Viewpoint: Raised on TED – The Dangers

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This week Troy reflects on his own experiences of being raised on TED and shares thoughts based on conversations he has with many professors about TED and the structure of research. 

The lights dim, the red TED logo glows and the researcher steps on stage. The researchers begins with an emotional anecdote, identifies a world problem, cracks a joke, shows a graph, and then the crowd rises in thunderous applause.  Another 18 minutes of edge-of-your-seat science ends and somewhere a graduate student clicks away from YouTube and back to her data.

We are the first generation of scientists raised on TED videos. There is no denying that TED affects our research goals and research styles. So is TED dangerous or inspirational to young researchers?

This first post looks at the dangers, and next week we’ll look at some of the inspirations.

Danger #1: Remember that 18 minute talk took 18 years of research.

One problem many students have is that they enter graduate school with TED as their blue print for research. It is important to remember that those TED speakers were neither as good at public speaking nor as prolific in research when they began their graduate careers. In their pasts, they focused on only a few topics, made mistakes, and needed to establish themselves before they became science rock stars.

This danger can be fixed by using recently placed graduate students as blueprints for success. At the next conference instead of stalking a TED speaker, choose to meet up with successful young researchers and find out what that researcher did to succeed. As an additional bonus, the chances are that young research will also have more time to spend with you.

Danger #2: The Goal of Science is not Public Entertainment

John Hodgman (pictured) is an entertaining making a point. Scientists are point makers occasionally entertaining.

John Hodgman (pictured) is an entertainer who occasionally makes a point. Scientists are point makers who occasionally entertain.

The goal of science is to create valuable information not to entertain. Entertainment is a device TED talkers and bloggers use to get their research across. One should not aim for a news headline just to get a news headline. For the most part, this tendency must be resisted for the health of science and arguably for the health of your career.

When science is entertaining it should follow the Ig Nobel standard of “research that makes people laugh and then think.” If the think does not come, then the science fails. The news media and YouTube love headlines that make people laugh and it is so tempting to try to make the public laugh and impress them. Many of us are nerds who never were popular and cool, and being popular and cool for just one moment is a huge temptation. Resist that temptation.

Danger #3:  TED is Only Chapter 1

TED talks are only the intro, TED encourages viewers to go deeper.

TED talks are only the intro, TED encourages viewers to go deeper.

TED talks always feel like the first chapter of a book. However, good science is not completed by writing just one chapter. And just as there is danger in only reading in the first chapter of Blink, there is a danger of doing chapter 1-thin research.

Some have argued that TED needs to be better at delving deeper into the topics. Regardless of whether TED internally acts correctly or not, TED does not provide the right template for how to do research. A scientist does not benefit science by just skimming the edges of a topic with a single empirical phenomenon. One benefits science by digging a deep hole or at least digging repeatedly roughly around the same hole.

Next week: the brighter side of being raised on TED!

Research Heroes: Max Bazerman

Bazerman_25aThis week’s Research Hero is Prof. Max Bazerman, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is also affiliated with Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Psychology Department, and the Program on Negotiation. Prof Bazerman’s research focuses on but is not limited to decision making, ethics, and negotiation. He has coedited more than 200 articles and 16 books, including Negotiation Genius, Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them, and the sixth edition of Judgment in Managerial Decision Making. He has international collaborations with over 25 countries and 50 companies in United States. Prof. Bazerman is also famous for being the one who introduced the science of negotiation in Business schools. He has received many awards, to name a few recent ones: honorary doctorate from the University of London (London Business School), being named as one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics, one of Daily Kos’ Heroes from the Bush Era for going public about how the Bush Administration corrupted the RICO Tobacco trial, and the 2008 Distinguished Educator Award from the Academy of Management.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…

a) All good papers find homes

b) If the reviewer is being “stupid”, it is probably your writing that allows them to be “stupid”.  The solutions isn’t hoping for smart reviewers, but taking the perspective of the reviewer, and writing so that they see the brilliance in your work.  (and, if you don’t have those writing skills, find an editor)

I most admire academically… because…


a) Kahneman and Tversky, for outlining the most influential research direction in the social sciences

b) Thaler and Sunstein, for nudging us to how to put this brilliance into practice to make the world a better place

The best research project I have worked on during my career...the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….
The next project, which I do not even know about as I write this, that one of my brilliant doctoral students lures me into joining.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…the one project that I should never had done…
My empirical work has co-authors, so I am going to refuse to answer this one.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….The common occurrence of a brilliant doctoral student coming into my office to inform me about how wrong I am – again!

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…
I have told all my stories worth telling

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…Kern, M. and Chugh, D. (2009).  Bounded ethicality: The perils of loss framing.  Psychological Science, 20(3), 378-384. The paper is brilliant, simple, and important.  And, it is about things I know about.  I can’t figure out why I didn’t do this before Kern and Chugh.  I love this paper!

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be...less happy.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…Changing our methods to cope with the insightful and important work of John, Leslie K., George Loewenstein, and Drazen Prelec. Measuring the Prevalence of Questionable Research Practices with Incentives for Truth-telling. Psychological Science (2012). Simmons, Joseph P.,  Leif D. Nelson and Uri Simonsohn.  False-Positive Psychology : Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting. Psychological Science (2011). My generation messed up, and led to the acceptance of bad practices with too many cute false positives.  We need to clean up our act, and the faster the better.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Don’t p-hack (see Simmons et al., 2011).  The world is changing, detecting p-hacking is easy, and the value on integrity in research is going up very quickly.

Prof. Bazerman’s Wikipedia page

In The Wild: Leigh Caldwell

Chicago headshot 1This week in our practitioner series we’re featuring Leigh Caldwell who is a behavioural economist and founding partner of pricing research consultancy Irrational Agency. He’s been applying decision making research commercially since the mid-2000s, making him quite an early adopter of this discipline, and is also active in academic economic research, working in the emerging field of cognitive economics. He has founded and run several businesses in technology and professional services, and recently condensed his experience in pricing and marketing these businesses into a new book The Psychology of Price. He is also the sub-editor for our upcoming interview series on applications of decision-making psychology in economics and public policy.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I see my work as scaling up. I start from decision-making research that applies to individuals, and expand it into an understanding of how groups of people, companies or markets or whole economies, operate.

As a consultant, I do this for companies who want to know how to design a pricing or marketing strategy while taking into account consumer psychology. As a researcher, I do it with economic theory, building models of how markets work and how economies experience growth or recessions.

To do either of these jobs calls for mathematical models – models of how people behave which strike the balance between being psychologically realistic, but simple enough to work with. Old style economics went too far down the simplification route; but modern empirical psychology doesn’t produce simple models. So my work involves figuring out just how much simplification is enough, then doing the mathematics to expand it to an economic scale.

This field as a whole is called cognitive economics. Its goal is to build models of the economy that are based on a realistic foundation of how people really make decisions, and to bring an understanding of positive psychology into economic modelling – how people get utility or happiness from non-material goods, by modifying their cognitive state. It tackles questions like: what determines whether a company invents a new product or competes in an existing category? Why do companies make profits when economics says all profit should be competed away? Why are people unemployed? Why do people invest and save and borrow in the way they do? When people can get psychological benefit from intangible things, why do they still rely so much on material possessions? These are all really important questions which traditional economics can’t answer. Cognitive economics uses the discoveries of decision-making psychology to figure out why these things happen.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I was running a business, a software company, and had been trying to work out for years how much money I should charge for our products. I could tell that my customers weren’t making decisions through rational cost-benefit analysis, so I wanted to know what else was going on. The same pattern showed up when we built software – whenever people started using it, they insisted on ignoring the “correct” processes and used it in whatever way they felt like. The Sheldon Cooper in me was frustrated by all this irrationality. I had to figure out what was going on!

I had read lots of marketing books with some foundations in folk psychology – anything from Dale Carnegie to Ries & Trout – but none of them seemed very scientific. As a mathematician and programmer with an economics background, my natural approach was to try to build a predictive model of people’s behaviour and figure out what was going on. When I started looking into the psychology research, I found out that there were plenty of researchers examining the same kinds of problems…but no coherent structure for how to apply the discoveries either to economics or business. That was where I discovered my niche. I decided to start applying this science, first in my software business and eventually set up a new business selling pricing advice. Having got involved along the way in academic research in order to find these answers, it seemed natural to keep working both on new research and on business applications.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? Like everyone, I’m entertained by the range of provocative topics people study in this discipline: the psychology of online dating, whether people called Michel are more likely to buy Michelin stock, or how easily people can be manipulated into saying the opposite of what they apparently believe – there’s always something fun.

But I’m always more interested in foundational work. This field is full of ad hoc papers, with lots of experiments focusing on individual standalone phenomena. Those are all fine in their own right, but they are hard to apply to real world problems. You need to do a new experiment every time you want to investigate anything. Theoretical work that unifies a spectrum of different results into a smaller set of principles makes it easier to solve new problems. That kind of work is what really fascinates me.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? There’s resistance from the economics side of the discipline – many economists insist that people are fundamentally rational, even if they make occasional mistakes in their decisions. Their idea is that all the mistakes basically cancel out, or disappear once consumers learn to overcome them. That is part of why I want to turn all the disparate effects in this field into a unified theory: to find out whether our general cognitive limitations have an impact on the efficiency of markets or on whether societies end up rich or poor.

From the business side, the issue isn’t any direct resistance, just a lack of rigour and knowledge. Businesses are often run on superstition more than on evidence. The barrier here is inertia: a concerted effort will be needed to persuade companies and governments to take up these ideas. Fortunately, capitalism provides an incentive to make that effort – there are big rewards awaiting the agencies or consultancies who can win that role as a bridge from science to business.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? Tenuous.

Two other interviewees in this series responded to this question with the word “symbiotic”. That’s true, but it’s also idealised. In reality, the culture – or to be technical, the habitus – of these two worlds are so different that it’s hard for them to work together. So far.

Academics mostly agree that it’s a good thing to make their work relevant for business or public policy applications, but many of them don’t have a clear idea of how to do that. (Business schools are a major exception – I’ve been impressed by the decision-making research conducted in the top business schools.) However, academics who are hired as consultants often struggle to make their work have an impact. Consultancy needs to be followed up by strong and simplified implementation steps in order to work, and academics rarely enjoy distilling their work in that way. Then again, that’s true of most commercial consultancy too.

Businesspeople are more skeptical of the potential for collaboration. No pharmaceutical company would deny the importance of rigorous biochemical science in creating their products, but it wouldn’t occur to most of them that decision-making science is relevant to their marketing and pricing too. I don’t think this means they’re anti-academic or anti-science, just that they don’t understand it and so it is easier for them to rely on gut feeling and intuitive judgment in this area. Quite a lot of my commercial work ends up being about translating scientific concepts into business language, and then demonstrating why business should be more open to using scientific methods and knowledge.

Mostly, the interface between the two worlds is limited to popular science books, a few intrepid people from marketing agencies who visit academic conferences, and the occasional consulting contract for a professor somewhere. I would love to be part of changing this. Right now we have two separate worlds and a few people who occasionally cross the border between them.

Imagine we could create a continuous spectrum instead: at one end theoretical academic research on mathematics or abstract models, then empirical research testing hypotheses, then an “engineering” discipline who knows the science and also how to implement it in business, through to marketing departments who use what the engineers have developed, all the way to operations or finance departments who could become aware of how to incorporate consumer psychology in the service they deliver and the way they bill for it. That would transform the practice of both business and academia.

How do we get there? Maybe we all need to apply some decision making psychology to understanding our own barriers and how to change our own behaviour.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? The areas I work in get their richness and value from the interplay of three disciplines: marketing, empirical psychology and economics. Researchers who are interested in pricing and other business applications will want to understand how people work in business as well as the scientific process of psychology and the modelling and mathematics that comes into economics.

For example, if you’re an economist and haven’t done empirical psychology work before, try getting involved in some pricing experiments at a business school so you can see how that works. If you’re a psychology researcher who hasn’t worked in a company, try working with a small business to try to redesign the pricing of their products or services. To get a feel for practical applications in pricing, you might also want to take a look at Priceless by William Poundstone (or my book). And if you’re a practitioner who wants to bring more science into your work, go along to some academic conferences or seminars just to get a feel for how people work.

Sometimes people are worried that they won’t understand the science (or the economics) or the maths will be too difficult. Try it anyway and just understand as much as you can. People in other fields aren’t any cleverer, they just speak a different language – the people who work in that field learned it, and you could learn it too if you wanted to.

Practical applications aside, if you’re interested in cognitive economics research, you will have to have an independent spirit. There are not many people working in the field yet, so you probably won’t find a supervisor who specialises in it. You can get in touch with me and I can help you identify a list of papers to start with, and then see what kind of research question you’re interested in. I think cognitive economics will be an increasingly important field and this is a good time to get into it; but it is always more challenging to work in an emerging field because the directions of research and the conventions aren’t clear yet.

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