Balancing Kindness and Rightness

“Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.” (The Dalai Lama)

I recently read this longform New York Times piece on Amy Cuddy and the replication controversy in social science.  The basic summary is that two big trends came together–the first was the rise of social science in popular culture (think Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Gilbert), and the second was a movement within the social sciences to recognize that many studies were not replicable, and that the results they reported were probably the result of poor data hygiene.

In the case of Amy Cuddy, the first trend made her a star, by making her “Power Poses” work a TED Talk sensation, which led to her bestselling book, Presence.  The second trend essentially destroyed her academic career, when it turned out that larger follow-up studies failed to show that power poses actually impacted people’s testosterone and cortisol levels (though they confirmed Cuddy’s finding that power poses made people feel more powerful).

What you conclude from the controversy probably reflects your point of view.  Was Cuddy guilty of profiteering based on poor science?  Or was she singled out for criticism because of her fame, and attacked because of her gender and appearance?

The tragedy of this episode is that it didn’t have to happen.  The different parties involved had good intentions, but a simple misunderstanding–only uncovered by the Times reporter’s work–let them to wrongly assume bad intent.  Here is the crucial passage:

When Simmons and I met, I asked him why he eventually wrote such a damning blog post, when his initial correspondence with Carney did not seem particularly discouraging. He and Simonsohn, he told me, had clearly explained to Cuddy and Carney that the supporting studies they cited were problematic as a body of work — and yet all the researchers did was drop the visual graph, as if deliberately sidestepping the issue. They left in the body of literature that Simmons and Simonsohn’s P-curve discredited. That apparent disregard for contrary evidence was, Simmons said, partly what prompted them to publish the harsh blog post in the first place.

But the email that Simmons and Simonsohn had sent was, in fact, ambiguous: They had explicitly told her to drop the P-curve and yet left the impression that the paper was otherwise sound. At my request, Simmons looked back at his original email. I watched as he read it over. “Oh, yeah,” he said quietly. He had a pained look on his face. “We did say to drop the graph, didn’t we?” He read it over again, then sat back. “I didn’t remember that. This may be a big misunderstanding about — that email is too polite.”
Cuddy and Carney had taken their advice literally. Simmons stood by his analysis but recognized that there was confusion at play in how they interpreted the events that transpired. Simmons says he harbored no ill will toward Cuddy before criticizing her paper; if anything, he remembered her warmly. “She was great,” he said, smiling at the memory. “We published the blog post despite my history with Amy. Because I realized that once we pulled the trigger on this. … ” He did not finish the sentence. Cuddy had, in fact, become the poster girl for this kind of work, which even he thought was not fair. “The original study wasn’t particularly egregious,” he said. “It was published in 2010 before anyone was thinking about this.”

For a moment, the scientist allowed the human element to factor into how he felt about his email response to that paper. “I wish,” he said, “I’d had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call Amy.”

In other words, Cuddy had corresponded with her critics, had listened to their feedback, and thought that she had done what they had asked of her.  Simmons’ misunderstanding of his own email, followed by his mistake of interpreting Cuddy’s actions as defiance of his advice, led him to publish a piece that he knew would harm her career.

In these troubled times, it can be difficult to balance kindness and rightness.  Both are virtues that I value; I believe that we should try to treat people with kindness, and I believe that we should rely on facts and evidence.  What the Cuddy episode shows is that the two virtues can easily come into conflict.

I believe that when they do, we should err on the side of kindness.

The problem with unkindness is that it is like a genie that can’t be put back in a bottle.  If you destroy someone’s career because of a misunderstanding, you can’t make it up to them.  I’m reminded of the Book of Job, who loses his entire family while being tested.  Sure, God gives him a new family, but I’m pretty sure he would have strongly preferred not to see his first wife and children killed as a test of his faith.

If Simmons had called Cuddy, her career might have been spared, even if they both eventually concluded that her original study was flawed.

Erring on the side of kindness means being willing to defer the savage, addictive joy of being right, with the knowledge that if your kindness proves misplaced, you can usually get the facts right later.

Even if you are convinced of your rightness, I believe you should acknowledge the possibility that you might be wrong, and consider being kind before pulling the trigger and causing irrevocable harm.

1 thought on “Balancing Kindness and Rightness

  1. I'd add another problem with kindness — its not controversial, which means it gets no attention. Its sad that the internet attention market has lead to bombastic claims in all directions — and frequently unkindness specifically as a form of attention getting. How does that Upton Sinclair quote go…
    "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

    In this general arena (if not in this specific instance), it can be difficult to be nice when your ability to attract attention depends upon you not doing it…

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