Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 4

6 Mar

Dr. Marty Seligman

Dr. Marty Seligman Dr. Marty Seligman is the founder of Positive Psychology and a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. One afternoon, while he was weeding, his five-year-old daughter, Nikki, took the weeds and threw them in the air playfully.  He became angry and sent her away with an irritated impatience that he claims he often exhibited.  She later returned to confront him.   She told him that all her life, she had been a whiner, but that on her fifth birthday, she had decided she was going to stop whining.  And she did.  And if she could stop whining, he could stop being such a grouch.

Dr. Seligman uses that story as his positive introduction, how he describes himself as his best.  In that moment, his five-year-old daughter made him realize that he as a parent, and that psychology as a disciple, had focused on correcting weakness instead of nourishing strength.  Seligman’s most famous work had involved inducing a form of depression in dogs that he termed learned helplessness.  He moved his research from learned hopelessness to learned optimism.

In 1996, as president of the American Psychological Association, he declared the Positive Psychology Movement: psychology’s movement away from the empirical study of depression and pessimism towards the empirical study of happiness and optimism.

Seligman later created the Values In Action Character Strengths and Virtues, a list of twenty-four strengths he believed contributed to human greatness. He developed a method to assess an individual’s top strengths, what he deemed “signature strengths.”  This inventory and other positive interventions can be found on his website.

Dr. Daniel Gilbert

Dr. Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.  He is famous for his work on affective forecasting, which proposes that we are not very good at knowing what will make us happy.Inexplicable and surprising happy events may impact people more powerfully than predicted ones.  For example, in one study, Gilbert handed out cards with a silver dollar. One set just had a smiley face saying this is for you The other condition had the same exactly information, but gave the people receiving the card an explanation along the lines of “we are the smile society.  Why do we do this?  We like to promote random acts of kindness.”  The results of the study revealed that once the reason behind the card was explained away, the effect gets attenuated.  We all, even as children, reflexively try to understand why things happen.  Once we understand something, we spontaneously disengage our attention.  This is usually a non-conscious process that we don’t take into account when we are trying to figure out what we are doing.   We adapt to things we can explain, and tend to focus our attention on things we can’t explain.

Gilbert and Wilson also identified impact bias.  Impact bias describes the tendency for people to overestimate the length or intensity of future feeling states.  There are several steps that may mediate this impact bias.  First, people are especially likely to attend to events that are self-relevant but poorly understood (e.g., students who unexpectedly receive an A on an important exam will initially thing about little else).  Second, people react emotionally to self-relevant, surprising events.  Third, people attempt to explain or make sense of such events.  Fourth, by making sense of events, people adapt emotionally to them.    The event will come to be seen as more normal & inevitable then it actually was, and hence it will lose some of the emotional power that it had when it still seemed extraordinary.  For example, once the student has explained the reasons for her grade, she will think about her achievement less and experience less happiness when she thinks about it.

To learn more about Gilbert’s views on positive psychology and cognitive biases, check out his blog.

Dr. Adrian Raine

Dr. Adrian Raine

Dr. Adrian Raine is the chair of the Criminology Department at University of Pennsylvania.  He coined the term neurocriminology, a new approach to criminology that focuses on the neural bases of the causes of criminal behavior and possible treatments for hyperaggression.

Currently, Adrian Raine is conducting double blind nutrition interventions in communities including Philadelphia and Singapore to test the effects of omega-3 supplements on helping adolescents brain maturation and ultimately reducing antisocial behavior.  I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for his Philadelphia study.

In his biopsychosocial study on hyperagression in adolescents, we tried  to understand what is behind the proclivity towards violent and impulsive behavior in some children.  Recent studies provide promise that perhaps aggression and similar problems stem from something as basic as nutritional deficiencies, and that treatment may be possible in nutritional supplements such as omega-3 fish oil. If a criminal act can be partially explained by a neurological difference or a psychological disorder, then issues of accountability and culpability must be revisited.


One Response to “Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 4”


  1. Practical strategies to increase your level of happiness – 1 of 3 « Umbrella Health and Resilience - March 7, 2011

    […] Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 4 ( […]

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