The Secret to Education

rainydayThe Secret to Education … that One Thing that will Change Everything … the Great and Shocking Truth … one by one, I reject these titles, until I finally pick the first, just for fun.

It is a dim and rainy day (photo taken just now); before I take off for New Haven, where I will be spending the afternoon and evening, I thought I would put together some thoughts on teaching.

I taught for approximately nine years in New York City public schools: first at a middle school in Boro Park Brooklyn (for three years), then at an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn (for one year), and then, for the last five years, at Columbia Secondary School, where I served first as curriculum adviser, then as philosophy teacher and coordinator.

In addition, I taught for several years in other contexts. I taught first-year Russian at Yale for a year (as a graduate student), second- and third-year Russian at Trinity College in Hartford for a year (as a Mellon Fellow), and literature for six consecutive summers at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (This is ongoing.) Finally, I taught English in Kyrgyzstan for a summer and taught elementary enrichment summer school on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

So, after all this time (which pales in comparison to many teachers’ experience), what would I say that our schools need? I say emphatically that there is no one answer.None! I have no secret, no great solution.

Or rather, if there is one thing schools need, it’s good judgment: the ability to recognize good curricula and practices and apply them discerningly.

One truth presents itself again and again: teaching requires focused, quiet thought, which the school systems do not emphasize or honor. Yes, teachers need to collaborate, but to do so well, they also need to think about the subject on their own. This has little room in the school day; if you want time for quiet thought or focused study, you have to find it on your own.

Nor is “more time” the answer; there has to be a strong understanding of what that time is for. A teacher’s work must be perceived as intellectual. For that to happen, there must be more time for intellectual life overall. That will not come overnight, nor will any one reform bring it closer.

With all my skepticism, I do have a few ideas. They are not mass solutions, but they could set an example for many.

I would start with a good curriculum: that is, not a script, not a pacing calendar, but an outline of the concepts, works, and problems to be studied, along with the major assignments and projects. I would find schools willing to adopt the curriculum and education schools willing to base their program on it. This curriculum is not meant to be constricting; rather, it builds flexibility, as it gives everyone a working base.

Prospective teachers would begin by studying the actual subject matter of the curriculum (before thinking about how to teach it). They would learn it backwards and forwards, pose questions about it,  give presentations about it, and attend lectures and seminars. They would study their own subject matter and another subject (and possibly a third). Those already familiar with the subject matter would study it at a higher level.

The following year, they would translate the curriculum into lesson plans, practice giving lessons, and serve as student teachers at participating schools. They would not have to reinvent the wheel year after year; if lesson plans already exist, they might review them and modify them for their own teaching. They would develop more than one way to teach a given topic and would anticipate student questions and errors.

Then, when they entered a school, they would be well prepared to teach not only the subject but the actual curriculum itself. They could put their efforts into their new responsibilities.

Of course there are problems: what  if there aren’t enough education programs or schools? What if some district mandate comes along and topples  the curriculum that was constructed with such care?

Any number of things can go wrong; this is no magic solution. Still, I see promise in (a) having prospective teachers focus first on subject matter, then on curriculum and pedagogy and (b) having schools and education programs work with a shared curriculum. To some extent, this is the approach of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center and (in a different way) the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Such an approach takes time, but this is precisely the right kind of taking of time: going far into subject matter and figuring out how to bring it to students.

In This Grand Primordial Mess


Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.

Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

What Does “Predict” Mean in Research?

In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy says,

Nalini Ambady, a researcher at Tufts University, shows that when people watch 30-second soundless clips of real physician-patient interactions, their judgments of the physician’s niceness predict whether or not that physician will be sued.

This is quoted all over the place, yet I have been unable to track down the study. Maybe it is unpublished or in press, or maybe it is published under a title that doesn’t mention physicians or videos.

In the meantime, I wonder whether Cuddy might have conflated two separate studies by Ambady: one of surgeons’ tone of voice (2002), and another of soundless clips of teachers (1993).

But my greater concern is with the word “predict.” As Cuddy puts it, the “judgments of a physicians’ niceness” actually predict whether or not that same physician will be sued in the future. To determine this, a researcher would have to follow the physicians over the long term and compare their subsequent lawsuit patterns (if any) to the initial ratings.

That would be terrifically difficult to accomplish. First, doctors with malpractice litigation histories are a small percentage of the whole, so the sample size would be tiny. Second, how long do you wait for a doctor to be sued? Two years? Five? Ten? Indefinitely?

Instead, I suspect the study followed a procedure similar to that of “Surgeons’ Tone of Voice.” (If I find out I am wrong, I will post a correction.) That is, the ratings of the videos were related to doctors’ existing lawsuit history. If there was any prediction, it was retrospective; as the authors state in the surgeon study, “Controlling for content, ratings of higher dominance and lower concern/anxiety in their voice tones significantly identified surgeons with previous claims compared with those who had no claims” (emphasis mine).

Why does this matter? There’s a big difference between predicting past and future events. People are easily dazzled by the idea that a thirty-second video clip (or sound clip, or whatever it may be) can predict a future lawsuit. The idea that it might predict a person’s existing history is perhaps interesting (if it holds up under scrutiny) but less dazzling.

When it comes to doctors, I imagine those with a lawsuit history might be a little grumpier than the others. I can also see how tone of voice could affect patients’ sense of trust and comfort. But I know of no study that demonstrates that ratings of soundless video clips of physicians predict whether they will one day be sued.

To avoid turning scientific research into a magic show, use the word “predict” carefully and precisely. Also, give a little more detail when referring to research, so that those interested can look up the study in question.

Update: I just learned that Ambady died in 2013. See the comments below. Thanks to Shravan Vasishth for the information.

Another update: Thanks to Martha Smith for explaining various  kinds of “prediction” in statistics. (See here and here.)

Time and Happiness Again

What do people want: more money or more time? Who is happier: those who want money, or those who want time? Do these questions mean the same things to different people? Do they mean the same thing to the same person at different times? Do we know what we’re doing when we rate our own happiness?

A few weeks ago I commented on a study by Hal E. Hershfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea, “People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier” (Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 7, no. 7 [2016], 697-706; see also the authors’ NYT article). I saw possible problems with it but did not have time to read it closely. My criticism was a bit caustic and uninformed; I ended up disliking and deleting the post. I regret the tone but not the critical impulse.

Now looking at the actual study again, I find it both stronger and weaker than I previously thought.

It is stronger in its versatility. The authors considered many possibilities; they were continually revising and refining their hypotheses and tests.

But that’s also a problem. The paper’s seven studies go in somewhat different directions; in my reading, they don’t point together to a conclusion.

Here they are:

Study 1a: 1,301 participants (1,226 in the final sample) were recruited through Mechanical Turk and asked about their preference for time or money. They were also asked to rate their happiness and life satisfaction. The order of these questions was balanced among the participants (I missed this point the first time around).

More people chose money than time, but those who chose time reported greater happiness than those who chose money. The difference does not seem great to me, regardless of statistical significance (M = 4.65, SD = 1.32 vs. M = 4.18, SD = 1.38), but I may be wrong here.

Study 1b: The authors do not describe this in detail, but they claim to have replicated the results of 1a while controlling for materialism. Participants (N = 1,021) were again recruited through Mechanical Turk.

Study 2: This time, 535 participants were recruited in the train station of a major East Coast city and offered a Granola bar to complete the survey. 429 actually did complete it. They reported substantially higher income than the participants in 1a and 1b; also, a majority (55%) chose time over money, unlike the MTurk participants, who tended to choose money over time. (Did the train station setting affect this in any way, I wonder?) Those who chose time were again happier, by their own rating, than those who chose money (M = 5.28, SD = 0.93 vs. M = 4.91, SD = 1.10).

Study 3a: This time, the researchers sought to find out why people preferred what they did.  So they recruited participants through  MTurk, asked them which they preferred (time or money), asked them to explain why, and then asked  them to rate their happiness. This time, the order of the questions was fixed.  They saw a split between using the resource to cover needs and using it to cover wants, as well as a split between using the resource for others and using it for  oneself. Something curious appears here: participants indicated whether they wanted more time in their days or in their lives. While the desire for more time (generally) correlated with happiness, the desire for more time in one’s day did not, nor did the desire for more time in one’s life. I wonder what this means.

Study 3b: This time, 1,000 participants were recruited through Qualtrics for a nationally representative sample. 943 ended up participating. As in most of the previous studies, the majority indicated a preference for more money over more time, but those who chose time rated themselves as happier. In addition, the ones who indicated that they  would spend the resource on wants were happier , by their own rating, than those who said they would spend it on needs; those who said they would spend it on others were happier than those who said they would spend it on themselves. There were some additional findings. (One interesting detail: The Qualtrics participants were on average 15-2o years older than the MTurk and train station participants; also, a much lower percentage were employed.)

Study 4a: This was the first of two manipulation checks. Participants were recruited through MTurk and assigned randomly to one of three conditions: a “wanting time” condition, in which they were instructed to write about why they wanted more time, a “wanting money” condition (likewise with a writing task), and a control condition, for which they had to write down 10 facts. Then they were asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were to indicate which they would rather have, more time or more money.

Those in the “want time” condition (randomly assigned) tended to indicate a preference for more time;  those in the “want money” condition, for more money. The difference in happiness was marginal across the groups, but those in the “want time” condition were slightly happier by their own rating than those in the “want money” condition.

Study 4b: This was the last of the studies and the second manipulation check. This time, participants (again recruited through MTurk) were assigned randomly to a happy condition (instructed to write about why they were happy), an unhappy condition (instructed to write about why they were unhappy), and a control condition (without a writing task). They were then asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were asked questions about their resource preference. Those in the happy condition reported greater happiness (and a greater preference for time) than those in the unhappy condition.

There are some details I have left out for brevity’s sake:  for instance, the researchers included some questions about subjective and objective income and controlled for these.  But this is the gist.

Now for some thoughts:

First of all, these seem like pre-study experiments rather than complete studies, in that they deal with different populations, questions, and methodologies. It is good that the researchers were refining their questions and analyses along the way, but in the process they may have come up with explanations that they did not rigorously test. For instance, the relation between an emphasis on wants (rather than needs) and happiness seems hypothetical, even if it makes intuitive sense. There’s a flipside: people can drive themselves into a tizzy by thinking about things they want but don’t have.

Second—and this concerns me more—studies 4a and 4b suggest that participants’ preferences and happiness ratings can be manipulated by something as simple as a writing task. It’s possible that most people want more money and more time; what they think they want at a given moment may have a lot to do with what’s going on around them.

Also, I suspect that the MTurk participants, especially those completing surveys for the money, might be a financially stressed bunch. That could influence the findings considerably.

In addition, money and time are not easily separable. That is my greatest qualm. I wonder how many participants thought: “Well, I’d like to have both, but I think the money would allow me to buy more time, so I’ll choose money.”

Who, then, would choose time? Maybe people who have something important in their lives. People may desire money for all sorts of things—leisure, power, luxury, relief from debt, etc.—but those who wish for more time probably have something in the works that they enjoy or value. That in itself could explain why they rate their happiness a little higher than the others do.

But then, how accurate is my assessment of my happiness? How accurate is it ever? It can fluctuate throughout the day;  moreover, it can grow (or shrink) in retrospect. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Virgil, Aeneid); in the translation of Robert Fagles, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.”

Beyond a Dream of Uncertainty

A few years ago, I wrote of a dream of uncertainty. Today I second this dream but also want something beyond it.

We live in a culture of takeaways. The quick “apply it right now” answer takes precedence over complications and open questions. So-called “scientific findings” (as presented on TED and elsewhere) are often tenuous, as the power pose example suggests. Science here is not at fault; the problem lies in the market for quick solutions (and everything feeding that market, from a gullible audience to an overhyped study).

Most of the time, both science and life  take time to figure out. Most of the time, any understanding, any progress, requires grappling with errors over many years.

On Andrew Gelman’s blog, Shravan Vasishth posted a terrific comment (worth reading in full) that concludes:

So, when I give my Ted talk, which I guess is imminent, I will deliver the following life-hacks:

1. If you want big changes in your life, you have to work really, really hard to make them happen, and remember you may fail so always have a plan B.
2. It’s all about the content, and it’s all about the preparation. Presence and charisma are nice to have, and by all means cultivate them, but remember that without content and real knowledge and understanding, these are just empty envelopes that may some fool people but won’t make you and better than you are now.

There was a reason that Zed Shaw wrote Learn Python the Hard Way and Learn C the Hard Way books. There is no easy way.

In this spirit, I continue to dream but do not only dream. I want a society that recognizes substance, that does not fall so easily for bad science. Along with that, I want more kindness, more willingness to see the good in others (while also engaging with them in vigorous debate). But to help bring that about, I need to continue my own studies, pushing up against my own challenges and errors. So let this be a year of study, challenge, substance, and goodwill.

Kagan’s Longitudinal Study Is Not About Introverts

I have been skeptical of assertions that Jerome Kagan’s longitudinal study, begun in 1989, demonstrates that high-reactive infants turn into introverts, and low-reactive infants into extraverts. I purchased Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman’s book (The Long Shadow of Temperament) to find out. It turns out that it isn’t about introverts and extraverts, nor does it make any claims about them!

The study examines the relation between levels of reactivity in infancy (that is, reactivity to unfamiliar visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli) and subsequent levels of inhibition. Inhibition and introversion are not the same. There is some overlap between them, but one cannot draw conclusions about introverts from a study of inhibition.

Five hundred four-month-old infants were tested for their reactions to stimuli. Of the 237 children who returned for a follow-up study at age 11, only 33 percent of the former high- and low-reactives showed a temperament consistent with their infant behavior (Kagan and Snidman, p. 19). For the purposes of the study, these results are interesting; they do suggest a relation between infant reactivity and later temperament. Still, three points stand out: (a) first, while the study considers all levels of reactivity, it focuses on the high- and low-reactive infants; (b) most of the high- and low-reactive infants under study did not retain the expected behavioral profile at age 11; and (c) the profile of inhibition does not match, point by point, with profiles of introversion and extraversion. Thus any conclusions about introverts and extraverts are incorrect and unwarranted.

I imagine Kagan and Snidman would agree. They take pains to dispel any simplistic conclusions about the predictability of adolescent and adult temperament; in addition, they distinguish between inhibition and introversion. They note on p. 218 that “Carl Jung’s descriptions of the introvert and extrovert, written over 75 years ago, apply with uncanny accuracy to a proportion of our high- and low-reactive adolescents.” They do not specify the proportion, but the very statement suggests a distinction between high-reactivity and introversion.

Nonetheless, people continually cite the study as evidence that high-reactive babies turn into introverts.

Susan Cain states in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, p. 99, “For one of those studies, launched in 1989 and still ongoing, Professor Kagan and his team gathered five hundred four-month-old infants in his Laboratory for Child Development at Harvard, predicting they’d be able to tell, on the strength of a forty-five-minute evaluation, which babies were more likely to turn into introverts or extroverts.”

No, that was not the goal of the study. But that did seem to be her takeaway; in an interview with NPR, she stated that introverts and extraverts have “literally, different nervous systems.” Whether she was referring to Kagan’s study or something else, the statement needs clarification.

Others have seized on the takeaway and taken it even farther. In an opinion piece on PsychCentral, Neil Thompson claims that “Kagan found that those who reacted strongly to the stimuli were introverts, exhibiting serious and careful personalities at each age. The children with minimal reaction to the stimuli were confident and relaxed; they were extroverts (Kagan and Snidman, 2004).” It doesn’t seem that Thompson looked at the book. Moreover, he is equating introversion with inhibition.

When discussing scientific findings on introversion and extraversion, it is essential to define terms clearly, interpret the studies accurately, and apply them carefully to the topic of discussion. (I don’t mean one should be “inhibited” in this regard; one probably needs a mix of intellectual caution and boldness.)

Kagan’s study says nothing about whether infants’ reaction to stimuli predicts their later introversion or extraversion.


Note: I added a little to this piece after posting it.

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 obviously 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.


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


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.