Inside Story

The self-esteem racket, and other quick fixes

How overhyped findings undermined psychology’s authority

Nick Haslam Books 4 May 2021 2039 words

Research indicates that self-esteem tends to play little or no causal role in promoting health, happiness or success. Bulat Silvia/iStockphoto

The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills
By Jesse Singal | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $49.99 | 352 pages

Ellen Herman opened The Romance of American Psychology, her 1995 history of the field’s rising influence, with a bold claim: “Psychological insight is the creed of our time.” For its supporters, she wrote, psychology offered “worthwhile answers to our most difficult personal questions and practical solutions for our most intractable social problems.” A quarter of a century later, those solutions arrive at an accelerating pace, amplified by new media and TED talks and shaping our workplaces, schools and intimate lives.

But a sentence from Herman’s second paragraph rings less true. “In the late twentieth-century United States,” she wrote, “we are likely to believe what psychological experts tell us.” In fact, the opposite has happened: well-publicised instances of scientific fraud and growing evidence that many of the discipline’s most celebrated findings rest on flimsy foundations have given the field some self-administered black eyes. The darkest bruises have blotted the reputation of social psychology, a sub-field that aims to understand how humans think, feel and act in relationships, groups and cultures.

American journalist Jesse Singal’s The Quick Fix is a forensic investigation of this loss of trust, and is likely to contribute to a further erosion. Recalling his time as a behavioural science editor at New York magazine, Singal recounts how the “fire hose of overhyped findings” he received via psychologists’ press releases brought home the scale of the field’s problems.

Singal casts a critical eye over a succession of influential psychological ideas and findings, and catalogues the scientific failings, overheated claims and poorly justified applications that entangle them. Along the way, he explores the downside of fad psychology’s success, and in particular the costs of America’s “ever-intensifying focus on the individual” — a focus, he suggests, that often neglects larger political systems and social structures to the detriment of effective solutions.

The Quick Fix has six main targets: the self-esteem movement, the role of “grit” in promoting academic and career success, “power posing” as a means of boosting women’s self-assertion, resilience training in schools and the military, 1990s predictions of a looming demographic wave of teenage super-predators, and the idea of implicit or unconscious bias. Later chapters tackle psychology’s replication crisis and the place of “nudge” interventions in promoting healthier and more prudent choices.

Singal’s account of self-esteem describes a movement (centred, perhaps not surprisingly, in California) that presented mental illness, criminality, relationship breakdown and academic underachievement as manifestations of a lack of self-love. Its evangelical proponents promoted self-esteem interventions on a grand scale in schools, their enthusiasm extending far beyond the available evidence and at times suppressing findings that should have dampened it. Although healthier, happier and more successful people tend to have higher self-esteem, much of the research indicates that self-esteem tends to play little or no causal role in promoting those outcomes. Trying to enhance it has little benefit, and perhaps some cost in a growing culture of narcissism.

A similar critique applies to the more recently feted concept of “grit,” the capacity to persevere with an unwavering sense of purpose in pursuit of long-term goals. Singal shows that the link between grit and desired outcomes has been exaggerated, and that other known factors explain success substantially better. Nor has it been adequately demonstrated that interventions can boost grit, or that it is meaningfully different from a better-studied personality trait called conscientiousness.

Singal views grit as an especially seductive target for improving educational achievement, partly because it doesn’t demand deeper systemic change in schooling. “[E]ven if things out there don’t improve any time soon,” he writes, “there are traits… we can cultivate in ourselves… to hop back on the upward-mobility ladder.” The fix here is quick and atomistic.

Self-esteem and grit are psychological traits whose real-world implications have been oversold. Power posing and resilience training are psychological interventions that face the same charge. The belief that striking confident poses promotes powerful behaviour and even boosts testosterone levels has crumbled under closer examination, reports Singal. Key research findings have proved hard to replicate, and the co-authors of the original work have confessed to questionable research practices.

Attempts to prevent depression and anxiety among schoolchildren by enhancing their resilience have yet to suffer the same public implosion, but studies reviewed by Singal cast doubt on the efficacy of a leading program developed under the banner of positive psychology. More dubious still, he argues, is the use of the same program to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in the armed services. More than a million members of the US military have passed through this Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, despite a paucity of good evidence that it is effective and despite the head-spinning extrapolation from children to adults and from preventing depression to preventing post-traumatic reactions.

The idea of super-predators was neither a trait nor an intervention, but rather an errant prediction. The brainchild of political scientists and criminologists in the 1990s, and as such a rather odd inclusion in a book on psychology’s woes, it forecast a surge of remorseless, morally impoverished young criminals — but they simply failed to materialise, and in fact crime rates dropped in the 2000s. Singal discusses the case as an example of a mistaken idea having dire effects — its legacy was tough-on-crime policies that allowed children to be sentenced as adults.

Implicit bias, sometimes called unconscious bias, has been even more consequential. Grounded in the study of implicit attitudes, commonly assessed by the immensely popular Implicit Association Test, or IAT, research indicated that a substantial majority of white Americans held an automatic preference for fellow whites over Blacks, even if they sincerely claimed not to be racist. This bias was heralded as the newly discovered psychological “dark matter” that might explain the persistence of racism despite the public’s steeply declining endorsement of overt bigotry over the past century.

Although he acknowledges that unconscious racial bias exists and is probably responsible for some fraction of current racial disparities, Singal deflates much of the standard case. The IAT, sometimes seen as an X-ray of our racist souls, fails basic requirements of psychological assessment and lacks solid evidence of predictive validity. It remains unclear to what extent apparent bias truly reveals hidden prejudice rather than mere awareness of racial stereotypes or the dread of appearing racist on the test. Singal criticises the idea of unconscious bias for not only its scientific limitations but also its wider implications. As a staple of diversity training programs, it deflects attention from social change efforts to “internal spiritual cleansing,” he argues, but also partially exonerates us of our prejudice and leads us to ignore the degree to which discrimination is conscious and explicit.

How psychology got into this kind of mess and how it might get out are explored in chapters on the replication crisis and “nudging.” The former was sparked by evidence that many published psychological findings — at least half, and more for social psychology in particular — fail to be confirmed in repeat studies. Singal presents the many sources of these failures, including inappropriate statistical analyses, inadequate sample sizes, and questionable research practices that increase the chances of finding something that isn’t there. A research culture of chasing surprising and counterintuitive findings to attract media attention also plays a role.

Singal is searching in his critique but perhaps underplays the degree to which low rates of replication and high rates of dubious research practices afflict many areas of science, and the fact that psychologists have taken the lead in making science as a whole more open and responsible.

The final chapter of The Quick Fix explores “nudges,” those subtle tweaks to “choice architecture” that guide people towards desirable decisions. Making forms simpler is an example, as are telling people how their electricity usage compares to their neighbours’ and offering organ donation as an opt-out rather than opt-in decision. Promoted mainly by behavioural economists and institutionalised over the past decade in many government-supported “behavioural insight units,” nudging appeals to Singal. Its intuitive and often minimalist interventions, and its sober efforts to bring an experimental mindset to reforming everyday practices contrast with the splashiness and over-claiming he documents elsewhere in the book. Even here, though, he acknowledges that nudge techniques don’t invariably work as intended and aren’t entirely free of hype.

My only quibble is with Singal’s frequent description of the products of fad psychology research as “half-baked.” The degree to which the problems he reveals are caused by impatient knowledge-bakers and fix-quickeners is moot. New publish-or-perish imperatives and the old-fashioned lust for recognition can certainly lead researchers to present their work before it has been fully scrutinised and replicated; but time in the scientific oven is only one implicated aspect of the baking process.

The problems of fad psychology are as much about a lack of humility, honesty and concern for truth over novelty as they are about serving up research before it is ready for consumption. And without denying that psychologists bear the primary responsibility, the insatiable appetite of the media and popularisers for counterintuitive and overdrawn findings also plays a role.

Jesse Singal is an exceptional writer on the social and behavioural sciences, and The Quick Fix, his first book, is a showcase of his talents. He has a firm grasp of the technical and quantitative aspects of the research he examines, and he communicates what might have been dry methodological points with unusual lucidity. While he doesn’t shy away from strong claims, he is consistently fair-minded, and the targets of his criticism are invariably given a chance to respond. Free of grandstanding, ideological axe-grinding and pointscoring, a particular strength of the book is its insistence on zooming out from a specific psychological topic or finding to the broader cultural, societal and historical contexts in which it appears. Singal ventures expertly into political science, economics and sociology, repeatedly circling back to remind us of the self-evident but sometimes forgotten fact that individual behaviour is embedded in systems, institutions and implacable economic realities.

This makes him something of a rarity. Many writers expound on psychological ideas while paying the merest lip service to their wider context. Others write about politics and society while either ignoring the place of the human mind and behaviour or treating psychological analyses as reductive and individualistic. Singal offers some scalpel-sharp criticism of psychological research and its popularisation, reminding us, among other things, that the vast US racial wealth gap and current criminal justice policies probably have much more to do with contemporary racial disparities than implicit bias. But he acknowledges that psychology matters and that behavioural science is very hard to do well: human action is multi-determined, deeply contextual, hard to predict and, as the philosopher Ian Hacking observed, a moving target.

Singal’s mission is not to rebuke psychology or chastise it for not being sociology, economics or political science, but to make it better on its own aspirational terms. His prescription is greater humility, more rigour, and a fuller awareness of the limits of psychological interventions in the face of large, constraining systems of power and inequality. Psychology has a part to play in social science–informed responses to social problems, but it must become more modest, reflective and genuinely scientific in spirit.

Psychology doesn’t saturate Australian media to the degree it does in the United States, or have the same cultural cachet, so we might wonder about the local relevance of this book. But the differences are not as great as they might seem. Melbourne has more registered psychologists than New York City and many psychological concepts and practices are growing in influence. Rising concern with mental health is driving increased interest in resilience training in schools and beyond. Many organisations have embraced the notion of unconscious bias, sometimes uncritically, as a basis for equity and diversity initiatives. New behavioural insights units have sprouted within federal and state governments, and the general public remains hungry for popular psychology’s uplifting messages of self-help.

The Quick Fix provides a compelling perspective on these developments. It will leave the reader with a more questioning attitude about psychology’s latest revelations and interventions, and perhaps also with a more hopeful view of the field’s capacity to reform. •