Csikszentmihalyi the Pseudoscientist?

The Creative Personality,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychology Today, July/August 1996, http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-19960701-000033.html.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a pioneering researcher in talent and expertise. His books Creativity and Flow are influential works, his thoughts on positive psychology have clear implications for meaningful conflict, and his work is mentioned from graduate courses to blogs.

Yet a short piece by him makes me wonder if he is a pseudoscientist.


My class in scopes and methods has strongly emphasized positivism — the ability to prove something wrong — as a touchstone of science. What, then, to make of these “traits of the creativity personality” as described by

  • Energetic but restful
  • Smart yet naive
  • Playful yet disciplined
  • Imaginative yet realistic
  • Extroverted yet introverted
  • Humble yet proud
  • Masculine yet feminine
  • Rebellious yet conservative
  • Passionate yet objective
  • Open to pain yet open to enjoyment

Certainly these may be accurate descriptions — many of them came out in my interview with Thomas Barnett. Yet how could this ever be proven wrong? If you disagree with the masculine yet feminine characteristic, for example, what possible collection of cases would disprove it? None, because any piece of evidence fulfills at least part of the paradox.

Perhaps there is some precise definition Csikszentmihalyi gives here or elsewhere. This may just be a non-operationalized hypothesis. For instance, we rarely use the to make precise predictions, yet that doesn’t mean it couldn’t become scientific.

So tdaxp community — any thoughts? Aaron? Mark?

6 thoughts on “Csikszentmihalyi the Pseudoscientist?”

  1. Yeah, doesn't strike me as sufficient to be “scientific”.

    OTOH, I think there are a lot of perfectly respectable ways of making generalizations about the world which don't count as science.

    Consider “here's how you make a waterproof roof” through “here's how to make a web-page easier to use” and “here's how you defeat a 2nd generation army” to “here's how you sort a series of numbers in log(n) time” and “here's how you should eat to be healthy.”

    All these are serious, respectable kinds of knowledge, based on a degree of rigorous understanding of the world, have been derived from empirical observation and are answerable to criticism.

    None of these kinds of knowledge counts as “science” on a strict positivist basis. And, personally, I'm happy to say that they aren't science. But that doesn't make them something bad called “pseudoscience”. It makes them “design” or “practical knowledge” or “techne” or something.

    Practical knowledge is in dialogue with science and perhaps answerable to it. It may even influence and help science – “Here's how you make a telescope to see things at a distance.”

    But it can't be “reduced” to it. Positivists are wrong if they think sicence is all the knowledge we need.

    I'd suspect that these “creativity” hypotheses might be perfectly good heuristics for a practical knowledge of being creative. They may even be mildly predictive.

    The question is whether “psychology” sets itself up to be nothing more than science. And should therefore exclude them on positivist grounds, or whether it has a more expansive remit.

    Compare, for example, biology, which does a lot of what I'd call “natural history” rather than actual science. It's not “scientific” (in the positivist sense) to make a huge collection of moths and give names to them all. But is a taxonomy a useful body of knowledge? Absolutely.

  2. Phil,

    I agree with you. Very good comparison to Biology, too. A lot of nonscientific, but useful, word is wrongly labeled as “science,” thus opening it up to fair criticisms of pseudo-science.

    UNL's academic environment is interesting because one sees the extremes of interpretivism [1] as well as the extremes of scientism. [2] Both are useful, neither is the be-all end-all.

    Incidentally, the ultimate series in SummerBlog '06 [3], starting tomorrow, will focus on Creativity, Talent, and Expertise.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/03/24/interpretivism-as-context.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/02/24/truth-extends-beyond-the-borderlands-of-science.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/05/07/summerblog-06.html

  3. Who cares if Csikszentmihalyi (phew!) is a “pseudoscientist,” or pseudo anything? His ideas about “flow” are important, and I, for one, care little about how he describes himself. My understanding of the concept of “flow” is that it contributes greatly to the quality of human life. For all I care, he is a “self help book writer.” His premise about the relationship between “flow” and life satisfaction is true. And I won’t say “very true” because one can’t qualify the truth. My understanding of scientists is that they search for the truth about the universe. I believe that higher education gets bogged down with investigating more and more about less and less. Perhaps Dr. C (spare me) is too much of a generalist to fit the mold. I say give him a Nobel Prize for his work. (For all I know he’s already won the prize.) Incidentally, his book about talented teenagers was the only tome that I found to be helpful in raising a talented kid.

  4. Diane,

    Thanks for your comment.

    If C’s ideas are scientifically useful, then they can explain variation we see, and do so in a way that can conceivable be proven wrong. I don’t think C’s thoughts fit this category.

    Now, he is an interesting theorist, and can be used in ‘self-help’ contexts as you say, but my question was whether or not he uses the most useful tool for explaining variation we have ever invented — science.

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