1. Do you think that morals are learned or that they are hardwired?
Like most questions about nature versus nurture, I think the answer is “both.”
I’m personally most interested in aspects of moral psychology that can change in light of experience, as they’re our best candidates for moral progress: areas where we can improve our moral thinking as individuals and as a society. As an example, consider American attitudes towards women in the 19th century. Women were denied the right to vote, and many people didn’t see this as morally problematic. Today, this persepctive is hard to fathom—it just seems obvious that women and men should have an equal status when it comes, say, to electing our next president. This example illustrates that our ideas about morality aren’t fixed, though there’s no guarantee that they’ll always change for the better. That’s one reason why it’s so important that we take a critical look at our moral assumptions, and that we engage in critical and constructive discussion with people who may not share them.
2. On your website, you refer to one aspect of your research as “Theory of Mind and Moral Reasoning.” Where do you see morality and psychology intersecting?
Psychologists and philosophers sometimes differentiate between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” (or “normative”) questions about morality. Descriptive questions about morality are those that concern how people actually reason and behave. For example, how often and under what conditions do people cheat on tests? How do people decide whether and when it’s appropriate to lie? Prescriptive questions about morality are those that concern how we ought to reason and behave. For example, should people cheat on tests? Are there any conditions under which it’s morally permissible to lie?
Traditionally, psychology has concerned itself with descriptive questions about morality, and philosophy (and religion) with prescriptive questions. I think this division is basically right, but there’s a lot of room for psychology to influence philosophy and vice versa. For example, our prescriptive morality might tell us that we should act in ways that maximize people’s wellbeing, but how do we know which actions are most likely to maximize wellbeing? Answering this question requires some psychology. On the flip side, many philosophers argue that “ought implies can”—that is, that something can’t be prescriptively required unless it’s descriptively possible, with the contrapositive implication that if something isn’t even a psychological possibility, then it can’t be the thing we ought to do.
“Theory of Mind” refers to the capacity to predict, explain, and reason about people’s behavior in terms of mental states like beliefs and desires. It’s basically the intuitive, everyday psychology that we use all the time when we try to make sense of other people. There’s now good evidence that you can’t entirely separate “Theory of Mind” from moral reasoning, which is another way in which you can think of psychology and morality intersecting.
3. Often teenagers are faced with large decisions and navigate an increasingly complex academic and social life. Can you speak to the ways that teenagers may approach challenges differently than children or adults?
This is a great question. I recommend reading a short and fascinating essay about adolescence by my colleague Alison Gopnik called “Developmental Timing Explains the Woes of Adolescence.”
4. We ask everyone at Marin Academy to “think, question, and create.” Curiosity is greatly valued by those in our community, so I am curious to hear your thoughts on the psychology of curiosity—from where does this impulse rise? Is it related to other brain functions?
In a book published in 1970, the philosophers W.V.O. Quine and J.S. Ullian raised similar questions about curiosity, concluding that curiosity “has survival value, despite having killed a cat.”
Curiosity is enormously valuable because it motivates us to learn about our physical and social environment, and even about ourselves. You can think of curiosity as akin to basic research in science (as opposed to applied research). In basic research, you don’t always know what the applications of a particular theory or discovery will be. You pursue knowledge for its own sake. But more often than not, basic research eventually leads to important applications. Similarly, curiosity is typically about learning for its own sake, without some particular end in mind. But by indulging your curiosity, you gain the knowledge and experience that helps you achieve your goals in the future.
5. What led you to follow this particular academic path? Any advice for our students who may be interested in similar topics?
When I was in high school, my favorite subjects were English and math. Cognitive science and contemporary philosophy weren’t exactly typical course offerings.
Around junior year, I happened to come across the “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker. I was immediately hooked on cognitive science—the idea that one could rigorously study the mind from the vantage points of multiple disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, computer science, linguistics, and neuroscience. In some ways cognitive science combined what I liked most about English and math—getting to think about big questions and human experience but in a relatively formal way.
I was lucky enough to be growing up near an excellent university, UC San Diego, where cognitive science is a particular strength. So I was able to take university classes in psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science as a senior in high school, and I volunteered as a research assistant in a lab at UCSD the following summer, studying aspects of human language by analyzing the patterns of electrical brain activity that can be picked up from electrodes on the scalp.
After high school graduation I went on to Stanford University, knowing I would major in their cognitive science program, called “Symbolic Systems.” What I didn’t know is that I would also fall in love with philosophy, which I picked up as a second major. As an undergraduate I worked as a research assistant in various labs, which was an invaluable way to learn about different areas of research and about what it means to be a scientist. By that point I was pretty sure that I wanted to pursue a PhD after graduation—I loved learning and really enjoyed research. But I wasn’t sure whether to pursue philosophy or psychology. I ultimately opted for psychology, in part because I thought it would be easier to do some philosophy as a psychologist than to do some psychology as a philosopher. I went on to a PhD in psychology at Harvard University (where Steven Pinker, the author of the book that first introduced me to cognitive science, was a member of my dissertation committee), and then to a faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley, where I am now.
For students who think they might be interested in cognitive science (or any other kind of science!), my advice is to get involved in research. Look into volunteering options, summer internships, or other opportunities. You’ll either love it or discover it’s not for you. Either is a valuable lesson. But keep in mind that there are many kinds of science and many kinds of scientists, so a single research experience might not be representative, especially if it isn’t a positive one.
My advice more generally is to talk to people in various professions about what they do and which aspects of their jobs they do and don’t like, and to have an open mind. Thinking back on my own decision making, I’m shocked by how few options I seriously considered and by how little I knew about the day-to-day realities of different professions. I don’t regret where I’ve ended up, but I probably could have been happy doing lots of other things, too.