Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Pinker: People often asked me how my parents influenced me, and I can’t give a neutral answer to that because I very much influence by the saying by Hans Isaac that the biggest influence that parents have on their children is at the moment of conception. I think that people often attribute far too much to parental upbringing. There’s a fair amount of data from my field not widely know that suggests that the effect of parents in shaping intellect and personality might even be overrated. You see this in children of immigrants. Even if their parents never acquired the language and culture of the adopted country, as long as the kids who were immersed in a peer group, they end up as fully competent citizens – something indeed that happened to my own father, the children of immigrants who are culturally, utterly inept; never managed to speak the language. In the case of my grandmother, they were constantly at sea in figuring out the culture, and my father grew up highly successful. So if you would ask the question of him, “How did your parents shape you?” he would have laughed. He shaped himself. I don’t want to deny credit to my parents who brought me up in a rich and stimulating household, but I think I’d be kind of inventing a novelistic autobiography, which is what I think what most people do when asked, “How did your parents influence you?” That having been said, it was a house with books, with discussion, with arguments, with people coming in and challenging us with interesting ideas. So I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but the scientist in me says that . . . warns against my tendency to tell a story, and how to explain who I am today.
Question: Why do people romanticize the influence of a parent or mentor?
Pinker: It’s natural to credit who you are with your parents. It seems like an act of decency or gratitude. In fact I often have to apologize to my parents saying I really do appreciate everything you did to me. It’s just that the scientific data leads me to think that parents don’t shape children as much as most people think. And that attitude is . . . I should give them credit for their attitude, which is, “We wouldn’t want you to say anything but what you believe based on the best scientific evidence that you take seriously. So don’t try to fashion your answer to flatter us.” I think that is a sign of the kind of people that they are. They are, I think, as interested in ideas and in providing good reasons for your ideas as I am. I don’t know whether I inherited that, whether they fostered it in me, but they deserve full credit for that even if perhaps by the standards of their friends I seem to be denying them credit in talking about theories of the shaping of personality.