The death of the chaotic positivity ratio

A new online publication called Narratively has an excellent story about how a part-time student blew apart a long-standing theory in positive psychology.

The article is the geeky yet compelling tale of how weekend student Nick Brown found something fishy about the ‘critical positivity ratio’ theory that says people flourish when they have between 2.9013 and 11.6346 positive emotions for every negative one.

It’s been a big theory in positive psychology but Brown noticed that it was based on the dodgy application of mathematician Lorenz’s equations from fluid dynamics to human emotions.

He recruited psychology professor Harris Friedman and renowned bunk buster Alan Sokal into the analysis and their critique eventually got the paper partially retracted for being based on very shaky foundations.

It’s a great fun read and also serves as a good backgrounder to positive psychology.

I’ve also noticed that the latest edition of Narratively has loads of great articles on psychology.

Link to Narratively on Nick Brown the death of the positivity ratio.
Link to latest edition of Narratively entitled ‘Pieces of Mind’.


  1. Mason Kelsey
    Posted October 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Five and six significant digits should have been a red flag.

  2. Nick Brown
    Posted October 19, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m the subject of that article… please note that I was not an “evening class” student. Tuition was at weekends, including 9am statistics lectures on Sundays (!).

    • Posted October 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for the correction (now fixed!) and thank you for the excellent work that inspired the article!

  3. Posted October 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the ah-ha moment. My view of positive psychology is that it feels and smells too much like Mao’s re-education camps. In other words, more indoctrination than psychology.

    • Posted October 31, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Curious, is there a distinction here that would make “indoctrination” something different than “psychology that is bad”?

      Oh, I think I might be confusing the work and the workers. I read it to mean ‘effects described as positive psychological ones are better described as effects of indoctrination.’ Are you saying, rather, that positive psychologists _practice_ indoctrination instead of practicing science?

  4. Jon M
    Posted October 20, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not read the literature in this area. Can anyone briefly explain why the ratio question ever needed more than a simple regression equation with some non-linear terms to answer?

    The way the theory is phrased, it surprises me that it would hinge on any complex mathematics at all.

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26,837 other followers