Tony Robbins and the Cult of Aggressive Positivity


Duff McDuffee writes about his experience as a follower of Tony Robbins:

Unfortunately few contexts are relevantly similar to firewalking, as I found out the hard way. Achieving most personal outcomes requires patience, persistence, and flexibility, not an intense emotional display and impulsive action.

I found the portion where he links aggressive positivity with depression interesting. He quotes the following passage from this article on creativity:

…creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.

The new view is that creativity is part of normal brain function. Some scholars go further, arguing that lack of creativity—not having loads of it—is the real risk factor [for anxiety and depression commonly thought to be a trait of creative people]. In his research, Runco asks college students, “Think of all the things that could interfere with graduating from college.” Then he instructs them to pick one of those items and to come up with as many solutions for that problem as possible. This is a classic divergent-convergent creativity challenge. A subset of respondents…quickly list every imaginable way things can go wrong. But they demonstrate a complete lack of flexibility in finding creative solutions. It’s this inability to conceive of alternative approaches that leads to despair. Runco’s two questions predict suicide ideation—even when controlling for preexisting levels of depression and anxiety.

And adds:

Here we come to understand a looping program for spiraling depression, if not bipolar—built into the very framework of the cult of aggressive positivity found in Tony Robbins’ workshop, but also found in other popular self-help workshops, books, CDs, blogs, eBooks, coaching programs, etc. As with most chronic psychological problems, the attempted solution makes the problem worse. The alcoholic drinks to make his hangover go away. The sweet-tooth eats sugar to reward himself for going all day without sugar. The unsuccessful self-helper pushes away fear only to then be more unprepared and therefore more likely to fail, becoming even more depressed with each failure. By not thinking about negative potential problems or future scenarios, one never develops the skill of being able to handle them. Of course as soon as you teach your people to think critically, you’ve lost most of your potential money as a guru—both because they get better and thus aren’t as eager to buy more of the same, but also because they think critically about your sales messages too. One can still make a respectable living this way, but will probably not reach the same dizzying heights of fame and fortune.

Robbins claimed in his public TED talk—with now over 2.1 million views on YouTube alone—that he has never lost a client to suicide. Since his organization doesn’t do followups with all of his thousands of seminar attendees (only a select few that are used for video testimonials), this claim is totally corrupted by confirmation bias. There have been many reports of suicide and psychosis following intensive weekend workshops like Robbins’ on anti-cult forums like Rick Ross. Were these caused by the workshops themselves, or would they have happened anyway? The question of causation is tricky business, especially with lawyers under the employ of seminar organizations actively suppressing such negative information (note to such lawyers: while I can neither confirm nor deny any claims as to whether anyone has ever committed suicide as a result of attending a Tony Robbins event or any other workshop, I won’t be removing this post which merely states my opinions and is protected free speech—see also.)

Beyond Growth: Tony Robbins and the Cult of Aggressive Positivity Part 1 and Part 2

My interview with Duff and Eric Schiller is here.

I did a guest post at Beyond Growth called Towards a Socially Conscientiousness Lifestyle Design Movement.

See also all previous posts tagged positive thinking or self help.


  1. Thanks for the link, Klint! Glad you enjoyed the series.

    (Note that the link to the Newsweek article on creativity is currently incorrect.)

  2. Oops! It’s fixed now.

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