David Pizarro is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. His primary research interests are in moral judgment and emotion. David Pizarro is particularly interested in moral intuitions (especially concerning moral responsibility, and the permissibility or impermissibility of certain acts), and in biases that affect moral judgment. David Pizarro also researches the influence of emotional states on thinking and deciding–particularly on how specific emotions (anger, disgust, fear, etc.) influence judgment and decisions. His TED talk on ‘the strange politics of disgust’ has been viewed over 700,000 times. Please enjoy my interview with David Pizarro.
How do you describe your occupation?
I am a psychologist—but not the kind that does therapy (I lack the patience for that), the kind that researches how the mind works by conducting experiments (often by poking and prodding the minds of college students).
Every day is slightly different—but the bulk is teaching, meeting with grad students to discuss ongoing research projects, and sitting on committees.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I am currently reading Based on a True Story: A Memoir by Norm Macdonald, the comedian. I am a big fan of the craft of stand-up comedy and find Norm to be hilarious and far smarter than he ever wants to let on.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I’m not certain, but being raised in a very religious family, I do remember learning to read by following along to books on tape to a series called My Bible Friends. After that, it’s a blur—I read whatever I could get my hands on, including an old set of World Book Encyclopedias that my parents were able to buy secondhand. And the back of every cereal carton in the morning. (Okay that isn’t a book, but I learned a lot about how to pronounce ingredients).
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
I am a page folder who has always aspired to be a bookmarker but lacked the discipline.
When did you fall in love with psychology?
My first year in college—I took my first psychology courses thinking I wanted to go into advertising/marketing and discovered that what I really cared about was figuring out how the human mind works. Until then I had avoided psychology primarily because my mother was trained as a developmental psychologist and I never thought I could possibly be interested in what my MOM studied.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
At age 16, I would have given myself any collection of Borges’ short stories. When I discovered Borges’ stories, they opened my mind to the value of good fiction (I read far too much non-fiction at that age). At 25, I would have given myself American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Again, I wish I would have read his fiction a lot earlier in life.
If you had to pick three books that would provide the best introduction to psychology, what would they be and why?
How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. It’s a wonderfully ambitious book that provides a great overview to a very dominant approach to the study of the mind (even when I disagree, I learn).
The Principles of Psychology (Vol. 1 and 2) by William James. A decade in the making, these two books set the stage for the century of experimental psychology that was to follow, and are full of original ideas.
The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux. A great introduction to the science of emotion. While we’ve made much progress since its publication, it’s still a great scientific primer on how and why we experience emotions.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Jorge Luis Borges, Neil Gaiman, William James, Richard Feynman, and Lewis Carroll. If I could be a fly on the wall and just listen to these folks talk to each other for a couple of hours, I’d be okay with dying shortly after. They each have the most envious combination of wit, intelligence, and creativity that make me green with envy.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
Trick Baby by Iceberg Slim. I’m fascinated by this man—a former pimp by profession—who took to the pen in his later years to describe his life and the life of those around him. This one is about his friendship with a con artist and a description of how they manipulated others. Not all great psychological insight comes from psychologists.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
The peace that comes from shutting out the world around you and letting yourself be transported into an entire world created by someone else’s mind.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I’ve recently been re-reading the collection of essays by Thomas Nagel in his book Mortal Questions. I do a regular podcast with a philosopher (Tamler Sommers) and we’ve been using it as source materials for our discussions, and I’m constantly struck by the clarity of thought and writing, and the wide range of the deepest topics in philosophy he tackles with such ease.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. I just want to be part of the universe he created.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring psychologist looking to begin their career?
Read widely—ideas can come from places you’d never expect, not just journal articles. Other forms of art (like films and tv) are also not just guilty pleasures but can be sources of inspiration to develop your ideas.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman. I read it at a young age, and it got me excited about science in a way that has never left me.
In the world of psychology, what current research studies are you most excited about?
My favorite studies are when a seemingly complex phenomenon can be explained by very basic psychological or biological mechanisms. As an example—we’re working on studies that show that basic differences in the number and density of taste buds on your tongue seem to be related to how easily disgusted you are by a variety of different things. Differences in how easily you are disgusted, in turn, are predictive of social, political, and moral attitudes. So a small difference in a basic, biological mechanism can predict (in a small way, to be sure) whom you might vote for.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Just a few that come to mind: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud, Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, Witness for the Defense by Elizabeth Loftus, the graphic novel Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
Why Honor Matters by Tamler Sommers. It’s not out yet, but I have a pdf preprint. I’m mostly looking forward to disagreeing with him and arguing about it on our podcast.