Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Media stories about Norway winters & positive thinking lack proper skepticism.
I believe in the power of positive thinking. I believe our attitude is immensely important. Are we surly or enthusiastic? When we step into a room, are we sunshine or a dark cloud?
A 20-year-old book, The Art of Possibility, argues persuasively that altering our approach to a given situation can be transformative: “Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances, and new pathways come into view.”
Due to the above, I’m predisposed to believe the findings of a newly published research paper that suggests two things:
1 – people who experience weeks of near total winter darkness in northern Norway don’t experience more mental distress than Norwegians who live further south
2 – this is because they cultivate a positive attitude toward those weeks of darkness
The paper, titled Winter is coming: Wintertime mindset and wellbeing in Norway, has caught the attention of the media.
Dreading a dark winter lockdown? Think like a Norwegian, declares a recent headline at the UK Guardian. Many copycat articles link back to that Guardian story or republish it pretty much verbatim – see here, here, here, here, and here.
Other articles refer to an account written by Kari Leibowitz, the primary author of the research paper, which appeared in the Atlantic, a US magazine, all the way back in July of 2015.
In December 2015, Canada’s national, publicly-funded radio station interviewed Leibowitz in a 23-minute segment about her research titled Winter-hating Canadians could learn from Norway’s love of the season.
Leibowitz herself wrote another article, that appeared in The Conversation in January 2016. That one got reprinted by the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper the same month, and by Salon in January 2018.
In other words, media outlets have spread these ideas far and wide. Too bad the research has grave problems. For one thing, it took Leibowitz nearly six years to publish this research in a scholarly journal. Why the delay?
My guess is that it has been rejected. Perhaps more than once. Before finally appearing in the International Journal of Wellbeing a few days ago (15 months after it was submitted). Because, regrettably, this research is exceptionally shaky.
Online surveys were completed by 238 people in January and February of 2015. First, the paper admits that, because only 16% of those invited to participate actually did so, “we cannot be sure that our sample is representative” of the three communities involved.
Second, the paper acknowledges the research would be stronger if a second wave of the survey had been conducted “during the summer months so that summer and winter responses could be compared” and seasonal bias could be ruled out.
Third, the paper tells us:
As incentive, subjects were told that they would be entered into a lottery to win one of five gift certificates…As an additional incentive, both to attract participants to complete surveys and to keep participants engaged during the course of the survey, feedback on certain measures was provided throughout the survey. Participants were informed of their raw score relative to the total possible score for the Mental Health Continuum, the Wintertime Mindset Scale, and the Satisfaction with Life Scale. These raw scores were referred to as participants’ ‘Flourishing,’ ‘Positive Winter Mindset,’ and ‘Satisfaction with Life’ Scores, respectively. [bold added]
Pardon, me? If people received feedback while they were answering the survey how do we know the feedback didn’t influence their answers? The paper doesn’t address this question. It makes no attempt to defend this as a legitimate research methodology rather than a fatal flaw.
Fourth, the paper admits: “we cannot make claims about the causal direction of this relationship” (my italics). In other words, while journalists insist this research proves a positive winter mindset is psychologically healthy, it may simply be that psychological healthy people are more likely to be positive thinkers (about winter, as well as other things).
Leibowitz and Joar Vitterso (her Norwegian academic advisor), invented and employed an entirely novel research tool, called the Wintertime Mindset Scale (WMS). It’s a series of 10 questions with which people are asked to agree or disagree. That tool has never been used before. It has never been independently tested or validated. Yet without it, this paper wouldn’t exist.
Nine days ago, the Guardian published a lengthy story (1,600 words) about this research, written by science writer David Robson. Not until two-thirds of the way through (at the 1,059-word mark) does he bother to mention that it’s “currently under peer review” (the journal published the research four days later).
Robson calls Leibowitz a “health psychologist.” At no time does he tell us she’s still a student. He calls Vitterso her ‘collaborator’ rather than her academic advisor. He says Leibowitz “conducted her initial studies long before the new coronavirus left Wuhan” – rather than saying her research data was gathered nearly six years ago.
Robson doesn’t mention any of the above-described, serious shortcomings of this research. He doesn’t report that, even though journalists have led us to believe otherwise for years, this paper offers precisely zero evidence for the idea that a positive mindset leads to better mental health outcomes rather than the other way around.
Moral of this story: the science behind certain ideas may be tenuous, but we can’t count on science journalists to notice.
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