Big Think Presents a New Series on Personal Branding

What happens when you type your name into Google? How about when you click the ‘images’, ‘news’ and ‘blogs’ buttons? If you don’t know the answer, it may be time for you to take control of your personal brand.

You might not know anything about manipulating Google, but if you’ve applied for a job or met with a prospective client or even gone on a date, you can bet that the person you met with took a few minutes to Google your name. It’s an increasingly common practice and what they find could make or break the relationship you’re trying to create—whether it be personal or professional.     

No Press is Bad Press, But Let’s Aim for Good
Julia Allison is hands down the best example of someone who knows personal branding in and out. Type her name into Google (go ahead, try misspelling it if you’re not convinced) and you’ll find oodles of links about her. She’s been called an “internet celebrity,” a status she’s achieved by putting herself out there – both on the Web and in the real world. She gets bad press from time to time — as all celebs do — but the point is her name is very well known across the Web. She was featured on the cover of Wired magazine, has been on multiple talking-head TV programs – and has transcended the digital divide to the tangible world. And she hasn’t done anything that noteworthy to get there. So how can you get yourself out there, but skip the bad press? Glad you asked.

The Basics: Facebook and LinkedIn
Facebook and LinkedIn are the two primary social media applications you can use to mold your personal brand. Facebook is a bit of a quandary when it comes to your professional life so it’s good to keep your profile private, untag bad photos and only “friend” people you’re actually friends with. But it can be useful if you write a blog or belong to professional/volunteer groups because you can create a page about your blog and ask your FB friends to follow you. This will become important later on.

If you walk dogs for a shelter on the weekends, you can show your support via a FB group and add a link to this page from your blog. We’ll get more into linking later in this series, but adding links is key to controlling your personal brand online because it gives Google more information about you by connecting the digital bits and piece that pertain to you.

LinkedIn is a vital tool for showing off your professional skills. It takes very little updating and it is first and foremost your digital resume. I can’t tell you how often I learn about someone I’m writing about from their LinkedIn page. Be sure to keep your info updated and public (if you’re comfortable with that). Also, before you upload a personal photo, be sure to label it your_name.jpeg (gif, tiff, etc). Now when someone Google image searches your name, this photo should show up.

Going Deeper: Blogging and Twitter
By now you have probably heard of Twitter, and you undoubtedly know about blogging. Using these tools in conjunction, and linking to your Facebook and LinkedIn pages, can greatly increase your Google standing (meaning when someone searches your name, it’s more likely that something you’ve put on the Web will show up, not a picture of you from high school looking disheveled). Blogging is one of the best ways to tell people about what you know, and make yourself look like an expert in your field in the process, or at least give the impression that you’re so into what you do that you blog about it. Employers love that kind of thing -if you go into a job interview and tell the hiring manager you’ve written about his/her company, you’ll immediately get points. 

Writing regularly about something you love (preferably within your line of work) can provide a framework for Google to build on, too. For example, I write about advertising on a blog called AgencySpy. I post 5-10 times per day, which is a lot, but you can probably do 3-5 posts a week without spending too much time. If I applied for a job at an advertising agency, I could send them a story I’ve written about something they’ve done. It’s a way to show I’m interested and knowledgeable about a particular company. It’s very easy to send someone a link, so the blog is a great way to get noticed. I recommend Tumblr or Wordpress – both are very simple to use and take a few minutes to get your first post going.

Twitter is a relatively recent addition to the social media world. You can create an account and find your friends (Twitter can scan your e-mail if you allow it to and find people you know who are also using the service), follow them, and let them know what you’re up to. Why is this valuable? Twitter lets you write 140 character messages, including hyperlinks, which when sent pop up on the screens of everyone who follows you. You can very easily share your thoughts (blog posts) with a number of people all at once.

Following people who you find interesting is easy, too. Let’s say you can’t get enough New York Times – follow their Twitter feed and you’ll actually be connected to the paper. I tend to follow what I call “thought leaders,” people who have interesting ideas and share links I might also like—like the experts on Big Think—or people who write entertaining messages.

Amplifying Your Brand
The last aspect of growing your personal brand is getting mentioned by others in your field. Traditionally this was the role of trade publications. Maybe you’re not the top dog walker for the Humane Society, but odds are you have a friend of colleague who is also interested in what you do who writes a blog (you’d be surprised!). Ask to interview them and see if they’ll do the same for you. Then send the link to your interviews around to other people you think might be interested. If there’s a trade publication (or blog), send it to them – editors are always looking for new, fresh content. The point is getting content about you out there. We’re not talking about personal diary type stuff, rather your thoughts on the best techniques for grooming a shorthair Schnauzer (using the dog theme).

This might feel like cooking with an Easy-Bake Oven, but trust me it’s not. By adding content to the Web you increase Google’s ability to define who you are digitally. And the more people that see the grooming story, the higher Google will rank it and it will become more visible to people who search your name. In future posts, Big Think will more fully explain ways to take advantage of our unique idea-creation technology to promote your big ideas to other thought leaders and throughout the web.
Matt Van Hoven is the editor of, an advertising trade publication that belongs to the MediaBistro family of blogs operated out of New York City.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less