Great Thoughts Come from a Healthy Culture

by

Before I begin, I must admit some bias in writing this. I am a HUGE Amy Cuddy fan. I love her TED talk, and her book Presence is even better. I believe some of her research and writing on gender differences in body language are game changing. And, they’ve personally made a difference for me.

So, when I read this New York Times article about Amy Cuddy’s fall, I was sad. And frustrated. I read it weeks ago and it has been swimming around in the back of my brain since.

The article is thought provoking and worth reading, but it is long. So, I will attempt to summarize it here:

Social psychology is a dynamic field that has been evolving exponentially over the last several years. Conducting studies and collecting measurable data in social psychology is by nature tricky because it revolves around humans and their behavior. And we all know how unpredictable humans can be on any given day or in any given situation. In the past, researchers often used their judgment to drop data that didn’t fit, collect more data if necessary, or change some of the measures in their sample sets for various reasons. Using this judgment to manipulate results became known as “p-hacking,” a practice which has come under much greater scrutiny in the last few years as researchers have begun questioning the validity of many studies’ p-value (the probability of obtaining an outcome equal to or more extreme than what was actually observed). As a result, a “replication” movement began, and many scientists turned their attention to attempting to replicate previously accepted studies.

So far, so good, right? We get closer to the truth by doing multiple independent studies to validate findings.

Here’s where Amy Cuddy comes in. She’s one of the most famous social psychologists out there. Her Ted talk on body language is the second most viewed ever. Her book is a best seller. She was a professor at Harvard Business School. And then, a couple of years ago, an economist at the University of Zurich was unable to replicate part of one of her most famous studies. Her colleagues and friends began to publicly impugn her and started suggesting she was a farce.

When I read about this, I was sad for two reasons. First, I was bummed, like Cuddy, that the study around power posing and its ability to alter hormone levels wasn’t replicated (although the increased “feelings of power” finding had replicated). The hormone study was critical in backing up what thousands of people have found through personal experience. Second, I was even more bummed about the shifting culture in academia. Her friends and colleagues tore her down on social media and in multiple blogs and articles. They also manipulated her privately to make their public teardowns even more powerful. It felt personal to me.

My husband read the Cuddy article too. When he asked me what I thought, I was clearly upset, but a bit at a loss for words. He filled in for me: “You’re worried it will deter women from going into science, aren’t you?”

“Yes!” I said. “Exactly. If science moves from debating ideas to criticizing people…I think a lot of women will opt out.”

(At this point, I thought about turning this blog into a gender discussion. I wrote a couple of paragraphs recounting all the discussions I’ve had in the last twelve months about, and with, women in the workplace. I wrote about how important collaboration is to the women I know. But then I deleted it. I decided I’m not going to turn this blog into a gender perspective because I think this is important for everyone, regardless of gender. And now back to my regularly scheduled blog…)

Thinking about the scientific community made me think back to the business world I live in every day. How do we build on ideas and research versus attacking individuals? I live in a world of strategy consulting where critical thinking is a core competency. We have to question ideas (our own and others) to get to the right answers. But, there are good and bad ways to go about this intellectual pursuit. Attacking people just makes them less willing to participate, less willing to take risks, and less likely to stick around.

Google found that psychological safety is the most important of the five keys to a successful Google team. Their two-year project involved studying 180 Google teams, conducting over 200 interviews, and analyzing more than 250 different team attributes. Psychological safety means feeling secure enough among team members to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. It’s hard to feel safe when you are in jeopardy of being publicly shamed and ridiculed by your colleagues.

Social media and negative online interactions have probably made the problem worse. People tend to have a level of civility about them when they debate each other in person that seems to have been lost in the online world. I used to be a big social media user myself, but have largely pulled out over the last year because of the nastiness I’ve seen. I worry about how academia and other fields will be influenced culturally if people are paranoid about posting thoughts, ideas, and opinions for fear of being personally lambasted rather than simply having their ideas debated.

To continue to progress as a culture, as a society, and as a community of science, we need to respectfully debate ideas, concepts, and studies, as opposed to trying to tear each other down. Pruning a rose can help it grow, but ripping it out by its roots does nothing more than destroy it. So, going into 2018 let’s look to help each other grow.

And a note to Amy Cuddy: I can’t wait to see what you do next, I believe it is going to make an even bigger impact than your first claim to fame. I am following your twitter feed and I can’t wait to read your next book!

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