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Who Are Psychology's Geniuses? Part 2

Some brilliant psychologists I have known

A few days ago, I posed the question “Are there any geniuses in the field of psychology?

To be honest, I started out with some doubts, after reading Isaacson’s awe-inspiring book about the “hackers, geniuses, and geeks who created the digital revolution” (see “The most inspiring book I’ve read”).

But I have since done a bit of reading and thinking, talked to several of my most esteemed colleagues, and heard dozens of nominations from people who read the earlier posting. I am happy to say my doubts are quelled. I am now convinced that at least four score and seven psychologists deserve the label “genius.”

I have also been pleasantly reminded of all the fascinating discoveries that have come about as so many brilliant minds have applied rigorous scientific methods to studying how and why we think, feel, and behave as we do.

Before I get to the long list of Nobel-prize winners, early psychophysicists, inventors of psychological testing, and other geniuses nominated by my friends and colleagues, I am going to finish my own initial list, and offer a few nominations of ingenious psychologists I have known, whose research and writing has personally inspired me and many of my contemporaries.

from Influence at Work (his business, used with permission)
Source: from Influence at Work (his business, used with permission)

Robert Cialdini — I was hesitant to name Cialdini here, since he was my graduate school advisor, and we have since published a number of papers with our mutual students. However, he was also suggested by Peter Killeen, who is a well-known learning researcher and all-around well-read and brilliant guy. Peter pointed out that Cialdini’s ideas have been applied all around the world, and I can at least speak with some degree of education about those ideas.

I was once on a plane sitting next to a businessman, and when I told him I was a social psychologist, he asked if I knew Robert Cialdini. When I told him yes, Cialdini had been my advisor in grad school, he acted as if I just said I was a close friend of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, in the best-selling book Nudge, economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein refer to Cialdini as the “guru of social influence.” Chip Heath, Stanford business professor and author of Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, described Cialdini as “the Benjamin Franklin of research on influence—a keen observer of human nature, great writer, minter of pithy phrases, and clever experimenter who's able to capture lightning in a jar.” Two things have led to these diverse laudatory impressions from people in different disciplines. First, Cialdini is a master of using clever experimental techniques in ways that have uncovered a number of fascinating social influence phenomena, and he has certainly caught a few bolts of intellectual lightning in a jar.

Here are a few of the interesting phenomena Cialdini has uncovered:

-Basking in reflected glory: Cialdini found that university students are more likely to wear their school colors after their football team wins a game, and to say “we won,” whereas they are less likely to wear the colors after the team loses (and to say: “they lost”). He found this tendency to identify with powerful and successful others is amplified when you feel bad about yourself.

-The low ball influence tactic. Cialdini did lab studies exploring a tactic used by salesmen—offering you a product (a car, for instance) at a very good price, getting you to sign your commitment to buy it, then returning with an apology that “my boss won’t let me sell it for that price, but he would let me sell it to you for a mere $999 more.” Cialdini finds the tactic works because of the powerful principle of commitment. I fell for the trick once, and lost good money in the deal. Then after reading Cialdini’s research, I encountered the exact same con game again, and this time I told the salesman: “Oh, good, because I was having second thoughts, and I’d better go home and check with my wife before buying the car.” Voila, the “boss” suddenly changed his mind, and I got the car at the lower offering price.

-The tactic of legitimizing paltry contributions: saying “even a penny would help” increases the odds that people will make a contribution to your cause, and it’s about the usual size contribution, not a penny. This is just one of Cialdini's many studies of how subtle social norms influence our decisions in invisible ways.

-The door-in-the-face tactic (or reciprocal concessions)—Cialdini did research in which subjects were asked to make a rather large donation, such as joining a “long-term blood donor program,” and agreeing to give a pint of blood every month. Then when people said no, the requester drops to the usual request: “Would you be willing to give a pint of blood today?” This leads people to feel that the requester is making a concession to them, and they are more likely to say “yes” to the second, smaller request.

-The ways that public service announcements can boomerang. For example, by emphasizing how very many people are doing the wrong thing (not recycling, smoking, or overeating), influence agents trying to do good can lead people to think that the bad thing is the normal thing to do, and reduce the odds those people will do the right thing.

Second, besides doing all sorts of interesting studies, Cialdini has been able to export the experimental techniques and phenomena of social psychology into several disciplines, and to a broad international audience, through his book Influence, which has sold over 3 million copies, and been translated into 30 languages. Cialdini wrote his Influence book after going undercover to study the tricks used by influence professionals, and then bringing those phenomena back into the lab and studying them rigorously. In what Cialdini calls “full-cycle social psychology” a researcher than returns to the real world to ensure that the conclusions from the experiments are valid. His book highlights 7 heuristics that normally lead us to make good decisions, and how those simple rules are exploited by compliance professionals—hucksters in business, politics, and religion. Cialdini also suggests how you can defend yourself against these con artists—because it is hard to say no when one of these powerful principles is being used against you (see the 6 principles of persuasion).

One of Cialdini’s other books (in which he joins Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin) listed 50 different persuasion tactics that have been supported by research, and became a New York Times bestseller. Another book by that same team, which described small changes that produce big effects, was chosen by The Times of London as a book of the year. And as I write this, Cialdini is about to publish what may be his most theoretically interesting and practical book yet, on what he calls “Pre-suasion.” The central argument is that same influence tactic can work well, fizzle, or completely backfire, depending, in predictable ways, on which physical and psychological context you use it in.

Cialdini, R.B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. (5th edition). Boston: Pearson.

Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M. R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L. R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 34(3), 366-375.

Goldstein, N.J., Martin, S. J. & Cialdini, R.B. (2008). Yes: 50 scientifically proven ways to be persuasive. New York: Free Press.

Mortensen, C. R., & Cialdini, R. B. (2010). Full‐Cycle Social Psychology for Theory and Application. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(1), 53-63.


Bibb Latané from Social Psychology network, public website for education about the field.
Source: Bibb Latané from Social Psychology network, public website for education about the field.

Bibb Latané conducted a classic series of studies in social psychology—on the phenomenon of bystander apathy. Latané and John Darley were living in New York at the time the New York Times released a story about a woman named Kitty Genovese, who was murdered on a street in New York while (allegedly) 38 of her neighbors overheard her screams, and did not intervene as she was repeatedly attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. Latane and Darley conducted a series of clever experiments in which students sat in a room as it filled up with smoke, or overheard another student supposedly having a seizure, and the researchers timed their helping responses, or lack thereof. They varied group size to examine the extent to which bystander apathy is influenced by diffusion of responsibility (which is much more likely in a crowded city like New York than in rural Montana, say), and they sometimes had the other students in the room sit still as a room filled with smoke, to examine how groups can change individuals’ definition of a situation. In another series of studies, Latane rigorously examined a phenomenon of great importance in any organization—social loafing (where the presence of other group members leads me to believe I can comfortably slack off).

In a brilliant paper on the psychology of social impact, Latané developed mathematical equations to model the influence of the number, strength, and physical proximity of other people in a group. In a later series of papers, he expanded his social impact model to incorporate later insights from dynamical systems theory. One of his ideas is that attitude change, rather than following a linear model (in which increments of information lead to similar increments of change), follows a catastrophe model (in which attitudes remain mostly unchanged in the face of new information, until a point at which they snap over the opposite opinion). Latané is not only a clever researcher and theoretician, but also a clever writer, and his scientific papers are a pleasure to read. Here are a few:

Latané, B. (1981). The psychology of social impact. American psychologist, 36(4), 343.

Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 10(3), 215.

Latane, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing. Journal of personality and social psychology, 37(6), 822-832.

Latané, B., & Nowak, A. (1994). Attitudes as catastrophes: from dimensions to categories with increasing involvement. Pp. 219-249 in Vallacher, R. R., & Nowak, A. (Eds). Dynamical systems in social psychology. San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press

Nowak, A., Szamrej, J., & Latané, B. (1990). From private attitude to public opinion: A dynamic theory of social impact. Psychological Review, 97(3), 362-376.


Robert Hogan -- Wikipedia page - Hogan Assessment Systems (his business, used with permission)
Source: Robert Hogan -- Wikipedia page - Hogan Assessment Systems (his business, used with permission)

Robert Hogan is another psychologist who has bridged the world of theory and empirical science with the outside world of business. In Hogan’s case, he has brought together the methods of personality measurement and the ideas of evolutionary, cultural, and developmental psychology to address a practical and critically important problem: choosing employees in organizations. Hogan was bit of a rowdy as a younger man, reputedly getting into a fist fight on the first day he attended college classes (at Berkeley of all places), and years later exchanging blows with a faculty member in anthropology (in the elite faculty club at Johns Hopkins University). On the intellectual front, Hogan has taken up fights with psychologists who have argued that situations are more important than personality traits as determinants of social behavior. After years in which papers on personality traits were given short shrift at the field’s leading journal (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), Hogan helped lead the fight for a separate (but equal) personality section in that journal, and became the first editor of that section. As editor, he provided an opportunity for a new generation of personality researchers to have successful careers, and I have heard some of the most distinguished people of my generation speak his name with reverence and gratitude. After making progress on that front, Hogan took on the idea that leadership was all about situations, collecting evidence on how a leader’s personality can lead to a team’s success or a failure. Hogan was quite successful in this endeavor, and eventually left academia to run his own business, helping businesses use personality traits to choose employees and executives.

Despite officially leaving his academic position, Hogan has continued publishing thoughtful books and articles in leading journals, thus serving as a role model for applied scientists. In the organizational world, Hogan has advocated for understanding leadership and followership from an evolutionary perspective. He argues that many of the issues in modern organizations stem from concerns that have been around since humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups—such as: who will lead, who will make a good leader, who can be trusted as an ally, and how shall we share resources? Reading Hogan is delightful, since his writing eloquently spans philosophy (his original college major), history, biology, and the various disciplines of psychology, and is peppered with thought-provoking opinions and concrete examples (often highlighting people making bad decisions that could have been avoided with a proper application of psychological principles). Here are a few suggestions:

Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of general psychology, 9(2), 169-180.

Hogan, R., Hogan, J., & Roberts, B. W. (1996). Personality measurement and employment decisions: Questions and answers. American psychologist, 51(5), 469 – 477.

Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. New York: Psychology Press.

Van Vugt, M., Hogan, R., and Kaiser, R.B. (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution - Some lessons from the past. American Psychologist, 63, 182–196.


 Why Are Stepparents more likely to kill their children?
Source: Martin Daly & Margo Wilson; from Psychology Today: Why Are Stepparents more likely to kill their children?

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson — While I was avoiding studying for my comprehensive examinations in social psychology in 1975, I picked up Jane Lancaster’s book Primate Behavior and the Emergence of Human Culture. Her book immediately sold me on the importance of adopting an evolutionary perspective on human social behavior. About a decade later, I had the pleasure of meeting Lancaster in person, and she told me that she herself had recently read an inspiring book by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, one she said deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize. The book was titled simply Homicide, and it was indeed brilliant. In that book and in numerous impressive research papers, Daly and Wilson presented an immense amount of data to overturn many of the standard assumptions in the field of criminology, and to demonstrate that many of the regularities of violent behavior are based on evolved mechanisms that transcend not only North American society, but also the human species. As one simple example, they reviewed evidence from numerous societies throughout history to show that the sex difference in homicides (with males committing the vast majority of murders) was universal (contradicting long held assumptions that North American culture was to blame for the sex differences found on this continent). As another example, it had long been argued that the number one suspect in a homicide is typically a relative, and some had taken that as evidence against an evolutionary perspective (why kill individuals who share your genes?) On the one hand, it could simply be that relatives are also most likely to be one’s competitors for resources, and that one spends more time around relatives than non-relatives. But Daly and Wilson pointed out that people are actually much less likely to kill biological relatives than to kill other people with whom they spend large amounts of time. For example, a closer examination of a classic Philadelphia crime statistic about murderous relatives reveals that the most likely relative to commit a murder is not a blood relative, but a spouse. An even closer look at the available data finds that people are more likely to be murdered by step-relatives (even though they spend less time with step-relatives than with biological relatives).

Another myth of criminology is that many homicides are caused by “trivial altercations,” or fights over nothing. Wilson and Daly showed that homicides attributed to trivial altercations are really about male status, which is hardly trivial, in that it has historically predicted a man’s ability to find mates.

In more recent work, Daly has attacked the widely held assumption that poverty, per se, is a cause of high homicide rates. Instead, he has analyzed data to suggest that it is economic inequality that is to blame. When some men have much fewer resources than other men, it triggers severe intra-male competition, which is again linked to acquiring mates. Although there has been a persistent misconception of evolutionary models as intrinsically conservative, Daly’s findings instead suggest that running a country along the Bernie Sanders social redistribution platform would diminish violence, whereas the current wealth disparities in the United States, which some think ought to be magnified by more tax cuts for the wealthy, are actually a threat to law and order.

Daly and Wilson began their work trying to build intellectual bridges between psychology and biological research and theory on non-human animals. I used their early book Sex, Evolution, and Behavior in the first class I taught on sexual behavior in the late 1970s, and still find it an awe-inspiring read for its depth and breadth of coverage of ideas from animal behavior research that have since become hot topics in psychology. Although they began their work studying small mammals in the field, the work on homicide has tremendous implications not only for psychology, but also for criminology and political science. Thus, Daly and Wilson’s body of work provides another shining example of the applied usefulness of basic scientific theory.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Chicago: Aldine.

Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, risk taking, and violence: The young male syndrome. Ethology and sociobiology, 6(1), 59-73.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1983). Sex, evolution, and behavior. Boston, Mass: Willard Grant.

Daly, M. (2016). Killing the competition: Economic inequality and homicide. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Martin Daly was also suggested by Geoffrey Miller, who is himself a brilliant writer and thinker (author of The Mating Mind, one of the more thought-provoking books applying evolutionary ideas to human thought and behavior).


Leda Cosmides - from her public webpage at UCSB, openly available providing information about her lab
Source: Leda Cosmides - from her public webpage at UCSB, openly available providing information about her lab

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are another dynamic duo in the field of evolutionary psychology, and they were nominated as ingenious by several colleagues, including Geoffrey Miller, as well as Steve Neuberg (who runs a lab with me, and whose sage advice I often seek out).

Cosmides and Tooby are polymaths, who have published thought-provoking theoretical and empirical papers on a broad range of topics, including cooperation, intergroup conflict, decision-making, psychopathology, personality, incest-avoidance, and basic cognitive processes.

Their best-known empirical work examined the Wason task, which involves a difficult logical problem: Which cards do you need to turn over to see if any violate the rule: “If a card has an even number on one side, then it must have an ‘A’ on the back.” You are shown 4 cards, one with an A, one with a B, one with an even number and one with an odd number. A surprising percentage of very intelligent people, including Harvard students and philosophy professors, get the answer wrong. Although they do turn over the card with an even number, most do not turn over the B card—yet a card with an even number on the front and ‘B’ on the back would violate the rule. And many turn over the card showing an ‘A’ (unnecessary since the rule does not say that odd numbers must not have an A, thus making it uninformative).

Cosmides found that the task becomes much easier if framed in terms of a problem all humans have had to deal with –detecting other people who are trying to cheat on a social contract. If you are looking for cases that violate the rule, “If a man is in a sexual relationship, then he must have an A tattoo on his back,” people are quick to understand that they need to check the man without an A tattoo as well as the man having sex. And they no longer feel tempted to check the man who has an A tattoo.

Working with anthropologist Larry Sugiyama, Cosmides and Tooby administered the Wason problem to members of the Shiwiar tribe, who live deep in the Amazon rainforest and have very little contact with outsiders. Like more educated people, the Shiwiar performed poorly on this logical problem. But when it was framed in terms of catching cheaters on a social contract, they pick the cards that reveal who might be cheating just as often as Harvard students. The key part of this story is that the logical problem is exactly the same in both cases, but our brains engage different capacities when the problem involves a social contract. They have followed up on these initial findings with a very rigorous and thorough examination of various alternative explanations. I have more than once encountered another academic who has confidently informed me that Cosmides is wrong in her conclusions about the Wason task. When I have asked her about the particular alternative, she always carefully explains to me how this critic is falling prey to logical mistake x, y, or z, which she and John have tested in several experiments, and found wanting (see Cosmides & Tooby, 2015).

John Tooby, from his public webpage at UCSB, open site disseminating information about his lab
Source: John Tooby, from his public webpage at UCSB, open site disseminating information about his lab

In my last post, I mentioned the classic neuroscientific findings of Sperry and Gazzaniga, whose work with split-brain patients helped unravel the notion that the brain is one big unprogrammed computer. Cosmides and Tooby have been eloquent advocates of the view that the brain instead contains multiple “modules”—different hardware and software packages specifically designed to solve different problems.

Here are a few suggested readings that demonstrate their extensive and thoughtful consideration of the complexities of human cognition and culture:

Cosmides, L. (1989). The logic of social exchange: Has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task. Cognition, 31(3), 187-276.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2013). Evolutionary psychology: New perspectives on cognition and motivation. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 201-229.

Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (2015). Adaptations for reasoning about social
exchange. In The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, Volume 2:
Integrations. Second edition. D. Buss (Ed.). Wiley, pp. 625-668.

Sugiyama, L. S., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2002). Cross-cultural evidence of cognitive adaptations for social exchange among the Shiwiar of Ecuadorian Amazonia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(17), 11537-11542.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1995). The psychological foundations of culture. Pp. 19-136 in The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture.


Given that I have already discussed Daly, Wilson, Cosmides and Tooby, those who don’t yet appreciate the power of evolutionary perspectives on human thought and behavior may justifiably argue that I am being biased. But since I admitted at the outset that this list reflects my own personal experiences, I will make two more sub-suggestions along these lines. For some of the most brilliant arguments and illustrations of the power of an evolutionary perspective applied to various aspects of psychology, see the writings of David Buss and Steven Pinker, especially:

Buss, D.M. (2016). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: Harper Collins.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. New York, Viking.

Any Lessons For Aspiring Geniuses?

In my last post, I suggested as candidates for psychology’s genius list: B.F. Skinner, Donald Campbell, William McDougall, Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga (see my justification for these choices here). I never really knew any of these five brilliant individuals (though I met Campbell a few times). But the people I’ve discussed today, I have gotten to know pretty well. I have visited their labs, met their students, and hung out with them over pleasant meals and bottles of wine whilst discussing research and theory. So, after writing this list, I asked myself: “Are there any generalizations you can make from this list about the characteristics that distinguish brilliant psychologists?” And in answer, I can say: “Yes, Doug, at least three.”

Hard work = fun. Every one of the people I mentioned above is incredibly hard-working. And each of them has persisted in working hard for decades. How do they keep at it? I think it’s because for these brilliant folks, working hard on scientific questions crosses over into the land of fun. Bob Cialdini is, in theory, retired. But when he’s not off giving a talk to an audience in Europe or Asia, he still goes in to the office every day, and puzzles over an intellectual problem raised by the latest book he is working on, or the latest article he has read. Bob Hogan loves to eat at fine restaurants, and when I knew him well, he loved to throw parties. But if you’re drinking a bottle of wine with Hogan, he will take it as an opportunity to probe your mind about ideas, and draw you into an intellectual debate about some idea you really care about. Bibb Latane inherited a big sprawling beach house at Nags Head, North Carolina. He used it to throw week-long small conferences to which he would invite a hand-picked group of researchers studying what he regarded as the most interesting topics in personality and social psychology. He would make sure everyone was well fed and provided with plenty to drink, then hang out late into the night throwing ideas around. It was quite obvious that intellectual discourse was his idea of a good time. Although Martin Daly and John Tooby could easily rest on their laurels, I recently attended the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference in Vancouver, and both of them were there attending talks, and hanging out in the hallways discussing new ideas with researchers from the younger generation. And it was obvious this was their idea of fun.

Team work — None of the people I mentioned have done it on their own. They have spent their careers working with brilliant teachers, colleagues, and students. As an undergraduate, Leda Cosmides worked with the biologist Robert Trivers, and she did a post-doc with Stanford cognitive psychologist Roger Shepard (who has been suggested to me as another candidate for the psychological genius list). Many of the speakers at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference I recently attended, now prominent on their own, began as students of Cosmides and Tooby, Daly and Wilson, or Buss. When I visited Cosmides and Tooby at UCSB I attended their weekly session on evolution and behavior, which was a multi-hour discussion well populated by graduate students and faculty from several departments, many involved in research collaborations with one another. At conferences now, students from these different labs are now forming their own collaborations, extending their brilliant mentors ideas into new areas. I have proudly watched my own former students collaborating with these other teams, mixing those diverse strands of intellectual DNA into new combinations, some of which are already proving highly productive.

Several people have objected to exalting certain individuals as geniuses, as opposed to giving reverence to the ideas that arise out of the collective intelligence and the collective efforts of groups of scientists working in one place sharing ideas and findings with other teams in other places. This is a fair objection, and Isaacson believed it also held for the field of computer science. It is nevertheless worthwhile examining those individuals who do stand out, and perhaps looking more carefully at the teams they construct and that in turn support them and extend their ideas.

Interdisciplinary fusion. I haven’t yet defined what I mean by “genius,” but a big part of creativity comes from melding ideas from different places to come up with something completely new. Latane brought ideas from mathematics and physics into psychology, Hogan brought in ideas from philosophy, biology, and history. Cialdini has bridged his background in social learning theory with ideas from cognitive science, and then brought those ideas into new contexts in the worlds of business and politics. If you were to attend those meetings of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, you would encounter well-known biologists (I have seen E.O. Wilson and Robert Trivers there in different years), mingling with anthropologists, psychologists, economists, sociologists, political scientists, and researchers from many other disciplines. One advantage of such interdisciplinary mingling is that it stimulates novel insights – fusion cuisine for the mind. On the other side, it encourages integrative thinking – attempts to pull together what we have learned in one area of psychology not only with other areas of psychology (social psychology meeting neuroscience and developmental psychology for example) but also what we know from other disciplines. Out of all this comes scientific progress.

Douglas Kenrick is author of: -The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think and

-Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.

Related blogs

Are there any geniuses in the field of psychology?

The 6 principles of persuasion

The most inspiring book I've read

Photo credits:

Robert Cialdini – from Influence at Work (his business, used with permission)

Robert Hogan – Wikipedia from page about Hogan Hogan Assessment Systems (his business, used with permission)

Bibb Latane – from Social Psychology Network, open public website for disseminating information about the field.

Martin Daly & Margo Wilson – from Psychology Today: Why Are Stepparents more likely to kill their children?

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby: From their website at UCSB. Open public website for disseminating information about their lab.

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