Alumni Profile: Maria Konnikova

October 11, 2021

Volume 3, Issue 2, Spring 2013

'13PhD, Psychology

What got you initially interested in psychology and what drew you to study the subject?

I think it was a combination of factors; it’s hard to identify one single one, but part of it certainly had to do with my early fascination with language. I moved to the United States when I was four, and when I started kindergarten, which was just a few months after I arrived, I didn’t speak a word of English. I remember kindergarten incredibly well, because there was this disconnect between what I was feeling and thinking and my ability to communicate those thoughts and those feelings to everyone else. I think that made me conscious from a very early age of these concepts that you tend to take for granted: language, communication, cognition.

And so I don’t think it’s by accident that I became very drawn to the work of Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct, and all of his other work on how children acquire language. I wanted to study with him for a long time, and he eventually became my undergraduate advisor at Harvard. I was lucky; I came across a number of books not just by Pinker but by other psychologists who also happened to be phenomenal writers. I remember reading Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in high school, and that book made a very big impression on me. So all of these influences kept pushing me to think, ‘Hey, the human brain is pretty interesting, let’s see what we can write about it.’

After graduating from Harvard, you enjoyed a successful career as a television producer for Charlie Rose and then as a science journalist, writing weekly columns on psychology for Scientific American , running the “Artful Choice” blog for Big Think and writing freelance for The AtlanticThe New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal among other publications. Why did you feel that it was important to return to school for a graduate degree?

I wanted to return to school because I felt that you could learn about psychology at a much deeper level when you are a graduate student: you can do the research, you can try to get to the bottom of how these things work. I find the academic environment incredibly stimulating intellectually. To be at the forefront of all of this research is just pretty wonderful.

Were there any difficulties in transitioning from science journalism back into the academy?

No, not at all; I never stopped writing. To write my book, I took a leave of absence from Columbia and now I’m back. I wrote full time for a long time, and I still plan on doing both. I think that it’s very short-sighted of academia not to want to embrace popular writing, and I think that the two can co-exist very naturally. My undergraduate advisor and mentor, Steve Pinker, is the exemplar of someone who is able to write for the popular audience and also have an academic career. But he’s rare, and there are people who don’t like what he does, and to them I say, “I don’t understand you at all.”

Your debut book, MastermindHow To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, released by Viking in January, uses the stories of Sherlock Holmes to explore and elucidate contemporary neuroscientific/psychological theories of observation, memory, and attention. What inspired you to write this book?

I was working on a completely unrelated piece on mindfulness, and I had this very vivid flashback to my childhood, when my dad would read a Sherlock Holmes mystery to us before bed every Sunday night. There’s this scene in “A Scandal in Bohemia” where Holmes asks Watson how many steps lead up to 221B Baker Street and Watson doesn’t know. I remember when I was little, this just really had such a profound impact on me, because I could really relate to Watson: I had no idea how many steps led anywhere. Obviously, I missed the point entirely when I was eight years old: I thought it was all about counting stairs, which is what I proceeded to do for the next couple of years. I missed the broader point about observation and so now, as I was writing this article, I recalled this scene and I couldn’t even remember what story it came from until I did a Google search for it. Up it popped; what writers did before Google, I have no idea. I reread the story and I was just blown away, not only by how well it captured the point I was trying to make about mindfulness, but by how good it was, and how many profound psychological observations it contained. So I started  to reread the Holmes stories—I hadn’t read one in years—and over and over again, I was just absolutely riveted. This was phenomenal writing and it was often incredibly perceptive psychologically. As I was reading, I found myself thinking: this is really dead-on, and you can use these stories to explain some of these complicated concepts in a way that is accessible to a wider audience. You can reach an audience that might not be interested in psychology, but is interested in Sherlock Holmes, and vice versa, introduce people who care about pop psych but don’t care about Sherlock Holmes to these stories. So that was the birth of the book—all from a single quote.

In the book, you distill the psychological principles of the Sherlock Holmes investigative method into a “Holmes System” of cognition, as opposed to the “Watson System” of cognition we use every day. What distinguishes “System Holmes” from “System Watson”?

So I think that the difference between “System Holmes” and “System Watson” is this difference between mindfulness and mindlessness. If we go back to that scene in “A Scandal in Bohemia” (“how many steps lead up to 221B?”), there’s a difference between just seeing—which is what Watson does—and both seeing and observing, which is what Holmes does, which enables him to know that 17 steps lead up to 221B. “System Watson” is much quicker to judge, much more mindless, much more spur-of-the-moment, and doesn’t take up nearly as many cognitive resources. “System Holmes” is much more effortful, much slower, much more mindful, but it also takes up more cognitive resources and it is more effortful, so you have to strike a balance between the two. “System Watson” is very good most of the time, but there are moments when you need to know how many steps lead up to 221B Baker Street; when you need to know that, then it’s time to engage “System Holmes.”

To what extent are you yourself able to put into practice the precepts of “System Holmes” thinking? Has writing this book helped you to put the Holmes method into practice?

Yes, it certainly has, it’s made me more aware of how Watsonian I am most of the time and how far I have to travel before I become more in line with “System Holmes.” That awareness, I think, is incredibly important. I now make much more of an effort to really concentrate when I need to, to try and fight this multitasking tendency that I always have, and I do feel that my concentration has improved now that I pay attention to that tendency more. Sometimes it’s hard to do on my own. I still use Freedom, which is software that blocks the Internet, when I write, so that I’m not tempted to check my email, go on Twitter or go on Facebook whenever there’s a lull in writing. It’s a very sharp temptation, very hard to fight.

To what extent do graduate schools provide an environment that fosters “Holmes System” thinking? In your opinion, what could be changed about the graduate school environment to promote this kind of thinking?

I think one thing that could be changed is a slackening of the pressure. Right now there’s definitely a lot of this “publish or perish” mentality, and that shows itself in not giving the students enough time to be really reflective, because there is this pressure to publish quickly, to get the results quickly, to have many papers by the time that you’re out, and to do this all in five years. Frankly, that’s not enough time to be mindful or to be thoughtful, or, it would be enough time, if you didn’t have to have 50 million publications when you finish. That constant pressure, I think, is very much anathema to a System Holmes approach. If I were in charge of graduate education the world over, I would turn the clock back to the 1950s, when you could get a tenure-track job with zero publications as long as your research was interesting.

In this book, you frequently write reverently of William James, who was a remarkable figure with a profound influence on both the humanities and the science of psychology. Do you think it is possible to occupy this kind of dual role in the contemporary world? Are there figures that you feel are successful at bridging the gap between science and the humanities? Is this something you aspire to do?

Well, Oliver Sacks is still a practicing researcher and clinician at Columbia, and is still writing phenomenal stuff, and is bridging this gap between the humanities and the sciences. So I do think it’s possible, but it’s still incredibly rare and not necessarily welcome. I’ve definitely gotten a lot of pushback [against my writing], which, to my mind, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t do it. It’s something that I want to keep doing, and I have no intention of ever being in academia exclusively. I think that really limits your worldview in a very profound way.

As someone who is currently engaged in the formal scientific study of psychology, it must be a challenge to try and find the right metaphors to make what you do comprehensible to a popular audience. How do you find the right balance in translating science: not oversimplifying while still making sure that complex scientific principles are accessible to the layman?

My background isn’t just in psychology, it’s also in creative writing—as an undergraduate, I also graduated with a fiction portfolio. It’s something I’ve done my whole life and it’s something I love doing. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to try to find the right words, the right metaphors, and the right images. That said, it is a constant balance: I can’t always be telling the full story with all the nuance of the research, because then no one would read it—there would be no narrative. I need a story, and I need this story to move forward, but I also need to make sure that I’m being relatively faithful to the original research. I make a choice every time. I say, “Ok, well, yes, there is this controversy and yes, of course, there’s always going to be this evidence against whatever study it is that I’m citing because that’s just the way it works, but because 99 studies concur and only five say that there’s a problem with it, I’m just going to go with the ninety-nine studies in this case” and that’s going to be the story. I make sure that I never cite a finding that’s only been done once, so that it’s not overblown. I make these choices along the way, so that I’m still able to tell an engaging story while remaining relatively fair to the science. I understand that I’m always going to have cranky academics mad at me for “misrepresenting the research,” and I’m fine with that; I think it’s inevitable.

What do you feel are some common misconceptions of the general public about the field of psychology? What can psychologists do to better inform the public about the work that they do?

Social psychology in the last year has gotten a really bad reputation because of people like Diederik Stapel [a former professor of psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who was suspended for fabricating experimental data – ed.]: individuals who really skewed the system, who have been falsifying results and been publishing false results for a long time. I think we need to be very clear that 99.9 percent of people in the field don’t do this, but the people who make mistakes and make ethical errors in judgment get the press because that makes for good press. I would just try to inform the public of that bias and try to get more balanced media coverage of the results, and of the results that might not be as sexy, but are very important. To do that, you need journalists who can make those results seem as sexy as the inherently sexy results. I think that would go a long way towards ensuring that the field is represented more fairly.

Have your advisors and fellow graduate students read this book? What do they think of it?

I know that Steven Pinker, who was my undergraduate advisor, has read the book and he offered one of the advance quotes for it, so he’s been a million percent supportive—no one’s been as supportive as he has. My current advisor, Walter Mischel, has enjoyed what he’s read so far, but he hasn’t finished reading it because he’s working on his own book right now. Some of the students have also been quite supportive: I had a few fellow graduate students, three or four, show up to support me at my book launch at Bookcourt in Brooklyn in early January. That was very nice; I really appreciated it.

What is your current research project?

I’m working on self-control and decision-making, and the ties between self-control and the illusion of control. Are people who are generally high on self-control more likely to fall under the illusion of control in experimental decision environments where control is not in their hands? Do they learn less quickly because they’re so used to being in control of their environments? I’m specifically studying this phenomenon with regard to the stock market and financial behavior.

And apart from your research, are you working on another book?

My next book is going to be a novel. I had finished the first draft of it before I started Mastermind and I need to revise it. I’m hoping to do that after I do my Ph.D. dissertation work. I do have my next nonfiction project lined up as well after that. That’s also going to be psychology-related, but not Sherlock Holmes-related.

— Interview conducted by Dylan Suher