Why the Templeton Foundation Pays to Keep Psychology Positive

Ever wondered why psychology's always got to be such a downer? Aren't these people ever curious about how puppy dogs and fuzzy bunnies so consistently trigger the cuteness response? And why orange juice tastes so darn good? If you've ever asked yourself such questions, you're already halfway to landing a John Templeton Foundation grant. (See Templeton Foundation: Grants for Science Research.)

Templeton last month gave $3.4 million to the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) to study positive emotions and why humans have evolved to experience them. CBN, which is the collaborative effort of scientists at several Atlanta-area universities, will devote the money to research on whether or not "human forms of prosocial emotion and behavior…are unique to humans or are present in other nonhuman primates." Zoo Atlanta, also a CBN member and a grant recipient, will host an exhibit designed to raise public awareness regarding neuroscience research, particularly that which studies neurological similarities between primates and humans. (Read Human Sciences Program Officer Nicholas Gibson's IP profile.)

The Templeton Prize itself dates back to the 1970s; the first to receive it was Mother Teresa. But the "positive psychology" rhetoric and the playmaking toward injecting religion back into the social scientific discourse did not begin in earnest until 1980. That year Templeton awarded Meadville Lombard Theological School Professor Ralph Burhoe for his contribution to the "understanding of religion in positive ways through science," according to the Chicago Tribune. Prior to Burhoe, only clerical figures had received the Templeton award.

By 2000, the foundation was funding research papers with bold titles such as "Religious Involvement and Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review." Unsurprisingly, this research, based on interviews of people over the span of decades, found that "people high in religious involvement were more likely to be alive at follow-up" interviews later in their lives "than people lower in religious involvement."

The evangelistic advantage of a foothold in the social sciences is obvious.

Templeton made more serious financial commitments in this direction during the 2000s. Take, for example, a $5.8 million grant to Martin E. P. Seligman to found the Positive Neuroscience Project at the University of Pennsylvania. That $5.8 million marks a new era of grants made by the foundation toward "positive psychology" that are large enough to steer-horn an entire academic department.

As of 2011, Templeton had "an endowment as large as many major US universities." It gives "around $70 million in grants every year," as Imperial College London Professor Sunny Bains has written in Evolutionary Psychology. See Bains's article for a provocative analysis of proposals that do and do not receive funding through Templeton.