Intellectual Trends

People tend to think of intellectual trends as primarily based on reason and logic. But intellectual trends and systems of thought are subject to social mood just like other social trends. Great thinkers are affected by emotions like everyone else, and their ideas must find a welcoming environment in order to take hold and be generally accepted or influential.

Some ideas have taken centuries to gain a foothold. For example, heliocentrism, the concept that Earth revolves around the sun, was proposed as early as the third century BC but was not widely accepted for many centuries. In the 17th century, Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism caused him to be tried by the Roman Inquisition. He was found guilty of heresy, forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Bob Prechter has written about how various historical eras and their thinking were propelled by social mood: the negative social mood of the Dark Ages with its superstitious beliefs and anti-intellectual environment; the positive mood of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment with the emergence of an emphasis on rationality and science. And within various disciplines, social mood influences artistic, literary, and sociopolitical thought and trends.

Even science itself, a  supposedly objective endeavor, is affected by social mood. The types of questions that are chosen for study, how scientists examine them, the research areas government grant agencies decide to fund, and how the results of research are accepted by other scientists and the public are all influenced by social mood. This may be particularly true in the social and behavioral sciences.

Here is an example from my field of psychology. Martin Seligman is a distinguished researcher and past president of the American Psychological Association. He developed a national reputation early in his career in the 1970s by studying a phenomenon he termed learned helplessness. This occurred during the last series of major bear markets in the twentieth century, from 1966 through the 1970s, in market Cycle Wave IV.

In his studies, dogs were exposed to electric shock in the floor grids of their cages from which they could not escape. They developed behaviors similar to that of humans with clinical depression. The dogs first actively tried to escape but when their coping efforts continually failed they gave up, passively withdrew, and reduced their behavioral activity because they had learned to be helpless. It was proposed that depressive disorders in humans similarly resulted from a perceived lack of control over the outcome of a situation.

Its interesting that Seligman’s research on negative mood was initiated and became famous during a bear market of negative social mood. And his other most famous area of research, on positive mood, was later initiated and became famous during the height of the twentieth century’s roaring bull market and euphoric social mood.

In 1998 he launched the field of positive psychology, a discipline devoted to studying positive emotions and human functioning, building thriving individuals and communities, making normal life more fulfilling, and determining how things go right rather than how they go wrong. Topics studied include happiness, well-being, fulfillment and self-realization, states of pleasure and flow, flourishing, strengths and virtues, and human potential. These upbeat topics were in perfect synchrony with the positive social mood of a major bull market top. College courses on positive psychology at Harvard and other universities were among the most popular and highly attended in the curriculum.

With the Dow Jones stock average down to triple digits in the bearish 1970s, Seligman’s books included titles such as Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. From that point the Dow rose more than tenfold when he launched the field of positive psychology in the late 1990s. Titles of books he wrote in the euphoric social mood and great bull market of the 1990s were Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, and The Optimistic Child.

Seligman went from studying learned helplessness and depression in the 1970s bear market, to learned happiness and optimism in the 1990s bull market. And his research resonated with other psychologists and the general public because it fit the tenor of the times.

In this sense, Seligman has been a behavioral science mood barometer, like Madonna and other successful artists have been in their fields, staying in the forefront by shaping their interests and creative output in harmony with prevailing social mood. Some creative individuals have the valuable ability to sense shifts in social mood and adeptly change their focus in tune with it.

After the long-term bull market peaked in 2000 and negative social mood ushered in two major bear markets within eight years, professional critiques emerged of positive psychology and its conceptual and scientific underpinnings. And books were published criticizing positivity itself.

In January, 2009, near the bottom of a vicious 17 month bear market, a scholar published Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, a diatribe against the "happiness industry" and a call to embrace melancholy and throw off the shackles of positivity. In the same bear market, best-selling author Barbara Enrenreich published Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, that blamed positive thinking for the Iraq war, the housing collapse, and the economic crisis. In 2010 scholar Roger Scruton published The Uses of Pessimism that argued optimists had wrought havoc for centuries because of their naivety. In 2002, following the major bear market of 2000-2002, psychological researcher Julie Norem published The Positive Power of Negative Thinking that argued in favor of pessimism as a more effective strategy than optimism.

Its not surprising that skepticism and criticism of positive psychology would surface during a prolonged period of negative social mood. Positive psychology will likely encounter renewed popularity when the next major bull market begins.

This is not meant to minimize the substantial professional contributions of scholars like Martin Seligman, but rather to place their work in context and illustrate how social mood shapes trends in social and behavioral science. Broad intellectual trends are embedded in the social mood of their times and are inevitably affected by it. Social mood unconsciously affects the thoughts and behaviors of both thinkers and the people who evaluate their thoughts. It molds the intellectual climate that defines an era.