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Mahzarin Banaji's Campbell Address

Odetta, The Handbook of Social Psychology 1968, and The Unconscious

Mahzarin R. Banaji

Harvard University

Comments offered on the occasion of the Donald Campbell Award, Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Antonio, January 20, 2017

It is so obvious that it hardly need be said that I wouldn’t be here without the quality of mind and the Stakanovite efforts of collaborators, chief among them Tony Greenwald and Brian Nosek.  One of them was my advisor, the other a student, and I am quite aware of how rare it is to be a part of a sustained tri-generational collaboration.  It delights me greatly that they have collaborated with each other more than either has with me – their joint work has moved the needle of discovery significantly farther.   

I also had the immense good fortune, in the mid-1980s, to be a postdoc with Claude Steele and watch up close his ability to make sense of subjective experience, even the most ephemeral kind that shimmers briefly and is gone.  I was jointly a postdoc with Elizabeth Loftus to whom I’m forever grateful for being a model of staying power in the face of much unreasonableness.  Her science was my first direct encounter with resistance to a message that required us to face the possibility of own lack of perfection. 

To students from 15 years in New Haven and 15 years in Cambridge, I am intensely proud of your work, especially your work that tactfully showed that I had been wrong on more than one occasion. To students in the lab today: Olivia Kang, Maddalena Marini, Calvin Lai, Jack Cao, Benedek Kurdi, Tessa Charlesworth, Kiera Hudson, Steve Lehr and Tim Carroll – thank you for your daily gifts of extensive and deep analysis of data that humble our theories regularly.  And of course, my gratitude to Christopher Dial, guardian extraordinaire of William James Hall, 15.

I thank SPSP and the Campbell Award Committee for this recognition and for the opportunity to say a few words that I hope will convey the admiration and affection I have for this organization and the person for whom this award is named.  

Donald Campbell

One of the strangest aspects of subjective experience is our sense of time; how long this 20-minute talk will feel to you!  How fast 36 years in social psychology have whizzed by for me!  I can remember like it was yesterday, the first time I stood with shaking hands to give a conference talk, and the first time that Donald Campbell shook my shaking hand.   

I did not know Donald Campbell, but I did meet him on two occasions.  I may be in a diminishing group of people who’ve had the good fortune to meet him, so I suppose it is alright for me to acknowledge on this dark day for so many in this room and in this country, that today marks the beginning of a potential threat to our most basic currency as scientists and teachers.  Whoever we are and whatever we may disagree about, every person in this room seeks every day to do one thing as they know best -- to tell fact from fiction.  That’s what we are trained to do, and that’s what we do, however feebly.  But if our attempts today are less feeble than they might be, it’s in part because of Donald Campbell.  He taught us how to swoosh the sabre of the scientific method just so and slice away fiction from fact.  He did this masterfully himself, as if he were the quasi-experiment, as if he were the situation under study, and speaking from right there where the action was, he told us all the ways in which we may not be getting it right. 

Campbell’s commitment, even enthusiasm, for understanding the threats to discovery -- in our methods, in our treatment of evidence, and in interpretation – may indeed be his lasting legacy, in spite of the many other contributions he also made, not least of them being the coining of ridiculously unpronounceable words like entitativity.  Campbell and his colleagues, Donald Fiske, Thomas Cook and Julian Stanley inspired this psychologist at an early age to know that yes, our effort to understand the mind as a social multiverse was vastly limited; yes, individual efforts to do so were almost surely marred by various threats to interpretation. But that if we were aware of these threats to the process of discovery, that if we took account of them and built a system of vigilance around them, that collectively we could be better, we would be better, at separating fact from fiction.   

Strangeness as a signal of something important

There is a small observation I’d like to dwell on today, and it is on the quality of strangeness, the good kind of strangeness, by which I mean strangeness as unexpected and unfamiliar, strangeness as puzzling, mystifying, and perplexing and that rarest form, strangeness as extraordinary.  When you come upon experiences or things that have the property of strangeness, it is worth stopping to acknowledge that what you are experiencing will not occur easily again, that this thing or event is changing you, and that you will not be the same again. My comments are of a personal nature, as I try to put into words three encounters with strangeness.

As many of you know, I was born and raised in India until I came to this country to attend graduate school. One day in 1963, my father and I went, as we often did on his blue lambretta, to the United States Information Service.  I was 7 but I had my own library card, and I would usually select my children’s books as he his grownup books. But this time was different.  The USIS in our town had acquired a record collection from which we could borrow vinyl.  LPs and 45s.  Not everybody had a fancy record player, but we did, because my unworldly father was such a lover of the arts and literature, that if not for my pragmatic mother he would scarcely have noticed that his children were eating less well because of his monthly expenditure on books. 

The LP my father picked out that day, and I have no idea why, was by the American folk singer Odetta.  Now, even though I was little, I knew a thing or two about America, and Odetta was not my vision of America, which was shiny things and exclusively white people, with a brazenness that I found both admirable and slightly embarrassing.   Odetta didn’t fit any of that as I looked at the stillness of her face on the cover. 

Remember, its barely post-independent India.  I’m 7 years old, and after having heard a lot of rubbish Bollywood screeching from the neighbor’s radio, this is the sound I hear:

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Odetta’s sound embodied strangeness.  It was unexpected and unfamiliar, puzzling, mystifying, and perplexing.  And above all, it was extraordinary.   It blurred male and female, it made African into American, and for reasons I cannot explain, I felt I was her and she was me.   I am told that I was transfixed as soon as the needle touched vinyl.  I didn’t want to move, eat or drink, I just wanted an adult to keep moving the needle back to the circumference of the other side of the LP.  I was fortunate to have parents who indulged me and turned this intense and inexplicable reaction into a history lesson that lasted many years.  Of course, later that year The Beatles arrived, easing the needle’s pressure off the grooves of the Odetta record.  But Odetta defined me well into my teenage years, not the least of which was that I tried hard to sing her brand of folk music with neither the voice nor the skill with instrument, but with plenty of that insufferable quality called “a great deal of passion”.

Experience #2 with strangeness: It is now 1978, and I’m done with college and in another university and making no progress.  That is, I’m doing fine from the perspective of my teachers but no neurons inside my head are popping.  I’ve had some psychology – no proper introductory psychology or social psychology, but instead a healthy dose of psychophysics, list learning research on memory and basic theories of animal learning.   I’m on a long train ride home for the holidays, a ride of almost a 1000 miles that in those days took 2 full days.  At one of the longer train stops, I found myself in a bookshop on the platform and there stacked on the floor were five volumes bound in red cloth, an Indian edition of the Handbook of Social Psychology, 1968.  I bought them for only one reason.  They cost a dollar a volume.  That was a lot of book for the money even then, but I bargained him down still further by pointing out the amount of dust on them. 

Now, effort justification from just the weight of the five volumes plus the dust would predict that I would read them, and indeed the theory is right. I did! I’ll only tell you about the first chapter I read in volume 1.  It was on methods of social psychology and it was written by Elliot Aronson.  I wasn’t even close to getting the main points he was making about methods, although I remember thinking that “mundane realism” was a cool term.  And again, I was transfixed, this time by the audacity of the experiments that he used to demonstrate research methods, which, it being Aronson, were all about cognitive dissonance. Nothing in my education had prepared me for the feeling I had as I whipped through one page after the other.

The words on the page produced a similar response in me as the one I had experienced in hearing the voice of Odetta.  The experiments were telling me something.  That “it’s not [simply] what’s in your head; it’s what your head is in.”   That message was unfamiliar and unexpected.  It was puzzling, mystifying, and perplexing, and it was extraordinary. How could people be like that?  Why would they like something more because they had lied about it?  Why would one especially believe that the world was going to end right after the world had just failed to end?

But even more intriguing to me than the experiments, were the experimenters:  who are these people doing these experiments?  Where are they?  And so with the five volumes of the Handbook of Social Psychology 1968 in my suitcase, a raggedy pair of jeans and a cotton flannel shirt (because I’d been told it would be cold in America), I arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 1980, to learn some social psychology and with no sense that I was about to become one of you. 

Experience with strangeness #3:  It’s not a voice. And it’s not a handbook. Instead it’s what I assume you have me on this stage for today, and it’s my 30-year obsession with the strangeness of the mind as we do not know it.  This encounter with strangeness doesn’t fade with time because it’s so generative that it keeps producing layer upon layer of the most perplexing, most improbable, evidence.   I first came to learn about the modern unconscious in a class I took with Tony Greenwald and Harvey Shulman, but it was later that decade that I understood it far more deeply in the context of a memory brown bag that I would co-organize every semester with my colleague at Yale, Bob Crowder, an expert on auditory memory. 

I learned most about the unconscious through the concept of implicit memory (and perception) and it had the full spectrum of the attributes of strangeness.  First it was amnesic patients and the downright puzzling patterns of the dissociations they revealed.  But what was even more extraordinary to me were the studies with ordinary human beings like ourselves, with supposedly intact brains, that were revealing the conceptually same split in consciousness.  This looked nothing like memory as we had known it for 100 years since Ebbinghaus.  And yet that’s what it was, nobody would deny, a new kind of memory, or rather our discovery of a form of memory that always existed, but had eluded us because our methods didn’t have the key to its lock.    

My reading of the work on implicit memory led me to beautiful experiments by Larry Jacoby, who had showed that the same intervention would reduce, say free recall memory, but improve perceptual identification, also a kind of memory.  Another intervention would do the opposite!  Both were tapping memory, so what was going on?  

Another puzzling result was that similar measures, sometimes even the same one administered on two occasions, didn’t correlate highly with each other.  That was not seen by the smart people making this foray into the study of implicit memory to be a failure of the measure.  Rather they understood, and made me understand, that it was telling us something important; that these measures were tapping into a dynamic, constantly rearranging mind, a mind adapting ever so slightly to the demands of the moment.  That the high correlations among explicit measures of memory didn’t make them better or worse measures of memory.  They were different – conscious awareness produced a stability to explicit measures that was simply not present when we applied measures that were less controllable, less amenable to deliberate thought.

Strangeness marked these data, and while I was still trying to grapple with them, others who were so ahead of me had already done lovely studies.  John Bargh, Russ Fazio, and Dan Gilbert. Trish Devine, Jack Dovidio and Sam Gaertner. They had all published compelling papers spelling out what the social unconscious might look like; that one part of the mind seemed to be governed by rules that another part of the mind didn’t seem to care about.

So, you see what I’m saying?  That when we come upon these moments in our explorations, we must leave room for feelings of deep unfamiliarity and even unease.  That we should rejoice in them because if we’re fortunate, it’s a marker of something important lying just beyond the horizon.  Our own research on implicit social cognition is a baby example of such an encounter with something new.  If you want a noteworthy example, think about the 1930s, when quantum mechanics was not yet in the mainstream of astrophysics.  There are many examples of distinguished people, like Arthur Eddington, steeped in classical thinking, who slowed scientific progress because they simply could not accept the possibility of black holes.  Quantum mechanical thinking was necessary to even entertain the possibility that light can enter but not leave.  Black holes, we now know, are incomprehensible creatures of mythology by any classical thinking about space time. 

Decades, sometimes centuries are needed to overcome resistance. Older scientists, like myself, will die.  Younger scientists, born into a world where implicit cognition is better understood, will accept its reality without having seizures.  Of course, not everybody changes their mind in the face of even compelling evidence.  Deniers do exist.  [As an aside, remember what the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife said when she first heard about Darwin’s claim that humans and apes have a common ancestor? "My dear” she said “let us hope it is not true, but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known."]

In conclusion, I rely again on Donald Campbell to mark the occasion of this eponymous award.  Campbell was fond of calling some of his best conceptual papers his “crack-pot” papers.  One such paper, titled “A fish scale model of omniscience,” makes the simple point that knowledge can be assembled and understood effectively if different disciplines and viewpoints do their own unique thing but that an effort is also made to notice and even create areas of overlap and continuity akin to the structure of fish scales.  

When critics who share the assumptions of your own fish scale offer criticisms of your work, there can be nothing better than that. You take them utterly seriously, because they and you have common expertise in the nuts and bolts of the method, in the theory of the method, and they and you are jointly aware of what has brought your line of research to this point and why.  Critics like that also understand the other fish scales on either side of yours, what tethers them that way and why.  We have had the great joy of having such critics. They have helped the work move in leaps and bounds and for that I am deeply grateful.

Strangeness. It has been a persistent quality of the social psychology I have been a part of, even though it wasn’t planned that way.  It took me a little time to realize that it was not the IAT that was screwed up; it was my head that was screwed up.  And that there was nothing to do but to change my view of myself and my beloved species, because the evidence said so. 

What I live for are the daily meetings with students, who show up at the office every day, poke only their heads in as if to do a quick safety check first, and then say, “Hey Mahzarin, I have the strangest data to show you”.   

I rub my hands together and we get to work.  

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