By: Tom Bartlett, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Monday, October 31, 2011
The name of a controversial, $125-million new program in the U.S. Army—Comprehensive Soldier Fitness—brings to mind push-ups and climbing walls. And while it does place a secondary emphasis on exercise, the main mission of the program is to use the principles of positive psychology to make soldiers more resilient, both on the battlefield and when they return home.
Years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have put immense strain on members of the military, and the Army is pinning its hopes on an effort that aims to help them "thrive at a cognitive and behavioral level in the face of protracted warfare."
But a number of psychologists, including some involved in the development, have serious concerns about how the program has been carried out. Foremost among the worries is that it's been put in place without the trials necessary to see if it actually works. While the promotional materials talk about "equipping" and "training" ¬soldiers, these critics say the program is in reality a huge study using involuntary research subjects.
That and other criticism are spelled out in five commentaries published in the October issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association. They were written in response to the January issue of the journal, which was devoted to Comprehensive Soldier Fitness and which one researcher complained read like an advertisement.
Enlarge Image Psychologists Battle Over Army's Optimism Training 2
M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle
Stephen Soldz, of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, doubts that "making soldiers feel positive about their work" is a laudable goal. He says the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program may have unintended consequences.
The program is based largely on the research of Martin E.P. Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology and the author of the 2002 best seller Authentic Happiness and other popular books. Mr. Seligman, no stranger to rocking the boat, had anticipated pushback from colleagues who might object to working with the military, and he compared their opposing the use of positive psychology to opposing methods for preventing malaria. "The balance of good done by building the physical and mental fitness of our soldiers far outweighs any harm that might be done," he wrote in January.
Whether the program's detractors are quibbling over academic details, or the Army is unwisely leaping before it looks, to some degree hinges on how credible the evidence is for positive psychology.
In November 2008, Mr. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, had lunch with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the chief of staff of the Army, and his advisers. "I want to create an army that is just as psychologically fit as it is physically fit," General Casey told Mr. Seligman, as the professor recounts in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. They discussed the psychological problems soldiers experience, like post-traumatic stress disorder, and Mr. Seligman suggested that a program could be created to make Army personnel more resilient, more emotionally stable, happier. To prevent problems, rather than simply treat them.
General Casey gave Mr. Seligman 60 days to outline the basics of such a program. The components included self-improvement courses, resiliency training designed to prepare soldiers to deal with trauma, and an online test called the Global Assessment Tool, or GAT, that allowed them to see in which areas of psychological fitness, like "spiritual" or "social," they fell short. Online modules would be developed. Master trainers would be trained.
The Positive Psychology Center Mr. Seligman directs at the University of Pennsylvania reportedly received $31-million from the Army over three years to develop Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.
From Academic to Mainstream
If you want to start a positive psychology program in the Army or anywhere else, Mr. Seligman is your guy. He helped create the field and has become its most visible proponent, taking an idea that raised eyebrows at scholarly meetings in the 1990s and making it mainstream. He encouraged psychologists to think about helping not just the mentally ill but also the rest of the population. The movement has come under fire, including from the writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who pondered in her 2009 book Bright-Sided whether positive psychology is a "scientific breakthrough or a flamboyant bid for funding and attention." James Coyne, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology and psychiatry, has deemed some of the claims of positive psychology far-fetched. Indeed, even Mr. Seligman has expressed some reservations about the smiley public face of positive psychology, writing that the title of his book Authentic Happiness was forced on him by the publisher and that he doesn't like either word.
In Flourish, Mr. Seligman describes himself as a maverick, a "wolf in sheep's clothing" amid his more purely academic colleagues. He is unapologetically interested in how ideas work outside of a laboratory, and frankly dismissive of the "puzzle masters" who edit journals and the psychologists laboring on "mathematical models of T-maze learning in rats."
For a professor who has said he wants to start a "revolution in world education" to teach everyone the principles of positive psychology, being asked to educate more than a million soldiers must have seemed like an irresistible opportunity. As he has written, it's "one of the largest-scaled psychological interventions ever undertaken."
One of those asked to sit in on an early brainstorming session was Richard McNally. Mr. McNally, a professor of psychology and director of clinical training at Harvard University, is known for his work on anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress. In April 2009, he attended a meeting at Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center. Among those present were Mr. Seligman and Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.
At one point, Mr. McNally asked how the Army was going to know, without conducting randomized, controlled trials, whether the program was really fostering the resilience that its designers hoped it would. It was General Cornum who answered. "She said it was easier to simply implement the whole darn program than doing pilot testing," Mr. McNally recalls. Mr. Seligman reassured him that data would be collected from soldiers during the program.
"That's certainly great, but it's hard to tell whether it's going to work" without a control group for comparison, Mr. McNally says now. He says his concerns were politely dismissed.
His objection was echoed by three other psychologists in an article that was published online and later in abridged form in American Psychologist. "The CSF program is a massive research project launched without pilot testing to determine, first, the effectiveness of the training in a military environment," they wrote. "This is highly irregular and obviously worrisome considering the stakes."
Their objections run deeper than concerns about research protocol. One of the authors of that article, Stephen Soldz, a professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, says he's not sure that "making soldiers feel positive about their work" is a desirable outcome. "No one should feel great about killing people," he says. He also mentions the meetings, reported in the book The Dark Side by The New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, that Mr. Seligman had with the CIA to discuss his groundbreaking but controversial early work in so-called learned helplessness.
Those experiments, in which he found that dogs repeatedly subjected to electric shocks stopped trying to avoid it, eventually led to his hypothesis that resilience also could be learned. Critics have suggested that Mr. Seligman helped the CIA develop a torture program, though no proof of that exists. He has strongly denied assisting in the development of such methods and said that he was brought in to talk about how U.S. soldiers could resist harsh interrogations.
Joachim I. Krueger, a professor of psychology at Brown University, questions what he calls "the assess-and-train-all approach" taken by the Army. In his commentary, he cites the self-esteem movement of the 1970s as an example of a theory that, while seemingly beneficial or innocuous, may fail to produce the desired results. "It seems to me, from what Seligman has written, that he has not considered the possibility of unintended consequences, and if or when they occur, that he will be surprised," says Mr. Krueger in an interview.
Likewise, Mr. Soldz and his co-authors mention the D.A.R.E. substance-abuse program, founded in 1983, which some studies have shown has no effect, or in some cases can actually lead to an increase in, the use of alcohol and tobacco. Their point is that even the best-intentioned, seemingly common-sense solutions can backfire.
Mr. Krueger also objects to the notion that psychologists can serve both the Army as an institution and the individual soldier, calling it a conflict of interest. What's best for a soldier may not be consistent with the aims of the Army, and psychologists should not "act as though they care, above all, about the well-being of the soldier" when their real client is the Army itself.
James Campbell Quick, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington and a retired Air Force colonel, complains that the January issue of American Psychologist devoted to discussing the program was "more of an infomercial than a scholarly or practical contribution."
It's true that other than a portion of the article co-written by Mr. McNally, the issue was almost wholly supportive of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. Norman B. Anderson, editor in chief of American Psychologist and chief executive of the psychological association, says Mr. Seligman organized the issue and decided who would contribute. It's not unusual, Mr. Anderson says, for such issues not to include dissenting voices, but viewing that practice as a mistake in this case is "a fair perspective."
When asked for a comment, Mr. Seligman wrote in an e-mail that he was lecturing in South America and couldn't respond without having access to his files. In his rebuttal printed in American Psychologist, however, he wrote that Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is "not research" but a training program similar to teaching someone "why to wear safety belts when driving." While Mr. Seligman writes in an article that pilot studies "would have been great," he says the Army declined to do them because "such studies would have taken years—in the middle of a war—and because this program is by far the most replicated prevention program for mental health in the literature."
But, as Mr. Seligman concedes, the research the program is based on was done on civilians, not soldiers. And the descriptions in many of the essays, and in Mr. Seligman's own book, do make Comprehensive Soldier Fitness sound, at least in part, like a research project. In Flourish, he writes that Comprehensive Soldier Fitness may be a boon to the entire country "if this program succeeds in assessing and predicting which soldiers do well." An essay written by three of the researchers who developed the Global Assessment Tool to measure psychological strengths includes the following sentence: "The study of U.S. soldiers is an ideal place to start if our concern is with people doing well."
General Cornum rejects the idea that positive psychology interventions tested on civilians might not work for soldiers. "They work whether you apply them to combat or getting dumped or getting a cancer diagnosis," she says. It's all about being able to "cognitively reframe and not catastrophize."
And she says there is early evidence that the program is helping. Soldiers have completed the assessment more than 1.6 million times, and results show that after they have been in the program for a while, their scores improve. The Army plans to publish initial data on the program in November.
As for the criticism in American Psychologist, General Cornum says it was "primarily motivated by an anti-war opinion." Objecting to war is the critics' right, she says, but it doesn't help soldiers who are sent to the battlefield and have to cope with the stress and trauma they encounter there.
Indeed, some, like Mr. Soldz, have lumped denunciation of U.S. foreign policy in with their critique of the psychological program. In the article he co-wrote, references are made to "empire building" and "American exceptionalism." Others, however, objected to the way the program has been implemented, not to the country's foreign policy or to the idea of psychologists aiding the military.
A hint of that tension between whether the program is research or training can be found on the Army's Web site. In response to a "frequently asked question" about whether Comprehensive Soldier Fitness will prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, this is the answer given: "Perhaps, but we simply cannot answer this question yet because CSF is a relatively new program and we do not have enough data to analyze at this time."
Nansook Park is one of the researchers who developed the GAT assessment. Ms. Park, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says that researchers tested the GAT with thousands of soldiers and revised it multiple times. While it's true that the program as a whole was not pilot-tested, she says critics should understand the need to find a balance between scientific procedure and practical considerations. "The Army said, 'We cannot wait five years. We need some kind of program for these people right away,' " she says.
Ms. Park does not recall whether the assessment received approval from an Institutional Review Board, though if the entire Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program is training, rather than research, it is not clear that it would require such oversight.
But even some of those who worked on developing the program question how it was put into practice. Sara B. Algoe is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose research deals with measuring positive emotional interaction. She was brought in to discuss emotional fitness and how to incorporate the topic into online tutorials. Her objective, she says, was to "get soldiers to understand that emotions are not fluffy and light and they're not feminine."
While she's hopeful about the program and believes it can be successful, she also has reservations about how it began. "Every scientist in our field would say that randomized, controlled studies should happen," she says. "That didn't happen here."
Such concerns are, at this point, academic. The program is already up and running. Or as more than one psychologist phrased it: That train has left the station.