When I was writing “The Ideas Industry,” I was trying to explain how debates about foreign and public policy had changed in the United States in recent decades. But I was also pretty clear in the introduction that, “the forces shaping that particular Ideas Industry also exist in other policy arenas.” This was not a statement of fact, but rather a suggestion that the characteristics of the foreign policy ecosystem were likely present in other areas of public debate as well.
So the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would very much like to thank the New York Times’s Susan Dominus for writing one mother of a story about the rise and fall of an idea—and an idea entrepreneur—in social psychology.
Dominus’s story is nominally about Amy Cuddy and her idea of the “power pose.” Her research suggested that “subjects who were directed to stand or sit in certain positions — legs astride, or feet up on a desk — reported stronger ‘feelings of power’ after posing than they did before.” Her analysis suggested that there were corresponding physiological effects as well, including higher levels of testosterone (associated with confidence) and lower levels of cortisol (associated with fear).
The spoiler alert of Dominus’s story: Cuddy’s physiological results proved impossible to replicate (though her findings that people self-report more confidence from posing proved to be more robust). Eventually, psychologists challenged enough of her findings for one co-author to renounce the research and for Cuddy to give up a tenure-track position.
This would seem to be an example of the Ideas Industry working as it should. If a scholar gins up a new idea, publishes about that idea, and achieves considerable success in promoting it, then one would expect critics to “stress test” the concept to see if it holds up. Cuddy’s idea got tarnished, and as a result she left her tenure-track position.
A broad brush would suggest that Cuddy ran into the replication crisis affecting the rest of her discipline—indeed, the rest of the social sciences. But Dominus’s story is great because of the fine details and the ways in which those details correspond to how the Ideas Industry works. To pick out a few of them:
- Whether she likes it or not, Cuddy is now a superstar. As the story notes, Cuddy’s research was profiled in the mainstream media, including “CNN, Oprah magazine and, inevitably, someone at the TED conference, which invited Cuddy to speak in 2012.” That TED talk is the second-most popular in TED’s history. Cuddy’s celebrity is one reason she had the option of giving up her academic position. Because of her best-selling book and a lucrative speaking career, she does not have to be an academic for her work to have purchase.
- Online public writing is now a component of social science that cannot be wished away. Almost all of the debate about Cuddy’s work that Dominus chronicles occurs on blogs, Facebook groups, and Twitter. All of these forums magnify the nature of the disputes and make them public for all to see. Jay Van Bavel characterized the nature of online debate to Dominus, “It is terrifying, even if it’s fair and within normal scientific bounds. … Because of social media and how it travels — you get pile-ons when the critique comes out, and 50 people share it in the view of thousands. That’s horrifying for anyone who’s critiqued, even if it’s legitimate.” This kind of online interaction has advantages: speed and engagement, for two. But clearly, the amplifying effect of social media on these online debates means that more care needs to be given in how participants use their words.
- The best intellectuals are still the ones who will admit error. For me, the most amazing passage of the story comes in a section in which one of Cuddy’s critics, Joseph Simmons, rereads an email that he had sent to Cuddy before things had escalated. As Dominus notes, the email was more ambiguous when Simmons read it than it had been in his memory: “For a moment, the scientist allowed the human element to factor into how he felt about his email response to that paper. ‘I wish,’ he said, ‘I’d had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call Amy.’”
- Gender matters in these imbroglios, but it is hardly the only thing going on. Slate’s Daniel Engber has a fuller exploration of this element of Dominus’ article. He notes that, “there’s clearly a lot more to the gender subtext here.” It is true that Cuddy and her mentor are women, that most of her critics are men, and that the gendered effects of online bullying are quite real. That said, Dominus takes great care to point out the ways in which Cuddy’s critics were making extremely valid points. Another element to this entire kerfuffle is that Cuddy’s power and influence skyrocketed as a result of her initial paper. As Engber notes, “She may not have risen to the highest reaches of academia, but she was soaring in the media—and that meant that going after her could still be understood as punching up.”
- Ideas are complicated, man. Does Cuddy’s idea retain any empirical value? By the end of the article, Cuddy herself is prepared to acknowledge that the physiological results were likely not to be true. She does defends the psychological effects, however: Power posing has an effect on “feelings of power.” Follow-up research suggests she may be right. As I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” Clayton Christensen took the interesting idea of disruptive innovation and tried to apply it too far beyond the original domain. That does not mean his original idea was wrong, just that his argument is more narrow in its effects. The same may be true of Cuddy’s findings on posing.
Please, if you are a social scientist, read the whole thing.