Book Review: “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills”

by | Jun 1, 2021 | Books

The theme of Jesse Singal’s book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills, is that many psychological theories that have promised a quick fix for various social problems have not lived up to their hype. Singal does a very good expose, although there is more to be said in some cases. I will make brief comments on each chapter.

The theme of Jesse Singal’s book, The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, is that many psychological theories that have promised a quick fix for various social problems have not lived up to their hype. The typical hype theory claims that important discoveries have been made through research. But in fact, the research has often been sloppy, superficial, biased, and even deceptive. I am speaking as a psychologist who has been in the field for over 50 years and has conducted numerous experiments. Singal does a very good expose, although there is more to be said in some cases. I will make brief comments on each chapter.

1. Self-esteem. Yes, the self-esteem movement was a flop. But the core problem was that the movement never made clear what real self-esteem was actually based on. Since self-esteem is a genuine need, people who do not have the real thing try to fake it. The conventional view is that it is based on social approval (e.g., praise, prizes for everyone and everything, even for just showing up). Parents are told never to discipline their kids (such as with the loss of privileges) because they might experience negative emotions which will destroy them. (See Charlotte Cushman’s brilliant book, Effective Discipline, which argues for the exact opposite view). Genuine self-esteem has to be earned. It is not based on unearned praise and feel-good self-talk but on reliance on one’s power to think (cf., Ayn Rand) and to guide action toward rational goals. Dweck’s Mindset theory is off base. Intellectual ability (the capacity to learn) is, in fact, heavily genetic but knowledge is not. So, you do not properly work to change your IQ but rather to use what ability you have to increase your knowledge and skill. Maybe this is what Mindset training actually involves.

2. Superpreditors. I fully agree with the basic idea that moral values have to be taught—and they often are not—not even in school. Of course, our culture is nearing the end stage of moral relativism, thanks to our intellectuals. Singal does not mention the work of Rand on reason as the highest virtue or the work of Stanton Samenow, probably the world’s foremost expert on criminal thinking. To criminals “morality is whatever I want to do.”

3. Power Posing. A great demolition job. The most revealing quote (p. 86) is by a key researcher who admitted that the main results were not based on comparing power posers to neutral posers but from comparing neutral posers to negative (slouching) posers. This pretty much ends the debate for me. The best antidote to unequal representation would be the use of more objective procedures for hiring and the like, though this is not mentioned.

4. Positive Psychology. A very good chapter showing that Seligman and others had a feel-good theory looking for an application. The applications, including those aimed at reducing stress among soldiers, routinely failed. Worse yet, the statistical data alleged to show positive results have often been hidden from view, presumably because there was a lot to hide.

5. Grit. An excellent chapter. Grit is simply a relabeling of concepts that have always been widely known, e.g., persistence, tenacity, determination, etc. No one can doubt that persistence can be beneficial in life. But the studies show that if one controls for intellectual ability and what is called Conscientiousness (C), a key trait in personality theory, a separate grit scale adds little predictive ability. This is because grit is very similar, if not identical, in meaning to C. I want to add a comment here: it is best not to view grit as a general trait because everyone is selective about what they persist in. Persistence is task and situationally specific.

6. The Bias Test. The results of using projective tests to uncover implicit (subconscious) racial bias have not been good. The measure is not reliable over time and does a poor job of predicting action. I think the underlying motive of this movement may be to make white people (many or most of whom may never have harmed anyone) to feel unearned guilt, viz. deep down you are really no good. In the case of the police, I would argue that the real, racial bias that exists is quite conscious. This suggests a serious selection and training problem. Again, objectivity is the best antidote, in this and other contexts.

7. Non-Replication. I agree with Singal that there have been serious replication problems with priming studies as well as with the bizarre claims made by Bargh such as that the conscious mind has very little relevance to everyday life because we are run by the subconscious. I read a story by one writer who kept track of his conscious decisions made during one day; it came to nearly 300. This is probably typical. However, some priming studies do replicate, as Singal acknowledges. Gary Latham at the University of Toronto has run many successful priming studies but found that priming effects were mediated by conscious factors such as goal setting and self-efficacy. The priming champions need to build an inductive theory of how and when priming actually works.

8. Nudging. Kahneman and Tversky claim people are not rational. This is true sometimes, but this is much too big a topic for me to comment on here. I am not familiar with most of the nudging work, but the good thing is that the nudgers have worked to do experiments in the real world and seem to have collected good data. They also acknowledge limitations.

Conclusion. I think The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills is a very good book. The lesson to be learned here is that one should be wary of headline news and claims that seem too good to be true. The best theory claims to trust are those that are based on long-term research programs based on induction. Three examples are: cognitive-behavior therapy (Beck—noted by Singal), self-efficacy (Bandura), and goal setting (I confess: done by myself and Latham). These have been applied and have endured for over 50 years.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is: EdwinLocke.com

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