August 11, 2013

Fredrickson & Losada's Positivity Ratio built on quicksand

The well-known research by Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada on the positivity ratio is now being seriously criticized. Their 2005 paper Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing claimed that the amount of positive affect one experienced divided by the amount of negative affect, affects the degree to which one flourishes.

When the amount of positive affect is three of more times as much as the amount of negative affect, the authors said, a tipping point is achieved above which flourishing begins.

The authors of a new paper, The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio,  claim that the research by Fredrickson and Losada is built on quicksand because it contains fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors. In this article your can read more: The Magic Ratio That Wasn’t.

6 comments:

  1. Maybe math of this article is not OK. Agree! But this does not necessarily mean that the ratio is false. Are there other cases/studies where people tried to say at least 3 good things to other people before saying one criticizing sentence and what happened after this?

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  2. Hi, thanks for your comment. There indeed are some other studies which suggest that such ratios may work. For instance see this quote from this post: http://solutionfocusedchange.blogspot.nl/2007/09/positive-expressions-in-conversations.html

    "Over the past decade, scientists have explored the impact of positive-to-negative interaction ratios in our work and personal life. They have found that this ratio can be used to predict—with remarkable accuracy—everything from workplace performance to divorce. This work began with noted psychologist John Gottman's exploration of positive-to-negative ratios in marriages. Using a 5:1 ratio, which Gottman dubbed "the magic ratio," he and his colleagues predicted whether 700 newlywed couples would stay together or divorce by scoring their positive and negative interactions in one 15-minute conversation between each husband and wife. Ten years later, the follow-up revealed that they had predicted divorce with 94 percent accuracy. "

    I must add that Fredrickson and Losada's ratio did not refer to hearing good or bad things but having positive or negative emotions.

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  3. New information:

    As @CoyneoftheRealm pointed out to me, not only Barabara Fredrickson's positivity ratio is debunked. so is John Gottman's 'magic ratio' (see

    http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2010/03/can_you_really_predict_the_success_of_a_marriage_in_15_minutes.html

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  4. Thank you for the answer! I had great time re-reading all these articles.

    Unfortunately, all these studies are not experimental (I mean here: they do not change anything, only register). What positive psychologists need here is an experiment where not-flourishing (but also not languishing) people are instructed to use different techniques in order to feel more positive emotions and then measure emotions and flourishing every couple of months and see what else changes in their lives (compared to the control group of not-flourishing people) – will be there upward spiral or not. Well if success, then they could try the same with languishing people and see if it works. The problem with this kind of experiments will be control… Maybe it could be Internet study.

    The other part of the experiment is also possible - to instruct flourishing people to use techniques that will make them feel more and more negative emotions and see if this will kill their flourishing (and see if there will be downward spiral). But most probably it will be unethical and not allowed.

    With these studies that only establish a fact always is a problem – the relationships are not causal. For example, you read about these positivity/negativity ratios and make conclusion that if you begin to say more positive things than negative, you will better work with people, be happier etc. When I instructed my students to compliment their colleagues (who were not in my classes), couple of them had real problems because some of their colleagues became really suspicious and even hostile – “You compliment me, what you never did before – so it seems you need a favor from me or you try to manipulate me for your own goals”. So instead of improving their relationships, they made them worse. Only few cases, yes,but there was such a reaction.

    Last year we had a lecture about marriage and happiness and the lecturer Andrew Clark told us his interpretation of the findings of his article

    Re-Examining Adaptation and the Setpoint Model of Happiness: Reactions to Changes in Marital Statuts.
    Richard E Lucas, Andrew Clark, Yannis Georgellis, Ed Diener

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/4745944_Re-Examining_Adaptation_and_the_Setpoint_Model_of_Happiness_Reactions_to_Changes_in_Marital_Statuts

    - not true that marriage makes people happier; in fact, the opposite is true, that happier people marry more often, he said.

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  5. Hi Anonymous, Thanks for your response (curious about who you are, by the way),

    While I think that correlational studies do have some role to play in the development of knowledge, experiments will always be needed to make causal inferences.

    THank you for the links. I will have a look at them

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  6. Interesting, I am researching the Fredrickson books and ended up coming to this post.

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