Cura te ipsum

self-portrait-with-the-idol-jpglargeWe hear the sayings “Physician, heal thyself” (from Luke 4:23) or “Physician, Physician, Heal thine own limp!” from Genesis Rabbah 23:4. Self-help is not an industry; it’s part of life. No matter what our age (beyond, say, age 3), profession, or situation, we not only solve many of our own problems, but figure out some of the solutions. In doing so, we may draw on all sorts of advice or wisdom from the near or distant past, but we decide how to apply it.

The self-help industry, then, is misnamed. It isn’t about self-help at all; at its worst, it is about selling you a product that supposedly will help you. To sell it, the creator or marketer tries to convince you that it’s better than anything else out there and that it addresses the problem in a novel way. This involves ignoring or dismissing (or simply not knowing) past wisdom.

Let me backtrack: I see two kinds of books that aim to help you find your way through life. One kind is a book of knowledge or wisdom; it draws on what has been known and said and does not promise you any big or swift answers. It leaves you to arrive at your own conclusions. The other kind excludes previous wisdom for the sake of appearing new or original. Here the point is not to give you perspective but rather to put forth a particular idea, program, product, or plan.

This explains, in part, why some self-help literature, and the journalism surrounding it, pays little or no attention to philosophy, literature, or even classic psychology. Oblivion blows a blizzard over what has been said before. In her New York Magazine article “Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State,” Cari Romm writes,

Forgiveness, clearly, is a highly personal choice, speeding healing for some and precluding healing for others. But what does it even mean to forgive, anyway?

It’s something we haven’t been asking ourselves for very long — it wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists even started to really study forgiveness — but psychologist Harriet Lerner believes we’ve been too hasty to rush into an answer. In her new book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Lerner argues that we’re flying blind: Academic research and conventional wisdom alike emphasize the positive effects of forgiveness without having reached any clear consensus as to what the act of forgiving really looks like.

Wait a second–who says we haven’t been asking ourselves about the nature of forgiveness for very long? Just look up “forgiveness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will see a long and detailed entry, with reference to works through the centuries. But there’s much more, even in the psychological literature. Jung wrote extensively on confession (and the accompanying forgiveness); other scholars around the turn of the twentieth century began examining the psychology of religion, which included concepts of forgiveness. (See, for instance, Edwin J. Starbuck, “Contributions to  the Psychology of Religion,”The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 9, No. 1 [Oct., 1897], pp. 70-124.) It is true that psychologists have been studying forgiveness more intensively than before, but the topic is by no means new.

I have not yet read Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? in full, but it seems to dispense too readily with forgiveness. On p. 54, she writes: “Some cultural groups place a high premium on apologies and forgiveness. Others do not.” In other words, she seems to suggest that its value is relative. In an interview with Forbes, she says, “We do need to find ways to protect ourselves from the burden of carrying anger and resentment that isn’t serving us, and to grab some peace of mind. We can achieve this with or without forgiveness.” This ignores one of the main virtues of forgiveness: it helps reestablish some form of relationship, even a silent one, between the two people (and even between them and others). Sure, we can “grab some peace of mind” elsewhere. But isn’t there more at stake?

Her book (which I will read) is not the point here, though. I take issue more directly with Romm’s article and with the widespread practice, especially in so-called self-help literature, of exaggerating the newness of an idea. When it comes to books of wisdom, I trust and respect those that acknowledge what has come before, even if they proceed to question, criticize, or overturn it.

Romm’s larger argument in the article (and Lerner’s, which she cites) is that people mistakenly see forgiveness as binary: Either you forgive someone entirely, or you’re caught up in bitterness. But this simply isn’t true; there have been subtle discussions of forgiveness over the centuries.

Forgiveness involves coming to see another person, an injury, and one’s own anger in a much larger perspective–and, from there, restoring some kind of relationship, even an unspoken one. (I think of Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing.”) Such forgiveness is not always possible or desirable, but there are reasons why people long for it and seek it out. This is no pathological inclination, unless human connection is now deemed a disease. In that case, empty the libraries and close down the theatres. Declare language defunct.

Image credit: Paul Gaughin, Self-Portrait with the Idol (1893), courtesy of WikiArt.

Note: I made some minor edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Are Meetings Dominated by Three Talkers?

loud-talkerIn my work experience, the most satisfying meetings have been the ones with substance and purpose, led by a wise moderator. While I do not take such meetings for granted, I would not call them rare exceptions to a grim human rule.

Supposedly “research shows” otherwise. According to Susan Cain, “there’s research out of the Kellogg School recently that showed that in your typical meeting, you have three people doing 70 percent of the talking.”

Now, I have been to meetings where I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but this figure makes little sense. What is a “typical” meeting? How could one possibly arrive at a specific percentage, given the variety of meeting sizes, atmospheres, structures, purposes, and contexts?

Cain’s statement has been quoted on and the Campus Technology website, neither of which provides a research source. Fortunately the Quiet Ambassadors brochure does: “Leigh Thompson, J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management.” That is the entire citation. There’s no reference to a particular work.

I looked up Thompson’s statements on this subject. In her book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), on p. 128, she claims that in a four-person group, two people do 62 percent of the talking; in a six-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking, and in an eight-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking. (She gives the same figures in a article and approximates them on the Kellogg School of Management website.) She implies that as the group size increases, the main talkers make up a smaller percentage of it.

This is a far cry from saying that in a “typical meeting,” three people do 70 percent of the talking. But even her statement seems dubious. Where do her figures come from? In the endnotes to Creative Conspiracy, she cites M. E. Shaw, Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small-Group Behavior, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 170. The title suggests that the research, conducted over 35 years ago, pertains specifically to small groups, not meetings overall. In fact, these small groups may have lacked a moderator; I will look into this when I get a chance.

I support structuring meetings so that those who wish to speak, can. But why make a weak case for this? Why throw around misleading figures and statements?

This is not an isolated instance. Again and again, I see figures used out of context. Cain has asserted repeatedly that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert.” This was based on a small and vague study (of 91 teachers of unspecified subjects and grade levels). Others have claimed (see the article’s bar chart) that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraverted personalities, a statement needing severe qualification. These figures suggest a dire situation where the extraverts run the show and the introverts (although supposedly making up 50 percent of the general population)* get overlooked and ignored. Statement after statement, figure after figure misrepresents the research, which itself has limited implications.

One can promote thoughtful discourse in the workplace without resorting to flashy figures. The moderator–in many cases, the manager–can set the tone by ensuring, first of all, that the meeting is about something. Then she can lead the discussion, drawing out contrasting ideas and helping to reconcile and synthesize them. Over time, she can relax her role, as others will take part in leading. But when she needs to step in, she can do so.

This takes not just skill but a keen understanding of the relation between topic and form, and an alertness to those present (and absent). Some discussions will be swift, others lengthy; some require only two contrasting views, whereas others benefit from subtleties and variations.

The quality of a discussion has little to do with the number or proportion of people talking; a discussion with just two conversants might cover what people want to say, while a discussion with twenty voices might end up going nowhere. If the tenor of the discussion is thoughtful, and if the moderator and others guide it well, the meeting will not come to ruin, nor will souls be shouted down. But above all, there should be something worth talking about, and the participants should take it up with intelligence, ear, and candor.


*The percentage of introverts depends largely on how you define and test introversion, how you distribute the data, and where you draw the line.

Image credit: Doug Savage, “Loud Talker.”

Note: I made some additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

growth-mindset-cheerJesse Singal  posted a new piece (on the original URL) correcting his previous assertions about “growth mindset.” He acknowledges that he relied too much on a BuzzFeed article by Tom Chivers instead of doing his research. He discusses some of the research that he overlooked and encourages us to read Carol Dweck’s new post defending her theory.

I commend him for the self-correction but think he went overboard in replacing the article. (Granted, he didn’t delete the original; he links to the JPEG of it. Still, it’s effectively gone; it doesn’t appear in his archive.) The reasons for questioning “growth mindset” (as both a serious theory and a fad) go far beyond the momentary or trivial. His mode of questioning may have been limited, but it was a start.

What is the real problem here? Dweck, by her account, has conducted the research carefully, conscientiously, and skeptically; unfortunately, she says, the theory has been misunderstood and misapplied by teachers. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) But the theory rests on a dichotomous proposition: that there is such a thing as “growth mindset” as opposed to “fixed mindset,” and that people have one or the other. I propose that people have a mixture of both–and that, rather than driving everything we do, they accompany or follow other drivers.

As I said yesterday, it makes sense (as a teacher, student, or anyone else) to focus on one’s capacity for improvement rather than exclusively on static achievement. But (as I also said) the latter has a place as well. It matters to do something well, period, regardless of how much we have “grown”  toward it. I want my poem to be good. Yes, I want my poetry to grow as well, but if the individual poems do not move, intrigue, provoke, or delight, I don’t care a whit about the growth. A person needs a combination of “growth” and “fixed” mindsets.

On his new blog Statistical Thinking, the Frank Harrell names one of the problems in the field of statistics:

Subject matter experts (e.g., clinical researchers and epidemiologists) try to avoid statistical complexity by “dumbing down” the problem using dichotomization, and statisticians, always trying to be helpful, fail to argue the case that dichotomization of continuous or ordinal variables is almost never an appropriate way to view or analyze data.

I wonder whether he would say that “growth mindset” theory suffers from dichotomization; I have not yet seen this particular question addressed, but everything in my experience and knowledge tells me that mindsets are complex and that the complexity can be productive.

Beyond that, the very focus on mindset seems to miss something. In a calculus class, I do not want the professor to talk about mindset. I want her to talk about the actual problems. Now, it does make a difference if she implicitly recognizes that students can improve, that their performance on the test is not an ultimate statement about them. She can convey this in all sorts of subtle ways. But my own mindset will be much more vigorous and hopeful if the professor focuses on the subject.

Some students may benefit from explicit instruction in mental habits and attitudes. Others pick up on all sorts of implicit suggestions and cues. So yes, schools should carefully consider what messages they are sending. But they should also exercise caution in implementing psychological theories that at best approximate the truth or bring out one aspect of it.

Dweck states that her early optimism over school implementation faded when she saw how poorly teachers and parents understood growth mindset:

Although we were originally optimistic about teachers’ ability to readily apply growth mindset in their classrooms, we began to learn things that tempered this optimism. We began to see and accumulate research evidence that the growth mindset concept was poorly understood by many parents and educators and that adults might not know how to pass a growth mindset on to children, even when they reported holding it for themselves.

I do not think she meant this, but it’s easy to take her words to mean, “those benighted teachers and parents fail to understand our scholarship.” She does imply, in any case, that the problems with implementation are at least partly due to teachers’ and parents’ misunderstandings of the concept. She points to a survey suggesting that teachers have little confidence in their ability to teach growth mindset in the classroom.

But what if this misunderstanding and lack of confidence came from the very weaknesses and limitations of the theory? What if it were true that mindsets cannot be so easily divided, and that we benefit from their combination? Perhaps teachers and parents are picking up on this possibility; perhaps this intuition, or something like it, was behind Singal’s original post.

I leave off with the question: Are mindsets really packageable?

Image credit: YouTube video: “Growth Mindset Cheer!

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Update: In an Education Week article (and perhaps elsewhere as well), Dweck acknowledges that we have mixtures of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. But does she consider that the very mixture of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets may play a beneficial role in our lives? This came up in the comments; I will dedicate a separate piece to the question within the next few days.

The Fixed Mindset of “Growth Mindset”

growth_mindset_poster_0Jesse Singal strikes again. In his most recent article, he explains that the “growth mindset” theory (and raging fad) has “staggeringly little evidence” to support it. The actual research underlying it appears incomplete and flawed.

Carol Dweck coined, investigated, and popularized the theory of “growth mindset”: namely, that those who value improvement and persistence tend to be the ones who ultimately excel, while those with “fixed mindset,” who expect themselves to succeed right away, tend to quit at the first sign of failure. Schools have seized on this, telling teachers not to praise students for their talent or even their accomplishments, but rather for their growth. Supposedly, if students start thinking in terms of growth, they will set themselves on a path of continued improvement.

There is some obvious truth to this. You don’t do a student (or anyone) a favor by continually saying “you’re so smart” or “you play beautifully.” On the other hand, if you force yourself into growth-mindset lingo (“You’ve grown so much since your last recital; your staccato is much more precise than before”), you don’t help anyone either. This kind of dogmatism becomes a fixed mindset of its own.

In addition, if you devote school resources to the cultivation of “growth mindset,” you may take away from other things, such as literature, mathematics, music, and so on. In addition, attempts to incorporate “growth mindset” in the curriculum can lead to rigid and limited interpretations of the subject at hand.

For example, the 2016 study “Even Einstein Struggled” (conducted by researchers at Teachers College and the University of Washington) compared ninth- and tenth-grade students who read “struggle stories” of scientists with students who read “achievement stories.” It found that those who read struggle stories, especially low-performing students, saw a greater increase in their grades (which were based on “classwork, homework, quizzes, projects, and tests”) than those who read achievement stories. In addition, it found that students who read the struggle stories felt more connected to the scientists than students who read the achievement stories.

But the researchers do not consider the possibility that a “struggle story” may be intellectually interesting or illuminating. Students may connect with it not just because they can “relate” to struggle, but because they want to see how a scientist actually solved a problem. In other words, the “struggle” may be less important here than the actual problem and the scientist’s way of tackling it.

The Wright brothers are a case in point. In his illuminating (and wonderfully unfaddish) book How We Reason, Philip Johnson-Laird argues that it was not simply persistence that eventually brought the Wright brothers to success, but their particular way of reasoning through errors. In other words, “grit” and “growth mindset” may be symptoms rather than causes of such persistence and eventual success.

Another problem with the “growth mindset” is that it gets awfully silly awfully fast. You start seeing posters with “growth mindset praises.” A mantra arises that you should never call a person smart. NYC Educator comments:

I don’t freely call people smart. I really say that to very few kids. But if I say it, it means I’ve noticed something very special in them. Kids who think fast, who come back immediately, who aren’t afraid to say directly what’s on their mind, and who have clever, creative or impressive things on said minds really impress me. I have to tell them how smart they are. I never know whether or not anyone else has told them, whether anyone else has even noticed, and I think they need to know.

I don’t tell students they are smart, but I have told them when I thought they did something especially well (another “growth mindset” no-no). I wouldn’t do that all the time; that would give my praise too much weight. But I wouldn’t abandon it either.

I think of the times when someone has recognized my work–for its quality, not its growth. Some of these praises were pivotal in my life; they helped me see that my work could affect people. I didn’t stop working because of that. Yet I also needed people who could point out flaws. Over time, I became able to do much of this for myself–recognize when I was (or wasn’t) doing something well, and identify what I could do better.

Also, there are things I simply am not good at (like improv comedy). Sure, I can “grow” in them, but is the slow crawl toward mediocrity worth my while? It may actually help me, in some circumstances, to utter the forbidden phrase “I’m just not good at this.”

Like many ideas in education, growth mindset theory expresses a partial truth. It is neither revolution nor royalty; it deserves neither chants nor a crown. On the other hand, the “takeaway” is not that we should get rid of all vestiges of growth mindset. Take away its dogma and buzzwords, but give it a modest place among other principles.

Image credit: HR Zone.

Note: After posting this piece, I made a few minor edits to it and added two sentences to the end. Also, I was not joking about “growth mindset” chants; see the video.

Update: After making the latest edits, I saw a new post by Jesse Singal. I respond to it in a new post here.

The Big Five: Theory or Phenomenon?

four-leaf_and_five-leaf_cloversIn an earlier post, I suggested that the Big Five model, even as a taxonomy, contains assumptions about how personality works. Having read Sanjay Srivastava’s illuminating article “The Five-Factor Model Describes the Structure of Social Perceptions” (Psychological Inquiry, vol. 21, issue 1 [2010]), I revise my argument as follows:

The Big Five model, a taxonomy of social perception, presumes that patterns in people’s perception of others can inform our understanding of social constructs of personality. In particular, it postulates implicitly that when you have groups of correlated traits, with maximum variance between the groups, you can meaningfully label the groups and regard them as major factors of personality.

That sounds reasonable enough on the Big Five’s part–but before addressing it, I should distinguish among three concepts. (Thanks to Dr. Srivastava for distinguishing helpfully between the first two.)

First, there is the Five-Factor Theory formulated by Robert (Jeff) McCrae and Paul Costa. It offers a theoretical basis for this overall approach to personality. It contains sixteen postulates, only one of which brings up the Big Five in particular.

Next, there is the Big Five model itself–which, according to Srivastava, is best understood as a taxonomy of social perception, not of personality per se. It sets the stage for investigation of the sources, processes, and consequences of social perception. On p. 7 of the article above, he writes:

It is an interesting and worthy enterprise to study the characteristics of persons who are reliably described as extraverted, agreeable, etc.; but if you want to really understand the Five-Factor Model, you need to frame your questions in terms of perception–and in order to avoid the dead ends of previous eras, you need to study perception in a way that accounts for the entire chain of causation from the neuropsychic bases of behavior in targets to the inferential processes by which perceivers perceive (as proposed by Funder, 1995).

Finally, we have various Big Five personality tests, which people take out of sheer curiosity, as part of an experiment, or for some external purpose such as employment. It is in these tests that much of the mischief arises (in my view)–because if the Big Five are a taxonomy of social perception, they essentially say more about how others tend to perceive people who appear to share traits with you than they say about who you are. The distinction is essential, and it isn’t made often enough. Also, they presume that a person’s relationship to the Big Five can meaningfully be described on a sliding scale. This, too, merits questioning.

But let’s go back to the Big Five model. It makes sense to view it as a taxonomy of social perception. In Srivastava’s words (on p. 9), “traits are what people want to know when they get to know a person.” But clearly there are problems with grouping such traits together, even when such grouping is suggested by the data. The larger categories may obscure the distinctions between the sub-traits. (And that’s why I see the Big Five model as a hypothesis or theory: It postulates that such grouping is meaningful and informative.) Drawing on Jack Block’s critique of the various models in the Big Five framework, Srivastava writes on pp. 13-14:

As Block notes, it is difficult to come up with single words or even short phrases that adequately capture the breadth of meaning of the five factors. The single-word trait terms encoded in language are probably closest to the level of abstraction that perceivers operate at most of the time (cf. John, Hampson, & Goldberg, 1991, for a more nuanced view). At lower levels of the hierarchy–aspects, facets, and especially individual trait concepts–we will need to develop increasingly differentiated theories to account for the social concerns that these dimensions encapsulate.

Yes, this is a problem, and it exists even before we get to tests. Martha Smith once commented on Andrew Gelman’s blog (in response to one of my comments), “In other words, [the researchers] did not start with definitions of traits; this was exploratory research that gave them candidates for traits. The real definition of the traits was ‘whatever this linear combination measures.’ However, the labels they attached to these factors became ‘reified’ — that is, taken to be The Real Thing Measured, even thought the labels were fuzzy terms subject to varying interpretations.”

An associated problem is that the Big Five is a taxonomy of general tendencies in social perception; thus it does not account for exceptions and outliers, which could be every bit as informative as the tendencies, if not more so.

This needs to be shouted from the rooftops: Big Five tests–and other personality tests–do not tell you how extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, etc., you are. They tell you to what degree your self-identified traits match traits that people tend to associate with each other in their observations of others–and that researchers have therefore grouped in larger categories.

Now let us get to specifics. One of my qualms with personality tests is that they encourage self-revelation along the lines of “The test says I’m introverted, but I always thought I was extraverted, because I….” etc. etc. This doesn’t seem necessary or helpful. Let’s instead look at a hypothetical situation.

Someone takes a Big Five test and scores low on Agreeableness–but would be described by friends, as gentle, considerate, and kind. Of course there’s a discrepancy between how you see yourself and how others see you–but there’s also a problem of complexity. You may have many possibilities in your character; different ones come out at different times. If you come upon a statement like “I can be cold and uncaring,” you might ask yourself, “What does ‘can’ mean? How do I answer something like that? Is this asking how often I act or think in an uncaring way? Or how intense my lack of caring can be when it occurs? Is it asking about my outward affect, or about my thoughts?”

Or at a group level, what does 60% Agreeable mean? Does one person’s 60% resemble another’s, or did they score at 60% for different reasons?

Taking a taxonomy of social perception and turning it into an assessment of individual personality–even, shall  we say, social perception of individual personality–involves a few iffy leaps of reasoning. People treat those tests with much more certainty than they actually merit. But even without the tests, the taxonomy alone leaves one with questions and uncertainties. I am glad that there are researchers who look into the uncertainties and help us understand what they are.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it. In addition, I added a missing end quotation mark in the paragraph that begins “But let’s go back….”

So Now You’re Rating My Self-Knowledge?

Jesse Singal is one of my favorite journalists. He’s a powerful writer: intelligent, probing, daring, nuanced, and skilled. But today one of his New York Magazine articles (which he co-wrote with Ashley Wu) made my blood boil. Singal and Wu invite the readers to test their own self-knowledge: first, by rating themselves on the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience); and second, by taking a personality test, which will presumably show them how correct or incorrect their self-assessment was. I reject the premise that the personality test has the last word or better say–or, more generally, that some outside instrument can set the terms for my self-knowledge.

Singal and Wu vastly overstate the test’s capacity to inform us about ourselves. Toward the middle of the piece, they write: “So: How good a grasp do you think you have on your own personality, in Big Five terms? In the below test, you can find out.” At the end, they claim, “In other words, a test like this turns what can sometimes be guesswork about who you are into something a bit more scientific and concrete.”

I have copied my response below, with some minor edits and added links.

A comment on “Can You Predict Your Scores on an Important Personality Test?” by Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu

I protest the underlying assumption of this article: that the Big Five model and its accompanying personality tests hold some truth about us that we may or may not “get right.” According to your argument here, how “well we do” at guessing our test results speak to how well we know ourselves.

No, no, no! I acknowledge that our own self-knowledge may be limited, flawed, and distorted–but I reject any personality test as an arbiter of truth.

Why? First of all, as you yourself note, psychologists have based these categories on tendencies and general correlations. And tendencies are just that–tendencies. They are somewhat forced, first of all, by our vocabulary; second of all, they don’t hold for everyone; third, within an individual there may be great variation from context to context and day to day.

I recognize that this test offers a “sliding scale” for each of these traits–but I question whether they really exist on a “sliding scale.” If I am sometimes agreeable, sometimes not, this does not make me, say, 70% agreeable. My instances of disagreeableness may be key to my personality. What matters here is where and why they occur. They may have to do with an actual situation.

In The Long Shadow of Temperament (one of the wisest psychology books I have read), Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman question the Western tendency to define personality in terms of categories. “It is not clear,” they write, “why American and European social scientists maintain a preference for broad psychological properties for individuals that ignore the contexts in which they act.” In Moral Imagination, David Bromwich points to the importance of resisting this tendency. “The force of the idea of moral imagination,” he writes, “is to deny that we can ever know ourselves sufficiently to settle on a named identity that prescribes our conduct or affiliations.”

Why does this matter? Because everything human is at stake here: self-knowledge, knowledge of others, knowledge of the world, dialogue, and language itself.

P.S. In a demonstration of “openness to experience,” I went ahead and took this test. It was not enlightening. For too many of the questions, the response in my mind was, “It depends.” I mean “strongly depends,” not just “sort of depends.” So in many cases I entered a 3, which to me did not represent the situation. Or else the lack of breakdown–for instance, of types of conscientiousness–distorted my responses by averaging them out. (On the other hand, without trying, I scored extremely high on “openness.”) I view such tests with extreme skepticism and caution. (Yet this is not because I am a “cautious” type overall. Skeptical, maybe.) If such tests are bad at telling who I am, they are even worse at telling how well I know myself.

Note: I added a paragraph to the beginning of this piece after posting it. Also I changed “theory” to “model” (stay tuned for more on this).


A Statistical Study of Literature

e-h-_shepard_illustration_of_mr_toadRecently Drake Baer reported on a study of the emotional arcs of stories. Working from ideas that Kurt Vonnegut puts forth in his master’s thesis and 1985 lecture, a research group, led by University of Vermont Ph.D. candidate Andrew J. Reagan, analyzed the progression of happiness levels in a selection of 1,327 stories. They did this by measuring the “happiness levels” of the words themselves and mapping the movement in happiness over the course of the story.

They found six basic shapes. In Baer’s words, “A full 85 percent of the books analyzed fell under one of six shapes. They are: ‘rags to riches,’ in which sentiment goes up; ‘riches to rags,’ where it goes down; ‘man in a hole,’ in which there’s a fall, then a rise; ‘Icarus’, where it’s a rise then a fall; ‘Cinderella,’ or rise-fall-rise; and ‘Oedipus,’ or fall-rise-fall.” It isn’t the plot that matters here, Baer explains, but “the way sentiment [is] conveyed by the words themselves, and whether they rise or fall, signaling happy or sad endings to chapters and sections and books as a whole.”

The initial problem is that the arcs don’t really match the stories themselves. Here’s the arc that supposedly matches the emotional arc of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (one of my favorite books from childhood):

How TED Talks Could Be Improved

If TED changed its focus and direction slightly, it could become a forum for interesting discussion.

At present it is hampered by five factors:

  1. Too much status is attached to TED talks. A talk alone can whisk a person to fame.
  2. The talks tend to emphasize positive, inclusive big ideas rather than questions and doubts.
  3. The talks dabble in science just enough to seem credible but do not engage in serious argumentation. They do not come with bibliographies (as they should).
  4. The talks tend to sound alike; many of them include a big idea, poignant personal story, and reference to science. Many come with a prop.
  5. Some of the most popular talks make unfounded claims and demonstrate poor reasoning.

Very well. How might these problems be adjusted or overturned?

Teachers Prefer Extraverted Students? Says Who?

In her TED talk and her book, Susan Cain claims that, according to research, “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert.” (The two quotes differ slightly but have the same gist.) I found this dubious, so I looked for the source. In the notes to Quiet, she provides the following citation:

Charles Meisgeier et al., “Implications and Applications of Psychological Type to Educational Reform and Renewal,” Proceedings of the First Biennial International Conference on Education of the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (Gainesville, FL: Center for Applications of Psychological Type, 1994), 263-271.

I hunted for it online and found it (not through a Google search but through a search of the catalog of the Isabel Briggs Myers Memorial Library. Here’s Meisgeier’s description of the study in question (on p. 267):

A study in which 91 teacher interns (teachers) were asked to identify  their ‘ideal child’ type using the Murphy Meisgeier Type Indicator for Children (MMTIC) and the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) produced many interesting results. After taking the MBTI to identify their own type, teachers took the MMTIC choosing each response as they thought their ‘ideal child’ would choose – that is, the  ‘ideal child’ they would or do like to teach.

On the E/I scale, there was no relation between self type and the ‘ideal child’ type. That is, teachers who were E did not define the E child as ideal significantly more often than teachers who were I. In fact, 71% of the teachers who were I described an extravert as the ‘ideal child’ type as compared to 80% of the E teachers. Only 15.5% of the I’s selected the I type of child as the ‘ideal child’. Overall, 76% of the teachers chose E as the child type  which differs  significantly  from  a  50-50  split  (chi-square  (1)  = 23.3; p  < .01).

The paper goes on to discuss the results on the S/N, T/F, and J/P scales. After summarizing the results, the authors comment: “The very idea that a teacher carries an unconscious ‘picture’ of an ideal child into the classroom suggests that there would have to be children present who were perceived as less than ideal. Where that is the case, all of the learning that takes place in that classroom will not be academic for it seems highly likely that each child also will learn how he or she is viewed by the teacher.”

Whoa… But the study required teachers to indicate personality type preferences! It doesn’t seem quite right to assess teachers’ personality preferences and then bemoan the preferences’ existence. In addition, nowhere does the description address the following questions:

  1. How were these 91 teachers selected?
  2. To what extent did they represent the span of grade levels and subjects?
  3. What were the questions, and what were the options in the responses? (I tried to access the MMTIC Instrument, but its web page states that “The MMTIC instrument and reports are available for use only by adults who are 21 years of age or older, have a four-year degree from an accredited college or university … and have successfully completed the MMTIC® Certification Program.” The last criterion excludes me!)
  4. To what extent did the responses fall somewhere in the middle (with teachers indicating a preference for a mixture of traits)?
  5. Were the questions framed in a classroom context? For instance, was “extraversion” associated with speaking up in class discussion? (That could be highly misleading; many students with tendencies toward introversion might speak up in a class that interests them.)

All of this merits inquiry. From a vague study of 91 teachers–described by the very creator of the Murphy Meisgeier Type Indicator for Children–we can draw no conclusions about teachers’ preferences.

It may well be that teachers in some settings show a preference for certain aspects of extraversion. But what kind of preference is this? Is it preference for an type of person, or for a certain quality of class participation?  To what extent does this preference depend on context–of subject matter, topic, lesson, and situation?

Granted, many students have been judged negatively by teachers. Some (not all) of my elementary and middle school teachers judged me for my social ineptitude at the time. In high school, things changed; because of the increased intellectual focus, I was in my element, and the teachers recognized and appreciated this. Teachers’ judgments make a mark, but they may have more to do with the exigencies of the lesson than with anyone’s personality type.

If, instead of treating limited research findings as fact, Cain and others looked into questions and sat with uncertainties, we could have interesting discussion. Semi-intellectual discussion seizes on flawed answers as though they were real estate. That’s part of the problem with TED: its emphasis on answers. I will say more about that soon.

Update: I finally posted a review of Cain’s Quiet on Amazon.

A Lesson from the Power Pose Debacle

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing has thirty-seven million views. Its main idea is simple: if you adopt an expansive, authoritative pose, your actual power will increase. For evidence, Cuddy refers to a study she conducted in 2010 with Dana Carney and Andy Yap. Holes and flaws in the study have since been revealed, but Cuddy continues to defend it. Doubt fuels scientific inquiry, but in an era TED-style glamor and two-minute “life hacks” (Cuddy’s own term for the power pose), we find a shortage of such doubt on stage. It is time to tap the reserves.

Recently TED and Cuddy appended a note to the summary of the talk: “Some of the findings presented in this talk have been referenced in an ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility.” In other (and clearer) words: The power pose study has not held up under scrutiny. At least two replications failed; Andrew Gelman, Uri Simonsohn, and others have critiqued it robustly; and Carney, the lead researcher, detailed the study’s flaws—and disavowed all belief in the effect of power poses—in a statement posted on her website. Jesse Singal (New York Magazine) and Tom Bartlett (The Chronicle of Higher Education) have weighed in with analyses of the controversy.

Very well, one might shrug aloud, but what should we, irregular members of the regular public, do? Should we distrust every TED talk? Or should we wait until the experts weigh in? Neither approach is satisfactory. When faced with fantastic scientific claims, one can wield good skepticism and follow one’s doubts and questions.

Before learning of any of this uproar, I found Cuddy’s talk unstable. Instead of making a coherent argument, it bounces between informal observations, personal experiences, and scientific references. In addition, it seems to make an error early on. Two minutes into her talk, Cuddy states that “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.” Which study is this? I have perused the Ambady Lab website, conducted searches, and consulted bibliographies—and I see no sign that the study exists. (If I find that the study does exist, I will post a correction here. Ambady died in 2013, so I cannot ask her directly. I have written to the lab but do not know whether anyone is checking the email.)

In separate studies, Ambady studied surgeons’ tone of voice (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of sound clips where the actual words were muffled) and teachers’ body language (by analyzing subjects’ ratings of soundless video clips). As far as I know, she did not conduct a study with soundless videos of physician-patient interactions. Even her overview articles do not mention such research. Nor did her study of surgeons’ tone of voice make inferences about the likelihood of future lawsuits. It only related tone of voice to existing lawsuit histories.

Anyone can make a mistake. On the TED stage, delivering your talk from memory before an enormous audience, you have a million opportunities to be fallible. This is understandable and forgivable. It is possible that Cuddy conflated the study of physicians’ tone of voice with the study of teachers’ body language. Why make a fuss over this? Well, if a newspaper article were to make such an error, and were anyone to point it out, the editors would subsequently issue a correction. No correction appears on the TED website. Moreover, many people have quoted Cuddy’s own mention of that study without looking into it. It has been taken as fact.

Why did I sense that something was off? First, I doubted that subjects’ responses to a surgeon’s body language predicted whether the doctor would be sued in the future. A lawsuit takes money, time, and energy; I would not sue even the gruffest surgeon unless I had good reason. In other words, the doctor’s personality would only have a secondary or tertiary influence on my decision to sue. On the other hand, it is plausible that doctors with existing lawsuit histories might appear less personable than others—if only because it’s stressful to be sued. Insofar as existing lawsuit histories predict future lawsuits, there might be a weak relation between a physician’s body language and his or her likelihood of being sued in the future. I suspect, though, that the data would be noisy (in a soundless kind of way).

Second, I doubted that there was any study involving videos of physician-patient interactions. Logistical and legal difficulties would stand in the way. With sound recordings—especially where the words are muffled—you can preserve anonymity and privacy; with videos you cannot. As it turns out, I was flat-out wrong; video recording of the doctor’s office has become commonplace, not only for research but for doctors’ own self-assessment.

It matters whether or not this study exists—not only because it has been taken as fact, but because it influences public gullibility. If you believe that a doctor’s body language actually predicts future lawsuits, then you might also believe that power pose effects are real. You might believe that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert” (Susan Cain) or that “the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors” (Ken Robinson). The whole point of a TED talk is to put forth a big idea; alas, an idea’s size has little to do with its quality.

What to do? Questioning Cuddy’s statement, and statements like it, takes no special expertise, only willingness to follow a doubt. If TED were to open itself to doubt, uncertainty, and error—posting corrections, acknowledging errors, and inviting discussion—it could become a genuine intellectual forum. To help bring this about, people must do more than assume a doubting stance. Poses are just poses. Insight requires motion—from questions to investigations to hypotheses to more questions.  This is what makes science interesting and strong.  Science, with all its branches and disciplines, offers not a two-minute “life hack,” but rather the hike of a lifetime. With a mind full of doubt, one can make it.


Note: I originally had the phrase “two-minute life hack” in quotes, but Cuddy’s actual phrase is “free no-tech life hack.” She goes on to say that it takes requires changing your posture for two minutes. So I removed “two-minute” from the quotes.