Steven Pinker: Counter-Enlightenment Convictions are ‘Surprisingly Resilient’

From Quillette:

Quillette: What are some of the classic experiments in psychology that you think an educated person should know about?

ScreenHunter_3063 Apr. 22 20.35Steven Pinker: Where to begin? I’d cite studies of illusions and biases, to remind people of the fallibility of our perceptual and cognitive faculties. These would include experiments on visual attention by the late Anne Treisman and others showing that people are unaware of visual material they don’t attend to, together with any experiment on memory showing how un-photographic our recollections are (for example, Elizabeth Loftus’s studies on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or even the low-tech study in which people are asked to draw a penny, an object they have seen thousands of times). Let’s add Slovic, Tversky, and Kahneman’s demonstrations of illusions in reasoning about probability and risk. Overconfidence and the Lake Wobegon Effect (everyone is above average). Cognitive dissonance and our self-serving rationalizations. The Fundamental Attribution Error — we overestimate the importance of individual traits, and underestimate the power of the situation. And the basic findings of behavioral genetics: that all individual differences are partly heritable.

Q: Who is the most underrated psychologist of the 20-21st Century?

SP: Judith Rich Harris, who was kicked out of the graduate program in my department (Harvard psychology) in the 1960s because she “didn’t fit the stereotype of a psychology grad student”), and after writing several textbooks, came out in 1998 with The Nurture Assumption, the first book on parenting and personality that took the results of behavioral genetics seriously. She showed that people (including psychologists) were deluded by the heritability of personality into overestimating the effects of parenting on personality, and that peers, not parents, are the primary socializers of children.

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