Monday’s Washington Post had an article about a new U. S. Army program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, which is designed to “to make soldiers more psychologically ‘resilient’ amid the pressures of combat, repeated deployments, and family and financial crises.”
Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, helped design the program, which attempts to instill optimism and the ability to handle stress. According to the Post, the program has come under fire by other psychologists, who have had two main criticisms: First, that we don’t know whether the program works, and it is possible that it may do more harm than good. Second, that it is a giant research project that violates established ethical guidelines, for example, by not obtaining the consent of the soldiers to participate.
I worry more about the first point more than the second. In fact, I think that the Army and Seligman haven’t gone far enough in conducting rigorous research on whether the program works. As far as I know, there is no control group that doesn’t get the intervention, making it impossible to tell for sure what its effects will be. As I detail in my new book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, many interventions designed to help people go untested, and when researchers do get around to testing them, the interventions are often found to be ineffective or to do more harm than good (think of the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program). In the Army’s case, they could have conducted an experimental test in which volunteers were randomly assigned to take part in the program or not, to find out exactly what benefits (if any) the program has, while following established ethical guidelines for research. Surely this would be better than subjecting a million soldiers to an untested program.