Tragedy of the Day: PNAS Got Duped by Positivity Lady !!

Tragedy of the Day: PNAS Got Duped by Positivity Lady !!


Here is the modus operandi of the positivity lady. She goes to a scientific field and picks up the jargons. Then she uses those jargons to write a complex paper, whose conclusion has something to do with human well-being, positive emotions, etc. Neat, isn’t it? Did we say that the technical terms are used in meaningless way to impress the naive reader?

In 2005, that chosen field was nonlinear dynamics and she came up with

Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing

Keywords: nonlinear systems, emotions, broaden-andbuild theory, positive psychology, subjective well-being

The high (or low) point of the paper consists of three differential equations, supposedly linked to human emotion.


The equations were picked out of a magician’s hat. They are utterly unrelated to her narrative. She could as well pick three little bunnies, or three colored clothes and continue her narrative.

Of course, such nonsense made serious physicists mad, who wrote a rebuttal.

The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio.

Brown NJ, Sokal AD, Friedman HL.

We examine critically the claims made by Fredrickson and Losada (2005) concerning the construct known as the “positivity ratio.” We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time; furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors. The lack of relevance of these equations and their incorrect application lead us to conclude that Fredrickson and Losada’s claim to have demonstrated the existence of a critical minimum positivity ratio of 2.9013 is entirely unfounded. More generally, we urge future researchers to exercise caution in the use of advanced mathematical tools, such as nonlinear dynamics, and in particular to verify that the elementary conditions for their valid application have been met. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved).

From wiki:

Fredrickson and Losada’s use of complex nonlinear dynamics modelling, taken from fluid dynamics, to derive these values, has been strongly criticised by Alan Sokal and colleagues (see Losada line)[4]. Fredrickson has agreed that the mathematical modelling is “questionable”, but stands by the more general idea that a high emotional positivity-to-negativity ratio is beneficial[5]. Fredrickson’s 2009 book, Positivity, also discusses this 3 to 1 positivity ratio that is crucial to flourishing.

In the meanwhile, positivity lady moved on to new field of research - genomics. Her paper linking positivity with gene expression came out in PNAS a week back. Check the last sentence (emphasis ours), if not anything else.

A functional genomic perspective on human well- being

To identify molecular mechanisms underlying the prospective health advantages associated with psychological well-being, we analyzed leukocyte basal gene expression profiles in 80 healthy adults who were assessed for hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, as well as potentially confounded negative psychological and behavioral factors. Hedonic and eudaimonic well-being showed similar affective correlates but highly divergent transcriptome profiles. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells from people with high levels of hedonic well-being showed up-regulated expression of a stress-related conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA) involving increased expression of proinflammatory genes and decreased expression of genes involved in antibody synthesis and type I IFN response. In contrast, high levels of eudaimonic well-being were associated with CTRA down-regulation. Promoter-based bioinformatics implicated distinct patterns of transcription factor activity in structuring the observed differences in gene expression associated with eudaimonic well-being (reduced NF-?B and AP-1 signaling and increased IRF and STAT signaling). Transcript origin analysis identified monocytes, plasmacytoid dendritic cells, and B lymphocytes as primary cellular mediators of these dynamics. The finding that hedonic and eudaimonic well-being engage distinct gene regulatory programs despite their similar effects on total well-being and depressive symptoms implies that the human genome may be more sensitive to qualitative variations in well-being than are our conscious affective experiences.

Basically, anything goes !!



For full-blown rebuttal of the PNAS paper, please check here -

Improving your health by pursuing meaning in your life versus happiness

Here is an extract (emphasis ours)

If, as an Academic Editor for PLOS One I had received this article as a manuscript, I would probably have recommended Rejection without sending it out for further review. But if I had sent the manuscript out for review, I would have chosen at least some reviewers with relevant psychometric backgrounds. I would be disappointed if they did not immediately notice some fatal flaws hiding in plain sight.

The article is highly technical, with basic details presented in unnecessarily ponderous sentences:

Primary analyses examined the relationships of hedonic and eudaimonic well- being to expression of a 53-gene contrast score summarizing three a priori- defined components of the CTRA profile (12, 3335): up-regulated expression of proinflammatory genes, down-regulated expression of genes mediating type I IFN responses, and down-regulated expression of genes involved in antibody synthesis.

There are many such sentences, some even more complex.

I doubt that many people who have an opinion about the article have actually read it in its entirety. But with such a formidably complex article making such strong claims, it is all the more important to start with checking basic statistics and measurement issues. Problems often start in these details that preclude important questions being addressed. Think of the aliens invading Earth in the War of the Worlds being brought down by common microbes.

In the case of this article, the validity of sophisticated methodologies, analyses, and interpretations depend entirely on some distinctions being captured in self-report assessments of hedonic versus eudaimonic well-being with the Short Flourishing Scale. What we can say about all the complicated biomedical assessments is limited by what we can say about some very simple questions delivered by Internet So, I started by examining the correlation between these two subscales and it was r = 0.79, ( p < 0.0001).

This correlation is as high as the reliability of these two subscales allows, meaning they are essentially interchangeable and measure the same thing. Except for by random variance, that finding is highly unlikely that something will be related to one variable and not the other.

The high correlation between these variables is reflected in shared associations with other variables:

Analyses found both forms of well-being to show similarly strong inverse relationships to symptoms of depression [Center for Epidemiological StudiesDepression (CES-D) correlation with hedonic well-being, r = ?0.67, p < 0.0001; correlation with eudaimonic well-being, r = ?0.66, p< 0.0001; difference in dependent correlations, p = 0.8550]. Similarly strong inverse relationships were also observed for CES-D subscales assessing affective symptoms of depression (hedonic, r = ?0.75, P < 0.001; eudaimonic, r = ?0.71, P < 0.001; difference, P = 0.3228) and vegetative symptoms of depression (hedonic, r = ?0.45, P < 0.001; eudaimonic, r = ?0.48, P < 0.001; difference, P = 0.6297).

The investigators attempted to escape their problems by introducing statistical controls:

each well-being dimension treated as a continuous measure and adjusted for correlation with the other dimension of well-being and for age, sex, race/ethnicity, body mass index (BMI), smoking, alcohol consumption, recent minor illness symptoms, and leukocyte subset prevalence.

But given the close association between the two variables, what is portrayed in the multivariate analyses, eudaimonic-well-being-controlling-for-hedonic- well-being-and-many-other-things is very different than eudaimonic well-being without such controls. If we were talking about people, we probably couldnt even recognize a family resemblance between the two. Shared similarities were removed, so one would not be recognizable from a photo of the other.

This represents statistical malpractice and we are well on our way to nonsense.

Written by M. //