Last week, our friend, psychologist, Dan Wegner, passed away and we will miss him dearly. It is hard to express the magnitude of Dan’s influence on my own work as well as on the field of psychology in general. His research touched on a multitude of important areas in psychology, from memory, to consciousness, to interpersonal attraction, to mental control, the the cognitive representation of action, to mind perception, to in recent years, morality. In each of these domains, Dan carved out entirely new theories and created paradigm shifts.
I instead want to focus on one of Dan’s lesser-cited papers, not an empirical one, but a short opinion article from 1992, entitled, “The Premature Demise of the Solo Experiment” that illustrates Dan’s unique brilliance. Dan writes:
I developed my first psychological theory at age 11. As a result of my unintentional involvement in many youthful foul-ups and snafus, I decided that the world contained two types of people, the bumblers and the pointers. The bumblers, you see, go through life trying to do things. They simply bumble along, but they enjoy it and somehow get some things done along the way. The pointers, in contrast, do only one thing: They point out the bumblers’ bumbles. Naturally, this leads to humiliation on the part of the bumblers and arrogance and condescension on the part of the pointers. The pointers never do anything themselves, but they certainly know when a bumbler has bumbled, and they announce it so widely and enthusiastically that the typical bumbler is paralyzed in shame for quite some time.
I classed myself among the bumblers, of course, and I took some solace in this theory during adolescence when I bumbled relentlessly and achieved massive levels of pointing by my peers and superiors. Over time, I realized that this was not just a matter of individual differences, but that people could move in and out of bumbling and pointing “modes” and thus assume either condition in proper circumstances.
What amazes me about this statement, aside from Dan’s ability at age 11 to come up with one of the most elegant psychological theories of all time, is how perfectly it describes two primary modes of scientific discovery–in William James’ terms, “We must know the truth,” and “We must avoid error.” More important than identifying this distinction, Dan places bumbling on equal footing with pointing as a valid mode of scientific pursuit. Given that science tends to be stereotyped as a domain of rigidity, one with a defined method, bound by laws and truths, Dan critically notes that mere pursuit of the truth, curiosity, is also essential to generating scientific knowledge.
Dan excelled at curiosity. What made his work so interesting was that he was so interested. He was interested in how people behave, how the mind works, and how people related to each other. So much of Dan’s work seemed informed simply by his intuitions based on daily observations of these processes. He made psychology look easy, as it probably does to many outside observers who think of psychology as “showing us things that our grandmother could have told us.” Yet Dan’s work was never simplisitic. This is because there was a difference between Dan and everybody else. Dan’s intuitions were both surprising, and generally correct. The rest of us usually have intuitions that are either dull, incorrect, or both. There will never be another bumbler like Dan, and we will miss him dearly.
Image taken from Daniel Wegner’s website