The Fake World of TED and Pop Psychology

TED is a non-profit founded in 1984 ‘to help spread ideas’, although it’s more famous for its short videos, 3,500 of which have been produced since 2009. There is also the spin-off TEDx, which are local events and is only tangentially related to TED. The videos typically cover economics, behavioral psychology, or business, but others are more personal or inspirational. The popularity of TED is related to the post-2008 ‘pop psychology boom’ and social media marketing boom, which includes journalists and academics, with a primary focus on psychology or business, such as Malcolm Gladwell, Derek Sivers, Dan Ariely, Kevin Kelly, Daniel Kahneman, Michael Lewis, Nassim Taleb, Adam Grant, and Seth Godin, many of whom have also given TED talks.

Criticism of TED is as old as TED. But it’s part of an entire milieu of thought that appeals to a sort of reductionist, morally idealistic worldview: that underdogs can rise up, that the good guys tend to prevail, that people whom we take for granted as smart are actually irrational, that niceness and persistence pays off, that disagreeable people can be reasoned with, that minds can be changed, etc.

It’s all bullshit…the talks, the books, the videos. That Michael Lewis baseball book? Bullshit. 10,000 hours? Bullshit. The Long Tail? Grit? Every book by Seth Godin? Negotiation and persuasion tactics based on ‘proven’ methods of FBI and CIA interrogators? Bullshit. Has anyone been able to replicate Kevin Kelly’s ‘1000 true fans’ theory? Who knows, but it’s probably bullshit too…Not just the replication crisis, which imperils decades of pop psychology research, but the fakeness of the idealism that underpins the movement. These people over the past 15 years, since 2008 or so, have created an elaborate make believe world. They have created this fake world that is suspended from the one ‘we’ inhabit and interface with day to day. And these videos are like a portal to this fake world, as an escape from the meanness of this one, which explains their popularity.

Regarding the FBI agents and persuasion, agents spend decades in the field and are involved in thousands of encounters and interrogations. When they say a specific technique ‘worked’ on a specific individual or hostage situation, they are ignoring all the times it didn’t, and even the appearance of something working is insufficient to establish causality. All the agent needs is the suspect to void his or her right to silence for the interview to be a success.

Academia is cutthroat. The business world is cutthroat. Many people apply to positions in which only a relatively few openings are available, whether it’s teaching jobs, tech jobs, or even something more mundane like an internship at a newspaper or working at a rental car company. Freddie deBoer describes the struggles of finding even a lowly teaching job:

In 2009 I found myself in my late 20s, broke, and trying to get a job in the teeth of the post-financial crisis employment depression. I had applied to hundreds of positions, entry-level and low-paying and low status, and yet couldn’t get hired to save my life. I was living in my sister’s house and driving an old beat-down Jeep Wrangler I couldn’t afford to gas up. I would take odd jobs on Craigslist, scraping paint off of houses or working product demos at the convention center where liquor store owners were sold on alcohol that turns your tongue blue.

If those videos and books are so popular, how much of an edge can anyone have if everyone is doing those same techniques? If everyone is try to ‘pre-suade’ or use anchoring, what advantage do you have when your counterparty or competitors are using those techniques or anticipates them?

I will concede that I too have watched at least a couple hours of TED talks and skimmed some of those pop psychology books, such as by Kahneman, but looking back on it, it should be viewed as no more than entertainment or motivational, sorta like a brainier version of Tony Robins, not practical or instructive. You come away feeling like you gleaned some special insight or understanding of the world, but in reality you were told a story. And stories are great and can be fun, but no one thinks that the Justice League is at all like the U.S. Justice System.

Wikipedia has long been criticized as being run by petty tyrants, whether it’s deleted articles or being blocked from editing the site for seemingly arbitrary reasons, even . Eventually after much criticism, those editors watched some TED talks and they read up on some pop psychology, and upon seeing the irrationality of their cliquishness made Wikipedia more open and less opaque. Of course, that didn’t happen. Wikipedia is the same as it has always been. We see this over and over: people who act out and embody the opposite of those TED talks or books and have tons of power and or are wildly successful professionally.

Contrary to what the popular business books may have you believe, the top dogs seldom get ‘disrupted’ by underdogs or new technology. The reason why Moneyball and other stories about triumphant underdogs are popular is because it’s uncommon and thus inspirational, not because this is something that is reproducible. If it was not rare, it would not be remarkable when it does happen and thus no one would write a book, give a talk, or make a movie about it. 21 years after its founding Wikipedia is wealthier and more influential than ever. No one has come close to disrupting it by coming up with a more democratic alternative. Same for Microsoft, which 40 years later still has close to 95% market share despite the name recognition of Linux and Apple. Or Google, which 20 years later is still the most popular search engine by far, and still the biggest digital ad platform. Or the iPhone, which 14 years later hasn’t been disrupted yet. Sure, the iPhone overtook the Blackberry, but this is no guarantee that the iPhone will meet a similar fate.

A common statistic I see cited by those aforementioned individuals is that “…so and so percent of companies on the S&P 500 are replaced,” suggesting that there is a lot of disruption by underdogs or market forces. But that’s not the same as failure. A company can fall off the S&P 500 by being acquired, but this is not the same as falling to a competitor. Or a company can still thrive but simply not be big enough to remain on the S&P 500.

Bullshit is that which fails to replicate when put to the test of reality, which in the end is the only test that matters. ‘Nice guys finish last’ is not just a clichéd expression, it’s reality. Irrational, disagreeable people do not ‘see the light’. Minds are not changed. Jordan Peterson was able to find an audience in the otherwise saturated genre of self help, by being the anti-TED. Grit, which is a common theme of TED talks and related books, falls to the permanence and importance of IQ, which Dr. Peterson discusses a lot in his lectures and videos. The fact his videos are so popular is indicative of demand for such politically incorrect truths, because those comforting TED talks and business books tend to not hold up so well when put to the test of life. Sure, Peterson’s lectures also have stories, but the difference is he’s not making any promises.

1 comment

  1. And the number of world series championships won by Oakland Athletics, the subject of moneyball : 0.

    Without quality, one can’t win.

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