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Interview with Roy Baumeister

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 Roy Baumeister

Roy is a social psychologist who explores how we think about the self, and why we feel and act the way we do. He is especially known for his work on the subjects of willpower, self-control, and self-esteem, and how they relate to human morality and success. He has written a plethora of academic journal articles and books on these topics, that I have read over and over again during my UG. And I am very honoured he took the time to do this interview. Take it away Roy!


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

In high school I was a math whiz, so I went to Princeton because they had the top-rated math department. Pretty soon I decided higher math was not for me. It was the early 1970s and people were grappling with big ideas, so I decided to study philosophy and religion. I spent a year in foreign study, reading plenty of philosophy including morality. Late that year I came across some of Freud’s writings, and they were inspiring. Instead of approaching the problem of morality like a philosopher would, by carefully examining and analyzing the concepts, he turned to evidence: How did morality arise in early societies? And how do children learn right and wrong? I began to see that you could use the scientific method to study the grand questions of life. Thus inspired, I returned to Princeton declaring a psychology major, even though I had never taken a psychology course.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

My goal in life is to figure out the big picture of what human life is all about (the ‘human condition’): why we’re here, what we’re doing, what we’re supposed to be doing, and so on. And I like to say to myself that I have about a 50-50 chance of succeeding. I was trained as an experimentalist and have published hundreds of studies, but I also have done a great many literature reviews to learn about different areas. So I’m moving toward the big picture. Reading the work of other social scientists and drawing new, big-picture conclusions is quite stimulating and helps me work toward that grand ambition. I’ve tried to roam around different big topics that are pieces of the grand puzzle of the human condition: self and identity, meaningfulness, aggression and violence, sexuality, motivation, emotion, gender, decision-making, morality, and plenty more. I’m getting there, that’s my ambition, but as I say, 50-50 chance. Your question asks about pride and I am generally skeptical of egotism so I try to avoid prideful feelings, but I guess I have more pride in the total body of work than in any specific book or article or line of work. A few months ago Google Scholar said my lifetime citation count was over 200,000, and that seemed like a good milestone. The successes of my proteges (PhDs and postdocs) always bring me a happy smile.

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?

Well, I always thought I’d like to be an ambulance driver. It would be an exciting challenge to speed through the city streets, running all the red lights and honking at folks to get out of the way, but also maneuvering very carefully and skillfully at high speeds, while also saving lives. I think I would love that.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I know that work is heavily intertwined with personal life for many of my colleagues, and insights flow in both directions. But they aren’t so much intertwined for me. Most of my friends are also behavioral scientists, and in terms of personal life I like to enjoy talking about ideas with them, maybe over a bottle of wine, so that’s a way of relating work to personal life. Also, I suppose one specific change is that for most of my life I would push myself to keep working when I felt sick, but then I learned that the body’s glucose energy is heavily used by the immune system when it is fighting illness, and so putting energy into work (even just sitting at the computer) is counterproductive. So now, if I feel I’m starting to get sick, I try to cancel everything and just go to bed. Sometimes I end up sleeping for a day and a half. But that’s what the body wants, so the immune system can use all the energy, and usually this saves me from actually getting sick.

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

For a lab researcher, there are multiple skills: coming up with initial ideas, refining them with theory, figuring out lab procedures to test them, setting up the study, collecting the data, analyzing the data, interpreting, writing up the paper, dealing with the review process. I tell my students that nobody is equally good at all of them, so you have to be honest with yourself as to which are your strengths and weaknesses. Then you devise a strategy to work around your weaknesses (e.g., find collaborators who have the strengths you lack) and capitalize on your strengths. In my case, for example, I lacked the intuitive skills to really set up a great experiment that would reliably produce the response we wanted to study, while I was better at the writing and interpreting parts, so it made sense for me to write literature reviews. Also I teamed up with some people who were really good at setting up experiments, and thanks to them my lab research program improved a lot.

In general I think it’s good to be open to the data, rather than sticking with your original theory. This is especially true with literature reviews. If you read a couple hundred articles on some topic and end up with the same theory you started with, the odds are that you were biased and not paying enough attention.

And in life, it’s good to learn to question things you take for granted.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?

I have generally been very positive about behavioral science research, but I am much less optimistic now, particularly in my own field of social psychology. (My other field, personality, is doing better.) More and more researchers see their work as a way to promote their political views about social justice and so forth. This has led to pervasive bias in the literature. Many ideas are off-limits, and accusing people of racism or sexism has become a substitute for evidence-based debate. The goal is often to silence people who think differently rather than to find the truth. (Indeed, trying to silence people with dissenting views has often been a sign that the dominant views are false, but no one dares to point that out these days.) As someone who has reviewed literatures in multiple fields with a goal toward assembling a correct big-picture understanding, I have had to get used to accepting things that were not what I wanted to believe. Reality is not the way we fondly imagine it should be. But I think we are moving toward insisting on how we think it should be rather than trying to see it as it is.

Another problem is the so-called replication crisis. There was definitely room for incremental improvement, and there still is and probably always will be. I think the crisis was vastly overblown, and, more relevant to your question, the cure is far worse than the disease. Much of social psychology has abandoned the lab methods that made the field an important center of ideas, replacing them with Mechanical Turk online surveys in which research subjects are instructed to imagine one thing and then imagine how they would act in different situation. I’m not saying this method is useless – indeed, one of my personal mottoes as a literature reviewer is ‘everything means something’ – but when it becomes the sole or dominant method in a large field of study, that field is in trouble. It is increasingly far removed from reality.

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

I read a great deal, and with positive appreciation, so there are many people whom I respect and admire. Some of the scientists who have really dazzled me and changed my own thinking in fundamental ways include Francis Fukuyama, Michael Tomasello, and David Buss. But there are a great many other creative, important, productive researchers.


Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Roy!

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!

Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!


Behavioural Science

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