Think You’re Thinking for Yourself? Think Again

August 12, 2016 by R A Z G O
“There’s no more central message of psychology than the fact that most of what goes on in our heads we have no access to,” explains social psychologist Richard Nisbett, who offers some smart thinking tools in this video interview. He also delves into the science of influence, in particular the power some parties enjoy by influencing the behavior of others.


Richard E. Nisbett is Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Nisbett’s research interests are in social cognition, culture, social class, and aging. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where his advisor was Stanley Schachter, whose other students at that time included Lee Ross and Judith Rodin.

Perhaps his most influential publication is “Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes” (with T. D. Wilson, 1977, Psychological Review, 84, 231–259), one of the most often cited psychology articles published in the seventies. This article was the first comprehensive, empirically based argument that a variety of mental processes responsible for preferences, choices, and emotions are inaccessible to conscious awareness. Nisbett and Wilson contended that introspective reports can provide only an account of “what people think about how they think,” but not “how they really think.” Some cognitive psychologists disputed this claim, with Ericsson and Simon (1980) offering an alternative perspective.

Nisbett’s book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why (Free Press; 2003) contends that “human cognition is not everywhere the same,” that Asians and Westerners “have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years,” and that these differences are scientifically measurable. Nisbett’s book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, argues that environmental factors dominate genetic factors in determining intelligence.

In 2010 Nisbett wrote Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. The book reviewed extensive favorable attention in the press and from some fellow academics; for example, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Daniel Osherson wrote that the book was a “hugely important analysis of the determinants of IQ”. On the other hand, more critical reviewers argued that the book failed to grapple with the strongest evidence for genetic factors in individual and group intelligence differences.

With Edward E. Jones, he named the actor–observer bias, the phenomenon where people acting and people observing use different explanations for why a behavior occurs.