The dumbest TED talk ever

Philip Zimbardo

I’ve been on a big TED kick lately. For those of you who don’t know, TED is a global series of conferences featuring “ideas worth sharing.” Some of the ideas truly are worth sharing, such as this one by game designer Jane McGonigal, who uses research to share how making simple changes can improve the quality and length of people’s lives. I like this talk because it 1.) Comes from a real place 2.) Incorporates research 3.) Is told in a way that holds the viewer’s interest. These are the three keys to a good TED talk — authenticity, research and captivation.

Every time I watch a TED talk I think, “I want this to make my life better.” It’s like a long magazine article in The Atlantic. I want to receive information that has value, that I can act on or that I can at the very least talk about. I go into a TED video with an open mind because I know the presenter has crossed hurdles to stand on that stage and would not be speaking if someone did not think the message had value.

Philip Zimbardo’s TED talk “The Demise of Guys” has no value.


Here it is:

This talk fails on every level.

In regards to authenticity, Zimbardo is glib and smug.

As to research, well. Zimbardo says that guys are flaming out academically and striking out with women. He offers no meaningful research to back this up, probably because there isn’t a way to study shyness with girls among 15-year-olds, which is an epidemic we can probably trace back to the first 7th grade cave dance.

As for flaming out academically, the assumption is that it’s the boys’ fault, not the schools’ fault. There is no mention at all in this talk of the failure of institutions.

Zimbardo says girls outperform boys on every level, academically. Isn’t this what every free society strives for? Women who achieve? No need to get into that either.

Then he launches into a diatribe about boys’ fear of intimacy. Zimbardo says boys in college report feeling more awkward around girls than they used to. Maybe, as Jacob Sullum points out, boys have always been shy and are more honest than they used to be? Or maybe boys these days show more respect for women? But that doesn’t support the thesis.

Zimbardo launches into a diatribe, unsupported by research, about how men prefer to spend time with other men, a diatribe that fails to acknowledge that most of the time men spend with other men is spent looking at, talking to or talking about women. (Not to mention the fact that any guy who spent ALL his time around women would be considered either a player or creepy.) He thinks we’re all at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday watching, and I quote, a “totally over-dressed Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers rather than Jennifer Lopez totally naked in their bedroom.”

WTF? This part of the talk is like when a priest warns you against “partying with the drugs.” It’s so out-of-touch as to be laughable. And we’re not watching Aaron Rodgers BECAUSE he’s over-dressed or BECAUSE J Lo is in our bedrooms. Sweet lord, this quote is weird.

For the record, most Super Bowl parties any man attends are thrown by or populated by women (guys don’t plan stuff), and we’re at those parties with our wives or girlfriends or, if we’re single, watching the Super Bowl is pretty much the only thing there is to do. It’s not a choice against women. It’s a choice for nachos.

What is the cause of the failure of boys? According to Zimbardo, the Internet, video games and porn are to blame. In other words, technology, the marketplace and boobs.

Because, you know, before the Internet, video games and porn, young men never found ways to waste their time. No, before the Internet and the PS3 they were all paragons of virtue, attending church regularly, helping little old ladies cross the street and most definitely not looking in caves for porn.

Zimbardo, a psychologist who should know better, thinks that human brains can be “rewired” in the manner of one generation, which is the premise of pretty much every bad idea in human history — that human nature can change quickly as a result of outside influences. Dictators, half-ass advertisers and self-help assholes embrace this notion, which should tell you everything you need to know about its merits.

In the end, Zimbardo offers no solution because he has presented an anecdote-fueled thesis that is not backed by thoughtful, meaningful research. The audience, which should boo when it hears he has no solution, applauds, because it affirms their worldview that it’s boys who are screwing up, not the institutions (school, family, government) that should be helping them thrive.

Zimbardo then bizarrely says we should care about this topic so that women can find a man who can dance and make love slowly.

How the hell does he know how well or badly men dance and make love? Because of that one “Sex and the City” episode he watched one time?

“The Demise of Guys” is, without a doubt, the stupidest, laziest TED talk I have seen.

Mr. Zimbardo, if you read this — I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but in your bid to help, you did more harm than good, because if this is a serious problem, you did not take it seriously.

I would say that boys would suffer as a result, but most boys are resilient, and a great many of us who are awkward with women (check) or who are not great at school eventually find a way to overcome our shortcomings to find love and some level of success.

Now there’s an idea worth spreading.

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • Jim Ricks

    I read this while reviewing TED talks as I’m planning to submit for the one coming to Victoria, BC in November. Your comments are thoughtful and very useful to me (I’m also a psychologist, retired)as I am organizing myself for the presentation. Authenticity—research—captivation. This is what they all seem to have, don’t they? A real balancing act in 18 minutes!
    Jim Ricks

  • Good luck, Jim. In order for it to work, the data has to be there to logically back up the assertion. You can’t just say things the audience wants to hear. There is no value in that, except as entertainment. What will you be talking about?

  • Thanks, Joe. I’m so glad to read about a TED talk that’s dumb and has no intrinsic value to the world! Every time I see “TED” online anywhere, I automatically think I should be paying more attention to these very useful, intelligent videos here, there and everywhere, but which I have no time for, which makes me feel delinquent and stupid. At least I don’t have to worry about this one. :-)


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