Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Steven Pinker on Human Nature

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The experimental psychologist discusses the quest for understanding what makes us tick.

Steven Pinker

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.”


Question: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do for a living?Steven Pinker: What I basically try to do is understand human nature, how the mind works, what makes us tick.  What are the patterns of thought, and emotion and motivation that characterize our species?  I focus on language partly because you can’t make a living out of studying human nature.  It’s just too big a topic.  You’ve got to pick something tractable to study.  For me it has been language, and indeed for much of my career one little corner of language, namely regular and irregular verbs.  And I have my reasons for focusing on that particular corner. I think it sheds light on larger questions about what makes the mind work.  But language as a general topic is, I think, a good entrée into human nature for a number of reasons.  It’s distinctively human.  If you’re interested in general in what makes humans unlike mice and birds, language is a pretty good place to start not only because of language itself – the fact that we make noise with our mouths in order to get ideas across, but because language has to be fine tuned for the kinds of thoughts and the kinds of social relationships that humans want to share and negotiate with one another.  So it’s a window into human nature.  It’s also figured into debates on human nature, perhaps most famously with Chomsky in the late 1950s using language as a way to rehabilitate the idea of innate mental structure, something that was virtually taboo in the 1950s.  He said language was a very good candidate for something that is innately and uniquely human.  So it’s an opening wedge for the idea that important parts of the mind are innately structured.  It’s also a prime case of mental computation.  It’s very hard to make sense of language, of our ability to string words into new combinations, sentences that other people have never heard before but can very quickly understand for the first time without appealing to the idea that we have a mental algorithm, a set of rules, or a recipe or a formula that picks words out of a memory store and strings them together in combinations where the order, as well as the choice of words is meaningful.  So language sheds light on the idea that the mind is a computational system.

Question: How did you get into your line of work?Pinker:    Certainly since adolescence I was always interested in what makes people tick, and what the implications are for larger questions.  If we know something about human emotion and human motivation, does that provide implications for politics how we ought to run society?  An ancient question, and one that I was eager to be involved in in the light of modern scientific understanding of human nature; taking into account cognition, and evolution, and genetics, and brain science, and social science.  I majored in cognitive psychology, which at the time was a relatively new field, and I thought a tremendously exciting field.  It combined experimental psychology with linguistics, and philosophy of mind, and artificial intelligence.  And I thought that was an exciting growth area in the 1970s when I picked a major.  And I’m still excited by it.  I went to Harvard, I think, because it was the site of the cognitive revolution 10 to 15 years earlier.  Even though it had pretty much died out by the time that I got there, it still had something of an aura in mind. It probably wasn’t the best choice if the current me could had given advice to the younger me, but it worked out pretty well.  And since then I’ve been kind of ricocheting between Harvard and MIT most of my career with a foray to Stanford and a couple of sabbaticals at Santa Barbara.  But what I’ve always valued was ideas, conversation, being introduced to some new way of thinking about something; some new explanatory principal; some idea that I would never have thought of in a million years, but which makes everything click.  And so I’ve always wanted to be in a place where there was a constant bombardment of these ideas.  I did strategically take a sabbatical at University of California – Santa Barbara which isn’t as much of a brand name university as Harvard, MIT and Stanford; but even brand name universities can get locked into a certain way of thinking.  They can be kind of a culture or a religion that becomes entrenched in a particular place, and I think you can’t just be in one place and hope that all ideas will come to you.  You have to occasionally venture out into places where they think very differently.  For me Santa Barbara, which was the home to evolutionary psychology to influences like John ________, _________, Donald Simons, Napoleon Chagnon.  Voices from anthropology, and evolutionary biology and economics were important sources of new ideas in my intellectual development. So I’m glad that I’ve left Cambridge for the wiles of California a few times.

Question: What are you working on right now?Pinker:    My main preoccupation today is using language as a window into human nature.  I’ve studied language in the past as an example of human computation.  What are the kinds of simple operations of look up in combination that the mind is capable of?  How is language structured?  What I’m turning to now is the interface between language and the rest of the mind – how language can illuminate our social relationships.  For example, why is so much of language use veiled, or indirect, or done via innuendo rather than people blurting out exactly what they mean?  Why do I say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great?” instead of “Give me the salt.”  Why does someone make a sexual overture in terms of, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” rather than, “Do you want to have sex?”  Why are threats so often veiled you know, “Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.”  Given that the listener knows exactly what the speaker had in mind, it’s not that anyone is fooled by this charade; but nonetheless some aspect of the social relationship seems to be preserved if the request is slipped in between the lines.  I’m interested in what that says about human relationships, about hypocrisy and taboo.  Also what it says about the kinds of relationships we have like dominance versus intimacy, and communality versus exchange and reciprocity. 

Question: For example…Just to be concrete, why do you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great.”  Well in issuing an imperative, you’re kind of changing the relationship.  You’re turning it into one of dominance.  You’re saying to a friend or to a stranger, “I’m going to act as if I can boss you around and presuppose your compliance.”  You may not want to move the relationship in that direction.  At the same time you want the damn salt. So if you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great,” it’s such a non sequitor the intelligence of the listener can figure out that it really is a request.  But both of you know that you haven’t actually turned the relationship into a superior-inferior.  I think that’s the key to understanding all of these.  That the sexual overture, the veiled threat, the veiled bribe and so on are ways of preserving one of several kinds of relationships at the same time as we transact the business of life such as requests, such as sexual overtures that might be inconsistent with the relationship that we have with the person.  So it’s in a way of using language as a way of doing social psychology. 

Topic: Decoding metaphorI’m also interested in the effective memory on language.  Why is so much language metaphorical?  Not in terms of poetic ornamentation.  We don’t even realize that they’re metaphorical.  We say something like, “He moved the meeting from 3:00 to 4:00,” we’re using the metaphor of time as a line, as a spacial dimension of a meeting as a thing, and a rescheduling as causing emotion.  If we say, “I have to force myself to be polite,” without realizing it using a metaphor of our natural inclination as inertia; a change in inclination as the application of force; and indeed as conflicting tendencies as different object or people inside our skull being shoved around.  It’s almost hard to find an example of language that’s not metaphorical.  So what does that say about the human mind?  Does it say that we actually can never think abstractly, but deep down we always have little cartoons in our head of little pucks being slid around on the ice, or people shoving each other inside the skull?  Or does it mean that we really do think abstractly, but that deep in the midst of history when the first coiner of expressions like “force so and so to be nice” or “move the meeting” came about, they needed some kind of verbiage.  And so they cooked up a metaphor on the spot.  It’s better than saying ________ if you can say force, because at least some people might have some chance of knowing what you’re talking about.  But ever since we’d been repeating the metaphor dumbly, and we really do think abstractly, that’s an interesting question about what makes us tick inspired by language, and I’d like to get some insight into it.

Question: Why do you integrate various fields into your work?Pinker:    There are a number of very big problems; ones that are too big to attack directly, but which we might be able to chip away at by answering a lot of smaller questions that flow from it.  One of them is how did humans evolve?  Why did one species of primate, a kind of chimpanzee like ancestor be selected to walk upright, loose its fur, expand its brain, develop language, become a toolmaker, cooperate in large groups and so on?  Why did that happen? Another one is how is the brain organized to make learning, and motivation, and emotion possible?  What are the molecular events and physiological events in the growing brain of a fetus that shape it into a human brain as opposed to the brain of some other organism?  And what makes a normal human brain as opposed to a schizophrenic, or a psychopath, or an autistic child?  Another one is what is the basis of consciousness?  What’s different in the brain when you deliberately plod your way through something, thinking about every motion or every word, and when it just comes automatically so that you don’t even think about it, and can even understand why consciousness in the sense of subjective experience exists at all?  How is the mind organized into components?  I think it’s unlikely that there’s just one magic algorithm that the whole brain uses to solve every problem from walking without falling over, to organizing words into grammatical sentences, to recognizing faces, to planning your day.  How many of those systems are there, and how do they talk to each other, and how are they laid out in the brain?  Are they discrete slabs of real estate, kind of like the flank steak and rump roast in the supermarket cow display with the dotted lines?  It’s kind of unlikely.  Are they completely interdispersed like the hard disk of your computer when it’s fragmented?  So the different parts that belong to one system are scattered all over the place and work because of their intricate connections, but we’ll never be able to see them as blobs on a brain scan.  Is it something in between?  How much variability is there from one person to another?  What is our innate endowment?  It can’t be something as specific as a particular language or even a particular sexual system like monogamy or polygamy, because we know that cultures vary.  Some enforce monogamy; some have polygamy if you even have polyandry.  Some cultures speak Japanese, some English, others Yiddish, others Swahili.  So none of that can be wired in.  On the other hand there are patterns across cultures.  It’s not that every logical possibility could be found.  In fact it would be impossible to learn a language or to learn a system of social morays unless you sorted the perceptual input into certain categories so that you could begin to crack the code of the culture you’re born into. You could make sense of it.  Otherwise if you just recorded it like a VCR or a DVD recorder, you’d be able to regurgitate back what you’ve seen; but you wouldn’t be able to function intelligently to say and do things that made sense in you culture even if they were replicas of experiences that you’ve had before.  So how do you crack the code of your language and culture?  There’s got to be something innate that it’s not easy to put your finger on because it can’t be as concrete as a particular cultural product; but it can’t be so generic that it wouldn’t give you the tools to figure out your culture.  So what is that in between ground that might be our innate endowment?