Daniel T. Gilbert is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is a social psychologist known for his research on affective forcasting, with a special emphasis on cognitive biases such as impact bias. He is the author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, which has been translated into more than 25 languages. He is also very well known for his TED talks, which were watched over 10 million times.
What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … is working with my collaborators, who range from undergraduates to full professors. Spending your life exploring ideas is a pleasure, but spending your life exploring them with friends is a joy.
The biggest challenge in my career so far was … finding a question worth answering. Answering questions is not difficult. Science tells us how to do this. But finding questions that have not yet been asked, and whose answers might generate even deeper and more interesting questions – THAT is a hard thing to do
One research project I will never forget is … the very first study we did on the effects of cognitive load on dispositional inference. My former-student, Brett Pelham, came running into my office one day with papers in his hand and shouted, “It worked!” The theory and the experimental paradigm were both utterly new, and we had no idea whether our study had even the slightest chance of working. That study ended up being rather famous – I think it has been cited roughly a thousand times – and I’ll never forget how excited we were to discover that we had discovered something new.
What I look for in a student who wants to work under my supervision … dedication, intelligence, maturity — and a very good sense of humor.
Student research could be improved by … Students often think that the first idea they explore must be an entirely new one. In fact, students are almost always better off working on a question that is very close to the questions already being asked in their lab. First, when you don’t know a field very well, your “new” idea is almost surely old. Second, when you work on a question that is similar to the questions that others in your lab are working on, it ties you intellectually to the community and puts you in a position to receive a lot of good advice. Learning to generate new psychological findings is like learning to compose music. First you must learn to play the piano, and then you can use that skill to write a sonata. If you try to compose before you even know how to play, odds are small you will learn to do either.
Academically, I most admire … my collaborator Tim Wilson, because he is brilliant, original, patient, humble, and willing to put up with me for the last 20 years.
I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career … that I could talk about research that was not my own. It was a revelation for me to discover in middle-age that I could write books and give lectures on OTHER PEOPLE’S research. Readers and listeners don’t really care who DID a piece of research, they just care if it is true and interesting!
The largest changes in psychological science in the next 10 years will be … something we cannot yet foresee. Answers to this question are almost always trivially obvious or wrong. I’d rather be neither, so I will just wait patiently like everyone else and see where this always-exciting field takes us next.