TED All-Stars: Q&A with Barry Schwartz

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Swarthmore College Psychology Professor and author of The Paradox of Choice and Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz is in Vancouver this week for TED’s thirtieth anniversary. As one of TED’s most popular speakers, (his Paradox of Choice talk has garnered over 7 million views between TED.com and YouTube) Schwartz was invited to this year’s event as a TED All-Star. We caught up with Professor Schwartz to find out what he’ll be talking about this year, why he loves TED, and even what he’ll be wearing (T-shirt and shorts or collared shirt?).

Evan Nesterak: What are you planning to speak about as a TED All-Star this year?

Barry Schwartz: I’m going to give a talk on something that I’ve come to call Idea Technology.

EN: That’s based off of your paper with a similar name right?

BS: Yes. It’s not a new thing but it’s pretty obscure so I thought that audience could benefit from hearing it. (Psychology, Idea Technology, and Ideology, Psychological Science, 1997).

EN: Any important points you’re thinking about tackling?

BS: The main point is that ideas have as big an impact on the shape of human life as objects do; social science creates ideas and they have an impact on us even when the ideas are false. Unlike the technology of things, which if your technology doesn’t work it disappears, ideas can be wrong and still shape institutions and shape the people who live in those institutions. That’s going to be my point. If you hear somebody say it’s human nature to do something or other [you] should be very skeptical.

EN: Your Paradox of Choice video has 7 million views (TED and YouTube combined) and thousands of comments. With all that discussion go on, people are bound to have misconstrued your ideas or taken them to wild extremes you never imagined possible. Are there any misconceptions of your talk that you’d like to dispel?

BS: I must say that I don’t read the comments, because if I did I’d probably jump off a building. But I would say the one thing that, in my own experience giving talks, is misunderstood is that I’m suggesting since choice creates problems, the ideal world is one where there’s no choice. And although every time I talk about it, I make it clear that that’s not what I mean that’s still sometimes what people will hear. I don’t know to dispel that misconception since I do it explicitly and it still doesn’t work.

EN: Sounds like we need some new idea technology.

BS: [Laughs] Well you know, people put things into these two categories. You’ve got an autocratic Soviet state in one camp and a libertarian state in the other, and there’s no in between. They’re going to put you in one of those two bins and they think that if I’m criticizing the libertarian thing then I must be in favor of the autocratic thing. What can you do?

EN: This is TED’s thirtieth year, but it’s really been the last decade that TED has exploded in popularity through its videos. TED, however, is not without its critics. You recently wrote an article entitled, “Why I Love TED.” Why do you love TED? Where do you hope to see the organization in another 10 years given that it carries so much cultural capital?

BS: The reason that I love it is that, as I said in the piece that I wrote, it’s giving itself away. It charges a lot of money if you want to attend, but aside from that it gives everything else to the world for nothing. It’s a chance to hear extraordinarily thoughtful, smart people talking about an unbelievably diverse set of topics. It’s sparks conversation. It excites people to learn more about these areas themselves. It’s just an unbelievable gift. And it is a gift. I’d be quite happy if they just keep doing what they do.

The only thing that worries me has been this subtle increase in an emphasis on performance in the balance between performance and substance. I think that it’s almost impossible to avoid that just because it’s become so popular. People all over the world, speaking multiple languages are going to be watching these things and you want to make sure that the talks are accessible.

But you know, for a lot of people who get invited to give TED talks it’s their one chance to make a splash. They toil in obscurity. Nobody knows who they are. This is their moment, and they want to have a big impact, so they just spend endless amounts of time rehearsing so that the talk will be pitch perfect. That, it seems to me is not a good thing. They could spend that time thinking instead of rehearsing. But it’s totally understandable.

You know what it’s a little bit like. It’s like you know how important SATs are for getting into a good college so you take SAT prep course instead of actually learning something. I mention it in the piece I wrote that [TED] could maybe dial down this incredible pressure that people feel if they didn’t actually report on how many folks watched the talks. If you didn’t know, for example, that there’s a talk that one guy gave that now has been seen by 25 million people you would maybe not struggle so much to make yours slam bang perfect and so on. So there’s a kind of competition that gets created by having that metric available and if they took the metric away maybe the competition would be diminished.

EN: Maybe this goes a little bit to the performance question, but in your first TED talk you went with the t-shirt, shorts, and socks, but in next TED talk you were looking a little flashier. What are you thinking of wearing this time?

BS: Not flashier just like a grown-up. And let me explain this. First of all there was no notion that it was going to be put up online, so I was just talking to the audience. Second of all it was in a very old theater in Oxford, England that was not air conditioned, and third of all it was about 90 degrees, so everybody was dressed like that. Not everybody was speaking, but everybody was dressed like that. It was just broiling hot. Then a few months later I get this release to sign saying we’re going to put these up online. So that’s why I was dressed like that. My wife made it clear to me that if I showed up the next time looking like that she would change the locks on our front door.

EN: I’ve always wondered so I’m glad I got to ask you.

BS: I looked like a grown-up the second time and people came up to me after the second one and they said “I was so disappointed you weren’t wearing shorts.”

EN: What is your favorite TED talk of all time?

BS: I don’t remember the name of the guy who gave it. But it was at the TED [where] I gave the talk on wisdom. It was about this effort to introduce ecologically balanced agriculture to a small and quite impoverished area. What was striking to me is that small interventions produced massive effects, but the only reason it worked is that it wasn’t just about introducing technology, it was about immersing yourself in the culture and developing a kind of trust and mutual respect on the part of the people you were trying to give the technology away to. He took years and years to develop the kind of rapport with the local community leaders so that the ideas would be taken seriously, [which] took incredible patience and understanding about how social change happens and it just took my breath away. (Willie Smits, How to Restore a Rainforest)