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.

___

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

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.41.12 PM

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

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.31.13 PM

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

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.36.21 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.32.59 PM

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

Image

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?

Image

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.

More than Friendship: The Importance of Student Peers

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 12.59.46 PM

Time and time again, you hear students talk about how lonely graduate school can be. To fight the loneliness, graduate students often befriend each other, play board games together, go to trivia nights together, or yes even party together—only on weekends and always responsibly of course. Even though this makes graduate school less lonely, the research itself may remain a lonely enterprise.

Yet it doesn’t have to be: future professors, inventors, and intellectual powerhouses are residing on the desk across from you, why not take advantage of that?

On day one of graduate school I wished someone would have told me so many things (e.g. difference between theory-application, how run certain models) but most of all I wish someone would simply have told me: “Student peers are fundamentally important to your academic life.” 

Of course, everyone knows you want to befriend and get along with the students in your department. However, unlike during your undergraduate studies where friendship is the ultimate goal, in graduate school so much more can occur. Graduate students are not just potential friends, they are potential colleagues, co-authors, discussion partners, support networks, and walking encyclopaedias of various literatures. Fellow students are the one of the biggest and most powerful resources in graduate school, yet we often overlook this fact.

No matter who your advisor is, he or she will not be around as much as your fellow students who are almost always there. They hear your ideas in class and lab, attend your conference presentations, talk at length with you over coffee and lunches, and see your ideas develop from day one. In many ways your peers often know your ideas, thought processes, passions, and weaknesses better than anyone else. This is especially true for students working with multiple advisors or switching between advisors.

Yet, often we simply don’t take advantage of our friendly fellow students. We don’t follow the example of the Psych Your Mind students who spend one lunch a week talking about ideas just amongst themselves. We don’t take the time to kick ideas back and forth, or just be someone’s sounding board. Instead, we stumble into advisor meetings will ill-prepared pitches, when a pre-conversation with a peer could have drastically improved them.

Recently, a group of students at a conference agreed to start a purposefully small and private online message board group, so they could communicate about important topics and questions. With this message board system, these students can get insight on complicated questions, methods, cites, and theories within an hour. A network of graduate students supporting each other can be at times more powerful than any individual meeting with a faculty member.

Lastly, even if we talk together or form networks, we don’t tend to co-author with each other. Remember last time you just couldn’t figure out the right stimuli, couldn’t handle the stress of a revision, and got writers block? Or remember that time you needed feedback from your advisor, but the advisor was in a conference in Spain? That’s when a student co-author would have saved you.

Professor Gavan Fitzsimons at Duke University often gets praised for one interesting talent: he’s good at putting graduate students together and building research teams. He knows how powerful a network of graduate students, senior professors, and often also young professors can be and his CV is a testimony of that.

There’s a belief in Improv Comedy that when two performers get on stage and make up a scene together, the performers create something that is greater than either performer would have created own their own. Improv performers believe that putting two passionate people together creates true greatness as they positively build upon one another’s ideas. Whether it is as co-authors, giving feedback on manuscripts, or just chatting about research over lunch, togetherness is a path to greater things.

Viewpoint: Video Advice from Mike Norton, Leif Nelson, and Simona Botti

This spring, we took our shaky camera around the Conference for the Society for Consumer Psychology. We asked a few professors to give us some ‘bite sized’ words of wisdom. They talked about hope, presentation style, and how to think like a researcher.

A couple of months later, here are the results (finally)…

Michael Norton

…on “simple presentations” and “asking questions.”

 

 The Doctoral Consortium organizers Leif Nelson and Simona Botti

…on going to conferences, how grad school is actually manageable, and how there are more helping hands out there than we normally think. 

 

Four Academic Writing Lessons From Man of Steel (Spoiler Free)

Despite a fewman of steel yo original and cool looking moments, the Man of Steel was a lesson in poor storytelling. Given that Professor Jim Bettman often lectures about how writing an academic paper is like writing a story, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the failures of the Man of Steel.

Here are four ways in which Man of Steel failed, and four pieces of advice from esteemed professors that can help your next paper so you don’t make the same mistakes.

#4 Stick With One Theme

louis better

Jim Bettman advises students that academic writers should tell a consistent straightforward story. Importantly, academic papers should be focused on a clear theme and make the theoretical contribution explicit and clear.

Man of Steel chose a different direction. Instead of choosing one theme, it tried to cram in truth, faith, the (un)willingness to take a life, fate, genetics, sacrifice, and family and ultimately failed to say anything valuable about any of them.

Similarly, Mike Norton tells students that when giving a presentation, audience members will tend to remember one image or idea. Accordingly, he proposes that presenters should try to repeatedly make their central picture the focus of the presentation. He often says, “leave them with one image.”

Bettman further advised that, when writing a paper, you should tell readers what you are going to tell them, then tell them it, and then tell them what you’ve told them.

#3 Keep It Linear

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.51.07 PM 

Bettman also argues that academic papers need to be kept in a linear format. He explains that an academic paper is not a mystery story and not a story with many subplots.

Man of Steel explored a nonlinear story line. It’s a format that has benefitted a few movies (and maybe a research paper or two), but in general it only works for special cases (e.g. Momento).

Most of the time nonlinear storytelling can distract from the main thrust of the papers, put cognitive load on viewers, and lose the emotional impact of each moment. Bettman’s advice won’t make your paper into the best drama ever, but it give your paper clear communication, and that’s the goal of science writing.

#2 Keep the Immediate Introduction Short

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.51.37 PM

Peter McGraw recently challenged Daryl Bem’s “hour glass style” in a blog post about how papers should start with a straightforward explanation of the research puzzle and findings.

Unlike Peter McGraw’s papers, Man of Steel started with a lengthy introduction that was completely detached from the main plot. The movie spent 20 minutes on Krypton before getting to the main story on earth. Though enjoyable, the introduction did not serve the core story of Clark Kent.

Many academic introductions often linger on points and citations that are completely irrelevant to the main point of the paper. This wastes readers’ time, distracts from the paper, and may make the findings look weak compared to the promise of the introduction.

Robert Cialdini suggests that young researchers should write papers that test against a competing conceptual hypothesis. Peter McGraw suggests something very similar in that the intro should first explain what has not been shown or a puzzle that needs be answered.

Peter McGraw argues that this brief overview of the puzzle is the best way to begin. Anyone following this strategy will be in good company—for instance these researchers and this paper you might have heard of used Peter McGraw’s “explain the puzzle” intro strategy.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.

Expected utility theory has dominated the analysis of decision making under risk. It has been generally accepted as a normative model of rational choice [24], and widely applied as a descriptive model of economic behavior, e.g. [15, 4]. Thus, it is assumed that all reasonable people would wish to obey the axioms of the theory [47, 36], and that most people actually do, most of the time. The present paper describes several classes of choice problems in which preferences systematically violate the axioms of expected utility theory. In the light of these observations we argue that utility theory, as it is commonly interpreted and applied, is not an adequate descriptive model and we propose an alternative account of choice under risk.

For more on Peter McGraw’s puzzle method visit his blog post here.

#1 End With Substance

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.52.38 PM

Dan Ariely advises students to make the conclusion offer something substantial.

Many people use the general discussion section to hand wave counter explanations, awkwardly propose real world implications, or mention limitations that are obvious but provide no insight on how to deal with those limitations. The sentence, “We only ran these experiments on college students, so our findings remain limited” wastes a reader’s time. If included, the sentence should be followed by hypotheses about how and why other populations might differ.

Man of Steel offered a completely unsubstantial conclusion. It comprised 30 minutes of senseless punches without any real progression in the plot or in the main characters. Compare that to the The Avengers in which the ending features the characters finally working together, the revelation of Hulk’s angry secret, Tony Stark finally behaving selflessly, and a great look at the future directions of Marvel’s “phase two” with the revelation of the supervillain Thanos and the hypothesis that the Avengers will reunite.

Papers can adopt The Avengers’ strategy and talk about a few (not more than three) future directions in depth, comment on how the findings illuminates or synthesizes theory, or try to build toward future theoretical advances rather than simply saying “if it were applied in this different setting it would probably also work.”

Conclusion

Man of Steel had some great lines and some flashy “effects” (pun intended) but that is not enough to tell a great story. Academic writers can learn from this. And if someone passes these professors’ advice on to the crew of Man of Steel 2, maybe they can learn from it too.

Viewpoint: Raised on TED – The Inspirations

Last week Troy talked about the dangers of young researchers being raised on TED. However, it’s not all doom and gloom: there are a lot of good and inspiring elements that come out of TED, too. 

Inspiration #1: Do Stuff that Matters

stage

TED inspires us to do things that matter. Every talk is proof that the ivory tower can make big changes far from campuses. If you have any doubts just watch TED talks by science advocates like Rory Sutherland and Daniel Pink.

Researchers have a tendency to think esoterically or on too small a scale. TED helps to remind us that even if we never reach that TED podium, our research can contribute to solutions on a worldwide stage.

New people to the field may not realize that before the days of TED, Malcolm Gladwell, and the Internet, the public and private organizations did not care as much about behavioral science or arguably about science in general. Behavioral scientists were fighting to matter – just ask Richard Thaler. Today we have the opportunity to see our work go global but it does not mean we should abandon basic science or only do micro-applied work. It means young researchers should keep an eye open for where research can matter and be consumed by the public and mangers.

Inspiration #2: Communication is Important

Layout 1

Science should be a service to others. Some science can serve others without ever being communicated on a wide scale. However, much behavioral science can serve others through mass communication. TED reminds us of the importance of communicating research beyond a 101 introductory class.

Though some often criticize scientists’ mad rush to the popular press, it is indisputable that a popular press filled with good behavioral science would be a good thing. Some scientific findings don’t belong in the public eye because the findings are unclear, complex, or not relevant.But every issue of a scientific journal (at least in fields like behavioral sciences) has at least one paper that deserves public attention. If that’s your paper, work on getting it out there. You’ll benefit and the world will benefit.

Inspiration #3: Scientists Should Communicate Science

Side note - has there ever been a cooler picture of scientist than this one?

Side note – has there ever been a cooler picture of scientist than this one? It’s like they hired J.J. Abrams to put the perfect lens flare on it.

Not everyone is able, should, or wants to communicate on a TED stage, but those who can should. Scientists should get a few hours of media training from their university and get in front of audiences. Journalists are wonderful, but they often mess our science up. If we want our science communicated properly, then we need to communicate it ourselves.

Many universities want professors and graduate students to write opinion pieces and articles to get science out in the public. Contact your university’s Press office and you could have an article in a respectable paper within weeks. It won’t be the New York Times, but you’ll get experience, writer credits, and you’ll be educating readers. Additionally, many local groups, departments, and meet-up clubs are always on the lookout for speakers. You can go give your own TED-like talk to these groups in your area.

Finally, many professors recommend writing blogs and popular press articles because writing constantly helps to refine one’s scientific communication skills. Writing and presenting for the public forces one to complete a full argument on regular basis—something we don’t get with academic writing. In addition, science journals (even journals like Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) are more and more looking for concisely written articles, so public writing can be good practice.

Concluding Thoughts

So is TED a danger or inspiration? Like any modern intervention it is what you draw it that matters. TED encourages us to get public and real-world with our work, but it does not  mean abandon theory for entertaining real-world results. Every TED speaker from our field is a great theoretician and that’s what that person got on that stage, keep that up but with an eye on the real world.