Alumni Day

alumni-day-1

alumni-day-2Today I headed out to Columbia Secondary School, where I formerly taught, for Alumni Day. I had the joy of moderating three panels, one after another, and attending the reception. There were many lively discussions and exchanges–stories, questions, and responses. But what stood out in all of this was the gesture of return. Seeing students from three alumni classes (2014, 2015, and 2016) in a room together, seeing them so eager to speak with current students, reminded me just how important this return could be. alumni-day-3

Not everyone returns, and not everyone does so right away. Some need distance from high school, at least for a while.But without the possibility of return, a school, its students, and its graduates would lose a lot. An alumni day–not a reunion, which focuses on alumni alone, but an event for the whole school–allows the alumni and current students to give something to each other. I am glad for this tradition and hope it continues for  many years.

For teachers, too, it is good to be able to return. I was grateful to participate in this event–as someone no longer teaching at the school but still carrying it in my life. A school is more than a conveyor belt. It does take you from A to B–that’s its main purpose, on many levels–but its meaning lies not only in conveyance, but in the ongoing housing of learning.

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….”

Some More Tinkering

After yesterday’s discussion of springs and sine graphs, I remembered a post from 2012, “Daydreams, Lectures, and Helices.” I decided to figure out how to graph a helix in R.

Well, after installing the rgl package and experimenting a bit, I got it to work.

helix

Here’s the code:

require(rgl)
x=seq(0.01,6.29,0.01)
y=seq(0.01,6.29,0.01)
z=seq(0.01,40,0.01)
plot3d(cos(x), sin(y), z, col=”red”, size=3)

I then rotated it into a good view. As my Latin teacher used to say, that’s all there is to it!

Next up (at some point): an animation of a spring.

Are 96 Percent of Managers and Executives Extraverted?

sidebarIn various places I have seen the startling assertion that 96 percent of managers and executives self-identify as extraverts (in other words, that self-identified extraverts almost fully dominate management positions). I do not believe it. I have worked in education, publishing, computer programming, and counseling; most of my bosses, from managers to executives, tended toward introversion, at least in my perception. So I wondered whether this figure accounted for all fields–and where it came from in the first place. I decided to find out. I reached the conclusion that the 96% figure needs major qualification.

I found the explicit claim–along with a cited source–in a Harvard Business Review article by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann. A sidebar in the article states: “Whereas just 50% of the general population is extroverted, 96% of managers and executives display extroverted personalities.” The source: Deniz S. Ones and Stephan Dilchert, “How Special Are Executives?” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2009. This paper examines determinants of executive success by analyzing the scores of a sample of 4,150 managers and executives on a personality test and a test of mental ability.

I was able to access this paper through the Columbia library database. Unfortunately it doesn’t give any information about the sample; instead, it directs the reader to an earlier paper: “see Dilchert & Ones, 2008, for sample description.”

I tracked down the second paper (Dilchert and Ones, “Personality and extrinsic career success: Predicting managerial salary at different organizational levels,” Zeitschrift für Personalpsychologie, vol. 7 [2008], 1–23.). I had to pay a fee for it, but I wasn’t going to stop now. Here’s what I found (on p. 6):

Participants were 4,150 individuals who completed a personality inventory as part of an assessment center. Of the total sample, 1,819 individuals were applicants to a managerial position and 151 individuals were considered for a promotion, and thus completed the personality inventory under selection conditions. In addition, there were 2,180 managerial job incumbents who completed the inventory for developmental purposes. All participants also completed a demographic form and provided information on their current employment status and employment history.

Wait–so the participants were taking the assessment for a job-related purpose: for employment, promotion, or development. The results were then used as data. The stakes were high, in other words (especially for those applying for employment and promotion), and their responses were initially not anonymous. This could well have influenced the responses.

Moreover, they all took it at a particular assessment center. This suggests to me that certain professions were not included: professors, academic administrators, principals, artistic directors, librarians, computer programmers (who manage their own teams), self-starting entrepreneurs, head physicians, and others.

In addition, the personality test was the Global Personality Inventory, which is geared specifically toward the workplace. Scores on this test may or may not correspond with scores on a Big Five inventory. The 2008 paper states:

The GPI is a thoroughly developed inventory backed by empirical evidence that supports its reliability and criterion-related validity for use in managerial assessment (see Schmit, Kihm, & Robie, 2000). Reliabilities for the Big Five facet scales typically have been reported to range between .65 to .88 (Schmit et al., 2000) and .58 to .88 (ePredix, 2001) in managerial samples (mean reliability across scales .73 and .75, respectively).

In neither of the papers do I see the figure of 96 percent; perhaps Grant, Gino, and Hofmann extrapolated it from the normative data and data on variability. Let us assume, though, that the figure accurately reflects the test results. It does not reflect the managerial and executive population as a whole, for three reasons:

  1. The test seems to have carried relatively high stakes (in comparison to a test administered purely for a study);
  2. The test was administered at an assessment center that may not be used by all professions and fields–thus the sample may be skewed;
  3. The instrument itself is designed specifically for the workplace; the extraversion score may not match scores on other personality tests. In particular, the questions may involve more context-specific details.

So, instead of saying that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraversion, I recommend saying, “On a Global Personality Inventory administered, at an assessment center, for employment, promotion, and professional development purposes, 96 percent of managers and executives gave responses suggestive of extraversion.”

One implication: The extent of the tilt toward extraversion in management may depend strongly on the field.

Another implication: It is important to look into claims of this sort.

Image credit: Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann, The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses,” Harvard Business Review, December 2010.

Are College Professors Responsible for Student Learning?

aliceI learn a heck of a lot from Andrew Gelman’s blog–not only his own posts, but the many interesting and substantial comments. It’s one of my favorite places on the internet right now (granted, I have low tolerance for “surfing” and tend to focus on a few sites). That said, I find myself questioning some of his arguments and views, particularly about measurement in education. Now, I am not about to say “learning can’t be measured” or “tests are unfair” or anything like that. My points are a bit different.

In an article for Chance, vol, 25 (2012), Gelman and Eric Loken observe that, as statisticians, they give out advice that they themselves do not apply to their classrooms; this contradiction, in their view, has ethical consequences:

Medicine is important, but so is education. To the extent that we believe the general advice we give to researchers, the unsystematic nature of our educational efforts indicates a serious ethical lapse on our part, and we can hardly claim ignorance as a defense. Conversely, if we don’t really believe all that stuff about sampling, experimentation, and measurement—it’s just wisdom we offer to others—then we’re nothing but cheeseburger-snarfing diet gurus who are unethical in charging for advice we wouldn’t ourselves follow.

They acknowledge the messiness and complexity of education but maintain, all the same, that they could improve their practice by measuring student learning more systematically and adjusting their instruction accordingly. “Even if variation is high enough and sample sizes low enough that not much could be concluded,” they write, “we suspect that the very acts of measurement, sampling, and experimentation would ultimately be a time-efficient way of improving our classes.”

I agree with the spirit of their argument; yes, it makes sense to practice what you proclaim, especially when this can improve your teaching. Of course assessment and instruction should inform and strengthen each other.  Still, any measurement must come with adequate doubt and qualification. I think they would agree with this; I don’t know, though, whether we would raise the same doubts. I see reason to consider the following (at the college level, which differs substantially from K-12):

While still moving toward independence, students are more in charge of their own learning than before. Ideally they should start figuring out the material for themselves. What is the class for, then? To introduce topics, organize the subject matter, illuminate certain points, and work through problems … but perhaps not to “produce” learning gains, at least not primarily. On the other hand, the course should have adequate challenge for those at the top and support for those at the bottom (within reason). Introductory courses may include additional supports.

Also, a student might deliberately choose a course that’s too difficult at the outset (but still feasible). Some people thrive on difficulty and are willing to let their grade drop a little for the sake of it. The learning gains may not show right away, but this does not mean that the teacher should necessarily adjust instruction. If the student puts in the necessary work and thought, he or she will show improvement in good time. Students should not be discouraged from the kind of challenge that temporarily slows their external progress.

In addition, there are inevitable mismatches, at the college level, between instruction and assessment. (This may be especially true of the humanities.) If you are teaching a literature, history, or philosophy class, your students will probably write essays for a grade, but your teaching will address only certain components of the writing. Students have to learn the rest through practice. Thus you will grade things that you haven’t explicitly taught. (Your course may not deal explicitly with grammar, but if a paper is full of ungrammatical and incoherent sentences, you still can’t give it an A.) This may seem unfair–but over time, through extensive practice and reading, students will come to write strong essays.

Since September 2015 I have been taking classes part-time, as a non-matriculated student, at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School at JTS. In my first class, I was far below the levels of my classmates. That was what I wanted. I studied on the train, in my spare moments, and at night. (I was teaching as well.) I flubbed the final presentation, relatively speaking, not because I was underprepared, but because I prepared in the wrong way. I ended up with a B+ in the course. The next semester, my Hebrew had risen to a new level; the course (on the Psalms) enthralled me, and I did well. This year, I have been holding my own in the course I longed to take all along: a year-long course in advanced cantillation. If the professors had worried too closely about my learning gains, I wouldn’t have learned as much.

On the other hand, in the best classes I have taken over the years, the professors did great things for my learning. I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much, or gained the same insights, without the courses.  The paradox is this: to help me understand, the professors also let me not understand. To help me progress, they sometimes took me to the steepest steps–and then pointed out all the interesting engravings in them. It wasn’t just fascination that took me from step to step–I had to work hard–but they trusted that I could do it and left it largely in my hands.

Granted, not all students are alike, nor are all courses. In an introductory course, students may be testing out the field. If they are completely lost, or if the course takes extraordinary effort and time, they may conclude that it’s not for them. A professor may need to respond diligently to their needs. There are many ways of looking at a course; one should work to become alert to its different angles.

In short, college should be where students learn how to teach themselves and how to gain insights from a professor. While helping students learn, one can also hope, over time, to simulate Virgil’s last words to Dante in Purgatorio, “I crown and miter you over yourself” (or to accompany them to the point where, like Alice, they find a crown atop their heads.)

Image: Sir John Tenniel, illustration for the eighth chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1865).

Note: I revised the fourth paragraph for clarity and made a minor edit to the last sentence.

Gibberish Not Too Long Ago

A recent Onion piece begins, “BROOKLYN, NY—Staring in trembling awe at her suddenly blank desktop, local woman Chelsea Greene was reportedly presented a rare chance at a new life Tuesday after accidentally closing her browser window with 23 open tabs.”

It occurred to me, as I read this, that it would have been lost on me if I had  read it in high school. In particular, my ignorance of three words–or, rather, their  particular meanings here–would have thrown off the sentence so badly that I would not have been able to make head, tail, or middle of it.

Moreover, I would have thought I knew the meanings of the words. Desktop, browser, tab–they wouldn’t have seemed obscure.

  1. “desktop”–At the time, this meant nothing other to me than the top or surface of a desk. A “suddenly blank desktop” probably meant a desk that had just been cleaned, or whose “toppings” had been swept off. (Desktop computers existed but were not well known–and the word “desktop” as a computer descriptor had not entered general vocabulary.)
  2. “browser”–I would have thought of this as someone who browses. Perhaps a “browser window” was a window near a desk, for those who wished to look either into their own library (in an adjoining room) or out onto the street. Maybe a “browser” was someone who stopped working now and then to observe the goings-on.
  3. “tabs”–I suppose those are the little clamps that hold a window shut. Why on earth would a window have 23 of them? Maybe it’s a window that springs open unless clamped tight shut; so, since the tabs were open, it must have taken an act of extreme clumsiness to fling the window shut by accident.

So here’s what I picture: Someone, maybe a parent or spouse, is mad at Chelsea Greene for keeping a messy desk–and, in a fit of indignation, flings everything off the desktop. Stunned, Chelsea looks out the window, only to find that she has somehow flung it shut, maybe in the heat of anger or revenge, fling for flang. But this very emotion reminds her that she is still alive–that although she has “closed” the window, life has in fact “opened” itself to her, showing her, once again, that other people’s judgments need not dictate how she lives, and that her desk matters to her, even if things pile up upon it. If Chelsea had known of the Big Five, she might have said, “So, I scored low on your conscientiousness test, but not on my own; after all, I am here at my desk.”

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

Thank You, USPS Workers

post-officePostal workers get a terrible rap. One hears of employees “going postal,” or bins of mail getting dumped, or other outrageous things. Stories of USPS courtesy, helpfulness, and patience don’t get big press. I wish they did.

Over the years, I have gone to the post office hundreds of times–with letters, packages, overseas mailings, delivery slips, and more. From the post office on W. 125th St. (10027), for three consecutive years, I mailed copies of CONTRARIWISE to Italy, Turkey, England, China, and numerous U.S. locations. If I were on the other end of the plexiglass barrier, I would have lost patience with myself.

The USPS staff courteously helped me through the process. When I came with piles of packages, they took the time to process each one correctly. In addition, they explained my options, gave me good advice, and wished me a good day afterward. I could tell that it mattered to them to see the mail through.

In holiday-ish times of year (particularly December), I come to the post office in a whirlwind, only because I haven’t managed to send my packages earlier. Time and again, including today, the staff have taken my packages in hand and seen them calmly onward.

Regular mail is nowhere near obsolete; the long lines at the post offices attest to this. People still need and want to send tangible letters, packages, and documents. The workers understand this and do all they can to help. Not only that, but they throw some cheer into the mix. For this I lift a hearty thanks.

Image credit: Foursquare.

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?
(more…)

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 poses 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.