Ben Ambridge: 10 myths about psychology: Debunked


Ben Ambridge researches children’s language development at the University of Liverpool, and writes popular science books and articles about Psychology.


Ben discusses 10 myths about psychology. He finds that:

  1. Men and women are not that different. The 2 largest differences are that men are better at spacial awareness and women are better at language. In both cases there is a difference, but it is so small that the normal distributions mostly overlap.
  2. Rorschach inkblot tests have no validity. They are not used in modern psychology, and were so bad they diagnosed schizophrenia in 1/6 of all normal people.
  3. People do not have different learning styles (eg learning by listening, reading or doing). Studies showed no difference in people learning a task in their preferred way. Instead learning should be matched to the task being learned.
  4. High school results are 58% driven by genetics. By comparing identical twins (with identical genes and environment) against non-identical twins (with identical environment but only 50% shared genes), it showed GCSE results were 58% driven by genes.
  5. Left Brain vs Right Brain thinking is a myth – since any task involves all parts of the brain firing. However, handedness has some validity: in that ambidextrous people have better creativity than single-handed people.
  6. We use much more than 10% of our brain in most tasks. People think we can boost this with the Mozart effect: that listening to Mozart increases our IQ. There seems to be some short term effect, but equal to listening to stories you enjoy. Before an IQ test – do something you enjoy to perk you up and give you a small boost.
  7. Choosing a sexual partner is not driven by culture. Across all races and countries, men favour attractiveness and women favour ambition or wealth. Both sexes prefer the man to be 3yrs older than the woman.
  8. Sportsmen on a winning streak are not necessarily in ‘good form’. Statistical analysis shows they are in normal bounds, but our brains like to ascribe patterns to randomness. We prefer the story that they are on a hot streak.
  9. We are told the Milgram study convinced students to deliver fatal electric shocks to a victim because a scientist told them to punish the victim for being wrong. In truth the students were told the shocks were non-fatal, and when interviewed they believed the science of punishing the victim, and this outweighed the discomfort of a short term non-fatal shock.
  10. People are not very good at detecting liars from body or speech patterns. The only exception is on TV appeals for missing persons – where when the appealer murdered the missing person they tend to look away and use more brutal language.

Psychology is seen as a collection of ideas that all offer something useful. Instead, all proposals should be tested empirically to find the truth.

My Thoughts

Personally I think some of these claims are a bit weak – discrediting things that have long had limited validity. His summary implied psychology has no basis, and this is definitely true of the older pop-culture ideas (including left brainedness, Rorschach etc). However more modern psychology is much more empirical and statistically driven.

His criticism of the Milgram study doesn’t really counter the common view: that people were convinced to inflict pain on others because they were convinced it was for the greater good. The role of authority figures (scientists) reinforced that it was for the greater good. It is also possible people’s interviews after the test didn’t match how they felt during it.

I would have been keen to see more on the variation within the sexual partner story. He stated averages, but more interesting would be if some cultures had small variations in preferences.

Regarding his idea of sportsmen on hot streaks: It would be good to know if there is a feedback effect: that when on a (initially random) streak they get more confident and will do better.

The talk was interesting to debunk some of the ridiculous old ideas of psychology, but I am skeptical that he has cherry picked some points to make more interesting headline myths.

Danny Hillis: The Internet could crash. We need a Plan B


Danny Hillis is an inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While completing his doctorate at MIT, he pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID array.


Danny was one of the first users of the internet – back in 1982 when everyone’s email address and contact details were printed large print in a thin phone book. All users trusted each other, taking only what they needed (domain names) and passing messages on each other’s behalf when bandwidth was low. He jokes that it is remarkable such communist ideals underwrote the US defense department’s efforts during the cold war.

Trust is much lower nowadays, and we are dealing with this by making smaller walled networks: VPNs and subnetworks – that imitate the internet on a smaller scale. The internet protocols are still vulnerable to attack and silly mistakes – for example Youtube was blocked in all of Asia because of an error in Pakistan’s protocols. Recently a mistake was made by Chinese telecom where a large proportion of US internet traffic (including defence networks) went through China – whether or not this action was a mistake it is easy to see how this can be abused by someone doing it intentionally. Industrial control networks can be crippled – these systems do not think of themselves as part of the internet, but they can be made vulnerable for example an Iranian nuclear plant’s centrifuges destroyed themselves in a cyber-attack.

Internet security tends to focus on the target’s computers, and not on the internet itself. An early bug in ARPAnet caused one router to claim it could deliver a packet in negative time, and other routers looking for quickest delivery sent everything through it. To fix this bug they had to reset the whole internet: a process which would be impossible now with so many other systems reliant on it. The internet protocols and building blocks are now being used in ways and systems that it wasn’t designed for, such as mobile phone networks, rocket ship communications, petrol pumps. It has become a system where people understand the individual components, but noone can understand the scale of the system and how it fits together. It was a small system originally built on trust, and now expanded well beyond how it was intended.

Danny proposes we need a separate system independent of the internet as a ‘backup’ if the internet is taken down by an attack. It needn’t be as big and wouldn’t be complicated to design, just something to allow emergency services to keep communication going. It is one of the easiest TED ideas to implement, we just need to convince people that it is worth doing.

My Thoughts

Danny’s discussion of the internet in its early days is fascinating, however I’m not entirely sure what he is asking us to do now. He mentions police need to talk to fire services – is he just advocating that phone networks or radios stay independent of the internet? How does independence work anyway: he said himself that industrial / military networks are designed to be separate from the internet but are vulnerable to attack regardless.

He mentions the technical details are easy to design – perhaps he should put a proposal forward with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy, so we can clearly see what he is proposing and what functionality it would give. Until then it is hard to imagine what we need from a ‘backup internet’.

Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree


Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur, CEO, writer and keynote speaker.


In the 1950s, Alice Stewart was studying childhood cancer on a shoestring budget. Since she’d only be able to run a single study with minimal analysis, she surveyed people, asking them everything possible and seeing if anything gave a correlation. The overwhelming answer was that X-rays on pregnant women were increasing cancer risk in children. Her findings flew in the face of doctor’s roles (that their tests were harming patients) and common medical wisdom of the time. The controversial findings took 25 years of fighting before they were adopted by the medical boards of UK and USA. To give Alice confidence in her findings she used a statistician George Neil – whose job was to dig into the numbers and DISprove Alice’s findings (rather than mindlessly support them). His job was to create conflict around her findings, and in failing to do so he gave her confidence. Alice and George saw conflict as a form of thinking, and were very good at it.

We need to work with people who are different from ourselves- different backgrounds, thought processes, personalities. This can be hard – it goes against our instincts and uses much more time and energy.

In corporations, 85% of executives acknowledge that they have refrained from raising issues or concerns at work because they didn’t want to cause conflict. This says that they can’t think together – they can’t raise the conflicts George and Alice did to challenge themselves. It is a skill to use conflict to fix an issue, and it is the job of a leader to raise issues they see – since everyone else may see the same issues but be too afraid to talk about them.

Margaret says that pHd students at some universities are forced to submit 5 statements that they are willing to defend – they must do this to show they can deal with being challenged. She suggests it needs to be extended to school kids – to get them ready for conflict at a younger age. Most major catastrophes aren’t caused by secret information – the signs are in open information that people are unwilling to discuss. When we dare to break that silence, we allow everyone to do their best thinking.

My Thoughts

Wonderful talk and strongly recommended. She cuts to the heart of the issue with wonderful clarity, and convinces all viewers to raise their concerns when they see them. I can see a lot of potential in getting people to make statements at a young age and making them defend them.

Andrew McAfee: Are droids taking our jobs?


Andrew McAfee is the associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studying the ways information technology (IT) affects businesses and business as a whole.


As technology advances, the media focus is on how this will affect employment. There are clear signs that technology is decreasing employment rate – with the recovery from the last recession increasing GDP and spending without an increase in jobs.Projecting into the future, Andrew used GDP and productivity growth to predict the in the future jobs will decrease – and this assuming the past will continue without a ‘step change’. Andrew thinks this is very optimistic – in truth there will be a step change that will make this gap far wider still. “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.

In recent years computers have encroached on tasks previously thought exclusively human – in knowledge work. Translation, and journalism have began to be taken over by programs. These do the job, but are criticised for being simple and sometimes flawed. However if these grow at the pace of Moore’s law (which they will), they will be 16 times better in 6 years. In the physical world, Google’s autonomous car is doing a great job and will likely replace truck drivers. The conclusion to this is that computers are going to take over jobs, but that this is not necessarily a bad thing – that it will lead to a utopian future (rather than a dystopia).

Looking at the ‘great achievements’ in human history (religious, empires, wars, disease, age of exploration), none had any significant impact on human population size, or social development. The only one to cause a big step was development of the steam engine and the industrial revolution – which suddenly had an exponential effect on both population and development. This overcame the limitations of human muscles, just as AI revolutions will overcome the limitations of the individual human mind.

Currently innovation is moving away from the ‘ivory tower’ and becoming more widely distributed, merit based and transparent. Technology is giving profound benefits to the wealthy but also to the poor. An economical study of Indian fishing villages showed a much more efficient, fair and less wasteful economy once mobile phones were introduced.

The droids are taking our jobs, but this will free up humans to do other things. We will move on to other endeavours – reducing poverty and living more lightly on the planet. What we do with these machines will make a mockery of all human achievements before it: just as the steam engine did in its time. Ken Jennings – the ultimate Jeopardy champion lost to Watson by a factor of 3:1 in points. One of his answers included the line “I for one welcome our new computer overlords”.

My Thoughts

I’ve looked at Andrew’s talks before (, and “are droids taking our jobs” covers similar material to the more recent “what will future jobs look like”. I think I got more out of “what will future jobs look like” – I suggest seeing that one first.

Having said that, the look at previous human achievements was fascinating, though I’m sure on a different scale the impacts of other technologies (agriculture, use of metals) would have been visible. I agree that AI will similarly give a clear step change – one completely different from previous (and still massive) computing achievements over the previous 70 years.

Sheena Iyengar: How to make choosing easier


Sheena Iyengar is a Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School and the Faculty Director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center. She is known for her research on choice, culture, and innovation


The average American reports they make 70 decisions per day. A study was done by following CEOs around, and found they completed 139 tasks, and 50% of their decisions were made in 9 minutes or less. Only 9% of decisions took longer than an hour.

The choice overload problem is summarised by a grocery store that can offer hundreds of types of olive oil or jam. Sheena was fond of such a store, and found they had hundreds of tourists but very few people bought anything (including herself). She ran an experiment where she offered jams for tasting – once she offered 6 flavours, another time she offered 24. While people were more likely to stop and taste the 24 flavours, nearly noone bought a jar. She got 6 times more sales from the experiment with only 6 flavours. This can happen even with more significant decisions such as saving for retirement. A study looked at participation in 401k plans, each of which offered a different number of funds within them. Those that offered only 1-2 funds had participation of 75%, and participation decreased until the plans with 59 funds recorded only 63% participation.

There are 3 main consequences of offering people too many choices

  • Engagement – they tend to procrastinate
  • Quality – Make worse choices
  • Satisfaction – they are less happy with their choice, even if their decision is objectively better.

This is because it is difficult to properly compare all choices – it is fun to gaze at a wall of mayonnaise, but how can you really decide which one is best?

Sheena suggests 4 techniques in your businesses to prevent choice overload in customers.

  1. Cut – reduce the redundant options. This will increase sales, and lower costs. When Proctor and Gamble reduced their Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15 their sales increased 10%. Aldi offers only 1400 products (compared to Walmart offering 100,000) and is the 9th largest retailer in the world. If people can’t tell the difference between 2 products, don’t force them to choose.
  2. Concretisation – Relate a decision in terms that mean something. Sheena described a road in terms of it’s surroundings and accident statistics (one of the most dangerous roads in the world) and asked who would want to visit it. She then showed photos of the road, and more people seemed keen. By showing the photo it seemed more real and easier to decide, even though there was less concrete information about the road. Similarly, when saving for retirement, thinking about what how you want your retirement to be can make saving easier.
  3. Categorisation – Reduce the objects into categories that mean something to the chooser. For example – putting 600 magazines in categories makes it easier to pick one. Of course, categorising by industry jargon that can’t be understood by the consumer is useless.
  4. Condition for Complexity – Gradually increase the complexity. When custom making a car, a lot of decisions need to be made eg engine, gear shifter (with only a few choices each) or paint colour (with 56 choices). People stay engaged longer if they are presented with the smaller sets first – they get exhausted making the largest decision first (paint colour), and will tend to pick the default thereafter.

My Thoughts

While Sheena focussed on business owners, the same principles should be applied whenever you are trying to convince someone of something. By presenting the options in a more concrete form – what it means to them, or grouping a few similar options together, you could make it easier to win them over.

I am a big fan of simplifying, and Sheena’s talk did not disappoint. She gave useful advice, and explained it so well that it all made sense. Strongly recommended for business owners focussed on consumers, and great background info for everyone else.

Emily Balcetis: Why some people find exercise harder than others


Emily Balcetis is a social psychologist from NYU.


People perceive the world differently. A softball player sees the ball as tiny compared to one on a good streak, and a dieter sees an apple as bigger than it is. In political views, people looked at a picture of Obama that had been artificially lightened or darkened, and asked which looked closer to reality. His supporters preferred the lightened picture, while opponents thought the dark picture was closer to reality. Why is this?

Our eyes actually see very little. The amount of vision actually in clear focus is the size of our thumb at arms length. The rest is ambiguous, and filled in by our mind. So people’s perceptions are different, but what influences people to literally see the world differently? Emily focussed on people’s health & fitness- how their perception changes their views towards it.

Some people might see exercise as easier or more difficult. She looked at people’s hip-to-waist circumference ratio – an objective assessment of people’s fitness. She then tested them in a race to a finish line while carrying weights, and beforehand each participant was asked to estimate how far away the finish line was. The results supported her idea: people who were fitter perceived the race as shorter than those who weren’t.

She followed up with a similar test on people’s motivation: those who had few fitness goals (unmotivated) vs those who were still striving. For those who were unmotivated, the results were similar to before; the fittest people saw the distance as shorter than the unfit. For the motivated group, they saw the opposite: fitter people saw the distance as further. People’s motivation and fitness were both influencing their perception of the difficulty of a physical challenge.

Emily wanted to see if we can learn anything from this – to improve our motivation or fitness by perceiving things differently. The strategy she suggests is “Keep your eye on the prize”. People have to stay focussed on the finish line, look at it in the centre of their vision and avoid looking elsewhere. When she retested, people adopting this strategy saw the finish as 30% closer than those who didn’t. She made the challenge more difficult by adding more weights (15% of their body weight), and afterwards the “eye on prize” people reported it was 17% easier than the control group. They also moved 23% faster. This is a simple, free strategy that makes exercise easier, and makes people perform better.

We see the world through our mind’s eye, but can train ourselves to see it differently. Sometimes days look worse than they are – you can see only negative expressions on everyone else’s faces. But you need to remind yourself that this may not be true. Some days are full of insurmountable challenges, but we can teach ourselves to see it differently. If we see the world differently, it might actually become so.

My Thoughts

The general topic about people’s perceptions changing their vision (and vice versa) was interesting and thought-provoking. Having said that, I’d find it difficult to apply “Keep your eyes on the prize” in situations to improve my fitness. The race she was testing was only 20-30ft away (or at least that’s the range people were perceiving it), so the goal would be clearly in sight throughout. For a marathon this is more difficult. Or for a less tangible exercise goal, such as 50 pushups or weightlifting or injury rehabilitation I’m not sure how you could apply this. The principle of focussing yourself only on the goal and ignoring other thoughts and doubts might help, but the talk and experiment was focussed on vision.


In trying to see if others had this concern, I read into the Youtube comments for the video. Must remind myself to not do that; especially for a young female speaker, the nutjobs seem to come out of the woodwork and attack everything about personality, looks, speaking style. Although I must admit, the example of darkening Obama and implicitly calling people racists was a little distracting from her point.

Andrew McAfee: What will future jobs look like?


Andrew McAfee is the associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studying the ways information technology (IT) affects businesses and business as a whole.


Prophecy is hard, but it is easy to see that in the future there will be more things that sound like science fiction, and fewer jobs. Even in the near future drivers are being replaced with automated cars, something similar to Siri and Watson will take over customer service jobs, and automatic trolleys can automate warehouses. Replacing workers with technology has been happening for 200 years, but most people still had jobs. However, now machines are picking up skills they haven’t had: to understand, speak, think. Jobs will be replaced with machines, but this is wonderful economic news for 2 reasons.

  • Technology is the reason that economies can grow, prices can come down, and quality continue to increase all at the same time.
  • Machines mean that people don’t have to do these jobs any more. No more drudgery or toil, we can evolve society in a new way – to become innovators and explorers and thinkers.

So what are the challenges in this transition?

The first is Economic: it is tough to sell your labour in a world full of machines. Over recent decades company profits have increased while their labour costs (and jobs) have decreased. In the future companies will rely on a prosperous middle class to sell their wares, but the middle class is now under threat. Median income is currently decreasing, while inequality in society is increasing. To take examples of a standard white male US blue collar worker and a similar white collar professional, in the 1960s they were quite similar at 80 and 90% employment. Since then (when automation was starting), the blue collar worker’s employment rate has dropped below 60%, blue collar marriages have become much less happy (from 60% in the 1960s to 20% now), blue collars have disengaged from politics, and they are 5 times more likely to be imprisoned now than 50 years ago. White collar trends have stayed close to where they were in the 1960s.

So how do we deal with the disengagement of blue collar workers? The simple short term solution is to build infrastructure, encourage entrepeneurs and educate to create people who can be employed. But to deal with a more total replacement of workers with machines needs a deeper reaction: such as a guaranteed minimum income. This is often decried as socialism or encouraging laziness, but the US has lower social mobility than European countries with social safety nets.

Education is one solution to the major issues. Primary school education is currently pitched to create factory workers or blue collar clerks – Andrew wants to retool it to aim at a different goal. Andrew is optimistic that things will improve, but the issues need to be embraced, confronted and radical solutions devised. The facts are now becoming more widely known: that the machine age is coming. Abraham Lincoln stated that “if given the truth they (people) can be depended on to face any national crisis”.

My Thoughts

The talk was forseeing a world very different to the one we know now, and was optimistic that humanity could work out the challenges posed by massive unemployment (at least in the jobs we now can see). Personally I am disappointed it only focussed on the decline of blue collar jobs, as I am interested in what would happen if professional jobs were made redundant as well.

Regardless, his suggestion of a minimum income seems to be the only solution to massive unemployment. Nothing else makes sense in a world where (most) people aren’t needed to do jobs – the alternatives are insane: either compelling people to apply for jobs that don’t exist or to stifle innovation so the jobs still exist.