Too Easily Derived: The Problem with TED Talks




By Drew Lopshire

One lonely winter before so many of my friends moved to the Bay Area, I watched videos over and over in the holiday-empty North Berkeley apartment I’d just moved into—probably to simulate the human interaction I needed but didn’t know how to get. This TED talk’s triumph-through-effort narrative arc moved me more than the rest, and I bonded with it emotionally. A friend visiting from LA called me up to meet for lunch and brought another friend along. Conversation turned to TED talks, and the new acquaintance expressed a then-disheartening aversion to them. It started an extended Facebook conversation about what’s wrong with TED talks generally.

Some examples my friend cited: This talk where James Randi, a stage magician, debunks several easily debunkable theories. Then this one where Jessi Arrington, a Brooklyn-based designer, takes five minutes to say what Macklemore and Ryan Lewis say in four. These two talks fall squarely into the Entertainment section of Technology, Entertainment, Design, but take a tone of self-importance incommensurate with their applicability. That’s not a big deal, but then there are talks with the more serious problem of presenting specious solutions that seem actionable to less politically savvy people, such as myself.

I can’t vouch for the political oversimplification of the just-cited video, but I can bring the same ignorance-of-context critique to my once-favorite video. Amy Cuddy cites a study she worked on showing that people who stood in “power poses” for two minutes demonstrated more confident behavior in a gambling game they played afterward. She argues that by taking such poses before interviews, say, people can show their true selves. Watching the talk with a critical eye, her conflation of “most confident self” with “true self” stands out. It’d be great if I really were just the person I am when I’m successful, but I think a person’s shortcomings are an important part of who they are. The conflation of confidence with truth makes sense when you consider that Cuddy teaches Business, which sometimes substitutes swagger for facts.

From here it’s easy to layer on the criticisms. The study she worked on doesn’t mention the average age or racial composition of its subjects, of which there are only 42. Are these subjects Harvard students? Are they WEIRD? (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). Do power poses work for everyone, or would they just work for the WEIRD people fortunate enough to afford the ticket price for TED? Are there any downsides to power posing? (There’s evidence that taking a confidence-boosting bodily posture can increase a person’s tendency to steal or cheat.)

To be clear, I think Cuddy is completely genuine and good-hearted in her attempt to help disempowered people with this free, no-tech lifehack. What needs calling out is the fundamental assumption behind TED: that most problems are technical in nature and therefore solvable via research and technology. It’s great to find solutions to problems, but in the case of TED, we also need to find problems to solutions. 

Drew Lopshire's favorite power pose is lying down, sleeping.