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The Dark Side of Positive Psychology Part 1: Strength-based Approaches May Be Wrong

6 May 2014

± minute read

    The Dark Side of Positive Psychology Part 1: Strength-based Approaches May Be Wrong
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Many psychologists, coaches, and mentors today focus on strength-based approaches.

These approaches are geared towards the detection and development of human character strengths. The purpose of identifying these strengths is the promise of reinforcing what is strong in people in order to overcome that which is weak (Hodges & Clifton, 2004).

It is not that easy to get people to focus on their strengths, even when such strengths are known.

According to Fredrickson (2004), and Fredrickson and Losada (2005), people tend to focus more on what is wrong with their character than what is right (Fredrickson, 2004). In fact, these authors argue that it takes at least three times more positivity than negativity to get people to start thinking about the world, and themselves, in a strength-based manner. This is referred to as the critical positivity ratio (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005), which has been widely accepted in the positive psychology canon and has formed the basis for numerous strength-based interventions and approaches (cf. Bushe &  Kassam, 2005; Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001; Fredrickson, 2003).

Unfortunately, the use of the critical positivity ratio within strength-based approaches may have been a misguided endeavour.

Recent research by Brown, Sokal and Friedman (2013), indicated that Fredrickson and Losada’s research was incorrect. Brown et al. (2013), found numerous conceptual and mathematical errors in Fredrickson’s work which invalidated the findings. To put this in perspective, the initial article by Fredrickson and Losada was cited over a thousand times and has formed the basis for many positive psychology coaching, development and organisational development theories and interventions; and forms the backbone of strength-based approaches and interventions (Wilkinson, 2013).

Where does this leave the strength-based approach?

Well, most likely where it has been since Aristotle discussed virtues at around 300 B.C. Aristotle proposed a common-sense approach to strengths that has permeated most of the ‘good’ positive psychological theories and approaches to date. In Aristotle’s mind everything has a telos or purpose (Barnes, 1995). If one meets this purpose you are considered virtuous, if you do not, you are deficient (Barnes, 1995). If you over-exceed your purpose you are considered to have a vice, which may hurt you and others (in other words, a strength in overdrive).

In short, Aristotle believed that people should nurture their deficits and temper their passions.

Aristotle referred to this as the Golden Mean (Barnes, 1995). The Golden Mean takes a very balanced approach to human strengths and weaknesses and allows both perspectives (the positive and the negative) to self-correct the other. It also answers questions about the positive nature of strengths, which according to Aristotle can sometimes be counterproductive.

Strangely, positive psychology is making the same mistake it was trying to rectify - an overemphasis on a particular area of human nature.

Aristotle’s view is contrary to much of popular positive psychology where the focus has been on building strengths and not really on how such strengths could become counterproductive under certain contexts. Thankfully, some of the positive psychology canon does not focus solely on the positivity of strengths.

Read Part 2 here: https://jvrafricagroup.co.za/blog/dark-side-positive-psychology-part-2-emotional-strengths-overdrive 


Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315-338. Barnes, J. (1995). The Cambridge companion to Aristotle. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Brown, N. J. L., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: The critical positivity ratio. American Psychologist, 68(9), 801-813. Bushe, G. R., & Kassam, A. (2005). When is appreciative inquiry transformational? A meta-case analysis. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41, 161-181. Cooperrider,  D. L., & Whitney, D. (2001). A positive revolution in change. In D. L. Cooperrider, D. Whitney (Eds.),  Appreciative Inquiry: An emerging direction for organization development (pp. 9-29). Champaign, IL: Stipes. Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 359, 1367-1377. Fredrickson, B.L. & Losada, M. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678–686. Wilkinson, W. (2013). Barbara Fredrickson’s bestselling ‘positivity’ is trashed by a new study. The Daily Beast. Retrieved March 22, 2014, from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/08/16/barbara-fredrickson-s-bestselling-positivity-is-trashed-by-a-new-study.html

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