The Explicit Cognitions of Dr. Tony Greenwald


Dr. Tony Greenwald grew up among some legends. His father, the much renowned Bernard Green, composed, arranged, and conducted music for television, radio, and movies including Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows (a brilliant comedy series that helped to launch the careers of Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and others) and Mister Peepers (featuring Tony Randall, Wally Cox), exposing young Tony Greenwald to some incredibly dedicated, talented, and hard working people in media during his formative years.

Dr. Greenwald introduces himself in this first excerpt:

While he introduces himself modestly, Dr. Greenwald is a professor of Psychology at the University of Washington who has dramatically shaped the modern approach to Psychology. His methodological innovation, his scientific rigor, and his advances in Psychology have amounted to his being one of the most seminal forces in the development of the social-cognition area of Psychology — one of the fastest growing  and most popular fields today. Consequently, Dr. Greenwald has won numerous prestigious awards including his induction to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and recognition of his lifetime achievement from the Association for Psychological Sciences with a William James Award. Quick aside: generally at the conclusion of my conversation with these influential psychologists I like to ask them who they think I should speak with. The influential psychologist most frequently identified by the influential psychologists on this Journey has been Dr. Tony Greenwald. He is best known by the public and media for his innovative testing of implicit associations between concepts to reveal unconscious race, sex, sexual orientation, and other biases. We’ll get to Project Implicit and the brilliant test that revealed implicit biases, but let’s start early.

As the child of Bernard Green,  music was a big part of Tony’s early life.  He started playing trumpet at age 10 and went on to attend the competitive High School of Music and Art in Manhattan — a magnet school with notable alums like Billy Dee Williams, Peter Yarrow, and Susan Stamberg (and these are just the ones in Tony’s graduating class of 1955. This was also the high school on which the television show Fame was modeled after). Tony was clearly talented and was able to use his intellectual abilities and musical chops to do well in high school.

Dr. Greenwald describes some of this early interest in the following excerpt:

Notable from this excerpt is that Tony completed his formative education quickly, having skipped two grades to move rapidly through his primary schooling. In that time, Tony saw his father working furiously through the night to meet the constant, high demand deadlines from the radio and television shows of his employ. Dr.  Greenwald has maintained some alignment with that approach: he described his own practice of using performance deadlines (and its equivalents) to motivate his time and efforts to the completion of tasks. All of this description shows us a  young man with interests and talent, but not necessarily any particular reason to go into psychology. In fact, despite the discouragement from his father, Dr. Greenwald’s early professional motivation was to pursue life as a musician.

In this excerpt we hear about the consistent interest and involvement with music during his career.

So how does Dr. Greenwald end up in Psychology? Well, it’s a bit complicated. Here he describes his undergraduate major at Yale:

This kind of broad social sciences major is something a few of the scholars featured in this Journey undertook (e.g., Drs. Jim Sidanious, Alice Eagly). For Tony, his undergraduate major provided a kind of toe-dipping foundation in Psychology with a total of  two courses. For his senior year Tony entered Yale’s Scholar of the House program. The Scholar of the House program is quite serious: it is the undergraduate equivalent of a thesis year and was earned by right of a highly competitive application process. The successful applicants, including young Tony, were asked to undertake a major scholarly project — one that would encompass a year’s effort — culminating in a substantive thesis and defense. This small collection of select students met fortnightly with faculty as they labored intensively on their chosen project. During this year they registered for no courses and instead devoted their complete attention to the topics undertaken as Scholars of the House. And the topic of Tony’s undergraduate Scholar of the House thesis? A cross-cultural study of aggression that drew on a collection of Yale’s ethnographic reports.  This was a year with deep reflection and scholarly involvement, archival research and analysis, and (as described above) much side involvement with music. Tony’s undergraduate education must have provided exciting intellectual  challenges and pursuits — but why Psychology?

In this next except, serendipity and the Vietnam war guide the fate of the future Dr. Greenwald. Like many others, from Ed Diener to Hal Grotevant to Jerry Kagan, the pressures of the draft invoked by our nation at war led to an  unexpected turn to Psychology.

Kind of incredible, right?  Tony strategizes: what do I do, how do I avoid being drafted? He applies for and is granted a very prestigious Woodrow Wilson fellowship, sight unseen  and without any major consideration of where he might use that fellowship.  Harvard University has a bit of a reputation, so why not  list them?   The bestowal of that fellowship, coincident with his life at a cross-roads, and Tony decides that he’ll take an offer to enter Harvard’s Psychology graduate program.The decision meant that he would soon be taking courses with B.F. Skinner, and working with Elliot Aronson, Walter Mischel, Gordon Allport, Solomon Asch, and some other luminaries of the Harvard Psychology department. Maybe during those two undergraduate Psychology courses at Yale there were some fundamental ideas to inform Tony about the people and topics emerging in Psychology at Harvard. Maybe not. For Tony graduate school was a new challenge, it  was a great offer,  and he entered the field of Psychology in earnest and started on his incredibly influential path thereafter.

That path in Psychology at Harvard had its onset with Elliot Aronson and Walter Mischel,  two phenomenal researchers — both tremendously important in shaping Psychology’s history. While I’m skipping over more than a few details, what Dr. Greenwald recalled most vividly was the dynamic he had with them during the early part of his graduate education. They would task him to write something, he’d bring it back, and they would tear it apart. Respectfully, with humor, but totally tear. it. apart.   And he would soak up that criticism. Happy to learn from it, to improve. Tony took the criticism for what it was and sought to integrate those important changes moving forward. As it happens, both Aronson and Mischel left Harvard midway through Tony’s matriculation in that graduate program, but their work with him and his openness to critical appraisal clearly left an impact. He completed his degree working under the mentorship of a graduate student and the guidance of Gordon Allport.

As Dr. Greenwald’s career developed he became known for his creative methods and his candid, active engagement with others about methodological approaches. He traces part of his reputation as a methodology hawk to his work with a once popular phenomenon from the persuasion literature known as the “sleeper effect.”

Dr. Greenwald describes that effect and his approach to debunking it here:

In the excerpt is the Sleeper Effect: essentially the phenomena is the emergence of an individual embracing  and being persuaded by an idea after some delay relative to the initial exposure. Dr. Greenwald tries to study this effect with an interest in determining the best context to reproduce the effect and the ways to cause its disappearance — thus isolating the critical variables of the phenomenon. (Notably this approach to find a way to create an effect and also to make it disappear is something he has stressed throughout his career as a means to control and understand the variables in his studies). He attempts replication experiment after replication and he can not recreate the original effect. Sure, the people who ran that original experiment were well-known, well-respected researchers. Sure, lots of the proponents of this theory were also respected, well-known researchers. So is the idea wrong and all of those respected proponents, or was it a problem with the methods? After all this time and effort invested, Dr. Greenwald concludes something has to be wrong with the idea.

Now the question becomes what to do with that information. One of the long-standing challenges of the field is a reluctance to publish a null effect. If a person can’t find an effect that was previously found and published, it is often assumed from those representing the journal that the more recent submitter with the contradictory data just made a mistake. The error must be in the new study, not the respectable, peer-reviewed published one. Moreover, not finding something (i.e., a null effect) can be interpreted in so many ways! There are few ways to accurately interpret the data because a null effect doesn’t tell you what it is, it only indicates that something else isn’t.

Dr. Greenwald and colleagues persist, they publish the null effect, and demonstrate a flaw with the sleeper effect. Having gone through this process, this failure to replicate a widely-known effect, Dr. Greenwald is now recommitted to his scrutiny of this kind of issue, namely confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a big problem. Many researchers trust their theoretical ideas and the experiments they produce in support of those theories, but they don’t trust their failures to replicate. That’s a problem that Dr. Greenwald is accurately sensitive to  — in part because of his work with sleeper effect replication.

There are several twists and turns that I am holding in reserve for the future book. Dr. Greenwald’s early work at ETS and finding his first professional position. His tenure as Editor at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. His development and work with many graduate students who themselves became incredibly influential figures in Psychology. A whole slew of influential position articles he’s written on theory, methods, and approaches to analysis. All of that is noteworthy and deserves more than a quick blurb.

Nonetheless,  between you, me, and the masses it is likely that you first heard Dr. Greenwald’s name and about his research through his groundbreaking work with Project Implicit.  Project implicit is the brain child of Drs. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek to demonstrate biases in cognition, and to do so with direct involvement of the public on their experimental tasks. On the surface these tasks are pretty straightfoward. Sort some pictures of faces to the left and some others to the right.  Sort these descriptive words to the left or the right. Now mix up those faces and these words and do the sorting task again. How quickly can a person pair a faces of a particular race or gender with particular descriptors about pleasantness,  or science, or  achievement? The shocking and very public finding is that while as a society we have largely embraced egalitarianism, the implicit associations in an individual’s mind are often biased.

In this excerpt, Dr. Greenwald discusses some of the origins of the Implicit Association Test or IAT:

Part of the long-standing approach in Dr. Greenwald’s work has been to be broad in his theoretical approach. As a faculty member he took a course during a sabbatical on some innovative mathematical practices with Dr. Amos Tversky. Dr. Greenwald read widely, and while often categorized as a social psychologist, he has written and been immersed in the science of cognition and neuroscience. The confluence of a familiarity with the techniques of priming and cognitive mechanisms underlying it, his interest in the ideas of self and how the self integrates with memory, paired with the collaborative insights from Dr. Banaji, and the technical work from (then student, now) Dr. Nosek produced the massive, public and hugely influential Project Implicit. If you haven’t taken any of their quizzes yet, now is the time to give it a shot.

As ever there is much more to tell, and I look forward to sharing it with you!

Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Tony Greenwald:

Greenwald, A. G. (1969). The open-mindedness of the counterattitudinal role playerJournal of Experimental Social Psychology5(4), 375-388.

Greenwald, A. G. (1975). Consequences of prejudice against the null hypothesisPsychological Bulletin82(1), 1-20.

Greenwald, A. G. (1980). The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal historyAmerican Psychologist35(7), 603-618.

Greenwald, A. G. (1992). New Look 3: Unconscious cognition reclaimedAmerican Psychologist47(6), 766-779.

Greenwald, A. G. (2012). There is nothing so theoretical as a good methodPerspectives on Psychological Science7(2), 99-108.

Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1989). The self as a memory system: Powerful, but ordinary. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology57(1), 41-54.

Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypesPsychological Review102(1), 4-27.

Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (2017). The implicit revolution: Reconceiving the relation between conscious and unconsciousAmerican Psychologist72(9), 861-871.

Greenwald, A. G., Banaji, M. R., & Nosek, B. A. (2015). Statistically small effects of the Implicit Association Test can have societally large effectsJournal of Personality and Social Psychology108(4), 553-561.

Greenwald, A. G., Banaji, M. R., Rudman, L. A., Farnham, S. D., Nosek, B. A., & Mellott, D. S. (2002). A unified theory of implicit attitudes, stereotypes, self-esteem, and self-conceptPsychological Review109(1), 3-25.

Greenwald, A. G., Draine, S. C., & Abrams, R. L. (1996). Three cognitive markers of unconscious semantic activationScience273(5282), 1699-1702.

Greenwald, A. G., & Farnham, S. D. (2000). Using the implicit association test to measure self-esteem and self-conceptJournal of Personality and Social Psychology79(6), 1022-1038.

Greenwald, A. G., Klinger, M. R., & Liu, T. J. (1989). Unconscious processing of dichoptically masked wordsMemory & Cognition17(1), 35-47.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: the implicit association testJournal of Personality and Social Psychology74(6), 1464-1480.

Greenwald, A. G., & Pettigrew, T. F. (2014). With malice toward none and charity for some: Ingroup favoritism enables discriminationAmerican Psychologist69(7), 669-684.

Greenwald, A. G., Pratkanis, A. R., Leippe, M. R., & Baumgardner, M. H. (1986). Under what conditions does theory obstruct research progress?Psychological Review93(2), 216-229.

Greenwald, A. G., & Ronis, D. L. (1978). Twenty years of cognitive dissonance: Case study of the evolution of a theoryPsychological Review85(1), 53-57.

Greenwald, A. G., Spangenberg, E. R., Pratkanis, A. R., & Eskenazi, J. (1991). Double-blind tests of subliminal self-help audiotapesPsychological Science2(2), 119-122.

Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2016). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.

Nosek, B. A., Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2002). Math= male, me= female, therefore math≠ meJournal of Personality and Social Psychology83(1), 44-59.


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