Beyond analysis: Inside the minds of the world's top psychologists

From belief in God to the irresistible urge to flirt with the opposite sex, there are some human impulses that even the biggest brains in psychology are unable to explain. Here are their greatest unanswered questions

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:16

Martin Seligman


Some theorists believe self-control is a general trait. My experience with weight-loss versus exercise belies this. I have weighed 95kg for the last 20 years, and I have dieted a dozen times, only to return to 95kg. No self-control? Hardly.

Eighteen months ago I took up walking, knowing 10,000 steps per day halves cardiac risk for someone my age with my profile of risk. I have walked an average of 14,000 steps per day since, and my New Year’s resolution was 5,000,000 steps in 2009. I am well on track. So self-control is for me highly domain specific. For you?

Martin Seligman is Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He founded the field of positive psychology in 2000 and has published more than 20 books and 200 articles. In 2002 he was named among the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century by the Review of General Psychology.

Steven Rose

The explanatory gap

A lifetime studying the neurobiology of learning and memory, and I still wonder about St Augustine’s questions 1,600 years ago: “How does my brain/mind encompass vast regions of space and time, abstract thoughts and numbers, false propositions?” (Or for that matter the memory of my fourth birthday party or what I had for breakfast yesterday.) Meantime, I am embarrassed by the naivety of my fellow neuroscientists who mechanically collapse mind into brain, or claim to be able to localise within that mass of tissue, equity, empathy, romantic love … “You’re nothing but a bunch of neurons,” claimed Francis Crick, locating consciousness in the anterior cingulate gyrus. Lombroso redux, indeed! As the mind is wider than the brain, to misquote Emily Dickinson, what other sciences/knowledges do we need to bring to bear to understand ourselves?

Steven Rose is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the Open University. In the 1960s he co-founded the Brain Research Association, now the British Neuroscience Association, which helped shape the newborn field of neuroscience. He is working on a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Stephen Reicher

Who am I?

Who am I? I am a Jew, but I am no believer and I do not believe that Israel speaks for me. I can’t be sure what it means to be a Jew. Yet I am sure that others are sure. And I know that Jewishness matters. I know that millions were slaughtered for being Jewish. I know that millions have been displaced by Jews for not being Jewish. What is being Jewish to my world and me? Who are we? Who am I? I was born in England of family who fled Germany and Poland. I was raised in England by parents who moved abroad for work. I live in Scotland with a wife born in Yorkshire of a father born in Pakistan. Our history is pandemonium, our destiny (we hope) is Caledonian. Who do we want to be? What will others let us be? Does it count one jot to anyone but me? No wonder I study identity.

Stephen Reicher is Professor of Psychology and Head of School at the University of St Andrews. An expert on social identity, in 2002 he collaborated with Alex Haslam to create the BBC’s “Prison Experiment.”

Chris McManus


What is this thing I call beauty? Not “art” as a social phenomenon based on status or display, or beautiful faces seen merely as biological fitness markers. Rather, the sheer, drawing-in-of-breath beauty of a Handel aria, a Rothko painting, TS Eliot’s poems, or those everyday moments of sun shining through wet, autumn leaves, or even a Powerpoint layout seeming just right. Content doesn’t matter – Cezanne’s paintings of apples are not beautiful because one likes apples, and there are beautiful photographs of horrible things. Somewhere there must be something formal, structural, compositional, involving the arrangement of light and shade, of sounds, of words best ordered to say old ideas in new ways. When I see beauty I know it, and others must see it. But why then doesn’t everyone see it in the same way?

Chris McManus is Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at University College London. His 2002 book, “Right Hand, Left Hand”, won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Aventis Prize for popular science writing, and was a finalist for the Descartes Prize in 2004.

Mike Posner

Learning difficulties

Why have I had such a hard time learning to change a light bulb, fix a car and cook dinner? Others do it, why not me? Many say try harder, but it must be something other than that. After more than 50 years of psychology I am just beginning to understand. We are learning about neural networks’ underlying skills and how they are shaped by genetic variation and early experience. New skills often reshape old networks: my problems in sequential movement in handwriting might make other multi-step tasks difficult to learn. My learning handicaps are still a mystery but now I know where to look.

Mike Posner is Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and Adjunct Professor at the Weill Medical College in New York (Sackler Institute). He is a pioneer in the field of attention and was listed among the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

David Lavallee

Sporting rituals

I wish I knew why I sometimes engage in superstitious behaviours while playing golf. When I play I am interested in psychological phenomena such as self-handicapping, the attributions people make on the course and how a round can deteriorate after a bad shot or hole (I note the latter from considerable personal experience). I also try to apply psychological techniques such as imagery to improve my score, although I do this more at crucial times. While I appreciate carrying the same amount of tees in my pocket will not help me play better, or the action of marking my golf ball on the green with a coin placed “heads-up” will not influence the putt’s outcome, I will continue to resort to such behaviours.

David Lavallee is Professor of Psychology and Head of Department at Aberystwyth University in Wales. He is an associate fellow and chartered psychologist of the British Psychological Society, and founding editor of Sport & Exercise Psychology Review.

Ellen Langer


When my dear friend and colleague Roger Brown was alive, he used to say that to him, I define the edge of the optimism continuum. I think my outlook explains my choice of research topics. Instead of describing what is, most of my work is aimed at exploring what might be. In my most recent book, I explicitly discuss extending what we take as limits to our physical health and wellbeing. I don’t understand why I’m so confident that we’ve just scratched the surface of what our consciousness is capable, but every year and every experiment I do makes me more certain that the future will only vaguely resemble the past in this regard. I don’t know whether people like me will “win or lose” to the cynics. One thing I know is while the future unfolds, people like me are having a better time. I remain optimistic about being optimistic.

Ellen Langer is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. She has received many honours for her work, including the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest from the American Psychological Association.

Stephen Kosslyn

Satiators and addicts

I’ve been told there are two kinds of people: satiators and addicts. Satiators get their fill of something, and that’s enough for life. I’m that way about beaches: I grew up a 10-minute walk from the Pacific and went to the beach practically every day. But enough was enough and I don’t care whether I see a beach again. In contrast, addicts never get enough of something. I’ve obsessed about the same narrow research topic for over 35 years and the end is not in sight. Why am I a satiator in some cases and an addict in others?

Stephen Kosslyn is Dean of Social Science and John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has published more than 250 articles on visual mental imagery and been awarded numerous prizes including the Prix Jean-Louis Signoret.

Paul Ekman

Death and forgiveness

In my recent conversations with the Dalai Lama we disagreed about two matters. One was fear of death, which I claim not to feel and he claims everyone has. The evidence is in his favour, since all religions promise life of some kind after death, and they would not do so if people didn’t need it. I fear a painful death, but not death itself. Can’t comprehend why people do; which doesn’t mean I don’t wish to continue living, but as time progresses and body parts and the mind wears out I expect death will be welcome. Our other disagreement was about forgiveness. I believe there are unforgiveable actions – child abuse, rape, holocausts, torture are examples. The Dalai Lama says he forgives but does not forget. In my view, since he believes such people will be reincarnated in an undesirable form, he doesn’t need to forgive them.

Dr Paul Ekman is Manager of the Paul Ekman Group, LLC (PEG), a small company that produces training devices relevant to emotional skills, and is initiating new research relevant to national security and law enforcement. He was listed as one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century, and was among ‘Time’ magazine’s most influential people of 2009.

Elizabeth Loftus


After struggling mightily, and not particularly successfully, to have a thought about this, I broached a Friday after-work happy-hour group and asked them what they would say about themselves. To a person, each looked uncomfortable with the mere question. They asked me whether I had anything in mind. Well maybe one thing: I don’t understand why I have nightmares almost every night. Nightmares of frustration. Obstacles in my way that keep me from catching an airplane on time. Obstacles that keep me from getting where I’m supposed to be. I wake up almost every morning with a sense of relief: “Thank goodness it was just a dream.”

None of my colleagues seemed to spend their nights this way. What possible reason is there for this mental behaviour, night after night, that is clearly so uncomfortable? One happy-hour colleague, a developmental psychologist, said: “That’s it – the happy relief you feel at the end. There’s your reinforcement.” And thus she took away my one idea, by explaining it. It is now one nagging thing that I only partly understand. Or do I?

Elizabeth Loftus is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Irvine. Among her numerous accolades, she received the 2005 Grawemeyer Award for Psychology and in 2002 was named among the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century by the Review of General Psychology.

Marilyn Davidson

Lost opportunities

One nagging thing I still don’t understand about myself is why I didn’t ask my grandparents, before they died, more about their childhoods?

“Grandpa (R), you’re 100 now but what was it like being born in 1900 into a world where man couldn’t fly and an abacus was the closest thing to a computer?”

“Grandpa (E), did it hurt when grandma burnt the leeches off your back on your return from the First World War trenches, as you sat in the tin bath in front of the fire?”

“Nana (R), did you enjoy being one of the first families in Sunderland to own an ‘automobile’ and having to eat ‘below stairs’ with the cooks and the scullery maids?”

“Nana (E), how did you cope as the youngest of 12 in a poor Derbyshire farming family, gaining a scholarship to grammar school, but being forced to go away into service at 13 to become a scullery maid?”

Marilyn Davidson is Professor of Work Psychology at Manchester Business School and the author of more than 150 academic articles and 19 books, including Women in Management Worldwide.

Robert Cialdini

Taking on too much

Over the stretch of my professional years, I’d say my most nagging error has involved an inability to gauge correctly the point at which the next possible undertaking – or even golden opportunity – should be firmly rejected. Whenever I’ve allowed one too many responsibilities on to my plate, everything – including the new item – has suffered from the overcrowding.

With that threshold crossed, I’ve no longer had the time or patience to plan, think, or toil hard enough to be proud of the resultant work. If I had a single piece of advice for young researchers, it would be to create and follow a rule for avoiding this state of affairs. The rule could involve something objective (eg, never exceeding a specific quota of research involvements) or subjective (eg, avoiding the feeling of rushing to, from, and through all of one’s commitments). The key is to apply the rule ruthlessly. Anything less would be another form of error.

Dr Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist at Arizona State University, is the most widely cited expert on influence and persuasion alive today. His most recent book is “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways To Be Persuasive”.

Paul Broks

What should I do?

There’s plenty I don’t understand about myself, but nothing nags. Paradoxically, the deeper I got into neuropsychology the less interested I became in the details of my inner workings. I’m not sure why. It isn’t because I arrived at any great insight. I still experience the almost visceral sense of puzzlement over matters of brain, mind and selfhood that drew me to the field. What happened, I think, was a shift from one preoccupying question, “What am I?” to another, “What should I do?” It left me less inclined to bother about self-understanding than to consider the value of things, moral and aesthetic. How best to live? But here’s a nagging thought: might those two preoccupying questions turn out to be one and the same, like the evening star and the morning star?

Dr Paul Broks is a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Plymouth. “On Emotion”, the first of a trilogy of plays by Broks and Mick Gordon was produced in the West End last December.

Susan Blackmore


I believe (although I’ve never seen it) that inside my skull is a brain containing billions of neurons connected in trillions of ways, with signals zooming about, setting off other signals, and creating massively complicated loops, coalitions, patterns, and multiple parallel organised streams of information that control the behaviour of this – my body. So how come I feel there is a conscious “me” as well? The idea that I am something else – a soul, a spirit, a mystical entity – is rubbish, although I once believed in it. This nags at me so much, I have devoted most of my life to it through research, writing and 30 years of meditation. But I don’t understand. And the more I look, the less substantial my self seems to be. What is consciousness? And who is conscious? I really don’t know.

Dr Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. Her latest book is “Ten Zen Questions”.

David Buss

Overcoming irrationality

One nagging thing I don’t understand is why I succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of them. One is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (eg, publishing a new book), when the happiness dissipates faster than anticipated. Another is succumbing to male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest. A third is optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects. One would think explicit knowledge of these psychological biases, and experience, would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. They don’t.

David Buss is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and one of the world’s leading evolutionary psychologists.

Richard Wiseman


The other day I watching the film District 9, about an alien race known as prawns, and thought: “I wonder if the alien in charge is called a king prawn?” Not the greatest joke, but where did it come from? Some people are skilled at funny stuff, others wouldn’t recognise a custard pie if it hit them in the face. Why? I guess the creation of comedy will remain a mystery for centuries, but someone will carry out MRI scans of comedians creating jokes and claim to have identified the part of the brain responsible. That will be funny.

Prof Richard Wiseman is based at the University of Hertfordshire, and researches quirky areas of psychology, including deception and humour.

Alison Gopnik

Our children

I’ve had three of my own children and spent my professional life thinking about children. And yet I still find my relation to my children deeply puzzling. Our love for children is so unlike other human emotion. I fell in love with my babies so quickly and profoundly, almost completely independently of their particular qualities. And yet 20 years later I was (more or less) happy to see them go – I had to be happy to see them go. We are totally devoted to themwhen they are little and yet the most we can expect in return when they grow up is that they regard us with bemused and tolerant affection. We want them to thrive. And yet we have to grant them the autonomy to make mistakes. In no other human relation do we work so hard to accomplish such an ill defined goal, which is precisely to create a being who will have goals that are not like ours.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She is an internationally-recognised leader in the study of children’s learning and development.

Robert Sternberg

Career masochist

In psychology, you are rewarded (1) partly for the research you do, and (2) partly for (a) the topic on which you do the research and (b) the methods you use. The first point (1) is what you learn explicitly throughout graduate school. The second point (2) you generally have to figure out for yourself as tacit knowledge. For example, suppose you want a good academic job. Then with regard to (2), you should study something like (a) perception, attention, or memory using (b) fMRI methodology. You can be in lower (worse) percentiles of your cohort and you will still land a nice job. Suppose, though, that you study (a) intelligence, creativity, or wisdom using (b) individual-difference methodology. Good luck! So what I don’t understand is why I always choose both the less rewarded topics (2a) and methodologies (2b)! Am I a masochist, or what?

Robert Sternberg is Dean of Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychology, Adjunct Professor of Education, and Director of the PACE (Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise) Centre. In 2002 he was listed among the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Robert Plomin

Nature, nurture

After 40 years doing research on nature and nurture in psychology, there are two crucial (not just nagging) things I want to understand. One is about nature and one is about nurture.

About nature: Behavioural genetic research has shown that genetics is important throughout psychology. I want to find these genes in order to use them to explore the nature-nurture interface in psychology. During the past decade methods have become available that can identify specific genes but it has proven extremely difficult to find these genes; the most likely reason is that many genes are involved and each gene has a very small effect.

About nurture: Behavioural genetic research has shown that environmental influences in psychology generally make children growing up in the same family different, called non-shared environment. I want to know why children growing up in the same family are so different but this has also proven difficult.

Robert Plomin is MRC Research Professor in Behavioural Genetics at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, where he is deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre. In 2002, he was listed among the 20th century’s most influential psychologists by the Review of General Psychology.

The contributors were speaking to the British Psychological Society to mark the 150th issue of the Research Digest’s email service. To read their responses in full, go to

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