How to advance science and look good in a talk

Many conference presentations have become more about impressing the audience than advancing science. While presenters should, of course, strive to be engaging, impressive, and proud of their work, they should also be more open about their limitations and not view their project as a lone watershed moment in science but as a piece in an ever-advancing timeline of inquiry. Here are some ways to have presentation that will not just look good but will also be good for the scientific enterprise.

#1 Have a true and guided discussion of the limitations.

Let’s be honest: there’s probably no chance that you’ve tested your theory in the absolute best way possible – funding and constraints almost always prevent this.

There’s also little chance that you’ve removed 100% of the potential confounds. If you have any doubts about this, just submit your manuscript to any journal club and the feedback you will receive will make it abundantly clear that there are at least six thousands potential confounds. Psychological research is imperfect—and as Anna Kirmani and Michelle Pham have recently argued, it is important we realize this.

So what does this mean for your conference presentations?

It means you need to take control over the discussion of your limitations. Maybe you are worried about a hidden ceiling effect in the Likert measure or an undetected mood effect; mention those things. Further, tell us how we as a field could better test your theory. Maybe it is with larger more diverse samples or maybe it is with different dependent variables.

#2 Have a true and guided discussion of the relevance of your findings.

When the first choice overload studies came out, the authors made it seem that lots of choice was almost always bad. Turns out that although choice overload does exist, the original idea as the author of The Paradox of Choice Barry Schwartz explains was overstated.

Instead of looking back at how awesome their choice overload work was, in their original presentations and papers the choice researchers should have looked forward and said to their audiences, here’s how we can test the breadth of this choice overload work. Rather than assume its ubiquity for a few studies, they should have been more humble.

Recently, my colleagues and I have tried to use a humble approach by starting many presentations with the statement: “Today our only goal is to have you leave here thinking: ‘Hey, this phenomenon happens sometimes, isn’t that interesting, and shouldn’t we explore it more?’”

#3 Don’t be a theoretical imperialist and always remember the motto: “Death to Dichotomy”

Many researchers seem to feel the need to explain why their theory explains everything. This can make one can look very good and lead to a type of prominence in one’s field and the popular press. Yet, rarely is one perspective as completely explanatory as it seems.

For instance in the field of motivated cognition, people often have dichotomous debates between the existence of a motivation explanation (e.g. self-deception) versus a completely non-motivational explanation (e.g. informational differences, self-presentation bias). Scientists often try to explain lab and complex real world phenomena within one psychological theory with nearly unqualified general claims.

This leads to a theory versus theory approach. It forms a “dichotomous” view of reality when as Michelle Pham argues, this is often far from the truth. The majority of the most interesting phenomena in real life are determined by multiple factors. For example, in the case of motivated cognition, there is a synthesis of factors in self-deception that can occur due to concerns over self-presentation.

Dichotomous type of thinking does not lead to our goal of optimally advancing science. Instead of pitting psychological mechanisms against each other in absolute terms, we should develop models that allow for a multiple psychological mechanisms. We should not ask does X mechanism explain this phenomenon better than Y mechanism? Instead we should ask, when do X and Y matter most when consider phenomenon Z?

A final consideration: Does all this humble limitation focus actually improve your presentation and make you look better?

As a young scholar, I am always so saddened when I attend talks by famous scholars or rising stars in academia only to see that they are biased toward the prominence of their theories. Their self-aggrandizing style can hurt them at least in some people’s eyes. Scientists appreciate when other scientists act like humble scientists, and yes – that is only a “usually,” not an “always,” but still, it’s worth playing the percentages.

We need to stop focusing on looking good and we to need to start focusing on doing what’s good for science. Arguably, doing the things that are good for science can also make you look good.

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Viewpoint: Nudging Nudgers’ Nudges

Editor’s note: Ben Kozary, who you may already know from his articulate and thought-provoking post on why he has decided to leave academia, has become the latest recruit into the InDecision team, giving us a view of decision sciences from the other side of the world in Australia. We asked Ben to report on the first International Behavioural Insights Conference in Sydney from the perspective of someone moving from academia into industry – here he reflects on his first experience of the world of behavioural insights Out There. 

bx2014A few days ago, I read an interesting piece on the differences between behavioural economics and psychology. Truth be told, even after attending the inaugural Behavioural Exchange conference in Sydney on June 2 and 3, I’m still not sure what exactly the difference is. But does the distinction even matter? The academic in me screams, “YES!” but, outside of the ivory tower, it seems that most people aren’t concerned. Behavioural Exchange (hereafter referred to as bx2014) was, after all, a public policy conference – and as such, the emphasis of the conference was on actionable and applicable insights from the behavioural sciences.

It was the promise of these insights that drew me to bx2014. As a final year PhD candidate researching Consumer Psychology, I was looking to ground the heavily theoretical work I do in some concrete practical applications. My hope was that, in doing so, my work would take on greater meaning, even if only to me – not to mention that I’d be able to pad out the practical implications component of my dissertation. Additionally, as someone transitioning from academia into industry, I was curious as to what the transition was going to entail. Who are the sorts of people I’m going to be dealing with in industry, and how are they similar/different to academics? What value is placed on the skills and knowledge I have, and how might I be best able to apply myself? And how well received are the ideas that I’ve been exposed to throughout my time in academia? In this post, I hint at the answers to these questions but, as you may have guessed, they’re by no means definitive.

bx2014: an overview

Speakers at the event included academics, the majority of whom were from Harvard University; as well as members of government, primarily from Australia, but also from the US, UK, and Singapore; and businesspeople from around the world, including CEOs, consultants, and designers. For me, the first day seemed to focus more on government, whilst the second day was primarily about business – but regardless of the relevance (or not) to me, I found all of the sessions fascinating. Individual presenters and panels alike dealt with such issues as:

  • The importance and benefits of nudging
  • How governments can embrace, and have already undertaken, nudging
  • Opportunities, risks, and common challenges of nudging
  • The fundamentals of nudging, including data, design, and delivery
  • How the integration of findings from academia and experiences in business and government can make nudges more effective
  • Reflections and insights from business and academia on the application of nudges in the corporate world
  • The future of nudging and behavioural science

Nudging: is it just a fad?

At this point, you may have noticed that the term “nudging” seems to have been applied as a catchcry for any behavioural intervention. Overgeneralisation may be a common sin of consumer psychology researchers, but our thinking appears more nuanced than that of our industry counterparts. For instance, many of the initiatives suggested or discussed at bx2014 were based upon research describing numerous cognitive biases, including the sunk-cost fallacy, present bias, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, anchoring, and framing effects – but there was almost no mention of the intricacies of these biases, nor any real emphasis placed on the conditions specific to particular case studies upon which they had been used as part of a successful behavioural intervention. Given that I was asked on more than ten separate occasions during the two days whether I’d read Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (I haven’t, which apparently put me firmly in the minority of conference attendees), my concern here is that many of the attendees were searching for quick, easily applied solutions to issues affecting their stakeholders.

This overgeneralisation is dangerous ground to walk, because it flirts with the prospect of nudging becoming yet another apparent management or political panacea, when it’s anything but. Instead, we need to heed what Professor Cass Sunstein said in the first presentation of the conference; that effective nudging is about recognising individual differences. “Nudges are like GPS units: they tell you the most efficient, or ‘best’, route, but you don’t have to take it; you can go your own way and choose the scenic route, if you like.” In other words, nudges should preserve individual choice by not being overly paternalistic; this is what separates them from mandates. In that sense, I feel that Professor Sunstein was nudging us (if you will) to not overgeneralise.

Experimentation: “test, learn, adapt”

If you’re thinking executing Professor Sunstein’s advice is easier said than done, you’re right – but that was also addressed at bx2014. One of the recurring points of the conference was the need for experimentation, despite how challenging it may be. Dr David Halpern, Chief Executive of the UK Behavioural Insights Team, told us to live by one simple principle: “Test, learn, adapt.” Another presenter suggested, “It’s better to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and then test something, than to skip trials and push ahead to a full roll-out on a hunch.”

We were also reminded that the most successful companies, especially in the technology sphere – Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. – perpetually experiment. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are the gold standard of experimentation, but they’re not always viable. When that’s the case, we were advised to “do whatever experiments or tests you can, provided the costs don’t outweigh the potential benefits – but always strive to get the best data available.” And therein lay two of the foremost challenges of behavioural interventions in industry: funding, and time. Fortunately for me, my time in academia has me well versed in both of these issues…

Replication: it’s essential in industry, too

The issue of replication is one that we should all be familiar with by now – and it didn’t go unmentioned at bx2014, either. For instance, Professor Richard Thaler, from the University of Chicago, told us that managers and policy makers generally think they’re right, and they don’t like taking risks; however, they are often too impatient to run experiments, and don’t see the point of replication, with their philosophy being, “It worked already, so why do we need to spend more time and money to test it again?” This problem is an obvious one, but it can be overcome with education and training.

A more serious problem with replication was highlighted during the Design breakout session I attended on the afternoon of the first day, where one of the presenters said, “Relative to hard sciences, social science is difficult, because the results will not always replicate. You can implement a nudge or a system of some sort as an effective intervention, but in 6-12 months’ time (or maybe more), people might have adapted and changed their behaviours such that it no longer works – and therefore won’t replicate in any RCTs or experiments you run.” From an academic standpoint, I find this idea intriguing, because it’s something that we rarely consider; we tend to take the more general view that, if an effect is real, it will replicate. I’m yet to hear people’s adaptability offered as a reason for some of the recent failures for studies to replicate – and I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a legitimate reason, but it does highlight something that we as researchers risk forgetting: that there are real people behind our statistics, and they can be unpredictable and subject to change.

Big data: how do we use it?

On the second day, I attended the Data breakout session, during which several interesting points were made. The focus of the session was on big data, which Dr James Guszcza, of the Deloitte Analytics Institute in Singapore, told us referred to predictive analytics and modelling. These models, he said, can point us in the right direction, and tell us who to target our interventions to, but they don’t tell us how to prompt the desired behaviour change. For that, behavioural insights are required; thus, he recommended that behavioural insights and predictive modelling be infused, because – to echo Professor Sunstein – solutions will often need to be nuanced and individually focused. Dr Guszcza also advised that we be flexible with our data, and be open to the possibility that it can be useful in ways that you wouldn’t previously have imagined. “Old” datasets are particularly useful in this regard, he said, so you should also be mindful of “digital exhaustion” (that is, the deletion of older data).  “With today’s storage capabilities, you shouldn’t need to delete anything simply because it’s old.”

Collaboration in nudging: how academia and industry can work together

Strangely, the importance of collaboration between academia and industry wasn’t strongly highlighted at the conference; however, one presenter did note its significance. For collaboration to be effective, he said, it’s a matter of recognising each other’s needs. That means that academics should look at questions important to organisations, and organisations should allow academics to publish – especially given the type of rich data they have access to. Furthermore, collaboration could help solve what was highlighted as a critical issue affecting research into behavioural insights. That is, Professor Max Bazerman, of Harvard University, described how the judgement and decision-making field originated decades ago under the notion that, “If we understand what’s wrong with the human mind, we can fix it – but this approach is flawed. Instead, we should focus on understanding and accepting that this is the way the world works, and therefore we can learn to adapt and be effective.”

Final thoughts

At the conclusion of the conference, we were asked to fill out a short questionnaire. One of the questions asked us to describe bx2014 in one sentence; I wrote: “Nudging nudgers’ nudges”, because I felt that neatly summed up the notion that most people were there to learn how to implement more effective behavioural interventions (plus, my brain was fried after an intense two days, as well as having being punished by my downing more than a few drinks at the reception the night before…). But, the truth is, this conference can’t be compressed into a sentence; the ideas are just too big. So, with that in mind, I’d like now to share with you a few thought provoking ideas that I jotted down over the two days:

If I were young and wanted to start a business, I would start a choice engine, because they will do for other industries what travel websites did for that industry. The amount of data emerging and becoming available is monumental. -Professor Richard Thaler, University of Chicago

Nudges lead people to engage in behaviour – but, as a psychologist, I’m interested in the outcome beyond that behaviour; for example, are people happy or unhappy? -Professor Mike Norton, Harvard University

When thinking about nudges, consider this piece from the late author, David Foster Wallace: There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” Remember: there will always be water – and there will always be nudges, even if we don’t realise they’re there. We must open our eyes to the extensive possibilities of nudging. -Professor Cass Sunstein, Harvard University

And, finally:

Done is better than perfect. -Mia Garlick, Head of Policy Australia and New Zealand, Facebook

So, in the interests of applying something I learned at bx2014, I’m calling this post done. It’s not perfect – but as several speakers remarked at the conference, satisficing is better than optimising. And, at the end of the day, I think that’s a pretty good example of behavioural economics in action.

Derek Rucker – Shaky Camera Interview on Doctoral Consortiums

We caught up with Professor Derek Rucker and brought our classic shaky camera to get a quick interview on his perspective about what a graduate student should get out of a doctoral consortium and academic conferences in general. Watch it, it’s like 90 seconds.

Viewpoint: Never Say “Isn’t That Just Cognitive Dissonance?”

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 9.39.33 AMAfter a talk at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology 2014 conference in Austin, I found myself leaving Ballroom C when I heard someone utter to a colleague one of my least favorite phrases: “Isn’t that just cognitive dissonance?”

I wanted to shout at them, “You just went to a session on the application and extension of cognitive dissonance. Of course it was ‘cognitive dissonance,’ but it was insightful and useful.”

I did not, of course, say such things then. But now here I am on the Internet doing what I should have done outside Ballroom C.

But before I channel the wisdom expressed by the professors and practitioners who’ve been interviewed here on Indecision Blog, let’s back up for a second and set the scene.

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ballroom c

Deborah Hall of Arizona State University started a Friday afternoon presentation in Ballroom C by talking about how, in the 2012 Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan stated, “My playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin.”

Hall then argued this moment made many liberals uncomfortable. Why? Because liberals found themselves feeling similar to a conservative.

In a series of experiments, Hall and colleague Wendy Wood showed that pa
Studies like these illustrate and bring a sense of clarity to the partisan problem (and also extend group psychology in general). Yet, after hearing Hall’s presentation, one might think that, “Of course this is true, Festinger’s 1957 book predicts it.” However, before hearing these findings, one might also assume the opposite. One might might assume that accentuating basic similarities would easily “transcend party lines.”rtisans feel “dissonance affect” when they felt similar to members of the other political party. The researchers concluded that their findings “demonstrate that similarity to the negative reference standard provided by outgroups can elicit the feelings of psychological threat that accompany cognitive dissonance, highlighting a dilemma faced by politicians who seek to appeal to voters by accentuating basic similarities that transcend party lines.”

Many people walk away from SPSP talks like this one with questions like “Didn’t we already know that?” or the dismissive phrase “Isn’t that just cognitive dissonance?” In an interview with Indecision Blog, Harvard Professor Michael Norton explains why this dismissive attitude is the wrong attitude, and academics should instead adopt a rather more positive constructive attitude.

Similarly, Cornell Professor David Pizarro laments that a senior colleague told him not to pursue a project because, “Either way the results ended up, both theoretical conclusions would be obvious.” To which he responded, “Then is there not value in knowing which one is actually correct?”

Researchers often fail to see the value in clever research projects that test two competing hypotheses. Often they seem to prospectively be against research that will lead readers to fall victim to a “knew-it-all-along” hindsight bias.

On a similar note, Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt argues, “The sign of genius is the ability to see things that are completely obvious but to which everyone else is blind.” While there are definitely other signs of genius, our field tends to dismiss this kind of “genius.” And, unfortunately, it is genius of this kind that is A) often the most important to dealing with real world problems and B) fundamentally important to developing rich vast theoretical models of nuanced behavior.

Let’s retire the phrase “Isn’t this just cognitive dissonance?” and, more importantly, the harmful attitude that surrounds it.

Viewpoint: 6 Things a Conference Can Do For You

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There’s so many things about conferences that can fill you with hope, re-energize and recharge you as well as rebuild your confidence. Here are six things that academic conferences can help you with.

#1 Realizing that the tough love was worth it

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Let’s be honest, no matter how cool your advisors and professors are (and personally I have some ridiculously cool ones), sometimes you just feel like you can’t take anymore of their criticism.

They are just so very very critical. They wear you down and force you to reconsider everything. They question you, they question you, and then for a change of a pace they question you some more. Grad school can start to become a tunnel shaped like your advisor’s office with no light in sight.

But then you present at a conference. And the audience claps. And they clap not just politely, but with genuine enthusiasm. And all that pain now seems justified. And all of a sudden you feel a rush of thankfulness for your advisors and resist the urge to text them to tell your success and sappy thankfulness. You see another presentation and you see that student’s advisor was just “too nice” to them and now the student is a sitting duck in the Q&A.

Conferences remind you that all that “tough love” your advisors give you is really out of “love” not just “tough.”

#2 Reminding you that you do have interesting ideas

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.43.42 PMEveryone at your own school has heard you go on and on about your ideas for years now. They have become desensitized, and when people become desensitized to concepts they find them less interesting and can even underestimate the concepts’ general “objective” or “social” value.

But when you are at a conference talking about your ideas to fresh ears, your ideas tend to ring with more authority and more impact. Plus, the ears of conference attendees tend to be in many ways a better sounding board to test your ideas. Your ideas fall on ears without prejudice. To them you’re just a researcher. That’s an incredibly freeing experience.

 #3 Connecting you with that person who nods and smiles in the audience

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.41.59 PMIs there anybody in life that makes you as happy as the person in the audience who smiles and approvingly nods along with your presentation? Okay, hopefully your life partner or best friend makes you feel a little better, but still that person in the audience activates the happy dopamine pretty damn hard.

The only person who comes closer to the nodding audience member is the stranger who comes up to you randomly a day after your presentation to say “Good job.” For a moment you feel like the lead singer from the band Fun who sings, “There are people on the street / They’re coming up to me / And they’re telling me / That they like what I do now.”

 #4 Remembering that there are people in the world like you

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Maybe you find qualitative research interesting, maybe you have an odd presentation style, maybe you find applied or niche theoretical research really interesting. Whoever you are you, at times you probably feel like an outcast at your own school. However, when you come to a conference you find that at least some others see the world the way you do, find the same topics interesting, and have the same research philosophy.

Even at the best programs, you can’t find everything you optimally need. That’s why conferences are so beautiful: they fill in the cracks. Chances are, your advisor has probably told you to talk to certain people at conferences to help fill in those cracks. Good advisors know the limitations of a single department. Recently Professor Rucker spoke about this issue and even designed a Doctoral Symposium to specifically address the issue. He wanted students to be more exposed to different ideas and find what methods of doing research they “clicked with.”

#5 Reminding you that you are a person

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.34.45 PMIn graduate school, sometimes it is hard to feel like you’re a person. You read, write, analyze, go home, exercise, or maybe not exercise (I promise I’ll do it tomorrow or next week), and then watch an episode of Breaking Bad and go to sleep. That’s what graduate school becomes. While your friends post Facebook pictures of roof top bars, you post an article about the ethics of data collection or a psychological analysis of Doctor Who.

But conferences force students out of their labs and out of their routines, and drop them onto the streets of some truly fantastic cities. If you’re lucky, your conference will even throw an amazing after party at a downtown club where you can feel like a VIP for the night – all this serves to re-energize you as you look down the glass floor of the CN tower or toast a drink at the John Hancock bar and bond with conference friends.

Professor Meg Campbell spoke at the Association for Consumer Research 2013 about how for many graduate students it is important to have a life, excitement, and friends. This all gives students the energy they need to trudge through the academic life. If as a student you do nothing exciting, you may crave an emotional boost from looking through a funny tumblr, but if you know you have excitement in your future, if you feel satisfied with that picture of your conference friends walking the Golden Gate at a lunch break, then dealing with that awful reviewer #2 is not so bad. Conferences can be a personal affirmation.

#6 Wait, there is new research out there! I forgot that.

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As one proceeds in academia one reads more often but reads exciting things less often. By the nature of our craft we start drilling into one area so far that nothing seems very novel or new. And if it is new it seems like a tweak not the grand advancement we got into graduate school looking to make. It can lead you to lose confidence that there’s anything new in the field. It can also just make you depressed, as the days of being excited by daily reading something new in intro grad classes are long behind you.

But at conferences every session, every conversation, and every chance encounter  is full of disparate and new ideas. This has two wonderful effects. First, it is simply wildly entertaining. We forget sometimes how much just listening to new intellectual ideas entertains us. Second, it starts to build “broad connections” that can help you develop your ideas. Professor Jim Bettman advises academics to consistently read up on areas not directly related to their line of study. This takes advantage of the availability bias and leads you as a researcher to keep different ideas available in your head. This means that there are greater chances you’ll find spontaneous connections with your own work.

Malcolm Gladwell’s ACR 2013 Talk: Summary, Science and Responses

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Malcolm Gladwell just gave a talk at the Association for Consumer Research. What did he talk about? How did it go? What scientific research did he cover? What are related research he did not cover? How did he handle questions and a somewhat “difficult” audience of behavioral scientists?

We will post a more detailed reaction soon that will feature editorials. But for those itching to know what he talked about and also interested in citation links related to what he said, here’s your summary fix.

What was his “hypothesis”?

Gladwell talked about topics not in his new book. He described the ideas as ‘provisional’ but they seemed highly polished. He mainly talked about how minorities (women, races) are kept out of the majority and his main hypotheses was that people excluded minorities by a) accepting some of them and/or b) being hyper critical of others. His illustrative hypothesis was that if and when Hillary Clinton is elected President she will be the only woman president for a long time.

What were the specifics of the “hypothesis”?

Gladwell argued that people feel licensed to be discriminatory against minorities because they tend to accept a few of them (e.g. have one female head of state, have one woman artist in a museum) and or do a few things for them (charity). He also argued they feel like they can be hyper critical of minorities.To help explain this point he defined two different types of minority tokens: the trouble token and the ideal token.

The trouble token he defined as the person that represents the minority and is thoroughly thrashed by the majority culture. His main example for this was former Australian head of state Julia Gillard who Gladwell says was uniquely ridiculed by the public in part because of her gender.

The ideal token he defined as the person that is accepted by the majority and allows the majority to feel “not sexists” or “not racist.” His main narrative example for this was artist Elizabeth Thompson who broke into the male dominated English art scene in the 1870s. However, her success did not lead to a drastic change in the gendered art community. There was also some discussion about Jews and how Nazis felt comfortable with prejudice and the Final Solution because they had previously been nice to small groups or individuals. In discussing the ideal token he cited “moral licensing” work about how favoring Obama licenses people to have anti-black attitudes.

How did he do?

ImagePretty fantastic actually. Rhiannon MacDonnell said it best on Twitter: “Really interesting and candid talk by Gladwell at ACR 2013. Great jock tackling a tough crowd with humility and humor.”

Gladwell did two things right: 1) He told great thought provoking stories and 2) he was upfront that he was proposing absolute “laws.” He cleverly joke about how his aims are different from the scientific community.

The ACR Co-Chairs Simona Botti  and Aparna Labroo should be proud to have brought such great entertainment with a side of thought provoking insights to ACR with Gladwell. In their introduction of the Gladwell session, it was obvious how excited the two were to have Gladwell, and by the end of the session that excitement was shared by arguably most of the audience.

But there was one thing…

Gladwell’s talk was extremely depressing.  He identified a problem and offered no solution. His talk ended with, “And I’m not certain we’ll ever have another Black President.”

Gladwell’s entire message was that people in the majority can oppress minorities and still feel good about themselves. His whole talk was about why and how this happened but the takeaway was there really is no hope. There was sliver of hope suggesting that if some how a significant portion of the minority can force their way in, things will get better. However, that was the only ray of sunshine.

Now, if you are in the successful class (like in many ways to audience at Palmer Hilton hotel conference featuring Malcolm Gladwell are), then his points seem insightful. But if you are in the minority or lower class then the results are just depressing.

How did he manage the whole criticism of the Gladwell style?

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Arguably quite well. He was humble. Saying his ideas in the talk were “provisional” and “I am just playing.” He joked about differences between his writing and scientific writing saying, “I am not going to submit that [his hypothesis on culture] to JPSP [The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology].”

He also talked about how though all the behavioral scientists in the room think it is obvious that things like culture affect outcomes, this is not the case for the general public always. He states that his books were to get people thinking about ideas that our field just knows to be true

Yale Professor Zoe Chance asked Gladwell a pointed question about balancing accuracy with storytelling. His response seemed very similar to a recent quote he gave in a Guardian piece, “If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them” and also expressed in an extended conversation with Duke Professor Dan Ariely.

Gladwell stated that he wants to inspire people and make them feel joyous about science. He sees himself (as he literally is) the child of an academic and pursues similar but not the exact same goals. From the buzz around ACR it seems Gladwell won over a lot of the Gladwell skeptics. He did this by clarifying that he isn’t trying to replace scientists nor does he want to propose absolute laws – he articulated perfectly and humbly that his goals are different.

Why the talk was interesting & uncomfortable

Gladwell articulated in his iconic style a question that has been on the minds of many moral psychologists: how can we feel good about ourselves when we do so little to actually help those in need?

For instance all of the conference members with enjoy a private party at the House of Blues in Chicago this evening and return late into the night to Palmer Hilton for a nice sleep and flight back—all compensated by their universities. All of us here at ACR arguably all engage in some degree of hypocrisy, claiming to care so much for the poor, the obese, and the irrational consumer, but we then go buy a $5 Starbucks with university funds.

Understanding this general psychological phenomenon and trying to grasp at what truly is the correct moral way to live in the world is something that came (intentionally or not) out of Gladwells speech – it’s a wonderful spark for empirical and philosophical work.

What science should Malcolm Gladwell read?

ImageIt was difficult to tell how much psychology Gladwell has read. He referenced work on moral licensing, but even how familiar he was with that topic was ambiguous. This did not stop him from making insightful and great points that he openly described as speculative.

However, if he does want to move more from speculation to more of a firm hypotheses for a future articles or a book, we have a few suggestions of what he should read more of. If you have any suggestions let us know on Twitter (@Indecision_Blog) or just leave a comment on this post. We’ll be updating this post with the ideas you share us here and also with more specific articles in the future to stimulate discussion amongst ourselves and maybe even to pass along to Gladwell. In sum, it is the belief of at least this author that Gladwell put together some fascinating hypotheses that may be worth exploring or relating to our work.

Moral licensing

Licensing is a more contentious topic than it sometimes seems. We suggest he keeps his eyes out for looming meta-analyses that should come out soon and check out work on when licensing does not occur such as in this study by Ayelet Gneezy and colleagues.

Moral self

His hypotheses seemed very similar to work by Albert Bandura on moral disengagement and Nina Mazar on the self-concept maintenance model. Both of these ideas were the center of Dan Ariely’s bestselling new book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, so it was somewhat odd than none of these researchers in our field got a nod and instead only Effron and Monin got a tip.

Categorization theory

In discussing how people assign people to categories and code people as say “in-group” or “out-group” or how whites might decide where to code a black person as “black” or not has been extensively looked at the literature. This seemed fundamental to his discussion of the ideal token, but he did not discuss any of this work. Was this because of time or his lack of knowledge of it? Even just a short browsing on Psych Wikipedia for this topic might help.

Our Question! His Answer: Storytelling

Indecision Blog had the honor of asking Gladwell the first question in the Q&A (big thanks to co-chairs of ACR for this honor): we asked how can academia influence business persons and policy makers in the way Gladwell has.

His answer was simply that we need to tell stories. He made clear that the story has to be in the communication with businesses and policy makers. Gladwell described his answer as “obvious”, but we still think it’s not so obvious in our field all the time. (Full coverage as well as the full transcription of Gladwell’s answer to this question sometime soon.)

However, we will note that Gladwell started his ACR talk with a very long story before it became apparent what his hypotheses was and long before his talk got “scientifically interesting.” You could feel the tension in the room when Gladwell was just storytelling and before he delivered on the story in a way that seemed to satisfy the audience. We as researchers would probably have skipped the extensive opening narratives when communicating our ideas, but Gladwell says this is necessary. At the end when all the bread crumbs he laid out came together, it was hard to argue that his extensive storytelling did not help make his simple hypotheses seem more real and inspire his audience to actually do something about it.

ACR 2013 Doctoral Consortium: Contradictions are Part of the Point

ImageOn Thursday, October 3, 2013, a lot of information was shared at the Doctoral Consortium.  Interestingly, some of the advice contradicted one another: contradictions occurred between and across sessions. As an attendee or someone who just read the tweets, you might be wondering, “What’s a grad student to make of speakers giving different opinions?”

Indecision Blog caught up with Consortium Co-Chair Derek Rucker after day to talk about the themes and goals of the day. The full video interview will be coming soon but we wanted to post a few quotes to help clarify some things.

What did you hope the students got from today?

Rucker: “As a Ph.D student you are at a particular graduate program with a limited set of faculty… The big thing here is exposure to different thoughts, and different ideas, and different ways of doing things.”

How should students deal with hearing contradictory information?

Rucker: “One of things I want students to get is that there are different ways to approach research. Sometimes these are represented as contradictions – Faculty A says do it this way and Faculty B says do it that way. But instead, with many great minds in the room you see that there are different paths to success.”

 “For instance students that just listened to talk that discussed, ’Should I do more field experiments or should I start with theory?’ whereas probably both are paths to success. You can come to [ACR] and say, ‘Wow there are some real luminaries in the field. What’s their style? Which ones resonate with me? Which ones don’t? [At ACR] you get this nice exposure to different ways of reaching the same goal.”

Across the Consortium

At many places across the Doctoral Consortium, Rucker’s sentiments were shared. At the Consumer Culture Theory session, the researchers talked about connecting with “what vibrated with you.” At the “What I was Glad I Did/What I Wish I Would Have Done Differently” session, the speakers openly contradicted each other. But the contradictions were not mean – instead they openly laughed about the contradictions. Likewise the journal editors talked about differences and even used a funny metaphor (to varying degrees) of “too hot, too cold, and just right” to describe the journals’ unique characteristics and goals.

However, that doesn’t mean you should just run free without worries as there are definitely poor ways to do things and internally inconsistent ways to approach things. Doing things in a certain way means you will have to sacrifice something else – life and research come with trade-offs, so don’t let cognitive dissonance convince you otherwise. The point simply is that there are different ways to do great things and if the consortium seemed contradictory to you, you should know that it was, in fact, one of points of consortium: to let help you connect with a great path that works for you.

Special thanks to the co-chairs and all the panelists who took time to talk to Indecision Blog and provided us with your materials. 

N.B. Blogged and edited semi-live so mistakes and typos may have slipped in!