April 16, 2005

What You Can Change and What You Can't by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

bold graphic of book titleSomeone on the 43Folders list mentioned this book so I got it from the library. Seligman is a professor of psychology. In this book he synthesizes the extant research on various common psychological issues and presents the results in lay language.

What I found refreshing about the book was Seligman's candor about his own qualifications and biases. He is meticulous about tagging statements which are his own opinion or theory vs. what the studies have shown. He also is very careful to qualify the results of the studies with his opinion of how well the experiment was designed. It's a very science-based approach.

The issues he considers in depth are things like anxiety, panic, phobias, obsessions, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress, sex issues (from transsexuality to homosexuality to more mundane sexual issues), dieting, alcohol and other substance abuses. In each case he considers what is known or theorized about the causes of the issue. From there he moves on to the various treatment options and what is known about their success rate both in the short term and long term.

The results, as the title implies, range from maladies like panic where the causes and solutions are well understood to things like weight loss where there does not appear to be any such certainty. If you suffer from any of the issues in the last paragraph, I would urge you to take a look at this book to help you decide how (and whether) to pursue treatment.

All that positive stuff said, Seligman falls into the usual trap of medical research. If 75% of the participants in a study of a treatment are not helped then that treatment is judged a failure. And yet 25% of the people were helped. To me, this is the more interesting part of the result. What was it about the interaction of that 25% with the treatment in question that made it work for them and not for the others? We are all different in uncountable ways, and it seems to me that progress in medicine isn't going to make any giant leaps until they accept that fact and start tailoring treatment to the individual patient.

Back off my soapbox, the book is a fascinating read and my copy is bristling with flags on interesting passages. A few examples...

About anxiety, he writes.

Everyday anxiety level is not a category to which psychologists have devoted a great deal of attention. The vast bulk of work on emotion is about "disorders"--helping "abnormal" people to lead "normal" emotional lives. In my view, not nearly enough serious science has been done to improve the emotional life of normal people--to help them lead better emotional lives. This task has been left by default to preachers, profiteers, advice columnists, and charismatic hucksters on talk shows. This is a gross mistake, and I believe that one of the obligations of qualified psychologists is to help members of the general public try to make rational decisions about improving their emotional lives.

About nature vs. nurture (genetic vs. environmental influences being dominant in psychological matters)

And make no mistake about the political side. It is no coincidence that Locke fathered both the idea that all knowledge is associations and the idea that all men are created equal. The behaviorists, scientific Lockeans all, dominated academic psychology from the end of World War I to the Vietnam era. John Watson began the behaviorist movement in the era of the melting pot. His popularity was in part the result of his covert message: The new immigrants were not inferior to the people already in America; they could be molded into the same high-quality stuff that the WASPs already were. The defeat of Hitler added fuel to American environmentalism: The genocide of the concentration camps filled my generation with determination never again to countenance genetic explanations of human psychology.


Some of what is difficult to change ties us to the life-and-death struggles of our ancestors. And it is not only our fears that are prepared. The sexual objects that we spend our lives pursuing, the aggression and competition we have such difficulty suppressing, our prejudice against people who look different from us, our masculinity or femininity, and those recurring obsessions we can't get out of our minds are all examples of psychological links to our biological past.

The last forty pages of the book are foot notes, and they're worth reading as well, not only because of the links to the studies Seligman cites, but also because some of the funniest parts of the book are in the notes.

What is needed now is an updated edition to include any new findings since this book's publication way back in 1993.

Posted by jeffy at April 16, 2005 03:07 PM