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“From Socrates to Darwin and beyond: What children can teach us about the human mind”

This talk is really interesting. I like how she starts off with the connections between psychological essentialism and political polarization, as an example of the importance of these ideas in so many areas of life.


  1. David says:

    Fascinating talk. I learned a great deal. Aren’t you up to taking your big sister to task for declaring greater than 50% of children expressing essentialist ideas being “yes” and less than 50% “no”? It’s a minor point in a fascinating talk but turning ranges into binaries seems like one of your standard complaints.

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, I agree that it would be good if Susan and her colleagues were to do more studying of individual variation. In much of psychology there is a focus on universals, which is understandable, but I do think that it should be possible to learn more from variation.

      • Martha (Smith) says:


      • jrkrideau says:

        The tradition in psychology has long been to dichotomize and it seems hard to break. On the other hand, n-sizes with human subjects seems to often inhibit more investigation of individual differences. It can be incredibly difficult to get decent sample sizes and I think researchers default to dichotomizing when there may be better ways.

        I am oversimplifying but, from a psychology viewpoint, some of the physical and bio-sciences have it easy. Need more reagents, just a purchase order away. Need a mouse line with known genetics, a telephone call away.

        Need to test some children in grade school? Pass ethics committee review, make contact with school board. Make initial pitch to school board at monthly meeting, return to monthly meeting a month or two later, if lucky, to expand on research and deal with specific questions. Repeat.

        If everything goes well, get approval and start contacting schools. Pray no flu outbreak strikes on the week you plan on being in school X. Pandemic strikes—consider going into researching behavioural genetics in mice.

        Dr Gelman’s research does not show the immense amount of work that she and her associates have put into developing trust and cooperation with her non-psychology collaborators.

      • Tom says:

        I am an historian of psychology. Psychology has two distinct traditions which have not always got along well. The first tradition began in Germany, which defined psych as the science of the normal, human, adult mind; i.e., focus on universals. The other tradition had two roots, one in comparative psychology, which included not just the study of animals, but also of mental illness, personality, and cultural/biological differences. The other root was in professional (“clinical”) psychology and created mental tests; the founding figures were people such as Galton in Britain and Binet (who also studied anthropology) in France. As psychology developed, esp. here in the US, organized psychology was dominated by the scientific (German) wing, and the differential folks were considered second-class citizens at best, and they had to almost force their way into organized psychology. Even today, there are two psychological organizations, the American Psychological Association (founded 1892 by the scientists, who lost control after WW II), and the Association for Psychological Science, which broke off in the 1980s. The animosity of the two sides was deep and bitter. I was in APA’s Council during the APA vs. APS break up, and it was extraordinary to watch (but great for me as historian!).
        Nevertheless, differential psychology is a well developed field, but if you only follow the science-oriented folks, you often don’t see it. For example the study of intelligence is the most thoroughly cumulative discipline in psychology. You can, indeed, learn a lot from variation, but it’s not always to be found among the cognitive scientists (my other hat, the one I was trained in).

        • Joshua says:

          Tom –

          I read that a couple of times but I”m having some trouble understanding how to differentiate those two distinct traditions. Would you happen to have a link to some other material I could read to understand better?

        • Andrew says:


          Thanks for the summary. I’ve collaborated with psychologists who work in the “individual differences” field, and I remember them telling me similar things. A complicating factor is that there’s some overlap between “individual differences” research and race science. Unrelatedly, the work of Walter Mischel is interesting in that it has aspects of universalist psychology and aspects of individual difference psychology. Regarding the APS: yeah, they’ve been pretty horribly anti-scientific during in the past decade, which is ironic given that they’re supposed to be the scientists in the room. Perhaps their many purportedly scientific credentials and awards gave them a feeling of overconfidence or an attitude that it was their right to define what is science and an attitude that it was appropriate to attack dissenters.

          • Tom says:

            Joshua, Andrew:

            Not to be immodest, but it’s a major theme of my book, A history of psychology from antiquity to modernity (Routledge/Taylor & Francis). If you don’t want (or can’t) buy it, I can send pdf chapters to you. The Wiki article is, I’m afraid, a too-short mess, as you can infer from the noted shortcomings.

            Andrew is right about the race science part–through Galton’s founding of eugenics primarily, though also through Binet’s anthropological work. I haven’t been inside APA or APS for years now, so I can’t comment on the source of their overconfidence. The APS founders certainly felt bruised up by their leaving APA (expelled is closer to the truth) and hurt feelings can breed a sense of superiority. Also, the current APS leaders weren’t the ones who started it.


  2. jrkrideau says:

    Sneaky way to get a cat into the post.

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