Wednesday Write #46: The Tyranny of Tips
Note to Brilliant readers: A little less than a year from now, my book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter will be published. Each Wednesday between now and then I’ll be posting on my blog about the writing and publishing process—a kind of behind-the-scenes look at the journey of a book from manuscript to publication. The posts are numbered starting with #52 because I’ll be counting down each week all the way to (gulp) 0, Pub Day. (The first six Wednesday Writes are collected here.) As the manuscript of Brilliant becomes a book, I’d like to take you along—and I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as we go.—Annie
Having defended the genre of self-help in a recent Wednesday Write post, I’m now going to turn around and decry one of its most common manifestations: the endless, mindless proliferation of tips. Tips for hacking your smartphone, your memory, your daily routine. Tips for improving your diet, your exercise habits, your sex life. Tips that will make you smarter, savvier, happier, healthier—practically superhuman. Sometimes it seems that the Internet was invented simply to deliver us a never ending stream of context-free, nuance-free, almost content-free . . . tips.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes a tip—the right bit of information at the right time—is a lifesaver. Once in a while, a deep insight disguised as a tip lodges itself in your head and changes the way you see the world. But mostly, I suspect, the tips we so eagerly consume—the lists of “Five Ways To Improve This” and “Ten Best Ways To Do That”—skim lightly across the surface of our attention and then disappear.
I had a revelation about why this is so last week, when I spoke to psychology professor Stephen Chew, of Samford University in Birmingham, AL. Though you may not have heard of him yet, Chew is a rock star in the science-of-learning world. His videos on how to learn and study, available here, have been watched thousands of times. The videos grew out of a course Chew teaches every fall to Samford’s entire freshman class; the course itself grew out of Chew’s frustration about the fact that many of his psychology students arrived at college not knowing how to learn.
Chew searched the web for resources to share with his students, but what he found “was pretty bad,” he told me. “There was a lot of pseudoscientific bunk, a lot of people trying to sell students a bill of goods.” There was also, Chew noted, a lot of unconnected, uncontexualized tips. “Many websites and videos just tell students ‘Space out your study sessions,’ or ‘Don’t cram,’ without explaining why those practices are good or bad.” Chew took a different approach once he decided to design his own course: “I wanted to give students enough cognitive science and psychology to understand how their minds work, and why some approaches to learning are much more effective than others.”
There is support in the research literature for Chew’s approach. He himself told me about a very interesting study out of Stanford University, showing that children who are told something about how the body works and why a balanced diet keeps the body healthy made more nutritious choices than kids who were essentially told, “Eat your carrots.” I immediately thought of another study I’d read that reached a similar conclusion: Children in China who received an explanation of how viruses cause colds were more likely to take steps to protect themselves against sickness than kids who were merely instructed to wash their hands.
Adults as well as children need context to understand and apply information. The more context we’re given, the more intriguing and useful new knowledge becomes. Research shows, for example, that an inscrutable poem is judged as more interesting when readers are given a hint that allows them to make sense of what it’s about. Abstract art, too, is considered to be more interesting when the paintings are given titles that help viewers understand what the artists may have had in mind as they painted. Viewers become even more interested in such paintings when they are given biographical information about the artist and background about the historical context in which it was created.
So please, tip-meisters of the world, let’s have a moratorium on “fun facts” and “ten best” lists. Give us context, background, a grounding in what it all means. I’ll do my part by recommending three books about learning that do a great job of explaining, contexualizing and filling in. Readers, do you have others to add?
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf. A fascinating and beautifully written book about the neurological, cognitive, and cultural context in which reading happens.
The Number Sense: How The Mind Creates Mathematics, by Stanislas Dehaene. An irresistibly interesting exploration of how humans use numbers to understand the world.
Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, by Daniel Willingham. You may have the sense that I have recommended this book before. I have, and I will put it on every list of recommended books I make until Dan writes his next one, on how to turn students into readers. It’s that good.