Maria Konnikova is a Russian-American writer and journalist, who primarily writes about psychology and literature.
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Thank you all so much for joining me! This was a lot of fun. Such wonderful questions. Till next time!
I cover science, psychology, and physiology for The New Yorker. I most recently wrote about workplace happiness: http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/what-makes-people-feel-upbeat-at-work?mbid=social_reddit and casual sex: http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/casual-sex-everyone-is-doing-it?mbid=social_reddit. I'm also the author of two New York Times best-sellers, THE CONFIDENCE GAME and MASTERMIND.
Hi Maria! I haven't gotten the time to actually read The Confidence Game (will do soon enough!), but I really enjoyed your appearance on Bill Maher earlier this year. My question is: how influential are behavioural economists/game theorists such as Daniel Kahneman in your work, and would you consider collaborating with someone like that?
Thanks so much! I think Kahneman has done some incredible work, and I've definitely been influenced by his research. I will say that I'm probably more influences by psychologists than economists, but I will also say that Kahneman is a psychologist! I think psychology can contribute a huge amount to game theory: in order to model behaviors correctly, you first need to understand them at a deep level.
Hi. I'm writing a debate case about implicit bias and searches based on reasonable suspicion, and I came across a reference to your article about abuse of power but I was unable to find it. Could you link it and perhaps give some insight about what it entails? Thanks.
Hmmm...maybe they mean this one on the Stanford Prison Experiment? http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-real-lesson-of-the-stanford-prison-experiment. Let me know if that seems right!
What's the nicest thing a complete stranger has told you about your books? Are there any stories that stick out? Thanks!
What a great question. I am incredibly lucky to hear from complete strangers fairly often, and each time I do, it's a wonderful thing. The story that sticks out is a young boy - I think he was nine or ten - who came to my first ever reading, at the launch of MASTERMIND. He asked me if he was too young to learn to think like Holmes, and I assured him he wasn't. I later got a note from his mom, that the interaction and the book had made a huge difference for him. I think that's the greatest thing that could possibly happen to a writer.
What's the hardest story you've ever had to write and why?
And also: what books do you re-read?
Great question. I think it was a piece I did on a program to fight poverty in the Arkansas Delta. It was devastating to see how endemic the problems were, and it was incredibly difficult to write the piece in a nuanced way. I was also using someone's life story as the backbone of the narrative - and that is hard to do without feeling exploitative. (If you're interested, here is the story: https://psmag.com/bringing-the-rural-poor-into-the-digital-economy-eaad0a2ff8fa#.ewsm2qw08)
Books I re-read: there are many. A lot of poetry (a lot of Auden). Alice in Wonderful. Winnie the Pooh. The Little Prince. The Master and Margarita. The Great Gatsby. I'll be here all day if I don't stop :)
You wrote about the "open office trap" a little while ago. (http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-open-office-trap?mbid=social_reddit) As coworking spaces become ever more popular, how do you think they should design their spaces for optimal productivity?
Have quiet spaces where people can go - and don't penalize them for going there. There is often an implicit bias against people who want to use an office. Others see them as standoffish, or not a team player. That perception absolutely has to change. Everyone deserves quiet. Also, I'd invest in building materials that absorb noise and have policies against loud conversation in certain parts of the space - like a quiet car for coworking spaces!
When you did your sleep series (http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/why-cant-we-fall-asleep?mbid=social_reddit), what learning surprised you most?
Just how much damage we do to ourselves when we undersleep - how profound it is, how little time it takes to happen, and how long it takes to recover. Sometimes, you can't recover! The craziest thing is that we stop noticing sleep deprivation after a few days. We think we are functioning at our best, while all objective measures show a huge loss in cognitive function. We are too sleep deprived to realize we are sleep deprived!
Hi! Heard you speak in Cambridge and you were wonderful. You seem to have mastered the art of science communication in terms of translating complex scientific info to intuitive theories. What would you recommend to a fellow DM researcher who’s interested in branching out to science reporting/communication?
Thank you! I would say: write and speak, over and over and over. And always listen to feedback. It took me a very long time to hone my writing and presentation, and I am still working at it. The only way to get better is to keep doing it, and then keep doing it some more.
What advice do you have for someone who dreams of writing at the New Yorker/is entering college this year?
Read a lot. Be curious. Study things that interest you, not things you think will be useful to you. And write, a lot. Write in your free time. Write about anything and everything, just for yourself. Make sure you truly love it. I don't think you can become a good writer because you want to write for the New Yorker. I think you end up writing for TNY because you intrinsically loved to write and worked hard at becoming a good writer.
Which fiction writers do you think understand the human mind best?
All of the best ones! I think you need to in order to be a great fiction writer. Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Bulgakov...so many!!
What is your favourite type of cheese?
Impossible to answer. Most cheese is wonderful. In my prior life I think I was a mouse. Probably a French one, because I do have a slight bias toward those.
what 5 things would u try to experience if u could be the opposite gender for a day?
I think it would be one thing, really, but it would amount to vastly more than five things at the end of the day: I'd want to see the difference in how people respond to me as a man rather than a woman. At work, on the streets, in my interactions. From what I know of psychology, the world will change drastically in that day, and my perspective will undergo a profound change. I want to see what insights would emerge on the other side. Interesting side note: there are fascinating new studies on VR and how it affects perception. So your thought experiment could actually end up being possible.
Just curious, why do your New Yorker web pieces usually have adorable illustrations when others use wire photos?
No idea, but I'm super happy they do. There are some supremely talented artists here!
Have you ever analyzed why some people have fetishes that are completely counter-intuitive and agonizing? Like a girl who wants her nipples bitten or a guy who wants to get kicked in the testicles?
No. This is as close as I got: http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/casual-sex-everyone-is-doing-it. Perhaps ask Dr. Vrangalova!
Hi Maria, I enjoy your work. What do you think about the issue of reproducibility in psychology? Crisis or overcooked?
Both: I think it's definitely a problem, but it has been misinterpreted in a lot of media coverage. This does NOT mean all of psychology is flawed, nor that all of the studies that aren't reproduced are flawed. Replications fail for any number of reasons. It does mean we have a responsibility to be extremely careful. I will also say that this is a big problem in all of science (and research), not just psych, but the coverage makes it seem like psych is having a "crisis" and everything else is just fine.
Why is it wrong to interpret public figures using psychology? It seems to me you can use your education to give us information to help us judge people.
NPR had a psychology professional on this morning saying it is wrong to talk about Trump in these terms.
It's really difficult to interpret who someone is based on a public persona. No clinical psychologist worth her salt would ever pass judgment on someone she hasn't met in person. It's ethically irresponsible. That said, we can certianly interpret behaviors and how they appear (I've absolutely done that). We just can't form definitive psychological judgments. It's easy to veer from science to pseudoscience when you do that - one of the reasons Freudianism was so discredited. It tried to explain everyone and everything at a distance. (Freud himself didn't do that, but his followers weren't as careful.)
Hi Maria! Have you come across differences in the way men and women interpret their happiness in the workplace?
I think this comes down more to individuals than to genders. Let me say what I always say when asked about gender differences: differences within each gender are almost always greater than those between genders. Different types of people certainly interpret their happiness differently, but I think other dimensions of personality may be far more important here than gender.
The reference was no where near specfic, but it implied that the article was about abuse of power by teachers. Thanks anyway.
Sorry! I've never written about teacher abuse of power, so may be a mis-reference...
Hi Maria, I was wondering if you have had anything on a child's perception on safety and what happens when a child feels unsafe or safe in an environment such as school?
The closest thing I've written about is resilience, which isn't quite the same thing. Here's a link all the same, in case it's interesting! http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience
How long did it take you to internalize the writing particularities of The New Yorker like the diaeresis on repeating letters and archaic British spellings?
Ha! I'm not sure I've internalized it yet. I'm great about focussing, but not always as great on coöperation.
What's David Remnick like as a boss?
Are you and Mike Pesca going to do an "Is That Bullshit?" about cupping, or does it go without saying? ;)
Request duly noted :).
Has writing about psychology affected your thought process, your approach towards other people, personal interactions and life in general?
Aside - Saw you on charlie rose and following your work ever since.
Thank you for the nice aside! And yes, it definitely has. I'd like to think it has made me less quick to jump to conclusions about anyone. I always think about all the different things that might be affecting how they are coming off to me, and how I am perceiving them. Even something as little as whether we all got enough sleep. So...I strive to be as nuanced and non-judgmental as I can. Of course, I don't always succeed. But I do my best.
Can we predict future actions based on these interpretations? To me, that's all that is being done.
If I, or you in an article, say Trump acts like a narcissist, is that a diagnosis or can it be looked at as a description?
All I will say to that is the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior!
I will finally read MASTERMIND. It is there in my Kindle from ages.
What are your favorite books, mostly interested in non fiction actually.?
Let me give you some of my favorite non-fiction writers! Writing today: Michael Lewis, Steven Pinker, Erik Larson, David Grann immediately come to mind. I love Dave Epstein's "The Sports Gene" and am thinking of it a lot now because of the Olympics. I love essays by fiction writers who also happen to be masterful non-fiction prose stylists, like WH Auden and Joseph Brodsky. On science, I love Richard Feynman - and Einstein's work for the general public is surprisingly wonderful. There are too many to continue listing them all!
What would you say is your most interesting or fascinating article?
I can't pick! But I think my most important article health-wise is the series I did on sleep. It is vastly undervalued in our society, and so incredibly important.
Is lavender oil actually a good sleep-aid?
There's no good research to show that it is. My advice: if it works for you, go for it. Scientifically, there's no evidence that it does much. But I'm a huge fan of the placebo effect: our mind does phenomenal things, and if we think something works, it very well may end up working.
Hello, psych student here! In my studies, I've noticed that most things looked at through the lense of nature vs nurture, genetics vs environment, predisposition vs statistics. I've also noticed that behavioralism get looked down upon for being judged as cynical.
How important do you think behavioralism is in terms of psychology? Can a person's positive/negative outcomes in situations be attributed to their past behaviors?
I think all of those dichotomies are false ones, and most present-day psychologists would agree. We know it's nature AND nurture, genetics AND environment, etc. Always an and rather than a vs. There is no contest. And behaviorism has a lot to contribute: many things really are the result of learned associations, and Skinner and Watson did a great deal for the field by their research. The danger is in taking it too far and reducing everything to behavior. That doesn't work, and a lot of psychology reacted against it because people tend to flee from extremes. Skinner was fleeing Freud. And then people in turn fled Skinner. People are nuanced, and extreme approaches, while appealing, tend to lead to simplistic and incorrect conclusions.
Have you ever heard of a group therapy session where the group are treated as one person?
No, but it makes my BS radar go off quite loudly!
Cool we share opinions! Can I pull this up when I argue with my professors?
Feel absolutely free to quote me on this :). Not that I carry much weight with professors, but very happy to be associated with this opinion!
if u had a character in a down and dirty mortal kombat-style fighting game, what fighting moves would you have?
I'd just hypnotize everyone with my psychic abilities, naturally.
Hey Maria, in an article about sleep you wrote that pressing the snooze button after waking up is (and I'm paraphrasing here) "just about the worst thing you can do". Could you talk a little more about why snoozing in the morning is so bad for us?
Of course! Our sleep cycle is effectively reset every time we wake up. When our alarm initially rings, especially if we set it for the same time every day, our body has been preparing us for wake-up. When you hit snooze, you re-enter sleep, but your snooze isn't long enough to go through a full cycle so you wake up at the wrong time and are even groggier than before. That's why naps can be dangerous, as well, if improperly timed. It's quite bad to be awoken out of deep sleep. It takes us far longer to get over our sleep equivalent of jet lag.