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Interview with Gary Latham

Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Gary Latham. Gary is the Secretary of State Professor of Organizational Effectiveness. He is a former President of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology (SIOP), and President of Work and Organizational Psychology, a division of the International Association of Applied Psychology. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Science, Academy of Management, CPA, National Academy of Human Resources, SIOP, and the Royal Society of Canada. He is the only recipient of both awards: Distinguished Contributions to Science and to Practice from SIOP.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

As an undergraduate student I was required to take an introductory psychology course. I became fascinated with the ability to predict, explain, and influence behavior. This led me to take subsequent psychology courses that not only included laboratory work, but required students to write a research proposal toward the end of each course. One of my proposals caught the attention of a psychology professor who asked me to be his research assistant. I believe I was the first undergrad in the department to serve in that role. One day the professor gave me an article to read on the relationship of job performance and job satisfaction that I found myself reading and rereading.  I have remained hooked on the application of organizational psychology in the work place to the present day. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? In addition to my goal for people, especially my children and grandchildren, to say that I was a good dad and a good grampy, I hope people will say that my research “made a difference” to the lives of employees. These are two  on-going aspirations or super-ordinate goals. In addition to my biological off-spring, I am very proud of my former doctoral students as they are making a significant contribution to our field as are their doctoral students. I remain very close to my former phd students. Obviously, to those who know me professionally, my most significant accomplishment in the behavioral sciences is increasing the personal effectiveness of employees through the development, with Ed Locke, of goal setting theory.  In brief, this theory  states that given the presence of four moderators or boundary variables (i.e., ability, goal commitment, performance feedback, and situational resources), a specific high goal leads to higher performance than an easy goal, a vague goal such as to “do your best”, or no goal at all. And given the presence of the four moderators, the higher the goal, the higher the performance. Ed did the early experiments on this theory in laboratory settings; I did and continue to do research on this theory in field settings. I am currently enthralled with the possibility of integrating John Bargh’s automaticity model re priming goals in the subconscious with goal setting theory that up until now has focused solely on consciously set goals. If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? I would likely have become the VP of Human Resources in a large organization. I began my career as the staff psychologist for the American Pulpwood Association and then the Manager of Human Resource Research for the Weyerhaeuser Company. As I noted above, my superordinate goal was to “make a difference” in the lives of others. I loved identifying and solving issues of an applied nature through systematic research. Weyerhaeuser encouraged me to accept an invitation from the University of Washington to become an adjunct professor. I would go to the university one day a week to interact with faculty and attend colloquia. The next thing I knew I had a full-time position at the university and was taking doctoral students to Weyerhaeuser one or more days a week to propose and then conduct research of interest to the company and the field of psychology. How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I self-set 3-5 specific goals on a daily basis. I don’t call it a day until I attain them. In my interactions with my kids, and now my grandkids, I focus on “desired behaviors”—what I want to see them do, rather than criticize them. I minimize the word “don’t”. In addition, I emphasize a “can  do” mindset rather than “can’t. I am constantly aware of ways to increase their self-efficacy for goal attainment.

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?

  1. A curious mind: “How come?” “I wonder why?” Seek the input of sages in the field so that the “danger of reinventing the wheel” is minimized.

  2. Be open to ideas that differ from yours. Actively seek criticism of your ideas; actively seek criticism of your write-up before you submit it to a journal.

  3. Insist on answering complex problems through systematic research to uncover causal relationships as well as the moderator variables

  4. You can never take too many courses in quantitative methods. AND, take courses in qualitative methods too.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? Behavioral scientists, for the most part, continue to work in silos. It is time for cross disciplinary research as we are starting to see with the economists who are working with psychologists.

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? Daniel Kahneman, Ed Lawler, John Bargh.


Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Gary! I do wonder how big those three to five goals are you set yourself.

As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews!

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