Barry Schwartz: The Idea that Shaped My Career

This is the first post in our “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” series, where we give readers the opportunity to pose a question to leading behavioral scientists. Have a question? Ask it here.

Q: What finding outside of psychology has had the biggest influence on your work?

The “finding” from outside psychology that most influenced me—indeed it essentially shaped my entire career—was not so much a “finding” as an argument.

My close friend on the Swarthmore College faculty, social and political philosopher Rich Schuldenfrei, shared my interest in exposing the limits of B.F. Skinner’s views of human nature. My approach to criticizing Skinner was empirical; Schuldenfrei’s was philosophical. In an effort to explain to me what he was trying to say, Schuldenfrei had me read two books. One was The Great Transformation, by economic historian Karl Polanyi. The other was Social Limits to Growth, by economist Fred Hirsch.

Both books, in different ways and with different historical sweep, made the case that “human nature” is as much the product of industrial capitalism as it is the cause. Reading those books opened my eyes to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz meant when he described human beings as “unfinished animals.” It made me appreciate that social and cultural institutions are not just a coat of paint applied to the surfaces of an existing structure, but rather help shape that structure in the most fundamental ways.

This may seem an obvious point in the age of “cultural psychology,” but I remind readers that in 1972, when the scales were lifted from my eyes, psychologists were aspiring to create a discipline that was modeled on physics. I came to appreciate that a better model might be history. Several books and a bunch of papers I have written since then have reflected this change in my view of what the most basic aspirations of academic psychology ought to be. From my perspective, as I gaze on a psychological world increasingly dominated by neuroscience, the lessons that I learned almost half a century ago still very much need to be taught.

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Disclosure: Barry Schwartz is a member of the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.