Feature

Most psychologists would be thrilled to pack a lecture hall with a couple hundred people who want to hear about their latest research. But to Barry Schwartz, PhD, that would be small potatoes. To date, more than 2.3 million people have watched him give an 18-minute presentation on the paradox of choice.

That's because Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, stars in one of the 20 most popular talks on TED, the nonprofit organization that puts on high-wattage conferences devoted to "ideas worth spreading," then shares those conference talks on its TED website. Schwartz's talk is on the counterintuitive idea that the abundance of choice in our modern world can leave us feeling paralyzed rather than happy with our decisions.

TED began with a meeting in Northern California in 1984 organized by Saul Wurman, the architect and designer who coined the phrase "information architecture." That first meeting focused on the three topics that still make up the conference's acronym: technology, entertainment and design. It featured an early look at the Sony Compact Disc and a demonstration of 3-D graphics from Lucasfilm, according to TED's website. It took six years for Wurman to put on another conference, but after that it became an annual event.

Today, the organization hosts two main conferences each year and helps sponsor dozens of other locally organized "TEDx" events worldwide. Speakers have included former President Bill Clinton, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and physicist Stephen Hawking, among many others.

The organization's public profile really took off in 2006, when TED began posting videos of the pithy, 18-minutes-or-less talks online. They've been a surprise hit, garnering more than 100 million views on YouTube and the TED website. And though TED started in the technology world, over the years its mission has broadened and its organizers have shown an affinity for psychology as well. More than a dozen psychologists' talks are included on the website, including two in the top 20.

"It is interesting that so many of our best talks have been about psychology," says TED head Chris Anderson — his official title is "curator." "When we talk about ‘ideas worth spreading,' there have been so many amazing ideas [in psychology] in the past decades — from evolutionary psychology to positive psychology — that really shift how we see ourselves. If you can explain some of that in 18 minutes, that's a very satisfying thing to do."

The 18-minute time limit is key, says Anderson. TED organizers look for speakers who can present their most important ideas into that short attention-sustaining time frame. "The reason it's worked is that we have not just brilliant people, but people capable of communicating brilliance to a broad audience and compressing it. Not everyone can do that," he says.

Choosing speakers, Anderson says, is an art as well as a science. Organizers sift through thousands of suggestions from the public and also pay attention to local TEDx and other events to look for speakers for the main conferences.

Schwartz, for example, got a TED invitation after he spoke at a small "TED-like" event in New York, where Anderson was in the crowd scouting for speakers. Schwartz has been astounded by the reaction to his talk. He first spoke in 2004 — wearing shorts and a T-shirt because it was "unbearably hot" that day, he says — and signed a permission form for the video to be posted online. In the days before YouTube, he didn't expect anything to come of it. "I thought, ‘Who watches these things? Nobody,'" he says.

At his next TED talk five years later he knew better — and made sure to wear a suit jacket.

"I think it's really a gift to psychology, even if you have to oversimplify to tell a complicated story," Schwartz says. "[The TED talks] create interest in what we do among millions of people who wouldn't be there otherwise."


Visit our digital edition to watch Barry Schwartz's talk on the paradox of choice and find links to other TED psychology highlights.

TED talks

How to give a TED talk

Want to learn to make your own research talks more accessible and engaging? Veteran TED speaker Philip Zimbardo, PhD, will lead a session on the "Secrets of a Great TED Talk" at APA's 2012 Annual Convention in Orlando, Fla., Aug. 4, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Zimbardo will analyze the key components of a TED talk, using examples of some of his favorite talks from psychology and other fields.