A New Blog Name

greydayOn this beautiful grey-green morning (some of my favorite weather), as I was out walking, it occurred to me that I could rename the blog. The previous title  (Diana Senechal: On Education and Other Things) no longer fit. Then it came to me: Take Away the Takeaway, the title of my forthcoming book. This suits the spirit of the blog and allows flexibility.

The book is taking shape, by the way; I have written drafts of seven of the eleven chapters. I am moving along swiftly so that I can revise slowly later.

I am also taking a course in advanced cantillation; I love the subject, the practice, and the course. This is my second major commitment this year.

I have some additional time-bound projects: at the end of October, I will present two papers at the ALSCW Conference (one on Gogol’s “The Nose,” one on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s “Pestel Street“) and will lead a seminar as well. Also, I am writing many college recommendations for my former students.

So here it is: Take Away the Takeaway.

Your Personality, Your Noise

There are far too many flashy statements about what “science tells us” about introverts and extraverts. This distorts the dialogue and affects school and workplace policy. I take up this subject both because it overlaps with some of my interests and because it bears examination. “Science tells us” statements have popular appeal, a big market, and numerous high-profile outlets. They need pushback or at least vigorous questioning.

When it comes to introversion and extraversion, the findings are far less definite than pundits claim. Any blanket statement about introverts and extraverts needs unblanketing. (I see no need to call anyone an introvert or extravert in the first place, but that’s another matter.)

Here is an example. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Susan Cain says,

And just to give you kind of a concrete illustration of [how introverts and extraverts work differently], there’s this fascinating study that was done by the psychologist Russell Geen, where he gave math problem [sic] to introverts and extroverts to solve with varying levels of background noise. And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.

I can’t find that study anywhere, but the statement alone contains some problems, which I’ll lay out in just a moment. I did find Geen’s 1984 study “Preferred Stimulation Levels in Introverts and Extraverts” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 46, no. 6), and I found it precise and cautious in its wording.

This study consisted of two experiments. Subjects (all male) were selected from the upper and lower 25 percent of the Extraversion scale of the Eysenck Personality Inventory. They were undergraduates enrolled in psychology classes.

For the first experiment (which involved 30 extraverts and 30 introverts), Geen sought to determine whether extraverts and introverts, given the freedom to choose a noise level (other than zero) would differ in their choices, and whether such freedom of choice would equalize their arousal levels. There was a “choice” condition and two control conditions: one where the subject was given the noise level chosen by another (“yoked”) subject with the same personality type, and another where the noise level was selected by the experimenter. The subjects took this test one at a time. After selecting their noise level (or having it selected for them), they had to  wait two minutes. Then the projector was turned on, and they worked to complete a paired-associates learning task. The learning task ended when they completed two successive errorless trials. If, after twelve trials, they had not achieved this, the procedure was terminated.

The second experiment had more subjects (40 extraverts and 40 introverts) and a slightly different approach. This time, in addition to selecting their optimal noise level, introverts indicated the lowest acceptable noise level, and extraverts the highest. This established the four intensity levels used in the study. There was only one control condition: where the experimenter chose the noise level for the subject. (The “yoked” condition was eliminated because, in the first experiment, its results did not differ from those of the choice condition.) Otherwise this experiment followed the same procedures as the first.

I will focus on the results of the second experiment (because I have a bit more to say) and because, in Geen’s words, it provided “a replication and extension of the first.” With respect to pulse rate, something interesting came up: introverts and extraverts did not differ in pulse when they had chosen their noise level. When subjected to moderate noise, introverts were more aroused (i.e., had a higher pulse rate) than extraverts, but at the extreme noise levels (high and low), their rates did not differ from each other. This, right away, casts doubt on the blanket assertion that introverts are more sensitive to stimuli than extraverts. The statement needs careful qualification and questioning.

When it came to the task, introverts and extraverts performed equally well at their chosen noise levels. When subjected to superoptimal noise levels, both introverts and extraverts did significantly worse. When subjected to suboptimal noise levels, extraverts did significantly worse, but introverts did not (or they did worse, but not significantly).

This is interesting (and again, carefully thought out and presented), but I see a few caveats here. (And I haven’t forgotten about the Cain quote; I’ll come back to it in a minute.)

First, there are problems with selecting the top and bottom 25 percent on the extravert scale; your subjects are already at the extremes. How much of this applies to a full population is uncertain. That said, if you didn’t do that, you’d probably end up with so much noise (in the data) that you couldn’t draw any conclusions.

Second, I wonder to what degree the Eysenck Personality Inventory already relates to noise tolerance. That is, are these subjects defined as introverts/extraverts partly on the basis of their reported tolerance of noise? That would make the experiment somewhat redundant.

Third, I wonder to what extent the particular kind of noise influenced the results. (These were one-second bursts of white noise, with a mean of ten seconds between bursts.) I can imagine the high levels being particularly jarring (to anyone), and the low levels annoying (that pesky sound you can’t get rid of).

There are still more open questions; to begin to address them, I would need more statistical  knowledge and access to the raw data. To his credit, Geen does not draw rash conclusions from this study; at the end, he offers possible implications and describes the work that still needs to be done.

So I come back to the Cain quote, in particular: “And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.”

She could not have been talking about this study, because that was not the finding. There must be another  study that I haven’t located yet. Even so, a person making such a statement should specify the following:

  1. Which study is this? Give identifying information.
  2. How were the introverts and extraverts selected and defined?
  3. What kind of noise was used?
  4. What were the math problems, and what do you mean by “did better”?
  5. Was there any complexity/contradiction to the findings?
  6. Did the author bring up any caveats (and do you see any)?

That’s a lot, I know, and in an interview it might not be realistic. But that’s only scratching the surface; an expert should be able to do things I myself can’t do: for instance, explain the methods used for interpreting the raw data.

What I see instead (and not just from Cain by any means) is a tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate the results of studies, and to do so again and again.

Some of these studies are interesting and valuable. Others are bunk. All of them have limitations, but when taken skeptically and cautiously, they can help us reach greater understanding.

The implications? I see no problem with the idea that different people work well at different noise levels. But reducing the matter to “introverts” and “extraverts” is unnecessary and unfounded. Much depends on the individual, the context, the particular task, and the type of noise. There are situations that call for quiet, situations that call for noise, and a range in between. While a workplace should probably establish basic quiet (so that the noise doesn’t get out of hand), people can learn how to handle both quiet and noise in reasonable degrees.

Note: I made a few minor revisions after posting the piece. Also, Science of Us (New York Magazine) has started challenging some of the pop-psychology assertions about introversion and extraversion. (Here’s another piece on the topic.)

Research Has Shown … Just What, Exactly? (Reprise)

A few years ago, I wrote a piece with this title, minus the “(Reprise).” (And here’s a piece from 2011.)

It seems apt today (literally today) in light of Dana Carney’s statement, released late last night, that she no longer believes  “power pose” effects are real. She explains her reasons in detail. I learned about this from a comment on Andrew Gelman’s blog; an hour and a half later,  an article by Jesse Singal appeared in Science of Us (New York Magazine).

Dana Carney was one of three authors of the 2010 study, popularized in Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, that supposedly found that “power poses” can change your hormones and life. (Andy Yap was the third.)

The “power pose” study has been under criticism for some time; a replication failed, and an analysis of both the study and the replication turned up still more problems.  (For history and insight, see Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung’s Slate article.) Of the three researchers involved, Carney is the first to acknowledge the problems with the original study and to state that the effects are not real.

Carney not only acknowledges her errors but explains them clearly. The statement is an act of courage and edification. This is how research should work; people should not hold fast to flawed methods and flimsy conclusions but should instead illuminate the flaws.

 

Update: Jesse Singal wrote an important follow-up article, “There’s an Interesting House-of-Cards Element to the Fall of Power Poses.” He discusses, among other things, the ripple effect (or house-of-cards effect) of flawed studies.

 

Science ≠ Community

communityI enjoy Andrew Gelman’s blog; it’s a great place if you have heard too many false and flashy “research has shown” and “science tells us” statements and want to know (a) where such research goes wrong and (b) why these errors don’t get attention. The blog attracts readers and commenters from many fields and perspectives; some of the comments could be pieces on their own.

Recently there was an enlightening post followed by lively discussion of Susan Fiske’s call for an end to the reign of “destructo-critics” and “self-employed data police” in social media—that is, those who employ “methodological terrorism” in criticizing others’ research. She doesn’t name names or give any concrete examples, so it isn’t clear who the “destructo-critics” are. She does suggest, though, that the legitimate channels for criticism are peer review or “curated” discussion. That is, she opposes not just nasty tweets, vicious personal attacks, and so forth, but (possibly) any unsanctioned critical commentary on research. In her conclusion, she says, “Ultimately, science is a community,  and we are all in it together.”

A community, eh? That rings a bell….

A commenter (“Plucky”) seized this sentence this and gave it a good shaking:

The key problem with Fiske is this sentence: “Ultimately, Science is a community, and we are all in it together.”

That is just flat-out wrong, and wrong in the ways that result in all that you have criticized. Science is not a community, it is a method.

That’s just the beginning; “Plucky” goes on to explain the dangers of the “community” metaphor. I recommend reading the whole comment. Here’s another choice quote:

My main criticism of this post is the stages of the metaphor—you’re nowhere near six feet of water in Evangeline. If Science devolves into merely a community, then it’s just another political interest group which will be treated as such.

I then remembered the many times I had heard the phrase “the consensus of the scientific community,” along with references to Thomas Kuhn, who supposedly coined it. Kuhn actually said, “What better criterion could there be … than the decision of the scientific group?” He explained what he meant by this, but I consider the statement problematic at best, even in context.

Kuhn aside, I use the word “community” sparingly and cautiously. Many entities that call themselves communities are not communities or should not be. As “Plucky” notes, “communities do not generally value the truth over their members’ well-being.” They exist to support their members.

In fact, someone who wishes to challenge a prevailing idea must often speak independently, without waiting for “community” approval. Dana Carney has just done this in relation to “power poses.” (This is big news, by the way.)

I do not disparage communities overall. Communities of various kinds have a place in the world, and I belong to a few. Still, even the best communities can ask themselves, “To what extent is this a community, and whom do we leave out?” and “What goals does this community not serve, and where does it even counter them?” The point is not to make the community all-encompassing but rather to recognize its limitations.

When it comes to science, I’ll take an open forum over a community any day.

 

Note: I added the paragraph about Carney after posting this piece.
Update: Writing for
Science of Us (New York Magazine), Jesse Singal reported this morning on Carney’s statement and explanation.

Introversion: Pro-Idea, Anti-Noise, or Something Else?

anneloftus

There has been much discussion of introversion and extraversion but little agreement about what they are. Moreover, I have seen multiple implicit definitions of introversion within the same article or discussion.

It would not matter much, except that some people with power are starting to say, “introverts are this,” “introverts are that,” “introverts need this,” “introverts need that.” Interior designers, engineers, and consultants have been creating “Quiet Spaces” in workplaces. Schools have undergone training to become more introvert-friendly. These initiatives may hold some good but need vigorous (and rigorous) questioning.

A recurring problem is the lack of initial definition (or the lack of distinction among definitions). It makes little sense to discuss what has been discovered about introverts, unless you mean something specific by the term “introvert.” State your initial definition, explain why you have chosen it over other possibilities, and proceed from there.

In a 2014 article in Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman gives a sampling of the many floating definitions of introversion. They run the gamut and then some. He then reveals that psychologists have put forth a model of four types of introversion: social (where you like to be alone or spend time with a few close friends), thinking (where you pay close and continual attention to your own thoughts and feelings), anxious (characterized by self-consciousness and shyness), and restrained (where you tend to think before you act). He then offers a quiz to help you find out which kind you are.

Even there, I see many complications (which he acknowledges as well). To be a “thinking” introvert, must one primarily be interested in one’s own thoughts and feelings, or can one be absorbed in thinking about something else, such as music, a language, or a mathematical problem? The quiz presumes the former, but I object.

As for the other types, when I look at the questions, my response is often, “It depends.” The ambiguity does not bother me; I don’t feel a need to narrow myself down by type and subtype (on other people’s terms). But others are busy doing just that—not for me in particular, but for “introverts” at large.

So, for instance, “Quiet Spaces,” envisioned and designed by Susan Cain and others, exist to give introverts an environment that brings out their best. The intent here is good but the execution narrow. I would not want to work in one, and in this I am not alone. I don’t like the lounge-y feel, the glass walls all around (frosted, but still), the lack of bookshelves, or the colors. Give me a good old office with solid walls, a windowed door, an actual desk, a window to the outside, and plenty of shelves. Or, if space is lacking, just give me a cubicle and some quiet. Again, I see the good intentions but question the assumptions and aesthetic choices.

Nor can a workplace accommodate everyone. I am skeptical of attempts to identify employees’ personality types and tailor workplaces to them. Instead, find the structures that suit the situation at hand. Where the work calls for thinking, make room for it. Where it calls for discussion, create forums. Allow people to work alone, coming together when necessary. Also, let them treat the job as a job, not as an all-consuming career (unless they really want the latter). That way, they can pursue their interests in their own time.

What about schools? Attempts to create introvert-friendly classrooms may also rely on false or skewed assumptions. Some assume that introverts dread speaking to the whole class and prefer speaking to a partner (e.g., in a “think-pair-share” activity); this is not necessarily true, though it may be true for some. There are those who count unequivocally as introverts yet thrive in class discussion, precisely because it is about something interesting. There are those who dread the “think-pair-share” activity because of its “buzz” (so many people talking at once) and its tendency to water down the ideas before they reach the full forum.

Here too, one can reach students by paying attention to the subject matter. When the point of class discussion is to reach greater understanding (about a work of literature, a mathematical concept, or a philosophical idea), students may sit quietly and think, venture a tentative idea, or offer an insight. All of this contributes to the understanding. One lesson might consist primarily of lecture, another of whole-class discussion, and another of a combination (or something different). In each case, students may participate in a variety of ways. Yes, the teacher should be alert to the students but can also trust the subject to lead the way.

And what about the world outside of work and school? Here again, beware of constricting generalizations. I just read an article titled “Introverts Love Facebook, and Extroverts Hate It. Here’s Why.”How does the author justify such a wrongheaded assertion? Here we go:

Everything about Facebook serves the emotional and psychological needs of introverts. It gives them a place to socialize and chat with people they like, without having to deal with the elements of in-person dialogues that make them uncomfortable. It allows them to say their piece, without being interrupted, scowled at, or patronized.

What? Who says introverts are uncomfortable with in-person dialogues? There are those who vastly and vehemently prefer such dialogues to the groupy, chatty, like-y, Facebook-y stuff. I myself dislike Facebook precisely because it’s so social (in Hannah Arendt’s sense of the word). Unless you have a private chat, which tightens you with its tiny windows and bubbles, you have to accept group conversations,  which aren’t even conversations. I recognize the efficiency of Facebook (it helps you stay in touch with many people at once), but it can’t hold a candle to a letter, phone conversation, or conversation in person.

I resist the excessive tilt toward gregariousness, talk, quick answers, busyness, aggressiveness, and so forth. Yet I also resist the push to classify people, especially when the basic definitions are unclear. Personality research is fine, but those involved should acknowledge its questions and doubts, strive for precise language, and exercise caution around policy and products. It is sad to see “groupthink” arising around introversion, when introversion, like extraversion, holds so many variations and possibilities.

 

Note: I took the above photo at Anne Loftus Playground (around 8 a.m., before children and parents started arriving).

I revised this piece twice after posting it.

TEDx Video Coming Soon

The video of my talk at TEDx Upper West Side is now complete and will be uploaded soon. The title, “Take Away the Takeaway,” is the working title of my forthcoming book.

senechal_tedx

Update (November 16): The upload is taking a long time for reasons out of my control. I will post an update if and when it is up.

“Go to Peoria”

Yesterday I came upon the story “The Ghostwriter” by William Lychack, whose work I had never read before. It starts with a man who has heard the voice of God saying, “Go to Peoria”—and who has followed that voice. Within the space of five pages, the narrator, a ghostwriter, takes those three words and changes them into something I didn’t expect, not the opposite of my expectation, but something more like “that and its opposite and something else.” When a writer can do this, it’s no fluke—so I intend to read his collection The Architect of Flowers. I am holding off just a little until I have made more headway through my current readings and kept to my budget for the month.

The story got me thinking about how stories in general work. I love the distillation of the short story, the way it makes the most of its time. A good story is a riddle of sorts; it bares itself in a surprising way. Also, this story plays intriguingly with the idea of a takeaway; the ghostwriter’s work is all about takeaways, but in his work he goes beyond his work.

We often think of “going beyond” one’s work in external terms (working more hours, taking on more tasks, etc.), but one can go beyond by going inward, into the subject and principles of the work. This is the neglected part of teaching: thinking about the subject matter and the lessons. Not attending meeting after meeting, but thinking and reading. A performer “goes beyond” by practicing and practicing until the fluency itself opens up the piece in new ways. He reaches a new place of entry. It is not mystical in practice; it comes from persistent work. But the work is not “busy”; in fact, it leaves the busyness behind.