TED All-Stars: Q&A with Dan Gilbert

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

Harvard University Psychology Professor and author of The New York Times Bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert is in Vancouver this week for TED’s thirtieth anniversary. We caught up with Professor Gilbert to find out what he’ll be talking about this year, what has changed since he gave his original TED Talk in 2004 (which reached over 8 million views), and what his favorite TED talk is.

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

Daniel Gilbert: This year I will speak about The End of History Illusion, based on a paper I published last year in Science with Jordi Quoidbach and Tim Wilson. We showed that at all ages, people believe they have changed a lot in the last decade but will change little in the next decade, and that their memory is about right but their prediction is dead wrong. The idea that we all think we’ve just recently become the person we will forever be is, to my mind, quite interesting, and I’m looking forward to telling people who don’t read Science all about it.

EN: What idea or experience has changed the way you think about the world, since you gave your original TED Talk in 2004? Something that if you’d known it then, would have played a large role in your talk.

DG: When I gave my first TED talk I had no idea that 8 million people would see it. I think it was the first year they even videotaped the talks, and in those pre-YouTube days, the idea that people would “go to the internet” to watch video was hard to imagine. So I really didn’t prepare anything special – I just took a few slides from my standard academic colloquium and narrated them with a little less detail than I might normally include for an academic crowd.  If I’d known that many people would see it, I would have worked harder on it! I also would have been more careful in what I said, because when I described a famous study by Brickman and Janoff-Bulman, I got it wrong – a fact of which some Earthling reminds me once a day. It’s okay, they are right and I was wrong so I deserve it.

EN: With over 8.5 million views and thousands of comments on your talk: The Surprising Science of Happiness, people are bound to have misconstrued your ideas. What are the biggest misconceptions of your talk?

DG: I have never read the comments. I know from decades of experience with teaching reviews that if 7,999,997 million people say they loved it and 3 people call me a fast-talking truth-killing miscreant in bad jeans, I’ll go home thinking about the haters. John Cage was once asked what he did when he read bad reviews of his music, and he ostensibly replied, “I don’t read reviews. I weigh them.” So I’m glad to learn that there are thousands of comments on my talk and I will leave it at that.

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

DG: My favorite TED talk is always the last one I saw. For me, that was a TEDx talk by Tom Thum, the human beatbox. I was stunned and amazed and delighted. Must must must see.