The New York Times has an article that is getting widely circulated right now about the benefits of positive thinking. The article focuses on the research of Harvard Psychologist, Ellen Langer, and her research. She found that people who have a positive attitude and feel younger, will age better. She talks about the power of the placebo effect. That seems to make sense. She’s also trying to show that positive attitudes help to create better outcomes for cancer patients. That research isn’t really happening.
My great aunt Edna is 102. She benefitted from heredity low blood pressure and a good Italian diet. She also kept herself really busy from a young age, when her mother suddenly died, and she became the mother to the younger siblings, including my grandmother. Yes, she has a good attitude, but good genes, a purposeful life, and a proper diet is probably more important.
Langer’s ideas are less interesting to me than how she’s capitalizing on them. She’s setting up international resorts for people to gain positive attitudes and play golf.
Langer says she is in conversation with health and business organizations in Australia about establishing another research facility that would also accept paying customers, who will learn to become more mindful through a variety of cognitive-behavioral techniques and exercises. She has already opened a mindfulness institute in Bangalore, India, where researchers are undertaking a study to look at whether mindfulness can stem the spread of prostate cancer.
Langer makes no apologies for the paid retreats, nor for what will be their steep price. (This, too, is calculated: In the absence of other cues, people tend to place disproportionate value on things that cost more. Dan Ariely, a psychologist at Duke, and his colleagues found that pricier placebos were more effective than cheap ones.) To my question of whether such a nakedly commercial venture will undermine her academic credibility, Langer rolled her eyes a bit. “Look, I’m not 40 years old. I’ve paid my dues, and there’s nothing wrong with making this more widely available to people, since I deeply believe it.”
Making money from the academic brand is the hip thing to do. Dan Gilbert does it. I guess that academics in the sciences have been able to do this for a long time. I’m trying to think of applications for social sciences.