Sunday, December 6, 2009

Leveling With You

When I was in college I came up with an idea that I grandly called the "Levels Theory".  According to the levels theory,  on the first level, people believe something is true.  Then the common wisdom comes to reverse that truth and believe the opposite.  That would be the second level.  Then again the truth believed in the first level is adopted but with the added sophistication of taking into account the second level's opposition to constitute the third level. And so on it would go.

While you might think this is my mere restating of Hegel, levels theory is not a thesis, antithesis, synthesis process.  It is thesis, antithesis, thesis+, antithesis+ and so on.  It looks at truth as more of a wave that increases amplitude with each iteration.  Yes, I understand it is a bit nutty.

However, I saw another example of it the other day when I started reading Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  As a psychology PhD I am well steeped in notions of human behavior based on negativity--psychopathology,  Skinnerian psychology (where you can shape through appropriate rewards) and even motivational psychology based on drives and fear of failure etc.   Martin Seligman tried to take a new look at psychology when he rejected these negative forms of explanations and started to look at what ultimately was called Positive Psychology or the Psychology of Happiness.  So there you have examples of levels 1 and 2.   Ehrenreich seems to be rejecting Positive Psychology, particularly in the context of disease, because it is based on the incorrect assumption that positive thoughts will cure you.   My friends with cancer agree.  They have enough to handle with their disease.  They don't want to be responsible for its course if it takes a bad turn because somehow they were not positive enough!  And recently there were news reports that research shows "grumpy is good" as least as far as it seems to promote clearer thinking.  It would seem to me that this rejection of positive thinking and happiness as the source of all that is good must be a level 3 idea.  I am not seeing synthesis, just a reaction to the level 2 phenomenon of deifying positive psychology.

For me the jury is still out.  I am interested in what Ehrenreich has to say but keep thinking that she is more of Eeyore saying "Thanks for noticing."  But then again Randy Pausch was a self described Tigger until the end and the end did indeed come. As I recall from the Last Lecture, Pausch did not think positive thinking would change his survival outcome since he had a particularly virulent terminal cancer.  He maintained that positivity changed the quality of his last days with his family and did indeed give him opportunities and experiences he might not have otherwise had.  Maybe that's all any of us should expect from focussing on the positive.

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