Cover Story

If you like to buck conventional ideas, if you've often struggled to get your research funded or published because your work falls outside the mainstream, if your findings have thrust you into the middle of a firestorm of controversy--then you have a lot in common with psychologists featured in a new book: "Psychologists Defying the Crowd: Stories of Those Who Battled the Establishment and Won" (APA, 2003), edited by APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD.

In one way or another, each battled the establishment and still managed to carve out a successful career.

Here are some thoughts on the creativity and determination it took to do that from a sampling of those featured in the book:

Elliot Aronson, PhD

University of California, Santa Cruz

From his early work on cognitive dissonance to his recent attempts to solve problems of racial segregation and school violence, Aronson has consistently challenged the status quo. But he never consciously decided to "battle the establishment," he writes:

"[P]erhaps I did go my own way--but without quite realizing it....Most of my best research decisions came about simply because I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and then acted on that good fortune in what seemed to be the most reasonable manner--which I suppose was the manner that interested me most." (page 4)

Ellen Berscheid, PhD

University of Minnesota

In 1976, Berscheid's National Science Foundation grant to study romantic love and other close relationships earned her one of former Sen. William Proxmire's (D-Wis.) first Golden Fleece Awards--the senator's way of ridiculing scientific projects he thought were wasting taxpayer money. As a result of the ensuing media frenzy, she writes, she lost her car, her dog and her marriage. Some of the lessons she learned:

  • "Sometimes it is best to turn the other cheek and keep your mouth shut." (page 36)

  • "Not everyone carrying a pencil stub and a piece of paper is a journalist." (page 37)

  • "Tenure is an essential ingredient in every researcher's survival kit." (page 41)

  • "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger, and it's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good." (page 42)

Kelly D. Brownell, PhD

Yale University

Brownell, who coined the phrase "yo-yo dieting," has argued that America's epidemic of obesity is caused by a "toxic environment" in which unhealthy foods are heavily promoted and easily accessible. He also argues that the government has an obligation to change that environment--a position that has placed him at the center of what he calls a "firestorm of controversy." But it's a position he says he's glad he took:

"This controversy has enriched me. With more debate and the accumulation of additional science, I have grown more resolute in my opinion that the environment must change and that public policy offers our best hope for progress." (page 57)

John Garcia, PhD

University of California, Los Angeles

A self-described "perennial dropout," Garcia challenged accepted models of animal behavior with his discovery of conditioned taste aversion. But his work was initially received with criticism--starting with rejection by APA's own Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Other journals did publish his research, however, including eventually even the most prestigious:

"The psychological establishment is not a monolith; it is more like a parliament made up of small fractious parties," Garcia writes. "If one journal does not accept a contribution, another one might, or someone editing a book might accept a chapter. That was ever my strategy. I just kept hammering away with more evidence." (pages 74-75)

Howard Gardner, PhD

Harvard University

Gardner, best-known for his theory of multiple intelligences, has been defying the crowd since his first scholarly book argued that artistic and scientific ways of thinking were equally valid. He writes that he hasn't been immune to criticisms--such as those he's received from the intelligence community--but they seem insignificant next to the rewards of going his own way:

"I am impelled by my curiosity about the world of human beings and human nature; I want to observe, study, read, and write about that world, and the fact that someone (or even many ones) may not like what I have done cannot dampen that curiosity or alter that course." (page 85)

William J. McGuire, PhD

Yale University

McGuire has been called the "father of the social cognition revolution" for his work on persuasion, cognition and the self, which reasserted the importance of cognition in social phenomena at a time--the early 1960s--when behaviorism was still the dominant paradigm.

Like certain micro-organisms that crowd around nutrient-rich areas, he writes, psychologists tend to concentrate excessively on promising areas of inquiry, leaving abundant resources for those "peripheral feeders" who don't mind working on the fringes. But he cautions against defying the crowd solely for the sake of defiance:

"I do not advocate taking a knee-jerk contrarian stance, studying only topics that everyone else is neglecting and standing on its head...every explanation that anyone else suggests....What I am urging is correction of a tendency of researchers to overcongregate at optimal points." (pages 119-120)

Ulric Neisser, PhD

Cornell University

Almost as soon as it was published, Neisser's "Cognitive Psychology" (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967) became the bible of the "cognitive revolution" of the 1960s--the rejection of behaviorism in favor of psychological models that included internal cognitive processes. But, he writes, a better example of crowd-defying is his book "Cognition and Reality" (W.H. Freeman, 1976), which challenged the cognitive status quo he had helped establish:

"If you want your battle against the establishment to succeed, don't try to do it alone....Speak positively about your own cause instead of bashing the other guys....To be sure, even both steps taken together do not guarantee success; there are no guarantees in this business. But so what? If you like a good fight, finding one is never hard." (page 171)

Robert Perloff, PhD

University of Pittsburgh

As APA's 1985 president, Perloff gave a presidential address he describes as "politically incorrect" because of its praise for self-interest--an address that was later reprinted by the American Psychologist as one of 50 classic articles published in the journal's previous 50 years. Defying the crowd, he writes, should be the consequence of acting with integrity, not a goal in itself:

"[L]et's disabuse ourselves of the mistaken notion that honesty of convictions, being a gadfly, a whistle-blower, or whatever, is necessarily confined to defiance. Rather, these characteristics are the hallmark of honest people....You can utter your beliefs and convictions loud and clear even if the crowd is with you." (page 176)

Robert J. Sternberg, PhD

Yale University

Sternberg's career as a crowd-defying psychologist started early--even in junior high, he was getting into trouble for designing and administering intelligence tests to his classmates. Since then, he has continued to ruffle feathers with his work on intelligence, love, wisdom and other subjects rarely addressed in academic psychology departments. Though the rewards have been great, he writes, there have also been costs:

"I often feel frustrated with the lack of impact I've had. I'm hoping my career is only half done. Maybe in the second half I'll accomplish some of what I have failed to accomplish in the first. If I do, it will be not because I follow the crowd, but rather, because I head where I need to go, regardless of where others go." (page 268)

Edward Zigler, PhD Yale University

As one of the few scientists who played a direct role in shaping the federal Head Start program in the 1960s, Zigler fought to make scientific evaluation of the program's successes and failures an integral part of the project, even when other members of the Head Start team didn't support such research. At the same time, he writes, he was busy trying to explain to his academic colleagues that he was not "sullying" pure research--he was putting it to good use.

"Thinking back, I attribute my success in having some influence over national social policies, and over my professional field, to my posture as a scientist....I have always believed that the scientific method is a powerful tool for discerning what drives human behavior and development, and, eventually, for improving these facets of human life." (page 280)