This week: what if the science behind your favourite TED Talk was wrong?
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
Other stories we bring up
You can subscribe to our podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us on Flipboard, LinkedIn, Twitter and WeChat to keep updated with our latest insights.
Our theme music was composed and played by Linsey Pollak.
Send us your news ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Sandra So Kai, what should we talk about this week?
Kai Well, there's a story about Kickstarter, which will trial a four-day work week to combat burnout.
Sandra So I'm guessing you're not just bringing this up because today's Thursday, but because the four-day work week was something that just kept coming back. We spoke about this back in 2017, and then it kept reappearing. And it's been becoming more and more of a conversation since the pandemic.
Kai There have been numerous trials and initiatives. Microsoft in Japan trialled it, had very positive results, it was discussed in Singapore's parliament and the UK. It's one of those things that keeps coming back. And we have discussed it on Corona Business Insights during COVID, the experiments with all kinds of different ways of working. And the research so far has found that working less hours doesn't necessarily mean that there's an overall less output. Even if the pay is the same, it turns out that people are actually more productive, which means that a lot of the hours that people spend at work are filled with stuff that is not necessarily value-adding. So eight hours per day might not be the most productive for people, or you might stretch the hours over five days and just reduce the number of hours or you might indeed just cut out one day and only work four days and have a longer recovery period.
Sandra And Kickstarter brings another reason to do this, which is burnout. I think many of the conversations we've seen during the pandemic have been around the lack of work, or indeed the lack of income for many companies and reducing the week to four days made a lot of economic sense. But now with Kickstarter, we're seeing yet another reason to trial this.
Kai We do not know the details. And it would be interesting to see how many hours people are actually working, whether they are burning out in an actual 40-hour week or whether they're burning out because they're actually working 60, 65, 70 hours when they're on a 40-hour contract and what reducing the numbers that are in the contract would actually achieve whether people are actually then are working less. So we don't know that. But it is interesting to see that the willingness to move away from the nine to five, five days a week in the office has actually increased in all dimensions reducing the number of hours flexible hybrid work.
Sandra So it remains to be seen much like before, we've said that making such moves permanent or going beyond the trial will actually require many companies to follow suit. All of these organisations work in an ecosystem, and the last time we reduced the work week it was the Ford Motor Company that took it down to five days, but it was a very large corporation, employed lots of people, and drove other companies to follow suit.
Kai You found an article about QR codes.
Sandra I did, in Bloomberg CityLab. The article talked about the fact that many restaurants have opted to drop printed menus, whether they're the one pager or the big leather-bound book that you get in restaurants, in favour of QR codes that let you access the menu on your phone. Obviously, with health concerns around the pandemic, they seem to be an option that is now implemented widely across places like the US and Europe, and indeed, the article even holds a couple of restaurants in Australia.
Kai And in Australia, we already use QR codes to check into venues, so it's mandatory. So on the one hand that shows that it is now taken for granted as an infrastructure, that people carry smartphones that can be used for accessing the menu because it already has to be used to check in to the venue. So it's a very small step to abandon the traditional menu, which has obvious advantages.
Sandra Beyond the obvious costs of having the printed menus and the costs associated with changing them at any point, the health concerns around cleaning them, wiping them down, or even just handling them in restaurants. There's just one more thing people have to do. It also opens up new possibilities to track, trace, and personalise things for restaurant goers.
Kai And we also see integration with payment now, not only do you access the menu, some restaurants have implemented payment via the app, via the website using things like Google Pay or Apple Pay, where it's very easy with the push of a button to pay from your mobile phone and then just wait for your food to magically appear, taking away the human contact of having to order, again helping with the social distancing.
Sandra But one of the standouts in this article is that it does mention that China has been ahead of the curve in employing menus, it mentions the Song Dynasty, now 1000 years ago, being the first to have menus.
Kai It also says that the QR codes were first popularised across Asia.
Sandra In 2011 Alipay launched the QR code as a payment method, and shortly after WeChat followed suit. But it somehow fails to mention that QR code menus have been a staple across Asia and in China for many, many years now. And indeed, we've travelled in Asia for the past few years. It's always QR codes, for menus, and indeed for many other things, including receipts or anything else that you might want. But it took the West a pandemic to adopt them.
Kai And we've discussed this previously, that China and much of Asia came to the digital, to the online world primarily through the smartphone, not via the computer. So there has always been a much greater willingness to experiment with and exploit all the features of the smartphone in creating infrastructure for commerce. So in that respect, Asia has actually been way ahead of the West in the adoption of mobile technology.
Sandra And also in terms of the customer experience. So even years ago, say you go to a restaurant in China, you scan the menu through the QR code, but you also order and pay through the same app. The experience is much more fragmented here, as we're introducing QR codes, you scan the menu, but you still order with the person, and then you still make the payment through some other system.
Kai Yeah, as I said, the ability to do the payment on the phone is still fairly rare and a standout feature. It's not widely adopted.
Sandra And this is in stark contrast to China, where even before the pandemic, over 90% of Chinese diners would use QR codes. And this is part of a larger story of how the internet and mobile applications are used quite differently in China. And we've had a few conversations on this around things like social commerce, Xiaohongshu, Red, where we've discussed different shopping habits, different social habits on the internet. And we'll put all those links in the shownotes.
Kai I found another interesting story in Bloomberg CityLab. In Germany, there's a heated discussion around the future of short haul flights. Now in Germany, the Greens party is increasingly popular. They're now the second largest political party in recent polls, they actually overtook the Christian Democrats, which is the party of Angela Merkel, have now since fallen back, but there's a real chance that the Greens will be in power after the upcoming election, there's even a slim chance that there might be a Greens Chancellor for the first time in, in Germany. And so emboldened by their success in public opinion, they have put forward an initiative to abandon many of the short haul flights within Germany.
Sandra And I think the article mentions that over 40% of short haul flights in Germany can actually be done by train in what is less than four hours.3
Kai Which actually means that the effective time it takes to go to the airport, remember, trains usually arrive in the city have to go to the airport and check in and security clearance and all the rest of it. And you actually pretty much in that time are on par with the short haul flight.
Sandra If you extend that to about six hours, pretty much any flight in Germany could be covered by a train journey.
Kai And the reason this works is of course, that Germany has a very advanced high speed rail network trains are very comfortable, you can walk around, it's probably a much better experience than waiting around at the airport and queuing up for boarding to just sit on a train in Germany. And it is also much more ecologically responsible. The article mentions that it produces on average 5.7 times less carbon dioxide, and 20 times less smoke producing nitrogen oxides.
Sandra And we've seen similar moves with investments in rail and people preferring rail to flying even in places like China. A trip from Shanghai to Beijing is much easier done on high-speed rail, than the hassle of getting to the airport, taking a flight and then the hassle of getting out of the airport. So for countries that have the infrastructure, it's increasingly a very appealing option.
Kai And trains run on electricity, and you can actually produce that electricity in a green way. Whereas kerosene is still carbon producing whichever way you look at it.
Sandra Since it's very close to lunchtime. I feel I have to bring up the Krispy Kreme IPO that we've touched on before. This has been a really interesting one for us to see the Krispy Kreme, the US donut maker we've mentioned before,
Kai Which will trade under DNUT.
Sandra Is currently targeting a valuation of about $4 billion in a US initial public offering. It's been doing extremely well especially during the pandemic, and we were puzzled by how much it seems to contradict the trend of wellness, fitness that dominated the conversation during the pandemic. But it's also interesting to see how much it's gained in value. Since the last sale of Krispy Kreme was about five years ago for $1.3 billion.
Kai And if you want to buy a share in this business, it sets you back between $21 and $24, which is slightly more than their doughnuts retail for.
Sandra The story we really need to have a look at this week is around TED Talks.
Kai "TED Talks Won't Treat Your Depression", it's called. And we should do it.
Sandra Let's do this.
Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, an initiative that explores the future of business. And you're listening to The Future, This Week where Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer sit down every week to rethink and unlearn trends and technology and business. They discuss the news of the week, question the obvious explore the weird and the wonderful.
Sandra The story we want to have a look at today has to do with Ted Talks and science and the research that's featured in them. And we came across this in the New York Times. The story titled, "TED Talks Won't Treat Your Depression".
Kai The article is written by Jesse Singal, the author of "The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills".
Sandra It tackles a certain type of insight that is seen quite often in TED Talks, the likes of 'maybe chicken soup can cure depression'.
Kai 'Maybe assuming a powerful stance can give you more confidence and therefore make you better at the work you're doing'.
Sandra And such simple straightforward, insightful and also provocative claims are made often by scientists to research them, so 'maybe chicken soup can treat depression' has a Yale social psychologist behind it, who has published research suggesting...
Kai That certain what he calls 'social primes', subtle cues that someone is exposed to, can have an unconscious influence on their behaviour. So if people are exposed to certain words that have associations with old people like wrinkles, they might start walking slower, for example.
Sandra And also why something like warm soup might help replace the social warmth that may be missing from people's lives. And such claims can be very appealing. What if chicken soup can help cure depression? What if we don't need big pharma and psychiatry and maybe just making some small changes can help. The article's author uses this example to highlight a range of TED Talks that have popularised basic experimental research, often from fields like psychology, and have brought them to a general audience. And TED Talks are really appealing for both academics, researchers, scientists, those who deliver the TED Talks, as well as the general audience. The public has always had a fascination with insightful, witty, easily digestible nuggets of science and psychology.
Kai And TED Talks are as much entertaining as they are insightful and unpack what is often more complex ideas into a straightforward and easily comprehensible messaging.
Sandra And in that way, they're very appealing for researchers as well. And the article highlights TED Talks, but there's of course, many such talks, including raising the bar and others, many of which both us and our colleagues have been involved in as a way to bring what is often the complex world of research to a broader audience.
Kai And so many of the ideas that have featured in TED Talks have made their way into the public consciousness but also as programs, intervention into public policy. And also organisations and organisational initiatives for weeding out unconscious bias, for example, or training people to be more confident, more successful, has made its way into the self-help community. But the article raises an important issue here.
Sandra And the issue is that science, and in this case, in particular, psychology is an evolving field. So sometimes studies fail to be replicated. Sometimes theories are discredited or debunked, or simply the world has moved on and our understanding of it moves on with it. In psychology and social psychology in particular, we know that there's an ongoing crisis of replicability. The term surfaced about 10 years ago, starting with certain very famous studies that researchers tried to replicate and fail to get the same results.
Kai And since then, there's been a real effort to try and replicate many of the well-known studies in psychology and social psychology, those that undergraduate students would learn about, and it turns out that more than half of those studies failed to be replicated sometimes like the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, were not only debunked, but shown to be outright fraudulent. Other studies failed to properly replicate because the effects might be there but very small, or they're very convoluted because there are many factors at play, such as in the famous marshmallow experiment.
Sandra And the marshmallow test you mentioned is actually one that we looked at when the first attempts to replicate it were happening about three years ago, as it was one of those standout landmark studies in psychology that everyone would quote. And that has since been replicated a number of times with varying degrees, but very low levels of success.
Kai Just as a reminder, a young child is placed in front of a marshmallow and told that if he or she can hold off eating the marshmallow for 10 minutes, there's going to be a bigger reward at the end.
Sandra And the initial study showed that there was a correlation between children who could wait to receive more marshmallows at the end of the period of time, and how successful they were later in life. So delayed gratification was shown to be correlated with greater success in life.
Kai And the variable here was supposed to be self-control. And so from that, it was concluded that if we can teach children at a young age, better self-control that this would positively influence their success later in life.
Sandra The original study took place in the 1960s. So it's been around for about 60 years, and it's underpinned our ideas of what leads to long-term success. It turned out back in 2018, that many of the children involved in the original study were from affluent background, these were children who had had access to marshmallow and sweets as a normal part of their daily life. Hence, were more comfortable waiting and knowing that there would be more of a reward. But Incidentally, children from affluent backgrounds and educated parents would anyway be set up for greater success in life.
Kai Successive stories have also shown that there's a range of variables that might impact self-control, some of them might be genetic, as you said, some of them might be the socio-economic environment. And so the very clean relationship between someone's self-control which you know, would be teachable, and success later in life, could not be confirmed in later studies, which basically puts in question, the kind of clean and simple message delivered in a TED Talk that would then find its way into public policy, into school programs.
Sandra And into business organisations. So much of the research featured in TED Talks is directly relevant to either individual lives or our collective lives, our business lives. So many of them do end up being used in organisations or used in education. And they range from things like, what leads to success? Or what can motivate people? To how we deal with racial problems, what to do about increasing diversity.
Kai And the article mentions things like social primes, but also the idea of the growth mindset. And so for us really the bigger problem that the article points to is the question of what happens when big ideas are out there in the world, they have made their way into management practices, into programs, into initiatives, and the science behind it fails to replicate, might be debunked, might be retracted. Yet the TED Talks still tends to rack up thousands or millions of views, and things are still out there kicking and well alive in the business world.
Sandra The first problem to note here is the role that what is now a very lucrative industry, and this is not just TED Talks, this is professional thought leaders, consultants, journalists that now have built an industry around popularising such insights to the general public, plays in how these insights both reach us and then are kept in circulation. Whilst these organisations have an economic incentive to popularise these ideas, as researchers come across them, there is no real economic incentive to debunk them once they've gained traction.
Kai No, in fact, they become entangled with a real economic interest to keep them going. Because many people have staked their fortunes on these ideas have built businesses around consulting with these ideas. And the TED-like nature of many of these ideas very much plays into the business sides of popularising these ideas, because they're simple, they're straightforward. They show a clear causation, and therefore a clear actionable causation when in fact, later studies either show that they can't be replicated at all, or that the problems turn out to be much more complicated. Yes, the effect might be there, but only under certain circumstances and it's only one factor among seven, eight different factors many of which can't be addressed with simple self-help programs. So the science advances shows the real complexity of the issues, but the programs are already out there, people are making money with them. And it is very hard now for scientists to go out there and set the record straight, and basically update the public perception, when the message that the scientists would have to give is now a much more complicated, much more convoluted one.
Sandra Because it is very difficult to sell a book in which chicken soup does not really help with depression, it's still nice to have chicken soup, but it just doesn't really help. Or one that says that delayed gratification in childhood has a very complex and complicated relationship to success later on in life.
Kai No, that neither makes for good headlines, so journalists will not jump on these kinds of results. They also don't make for a good TED Talk because A) they're too convoluted, B) they have a negative message, you know, 'this does not work' is not a good TED Talk. We want positive, clear, simple, life affirming messages that make us feel good and give us a clear plan to act and move forward. This is the recipe for a good TED Talk. So scientists with a sense of responsibility are now faced with the problem for how to retract these ideas.
Sandra But this also raises questions around the incentives that researchers have. On the one hand, we're really incentivized not to do many replication studies, but to come up with something new every time.
Kai Something cool, something that can be understood, and that basically sells in the media. Because scientists now, researchers, have to have impact. It's now a measure by which departments and universities are measured sometimes by the government, because government expects a positive impact of research. So there's the incentive to actually come up with the TED Talk-like research.
Sandra And even if we do end up doing research that shows that something no longer holds or a certain theory has moved on, or that it doesn't hold water, there's very little incentive to take that out there. It's not something that people necessarily want to listen to, it's not something that the media will even take you up on, 'oh, you found out something is not a thing'. Unless it's one of the really big studies like the marshmallow study, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, or indeed disruptive innovation, unless it's one of those, there is no incentive for anyone to take you up on that.
Kai And the other side of the equation is that the general public, the media, and the format of TED Talks, demands a simple story that can be told in 15 minutes that can be easily digested. So the format of delivery often drives the way in which more complicated ideas are simplified for public consumption, and therefore the complexity might be there, but might be backgrounded. And then once in the public eye, becomes conveniently forgotten. So even if the ideas themselves start out more complex, the format of communication of them simplifies them.
Sandra So it becomes a really difficult balancing act. On the one hand, you do want to make the ideas as simple and as engaging and understandable as possible to get the broadest audience for your ideas. But then you don't want to take away from the complexity of the argument or from the complexity of the problem itself. And we should know we try to do this every week; how do you balance how complex some of these things are? People do not want to hear that automation is a complex, complicated issue, but rather one here what percentage of jobs will disappear? Or what percentage of someone's work will be automated?
Kai Yeah, the robots are coming for us is a much better story, then, you know, automation will come in, and then certain things will disappear, and jobs will become more complicated, and your job will change. And we have to retrain people. So none of this makes for a good headline.
Sandra Makes for as good a headline as 'robots are coming for Phil in accounting.'
Kai Exactly. So where does this leave us? What can we do to actually contribute to helping rein in some of those ideas that are out there but should no longer be?
Sandra And there are actually no simple answers to this. We've been spending a lot of time today talking about this over coffee ourselves with our colleagues. And there really are no simple answers to this. But maybe there's one thing we could do on this podcast, which is to have a new segment, NegaTED, negated.
Kai NegaTED, the negating TED, not something that TED would run. But maybe this could be a segment where we feature ideas that should be retracted.
Sandra So kind of like a MythBusters for Management Studies and business.
Kai So maybe our colleagues and listeners can contribute to this by sending in our ideas that need revisiting, reconsidering or recalling,
Sandra If you've come across one of these studies, you're the author of one, you're on the receiving end of its advice, reach out to us.
Kai So let us know. You'll have a little bit of time to think about it as we are embarking on our semester break.
Sandra But keep an eye out for specials during the break.
Kai And in the meantime, if you think that more people should be listening to this podcast, tell a friend about it or leave us a review on your favourite podcast platform.
Sandra As always, thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Flipboard, and subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to email@example.com.
Sandra We forgot to say that failed studies, the non-replicable ones, get way more citations than...
Kai They do. It's the same as with misinformation on Facebook, you know, sounds appealing, you re-tweet it, I'm sorry, cite it.
Sandra So what does it mean if we get a lot of citations on our publications?
Kai And it doesn't hold the other way, doesn't mean that if you get lots of citations, you're wrong.
Sandra Does that mean that if you get very few citations, you're probably onto something?
Kai I think most academics would like to believe that.