Barbara Fredrickson, a UNC psychology professor, said it’s never pleasant to discover something that you’ve published is inaccurate.
But after receiving criticism of a widely read paper she co-authored, Fredrickson found she had done just that.
Fredrickson is a Kenan Distinguished Professor of psychology and a principal investigator of UNC’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory.
She has been doing research in this field since she earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1990. Fredrickson taught at Duke University and the University of Michigan before coming to UNC in 2006.
Her 2005 paper in American Psychologist is titled “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,” which she co-authored with Marcial Losada, a Chilean psychologist and consultant.
The paper described humans’ ability to reach their full potential by using a mathematical model created by Losada.
The critical positivity ratio, based on the model, determines if the ratio of positive to negative life experiences is 3-to-1, individuals will flourish.
Losada found that the ratio must be above 2.9013 to flourish.
In November 2011, Nick Brown, a graduate student at the University of East London, questioned its accuracy. He approached Harris Friedman, a psychologist at the University of Florida, and Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University.
“(Fredrickson) made a very strong claim that a number called the critical positivity ratio, taken to four decimal places, constitutes a fact that is applicable to all people across all time and place,” Friedman said.
“She claimed that it was a tipping point based on a notion that below this number nothing happens and when you reach that number something magical happens.”
Sokal said Fredrickson’s paper is flawed because it lacks justification for the model created by Losada.
“A newcomer to the field of psychology and not an expert in math sees what’s going on in this paper when the author didn’t, the reviewers didn’t, something happened,” he said.
“And somehow over 300 people have cited this article in scholarly literature and it had over 25,000 Google hits.”
Despite the criticism, Losada stands by his methods.
“I have gathered data from hundreds of teams and my new and extensive data set unequivocally supports the Losada ratio (P/N = 3) in teams, as a threshold of high performance,” he said in an email.
Fredrickson published a paper in 2013 titled “Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios” in response to one published by Brown, Sokal and Friedman criticizing her 2005 paper.
But she said only the mathematics behind the 2.9013 tipping point was flawed, and every other element is valid.
“The value of a ratio and raising one’s ratio for happiness isn’t in question,” she said.
Fredrickson said she collaborated with Losada because of his expertise.
“His past work had been peer-reviewed and I accepted it as valid,” she said.
She said science relies on trusting the people you’re collaborating with despite risk.
“If you fail to collaborate and learn from each other then you’re keeping the reach of science very small.”
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