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TED Talks and the Temptation of Big Ideas in Psychology

June 08, 2020

Millions of people have viewed a TED lecture on YouTube. I have been drawn a few times to see what accounted for their huge popularity. An expert shares an essential bit of knowledge in 20 minutes. The subjects are quite diverse, but I saw a repetitive theme. Many popular talks feature a single transformative idea as the key to personal and business growth.

The most popular talk of all time proposes that schools should do a better job of fostering creativity. The second most popular argues that body language is something we can control to boost our confidence and success. By the time I learned about the power of vulnerability, I saw the pattern. TED’s experts have credentials and academic studies, but the coin of the realm is having a big idea.

TED’s financial success is driven largely by businesses. Executives hope to develop better employees and leaders with these talks. Many individuals presumably seek a path to personal growth, while business leaders are focused on their bottom line. They believe psychology is good for business. I might be surprised by this if it were my first exposure to the intersection of psychology and business.

I have gotten to know many leaders in corporate America, which hopefully entitles me to a few generalities about them. They are a psychologically unsophisticated group. They are driven but not self-aware. They hope some degree of self-awareness aids their primary pursuit, business success. This makes them believe in the power of the latest psychological insight. Experts are willing to help with this.

The TED talks are bad psychology. They make a fetish of big ideas. They are spreading impressions about our field that I would like to stop. The people giving these talks often become celebrities, and they go on to give many iterations of their TED talk for large speaking fees. I do not begrudge them the money. It is the underlying message that bothers me.

A TED talk typically claims that one big insight makes all the difference. They offer a study or two in support of this insight in a way that weakens psychological research. They imply their big idea has some universal standing. Their prescription is precise, and it promotes a very simplistic view of psychotherapy and how people find self-realization or business success. That is a lot to offer in 20 minutes.

It has long been an appealing fantasy that a single conflict or issue holds the key to unleashing a person’s potential. This inspiring idea has carried many movies. While it likely has many sources, it clearly appears to be a cultural remnant of Freudian theory. Many psychoanalytic mysteries revolved around a single conflict, usually oedipal, that leads to personal transformation once it is unlocked.

If you think research might be the best antidote to such fanciful theories, think again. One irony of the TED talks is that many big ideas emerged from academic studies. For example, a research psychologist, Ann Cuddy, became a TED star by suggesting dominant body language or “power poses” are a path to confidence and success. It was based mainly on one 2010 study involving 42 subjects.

Dr. Cuddy’s post-TED life became a soap opera. The next decade in psychology brought new methodological and statistical rigor to the field. She was simultaneously demonized in academic settings and lionized on the public speaking circuit. Millions loved her simple path to personal power, but many scientists recoiled. They saw a misuse of research as exaggerating fragments of reality.

Popular ideas can assume expansive qualities. A social process may elevate some ideas as having profound explanatory powers. Many big thinkers have explicit ambitions for universality. Freud was such a seeker of universal truth. Many of TED’s experts seem to enjoy the same pursuit. The TED experience is almost a baptism for big ideas – a pathway from empirical finding to human truth.

One of the major fields being mined for truth is psychotherapy. A good example of how an idea takes on supreme status is the work of Brené Brown. She became a TED superstar based on her lectures about vulnerability and shame. She rightly points out that vulnerability is not weakness, and she suggests people can find strength and courage by confronting their areas of vulnerability.

It seems reasonable to suggest that many people have improved their lives by confronting areas of vulnerability. Yet an equal number probably achieved similar results leaving shame and vulnerability untouched. There are many paths to peace of mind and success. Vulnerability may be irrelevant. Yet even when relevant, words of vulnerability may be unspoken. This may be a silent part of the process.

What actually drives therapeutic change, if not the hyped processes identified by experts? We do not really know. We know that personal conversations change people, but we do not know how this happens. We often presume the topic of conversation leads to the change that occurs. Talking about vulnerability may be helpful, or not. It may be that the unique and powerful factor is the talking itself.

Our field is like most. We need to get results first and foremost. We then explain those results as best we can. There are no royal roads to success. We need innovators to develop ideas and models for our work. We need people to execute those ideas well. Data and experience then modify what we think and do. It is better to trust that feedback loop than the thrill of big ideas.

What does this have to do with the world of business and the support of enterprises like TED? Bad business is like bad psychology. People hope to strike it rich with one big idea for making money. They would also like to believe that there is a key to happiness. These hopes will spring eternal since there are always stories to be found offering proof for a big idea.

People seeking fortunes in business will continue to turn to psychology, as well as to activities far less savory. Big ideas are tempting, much like big bets. The beauty of TED is that the experts often begin with pedestrian ideas, and the ceremonial talk gives birth to something grand. I recommend viewing a few talks. You will be surprised that by the end you too will be nodding, smiling, and believing.

You will appreciate the 20-minute diversion and the temptation of whatever big idea you have sampled. The initial feeling wears off and reality soon returns. People turn to books and lectures for easy answers. Lasting personal fulfillment or business success is rarely found. Working in the behavioral healthcare field brings many satisfactions, but perseverance is the biggest idea I have encountered.

Ed Jones, PhD, is senior vice president for the Institute for Health and Productivity Management.

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