Wow. Scott Atran. What a guy. What a career. I'd be willing to bet that Scott has had the highest density of near-death encounters during his research than anyone else in the history of the social sciences. He details a number of them over the course of this conversation. He holds various academic appointments in Paris, Michigan, and Oxford. Scott is also author of a book called "Talking to the Enemy" which gives insights in his field work getting people from different religious and political factions to resolve their conflicts peacefully rather than with violence. He's full of amazing stories and tremendous insights, and I know you're going to like this conversation a lot. Enjoy!
More episodes from "Cognitive Revolution"
#74: Nicole Barbaro on Judging a Book by its Cover
59:04I've been following Nicole's work for a long time, and I'm a big fan. She's developed a platform for her writing as well as a presence on social media. It's been cool to watch her do it. Nicole has a PhD from Oakland University in psychology with a specialization in evolution and human development. Most of her recent work focuses that expertise on the area of education. She's also a prolific reader. It's something she takes seriously as a part of her identity, and she wears it really well. I've been following her book reviews for a long time in other venues, but she just recently started a new forum for them at bookmarkedreads.substack.com/. In this conversation, we talked about Nicole's experiences excelling in academia then transcending it, her approach to picking new books (it always starts with the cover), as well as strategies for getting one's work and ideas out to a broader audience. She's a really cool individual, and I'm excited to see where her work takes her in the future!
#73: Tara Thiagarajan on Brains—All 7 Billion of Them
33:56Tara Thiagarajan is the Founder and Chief Scientist of Sapien Labs. Based in Washington, DC, Sapien Labs is a non-profit organization whose mission is to take brain diversity seriously. Most research in psychology and neuroscience treats the brain as a kind of monolithic entity, as if every brain were the same. But we know that's not true: there are important differences in the brain not only between individuals, but within the same individual from day-to-day. We also know that psychology and neuroscience have historically focused on a skewed sample of mostly white, mostly American, mostly undergraduate participants. Tara's goal with Sapien Labs is to truly account for what it means to look at differences in brains among all people on the planet. One of their in-progress projects is the Human Brain Diversity Project. Over the next five years, this project will "build an open database of 40,000 individuals across 4 countries and continents consisting of EEG recordings along with extensive information about demographics, lifestyle, technology use, diet and cognitive and mental health aspects." One of their papers, published this year in Nature Scientific Reports, showed the effect of "stimulus poverty" on brain physiology. They showed that the different stimuli people encounter on an average day—from phone use, to travel, to reading, and beyond—correlate with different physiological signatures in the brain, as measured by EEG. I found Tara's projects, as well as her overall story, very fascinating. I'm excited to see how those projects continue to develop in the coming years. More info: codykommers.com/post/73-tara-thiagarajan
#72: Andy Luttrell on Consistent Quality
1:12:58Andy Luttrell is the kingpin of a content empire. His work spans from podcasts (Opinion Science) to YouTube (catchy summaries of key psych topics) to online courses (which have been taken tens of thousands of times on platforms such as Udemy) to all sorts of other stuff. He is also—and I suppose this is technically his day job—an Assistant Professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University. His academic work centers on how people form and change their opinions, and he's a lot of fun to talk to. In this episode I ask him how he's able to create such a large amount of really high quality content so consistently while ALSO being a professor while ALSO being a new father. We talk about magic, and how a love of performance still pervades Andy's work today. And also we go down several tangents discussing tricks of the trades in podcasting and other common areas of interest. I really enjoyed talking to Andy and found myself impressed by how well he carries himself in front of a microphone. I hope you'll feel the same! More info: codykommers.com/post/72-andy-luttrell
#71: David Edmonds on Turning Philosophy into a Career
1:02:05David Edmonds did his degrees in philosophy. Then he did something unexpected. He made money. I don't know how much. But, as far as I can tell, enough to reasonably call what has had so far a "career." He was a long-time broadcaster doing features at the BBC World Service. He also hosts and produces a number of popular podcasts, including Philosophy Bites, Philosophy 24/7, and (my personal favorite) Social Science Bites. He's also written a number of books—most notably Wittgenstein's Poker, which builds on his expertise in philosophy. I admire Dave's work because he's been able to find ways to turn his interests and ideas into opportunities and content. It's the kind of thing I'd like to do, so I asked him about how he went about doing it. He's a fun guy, and I know you'll enjoy the conversation.
#70: Salma Mousa on Investing in Big Projects
57:14Salma Mousa is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale. She recently took that position after a post-doc in Stanford's Center for Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law, and the Immigration Policy Lab. She is a rising star in the field of political science and has published some of the field's highest profile papers in recent years. Her work centers around questions of how people build social cohesion after conflict. What drew me to her work is that it addresses some of our most significant social questions—about how reduce prejudice and violence, about how to make a society that works for everyone—in ways that are both theoretically motivated and have a grounding in the real world. Her work breathes new life into established theories, such as intergroup contact theory—the idea that the most effective way to reduce prejudice between groups is positive social contact. She recently published a solo-author paper in Science on "Building social cohesion between Christians and Muslims through soccer in Post-ISIS Iraq" which we discuss at length toward the end of the conversation. She is also an author on a paper about "The Mo Salah Effect" which showed genuine reductions in anti-Muslim prejudice in Liverpool after Mohamed Salah joined the city's football team. It's an awesome study, the details and backstory of which we also get into. One thing that stood out to me about Salma's work is that she does a smaller number of big, important project really well, rather than a bunch of smaller projects that aren't as meaningful. I so often feel that science (especially in psychology) rewards quantity over quality, and so it is incredibly inspiring to see someone who invests in big projects which will lead to actually important advancements in our understanding of human behavior. She was a pleasure to talk to, and I know you'll enjoy this conversation. More info: codykommers.com/post/70-salma-mousa
#69: Coltan Scrivner on First-Gen to Fame
57:37Coltan Scrivner: you may not know the name, but you will. Coltan is a first-gen college student, and one of the most impressive PhD students I've come across. His family is from Slaughterville, Oklahoma, and did his undergrad and masters in Oklahoma before beginning his PhD at the University of Chicago's Department of Comparative Human Development. He's carved out for himself a fascinating area of specialization: morbid curiosity. It's really cool to see him conceive of an academic niche and to position himself as the unequivocal world expert. He's under contract for Penguin Random House to write a trade book on morbid curiosity, which is how I found him originally. But what I didn't know before our interview is that he also has a TV series in the works. As a PhD student! Wow. In this conversation, I talked to him about his story of developing his interests and expertise, how he was able to be so productive so early in his career, and what his research has uncovered about why we're fascinated with death, horror, and violence. Coltan is definitely going places. Also, I watched The Autopsy of Jane Doe later that night on Coltan's recommendation. Let's just say... it lives up to Coltan's billing. His website: https://www.coltanscrivner.com/ More info: codykommers.com/podcast
#68: Alexandra Chesterfield on Being a Conservative in a Liberal Environment
52:48Alexandra Chesterfield is co-author of the book Poles Apart: Why People Turn Against Each Other, and How to Bring Them Together. It's a look at political polarization in our society, how we've gotten to this point, and what we can do about it. Jonathan Haidt called it "A fascinating read, which will help anyone who wants to step out of the polarization cycle and become part of the solution." Alex has a masters degree in Cognitive and Decision Science, and she's been using that background to apply insights from behavioral science in real world settings. She was also an elected Councillor in Guildford for the Conservative Party. Her co-authors are Laura Osborne, a professional communicator, and Alison Goldsworthy, who helped to create the first depolarization course at Stanford. Together they host the Changed My Mind podcast, in which they interview eminent thinkers about topics on which they've changed their mind. This conversation has two parts. In the first, we talk about Alex's background—primarily being a person with conservative-leaning principles in predominantly liberal environments. This sets the stage for a discussion of the work Alex and her co-authors present in Poles Apart. I also ask her about the limits of what psychology can teach us about effective de-polarization. You can find the link to the paper we discussed here: https://gershmanlab.com/pubs/HowToNeverBeWrong.pdf. My newsletter: codykommers.substack.com More info: codykommers.com/post/68-alex-chesterfield
#67: Rebecca Saxe on the Beauty of the Mind
56:19I have been a big fan of Rebecca and her work for a long time. She is the John W. Jarve (1978) Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. She is a co-author on a handful of my all-time favorite papers in my own area of research interest, called "theory of mind" — the process by which we come to understand the minds of others. There's so much that I enjoyed about this conversation, but the overall theme that stands out to me has to do with the pure joy Rebecca takes (and, by extension, spreads) in her appreciation of the mind. She loves digging deep in the recesses of her own thoughts and feelings, as well as trying to inhabit the thoughts and feelings of others. Whether in formal theory of mind research or in a good novel, she seems constantly to be sensitive to the beauty of the mind in all its facets. It is one of the features of her scholarly career which has made her work so influential among her colleagues and her mentorship so impactful among her students. More info: codykommers.com/post/67-rebecca-saxe My newsletter: codykommers.substack.com
#66: Gordon Allport, the 20th Century's Psychologist
1:08:06Gordon Allport was one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. He was the progenitor of the modern forms of both social and personality psychology. His 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, is one of the most cited works in the whole field. He also happens to be one of my favorite thinkers of all time. Allport's core drive as a psychologist was to leverage experimental rigor in service of broad humanistic understanding. He wanted reliable experiments that gave legitimate results. But he also wanted those results to tell us something profound about what it means to be human. Not just in an abstract, for-people-on-average kind of way. But as it pertains to the life of an individual, their lived experience, and the idiosyncrasies in the way they perceive the world. Allport was one of the first cognitivists. Though we don't associate him with the Cognitive Revolution, many of the early leaders of cognitive science were his students (e.g., Jerome Bruner, George Miller). Allport also had an abiding appreciation for the fact that a person is not just the contents of their mind, but is a product of their social context. Considered in totality, Allport embodied many of the most important insights and perspectives in 20th century psychology. In this biographical essay, I sketch a portrait of Gordon Allport, his work, and the social and intellectual context in which that work was produced. I tell of how Gordon struggled in graduate school, and how he also lost his 'spark' while studying at Harvard; how a trip to Constantinople, and later Germany, reignited that spark; how the two dominate paradigms in social science of the first half of the twentieth century (Behaviorism and Freudianism) led to Allport's modern psychology; and how the scientific study of prejudice in the 1950s led to some of psychology's most important impacts on society. I go deep on Allport's most well known work, The Nature of Prejudice, as well the book that was his ultimate life goal but he could never get right: Letters from Jenny. There's so much in his story that I resonate with and that I think contemporary psychology can learn from and aspire to. I hope you'll feel the same. If you enjoyed this work, please check out my newsletter — where this piece was originally published: codykommers.substack.com
#65: Elizabeth Ricker on Personalizing Your Creative Process
1:21:52I really enjoyed this conversation with Elizabeth Ricker; it was one of those conversations where I felt as though I'd found a kindred spirit, someone who goes about life in approximately the same way as myself. Elizabeth did her undergraduate in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and her master's in Mind, Brain, and Education at Harvard. She is a creature of enthusiasm: she is driven by what strikes her as interesting, and she has no time for anything that doesn't. This made for a fun conversation. We covered a lot of ground: moving through her own story to uncover how she developed the ideas presented in her new book, Smarter Tomorrow. At first, I was a bit skeptical of her concept of "Neurohacking" — whether, as her book's subtitle claims, 15 minutes of neurohacking a day can help you work better, think faster, and get more done. But Elizabeth convinced me. Her work runs really deep. And at it's core it's driven by a philosophy of radical individualization: that what is most important in finding the "right" process is finding the process that works for you. This isn't something we fully appreciate in our productivity cultures, which often prescribes to everyone the approaches that have worked only for a few successful individuals. As Elizabeth presents it, neurohacking is all about finding the productivity niche that is idiosyncratically yours. My newsletter: codykommers.substack.com