Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs. Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein/Steven Pinker: This was a perfect example of how you can love a TED topic for its content and not its presentation. Newberger Goldstein and Pinker had basically a Socratic debate: entirely scripted, a conversation meant to show us the superiority of a particular line of thought. Which is ironic, since the topic was reason versus compassion. I’m sure Socrates would have approved.
This is a topic near and dear to most social psychologists’ hearts, so we deal with System 1/System 2 discussions all the time. At least in this scripted conversation, reason wins out as the best long term path to a better moral future but I’m not so sure I agree. Newberger Goldstein claims that compassion tends to dispose itself towards people like us and fuzzy animals, and that is in part true – when the downward pressure is sufficiently high and you have to choose where to lay your compassion down, it has its preferences.
But so does reason. It brings to mind the experiment in which people are told to move from one location to another, and along the way they encounter someone who is hurt. The difference between the two groups is that one is told they are late, another that they have plenty of time, and that strongly influences who stops. It is reason that allows us to justify passing people by when they are hurt (I cannot help them and I am in a hurry to accomplish some other end); compassion may make us choose the cute animal over the ugly one, but it also makes us choose stopping over hurrying onward at all. In a land of plenty, it is compassion that makes us care.
In the discussion afterward at “the dinner table” (a format that needs refining, but that I rather like – certainly seeing smart people react to smart people is enthralling, although whoever invited Seth Godin should have their head checked), slavery came up and Newberger Goldstein pointed out that before emotional arguments were made, it was John Locke who argued that it was against reasoned principles. Which may well be the case, but I doubt very highly that when Americans came together against slavery, they did so because John Locke said so. People don’t follow reason, they follow compassion – indeed, I would argue it was reason that that clouded their emotions and set Locke up for the argument in the first place. It was reason that said, to begin with, that slavery was natural thing.
Julie Burstein: I honestly can’t say I was able to follow the dominant thread of this talk, other than that Burstein seems to feel that creativity is a function of the everyday. Certainly I agree with that, but I’m not sure this is a novel idea (as evidenced by the lack of “dinner table” conversation after; I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one with nothing to contribute). Yes, it is true that failure and imperfection is part of creativity. Yes, it is true that we experience creativity on an everyday level. Burstein may have been arguing against the idea that some people are “creative” and some aren’t, favoring instead an environmental approach. If so, I can get behind that, although I don’t think there are many people running around that truly feel they aren’t capable of being creative. I could be off the mark, but certainly my everyday experience is of people who truly believe they can be creative, and they express it in what they do, even if it isn’t an inherently “creative” field.