My Top 5 Psychology TED Talks

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In order of least views to most, I will present my favourite TED talks, along with a brief description of what they are about, why I think that they are great and where you can find out more information about these concepts if you are interested. Enjoy!

5. The Surprising Science of Happiness by Dan Gilbert  (13 million views)

Summary: Human beings are the only animals that are able to simulate experience and imagine what something will be like before we do it. This capacity to visualise future experiences is a helpful tool to have, and is one of the main reasons why humans have been able to make all of the advances that we have since the industrial revolution. Our experience simulator does have its limitations however, and is often not accurate due to what is known as an impact bias.

An impact bias is the tendency to overestimate the impact that a future event will have on our emotional life and overall levels of happiness. The most striking example, which I’ve previously mentioned in another article, is that 12 months after becoming a paraplegic, or 12 months after winning the lottery, an individual’s level of happiness is usually the same as what it was before the event took place. This is the same with events such as weight loss, moving houses, relationship break-ups and infidelity, and getting a promotion at work. Whether it is a positive or negative event, they will consistently have less impact of a lesser intensity and lesser duration than what people will expect them to have.

When things work out the way that we want them to, this is known as Natural Happiness, and most people understand why someone is happy. It makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is Synthetic Happiness, which is the happiness that is created by our “psychological immune system” when we don’t get what we want. Research has shown that even though other people respond to examples of Synthetic Happiness with a “yeah right!” response when they hear about it, it is every bit as real and as enduring as Natural Happiness.

What I liked about it: Even when things don’t go as planned or we don’t end up getting what we want, most of the time our “psychological immune system” will step into action and help us feel truly happy not in spite of, but because of what has occurred. Whilst most of us might picture ourselves being miserable if things don’t work out, the truth is that we will generally be okay, so don’t spend too much time fretting over all of the bad things that may occur in the future. Humans are amazingly resilient, even in the face of the worst possible outcomes.

On the positive side, we should also try not to sacrifice too much good stuff (fun, leisure, play, excitement, adventure) in the here and now for that eventual pay-off that is likely to be less rewarding and less enduring than you imagine. It is much better to create the type of life that we want now than always putting it off until a later date (after I finish studying, after I get married, after I retire, after I lose weight etc.).

If you’d like to learn more: Read the book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ by Dan Gilbert.

4. The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain  (14 million views)

Summary: Our society, especially in the West, tends to value being social and outgoing, or being an extrovert, above all else. An extrovert is someone who craves large amounts of stimulation, both environmentally and socially, in order to feel most alive and capable. Introverts on the other hand, tend to feel most comfortable, switched on, energised and creative when they are in low key or isolated environments.

The key to maximising everyone’s talents is to find the level of stimulation that is best for each individual. However, our schools and workplaces and even our social settings tend to be set up to allow the extrovert to thrive, which only further disadvantages the introvert and diminishes their performance, confidence and level of well-being. Introverts often feel different from mainstream society or ashamed of who they are, but between a third and a half of all individuals are introverted. It’s just that they are often quieter, and tend to get lost in the crowd.

What if instead of trying to force introverts to thrive in an extroverted world we could instead diversify things so that we are appealing to everyone’s strengths. What if each student and worker could study and perform in the environment that best suited them? Introverts often have talents and abilities in the areas where extroverts are the weakest, so accepting, encouraging and celebrating the strengths of introverts as well as extroverts would actually help society to flourish better as a whole.

What I liked about it: Growing up I always knew that I became overstimulated and struggled to perform at my best in loud, busy environments. I hated going out to clubs on the weekend, and tended to enjoy smaller gatherings to large crowds or festivals. I even found large lectures to be much more difficult to concentrate in than a small tutorial or studying at home by myself. Some of my favourite pastimes include spending a big chunk of time by myself relaxing, reflecting and/or reading a book. I love excitement and adventure too, so may be considered to be an ambivert, but definitely need my quiet times in order to recharge and keep functioning at my best. Accepting myself for who I am and working with my strengths is much better than trying to force myself to be like someone else or whatever it is that society values the most.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain.

3. The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown  (24 million views)

Summary: Brené Brown is a social worker who has spent her career studying human connection, imperfection, shame, fear and vulnerability. She believes that human connection is why we are here on this planet, and it is what gives us meaning and purpose in life. She says that what prevents us from being able to truly connect with others is shame and fear, and that in order to connect, empathize, belong and love we need to be truly seen, which takes extreme courage and vulnerability. It is possible to be worthy of love, connection and belonging without being perfect. We just need to be compassionate towards ourselves, and believe that we are worthy. Whilst it may seem appealing to be certain or to not be afraid before we act, it is actually through leaning into the discomfort, embracing vulnerability, and having the willingness to take emotional and social risks that we will find the most rewarding experiences and deepest levels of connection.

What I liked about it: Not only does Brené Brown talk about vulnerability, but she also leads by example by opening up about her own struggles with vulnerability. She shows that life isn’t about waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we act upon something or try something out, as seductive as infallibility may be. If we don’t take risks or be vulnerable, the quality of our relationships are sacrificed, and we miss out on opportunities that we may never be able to get again. When we are vulnerable, we don’t waste our precious time, or turn our backs on our potential strengths. We manage to connect with others and contribute with our capacities in a way that is uniquely ours.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the books ‘The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are’ and ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’ by Brené Brown.

2. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are by Amy Cuddy  (33 million views)

Summary: It has been known for quite a while that our body language impacts how others perceive us to be and how successful our interactions with others are. Amy Cuddy has researched our nonverbal behaviour further, and shows that this can also impact our thoughts, feelings, hormone levels and subsequent behaviour. By holding any two of the five “power poses” shown in the talk for only 60 seconds each, it has been shown to increase testosterone levels and feelings of power whilst reducing cortisol levels and feelings of stress. If done before important meetings, speeches, exams, job interviews or other stressful occasions, it may even change how you perform, and how successful you eventually become. Like Amy says, power posing allows us to “fake it until we become it!”

What I liked about it: The concept of power posing brings about all types of possibilities for helping people with anything that they usually lack confidence in or feel a high degree of stress doing. If only 2 minutes of power posing can increase their likelihood of success, then it is something that should be taught everywhere, from homes to schools to workplaces. In the last chapter of Amy Cuddy’s book ‘Presence’ she includes a number of examples of people (and even horses) that have successfully applied power posing in their lives.

The Imposter Syndrome is another important issue that Amy touches on during her talk, and it is an experience that a lot of us (between 60-70%) have at one point or another in our life. I know that I did when I first made the state Volleyball team as a junior and when I first started studying my Doctoral Psychology degree. The Imposter Syndrome is where people feel like they are a fraud or that they shouldn’t be in the position that they are in because they “don’t deserve it” and/or that “somebody has made a mistake”. They worry that although they have been able to convince people so far that they are capable of doing what they do, it is really just a matter of time before they are caught out for the imposter that they really are. Realising just how common this is, and that in time it can go away, would provide hope to anyone watching who is going through a similar experience.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the book ‘Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges’ by Amy Cuddy.

1. Do Schools kill Creativity? by Sir Ken Robinson  (38 million views)

Summary: Our current Education system is outdated and fails to adequately prepare the children of today for the uncertainty and unprecedented growth that is likely to take place in the future.

The current hierarchical structure of subjects tends to place maths and languages at the top, followed by the humanities, and then the arts. Even within the arts there exists a hierarchy where art and music are considered to be of a higher status than drama and dance.

Somehow as we go up in school levels, the creative pursuits are pushed aside, devalued and even stigmatised in lieu of the more serious subjects that are supposed to ready us for the workplace. But schools are still preparing us for the needs of industrialism, not for the rapidly evolving society where we are not even aware of what is ahead of us in five years time, let alone what the world will be like in 2065.

Wouldn’t it be better to help each child to utilise their creativity in figuring out where they are most “in their element”, and encourage them to pursue a career that is consistent with both their strengths (what they are good at) and their passions (what they enjoy).

What I liked about it: Considering that we’ll never exactly know what it is that we are preparing students for, teaching them to be curious, creative, innovative, flexible and resilient should be at the top of the list of the skills to help develop in children. If we can do this, then no matter what takes place in the future, the children of today will be in the best position to adapt, grow and evolve.

We should also let go of thinking of intelligence so narrowly and see that it is diverse, dynamic and distinct. We should start looking for and nurturing the unique capacities of each child instead of trying to force them into becoming A+ Maths and English students. Ken uses an example of Gillian Lynne, who at 8 years of age was diagnosed by her school as having a learning disorder, or what would these days be labelled as ADHD. Nowadays she would likely be put on Ritalin to help reduce her restlessness and remain focused in class, but luckily the specialist that she saw noticed her need to move and dance to music, and told her mother to enroll her in a dance school instead. Gillian did this, began to flourish, and went on to choreograph “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”, entertaining millions, and making millions in the process.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the books ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’ and ‘Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life’ by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica.

Feel free to comment about which ones you liked the best, or if there are other TED talks that you would have included in your list.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

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