Book Review: The Quick Fix by Jesse Singal

April 20, 2022

The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by Jesse Singal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2021

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2021 was to read more books and I intend to continue that in 2022 and beyond. I will be reviewing books that I think are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) Many of these books have been sent to me by people I know, or bought because I like the author, so I’m completely biased.

This is probably the first book I’ve reviewed here that isn’t specifically about education. It does, however, include some chapters very relevant to schools, so I will pay most attention to those chapters.

The Quick Fix addresses various fashionable ideas in psychology (particularly social psychology) that have been heavily promoted in TED talks, and through public institutions, that have turned out to be either overhyped or even baseless. This book takes us through the ideas in detail; discusses their shortcomings and how they became fashionable, and looks at whether there is any truth in the ideas and what other ideas and priorities may have been squeezed out by the hype. The overall thesis of the book is that real problems can end up being neglected as the result of attention paid to gimmicks.

In one chapter it is explained that, at one point, there was a widespread fashion for using a lack of self-esteem to explain a variety of life outcomes. As a teacher, I remember being encouraged to assume that badly behaved children lacked self-esteem and trying to build their confidence would improve their behaviour. It didn’t. I remember this movement mainly because it was one of a long line of scientific-sounding excuses for not punishing children and because it was something I blogged about years ago (here and here). In the United States the self-esteem seems to have had a huge impact, over many years. Singal tells the story in full, including the political and cultural context. He also explains what the research actually shows.

Another education-related chapter, discusses “grit”. Overhyped claims were made about how a person’s grit, “their propensity to tenaciously attack difficult problems they encounter rather than give up”, is important to educational success and that boosting grit may improve school performance or even close achievement gaps. While not as baseless as the self-esteem movement, Singal shows that the grit movement has repeatedly exaggerated research and ignored what was already known about conscientiousness. Again, an idea has become strongly entrenched in education without anyone ever having to prove the claims of its advocates.

Another chapter that relates to education is one on an ineffective attempt to prevent PTSD in soldiers that grew out of a project to make schoolchildren more resilient. One chapter discusses tests of implicit bias, which despite little reliability or validity, have shaped debate over the effects of unconscious prejudice in educational institutions. Less relevant to education, but still very interesting, are chapters on power posing, super predators and nudge theory.

I recommend this book to teachers because, as well as the topics directly related to education, the discussion of how psychology fads spread and become an established wisdom is also very relevant to us as a profession. We should be vigilant when policymakers and self-promoters tell us what the next big thing in schools should be. Professional scepticism, something recognised as a virtue in some other professions, should be encouraged in teachers and this book might help do that.

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