Thursday, 31 January 2008

Positive Psychology and Happiness

The New York Times reported yesterday that the most popular course at Harvard University is the “Positive Psychology” course taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. Since Dr. Ben-Shahar has published the book “Happier”, this course has come to be known as “the happiness course”. More than 800 students enrolled in it, and it will also be opened to the masses on-line (after paying a $700 fee) from February, through the Harvard Extension School. (More details of the course here).

As president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman was the first advocate of Positive Psychology as a new branch of Psychology. He noted that Psychology was increasingly interested in individuals with psychological problems and in psychotherapy. He advocated that psychology should also be the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.

The likely reason why Seligman advocated that Positive Psychology was a new approach is that the majority of the members of the American Psychological Association are biased towards the study of abnormal individuals and psychotherapy.

However, the scientific study of strengths and virtues of individuals is not new. Indeed, the field known as Psychology of Expertise has been researching the nature and acquisition of high-level skills and knowledge for many years. One of the most important expertise studies was carried out by Adrian DeGroot in 1948. This field became more popular with Herbert Simon’s studies in 1973. After these seminal works many authors made contributions in this field: Ericsson, Charness, Saariluoma, Gobet, Sloboda and myself, among others. As a matter of fact, most of scientific psychologists investigate normal human beings, rather than abnormalities.

Taking this into account one wonders whether Positive Psychology is a new trend without substance or whether it is a new branch of psychology with sound scientific methods.

There are positive and negative aspects of Positive Psychology. The primary positive is that Positive Psychologists are doing research into a number of interesting subjects that only a handful of psychologists were interested before. For example, they carry out scientific studies of happiness and well-being. Eminent psychologists –such as Nobel Prize Lauraute, Daniel Kahneman- are developing measures of well-being in order to supply this field of sound scientific tools.

On the other hand, Barry Schwartz –the author of “The paradox of choice”– pointed out two negative aspects of Positive Psychology in his article”Pitfalls on the road to a positive psychology of hope”.

First, Positive Psychology is about being happy about oneself. There is much advice on how to improve our own well-being, how to achieve our goals or how to capitalise on our innate psychological tools. Contrarily, nothing is said about the side effects of our happiness. For example, people who are over-optimistic likely to be classified as happy. - Positive Psychologists seem to ignore the unwise or reckless decisions which one may make with their over-optimism.

The second aspect pointed out by Schwartz is that Positive Psychology focuses too much on the individual. Positive Psychology does not pay attention to the balance of one’s happiness with one’s obligations within the society. No doubt, many times we have to make decisions in which we have to weigh up our rights against obligations as citizens.

Schwartz, rightly points out, that the role of psychology is not only to help individuals in achieving their goals. Psychologists should also warn their patients if what they want to do goes against the normal functioning of society.

In 2006, I wrote a book in Spanish titled “Organised Thinking: A psychological technology to be happy, more efficient and to collaborate with intelligence”. In this book I explain the three pillars of my philosophy: happiness, efficiency and intelligent collaboration with society.

My conception of psychology is that it has an important role in the development of individuals and societies. In order to achieve the goals of individuals and those of the societies’, psychology has to discriminate good individual goals from bad individual goals. Here “good” and “bad” means good or bad for society.

An individual should have the freedom to choose his/ her goals. However, psychologists have the responsibility to advice to their patients that some goals are not permissible. In the case of happiness, it means that one should not choose a path to happiness beyond the boundaries of our legal framework or without regards to other people’s safety.

The second pillar –efficiency– takes elements from the first and the third pillar. Let me explain the third pillar before the second. The third pillar is intelligent collaboration with society. By stating that one of the goals of “Organised Thinking” is the intelligent collaboration with society, I am implying that psychology is not only about the individual. Individuals form societies; without our contribution, societies disappear. Since we all benefit from the existence of society in many ways, we also have to contribute to it. Consequently, psychologists help their patients directly by helping them as individuals; they also help their patients indirectly by building a critical mass in awareness of the concept of intelligent collaboration with society. Thus, everyone, including the patients will help build and live in a better society.

Our collaboration should be intelligent in two ways. First, we should contribute to society without harming ourselves. There are people that give a lot to others; they help others in ways which they do not pay attention to their own needs. This is not intelligent from my perspective. We are part of society. If we are harming ourselves, we are harming a member of society; hence, we are not collaborating with society.

Second, we do not have to engage in complex acts to collaborate with society. The most important thing (but not the only one) we can do is to perform our responsibilities the best way we can. If someone is a teacher, the most intelligent way to collaborate with society is to prepare and deliver classes of excellent quality. If a teacher gives money to charity but gives mediocre classes, he/she is not collaborating to society with intelligence.

Now, we can go back to the second pillar – efficiency. It is an important link between happiness and collaboration. Efficiency applies both to individuals’ goals and to the goals of society. The more efficiently we achieve our individual goals, the more time we have to help society and viceversa. Efficiency means individuals should focus on relevant issues or activities and to avoid those which are irrelevant.

For example, if I spend money on a superfluous item in order to satisfice a desire (e.g., to buy a cellular phone with camera when I already have a camera and a cellular phone), then I have less money for more important things (e.g., to pay the fee of my son’s school). This is not only about personal finance, it is also about how we allocate our time and attention (see my previous post). If I pay attention to irrelevant issues then I have less time to the relevant ones.

I am in favour of a Positive Psychology that aims at investigating how individuals and societies thrive. On the other hand, like Schwartz, I am concerned with the excessive emphasis on the individual and on happiness. If the members of a dumbed-down society are happy, is this a good thing?

Happiness is one of the pillars of my philosophy; but happiness without efficiency, collaboration and intelligence is of little value in itself.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, 28 January 2008

Attention seeking

Miranda Devine, journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, described an all too familiar situation in her article “Smack in the middle of hysteria” last Thursday. Ms Devine was at the gym when she heard a child screaming at the top of his voice. To the dismay of all the affected gym-goers who were wishing a stop to the piercing noise, the mother of this hysterical child resigned to do nothing.

The journalist used this example to illustrate that, nowadays, parents are too permissive; they are reluctant or even incapable of putting limits on their kids. Although I agree with her observation, the remedy she proposed in the article missed the point completely – Ms Devine suggested that a judicial smack by the mother might just resolve the problem and put a stop to the screaming.

As a psychologist who apply psychological research to everyday life I will identify the real problem and propose a few possible solutions.

The real problem is that parents do not pay enough attention to their children. By virtue of their inaction, they are not using one of the most important psychological tools to raise intelligent and well behaved kids: psychological reward of good behaviour.

There could be a number of reason why parents do not pay enough attention to their children. The demands of our modern work life is the most commonly sited answer. In my opinion, this is seldom the real cause. Hard working parents can (and do) pay attention to their children when they have the time and the will to do so.

In a lot of cases, parents who have too much free time are the ones who are not paying attention to their kids. In Ms Devine’s article the permissive mother was not at work but working out at her gym.

Some parents argue that by not “pay too much attention” to their children, they wish to raise independent human beings. Hence, they leave their children watching television independently, playing videogames independently, etc.

This is a misconception as much as a misguided children-rearing method; these children would not becomee independent just because they are entertained indenpendently from their parents. On the contrary, it just means they have another type of dependency - on television, on videogames, etc. When these crutches are taken away from them, they demand attention from their parents; sadly, the easiest way to command attention from their time-poor parents is to act up.

Raising independent human beings is helping the young to acquire a number of tools that would make them independent human beings. Among others, these tools are: acquisition of good habits (for example, making healthy food choices ), knowledge, problem solving skills, critical thinking, and the ability to adapt to new situations.

Watching television and playing videogames do not help anyone in acquiring these abilities. These abilities require parents to spend quality time with their children. I can provide a few examples here: involve in the kids’ daily life, reading to and with them, ask intellectually challenging questions to stimulate the kids’ thinking and prompt them to use their knowledge in different situations, etc.

For example, one cannot teach children how to swim by throwing them to the pool several times until they learn. I can imagine a frustrated parent after the tenth time smacking his/her kid because he/she does not put enough effort. Quite the contrary, one has to spend time with the kid in the pool until he/she learns how to float and, eventually, how to swim. Only after the kid has acquired these skills, the parent could just watch the kid from the edge of the pool. Consequently, raising independent human beings require a lot of time spent with one’s kids at the beginning and gradually less time, rather than no time at all.

What happens when children do not receive attention from their parents? They use an innate mechanism which proved to be successful to get attention. Babies cry when they need attention (i.e., when they need feeding, cleaning or just a cuddle). They learnt that when they cry they receive attention, so they keep doing it. Crying is something that makes parents paying attention to their children. Older children that do not receive enough attention do the same: they do something that annoys parents, so their parents pay attention to them. Their need for attention is such that sometimes the attention that their parents pay to them when they smack them is better than no attention at all.

Smacking, in psychological terms, is intended to punish bad behaviour. However, for children that are left alone, smacking means that their parents somehow interact with them. Consequently, smacking, rather than being a punishment it becomes a reward.
This means that smacking, instead of punishing bad behaviour; it is a reward of bad behaviour. Therefore, smacking increases the chances that the misbehaviour will be repeated.

Ironically, punishment of bad behaviour usually does not serve the purpose of avoiding bad behaviour. Only in very limited and specific situations can punishment be justified. For example, if your kid is about to put her/his fingers in the socket, saying “no” in a loud voice and, if necessary, physically avoiding your kid from doing so, are necessary punishments.

On the other hand, rewarding good behaviour send a positive signal. By reward I do not mean a candy, or any kind of treat, I mean the most important psychological reward that a child could receive: attention.

For instance, sharing activities with your kids will encourage them to engage in these activities, because they know that these activities would lead to them receiving attention. Hence, accompanying your kids in the activities that you would like your kid to do is the best way of avoiding misbehaviours. Most importantly, it is the best way of encouraging good behaviour.

While you pay attention to your kids you are also helping your kids in developing a psychological skill that would be a reward in itself in the future: thinking.

When your kids learn how to think on their own, thinking in itself becomes rewarding. Therefore, in the future you could reduce your “attention time” because your kids will enjoy their time in intellectual pursuits on their own.

To conclude, smacking and saying “no” are two different things. The latter is necessary in certain occasions and is important for children to know what is wrong behaviour. On the other hand, smacking is usually the sheer reflection that parents did something wrong in the past and formed bad habits in their kids and they are now looking for desperate measures.

Attention is what children seek. Our task as parents is to pay attention to our children and meanwhile helping them to develop their thinking skills, so that in the future they will need less attention from us.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Who won in Nevada?

Last Saturday both the Democratic and Republican parties of the US celebrated their caucuses in Nevada in their battle to determine the presidential candidate.

The result of the Republican Party was straight-forward, Romney won with clear advantage over his opponents. However, on the Democratic Party front there is no clear answer to the question posted as today’s title.

Indeed, the answer could be: a) Clinton won, b) Obama won, or c) it was a tie. Ironically, all three options could be right (or wrong).

Let’s look at the facts: Clinton obtained 51% of the votes and Obama 45%. Therefore, option (a) seems the correct answer. More than 50% of the voters chose Hillary, so she was the winner. However, neither the battle for the presidential candidate nor the election of the president in US is direct.

The American electoral system is an indirect representational system. In other words, the voters do not vote for a candidate, they vote for delegates that would vote for the candidate in a National Convention. Interestingly, Obama obtained 13 delegates and Clinton obtained 12 delegates in the Nevada caucuses. Obama won in two districts (one of them with odd number of delegates) by a low margin. Therefore, he obtained one more delegate in that district. On the other hand, Clinton won in a district with even number of delegates. The margin was not big enough to secure more delegates.

Conclusion: with less overall votes Obama obtained more delegates. Hence, option (b) seems correct.

However, this is not all. In the Democratic Party there are Superdelegates or Unpledged delegates. These delegates are members of the Party that could choose to vote whoever they want. There will be around 4,000 delegates in the Democratic National Convention; around 700 of them will be Super or Unpledged delegates, and the rest are Pledged delegates.

Well, two of the Nevada Superdelegates will vote for Clinton and one will vote for Obama. Hence, there will be 14 delegates voting for each candidate. Therefore, option (c) seems correct.

To cut to the chase, if you are not confused already, there are even more surprises. In some states people do not vote even for the National delegates, they vote for the State delegates. These 28 delegates in Nevada are State delegates. They will have a State Convention in April and they will decide then to whom they would vote for in the National Convention. Consequently, we have to wait until April to know who the winner in Nevada actually was.

The problems of the indirect electoral system were apparent in the US 2000 presidential elections when Al Gore obtained more votes than George Bush, but the latter was the winner because he obtained more delegates.

A similar case occurred in Argentina, 1992. Buenos Aires City was choosing its Senator. Candidate A obtained around 45%, Candidate B around 30% and Candidate C around 25%. Everybody thought that candidate A was the winner; end of story. Nobody knew, though, that the electoral system was an indirect system. We were choosing delegates; we were not choosing the candidate directly.

Before the Delegates Convention, Candidate B managed to convince the delegates of Candidate C to vote for him. Consequently, at the Delegates Convention more delegates voted for Candidate B than for Candidate A; and the former was chosen as Senator.

In 1994 there was a Constitution Reform by which the indirect electoral system was abolished. Now, voters choose their candidates directly, they do not vote for delegates. The candidate that obtains more votes wins the election.
Will the Americans ever change their electoral system?

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Chess thinking

On Thursday 17th January 2008 Bobby Fisher passed away. The American (and later Icelandic) chessplayer was one of the greatest players of the history of chess. Possibly, the Russian Gary Kasparov is the only one that can dispute this reputation.For those who are interested in Bobby Fischer’s life and chess career I recommend Chess Base ( Indeed is the website I use to follow chess news, download chess games and follow chess tournaments.

I am a chess player and I was a chess coach. Although I did not achieve the level I would have liked as a chess player (my highest level achieved was at the local master level [2280 Elo points for those who know the chess rating system]), chess helped me to organise my thinking processes. I did not apply this only to chess but also to a wide range of aspects of life that require thinking and decision making. This thinking organisation allowed me to be a better chess coach than chess player (some of my students obtained the International Grandmaster title).

On my career as a professional psychologist the organisation of thinking that chess gave me, afforded me the possibility to help many people to solve problems by teaching them how to organise their thinking process. Thinking organisation leads to consistency in the thinking process, to realisation of own mistakes, to clarity in the way of expressing thoughts and feelings, to understanding the views of others, etc. I put together techniques that make easier to organise our thinking process in a book: Organised Thinking: A psychotechnology to be happy, efficient and to collaborate with intelligence. (Unfortunately, the book has not been translated to English and is only available in Spanish. For the bilingual or for the very brave, you can order the book to Dunken Editorial).

Chess has also been a key aspect of my research into decision making, problem solving and expertise. I carried out numerous psychological studies with chess players (ranging from novices to international grandmasters) [you can read and download my scientific articles from my website]. In my research I studied perception, memory, problem solving (with and without time pressure), imagery, decision making, etc. In my studies I used different research methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), eye-movement recording, reaction time, questionnaires and standard behavioural experiments. The conclusions of my own research will be dealt in future posts.

I did my PhD at The University of Nottingham with Fernand Gobet. (Visit Prof. Gobet’s website at Brunel University West London to know about his research and to download dozens of his articles). Prof. Gobet co-authored a number of scientific articles with Economics Nobel Prize laureate, Herbert Simon (visit latest Herbert Simon’s website for the list of his publications).

From the 1990’s until Simon’s death, Gobet and Simon investigated memory and decision making in chess players. The choice of chess as a scientific tool was not causal. Chess is a complex game with a reliable rating that affords the possibility to assess objectively the level of expertise of the players. From the scientist point of view this is ideal, because it allows him/her to know with precision the level of expertise of the participants of his/her experiment.

The expertise approach is a key issue in Herbert’s Simon approach to the study of decision making. Not only the way people make choices should be studied empirically and not assumed like neo-classical economists do [see my previous post], but also it should be studied with an expertise approach. If expertise level is not taken into account the results we obtain my not reflect the true story.

For example, Tversky y Kahneman, [see Daniel Kahneman’s website here ] followed Simon’s criticism to the standard economical model of decision making. (Tversky and Kahneman’s research have been recognised by the economics community with the Nobel Prize to Kahneman in 2002 [Tversky had passed away, so he could not be awarded the prize]). However, they rarely followed the expertise approach which consists on comparing the decision making process of experts with that of novices. Therefore, their conclusions could be flawed. For example, the biases they found in the decision making processes of their participants may not have been found if experts had participated in their experiments.

In the next few posts I will write about Herbert Simon and his importance in economics, psychology, public administration, business administration, among other fields. Put it differently, Herbert Simon is one of the scholars that most contributed to the understanding of the thinking process. Therefore, he is one of the most important sources of Organised Thinking.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Decisions, decisions, decisions

How do we make decisions?

From choosing the president of our country, to choosing who to marry, to who to pass the ball in a football match, to what to eat for breakfast. What is the process that we follow in order to come up with a definite choice?

When answering this question, scholars are divided into groups. Let’s call the first one “the formal group” and the second one “the experimental group”.

In general, we can include economists, logicians and mathematicians in the first group and psychologists in the second group.

The members of the formal group do not investigate how humans make decisions; they base their conclusions on the tools they use (in fact, the tools they created). The members of the experimental group base their conclusions on research they carry out with humans.

In which of these two groups would you believe? Well, this is a choice too. So, this is a research question for psychologists. Psychological research (for example, the studies of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky) showed that people do not choose necessarily the best option based on the available information. Indeed, there are other factors that influence their choices.

For example, economists in general have a higer profile than psychologists. This difference in profile would influence the perception of the public who would be more inclined to trust the economists. Therefore, paradoxically, psychologists who make the effort of investigating with human beings about their choices would be believed less than economists who do not, because the latter have a higher profile and are considered more prestigious by the public.

OK, but what are the explanations of choices of these two groups?

The formal group says that we either follow the rules of logic, the rules of statistics or that we maximise benefits. When psychologists show several experiments in which this does not happen, the members of the formal group say: “Well, you are measuring performance, not competence (i.e., the capacity to perform, not the actual performance)”.

Since “competence” cannot be measured, then there is no possibility to reach an agreement between these two groups.

The Great Herbert Simon (Economics Nobel Prize winner, 1978) put it very clearly. He stated that the model of the "maximizer" of neo-classical economists is wrong. The number of options that people have to analyse in order to perform a detailed costs-benefit analysis (which would allowed them to choose the decision that maximizes benefits) is enormous, and that the limited capacity of the human cognitive system just does not allow humans to do that. Instead, Simon proposed that humans “satisfice”. That is, they choose satisfactory options; options that pass some threshold of satisfaction. And they do that by being very selective in the options they analyse.

So, scientific research has shown that people are not “maximizers” but “satisficers” when they make decisions. However, media are flooded by economists that make their macro-economical analysis based on the maximization assumption. Rarely do we find psychologists talking about decision making in the media.

Paradoxically, if psychologists aim at being trusted more than economists in this matter, we have to sacrifice a little time dedicated to science and use this time to communicate our knowledge with simplicity and clarity.

In this blog, I will try to do just that.