The Four Most Dangerous Words? A New Study Shows: Laura Arnold at TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue (Transcript)

Laura Arnold

Full transcript of The Four Most Dangerous Words? A New Study Shows: Laura Arnold at TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue conference.


My husband John and I are philanthropists. That word means different things to different people. To us, it means aggressive investments in a number of issue areas: from evidence-based policy to criminal justice, education, health care, pension reform, public accountability, and many more.

I get asked a lot of questions about our work: why did you choose the issue areas that you did and how do you choose new ones? I always feel that when responding to that question people are expecting me to tell a story about some transformative event that happened in my life or John’s life that led us to embark on this path.

Maybe they want to hear that we invest in healthcare because we’ve had family members who unfortunately have had cancer. Maybe they want to hear a story about my life growing up in Puerto Rico and how that fueled my interest in and passion for fighting social justice issues and addressing poverty. At TED, we’ve come to expect that every talk will start with a story like that: something intensely moving and personal.

Maybe something that starts with: “When I was a kid.” But I’m not going to tell a story like that, although I could. I think personal stories are so important; they are what fuels our passion. For many of us, they’re the reason why we do the work we do. But I believe that they’re precisely the wrong place to look for insight.

In fact, I believe that we – as policymakers, government officials, philanthropists, even as individuals – spend entirely too much time on anecdote and not enough time on evidence. I’m here today to argue that we need to change that. That we’re routinely making all kinds of decisions based on incomplete, inconsistent, flawed, or even nonexistent data, based on anecdote. That this is harming all of us in ways that we’re not appreciating. And that we can and should do better.

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Now, I’ve just made a bunch of provocative statements, so let me get to work at convincing you. I’ll start with one example from the TED Global stage in 2012, the second-most viewed TED talk of all time: Amy Cuddy – psychologist, Harvard Business School professor – famous in large part for her TED talk for her work on power posing. So, she basically argued that, and continues to argue, that standing in a power pose position like WonderWoman, like this or like this, whatever makes you feel super powerful, changes the hormone levels in your body and might even be conducive to greater success. It’s amazing, right? I mean, that’s so cool.

I should just stand like this the entire time. The TED community ate this up: over 38 million views over the last four and a half years. The talk has been subtitled into 48 languages and counting. Here’s how the TED website today describes Professor Cuddy’s work: It says that Professor Cuddy’s work reveals the benefit of power posing, and it makes a reference to this hormone level issue I just talked about. National news outlets gushed about the work, and many of us rushed to buy her best-selling book.

Now, I hate to be a downer, but I think we were all duped. Power posing doesn’t work – or at least not as advertised. Look at the myriad studies that have been conducted on power posing ever since Professor Cuddy released her findings. They point to glaring errors in her methodology; they question the entire theory of power posing. Some researchers tried to reproduce her work and couldn’t; others tried to reproduce her work and got exactly the opposite result: that power posing reduces feelings of power. And it gets worse.

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