Positive Psychology is Correlated with Higher Performance Scores

Shawn Achor is using positive psychology to take a stab at solving Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem. What the heck is ?  Answer: In 1984, American educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, found that the average student tutored one-to-one, using mastery learning techniques, performed two standard deviations better than students who learn via conventional instructional methods.  Since that time, Bloom and his minions have been working hard to solve the problem of getting ALL learners (especially those in classrooms with high student:teacher ratios, e.g. 30:1 and 40:1) to perform at this higher level.  These researchers have limited their foci to 4 variables in an effort to maximize classroom performance.  (The variables they are looking into are Learner, Instructional material, Home environment or peer group, and Teacher.)  For a time, they thought the introduction of computers in the classroom was the key to shifting student performance the desired amount.  We are now finding, with more and more confidence, that this is not getting the job done!  What about artificial intelligence?  Although workable theories were postulated over 30 years ago, nothing has really caught on yet. What about a flipped classroom model with a heavier emphasis on blended learning?  Studies show equal-to-improved performance! But we haven’t hit Bloom’s mark yet.

So why aren’t any of these interventions solving the problem? Achor would suggest that those researchers are looking in the wrong place.  He believes that the solution lies in the learner’s internal motivations through the implementation of positive psychology.  I.e. Instead of trying to increase performance by applying external treatments to the group, Achor argues that HAPPINESS (IV) leads to SUCCESS (DV).  Call the IV what you like; call it “happiness,” call it “learner engagement,” or for the natural scientists out there, you can call it an “increased levels of dopamine.” Regardless of what label you assign it, Achor believes that if an individual develops a positive and grateful outlook on life, it will result in the higher levels of performance Bloom sought (30% increase).

Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, outlines 7 interventions you can do to engender this positive and grateful outlook in your own life.  (Also, Hapyr.com is a third-party, journaling website that someone created to help learners change their brain chemistry permanently.)  This solution begs the question, “will a repetition of these activities really make people happy?”  A look at his research methods would give us a better understanding.

I didn’t discover whether Achor used an experimental or quasi-experimental methodology in his research, so I can’t say for sure that positive thinking and gratitude exercises actually cause better performance.  But regardless of the scientific validity of his findings, I’m starting to buy what he’s selling.  Achor’s research confirms my own suspicions that, as agentic beings, humans posses the power to affect our own body chemistries, which in turn has a significant and enduring effect on our minds.

Superman Power Posing

STORY TIME—When I was hanging out with my family over Christmas break, we conducted an “experiment” of our own on the effect of increased testosterone and decreased cortisol on human performance.  My Ophthalmologist brother-in-law was at a crucial point during a team board game and needed to respond faster than my sister.  Before his trivia question was read, he called for a “time out,” stood up, put his fists on his hips, stuck his chest out, and just stood there. (He looked just like Superman minus the cape.)  “What are you doing?!” we all asked him.  “It’s called a power pose!”  A moment later he asked for the question and immediately got the right answer and won the game.  Later, he shared with us a TED talk (totally worth it), by Amy Cuddy, on how a mere posture can affect our brain, behavior, and events in our lives. After in watching this, I became totally converted to the power of posing!

We all erroneously subscribe on the following basic formula for happiness:  HARD WORK –> SUCCESS —> HAPPINESS.  However, Achor’s research findings show that this formula is the other way around: HAPPINESS —> SUCCESS.  I am a perfect case study to illustrate how success doesn’t directly yield happiness; how we all tend to keep pushing the measure for success back so we never quite reach it. E.g. My excitement certainly dissolved into stress after only two weeks in my current PhD program!  Just this morning, I was on the phone with my sister, whining about not having the motivation to finish writing a paper due later that day.  She suggested that I treat myself to a meal out or a special purchase as an incentive for finishing it.  Disgruntled, I told her that there was nothing in this world I desired more than not having to finish writing that darn paper.  I didn’t specifically hate writing that paper.  I just knew that once I had finished,  I still had an urgent pile of other coursework waiting to be done. Incidentally, I wrote a terrific paper for one of my classes, which I should have been really proud of and celebrated. But instead, I’ve moved back my target of success and am about to start chipping away at a pile of readings for the next assignment.  (BTW, I’m taking a break from my homework to write this blogpost.)

If I truly believe all this stuff, I ought to find out and start following Achor’s 7-step prescription to thinking positively (in addition to power posing).  The more I’m told that this secret to unlocking my learning potential is inside of me, and not some technologically-rich delivery method, the more I’m reminded of the Oracle scene with Neo in The Matrix.

“There is no spoon.  Then you will see that it isn’t the spoon that bends; it is only yourself.”

Additional Resources:

  • Shawn Achor’s website: GoodThinkInc
  • The Happiness Advantage — Trailer
  • Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” with a strong refutation of overdoing such thoughts. You can see her lecture here.
  • Richard Schoch — The Myth of Being Happy.  (Email him for a PDF of his book.)



About bryantanner

I'm obsessed with learning via the appropriate technology. My professional mission is to effectively deliver instruction to learners in a way that yields the greatest results for all stakeholders involved.
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