Readings — From the December 2009 issue

Unshrinkable

From responses to a survey by the British Psychological Society in which psychologists were asked if there was “one nagging thing” they didn’t understand about themselves, posted October 5 on the Society’s Research Digest website.

Some twenty-five years ago, I studied how gloomy weather makes one’s whole life look bad unless one becomes aware of the weather and attributes one’s gloomy mood to the gloomy sky, which eliminates the influence. You’d think I learned that lesson and now know how to deal with gloomy skies. I don’t. They still get me.
—Norbert Schwarz, University of Michigan

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. This writing seems to have little effect on the practices of the relevant investigators, yet I persist.
—Jerome Kagan, Harvard University

One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after publishing a new book, when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated. Another is my succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest. A third is undue optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects, despite many years’ experience in underestimating the time actually required. One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. They don’t.
—David Buss, University of Texas

I still find my relation to my children deeply puzzling. I fell in love with my babies so quickly and profoundly, almost completely independently of their particular qualities. And yet twenty years later I was (more or less) happy to see them go.
—Alison Gopnik, University of California, Berkeley

Paradoxically, the deeper I got into neuropsychology, the less interested I became in the details of my own inner workings. I’m not sure why. It certainly is not because I arrived at any great insight or understanding. What happened, I think, was a shift—let’s imagine a neural switch somewhere in the frontolimbic circuitry—from one preoccupying question (What am I?) to another (What should I do?). It left me less inclined to bother about self-understanding than to consider the value of things, moral and aesthetic. But here’s a nagging thought: Might those two preoccupying questions turn out to be one and the same, like the evening star and the morning star?
—Paul Broks, University of Plymouth

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