In the news: Has Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers been debunked? And The Examined Life is up for a prize

The Examined Life has been longlisted for The Guardian first book prize.
The Examined Life has been longlisted for The Guardian first book prize.

What would a weekly newsletter that is concerned with pop psychology and the general principles of success look like? In particular, what it would it look like if it had a strong focus on the best books being published?

This is something that I am currently looking at and I thought readers might find the results of interest. Below, I attach a newsletter for the week ending Sunday 25 August.

Psychology and personal development in the news

The value of case studies

Irvin Yalom Love's Executioner
Love’s Executioner has helped many readers gain a better understanding of existential psychotherapy.

One of my favourite books is Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom, and if you read the reviews on Amazon, you can see that the eight case histories it contains have helped many people understand existential therapy. For that reason, I was intrigued to see that another book of case histories has just been longlisted for a literary prize.

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz features 31 case studies from his career as a psychoanalyst and a review in The Observer says it makes a subtle but powerful case for psychoanalysis. Many books in the pop psychology or self-help genres can come across as overly didactic in tone, with lists and prescriptions interspersed only with the author’s own story, so it is always refreshing to read stories presented without a moral, with the reader able to draw their own conclusion from them. There’s even a school of thought that literature offers better therapy than self-help books and what better way to test this theory than to read accounts of therapy written with literary skill?

The Examined Life is not the only book of therapy case studies to have caught my eye this year. I also noticed Brandy Engler’s book The Men on my Couch: True Stories of Sex, Love and Psychotherapy which reviewers have praised for its insight into the kind of connection that men are looking for in addition to physical intimacy.

Debunking a straw man?

Malcolm Gladwell Outliers
Has the Sports Gene debunked the findings of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers?

I’m a big fan of debunking. Provided that is the theory being debunked is one that has actually been put forward and is not a straw man argument.

What is a straw man? For those who haven’t taken take a critical thinking or philosophy course it’s the practice of refuting an argument that your opponent didn’t make but which is actually a distorted version of something they did say.

I actually read a great essay this last week that is flawed by debunking a straw-man argument. The author is Peter Orszag, a man with a CV so impressive I’m tempted never to get out of bed and go to work again because I couldn’t possibly keep up with him. At the age of 44, he’s Vice Chairman of Corporate and Investment Banking, Chairman of the Public Sector Group, and Chairman of the Financial Strategy and Solutions group at Citigroup. Before that he was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Obama, a Director of The Congressional Budget during the George W Bush years, and a senior economic advisor during the Clinton Adminstration.

David Epstein The Sports Gene
Some players become chess masters after 3,000 hours of practice but others require 23,000, says David Epstein.

And yet he debunks a straw man, as commenters on his essay point out. Orszag says that like many who read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he came to believe that all that is required to become a world-class competitor in anything from chess to tennis to baseball is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. He’s not the only one, he says, pointing to Dan McLaughlin, a 30-year-old photographer who gave up his job, determined to practice golf for 10,000 hours and become a pro, despite having only played twice before as a child.

Orszag has now had a road-to-Damascus conversion after reading a thoroughly researched book The Sports Gene by David Epstein. Epstein wonders why some people become chess masters after just 3,000 hours of practice while others require 23,000 hours and finds that the reason for this variation is genetic. “We can all improve with practice,” writes Orszag, “but some will see bigger gains than others”.

As I say, it’s a good read and makes a good case against a popular understanding of the 10,000 hours rule but this popular understanding isn’t what Gladwell says, as commenters point out. Gladwell acknowledges the role of talent and luck but says it must be accompanied by long hours of deliberate practice as a minimum.

Double your debunking

Carol Dweck Mindset
If you think your willpower is limited it more likely will be, finds Carol Dweck.

Also in full debunking mode is Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential and Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. Dweck is known for championing the view that it is a mistake to praise people for their intelligence as they won’t want to risk a failure that makes them look stupid. Instead, we should praise people for the hard work that went into an achievement, as this approach is more likely to foster further accomplishments.

Her target in a study reported last week is the idea that willpower is a finite resource which can be exhausted like a muscle. This is an idea that has received a great deal of discussion in the press in reviews of two recent books on willpower. The first is Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success by Roy F Baumeister and the second is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.

Dweck’s latest experiment shows not just that people’s beliefs about how much willpower they have influence the amount of willpower they can bring to bear on a task. That’s not conclusive as they might just be accurate in their self-assessments. The clincher is that she shows that influencing people to believe that their willpower is limited or not can alter their willpower and resilience.

Left-brained, right-brained twaddle

Left Brain Right Brain by AmandaD_TX via Flick CC
Are some people more left-brained or right-brained than others? Utah University researchers say no.

If you haven’t already had your fill of debunking, here’s one more example for you from last week. You’ve no doubt come across the very popular idea that some people are more left-brained or right-brained than others, meaning that they are more creative or logical. It’s an idea that the About.com guide to psychology, Kendra Cherry, says is “often over-generalized and overstated by popular psychology and self-help texts”.

Researchers at the University of Utah have gone a bit further than this. Their brain-imaging study does find evidence that some mental activities are more strongly correlated with one side of the brain rather than then other. But there was no evidence at all that individuals had a tendency to use one side of their brain more than the other. Clearly some people are more creative and some more analytical. But they’re not left-brained or right-brained overall. That’s just a mistake.

There’s so much more that could be said about stories in the news this week, but time is short. Links are attached below for further reading at your leisure.

 Top stories form around the web

 A book featuring 31 psychoanalytic case studies is in the running for a literary prize

Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life is on the longlist for the 2013 Guardian first book award, while a review in The Observer finds that it makes a subtle but powerful for psychoanalysis.

“I used to believe in the 10,000 hour rule that practice makes perfect but I was wrong.”

When senior investment banker and Democrat Peter Orszag read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he became convinced that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice was enough to master any art. A new book The Sports Gene by David Epstein has changed his mind.

Willpower is plentiful, so long as you believe it is

Recent books on willpower have popularized the idea that it is like a muscle that can be exhausted. However, researcher Carol Dweck has found that changing people’s about whether willpower is limited or not can influence how much willpower they have.

Study debunks “pop-psychology” theory that people are left-brained or right-brained

Researchers at the University of Utah spent two years reviewing the brain scans of 1,011 individuals and found that they showed no preference for using one-side of the brain rather than the other.

Mirror experiment shows wealthy people are more likely to be narcissists

Social psychologist Paul Piff has found that wealthy people, and the children of the wealthy, are more likely to look at themselves in the mirror, a behaviour that accompanies feeling entitled to a bigger share of the pie than other people.

“Positive psychology is mainly for rich white people”

Clinical psychologist James Coyne argues that positive psychology research stigmatises the poor but flaws in the work of researcher Barbara Fredrickson show how the social circumstances of participants have a bigger impact on results than is acknowledged.

Author targets body image woes with You’re Not Pretty Enough website and book

Stung by her ex-husband’s comment that he cheated on her because she wasn’t pretty enough, Jennifer Tress is to speak at more than 100 colleges in the next few months in a campaign of body-image activism

The more people use Facebook the worse they feel and the less satisfied they are

On the face of it, social media exists to fulfil a need for human connection. But reseachers into subjective wellbeing have found that greater Facebook usage causes a drop in how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives.

Mothers’ perception of social status influences stress levels in their children

Cognitive neuroscientists have found that a mother’s self-perception of low-social standing was strongly correlated with objective measures of social status and predictive of an increase in cortisol levels in children and of neural activation during learning.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg inspires 7,000 women’s empowerment groups

Lean In, a book by the billionaire Facebook executive Sheryl, has sold more than a million copies since its publication in March and has prompted the creation of more than 7,000 Lean In Circles bringing together ambitious women.

Also of interest:

Psychological therapy does not aid survival in breast cancer

Subliminal messages found to aid sleep in psychological experiment

Psychologists trigger out-of-body experiences using heartbeats

Experiment finds savers are ranked as more attractive than spenders

Five lessons from high-functioning sociopaths and how to apply them to your life .

A philosopher argues that neuroscience offers all the insight we need into the self

Philosopher portraits: a series of picture linking thinkers with like-minded artists

The Albert Ellis Institute sells headquarters for $20 million and relocates

Why you can’t always do what you love and how to be successful anyway

The Bullet Journal Productivity Method Empowers Your Paper Notebook

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