The Greatest Mind in Psychology That You Don't Know

Scientific research and wisdom from an underappreciated giant

Posted Apr 30, 2015

I had the fortune of many mentors in my career. Some I worked under, some I collaborated with, some I met in hallways and pubs, and some who I never exchanged a single word. Collecting interesting people and mentors is a hobby of mine. It should be the quest of any life-long learner. Let me offer you a gift - exposure to one of the greatest living psychologists in the past 20 years that you never heard of. 

george mason university
Source: george mason university

This is an ode to my friend and colleague, Raja Parasuraman who died prematurely on March 22, 2015. He was the quiet fountainhead of the psychology department at George Mason University. When he spoke, people listened because he only shared his views when the passion could not be contained. In a world where people love to hear themselves talk and take a greater interest in being heard than pushing conversations forward, he is a rarity.

A lot of attention is given to the limited strength model of self-control by Roy Baumeister - how the usage of attention and metabolic energy in one task such as resisting the 3-year old who strolls into your bedroom at 3am barking for honey nut cheerios depletes you such that there is less leftover for whatever is next (you might end up eating a strawberry frosted pop-tart for breakfast, unable to resist the tasty, accessible, unhealthy option). And yet, it is worth mentioning that Raja's ideas on this topic have been around since the 1970's (then again, there is the erroneous belief that newer is better and too few of us read articles over 15 years old).

But Raja continued to flesh out these ideas, including individual differences in molecular genetics and cognitive functions that influence task effectiveness, efficiency, and error under intense mental workloads. He found that when we are performing in stressful situations that pull for sustained attention, emotion regulation, delay of gratification, or other aspects of self-control (such as resisting the temptation to quit or talk to an attractive co-worker), the problems that arise afterwards are not uniform. While we do show signs of mental fatigue or depletion, this tends to be in the form of less motivation to devote effort but not mindless autopilot behavior. That is, if you are mentally overloaded by a stressful task, sustaining attention will be harder but this does not mean you become robotic and automated. Carefully parsing out what does and does not happen in the throes of stressful situations has implications for crafting jobs to be more satisfying, engaging, and meaningful, where people can be more productive, creative, and less error prone.

This is all part of a field he created called neuroergonomics that offers mechanisms into why and when mental workload affects performance. If you consider what is happening in the City of Baltimore as of this writing, maybe it is time for a conversation on how to re-design the daily activities of police (and other first line responders) patrolling the city. In what ways are their vehicles, weapons, communication equipment, vigilant scanning through dense urban streets, and other acts of multi-tasking setting the stage for biased thinking and responding (that they aren't even aware of)? Raja's work is about understanding how human-task, and human-object interactions must be deconstructed to understand what helps and hinders performance. Only then can we start the re-designing phase, engineering humans, tasks, and machines for optimal performance.

Among other accomplishments, he devoted years to uncovering the nature of aging well - ending in perhaps the more integrative book in existence on the evolutionary, neurological, cognitive, social, and environmental factors that contribute to the mutability of the brain. This is a man who expended too much brain juice for a single blog post...

My favorite bit of advice from Raja? It is more prestigious and important to get an article published in Parade Magazine than any scientific journal. Despite all of his accolades in the scientific community, he realized that scientists fall prey to praying to false idols. Some scientists get it - better to have your work disseminated to 54.1 million everyday readers than an academic journal where the average article is cited 5 times; some scientists don't get this (worrying about pandering to the masses - the same group that is fine with Henri Matisse as high-end art, but scoff at Pantera or Full Metal Jacket).

See this wonderful human being, who I hold as my exemplar of how to be a great scientist, in action here:

His legacy lives through those of us who absorbed his wisdom. Be one of the thousands that have a little Raja on their shoulder, pushing for ambitious, meaningful work while loving and being loved.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: