Category: One nagging thing

Stephen Kosslyn: Satiators and addicts

I’ve been told that there are two kinds of people in the world: Satiators and Addicts. Satiators get their fill of something, and that’s enough for the rest of their lives. For example, I’m that way about beaches: I grew up a 10-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, and went to the beach practically every day during my adolescence. But enough was enough, and I now don’t care whether I ever see a beach again. In contrast, Addicts get hooked, and never get enough of something. I’ve obsessed about the same narrow research topic for over 35 years, and the end is not in sight. Why am I a Satiator in some cases, and an Addict in others?

Stephen Kosslyn is Dean of Social Science and John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has published over 250 articles on visual mental imagery and been awarded numerous prizes including the Prix Jean-Louis Signoret.

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Jerome Kagan: Methodological flaws

I remain puzzled over what appears to be a compulsion, that I cannot tame, to publish papers and books that summarize the empirical evidence pointing to serious problems with popular procedures and assumptions that permeate many domains in psychology. These include: (1) the use of decontextualized predicates for emotional, personality, and cognitive concepts that fail to specify the agent, the local context, and source of evidence; (2) the reliance on single sources of evidence for broad constructs; and (3) the sole reliance on self report data without supporting behavioural observations. This writing seems to have little effect on the practices of the relevant investigators, yet I persist. It is not because I am arrogant. I celebrate humility and my close friends support that self diagnosis. Any help with this symptom will be appreciated.

Jerome Kagan is Daniel and Amy Starch Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A pioneering developmental psychologist, he was listed as among the 100 most influential psychologists of the twentieth century by the Review of General Psychology in 2002.

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Ellen Langer: Optimism

When my dear friend and colleague, Roger Brown, was alive he used to say that to him, I define the edge of the optimism continuum. I think my outlook explains my choice of research topics. Instead of describing what is, most of my work is aimed at exploring what might be. In my most recent book – Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility – I explicitly discuss extending what we take as limits to our physical health and well being. I don’t understand why I’m so confident that we’ve just scratched the surface of what our consciousness is capable, but every year and every experiment I do makes me more certain that the future will only vaguely resemble the past in this regard. I don’t know how I came to these views, or whether in the long run people like me will “win or lose” to the cynics. One thing I do know, however, is while the future unfolds and we find out, people like me are having a better time as we consider all sorts of possibility. So, I remain optimistic about being optimistic.

Ellen Langer is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. She has received many honours for her work, including the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest from the American Psychological Association.

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David Lavallee: Sporting rituals

I wish I knew why I sometimes engage in superstitious behaviours while playing golf. When I play I am interested in psychological phenomena such as self-handicapping, the attributions people make on the course and how a round can deteriorate after a bad shot or hole (I note the latter from considerable personal experience!). I also try to apply psychological techniques such as imagery to improve my score although I tend to do this more at crucial times, such as before a pressure drive. While I appreciate that carrying the same amount of tees in my pocket during a round will not help me play better, or the action of always marking my golf ball on the green with a coin placed “heads-up” will not influence the outcome (making the putt), I will probably continue to resort to such behaviours as if I was one of Skinner’s pigeons.

David Lavallee is Professor of Psychology and Head of Department of Sport and Exercise Science at Aberystwyth University in Wales. He is also an Associate Fellow and Chartered Psychologist of the British Psychological Society, and founding editor of Sport & Exercise Psychology Review.

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Chris McManus: Beauty

What is this thing I call beauty? Not “art” as a social phenomenon based on status or display, or beautiful faces seen merely as biological fitness markers. Rather, the sheer, drawing-in-of-breath beauty of a Handel aria, a Rothko painting, TS Eliot’s poems, or those everyday moments of sun shining through wet, autumn leaves, or even a Powerpoint layout seeming just right. Content itself doesn’t matter – Cezanne’s paintings of apples are not beautiful because one likes apples, and there are beautiful photographs of horrible things. Somewhere there must be something formal, structural, compositional, involving the arrangement of light and shade, of sounds, of words best ordered to say old ideas in new ways. When I see beauty I know it, and others must also see it, or they wouldn’t make the paintings I like or have them hung in galleries. But why then doesn’t everyone see it in the same way?

Chris McManus is Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at UCL. His 2002 book Right Hand, Left Hand won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Aventis Prize for popular science writing, and was a finalist for the Descartes Prize in 2004.

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Mike Posner: Learning difficulties

Why have I had such a hard time learning to change a light bulb, fix a car and cook dinner, while for others it seems such a breeze? Generally I did pretty well in school but ran into deep problems with analytic geometry, inorganic chemistry and differential equations. Others do it, why not me? I am well aware that many will say just try harder, but I think it must be something other than that.

After more than 50 years of psychology I think I am just beginning to understand. We are learning about neural networks underlying skills and how they are shaped by genetic variation and early experience. New skills often reshape old networks: my problems in sequential movement in handwriting might make other multistep tasks difficult to learn. My learning handicaps are still a mystery but now I know where to look.

Mike Posner is Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and Adjunct Professor at the Weill Medical College in New York (Sackler Institute). He is a pioneer in the field of attention and in 2002 was listed among the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century by the Review of General Psychology.

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Robert Plomin: Nature, Nurture

After forty years doing research on nature and nurture in psychology, there are two crucial (not just nagging) things I want to understand. One is about nature and one is about nurture.

About nature: Behavioural genetic research has shown that genetics is important throughout psychology. I want to find these genes in order to use them to explore the nature-nurture interface in psychology. During the past decade methods have become available that can identify specific genes but it has proven extremely difficult to find these genes; the most likely reason is that many genes are involved and each gene has a very small effect.

About nurture: Behavioural genetic research has shown that environmental influences in psychology generally make children growing up in the same family different, called non-shared environment. I want to know why children growing up in the same family are so different but this has also proven difficult.

Robert Plomin is MRC Research Professor in Behavioural Genetics at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, where he is deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre. In 2002, he was listed among the twentieth century’s most influential psychologists by the Review of General Psychology.

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Stephen Reicher: Who am I?

Who am I?
I am a jew, but I am no believer and I do not believe that Israel speaks for me.
I can’t be sure what it means to be a jew.
Yet I am sure that others are sure
And I know that jewishness matters.
I know that millions were slaughtered for being jewish.
I know that millions have been displaced by jews for not being jewish.
What is being jewish to my world and to me?
Who are we?
Who am I?
I was born in England of family who fled from Germany and Poland.
I was raised in England by parents who moved abroad for work.
I live in Scotland with a wife born in Yorkshire of a father born in Pakistan and with a son born in Scotland.
Our history is pandemonium, our destiny (we hope) is Caledonian.
Who do we want to be?
What will others let us be?
And does it count one jot to anyone but me?

No wonder I study identity.

Steve Reicher is Professor of Psychology and Head of School at the University of St. Andrews. An expert on social identity, in 2002 Reicher collaborated with Alex Haslam to create the BBC Prison Experiment.

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Steven Rose: The explanatory gap

If only there were just one! A lifetime studying the neurobiology of learning and memory, and I still wonder about St Augustine’s questions 1600 years ago: “How does my brain/mind encompass vast regions of space and time, abstract thoughts and numbers, false propositions” – or for that matter the memory of my fourth birthday party or what I had for breakfast yesterday. Meantime, I am embarrassed by the naivete of my fellow neuroscientists who mechanically collapse mind into brain, or claim to be able to localise within that mass of tissue: equity, empathy, romantic love… “You’re nothing but a bunch of neurons” claimed Francis Crick, locating consciousness in the anterior cingulate gyrus. Lombroso redux indeed! As the mind is wider than the brain, to misquote Emily Dickinson, what other sciences/knowledges do we need to bring to bear to understand ourselves?

Steven Rose is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Open University where he was previously Director of the Brain and Behaviour Research Group. In the 1960s he co-founded the Brain Research Association, now the British Neuroscience Association, which helped shape the newborn field of neuroscience. He is working on a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease.

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Paul Rozin: Time management

I generally believe that we learn from experience. However, a recent study I did with Karlene Hanko repeats a finding from Kahneman and Snell, that people are very poor at predicting how their liking will change for a new product (in our case, two new foods and two new body products) after using it for a week. We predicted that the parents of our college undergraduates would be better than their children at predicting their hedonic trajectory, but 25 more years of self experience did nothing for them. Nor for me. Every night, I bring home a pile of work to do in the evening and early morning. I have been doing this for over 50 years. I always think I will actually get through all or most of it, and I almost never get even half done. But I keep expecting to accomplish it all. What a fool I am.

Paul Rozin is Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania where he also acts as co-director of the school’s Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict.

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