Psychologist logo
Carol Tavris
Social and behavioural

One on one... with Carol Tavris

Carol Tavris American social psychologist and author

18 March 2009

One inspiration
My mother, Dorothy Marcus Tavris, who became a lawyer in Chicago, in 1927, at the age of 21. She taught me that with reason, data, humour and persuasion, people can move mountains.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Reading the incomprehensible and pompous Talcott Parsons in graduate school at the University of Michigan (I had been admitted in sociology) and realising that either I was too stupid to be in a PhD program or that a lifetime of reading sociological jargon was not for me. I was persuaded to make the latter attribution and switched to social psychology, then a great interdisciplinary field at UM, which I loved immediately.

One journal article or book that you think all psychologists should read
Impossible question. William James’s Principles of Psychology for writing style, prescience and insight; Elliot Aronson’s The Social Animal for its passionate, personal prose and introduction to the major concerns of social psychology; and Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption for its brilliant, creative reassessment of the basic but incorrect assumptions of developmental psychology. Her book is a model of how psychologists need to let data supersede ideology and vested intellectual convictions, and change direction when the evidence demands.

One thing that you would change about psychology
I would require the training of psychotherapists, of any kind, to be grounded in critical thinking, the scientific method, the basic findings of psychological science on memory and human development, and an understanding of the way the confirmation bias can create a ‘closed loop’ of therapeutic practice that remains impervious to criticism. These measures may be irrelevant to beneficial clinical practice, but they are essential if therapists are to avoid dangerous, foolish or useless fads.

One challenge you think psychology faces
The current incentives for doing safe but boring research, and the dangers of research funded by corporations and businesses with vested interests in the outcome.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Follow your passion, not ‘duty’. Do the work you love, even if it’s not the work your colleagues approve of.

One heroine
Elizabeth Douvan, my mentor and professor at the University of Michigan; a feminist before anyone was using the term, who supported my decision to develop an idiosyncratic career.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Documenting scientifically the most difficult lesson for the public to understand: That evil acts can be done by good people in evil situations – and that good people will justify their harmful acts in order to preserve their belief that they are good people.

One alternative career path
A traditional academic career as professor and researcher. As it happens, I was able to combine my love of teaching and lecturing with my love of writing about psychological science for the public.

One hope for the future
That psychology as a discipline will resist the temptations of the biomedical revolution – which of course has produced important and interesting research – and remember that psychology has something to say about human behaviour too. For example, thanks in large part to funding by pharmaceutical companies, the field of sexology has virtually been taken over by the medicalising approach: sex is just a matter of getting the parts to work (and of taking  a drug if they do not). But sexuality is also profoundly affected by a person’s learning, culture, relationships and experience.

Carol Tavris
[email protected]