Positive psychology in cancer care: bad science, exaggerated claims, and unproven medicine

Ann Behav Med. 2010 Feb;39(1):16-26. doi: 10.1007/s12160-009-9154-z.


Background: Claims of positive psychology about people with cancer enjoy great popularity because they seem to offer scientific confirmation of strongly held cultural beliefs and values.

Purpose: Our goal is to examine critically four widely accepted claims in the positive psychology literature regarding adaptational outcomes among individuals living with cancer.

Methods: We examine: (1) the role of positive factors, such as a "fighting spirit" in extending the life of persons with cancer; (2) effects of interventions cultivating positive psychological states on immune functioning and cancer progression and mortality; and evidence concerning (3) benefit finding and (4) post-traumatic growth following serious illness such as cancer and other highly threatening experiences.

Results: Claims about these areas of research routinely made in the positive psychology literature do not fit with available evidence. We note in particular the incoherence of claims about the adaptational value of benefit finding and post-traumatic growth among cancer patients, and the implausibility of claims that interventions that enhance benefit finding improve the prognosis of cancer patients by strengthening the immune system.

Conclusion: We urge positive psychologists to rededicate themselves to a positive psychology based on scientific evidence rather than wishful thinking.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Affect*
  • Cultural Characteristics
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Prognosis
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Psychophysiology*
  • Survival
  • Treatment Outcome