Is one ever too busy to think?

It happened with the first book too: after everything is off to press, I find some delightful sources that, had I read them earlier, I would have quoted and discussed. That’s the inevitable result of working on a book: it opens up subjects that don’t close up along with your deadlines.

First, in his scathing article “The Naked and the TED,” Evgeny Morozov describes the “takeaway” as “the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.” That’s great. My only qualm is that I don’t think people are really too busy to think; rather, they don’t want to think and use the busyness to excuse this. (We all do this with things we don’t want to do.) I’ll get to that in a moment.

Also, Dave Stein’s terrific blog Lex maniac–which examines “expressions that have entered and established themselves in everyday language in the last thirty years”–observes that the takeaway “refers to the main point you want to drive home but shifts the focus to the receiver of the message from that of the sender. The important thing is not what you say, but what your listeners remember.” In other words, a takeaway produces results, or rather, it is the result. It is the mental product that people carry away from a speech, book, advertisement, or other way of conveying something. (I have no excuse for not reading Lex maniac earlier–I was told about it more than once–but now I visit it often.)

Many people, especially in Hungary, have asked me, “What does ‘Take Away the Takeaway’ mean?” (That’s the title of this blog and of the first chapter of Mind over Memes.) I explain that I am not arguing to get rid of takeaways but rather to remove them temporarily to see what lies below them: what uncertainties, questions, subtleties, and extensions. In other words, don’t let the takeaway replace the larger subject. Like the birds in the photo below, look it up and down; examine it from different parts of the crate. (The birds–maybe flycatchers of some kind?–are a little hard to see, but they’re at the edge of the wooden crate in the foreground. One is looking up, the other down.)


But back to the question of being too busy to think. No one can do everything, but people find ways to make time for the things they really want to do. No matter how busy you are, there are ways to fit things in and cut other things out. Those who say, “I really want to write; I just don’t have time” have chosen to do other things besides write. The same applies to playing an instrument, reading, or any other voluntary, ongoing activity or action. This is true even for people raising children; even in the most hectic years, many parents make (or find, borrow, conjure, steal, or glean) time for writing, music, and other things.

Now, finding the time for something can involve some big choices and even sacrifices. For any serious writing, I need stretches of time. I don’t work well in small snatches here and there, even though those can supplement the larger work. When writing a book, I have needed to take time off from teaching (which meant leaving my job at the time, since there were no sabbaticals or other leaves that accommodated what I wanted to do.) In contrast, I have not been in the routine of practicing cello lately. I do not like “sort of” playing; if I am going to play, I want to practice two hours a day–and that is a big commitment among others. I already have substantial commitments, including musical commitments, in my time outside of work, so I have chosen not to add more. I do want to return to cello–but at a time when I am willing to set other things aside for it. (“You sure seem to have time for your blog,” someone might say. Yes, that’s part of the point; I choose to have time for it.)

The same holds true for thinking. Yes, a day can leave little room for extended thought, but it’s up to an individual whether or not to find the openings. This choice depends on many things. There are temperamental differences: some people feel uncomfortable when sitting with their own thoughts, whereas others feel something missing if they don’t take time for contemplation, analysis, rumination, play. There are also practices, habits, rituals of thinking, which can be built over time; someone unused to wrestling with a geometry problem may find it frustrating at the outset, whereas someone who does it every day may relish it and seek out trickier problems.

For me, different kinds of thinking need different forms and settings; I enjoy thinking during bike rides but do a different kind of thinking when sitting at the computer, and still other kinds when reading a book, listening to music, or writing a poem.

So then, given the voluntary nature of thought, given the possibility of finding time for thought even in a busy schedule, why does there seem to be a growing cultural impatience with thinking? Why is a “thinker” even viewed as a social nuisance, the one who ruins the fun?

I would attribute at least some of this to the rise of “thinking-lite,” a stand-in for independent thought. It’s a way of having your cake and being told you just had broccoli, or quasi-broccoli. Institutions like TED and media such as Twitter give their audience the sensation of learning something new or participating in something smart. They offer some kind of takeaway. That is all very satisfying, until you realize that these nutritional nuggets were often nothing other than candy.

There are exceptions. Here and there, you will find a TED talk that takes the audience into the subtleties of a subject. Stephen Burt’s talk “Why People Need Poetry” does that, a little–though if he had stayed with one poem, he could have done more. It’s a talk about poetry in general; to its great credit, it ends with something other than a takeaway. It invites the audience to look and listen beyond the usual.

So to make more “time” for thought, a society must raise it up as an honorable thing: it must show, through classes, programs, books, and speeches, what it means to work toward greater understanding, to question assumptions, to find clear language, to return to old works and ideas, to gaze into art, to separate the known from the unknown in science, and to bear with not knowing for sure what you will get out of it all.


I took these photos in Szolnok. On rainy days it almost looks like fall. But here’s a sunny day, below (also in Szolnok, by the Tisza river). Fall is not the takeaway, nor is rain.


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

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 persisted with uncertainties, we could have interesting discussion. Semi-intellectual discussion seizes quick answers like real estate. That’s part of the problem with TED: its emphasis on quick answers. I will say more about that soon.

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

I made a few changes to the last paragraph long after posting this piece.

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 and vigor, one can make it.

Update: TED has changed the title of Cuddy’s talk from “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” to “Your Body Language May Shape How You Are.” In addition, the talk’s page on the TED website has a “Criticism & updates” section, last updated in August 2017. Both are steps in the right direction.

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.

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.)

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 disagreeing with them at times). 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.

The Cult of the Spiffy Solution

Just as the world is made up of two kinds of people–those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not–so it is divided into those who want spiffy solutions to complex human problems and those who do not.

Why, in our era of self-help, TED, and aggressive innovation, would anyone turn down a quick solution to a persistent human problem? Why would anyone cringe at the assertion, “One tiny change can revolutionize your life”? Well, I do.

Perhaps I suspect that the assertion is false; perhaps I wouldn’t even want it to be true. The first possibility is a little easier to explain, so I will tackle it first.

People who propose some seemingly simple solution are often trying to sell it. That is, their solution comes with a book, a program, a product. They not only divulge the solution but take on the role of master coach. This tends to interfere with their ability to criticize their own solution. They have a great stake in promoting it, and they get attention, praise, and money for doing so.

A case in point (one of many examples): Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, claims that we can change our body chemistry and our behaviors just by changing our posture (that is, by adopting “power poses“). She cites her own research and the research of others in support of this theory.

Her TED talk is listed as one of the most popular of all time. It is already media, but the media lapped it up, in a typical gesture of self-potation. In this talk, she claims that a change of posture–adopted right now–can change the trajectory of your life. She begins: “So I want to start by offering you a free no-tech life hack, and all it requires of you is this: that you change your posture for two minutes.” She ends:

So I want to ask you first, you know, both to try power posing, and also I want to ask you to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life.

Share the science! Yet when Eva Ranehill and others attempted to replicate her research, they found that power poses had no effect on hormonal levels or any of the behavioral tasks. (They did effect people’s self-reported feelings of power.)

In a Slate article, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung criticize the overall lack of suspicion around Cuddy’s theory and others like it. While not blaming Cuddy herself (or any particular reporter or media outlet), they warn against fuzzy acceptance of so-called “science” (which may be no more than a popular theory that feels good and has some basis in anecdote). Gelman (of whom I am becoming a cautious and questioning fan) is even funnier and more caustic in his own blog post on the subject.

There is every reason to doubt the “power pose” theory and others of its ilk. It’s good to have good posture; this is no innovation. One can strive for good posture, and enjoy its benefits, without pretending that it will catapult every one of us to power.

Now I come to the second point: I wouldn’t even want this thing to be true. Granted, what I want to be true shouldn’t affect what I think is true. Yet it often does; I must always be vigilant about the spill of preference into perception. The question then is: What accounts for the difference between those who want the “power pose” theory to be true and those who don’t?

I don’t want it to be true because I don’t want to be reduced to a success cartoon. Suppose power posing did change hormonal levels and increase risk-taking. Suppose those changes led to power positions, power lunches, power dates. All that power would get boring, and the substance would seep away. I would go on a long search for someone not entirely self-assured and an occupation that did not require constant flashes of confidence.

I don’t mean that others want to become auto-CEOs; I don’t fully understand the allure of the quick “scientific” fix. It seems to skip over two challenges: understanding science itself (at least enough to evaluate the research) and dealing with the complexities of life. Maybe there is ease in the skipping. Ease itself isn’t bad; most of us covet ease of some kind. This is one kind, though, that I don’t covet.

I question the notion of power as ceaseless good. Even in a job interview, some ebb and flow of power is probably ideal; one doesn’t want to tower over the interviewer. Moreover, an interview should be about the job and the candidate’s qualifications. If we are tilting toward a culture of “power impressions,” maybe it’s time to take a few decades, or even a century, to correct that tilt. That one century could change a life.


(I made some revisions to this piece after posting it. For some uproarious evening reading, see “NO TRUMP!: A Statistical Exercise in Priming,” which Gelman co-wrote with Jonathan Falk.)