The Quick Fix

Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills

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True confession: I went through a self-help book phase. I still have on my shelves books by Nathaniel Branden, Wayne Dyer, Paul Kurtz, Harry Browne,… What can I say?

I would have been better off just going to church regularly, I think.

In this book, journalist Jesse Singal does an impressive job of de-hyping the overblown claims of psychological "quick fixes" over the years, most of them relatively recent. In each case, these fads often have a kernel of validity. But they get stretched into easy panaceas that promise (falsely) to remedy what ails you. And also usher in a new era of social tranquility.

Up first, is "self-esteem". I got this bug at an early age, because I read Atlas Shrugged, and it's something John Galt plugged in his lengthy speech near the end. He uses the term 25 times (thanks for counting them, Google Chrome) and defines it thusly:

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man’s virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.

Doesn't sound too bad! But Singal shows how this simple concept quickly got cartoonified by hucksters and politicians, leading to wasteful and misguided policies. (Especally, of course, in California.)

In subsequent chapters, Singal looks at "superpredators" (all we need to do is lock up a small number of bad apples for a long time); "power posing" (all you need to do to get ahead is use body language to look assertive); "positive psychology" (updating Norman Vincent Peale to cure PTSD); "grit" (you can overcome lack of intelligence by sheer persistence); "implicit bias" (this one simple test shows that white people are racist); "priming" (people can be easily fooled into acting the way you want by providing subtle visual/aural hints first); and "nudging" (pre-arranging choice architectures to channel your behavior beneficially).

Singal probably doesn't share my conservative/libertarian politics; for example, in the "nudging" chapter he approvingly quotes Robert Kuttner, who disdains the nudge in favor of good old "command and control" mandated by Uncle Stupid. Why shouldn't government just make the decisions it deems best, and force everyone to conform? (E.g., Mike Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio didn't "nudge" New Yorkers to avoid "large sugary drinks", they just tried to ban them.)

That's a shame, but the debunking part of Singal's book is extremely valuable, highlighting the never-ending appeal the psychological version of the classic clickbait: "This one simple trick has been shown to solve all your problems!"