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: What inspires you?
Steven Pinker: I think any kind of creative discovery depends on having first been immersed in a huge sea of motifs, and elements, and ideas and then recombining them in some way. I think the idea of a lighting bolt of inspiration hitting you out of the blue, and a fully formed idea emerging is very rare or non-existent. I’ve been impressed by how much people in all kinds of fields have to do an apprentice of exposure to a huge number of ideas before they can accomplish anything original. If you talk to a novelist, they’ve read thousands of novels. If you talk to a good rock musician, they’ll have an enormous record collection. If you talk to a scientist, they’ll know a huge amount of information in their own field. For me, synthesizing ideas really depends on having a universe of ideas to recombine in the first place. One of the things that means is not staying within your own discipline. Not only for me have I not … have I done cognitive psychology outside the boundaries of cognitive psychology by looking at linguistics, and philosophy, and literature; but even beyond that in understanding the mind. You can’t just do it with the straight jacket of psychology. As much as I love the field of psychology, it’s a small subset of ideas, and that ideas of how our emotions work are as likely to come from an economist, or from a game theorist as from a psychologist. Ideas about our sexual lives is likely to come from an evolutionary biologist studying insects as from someone studying human being in a psychology lab. So for me it’s very important that traditional academic disciplines don’t get in the way of finding ideas wherever they may be found … wherever they may live. As someone who works in the science of human beings, the boundary for me between science and other fields is kind of porous. What is essential in my finding an idea useful is that it comes from someone who thinks systematically, and rigorously and rationally; someone who cares about whether an idea is true or false; someone who’s interested in an explanation about why something is the way it is as opposed to another way that it could be. For me that’s the essence of science. That’s what’s valuable about science, but it’s not restrictive to science. And some things that used to be not science becomes science over the course of history, like in my own field of psychology as an example. And so I don’t try to think laterally or just get inspired by some strange image from fiction or music. But I do take seriously ideas that might have originated from a novelist commenting on human nature either directly in an interview or obliquely by a novel. I would care about what a historian might say as long as they are doing so in the general mindset that I think of as scientific, that is trying to explain things and caring about whether the things you say are true or false. Well one example of how I’ve used ideas from other fields in my own thinking is a chapter I wrote on the emotions and how the mind works, which was heavily inspired by the political theorist and game theorist Thomas Schelling who wrote a remarkable book in 1960 called “The Strategy of Conflict”. Schelling was kind of a Doctor Strangelove among other things – a nuclear strategist of how you think through survival in a case in which you have to figure out what the other guy is thinking, about what you’re thinking, about what he’s thinking, about what you’re thinking and so on. One of the things that Schelling pointed out that there are certain realms in which a measure of irrationality and lack of control can actually work to your advantage. So for example if you’re negotiating with someone … Let’s say you’re negotiating over the purchase of a car, and you’d be willing to pay anything between $20,000 and $30,000 – of course the lower the better. And the car dealer would make a profit if he sold it at any price between … over $20,000. So you’d both be better off settling for a price in that range rather than walking away from the deal. On the other hand within that range the closer it is to $20,000 the better it is for you. The closer it is to $30,000 the better it is for him. How do you arrive at a figure? Well it turns out the advantage goes to the person who’s more irrational, stubborn, hotheaded – the person who would walk away from the deal unless he got the maximum. So a salesman who says, “I’d like to sell it to you for $20,000, but I’m not allowed. My supervisor isn’t here. He won’t authorize me to go under $30,000” will get the better deal. On the other hand the customer who says, “Well I’d love to but my hands are tied. The bank won’t loan me more than $20,000 so I can’t pay more than $20,000”, that lack of control worked to his advantage. What’s the analogy to human emotions? Well often humans do things that seem to be irrationally stubborn. They vow undying devotion to their friends. They fight a duel or retaliate if they’re insulted. They’re hotheads in other words. This is an example showing that it may not be irrational in some spheres of human life to be a hothead. The hothead is the winner. This is also true with threats, for example. The problem with issuing a threat is someone calling your bluff. If they insult you, or invade your space, or chat up your girlfriend and you say, “If you do something like that I’ll beat you up,” well you could get hurt beating someone up. You might be better off just letting them have your lunch money or your girlfriend than getting killed in the process. Get a person that can anticipate that, and therefore they can act with impunity. How do you defend yourself against that dynamic? Well if you’re such a hothead that it would be intolerable insult if someone took advantage of you, and you had to retaliate even if it did you harm in the long run, paradoxically that might be the most effective deterrent. They can’t call your bluff if it isn’t a bluff. There’s often game theory. No psychologist ever thought that up; but it might offer an explanation as to why so many of our emotions seem to be passionate and irrational. There may be a method behind the madness, and it took someone – not a psychologist, I think – to unlock the mystery of human irrationality and passion.
Recorded On: 6/13/07