barbara tversky

Barbara Tversky is a Professor Emerita of Psychology at Stanford University and a Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Barbara Tversky specializes in cognitive psychology. She is a leading authority in the areas of visual-spatial reasoning and collaborative cognition. Barbara Tversky’s additional research interests include language and communication, comprehension of events and narratives, and the mapping and modelling of cognitive processes. She received a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan in 1963 and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Michigan in 1969.  Barbara Tversky was named a Fellow of the American Psychological Society in 1995, the Cognitive Science Society in 2002, and the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 2004. In 1999, she received the Phi Beta Kappa Excellence in Teaching Award. Barabra Tversky has led an esteemed career as a research psychologist. She has published in leading academic journals prolifically for almost four decades. Multiple of her studies are among the most significant in both cognitive psychology and experimental psychology generally. Please enjoy my interview with the influential Barbara Tvserky.

When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?

It depends on who is asking, as for any question. If someone asks you, where do you live? You answer differently depending on where you are and who is asking.  I’ll answer differently for a random person than an academician than someone in psychology. In general, I’ll say: Cognitive Psychology. I’m a researcher. I might add I study thinking and memory. I might add, I study spatial thinking and communication, how we find our ways in the world, how we think and communicate using the body and the world, how we create what we put on a page or in the world and how we use it to enhance our thinking and that of others.

What are you reading at the moment?

Too much. And my answer will be circuitous. I assume you’re meaning books, but I spend a lot of time online reading articles, reading on websites, using Wikipedia, both for work and for my own edification. I’m working on visual communication and that includes art, so I spend time “reading” images of all kinds online, in books, in museums and galleries. I read the NYTimes and The New Yorker in paper, and much more online.

to the end of the landFrom childhood, books were holy, you don’t write in them or dog-ear the pages. You read them in linear order. You finish them. I now break all those rules (though I still am horrified by highlighting). For years my pleasure reading was fiction, as a kid, a book a day; as an insomniac adult, a few a week. I love Bellow, Herzog and Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  I read foreign literature, Verne, Flaubert, Gide, Ginet, Sartre, Camus, Pagnol, Gary, Yourcenar, Duras, and others, some in French when I could still read French. The usual Russians, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsen. Wonderful fiction from Japan: Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki, Mishima, Abe, Oe, and more; recently, Murakami. I read Italian, German, Swedish, Czech, South American, South African (Coetzee, Gordimer, Paton), Egyptian (Mafouz), Indian. I used to read poetry in English and in translation. I read (and read) Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Stegner, Joyce, Wilkie Collins, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Sontag, Barth, Sebald, Ishiguro, Anita Bookner, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt. I read Holocaust books compulsively, partly as a penance for the accident of history that let me avoid their fate.  My reading obviously dates me and stereotypes me. I don’t enjoy science fiction, mysteries, spy, horror. My taste is pretty much negatively correlated with the bestseller list.


I lived many years in Israel and gorged on the excellent fiction (and poetry) written in that language. I still read David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B Yehoshua and a few others to “hear” Hebrew and because they are great writers and speak to my generation. I read whatever my book club decides, choices that are wonderfully diverse in style and perspective. I especially enjoyed my choices: To The End Of The Land by David Grossman and the graphic novel, The Property by Rutu Modan. The latter is an excellent introduction to graphic novels. It’s a rich multi-layered story (not the thinly-disguised autobiography of a marginal 19-year-old coming of age that is rampant in graphic novels) and when you’re done, you realize you missed a lot by only reading the words and you go back and study the visuals. I’m a huge fan of artful graphic novels—that connects to my work, of course.  Spiegelman, Ware, and others. Graphic non-fiction including The Cartoon Guides to Physics by Larry Gonick, Genetics, Statistics, History, and more.

At some point, I’d read enough fiction and shifted to the crafting of stories, to post-modern fiction that is self-aware and that shares that awareness with readers in clever ways. Calvino, Kafka, and Perec are favorites; also Gertrude Stein, Borges, Kundera, Barnes, Levi, Pamuk, Canetti, Marquez, Cortazar, Saramago, Eco, Auster, and others.

More recently I’ve shifted to non-fiction. Since Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstader and The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, more and more eminent scholars have discovered they are also excellent communicators to the public. I read linguistics and cultural history and some philosophy.  I read theory of comics, McCloud, Chute, Spiegelman, Eisner, Thierry Groenstein. I look and read on architecture, urban design, product design, information design, graphic design, augmented reality, areas I’ve worked on with collaborators. I try to keep up with the harder sciences from Tuesday’s Science Times, websites, friends. I do not possess an unread copy of Hawking on time. Some non-fiction I’ve read recently and recommend. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman put so much of the perspective and agenda of that body of research into the public consciousness. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Both of these are must reads. Recently, Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Misbehaving by Richard Thaler. All highly recommended. I am enjoying A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf and Lilian Lieber’s gem on Infinity, each small enough to tuck in a purse. Lieber’s explanations of math are page-turners. I just bought Pinker’s latest, Enlightenment Now and will get Damasio’s latest, The Strange Order of Things. Joint action is a burgeoning field for good reason; studying individual minds is not sufficient to understanding either cognition or social behaviour. Both are inherently intertwined with others’ minds and behaviour as well as the world.

For work, which is a sheer pleasure, I’m at the moment enjoying tons of articles and books on creativity, design, spatial thinking, gesture, math and number and science, so Dehaene, Goldin-Meadow, Spelke, Gelman, Gallistel and more.  Dehaene’s books on number, reading and consciousness are accessible as is Goldin-Meadow’s book on gesture. I am starting to study Da Vinci, in preparation for a talk in 2019 on his thinking through drawing, beginning with looking and Isaacson’s new book.

When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?

I was an avid reader. I immediately enjoyed reading, the worlds it opened. It was both exciting and discouraging that I couldn’t read all the books that had been written. I made lists of books I wanted to read for years. I felt fortunate I had access to books, at home, but more in libraries. When I had my own family, a favored evening activity was to go to the nearby bookstore (the much-mourned Printers Inc in Palo Alto) and look at books. We always came home with stacks.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was the first “chapter” book I read and then my grandmother sent me 12 Oz books for my 7th birthday, which I quickly devoured. Little Women, the Alcott oeuvre.

A charming book on world cultures, anthropology, which my beloved grandfather (a warm, wise man who narrowly escaped the pogroms in Russia at 19, arriving alone in NYC with no English) wisely sent me when I was 7. It described creation stories from all over the world and made me a confirmed atheist at a young age. it’s all stories, and people need stories. So it made me a psychologist as well. There was a wonderful librarian at the town library, a tall thin straight Norwegian woman, serious with a twinkle in her eye. We could borrow 4 books at a time; they filled my bike basket. I got there once or twice a week. She remembered what each of us had read and liked and knew just what to recommend. For me, reading was to transport me to other places and times. I read the classics such as Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Dickens, Brontes, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and many more. I also read Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Too many things. I drew and came from a family of artists. I wrote stories and poetry. I continued each in university. But neither of those would have allowed earning a living, and I needed to do that. In high school, I found a mutation in the fruit flies I was raising and brought that to a science fair. My geometry teacher, himself working on a PhD in math, encouraged me to go into math. My social science teachers did the same—for social science. I did fall in love with university life and with psychology in particular and they (my teachers) assumed I would go to graduate school and paid me to do so. The opportunities for women were few, especially women like me who had to support themselves. Graduate school and academic life were exciting and they gave you enough to live on. I was surrounded by smart, talented, enthusiastic, engaged colleagues, continuous learning, teaching the exciting things you learned to receptive students, doing research of your own devising. And contributing to society. I am not at all sure I would make that choice now; there are so many more opportunities for women (and everyone) and so much more time and resources to explore. We were taken aback when, In high school, each of our kids each announced they planned to go into academia, but none did, and none has regrets.

When did you fall in love with psychology?

As a sophomore, I was invited to work in a lab over the summer. A double bonus: doing research and not going home.  The following year I was invited to work in two more labs. I was hooked. I realized that you could investigate the thinking of the mind with clever empirical research in excellent company.

By then I was designing my own research and hanging out with an amazing group of grad students.  We’re back in the 60’s. The mind had been opened, freed from behaviourism, that attracted brilliant people and great excitement.

What do you think your school-aged self would think of the present day you?

I think I’d like my present-day self. For one thing, I always liked older people, and still do; there just aren’t as many people older than me anymore. What I’m doing is interesting. It gets me into so many other disciplines, linguistics, neuro, philosophy, many branches of computer science, many domain sciences, design, and art. I’ve collaborated with people in each of those fields. At least some of my sharp edges have been worn down. My two best friends in high school and I wrote prophecies when we finished high school and recently found them. We all wanted to escape the claustrophobic suburb we grew up in and to have careers as well as families. We did.

I might regard what I am doing as Interesting but maybe a little out of date, the intellectual excitement has moved to AI, to Big Data. To brain as well, but the kinds of questions that can be addressed are less exciting to me.

If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be and why?

I haven’t yet left education, so hard to say. I’m constitutionally against rankings and choosing one. There are so many ways to be beautiful or charming or intelligent or whatever. I’m all for lots and diverse. I have 3 children and 8 grandchildren and I love them all and celebrate their individuality. Wittgenstein’s investigations and his other later writings are full of thoughtful wisdom. And then there’s Shakespeare, of course for the wisdom and the poetry and the stories but also the sheer magnitude. The Complete Shakespeare would last a long time.

Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?

I read all the time and everywhere. My kids grew up the same way, they always had a book to read; they brought books to museums we visited so if they were bored by the museum, they sat in a corner and read; I knew where to buy English kids’ books in every city we visited. I read for work. I sometimes carry books or magazines on the subway but now more often read on my phone, news or pdfs of academic papers I am reading. I read before I go to sleep, and in the middle of the night when I’m can’t sleep.

Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?

That anthropology book my grandfather gave me. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis in high school; it showed the excitement of scientific discovery. Hebb’s textbook in psychology, the one used in the required course I took in psych that settled my career; it connected basic psychological questions to the brain. The cognitive revolution in psychology wasn’t a single book, but rather a Zeitgeist, that’s what got me into the field, the creative ways of opening the mind. Miller, Bruner, Roger Brown, Kuhn (unintentionally, his book gave insights about paradigm shifts inside the mind as well as in the world), Broadbent, Piager, Neisser, Johnson-Laird, Eleanor Rosch, Hutchins, Merlin Donald are part of that zeitgeist. That thinking has infiltrated the arts: Gombrich, Arnheim, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Wechsler, Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain, showing that fundamental insights about space-time and perspective rattled art often prior to rattling physics.

thinking fast and slowWhat advice would you give to a young aspiring psychologist looking to begin their career?

Be open, not dogmatically tied to a specific approach or content or paradigm. Be broad and interdisciplinary. Most of the leading psychologists aren’t doing what they did in graduate school, they keep moving on. Pick up skills, statistics, programming.

If you had to pick three books that would provide the best introduction to psychology, what would they be and why?

This is off the top of my head. The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. The Person and The Situation by Lee Ross and Richard Nesbit. All three are good reads with many insights. I’d add Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni or Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio.

Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?

That’s a loaded question. Amos Tversky was my husband and Danny Kahneman a friend since grad school. I had a front-row seat to their work. So Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, in spite of some inevitable errors, is an excellent read and does capture some of the magic of their collaboration as well as the work and its origins.

What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?

Too many to enumerate, and what I recommend depends on who is asking, when, where, and why. Everything is contextualized.

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?

Fiction when I was younger; non-fiction now.

Do you think reading is important?

Crucial. And fun, almost as much fun as writing.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In truth, I read it more than a year ago.

Do you prefer real books or digital books?

I spend a huge amount of time on devices. Eye strain is a permanent condition. For bedtime, I prefer paper, hardcovers are too big, too heavy, too inflexible. One advantage of being near-sighted is I can read without glasses.

In the world of psychology, what current research studies are you most excited about?

Again, there’s too much. I’m excited about joint action; among other things, the work has demonstrated how much the mere presence of others affects our own minds and brains. Even when we’d be better off to ignore.

Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It gives perspective on what it means to be human and describes the dramatic ways it has changed from cave-dwelling to contemporary life.

If you’d like to learn more about Barbara Tversky, you can find her on her faculty page.