The ‘Hey Ya’ effect

Have you ever heard the song ‘Hey Ya’? At the time of writing this, it has been streamed over 276 million times on Spotify and viewed 302 million times on YouTube, so there’s a high chance that you might’ve encountered it in the last 14 years since its release (it’s been 14 years already?!). You might’ve danced to it at a party, sung along in the car, tapped your foot while drinking coffee or just heard it in the background while focusing on some mundane tasks.

So here’s a question for you – and do take your time before answering: what is ‘Hey Ya’ about?

I assume there would be mostly two responses to this question:

1. It’s an upbeat song about dancing and shaking it ‘like a Polaroid picture’

2. I have never properly listened to the lyrics,, so I’ve got no clue

Here you go then, the lyrics from Genius.com:

This literally BLEW my mind a few days ago. Especially because Andre – half of OutKast, the author of this song – somewhat sadly states ‘Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance’, foreseeing that ‘Hey Ya’ would be just too catchy for people to delve into deeper. We dance along, all chipper and bouncy, enjoying the song that we don’t know anything about, assuming that because it sounds so positive, it actually is a straightforward, simple, upbeat message, whereas the facts are exactly to the contrary.

This made me think – where else can we see this ‘Hey Ya’ effect, when things sound so catchy that we end up repeating them without checking whether they are actually true?

And I honestly had to pick from the numerous examples that I could observe, read about or had a lead part in over the last years. I didn’t even get to the period of ‘fake news’ or post-truth – that’s something for a different post.

Many of us will have heard about the fact that the Eskimos have hundreds of words to describe ‘snow’. Sounds great, doesn’t it? So catchy, a wonderful piece of trivia to share over the dinner table. Well, the only problem is that it doesn’t seem to be true – it was a claim made by anthropologist Frank Boas that people just accepted due to how unusual it sounded without checking whether the claim was the reality. The basic notion that Eskimo have multiple ‘root words’ for snow stands true, however the ‘hundreds-of-words-for-snow-fact’ that so many people repeat is simply false.

The act of repeating of appealing and memorable results of scientific studies is scarily popular when it comes to the ‘Hey Ya’ effect in my opinion. Just look at Amy Cuddy’s research on power-posing. It’s one of the most viewed TED talks of all time with 13 million views at the time of writing this post. Amy Cuddy talked about how to pump up your confidence by using a series of poses that trick your brain into feeling more self-confident. Sounds neat, right? Just do some power-posing and you’ll instantly believe more in yourself. Again, there’s a small problem with it – Amy Cuddy’s co-authors retracted these results and don’t stand by them anymore, even removing them from the curriculums that they teach to their students. Yet in the last 6 months I have heard at least a few times when people excitingly quoted Cuddy and her – it turns out flawed – research, because it’s appealing and ‘click-baity’.

In the same way we still use the false interpretation of Albert Mehrabian’s research that only 8% of the message that we communicate is its content, with the rest being mainly how we look like when we talk and what do we sound like when we’re communicating. Another claim to be repeated in trainings and over dinner – but when you actually go back to the source, it turns out that the research was about straightforward, simple claims and it stated that when e.g. someone says ‘I have no problem with you’, but doesn’t hold eye contact and looks nervous, 55% will believe in the body language, 37% will listen to the tone of voice and only 8% will trust the actual words. If the message is more complicated than this, these percentages don’t apply anymore. A slight difference, right? It takes an effort, though, to check the initial claim – it’s easier to just repeat it (you don’t want to listen to me, you just want to dance…). Finally, you probably have heard about Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment – besides the ethical aspect of it, I’ll let you do your own research on how you might have been mesmerised by its ‘Hey Ya’ effect to date (below a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic).

The most recent example of the ‘Hey Ya’ effect in my own work happened just a few weeks ago. I’ve been doing a series of webinars on meta-skills for some students from my Alma Mater (Jagiellonian University) and I wanted to emphasise the importance of active, emphatic listening in a world full of distractions, especially coming from mobile phones. I had heard a statistic that we touch our phones 2,617 times per day – but before I put it onto a slide, I actually checked the source of this statistic and it turned out that the claim was based on a sample of 94 Android users in the US – which is a sample equivalent to about 0,00000031% of the American population. It couldn’t be representative (even though the research firm states it was a ‘demographically diverse sample) and I almost ended up quoting that number out of context and without any caveats – thus contributing to the ‘Hey Ya’ effect myself.

I think we’re better than this – I’d like to believe we are. Therefore my plea for 2018 and the years to come is: let’s be vigilant and not fall prey to the ‘Hey Ya’ effect. Just because something sounds appealing and you just want to dance away and spread it across the world, it doesn’t mean that it should be excluded from being true. In the current world of misinformation, we should be asking even more questions than before. £350 million per week for the NHS? Sounds great, now show me the details. Vaccines cause autism? Scary, so let’s look at the facts. Fat is the main culprit in the obesity epidemic? Interesting, how about some background information on that claim? I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. This is especially paramount in the current times of post-truth – we need to make this effort.

And I do hope this isn’t going to be the case of ‘y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance’…

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