Pop psychology, Amy Cuddy, and Malcolm Gladwell

When I was in graduate school studying mind and behavior, I used to get annoyed by Malcolm Gladwell articles in the New Yorker. They were great stories, great writing, about stuff I was learning about in my psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and cognitive science classes. He was popularizing some of the work, which seemed cheap.

But more annoying, and he does still do this, he’d insert some speculation along the way to turn the story upside down. He’d be like “Whoa! You can learn if someone is a bad guy in just one second from a microgesture, says Paul Ekman”….”but maybe that’s kind of racist”. The latter bit eliciting a right fine WTF! from me and sensible people.

Over time I stopped reading Malcolm, and other smart people did too (many, many friends have called his writing nonsense, though I suppose I can’t generalize based on surveying anyone). But really, he’s an armchair theorist and it’s reckless to do that.

So, what about TED Talks? 

I hate these talks. Easy solutions to the world’s biggest problems. People want to believe. They are dying to believe. All my self-esteem gaps and troubles in achievement…solved by a better way to stand.

Everyone, everyone, everyone has heard about the power-pose talk that Amy Cuddy gave based on her *scientific research*.

In fact the last 1 year I hear this discussed weekly.

But about a year ago apparently this whole thing blew up as a colossal failure of scientific rigor and seriousness. The original paper was wrong. It hasn’t been replicated. People have dived into content and found little to support it. Even the original paper seems vaguely doctored (due to miscommunication?) by excluding some key charts.

I guess I sort of heard about this but not about how total a defeat it was. The claims are zero; it’s not a debate. Yet innocent people are still emptily hoping to get a little something extra before that big interview by power-posing. I feel bad just thinking about the folks who told me about this.

Things have gotten horrible enough that now the Times is profiling Cuddy…for how bad it made her feel and how rough the debate was about research that apparently nobody wants to defend (even her collaborators).


The piece.

Fair enough. Hard-core intellectual war is not nice. I was on the receiving end of some cutting and difficult criticism when I was a fledgling academic (grad student). Folks shouldn’t get so worked up. But academia is nothing, nothing, nothing like the bloodthirsty worlds of sport, business, politics or war. And it’s a business where the truth and integrity matter more.

So why is Cuddy’s Twitter profile still this? “Truly powerful” (as in power-pose?) and a doll doing a pose, and the book based on this idea, and… This seems unrepentant.

Charles Murray-land awaits I’m afraid (he wrote the Bell Curve with Herrnstein.) Something like: being the hero of an interest group that’s willing to pay for what it wants to hear, while being wrong.

In short: pop psychology is dangerous; avoid it.