Scientists Making a Difference: a round table discussion


'Scientists Making a Difference' is a remarkable collection of new essays by some of the world's greatest behavioral and brain scientists in which they discuss their own groundbreaking ideas. Here, the volume editors talk about some of the book's key themes.


What makes a psychological scientist ’eminent’?

Robert J. Sternberg

Eminence is a reflection of a scientist’s impact on science and on the world.   The 100 eminent scientists who wrote for our book were chosen via objective measures through a survey of scientists conducted by Ed Diener, Shigehiro Oishi, and JungYeun Park, and published in Archives of Scientific Psychology.  

Scientists more and more are relying on objective measures to assess eminence because subjective ones are substantially affected by irrelevant variables:  how well networked a scientist is, how many influential friends in the field he or she has, how popular the field is in which he or she works, etc.  There are several objective measures, all available through Google Scholar:  total number of citations, h—the maximum number, h, of publications a scientist has that have been cited at least h times; and i10—the number of publications a scientist has that have been cited at least 10 times.  Diener and colleagues also used some other measures, such as the amount of coverage a psychological scientist received in introductory-psychology textbooks. They further used number of major awards, although that measure is somewhat contaminated by the variables mentioned above (networking, friends, popularity of research area, etc.).

The most eminent scientists have incredible levels of these indices.  At the top of the list is Sigmund Freud, with 449,880 total citations, an h index of 265, and an i10 index of 1358, as of August 1, 2016.  You might say, “Well, Freud was wrong about many things…”  Eminence is not about a scientist’s “rightness” but rather about the scientist’s impact.  Virtually all scientific ideas eventually will be shown to be wrong or, at best, incomplete.

Eminence ought to be a, and in research-based institutions, perhaps the major basis for tenure and promotions.  In the end, the scientists who are remembered are the eminent ones.  That said, every few of us scientists will achieve great eminence.  At best, we can hope that our work has some impact on the work of later generations, whether, in the long term, we are remembered or not.

Susan T. Fiske

We edited this book—and the eminent scientists authored chapters—as a labor of love for our field. This book aims to showcase psychology’s stars, telling stories about their greatest hits and how they grew them. The book is a treat for readers both inside the field and those who like to kibitz on it. We three were inspired by the advocacy mission of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which aims to promote human well-being thorough communicating about our amazing psychological scientists and the work they do for all of us.

Donald J. Foss

The chapters show that many eminent scientists are able to write about their ideas and contributions in readily accessible terms.  These writings provide a great introduction to a large set of important topics—important for everyday concerns as well as for the science.  The ability to do that is another mark of eminence, though not one usually discussed.  Indeed, it might be another factor that actually contributes to the eminence of our contributors.

What are the biggest breakthroughs in brain and behavioral science of the modern era?

Susan T. Fiske

How to choose? Two of my favorites, as a social psychologist, are all about motivations in choice. Tory Higgins’s insight that promoting rewards differs fundamentally from preventing punishments is life-changing. Pursuing goals can make you happy (with success) and failure will merely disappoint, whereas avoiding pain just makes you anxious about failure or merely relieved with success. Being excited seems like a better upside.

Likewise, Carol Dweck’s distinction between being motivated by goals to grow instead of merely to prove yourself, changed the way I raised my kids and even the way I reward myself: Being motivated by a growth mindset sparks effort and intrinsic interest with malleable skills, instead of being stuck in proving your innate talent.

May our readers pursue what interests them and grow their skills.

Robert J. Sternberg

For me, the greatest development in psychological science is the set of discoveries about the modifiability of the brain and behavior, as exemplified by a number of chapters in our book, such as those by Merzenich and Dweck.  A number of popular books have been written over the last years, by Daniel Goleman, Malcolm Gladwell,Carol Dweck, Martin Seligman, Howard Gardner, Anders Ericsson, Angela Duckworth, and myself, among many others, making the same basic point: human abilities and dispositions, whether looked at biologically or behaviorally, are modifiable in some degree.  This view is in contrast to the view that was prevalent back in much of the 20th century. For example, when I was going to elementary school in the 1950s, we were given IQ tests every now and then, with the idea that such tests showed what we were capable of accomplishing, at least academically.  End of story. There was no belief that the abilities underlying IQ were modifiable.  Although different authors have used different terms, their point is the same—we are not stuck with some genetically predetermined program of development.  We can work to become who we want to be.  We may or may not succeed—but the harder we try, the further we can get along the path we choose for ourselves.

Donald J. Foss

I’ve been something of a skeptic about the work trying to connect brain activity to feelings, thoughts, and behavior.  However, many chapters in the book reflect a creative and wise understanding of, for example, the relation between genetics and experience, brain mechanisms and memory, and related topics.  Also, many of the contributors have shown how we can probe and measure attention and memory to reveal heretofore hidden aspects of ourselves.  So I am incredibly fond of almost all the chapters in Parts II and III—they are closest to my area of interest.  Indeed, I found it hard to stop  reading those contributions.

What are the most surprising things you have learned about how eminent scientists formulate and think about their work? Are there any common traits?

Robert J. Sternberg

The most surprising thing I have learned from the book is that eminent scientists can make interesting an area of psychological science that I would have considered to be boring and a total snooze.  Like everyone else, there are areas of psychology that I find more interesting and others that I find less interesting. For the latter, I’ve often wondered why anyone would pursue them.  But after reading essays in areas I would have thought to be lost causes, I came to see how great scientists could become enthusiastic even about areas I thought were lost causes.

Donald J. Foss

Though not totally surprising, I was very impressed by the consistent way that authors expressed gratitude to graduate school mentors, to colleagues, and to their students.  Eminent scientists obviously have to know how to put their heads down and do isolated work.  But it is also clear that science at the highest levels is also a collaborative, indeed a social, enterprise.  There is an important lesson here for students.

Susan T. Fiske

I too am struck by how humble these eminent scientists are, appreciating the roles of other people—and of luck, being in the right place at the right time. Nevertheless, people choose their collaborators and make their own luck, and the roles of creativity and hard work are not so surprising.

In his Foreword to the book Peter Salovey writes about the context in which the individuals in the book carried out their work. How important is the role of social environment to their achievements?

Robert J. Sternberg

Imagine you were in battle-torn South Sudan, Syria, or Iraq. Do you think you could develop a major research program in psychological science? These are extreme examples, but they illustrate the point that in some countries today, with many millions of people, developing a serious research program would be all but impossible.  Now imagine instead that you are in a department torn by strife and constant in-fighting, or that you are teaching six courses a year (maybe you are!), or that there is no office in your institution that helps in any way in the preparation and submission of grant proposals.  All of these factors seriously would impede your ability to conduct research.  So the point is that context matters greatly—facilities, professional-level collaborators, students, institutional support, and departmental atmosphere, among other things.  Fortunately, most of the contributors themselves are aware of the importance of context.  Regrettably, potentially brilliant scientists in non-supportive contexts around the world will never get to write essays in books such as this one—they are the unheard whose potential contributions have been lost to us because of contexts that did not support the development of their research careers.

Donald J. Foss

To reiterate something I alluded to earlier, most of the contributors say they were stimulated and helped along by mentors and colleagues early in their careers and then they speak about the importance of good students—all are part of their social context.  The social isolate is unlikely to make a future list of eminent psychologists.  On the other hand, most of our contributors don’t say anything about the importance of the research ‘infrastructure’ that Bob (Sternberg) highlights; but he surely is correct about it.  Also, the commitment of our political system to support both basic and applied research is an unsung but important component to the success of most productive scientists.  So, three cheers for good departments, universities, and granting agencies.

Susan T. Fiske

Let me interpret context in a different way. The intellectual and historical contest also drives what questions these scientists found interesting, how they studied them, and how they interpreted their results.  Reading their accounts tells us something about the history of our field—always good to know your forebears—and about the history of current events. And it’s an entertaining but scholarly way to find out.

What are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing young scientists in these fields today?

Robert J. Sternberg

The greatest problem is so many scientists chasing after so few jobs.  If they get those jobs there is a dearth of grant support. And if they get support they have to keep up with often insane demands for teaching, research, and service. Other than that, things are fine.

All that said, academia still is the best gig around!

Susan T. Fiske

I agree that the job market and the funding opportunities are tight. But young scientists are finding a variety of ways to use their talent and training—in policy or business domains, for example. One current challenge is the statistical/methodological/replicabilty crisis. But it is providing early-career scientists with added training and rigor, as well as a chance to consider the principles of our science. People are revisiting their commitment to the field and emerging stronger for it. The older generation has reason to be proud of the up-and-coming generations.

Donald J. Foss

Things are different these days; but also, not so much.  As ever, the big challenge is to pick a topic and project that is challenging, but at the same time one where ‘progress’ is possible.  I am fond of asking graduate students what the world of psychology would look like a decade from now if their work pans out in the best way.  It is surprising how often the answers I hear are narrow and constricted.  So here is the big challenge: Pick a topic and question the answer to which could make a difference to theory and practice, and figure out how to address that question so that (a) some possible answers are ruled out (an approach that is necessary but too rare), and (b) other answers can be defended—at least until further notice.  Do that and eminence is yours!

Scientists Making a Difference: One Hundred Eminent Behavioral and Brain Scientists Talk about Their Most Important Contributions is out now.

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About the Author: Donald J. Foss

Don Foss is Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston and has served on the faculties of the University of Texas, Austin and Florida State University. His publications have focused on language processing, memory and student success. He has been editor, associate editor or board member of numerous publications, and also served as a depart...

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About the Author: Susan T. Fiske

Susan T. Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor, Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University, New Jersey. She investigates cognitive stereotypes and emotional prejudices, culturally, interpersonally and neuro-scientifically. Her books include The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies (with Chris Malone, 2013), Envy up, Sc...

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About the Author: Robert J. Sternberg

Robert J. Sternberg is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, New York. Formerly, he was IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University, Connecticut. He won the 1999 James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award and the 2017 William James Fellow Award from APS. He is editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science. His main fields ...

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