to increase kids’ attendance or self-esteem or whatever else, you probably don’t have the training to make an educated decision about which consulting firm to bring in or which speaker to bring in, you just sort of, you go by your gut. But people’s guts are often wrong.
Brett McKay: Right. The self-esteem movement sort of lays the groundwork for quick fixes that we see later on. The positive findings are amplified, the negative findings are swept under the rug, there’s an outcome that someone wants, and they’ll just make sure the evidence fits that outcome. But then later on once you put it under the microscope and it’s like, “Well, that’s completely… We messed up.” Let’s talk about one research that got a lot of hype, I’m gonna say about eight years ago, it was this idea of “power posing.” For those who aren’t familiar with this idea, what is power posing, and what’s the legit psychological premise behind the idea?
Jesse Singal: Yeah. Power posing is the idea that if you adopt an expansive pose, if you’re listening to this right now and you’re not driving, you could literally stand up, put your hands on your hip, on your hips in that sort of Wonder Woman stance, and the theory, and this was based on one study of Harvard or Columbia students, was that this increases your sense of power. And this will make you a better negotiator, it’ll make you do better in workplace and maybe school situations. Harvard psychologist named Amy Cuddy, who was one of the co-authors on the first paper, took this idea and ran with it and created what is still one of the most watched TED Talks of all time.
Brett McKay: So what’s the state of power posing today? And so it was a big thing. I think we’ve even like, we’ve referenced that stuff on our website, “Take up big space, lift your hands up in the air, testosterone is supposed to flow through your body and cortisol’s supposed to go down.” What’s the state of power posing today?
Jesse Singal: From where I sit, it’s basically been debunked. There’s a little bit of evidence that it might… It might actually make you feel a little bit more powerful, but there’s other evidence suggesting that if you do power posing, knowing what power posing is, that takes away the effect, it’s this weird placebo thing. There is no harm in power posing if you think it’s helpful. My gripe is not that these ideas are worthless, ’cause maybe power posing will help someone here or there. My gripe is Amy Cuddy being on the TED Talk stage saying power posing for a minute re-wires your brain to make you more assertive, which to me was a very over-hyped claim from the research she’d done at that point.
Brett McKay: Alright, so power pose if you want to; it’s not gonna hurt. But don’t…
Jesse Singal: It won’t matter.
Brett McKay: The idea is, don’t make this an institutional thing. Don’t tell school kids or people at a corporation, “You have to power pose before you do a sales deal.” [chuckle]
Jesse Singal: No. Don’t power pose in lieu of preparing for an interview. You should probably prepare also.
Brett McKay: Right. Something that you mentioned this… The reason why power posing is so big was the phenomenon that was big, huge on TED, the most downloaded video. And from your point of view and your research into this, what role has TED, and I would call it the self-improvement business organizational industrial complex, what role does that stuff play in these psychological studies? Has there been studies on whether or not psychological researchers are incentivized to reach bold counter-intuitive claims just so they can get on TED or publish an airport book?
Jesse Singal: You know, this is very unscientific of me. There is not specific research on that, but it seem so obviously true if you watch how science works, and you watch the way universities send out press releases. It’s undeniably the case that there’s a difference between being a social psychologist in 2021 versus 1961 in terms of what the potential fruits of your research are, in terms of public acclaim and money and book deals, and just by dint of human nature. If over-claiming is rewarded, people will over-claim. And there’s been some really good stuff written by a guy named Daniel Drezner, another guy named Anand Giridharadas. They’ve done good stuff on what they called the “Ideas industry,” and the nature of TED Talks, but the point of things like a TED Talk is to give wealthy people, and people who aspire to be wealthy, this window into the world of experts who can really help them hack and improve their own lives and become more prosperous as a result.
Brett McKay: Right. And so, yeah, I can see there might be some psychologists out there, “Well, I can get that idea, I can get on TED and then I can get on the public speaking junket, and I’m done.”
Jesse Singal: Yeah. Look, academia is a rough place to be right now. Psychologists, I don’t think are particularly well-funded. A lot of them have to adjunct professors forever. I would not want to be a 25-year-old young academic, that’s why some of this stuff brings some temptation with it, but it does harm science in the long run.
Brett McKay: Have psychologists thought about this? Are they trying to implement things to correct that? Are they aware of it, and are they doing anything as a profession?
Jesse Singal: Yeah. One of the really interesting innovations has just been blogging, basically. It’s funny, I’d say around 2012, so the old norm in psychology and a lot of research science is like, “I think this paper is nonsense, so I’m gonna write a letter to the editor of the journal and I hope they publish it.” And maybe the author of the paper is powerful and ask the editor not to run the letter ’cause they think it’s unfair. With blogging and social media, you can just, you can publish it out there. You can say, “I think the study is bad, here’s why.” And that’s actually happened a few times. So that’s just like an informal advance in the way science is done that I think has been really helpful. There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t peer-reviewed, but which is still good and fair critique. Psychologists have also just sort of changed the way they run studies and implemented some reforms that I think are making the science a little bit better. And I think particularly 10 years from now, it’ll be a much more credible size with a higher replication rate. But the best psychologists definitely know what the problems are, and I think have started to turn the ship around a little bit.
Brett McKay: Right. So another psychological, call it, yeah, fad that’s happened in the past 20 years that you discussed in your book is “Positive Psychology.” I say in the past 20 years, 30 years, it’s become bigger and bigger and bigger, we’ve had people, positive psychologists on the podcast before, we’ve written about positive psychology on the website. But for those who aren’t familiar, what is the goal of Positive Psychology and how does it differ from the goals of traditional psychology?
Jesse Singal: Yeah, this is one of the really interesting stories out of research psychology. And I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided. It’s sort of a history of… Or a critique of positive thinking in general that also talks about positive psychology. Okay, there’s a legendary psychologist named Martin Seligman, he goes by Marty, University of Pennsylvania. Early in his career, he did these really dark experiments about learned helplessness. So if you shock a dog in its cage long enough, it will basically give up trying to resist the shocks or trying to escape the shocks. There’s just this weird response where if you sort of harm or traumatize a creature enough that it stops, its self-preservation instinct gives out. And that’s an important concept, Learned Helplessness.
Later in his career, he advocated for psychology to turn away from this negative stuff from studying why people are broken, and turn toward helping people who are basically healthy, like someone whose 80th percentile of mental well-being, do a little bit better. Maybe he can bump them up to the 85th percentile or the 90th. And this also opened up a big market for psychologists to treat people who are well because I’m making this number up out of thin air. Let’s say 30% of Americans have a mental illness that would benefit from treatment. That means psychologists only have a market of 30% of Americans. If you change the goal of psychology to “Let’s also help healthy people do even better,” anyone’s a potential client. And at base, that’s a reasonable idea why shouldn’t psychologists help healthy people do better, right?
Brett McKay: Right. No, yeah, it makes sense. We wanna be super awesome, super rad, but what is… This has been going on for 20 years. What does the research say about positive… Like, can we make people who don’t have problems, who are relatively healthy psychologically, can you make them better with Positive Psychology?
Jesse Singal: Yeah. So what I argue in my chapter on positive psychology is that the field has centered on these two main claims. One is that if you make someone more optimistic, it has all sorts of benefits, including on their physical health, including boosting their immune system. That’s one of the claims. The other claim is simply that people have a really big capacity to get significantly happier. I’m not talking 3 percentile points but 20 or 30. What I argue is that positive psychology has tended to over-claim and to say stuff is true that might be true, but that really hasn’t been proven. And this is something that positive psychologists themselves have been pointing out. I quote people within the field in 2011 saying, “We’re rushing this stuff to market, even though it hasn’t been proven.” And the real centerpiece of my chapter involves basically the military adopting some of these positive psychology ideas in a really big way.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, let’s talk about that. So I guess after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military… The PTSD was just exploding amongst veterans. And they’re like, “We gotta do something about this.” So they thought, “Well, maybe positive psychology.” They wanted to help people who had PTSD but also, they wanted to prevent PTSD if they could, like nip it in the bud. So they thought positive psychology can help with that. So walk us through that.
Jesse Singal: Yeah. Basically, I explain exactly how they got to Marty Seligman. It’s through this one particular woman who I really think was just trying to do the right thing. But Marty Seligman convinced the army that he could take this program that the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania had developed, called the Penn Resilience Program. This is a work that’s slightly complicated, but I can’t really explain this without explaining that program. That program was built at… You take a classroom of 10 to 14-year-old kids, like middle schoolers. You give them this intervention, and the theory is that this will reduce their anxiety and depression in the long run. Seligman tells the army, “We can take this program, adapt it to a military setting, and we can use that to reduce suicidality and PTSD.” Two major problems with this. One is, and I think this is intuitive to all of us, there’s a pretty big difference between helping a 12-year-old girl with boy and homework problems feel better and helping a 20-year-old fighting in Felucia feel better, right? I feel like that’s an obvious stretch.
Brett McKay: Right. And what’s the other difference? The other problem?
Jesse Singal: The other problem was the Penn Resilience program itself, there was never much evidence it worked. The take-home message from this meta-analysis published by one of its creators is, “There’s some effect here. We think kids, depression and anxiety symptoms go down a little. It’s what researchers call statistically significant, which basically means real, there’s something here. We’re not even sure it’s clinically significant, we’re not sure it’s enough to matter to improve their day-to-day life. So even as this important meta-analysis is being published, showing the Penn Resilience Program doesn’t work for its original stated purpose, the army is rolling out an adapted version of it for every soldier and for people facing like the worst urban combat ever. And that’s just not good science. That’s not responsible. There was never any evidence to think that this program could prevent PTSD or suicide because it wasn’t designed to.
Brett McKay: Do we know how much money the government spent on that?
Jesse Singal: Journalists better than I have gotten estimates from the army of about $46 million a year. So if you stretch that over the length of the program, it’s probably cost more than $500 million. There’s also a version the Air Force adopted, Comprehensive Airman Fitness, so what frustrates me and angers me a little bit is like imagine someone gave you $500 million to spend on soldiers with PTSD at risk of suicide and of suffering for the rest of their lives. Spending it on this is a baffling decision.
Brett McKay: Well, why do you think they spend it on that? Is it just ’cause it’s easy? Is it like, “Well, it’s easier than actually having to deal with the problem?”
Jesse Singal: This is where I’m a little bit sympathetic to the Army. They thought they could prevent PTSD before it even arose by just rolling out this mass program for every soldier. If you could pile 30 soldiers in a room and give them this training for a few hours and that could actually prevent PTSD, that would be revolutionary, then you wouldn’t have to treat the PTSD after they develop it. So I understand the thinking. But it was a totally novel theory because no one has a way of reducing PTSD before the fact or reducing the probability people get it. So this was really rushed into the army at a time of crisis when someone needed to put the breaks out and say like, “Let’s really test this first.”
Brett McKay: And what’s the state of this Resilience Fitness Program? Are they still doing it?
Jesse Singal: It has gone through a few different name changes. I think the military likes acronyms and name changes. I confirmed this with the Army last summer as I was finishing up the book, the key components I critiqued that are based on the Penn Resilience Program are still in place. So this is still going on.
Brett McKay: So yeah. The takeaway I got from there was, one, okay, on an individual level, there’s different levels, you can look at this stuff at. On the individual level, if you’re looking at positive psychology to improve your life, maybe like the other kind of temper your expectations I feel like I think the point you made is that psychological interventions typically help people more who have a mental health issue, like anxiety, depression. If you’re okay, these interventions, they could help a little bit, but it’s not gonna take you to 100 basically. And then on an institutional level, it’s just like, you have to be careful of rushing into stuff before it’s actually been vetted and, yeah. So if you work for a company organization or you work in a school district, kinda be like, “Well, maybe we don’t do that,” or, “Maybe we hold off on this before we implement this new curriculum.”
Jesse Singal: Yeah. And look, I don’t wanna lose sight of the fact that we have some pretty good treatments for anxiety and depression and PTSD for that matter. And I think the element of truth in positive psychology is like, and in self-esteem too, actually, is if you walk around and any time something bad happens to you, your brain spirals and you say, “I’m worthless, I’m never gonna be successful, I’m never gonna be healthy, or happy.” That’s bad. And that is usually treatable. So in that sense, optimism isn’t a panacea but if you have a severe lack of optimism, that can hurt you. If you’re an ultra-pessimist, you might want to seek out treatment for that. So that’s true. But yeah, like you’re saying, you can’t go from that from the fact that individuals can suffer from a lack of optimism to the claim that “We can make the whole army more optimistic and resilient.” That just isn’t how human psychology works. It’s often much more complicated than that.
Brett McKay: So for service members who have PTSD, do we know what works for treating PTSD? And I imagine it’s a pretty hard process.
Jesse Singal: Yeah. There are a couple sort of, they’re considered gold star treatments by the military. They’re effective, they’re empirically-proven. I mean, nothing in science is proven forever, there can always be more research. But I go through briefly a couple of these approaches that we think work, and I talked to Patricia Resick, I believe she’s at Duke, about what it’s like. You basically have to sit with a soldier and go through his thought process that contributes to his trauma. So the most classic one is, there’s a firefight and your buddy gets killed and you’re convinced it was your fault. You did something wrong, you didn’t protect him. And soldiers with PTSD can be tortured by these thoughts of guilt, which is horrible. So her job is to sort of sit with them and unpack this and help them come to realize that combat is so horrible and raw and random that it’s often not quite true that you could have saved your buddy, it’s not you didn’t control the bullet, you didn’t know where the sniper was, it’s often not your fault.
So that’s the kind of really painful work she does and it’s, I don’t know, man, it’s visceral. It’s a lot less sunny and optimistic that we’re gonna pile these 20-year-old kids into a classroom and teach them resilience so they don’t get PTSD. And my theory that I lay out which I can’t prove, is that part of the reason comprehensive soldier fitness caught on in the army is because it’s a much happier story than what it looks like to actually treat PTSD after the fact.
Brett McKay: And it’s easier ’cause like with this treatment, there has to be one-on-one or can you can’t mass, it’s not like a factory that you can put… Like you said, it has to be one-on-one. It’s gonna take months, probably years to do.
Jesse Singal: Yeah. Yeah, I think the treatment I just mentioned, I think is maybe 14, 40-minute sessions. So it’s not always years, but at the very least, it’s like a several months process.
Brett McKay: I think the other treatment that they do is exposure therapy. And again, it has to be one-on-one in a controlled environment, so soldiers with PTSD, whenever they hear like a muffler, a car backfire, they have to… They freak out. So their therapist works with them exposing, so they understand, “Okay, just ’cause you hear that noise doesn’t mean there’s about to be an IED or a gunfire.”
Jesse Singal: Yeah. Yeah. So what happens is soldiers will develop a symptom where they won’t go out because they will be scared that something will trigger their symptoms, avoidance. And avoidance only makes things worse, ’cause if you cut yourself out from your friends, from bars, from restaurants, you’re just sitting there stewing in your own trauma. So exposure therapy is a really good way to get people sort of back out in the world and more functional again. But again, it takes a little bit of time. It’s not fun, you can’t just film kids in the class learning to be more resilient.
Brett McKay: So another thing you look at in the book is this idea of grit, and I’m gonna be… I love the idea of grit, it’s getting a lot of press lately. And we’ve talked about that on the podcast, we’ve had Angela Duckworth on the podcast. But for those who aren’t familiar, what’s the basic idea of grit and what does the research say about it?
Jesse Singal: So Angela Duckworth is an interesting case. I highlight her as a researcher, who I think is overall more honest and has more humility than some of the other researchers in my book. And I understand why people like her. Her claim in another highly mega-viral TED talk was she had developed a new scale to measure grit, and grit is basically people’s ability to stick with challenging problems and to solve problems in the long-term rather than getting distracted and wandering off to something else. I scored in the 10th percentile of Americans with regard to grit, so I’m not very gritty.
Her whole claim was that we underestimate things like effort and grit and we overestimate the importance of things like intelligence that we don’t have a huge amount of control over ’cause you can’t… You can maybe juke someone’s SAT score a little bit with tutoring, but overall things like SAT scores and IQ are pretty stable. So this is a great idea and you can understand why it caught on, what if we can just help kids learn to work harder and stick through problems? I don’t disagree with that. I think all else being equal, you can probably teach kids to have better study habits, to go to bed on time and all that. My problem was the way grit sort of… It isn’t new. There’s a thing called conscientiousness, part of the Big Five personality model that we’ve known about for years. We’ve known conscientiousness is a factor in how well people do in school, at work. I’m not convinced it’s anywhere near as important as intelligence. I think intelligence is always way more important and telling people otherwise doesn’t necessarily help them.
There isn’t a scalable way to improve kids’ grit. We’re only starting to learn how to improve grit and conscientiousness, so this is one of those areas where I do think she over-claimed. I also think she’s been honest about the fact that some other people have also over-claimed and that we don’t yet have reliable ways to improve grit, but I think readers who get to the end of the chapter will understand why I’m pretty skeptical of it, that I don’t think it’s this revolutionary idea it was made out to be.
Brett McKay: Right. I think what a lot of researchers have found is that grit is pretty much the same as conscientiousness and conscientiousness… Yeah, it’s a personality trait where you wanna be on time, you obey the rules, yadda, yadda, but because it’s a personality trait, that’s gonna be… It’s hard to change. Personality traits tend to remain stable over the life of a person, so there probably aren’t too many interventions that you can do to improve someone’s conscientiousness/grit.
Jesse Singal: Yeah, and Duckworth is honest about this. And I do mention one sort of, this was an intervention done with individuals who would get a coach, a personality coach, and they would choose which of the Big Five they wanted to improve. There’s some sign it works, but in terms of a school setting, are you gonna be able to assign kids an individual coach to work with for weeks and weeks? We’re also not sure it would work on someone who wasn’t motivated to improve their conscientiousness or grit. So again, she’s been honest that we don’t know how to improve grit. At the end of the day, when you look closely into her claims, I’m not sure there’s anything that exciting left, except you could argue that grit is a much catchier term than conscientiousness, so what’s wrong with marketing it differently? That in itself might be a useful thing.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you mentioned that. Another thing to her credit too is, to Duckworth’s credit, is that she’s been open to the feedback and the criticism to her initial research, but then she also says part of the problem is that the popular press got ahold of her research and then kind of ran away with the narrative. And so you had all these blog posts coming out and saying grit can change everything, and I’m imagining she’s played a role in that hype, she went on TED. But I think there’s something to that idea when the popular press often gets ahold of this research, we were talking about this a little bit earlier, and then extrapolates dubious claims to get clicks. You can see this happening with The 10,000 Hour Rule, Ericsson. Malcolm Gladwell got ahold of that and everyone’s like, “Oh yeah, 10,000 hours. If I just play golf for 10,000 hours, I’ll be the best golfer in the world.” And Anders Ericsson was like, “No, no, no, no. 10,000 hours is the average. Sometimes it was less, sometimes it was more.” But I can see how it can be frustrating for a researcher. You do a solid research paper and then some journalist or whatever takes ahold of it and just runs away with the narrative.
Jesse Singal: Yeah. Angela Duckworth, I think she had a piece in The Times basically saying, “People are going too far with this. A lot of these claims about grit aren’t proven,” and she deserves a lot of credit for that ’cause other researchers in the same position, and I won’t necessarily name names here, would have written a New York Times column saying, “No, grit is great. I stand by the research completely.” So I think I have qualms with the way she presented the research and some of them are pretty nerdy, but I think important during the chapter, but overall, yeah, I think she’s been a better actor than some of the other researchers I highlight.
Brett McKay: So we’ve talked about some of the stuff you hit on in the book. There’s other stuff, but when someone finishes your book, what do you hope they walk away with thinking after they’re done with your book?
Jesse Singal: I want people to feel empowered to say to their school board or their company or their commanding officer if they’re in the military, “What’s the evidence for this? Why are we spending money on this? Why do I have to do a two hour training doing this?” And to just know, I’m not a stats expert, I have to reach out to statistics experts for help, but I think if you read my book, you will know the first five questions I ask about an intervention, what the nature of the research is behind it, how old the research is, whether it has a big sample size. There’s some basic questions anyone who’s decently educated can ask and I’d like there to be more pushback when a school or a company institutes one of these trainings that there’s not much evidence for.
Brett McKay: Right, and I think also too you can put this on an individual level if you come across an article making a big claim based on social psychology and be like, “Well, maybe, but it’s probably not as big as… I don’t need to go out and change my life just to introduce this hack into my life.”
Jesse Singal: Yeah, yeah, and then the maybe bigger and more important and slightly more political argument I make is just like, I’m recording this, I’m visiting my parents from a wealthy Boston suburb, affluent at least, and kids six, seven miles down the road from me had to go to really crappy schools. They did not have access to the resources I did. There’s nothing fair about that, I think everyone should have opportunity at the very least, and I do think these ideas tend to downplay the role of structural factors. I don’t wanna tell a kid who doesn’t have air conditioning in a 80 degree classroom, “Well, you gotta develop some grit.” I think those are probably some of the grittiest kids in the world and I actually… I quote at length from a book called When Grit Isn’t Enough by a Boston-based educator who talks about this. So I’d like to get people to think a little bit more seriously about what it will take to actually improve these complicated problems.
Brett McKay: Right, and that’s gonna be high level stuff and everyone’s got solutions or ideas for how to fix those… But whatever they are, they’re gonna be hard. I think we have to accept that. I think oftentimes, they think this stuff is gonna be really easy to solve, but no, you have to tweak a bunch of different factors. It’s gonna maybe take years, so you have to… I don’t know. I think we have to just resign ourselves. There are no quick fixes to this stuff whether it’s education gaps, poverty, whatever. They’re gonna be hard, just accept it and roll up your sleeves and even let’s get to work. Well, Jesse, where can people go to learn more about the book?
Jesse Singal: Just Google it, The Quick Fix on Amazon or IndieBound. You can check out my newsletter, jessesingal.substack.com. I think by the time this up, my podcast blocked and reported, we both have an episode on it, and I believe we’ll be running an excerpt from the introduction of the audio book, so there’s plenty of Quick Fix content abounding at this point.
Brett McKay: Well, Jesse Singal, thanks so much time for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jesse Singal: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jesse Singal. He’s the author of the book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere, check it in our show notes at AoM.is/quickfix where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper in this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AoM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android iOS and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AoM Podcast. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you all to not only listen to The AoM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.