Dan Gilbert and the Creative Universe

Dr. Daniel Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the proud recipient of a laundry list of awards and titles  (e.g., William  James Award from APS, Donald Campbell award from SPSP, and many impressive social media and best-of type bestowals). It would take me about ten thousand words to list all of that, so let’s just assume you and I have accepted that they exist and are pretty great. If you are really into award lists you are welcome to browse Dr. Gilbert’s CV for yourself and giggle with glee.

Here is Dr. Gilbert introducing himself:

Dr. Gilbert has a fascinating story to tell — many of them, in fact — and I  can’t wait to share  those stories with you! As I mentioned in my previous post, there are really just two known Harvard Psychology faculty who started their professional lives as creative writers before shifting gears and eventually finding professional success in Psychology. Those two are B.F. Skinner and Dan Gilbert, and our field is richer for their choices.

So how did Dr.  Gilbert decide to become a Psychologist? His tale is quite convoluted and I’ll try to summarize. Young Dan was kind of bohemian. He dropped out of high school, and journeyed around the country hitchhiking and sharing some version of a love bus with his friends. Eventually he settled in Denver, CO and started to try his hand as a phlebotomist by day and science fiction writer by night. Did he train in phlebotomy? Did he train in writing? Absolutely not! He just did ’em and hoped that he’d figure it out along the way.

With some encouragement from new found writing friends, and eventually a letter-writing relationship and guidance from Philip K. Dick (Philip K. Dick!!!!! — yeah this needs a footnote, see more below), he found some success in science fiction. So what did he do? Teenager Dan journeyed to his local college to take a writing class and develop his craft. One small problem: the writing course he targeted was that time was already full and closed. Okay, no writing course. But, perhaps by kismet, he found an open Psychology course and enrolled. Hey, if you’re going to be a writer it is helpful to know a  little bit about people, behaviors, and cognitions. And learn he did.

Here is Dr. Gilbert describing his experience in that first Psychology course. Remember at this point in his life he had aspirations for writing, but not for a college degree (nor even a high school diploma).

Sometimes the right words at the right time mean an awful lot. In this case, a kind word of encouragement helped Dr. Gilbert envision a new future for himself in Psychology.

Dr. Gilbert’s journey into Psychology continues along a path that was consistently creative, often iconoclastic, and rife with humor. If you read his articles, and many excellent ones are listed below, you’ll find a humor and story-based writing approach that is quite unique among scientific publications.  Here are some articles from Dr. Gilbert’s extensive career:

Gilbert, D.T. (2009). Stumbling on happiness. Vintage Canada.

Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believeAmerican Psychologist46(2), 107-119.

Gilbert, D. T. (1998). Ordinary personology. The Handbook of Social Psychology2, 89-150.

Gilbert, D. T., & Hixon, J. G. (1991). The trouble of thinking: Activation and application of stereotypic beliefsJournal of Personality and Social Psychology60(4), 509-517.

Gilbert, D. T., Krull, D. S., & Malone, P. S. (1990). Unbelieving the unbelievable: Some problems in the rejection of false informationJournal of Personality and Social Psychology59(4), 601-613.

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin117(1), 21-38.

Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: a source of durability bias in affective forecastingJournal of Personality and Social Psychology75(3), 617-638.

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecastingAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology35(35), 345-411.

Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgate, E. C., Gilbert, D. T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., … & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mindScience345(6192), 75-77.

Footnote.  Philip K. Dick!!! Mr. Dick wrote Ubik, Do Android Dream of Electric Shape (which was made into the movie Blade Runner), incredible short stories, and was to his readers a kind of acid trip who induced mind-bending reality.  His writing has been modeled by a whole genre of writers that followed and his works have been adapted into various media works. Now Mr. Dick died in 1982, and in the years prior to that, Dr. Gilbert was still a journeying, long haired teen trying to find his way. He wrote to Mr. Dick because he was having difficulty tracking down some of his works. He wanted to read them all! And Mr. Dick answered, and kindly directed him to some appropriate bookstores and, later, helped Dan with his writing.

My favorite  part of Psychology has always been the stories, and Mr. Dick was certainly a master of them. In his own writing and, with his guidance of Dr. Gilbert, he inadvertently helped shape the writing of one of Psychology’s great story makers.

*Pictured above is Dr. Daniel Gilbert in his office at William James Hall.

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