Technology & Science

Lucrative pseudoscience at the International Positive Psychology Association meeting

dollar-653241_1280
Imagine…

HMI-Bio-Speaker-Rollin-217x300Imagine a PhD student going to her first positive psychology conference, drawn by the opportunity to hear research oriented psychologists such as Richard Davidson and Jonathan Haidt in one place. But at the first plenary session she attends, Rollin McCraty is talking to an enthralled audience about “the science of what connects us.” McCraty says the heart radiates a measurable magnetic field which carries emotional state information, and can be detected by the nervous systems of nearby.”

Puzzled, she googles McCraty and comes to websites and articles making even more bizarre claims, like:

There is compelling evidence to suggest that the heart’s energy field (energetic heart) is coupled to a field of information that is not bound by the classical limits of time and space.

And even better:

This evidence comes from a rigorous experimental study conducted to investigate the proposition that the body receives and processes information about a future event before the event actually happens (McCraty et al 2004a, b). The study’s results provide surprising data showing that both the heart and brain receive and respond to pre-stimulus information about a future event. Even more tantalizing are indications that the heart receives intuitive information before the brain, and that the heart sends a different pattern of afferent signals to the brain which modulates the frontal cortex.

“…about a future event before the event actually happens”? Wow, this puts Daryl Bem’s claim of precognition to shame. But this claim cannot possibly prepare our PhD student for:

A Tidal Wave of Kindness

In the fall of 2013, the IHM [Institute of HeartMath, where McCraty is Director of Research] launched the Global Coherence Initiative. The ambitious goals of this campaign are unprecedented: to quantify the impact of human emotion on the earth’s electromagnetic field and tip the global equation toward greater peace. While this may sound like a utopian fantasy, Dr. McCraty points out that science once again supports this possibility. “If the earth’s fields are a carrier, we are all coupled to this field, all the signals are out there,” he says. “So every emotion we experience is coupled to that field. This creates a global humanity field, if you will.” According to Dr. McCraty, this field is continually fed by our feelings, both positive and negative. The goal is to shift the balance toward the positive. “Any time we’re putting out love and kindness, that energy is not wasted,” he adds.

HeartMath graphThis is crank science far beyond the satire of Alan Sokal hoax article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” But we’re not done yet:

Current IHM research demonstrating the interconnectedness between people has Dr. McCraty very excited. Two studies going on in northern California and Saudi Arabia are monitoring HRV 24/7 to help quantify the interconnectivity between people and how it is affected by nervous system dynamics, the earth’s magnetic fields, solar flares, and even radio frequencies.

happy facesAt the reception that evening, our PhD student desperately searches for familiar faces of other research oriented PhD students. She manages to find only a few among the oppressively bubbly crowd. And none of her colleagues actually went to the McCraty plenary. Some dismissed him as just pushing the merchandise of the very commercial HeartMath.

Who was attending the International Positive Psychology Association meeting?

Advertisements for the conference advised

who should attend

But any research-oriented attendees were disappointed if they sought first-ever reports of breakthrough, but reproducible science. Personal coaching and organizational and executive consulting themes predominated in the preconference workshops and presentations.

Elements of a trade show blended into a revivalist meeting. Hordes of “certified” life coaches and wannabes seeking new contacts, positive psychology products, and dubious certificates to hang in their offices. These coaches had paid out-of-pocket, without scholarship for degrees from “approved” masters of arts in positive psychology programs (MAPPs) costing as much as $60,000 a year. Many were hungry. But there are inspiring–positive psychology is about inspiring–stories on the Internet of big bucks being made immediately:

make money

  • MAPP programs typically require no background in behavior science and provide very little training in critical appraisal of research or even ethics.
  • Graduates of MAPP programs general lack ability to determine independently whether claims are evidence-based. They are suckers for anything that superficially sounds and looks sciencey. They are as vulnerable as marital and family therapists who can be readily seduced by claims about therapies that are “soothing the brain” hawked by unscrupulous “neuroscientists” and self-promoters.

Indeed, just go to some coaching websites and see claims of being able to provide clients with wondrous transformations take takes little effort from them.

Positive psychology merchandise. Get certified as a trainer now.

The science is often superficial and even quack. Yet, to compete effectively in a crowded field, positive psychology coaches brandish a label of ‘we are more sciencey than the rest’.the pp scientist

McCraty’s HeartMath promises that big time science backs its claims of effectiveness.

Over the years we have received numerous reports that coherence training has improved performance in a wide range of cognitive capacities, both short and long-term. These include tasks requiring eye-hand coordination, speed and accuracy, and coordination in various sports as well as cognitive tasks involving executive functions associated with the frontal cortex such as maintaining focus and concentration, problem solving, self-regulation, and abstract thinking.

A study of California correctional officers with high workplace stress found reductions in total cholesterol, glucose, and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BP), as well as significant reductions in overall stress, anger, fatigue and hostility with projected savings in annual heath care costs of $1179 per employee (McCraty et al 2009).

stand back scienceUnfortunately McCraty et al 2009 turns out to be a rather dodgy source:

McCraty R, Atkinson, M., Tomasino, D., & Bradley, R. T (2009) The coherent heart: Heart-brain interactions, psychophysiological coherence, and the emergence of system-wide order. Integral Review 5: 10–115.

But why stop there?

Hospitals implementing HM programs implementing have seen increased personal, team and organizational coherence. The measures most often assessed are staff retention and employee satisfaction. Cape Fear Valley hospital system in Cape Fear, North Carolina, reduced nurse turn over from 24% to 13%, and Delnor Community Hospital in Chicago saw a similar reduction from 27% to 14% – as well as a dramatic improvement in employee satisfaction, results that have been sustained over an eight year period. Similarly, Duke University’s Health System reduced turnover from 38% to 5% in its emergency services division. An analysis of the combined psychometric data from 3,129 matched pre-post HM coherence trainings found that fatigue, anxiety, depression and anger were reduced by almost half. Another workplace study conducted in large chain of retail stores with in-store pharmacies that employed 220 pharmacists across multiple locations found a reduction is medical errors ranging from 40 to 71%, depending on the store location (HeartMath 2009).

Specific statistics, yes, but, alas, these data are not independently peer reviewed claims nor even transparently presented. They call upon our faith in HeartMath.

If your methods are so powerful, HeartMath, submit your evidence for legitimate peer review.

Shame on me for not doing a systematic review of this literature.

When I posted a critical comment about McCraty on my Facebook wall, I was quickly chastised by a “friend” whom I do not actually know:

Have you read the body of research published by HeartMath? Which articles have you critically reviewed and found flawed? Can you discuss that in detail? Do you know what the Global Coherence Project is? Do you know those methods, their datasets? Are you dismissing this on the idea alone, or on the details of their generated body of scientific work? Are you an expert on electrical fields generated by the human body? Do you know all the work on heart rate variability and its associations with human health and communication? Which part of that body of work are you taking issue with?

Dear Facebook “friend,” don’t you realize that the burden of proof lies on the quacks who wish us to believe ridiculous claims with zero obvious scientific basis? Evidence, please. No plausible mechanism means not worth a serious investigation. And by the way, does anyone know ‘their methods, their data sets,’ outside of HeartMath?

There is so much junk out there and so little time to evaluate it. Skeptics should not waste their time, when they quick-screen for plausible mechanism and find none. That eliminates the bulk of the nonsense bombarding us, even from successful academic positive psychology gurus. Sure, we might miss some dramatic breakthroughs, but prior probabilities are on our side.

The positive psychology – corporate – military complex

Touchy question in the positive psychology community: Was US Defense Department grant money used to reward psychologists for involvement in the CIA torture program for those who protected them from ethical sanctions? There has not been much discussion of this on the tightly controlled Friends of Positive Psychology listserv, only swift denials, but can others get in on the money? Can Rollin McCraty help? A good reason to go to his talk. But, first, some background.

Psychologist Stephen Soldz, Ph.D and colleagues produced a report, American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA’s “Enhanced” Interrogation Program. The report contained a number of linked emails that included Paul Ekman, James Mitchell and…Marty Seligman.

Blogger Vaughan Bell states:

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture. Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record.

But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence.

Seligman was reportedly awarded a $31 million US Army no-bid contract to develop ‘resilience training’ for soldiers to prevent mental health problems. This was surprising to many as he had no particular experience in developing clinical interventions. It was deployed as the $237 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, the results of which have only been reported in some oddly incompetent technical reports and are markedly under-whelming. Nicholas Brown’s analysis of the first three evaluative technical reports is particularly good where he notes the tiny effects sizes and shoddy design. A fourth report has since been published (pdf) which also notes “small effect sizes” and doesn’t control for things like combat exposure.

Money from the ineffective Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Progam has been an enormous bonanza for positive psychologists – and even critics willing to mute what they say. Is Rollin McCraty a useful way in? Aside from being Director of Research at Institute of HeartMath (IHM), Rollin McCarty is also Director of Military Training – the HeartMath website tells us – he is working with Major Robert A. Bradley (USAF, Ret., Director of Veterans Outreach.)

HeartMath once had a million dollar grant from the US Navy. Their grant portfolio has apparently shrunk to a few thousand dollars. But HeartMath offers training and certification in nice sounding programs. Can hungry MAPP graduate attendees get trained and certificates suitable for framing and make big bucks through HeartMath? The hell with the science, there are sciencey claims that must sell.

We cannot tell how much profit HeartMath is making. We can only get the financial details on their not-for-profit institute, not their for-profit wing. The split between profit and nonprofit wings of training institutes making money and the secrecy is common in training enterprises a common organizational structure for entrepreneurs.

An outlier, but on a continuum with positive psychology (pseudo) science?

Rollin McCraty may be an outlier, but he still lies on a continuum with the most recognized scientists of positive psychology.

Barbara Fredrickson is considered a rock star in the positive psychology community. She has an endowed chair, lots of grant money, and numerous publications in journals where you would never find Mcraty. Yet her papers are often tied to her heavily marketed commercial products, though without the requisite declaration of conflict interest in her papers. Some of her claims have not fared so well with strong hints of shaky and even pseudo science.

Positivity ratio.

Fredrickson and Losada (2005) infamously applied a mathematical model drawn from nonlinear dynamics and claimed that a ratio of positive to negative affect of exactly 2.9013 separated flourishing people from those who are merely languishing. Nick Brown, Alan Sokal, and Harris Friedman examined this claim and found:

no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors.

In response, Fredrickson partially retracted her claim, where visitors can take a two-minute test to determine whether they are flourishing or languishing and watch YouTube videos.

Meaning is healthier than happiness. Fredrickson and colleagues claimed to have used functional genomics to settle the classical philosophical question of whether we pursue meaning (eudaimonism) in our lives or happiness (hedonism). These claims echoed in the popular press as:

People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.

My colleagues and I (including Nick Brown and Harris Freidman) took a critical look and reanalyzed Fredrickson and colleagues’ data. We concluded:

Fredrickson et al.’s article conceptually deficient, but more crucially that their statistical analyses are fatally flawed, to the point that their claimed results are in fact essentially meaningless.

The journal where the article originally appeared, PNAS has so far resisted a number calls, including one from Neuroskeptic for retraction of the original article.

Better health and relationships through loving kindness meditation.

Much like McCarty, some of Fredrickson’s work makes strong claims about transforming people’s lives by changing cardiac vagal tone. She and colleagues claimed to have shown that practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) generates an “upward spiral” of mutual enhancement among positive emotions, social connectedness, and physical health. So:

“Advice about how people might improve their physical health…can now be expanded to include self-generating positive emotions.”

My group–again with Nick and Harris, but also James Heathers–took a closer look and reanalyzed the data. We found the study was actually a badly reported clinical trial with null results, evidence concerning the association of cardiac vagal tone and established valid parameters of physical health were contradictory, and cardiac vagal tone was certainly not a suitable proxy outcome for health in a clinical trial, especially for persons of the age included in Fredrickson’s trial.

love 2Nonetheless, the first hit when I googled “Fredrickson loving kindness meditation” was another Fredrickson commercial website, Love 2.0 offering a book and other products with an eye-catching question:

What if everything you know about love is wrong?

It’s time to upgrade your view of love. Love 2.0 offers new lenses for seeing and more fully appreciating micro-moments of connection. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson gives you the lab-tested tools to unlock more love in your life.

Any wonder why the attendees at International Positive Psychology Association had trouble distinguishing between science and nonsense like what McCarty offered?


coyne-gravatarJames C. Coyne, PhD is Professor of Health Psychology at University Medical Center, Groningen, the Netherlands where he teaches scientific writing and critical thinking. He is also Visiting Professor, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy & Aging Research, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Dr. Coyne is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry, where he was also Director of Behavioral Oncology, Abramson Cancer Center and Senior Fellow Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. He has served as External Scientific Advisor to a decade of European Commission funded community based programs to improve care for depression in the community. He has written over 350 articles and chapters, including systematic reviews of screening for distress and depression in medical settings and classic articles about stress and coping, couples research, and interpersonal aspects of depression. He has been designated by ISI Web of Science as one of the most impactful psychologists and psychiatrists in the world. His books include Screening for Depression in Clinical Settings: An Evidence-Based Review, edited with Alex Mitchell (Oxford University Press; 2009). He also blogs and is a regular contributor to the blog Science Based Medicine and to the PLOS One Blog, Mind the Brain. He is known for giving lively, controversial lectures using scientific evidence to challenge assumptions about the optimal way of providing psychosocial care and care for depression to medical patients.

Originally published at Mind the Brain.