It all began as a survival tactic, but over time transformed into a holistic strategy for thriving as a psychologist who loves teaching and research equally, yet believes psychology should also make a difference in our lives. This is a personal tale, but aspects of it are shared by colleagues whose synergy stories appear in this issue.
My career as a new assistant professor began by having an unreal course load dumped on me--five classes per semester, compounded by two summer classes, all so I could meet the expenses of living in New York City. I existed in what cognitive dissonance theory would describe as the Extreme Effort/Low Incentive condition, which motivated me to love what I was suffering for-- the privilege of teaching students about the joys and fascination of psychology.
However, my Yale graduate training had chiseled into my superego the admonition, "Publish or Perish!" How could I juggle these opposing demands of teach-till-you-drop versus publish-till-your-hands-turn-numb? Simple: Cheat. Use teaching to elicit ideas for research and use research to develop lectures for subsequent teaching. The goal is to conceptualize the two intellectual activities as synergistic with ideas emerging from one and vitalizing the other. The trick is keeping a fluid mental framework that conceives teaching as an idea lab filled with "what ifs?" while respecting the naive curiosity of students as hypothesis repositories. It also requires viewing one's successful research as the basis for new lectures, especially when the research process, and not just the outcomes, can be depicted visually.
Most of the best research I have done in my long career has come from ideas that started during undergraduate class discussions or exercises, and in turn, most of my best lectures (and colloquia) derive their core content from this teaching-inspired research. In some cases, this idea-recycling program has resulted in entirely new courses and new research programs. Four examples are research on deindividuation, vandalism, the Stanford Prison Experiment and shyness. This dynamic synergy has unexpectedly flowed over also to influence professional practice and public policy.
Straight from the idea lab
It all began when students in my Group Dynamics seminar questioned the psychological validity of the sudden transformation of good boys into the monsters portrayed in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies." How could seemingly minor changes in external appearance--painting their faces--be a sufficient condition to overcome learned inhibitions against killing? We devised an experimental test of the hypothesis that ordinary people could be induced into behaving in antisocial ways when made to feel anonymous and not accountable for their actions. Hypothesis supported: Groups of hooded women shocked other target women (confederates) twice as much as did identifiable controls. Not only could I now introduce the concept of deindividuation, and the accompanying research slide show into my next lectures but I along with other psychologists began investigating this form of induction into evil.
In addition to masking one's appearance, anonymity may be conferred by certain environments in which people feel nobody knows them or cares to. My students and I wondered if the extensive vandalism readily observed in New York in the 1960s might be the product of this situational deindividuation. A graduate student, Scott Fraser, and I turned ethologists to track down elusive vandals by setting an irresistible trap--an abandoned car--in the Bronx and in Palo Alto. While not a single person even touched the California car in a full week, the Bronx car was vandalized 23 times, mostly by adults. The authors of the Broken Windows Theory argued that public disorder contributes to crime, which could be reduced by fixing broken windows, cleaning graffiti and removing abandoned cars. Our little demonstration was the empirical evidence cited. Mayor Guiliani and his staff put this principle into operation and crime was indeed dramatically reduced in New York.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, now a classic demonstration of situational power, also began as an undergraduate exercise in the psychology of imprisonment. Its slides and video became the stuff of subsequent lectures, textbooks, public education (www.prisonexp.org) and prison reform legislation. In a subsequent class, a student asked if a shy person might maintain both guard and prisoner mentalities in a self-imposed psychological prison. That question was the catalyst for a shyness cottage industry--new courses on shyness, a systematic research program on adult shyness, and the first ever shyness clinic to treat extreme shyness (directed by Dr. Lynne Henderson).
The message? Learn from your students; envision psychology as a dynamic unity; challenge barriers; practice intellectual chutzpa, and always do your psychology with passion and the hope of making a little difference.