If you know the River Cities' Reader, you know Amy Alkon. Or at least you think you do.
You may know that for more than 20 years, Alkon has written a weekly, syndicated advice column that used to be Ask the Advice Goddess and now – with her counsel fundamentally rooted in evidence – goes by the title The Science Advice Goddess. In answering readers' queries, Alkon's guidance is no-nonsense yet intensely witty. Her responses are passionate yet fueled by careful research. Her pun-heavy headlines are things of comedic beauty.
You may also know that Alkon has appeared on TV programs including Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight, and that she has published several books, some with cheerfully profane titles such as Unf---ology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts & Confidence and Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F---.
But here are a few things you maybe didn't know.
Although she has lived in her Venice, California home for nearly 22 years, Alkon is a native Midwesterner, having grown up in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, Michigan. After studying at the University of Michigan and New York University, she and two friends, as a lark, dispensed free advice on a street corner in New York. Beyond her columns and books, she hosts a weekly, advice-themed podcast at BlogTalkRadio.com/amyalkon. She's a mediator-for-hire with the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. She has a six-pound dog who wears clothes. (“Because I'm that kind of person.”) And she once almost killed Eartha Kitt. Accidentally.
I learned all this and more when Alkon graciously agreed to our January 28 phone conversation – one that lasted nearly 70 minutes, and that handily made this longtime fan an even bigger one. Here are excerpts from that chat, which has been lightly edited for clarity and significantly edited for length.
Do you come from a big family?
There are three girls, and I had no friends as a child, so that informed the person I became. But then I sort of transformed from being a friendless loser and got self-respect and everything. There's a story in F---ology that's about how to do that – how to transform. It was rough as a kid. But I read books, and that saved me. I think of myself as prevented from being a childhood suicide by librarians in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
What did you enjoy reading?
I read everything. I just read everything. I read through all the kid fiction, then I read adult fiction, classics … . The one thing I couldn't get was Helter Skelter [a non-fiction about the Charles Manson murders]. My parents wouldn't let me read it. But then my friend Ellen Goldsmith, this girl who's one of my parents' friends' kids, slipped it to me – she and her sister were older, and they had a copy. They were like “the naughty friends.” (Laughs.) So that was the only thing I wasn't allowed to read. Everything else at the library was fair game.
Were you funny and at-the-ready with advice even then?
No. I didn't have anyone to talk to because no one liked me and they were all mean to me. I have A.D.D., and I think that people see that as a disorder. I see it, actually, as a feature that has some costs. Like, my keys wind up in the freezer at least once a year. (Laughs.) If I were really wealthy, I'd hire someone to follow me around with a shovel and a file cabinet.
I was funny in my head, because that's how you survive when you're a kid without friends. I mean, I didn't get beaten by my parents, and I wasn't starving, but not having friends is a really terrible thing. I think if parents have kids who have social capital, they should encourage their kids to be nice to the loser children like me.
But now I'm now a mediator, and I have a lot of compassion. If I'm at a party, I look around the room, and I'm like a vacuum cleaner for loneliness. I see someone standing somewhere looking uncomfortable and I include them. Unless they're an introvert and it looks like that would cause them deep pain.
What did you say when people asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up?
This is terrible: I insisted to my parents, very seriously, that I would be a professional roller-skater at some point! (Laughs.)
Like Drew Barrymore in that movie [Whip It]!
I never saw that! But you know that gymnast Simone Biles? There are people like her who are so amazing and limber and graceful, and the idea that I would be a professional anything doing anything with bodily grace is so unrealistic – it's basically on the level of me being in the NBA. (Laughs.) And my parents were really smart. They didn't say, “No, you cannot do that.” They were just, “Okay. Whatever.”
But I was a writer in high school. I wrote a poem for my high-school newspaper and I won awards. And I got some internships. I went to Washington, where I was an intern at U.P.I., United Press International, with Helen Thomas at the White House and these other people in the Senate and everything. I was there, actually, when Biden was there. I went for a whole week to one of his Senate hearings. But I just found it really boring to report on what other people were doing. (Laughs.)
And then I went to New York, and right out of college, I worked in an ad agency producing TV commercials. At one point, I recorded Eartha Kitt for a Hardee's voice-over. I had to do it in Manchester [England], and I nearly killed her in the car because I forgot to drive on the [left] side of the road. She was like, “Tomorrow, we get a limo.” (Laughs.)
I wanted to go to grad school for film or TV, but my parents are normal Midwestern people, and they said, “Wait. You want us to pay to send you to college to go watch movies? Ye-e-e-eah. Not gonna happen.”
When did you get into the advice business?
Two friends of mine from the ad agency and I did this free-advice thing. It was on a corner, and it said “Free Advice from a Panel of Experts” on our sign. Our sign was like, “Getting rid of your jerk, hair styles, nail-biting, directions … .”
I mean, we did this as a joke. We didn't know anything. And I didn't think we knew anything. We just thought we would sit out on the corner and people would walk by and laugh. But it was New York, the sign said “free,” and so people lined up around the block. And people actually thought we were good. But then when people starting saying, “Oh, I broke up with my boyfriend" or "girlfriend” or whatever and asked questions abut it, I thought, “Oh my God, I'd better start reading.”
So being a reader, I just read through all of psychology. Just voraciously devouring everything. I was just shocked at Freud. Everything was based on nothing – he was just making stuff up! I discovered Albert Ellis, who's one of the co-founders, with Eric Beck, of cognitive behavioral therapy. Ellis became sort of a mentor. And then I discovered evolutionary psychology, which is basically why we are the way we are based on the way we evolved in ancestral times.
How did your advice column come about?
So somebody wrote about our free advice in the New York Times. An editor there put us in a piece – she did, like, a fashion piece on us. I think we were horrifying fashions, too. Just really terrible. (Laughs.) And then in talking to us, she decided that we should write an advice column. And I had already been studying a lot of behavioral-science stuff at that point, just reading through everybody, and I had my partners, so I just ran with it. I got us a column in the New York Daily News, and a book deal … . And then it felt apart, because one of my partners had a drug problem – which I didn't know at the time, because I'm kind of naïve.
So that fell apart – they both quit – and it just became my column, and I had to do it alone. And this is a great lesson, because I never would have had the confidence to do this alone. To write alone. I was just thrown in the ocean: “Here - swim.” And so I did. And then this became the column that I write now.
So I now know cognitive neuroscience and anthropology and evolutionary psychology and basic social science, and I pull all that together. I look at methodologies and studies and say, “Does this hold up? Is there a body of research on the subject?” And I'm very critical in the way I assess science for the column. I go to academic conferences and stuff like that, and speak at them sometimes. So I'm sort of in the academic community even though I'm not a PhD – and thank goodness, because they have the worst meetings at universities. If I ran a department and a faculty somewhere, there would be wine at all the faculty meetings, a very good cheese, and salami and little hot dogs in blankets. I think they're barbarians for not doing that. (Laughs.)
I'm also writing a medical exposé now, so I've had to learn about endocrinology and all this other stuff. I mean, it's been incredible, but I didn't mean to write this book I'm working on. It's an accident. And it's horrifying that I'm doing it. I mean, I come at everything in it from total ignorance, like, “Oh, endocrinology! Hello!” (Laughs.) But what I do when I do a book is send it to researchers and say, “Hand me my ass. Tell me what I got wrong.”
With your advice columns, how do you determine what questions to answer?
They just have to seem interesting and relevant to other people, especially when there's some kind of science that I find really interesting that I can put in [my responses]. I like the ones where people believe one thing and then science debunks some of the myths – especially myths between men and women. That's really important to me, because people tend to think that other people have sort of rotten, questionable motives. But if you understand “Oh, this is why they're doing that,” then you can look more favorably upon them, and not see it as an attack on you.
Do you lean toward subjects you haven't tackled before?
Yeah, it's not that I haven't tackled them... . What happens is questions will be on subjects I've addressed before, but they're different somehow. So it's still interesting. If it's not interesting for me to write, then it's not going to be interesting for you to read, probably. One thing that bores me is sex questions. I'm interested more in the “How do we think?” questions, and questions about sex that are interesting are about how we think about it, rather than the in-and-out of it. I mean, who cares? (Laughs.)
What is your writing process like?
It's just general torture. Someone told me recently that he'd been working on a book proposal, but he just wasn't feeling the inspiration, and I was like, “Oh my God, that's not a factor.” (Laughs.)
I turn on a timer in the morning and I write. So depending on what I'm writing – the columns are the most intense things – I do 52 minutes, and then I take a break for as long as I need. Sometimes I'll nap just to reboot my brain. I wrote about willpower in Unf---ology, and you can sort of reboot your brain more by, like, having a snack or masturbating or getting a hug or taking a nap. If people want to do intense cognitive work all day, those sorts of things help.
And I work with an editor Monday and Tuesday and Friday. Because I have to see: “Are you getting this? Is the science clear?” And it's my editor's job to tell me I'm boring and not clear and not funny. (Laughs.) I always have to convince people that I really want to know that stuff! It's a gift! “Tell me I'm boring! I'll love you! I don't want to be boring for a wide audience!”
Are you a relentless self-editor, as well? Like, “I'm gonna work on this until it's perfect, damn it.”
If I were independently wealthy, I'd never turn anything in. (Laughs.) Instead, I've had to learn to not be a perfectionist. And it's great, because with all the behavioral-science stuff I've learned, I can use it on myself.
There's maximizing and satisfizing. A maximizer is a perfectionist. Like, with the opening line of my column – which always needs to be funny – I used to spend all day Saturday working on that. Like making it radioactively funny. And then what would happen is I'd be so tired that I'd have to race and be all stressed out to finish the rest of the column and make it good.
So now what I do is I write the column, and there'll be lines in there where I think, “That's not funny, I'm so embarrassed.” But then I leave it for a while and come back relaxed, and I'm like, “Ah-h-h-h ... change that, and now it's funny!” That was a thing I had to start making myself do to not burn myself out. Just make myself move on.
And writing every day, too – that helps. The mess you made yesterday can look different today. Like yesterday, it was “I'm lost, this is long, this doesn't work, I'm really upset and freaked out … .” And it's like, “Shut up and go to bed.” (Laughs.) That's our default brain processing. When you're washing a dish or something and not focused on the work anymore, your brain is still working in the background, so it's more efficient to do something else than to fret and fret and grind something into the ground.
Do you spend a lot of time on your headlines, which are always funny and clever?
I have to credit my brain disorder for that. (Laughs.) They always have puns, and the problem is finding the right pun, and sometimes I have to work at it and just grind for it. But often they just come to me. And I entertain myself doing those, so I really enjoy that. With A.D.D., your mind bounces from place to place, and it's hard to be organized. But when I see words that can sound like something else, my mind just makes puns naturally. It's like a fun sort of gymnastics.
Do a lot of people write back to you after you've published their questions, in either complementary or really not-complimentary ways?
You know, often I write people detailed e-mails when they write me because I have to get more information, usually, than they give me in the first e-mail. Unless they write one of these e-mails that's, like, pages and pages long and makes you want to die. It's horrible. “How do I edit this into a single question?!” (Laughs.)
But normally, before I edit their question down and process it into a column for everybody else, I give the answers in the first stage – just not that wittily. They thank me then, and then people will also thank me afterward. And then some people have written because … . I don't usually get them thinking I'm an idiot or horrible or anything, but sometimes people don't like what I've said about something. Usually because they have some preconceived belief. The thing is, I don't have any horses in any race other than “What does the science say?”
Is it ever frustrating when you know you have 800 words for a column but you want to write 3,000 on a particular question?
Oh, it's really horrible. Yeah. Especially when I've written out something really interesting. This happened a few weeks ago. I wrote 1,200 words. And I really liked the stuff I wrote. This was the one on the woman whose half-brother got in touch with her out of nowhere and wanted money. So this column had 1,234 words, and I wanted everything to go in there. (Laughs.) It got down to 800. But that was a horrible process.
So how do you go about cutting those 400 words?
In this case, I actually literally cut the column up. I printed it in 10-point type in a couple versions and cut it up with a scissors into little pieces and put it together on my living-room rug. (Laughs.) It was terrible. But that's how I organize my books, too. There's a photo of my dog standing on the papers when I was reorganizing one of my books on the floor. It's just what you need to do sometimes.
Have you ever given advice that you've looked back on later and thought, “I'm not sure that was the correct thing to say”?
No. I work too hard on it. And that's why I have an editor. Like I said, my editor's job is to tell me, “You're an idiot” or “You're boring” or “No one says that!” I pay someone to fight with me over what goes in there. So by the time a column comes out, there's already been so much debate.
Plus, I have a copy editor besides my editor, and that's like the last line of defense. I'm so grateful for criticism. A lot of people aren't, but it always makes me better. I'm just so happy to get “This seems a little bit long” or “That's unclear.” It's so great to get those comments, because then I can fix things.
Do you ever get questions where you realize that science maybe isn't going to be as helpful as just going with your gut, or with personal experience?
Well, I'll put in personal experience, but I think that it's important that answers not just be … . I mean, our thoughts are often wrong. Our intuition is often wrong. But there's informed intuition. So intuition based on experiences – I think I've written about this in the column – is a different thing than just gut feelings.
We have cognitive biases. That's a big part of my talks for the mediation training, where we take these mental shortcuts to save energy. Because our brain is very expensive to run. It uses, I think, 15 percent of our body's blood. I mean, it's a tremendous energy hog. So we take these shortcuts, and our gut feeling is a cognitive bias – we're making a conclusion with little information. That's why I think it's important to ask, “What is the other data on this?”
Has the pandemic changed the nature of people's questions over the last nine months?
Not really. I mean, you get, “Oh, I can't leave my house – how do I deal with that?” And it's slowed down dating a little bit for people. People are getting to know each other without having sex on the first date. Even the sex-on-the-first-date people are like, “Oh, wait, do I want to have my lungs get glassy slices in them? Maybe I should cool it here … ?” (Laughs.) That's one thing that's happening. But otherwise it hasn't changed much. At least not in very interesting ways.
What's your favorite part of this awesome, self-made career you have?
Oh, I'm always bad at “favorite parts.” (Laughs.)
I love that I get to write things that make a difference and put out the best science I can find – behavioral-science stuff, and then medical science with this new thing I'm writing. That's sort of a mission. Because it's so hard to do. (Laughs.) It's horrifying and scary. But I hope to change people's lives to make them better, and to make them laugh, and to not make them so afraid. And I'm hoping to change areas of our medical care so they can be more evidence-based.
By the way, I do not blame doctors in this. People always want to do that. People say, “Oh, your doctor is just greedy.” But I go to an HMO. (Laughs.) My doctor's not getting a Ferrari for treating me. It's a low-level Honda, you know? And he's a nice man! He's a good guy! But they get practice standards that are not scientific, and so that's what I want to change.
I do not like amazeballs science. I don't like, “Oh my God, this is fantastic, and it'll cure cancer … !” And then you look at the stats: “Oh, wait. All the people they tested this on were 22 and in superior health. So this is a medicine for what?” (Laughs.) You have to look into the papers, and a lot of people are not trained to do the science – they're sort of self-trained, and reading-a-lot-of-stats-over-the-years-trained. But you have to be really, really critical, and really careful. And you have to know that, for example, there's a lot of pharmaceutical-company ghostwriting, a lot of careerism, confirmation bias … . People are human. All their career, they've gotten grants on this, that, and the other thing. And so when findings come out that challenge that, they don't want to believe it. They don't want to look at it. It's really terrible.
What advice would you have for people who might want to follow in your footsteps and do what you do for a living?
Write your ass off. I mean, that's what you have to do. If I look back at my earlier columns now, you know, you just get to be a better and better writer by writing.
Here's an example: Paul Beatty. He's my favorite novelist who's alive today. He wrote a book called The Sellout, and it won the Bookerman Prize, and his humor is so great. He's wonderful. So I read that and then I went back through his career – I read him backwards. And it's so interesting to see the evolution of a writer. You do get better. But you have to work at it.
It's a slog, and you have to be willing to do the slog. So many people say, “Oh, I want to write a book,” and what they mean is that they want to be an author who has a book party. (Laughs.) They don't really want to go through the process.
So you have to understand the slog, and you have to cut your bad practices. I mean, all the glamorous ideas of writing … . Who's the writer eating madeleines in bed? In a purple silk kimono with a feather pen? He's French? [After looking up the name on her computer …] Right – Marcel Proust. I would like people to picture me doing that, except on my computer. I'd like people to believe I'm really fancy and sophisticated. But I'm really not. (Laughs.)
And these days, because it's COVID, I haven't worn clothes for so long, it's amazing! I'm serious. I nearly kidnapped a woman at the mailbox. She helped me get a package, and I felt like, “If I just pretend I have a gun, I can take you home, sit you on my couch, and make you talk with me.”
Visit Amy Alkon's Web site at AdviceGoddess.com.