Daniel Oppenheimer has taught Introduction to Psychology over a dozen times, at several universities and to several thousand students. In addition to introductory psychology, Daniel Oppenheimer teaches a diverse array of courses including psychology for public policy, psychometrics and assessment, marketing strategy, higher education reform, the psychology of charity, the psychology of democracy, thinking and reasoning, and human intelligence and human stupidity. Daniel Oppenheimer has over 50 peer-reviewed publications and a number of other book chapters and media contributions. He is the co-author of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well and Psychology: The Comic Book Introduction. Daniel Oppenheimer’s research has garnered numerous awards, including The Einhorn Young Investigator award from the Society of Judgment and Decision Making, the Beattie Mid-Career award from the European Association for Decision Making and the Cognition and Student Learning award from the Cognitive Science Society. Daniel Oppenheimer has also won a number of teaching awards, including the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Phi Beta Kappa teaching award at Princeton University and the Citibank award for distinguished teaching at UCLA. Please enjoy my interview with the brilliant, Daniel Oppenheimer.
How do you describe your occupation?
I spend my time thinking about whatever I find interesting and then talking about those things with some of the smartest people in the world. (There’s also committee work, but then, no job is perfect.)
Talk us through a typical day for you…
There’s no such thing as a typical day in academia. But many days involve preparing lectures, delivering lectures, attending lectures, designing research studies, analysing the results of research studies, commiserating with students and faculty about the lousy results of the research studies, writing up the occasional non-lousy results of research studies, meetings with students, more meetings with students, and on days that I’m unlucky, committee meetings and grading.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m currently reading The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about the effects of automation and technology on society, because it was recommended by a colleague. But I should note the fact that I happen to be reading something that makes me appear somewhat sophisticated is just a fluke. Most of what I read outside of work is light-hearted escapism.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
No. I read a lot as a kid, and I could name a number of books that I read and liked as a junior reader, but it has been way too long to remember the order in which I read them.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Both. I’ve also been known to put books face down open to the page I’m at, memorize the page number, and lose my place entirely and have to skim passages until I find the last place I remember reading.
When did you fall in love with psychology?
Senior year of high school I took a psychology elective and loved it. It took a few years to realize that it was where I should spend my career, but it was a topic that grabbed me from day 1.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
When I was 16, I wouldn’t read anything that didn’t involve dragons, wizards, or spaceships, (or ideally dragon wizards in spaceships) which somewhat limits my choices. If I’m allowed to gift books that didn’t exist back then, it would be anything by Brandon Sanderson (my current favourite author); if it had to have existed at the time it would be the Otherland Series by Tad Williams or the Coldfire Trilogy by CS. Friedman which are some books from that era that I would have loved but didn’t read until much later.
Of course, if we slightly tweak the question to be books that I could gift myself and force myself to read, then I’d go with Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which would have given me a head start on my research agenda and then Winner Take All Economy by Robert Frank, and Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek – two books that massively informed my thinking about how society should operate, and which pair nicely because they come to such disparate conclusions.
At 25, I still read mostly dragon books (Heck, I’m nearing 40 and I still read mostly dragon books), so the list doesn’t change much…
If you had to pick three books that would provide the best introduction to psychology, what would they be and why?
Psychology: The Comic Book Introduction by Grady Klein and Danny Oppenheimer. Ok, that sounds like gratuitous self-promotion. But before you judge me too harshly, the reason I wrote it was because I felt there wasn’t really an accessible overview of the field and I was trying to fill a gap in the literature (well, that and because I’d always wanted to write a comic book).
But if I can’t recommend my own book, it is a very hard question. Psychology is a huge discipline, and I’d recommend different books depending people’s interests. That said How We Know What Isn’t So by Tom Gilovich was one of the books that drew me into the field, and even though it is older, it is still excellent. Smart Thinking by Art Markman is a great primer on cognitive psychology, and The Person and the Situation by Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett has just been re-released and is one most insightful social psychology texts I have come across.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t invite dead ones – that would make for a rather unpleasant dinner party…
I asked my wife which four (living) authors she’d most like to meet and she gave me JK Rowling, Lionel Shriver, Barrack Obama, and Siddhartha Mukherjee. So I’d invite them, and her (she is also an author). Because getting to meet her favourite authors would make her happy, and nothing makes me happier than making my wife happy.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
Time Spike by Eric Flint – it was on sale at the local “Friends of the Library” for 50 cents. I have a willpower problem when it comes to passing on a book with an interesting premise that I can get for 50 cents.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
Getting to escape into a world that is more magical than my own… or learning that my own world is more magical than I’d previously believed.
My wife’s latest book, but I’m afraid that’s not out yet, so I can’t recommend it to you. The second best book is The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It doesn’t change the way you think and it will never be confused for an instant classic, but it was a heck of a lot of fun, and sometimes that’s what I’m looking for.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I can’t tell you why without spoilers, but I think it’s every social scientists’ dream to have the data sets to be able to do the equivalent of psychohistory.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring psychologist looking to begin their career?
If you’re not failing with some regularity, then you’re not taking on sufficiently difficult challenges. My biggest successes usually started off disguised as failures.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It forms the basis of my personal moral philosophy.
In the world of psychology, what current research studies are you most excited about?
There are many exciting avenues of exploration, but I think there is particular promise in exploring statistical regularities in language to get at basic principles of cognition. Researchers like Sudeep Bhatia at Penn and Phil Wolff at Emory are using massive online archival data sets to explore people’s latent semantic representation, how different people’s thinking differs in predictable ways, and what the elementary building blocks of thought might look like.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
If I were to list all the books on my reading list it would take all week!
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve been holding off on reading it for months because I know from experience that once I start a Sanderson book, I don’t put it down until I’ve reached the end, and I can’t do that until the semester is over and my teaching is done. But as soon as final grades are entered, I have something to look forward to…