The Critical Thoughts of Dr. Diane Halpern


Dr. Diane Halpern has served Psychology prominently as a scientist, writer, and leader. As Dr. Halpern describes in her introduction (below), she is most recognized for her research on gender differences in cognition and for her work to understand and advance strategies for critical thinking — although certainly her publications extend well beyond those domains. She has led Psychology as a past president of the American Psychological Association, a Dean/Assc Dean at various institutions, and a chairperson to national committees and her own departments.

Dr. Halpern introduces herself:

Dr. Halpern did not come from an academic family, much less one that encouraged her to seek an education. What she had was the motivation to fight for her achievements and the intelligence to put that determination in service to her goals. Dr. Halpern recalled with candidness and poignancy her childhood and her parents. I will give you to her for those memories:

Dr. Halpern lost her mother while still a young child. She faced a father who actively discouraged her (and all women) from academic pursuits and she spent years without the simple comforts of a home to call her own. It was not an easy childhood. One can only respect how amazing it is that from that background and the discouragement it must have weighted her with, Diane rose to the top of her high school class and graduated with the highest honors of her peers. And that made all the difference. Being the top student at a public high school in Philadelphia, PA meant that Diane qualified for a full scholarship to University of Pennsylvania. She was welcomed to one of the preeminent universities in the world with the incredible personal and educational opportunities that it afforded to her.

In this next excerpt, Dr. Halpern discusses how she got started in Psychology at U Penn:

As a great lover, and increasingly a collector, of these tales of serendipity here is a fun one! Diane sets off for Penn and starts on a major in engineering.  Not long into her undergraduate career her (then boyfriend) husband describes the incredible class he is taking with none other than renowned psychologist Dr. Henry Gleitman! Diane sat in on one class, and then another and on through the semester. She found Psychology through the sheer enjoyment and excitement created by Dr. Gleitman! Not long after that experience she switched into Psychology and proceeded to take wonderful courses by Dr. Richard Solomon  and many others at U Penn — eventually completing her degree in January of 1969.

At this point in her life, Diane and her husband marry, have children, and she completes a Master’s at Temple University. From there they head to Cincinnati OH where her husband was offered a position. Dr. Halpern recalls this part of her life and her graduate doctoral program with Drs. Joel Warm (mentor) and the collaboration that produced with Dr. Bill Ember at the University of Cincinnati.

Before introducing the start of Dr. Halpern’s professional positions and her work as an independent scholar, this background in perception is worth a moment of reflection. During her doctoral program, Dr. Halpern worked on the perception of subjective contours — i.e., those shapes and outlines that people see because of an omission of visual information (see examples). The idea is that the negative space of the image can create a powerful illusion of a shape that is obscuring some background (thereby creating the negative space). For Diane — the student who enjoyed drafting and who pursued engineering — those skills: precise lines, mathematical weights, volumes, and luminances  would have been directly employed.

The resultant illusion from subjective contours are undeniable. People see a shape that is implied but does not exist. Move along, nothing to see here. And, as Dr. Halpern recalled, not only did her participants report to seeing the shapes that she did not create (but implied with negative space in her images),  when confronted with the materials and evidence that the images  did not exist, they clung to the illusion. Participants carried the confidence of their visual perception into a denial of the evidence that would follow. I think this is worth stressing because, eventually, Dr. Halpern would become known for her work with critical thinking. Her background in a powerful, visual illusion would have directly demonstrated to Diane how people use and evaluate evidence. It would have demonstrated processes of reason and importantly the fallibility both of a strict empirical approach (i.e., the approach of taking information through the senses and relying on those senses to evaluate the world) and of the capacity for understanding/integrating  multiple sources of information. The paradigm Dr. Halpern  explored with subjective contours were far from her future research, but cognitively and theoretically these studies would have sensitized her to the information people use and how it is evaluated.

There was another important sub-discipline that was introduced to Dr. Halpern during these grad school years. She was teaching regularly: Perception, Introduction to Psych, etc. As it happens, one semester the course that she was scheduled to teach was canceled. It’s always frustrating when this happens, but every semester at most universities this tends to occur.  In any case, her course was canceled so Diane was reassigned and instead would provide teaching assistance a course.  On. The. Psychology of Women. She didn’t sign up for it and she had no academic training in it,  but now she would provide assistance to Dr. Edna Rawlings on teaching the course. This, too, obviously was important as eventually Dr. Halpern would become highly published and cited on this topic. Dr. Rawlings’ approach would introduce Diane to the state of the research and provide some exposure to the critical debates in this emerging field.

Also, for those of you keeping track of such things, one might note that Dr. Halpern continued to work precociously and precisely in grad school, and now while also raising her children. She completed her doctorate in 1979. Soon after, her husband received a new job offer– this time in Southern California — and the family headed to that area. Dr. Halpern worked for a couple of years as a Lecturer at University of California — Riverside before gaining a more permanent position at California State University, San Bernadino (CSUSB) in 1981.

Once at CSUSB, critical thinking became a prominent issue for the university. The state of California had mandated that all university students receive instruction on critical thinking. Dr.  Halpern not only had an interest in thought and belief from her grad school days, but some exposure to the topic of critical thinking.

In this excerpt she describes her initial interests with critical thinking and its evolution — a topic on which she now has authored many articles, textbooks, and an assessment tool.

Her focus in critical thinking and reflected in how she teaches and assesses the topic, is on knowledge transfer. This idea that one must not only be exposed to a topic but to take that knowledge into new domains — transferring it across paradigms.

Dr. Halpern began to engage with some of the most challenging and controversial issues of her career in the mid-1980’s.  Those included cognitive differences in gender, (and with Dr. Stanley Coren) handedness and mortality rates, handedness and sexual orientation. We discussed her involvement with that research and its development since that time in this next excerpt:

Dr.  Halpern published the first edition of her book Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities in 1986 (now on its fourth edition, 2013). Her hypothesis as she researched this book was that she would review the evidence and find very modest and likely inconsistent sex differences. That’s not what she found. Rather, the more she weighed into this issue, the more she found trends emerge from the data that were more than modest and were indeed consistent. She was surprised by the evidence she found and had to move in a new theoretical direction to account for the extant research. Furthermore, as she stated, all of these findings did not discount the critical influences of socialization, training, experience, and all sorts of other psychosocial variables that relate to sex and gender. Those variables are real and they are powerful. But there are also differences in the development of male and female bodies that affect the endocrine system (hormones) and, consequently, the development of the brain. Accepting the power of one set of variables (experience, socialization) does not dismiss the influence of other variables (biology). Even as psychology has splintered to more disparate sub-fields, it has also abandoned the once popular “nature vs. nurture” debates since, inevitably, every behavior is now thought to integrate both bio and social variables. That’s not a problem when we discuss a complex issue like food preferences. It is a rather sensitive issue when we discuss sex and gender.

Consequently, what Dr. Halpern presents is a reasoned, comprehensive approach to some difficult — and often politicized — issues. Just as she has sought to improve critical thinking and the weighing of evidence by students in her classrooms, she has used her books to invite that same approach by colleagues and those in the public with an interest.  You may conclude that gender differences in cognition are largely social or largely biological, but whatever your ultimate conclusions there is an underlying plea from Dr. Halpern and colleagues: Namely to use the evidence produced from well-controlled, well-executed research in forming in an understanding of an issue, not as an afterthought to a pre-determined opinion. That approach is rather in alignment with that of her former neighbor, Dr. Michael Shermer, clarifying  why she once sat on Skeptic‘s board of directors.

As she notes whether the differences in sex-related neural development are large or small effects continues to be a debated issue today.  So much so that in a recent book she edited, the final version has two chapters on the brain to provide interested readers with opposing interpretations of evidence for this important issue.

She also discussed in the excerpt above that controversial research on handedness on which she collaborated on with Dr. Coren (and lovingly refers to his character — note Dr. Coren’s blog!). As with many controversial findings, that handedness research has undergone great scrutiny and replication attempts. As does not always occur in studies with highly surprising findings, the evidence that followed has been consistent with the original conclusions.

To be candid, there is a question that has stuck with me since my conversation with Dr. Halpern. If we run a study and believe the results to be valid, are there ever issues that are too controversial, or painful, or for whatever reason unpopular to be considered unreasonable for publication? And if a study produces difficult moral or ethical implications does that mean the science should change or that the science needs to influence a change in the valuation of that issue by the society that rejects it? At the least, Dr. Halpern’s career has produced not only exciting science, but helped to lead the field of Psychology in learning how to navigate tough issues and evaluate them conscientiously.

There is much more from Dr. Halpern and her career and I look forward to sharing it with you in the book!


Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Halpern:

Find links to her many books here!!!

Halpern, D. F. (1981). The determinants of illusory-contour perceptionPerception10(2), 199-213.

Halpern, D. F. (1985). The influence of sex-role stereotypes on prose recallSex Roles12(3-4), 363-375.

Halpern, D. F. (1987). Student Outcomes Assessment: Introduction and OverviewNew Directions for Higher Education59, 5-8.

Halpern, D. F. (1988). Assessing student outcomes for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology15(4), 181-186.

Halpern, D. F. (1993). Assessing the effectiveness of critical-thinking instructionThe Journal of General Education, 238-254.

Halpern, D. F. (1997). Sex differences in intelligence: Implications for educationAmerican Psychologist, 52(10), 1091-1102.

Halpern, D. F. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains: Disposition, skills, structure training, and metacognitive monitoringAmerican Psychologist, 53(4), 449-455.

Halpern, D. F. (1999). Teaching for critical thinking: Helping college students develop the skills and dispositions of a critical thinkerNew Directions for Teaching and Learning1999(80), 69-74.

Halpern, D. F. (2004). A cognitive-process taxonomy for sex differences in cognitive abilitiesCurrent Directions in Psychological Science13(4), 135-139.

Halpern, D. F. (2005). Psychology at the Intersection of Work and Family: Recommendations for Employers, Working Families, and PolicymakersAmerican Psychologist, 60(5), 397-409.

Halpern, D. F. (2013). Teaching for critical thinking: A four-part model to enhance thinking skills. In The Teaching of Psychology (pp. 111-126). Psychology Press.

Halpern, D. F. (2013). A is for assessment: The other scarlet letterTeaching of Psychology40(4), 358-362.

Halpern, D. F. (2017). Whither PsychologyPerspectives on Psychological Science12(4), 665-668.

Cheung, F. M., & Halpern, D. F. (2010). Women at the top: Powerful leaders define success as work + family in a culture of gender. American Psychologist, 65(3), 182-193.

Coren, S., & Halpern, D. F. (1991). Left-handedness: a marker for decreased survival fitnessPsychological Bulletin109(1), 90-106.

Halpern, D. F., Benbow, C. P., Geary, D. C., Gur, R. C., Hyde, J. S., & Gernsbacher, M. A. (2007). The science of sex differences in science and mathematicsPsychological science in the Public Interest8(1), 1-51.

Halpern, D. F., Blackman, S., & Salzman, B. (1989). Using statistical risk information to assess oral contraceptive safetyApplied Cognitive Psychology3(3), 251-260.

Halpern, D. F., & Coren, S. (1988). Do right-handers live longer?Nature333(6170), 213.

Halpern, D. F., Eliot, L., Bigler, R. S., Fabes, R. A., Hanish, L. D., Hyde, J., … & Martin, C. L. (2011). The pseudoscience of single-sex schoolingScience333(6050), 1706-1707.

Halpern, D. F., Fishbein, H. D., & Warm, J. S. (1979). Similarity judgments of patterns and mapsBulletin of the Psychonomic Society13(1), 23-26.

Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (2003). Applying the science of learning to the university and beyond: Teaching for long-term retention and transferChange: The Magazine of Higher Learning35(4), 36-41.

Halpern, D. F., & Irwin, F. W. (1973). Selection of hypotheses as affected by their preference valuesJournal of Experimental Psychology, 101(1), 105-108.

Halpern, D. F., & Kagan, S. (1984). Sex, age, and cultural differences in individualism. The Journal of Genetic Psychology145(1), 23-35.

Halpern, D. F., & LaMay, M. L. (2000). The smarter sex: A critical review of sex differences in intelligenceEducational Psychology Review12(2), 229-246.

Halpern, D. F., & Nummedal, S. G. (1995). Closing thoughts about helping students improve how they thinkTeaching of Psychology22(1), 82-83.

Halpern, D. F., & Salzman, B. (1983). The multiple determination of illusory contours: 1. A reviewPerception12(3), 281-291.

Halpern, D. F., Smothergill, D. W., Allen, M., Baker, S., Baum, C., Best, D., … & Keith-Spiegel, P. (1998). Scholarship in psychology: A paradigm for the twenty-first centuryAmerican Psychologist53(12), 1292.

Halpern, D. F., Straight, C. A., & Stephenson, C. L. (2011). Beliefs about cognitive gender differences: Accurate for direction, underestimated for sizeSex Roles64(5-6), 336-347.

Halpern, D. F., & Tan, U. (2001). Stereotypes and steroids: Using a psychobiosocial model to understand cognitive sex differencesBrain and Cognition45(3), 392-414.

Halpern, D. F., & Warm, J. S. (1980). The disappearance of real and subjective contoursPerception & Psychophysics28(3), 229-235.

Halpern, D. F., & Warm, J. S. (1984). The disappearance of dichoptically presented real and subjective contoursBulletin of the Psychonomic Society22(5), 433-436.

Miller, D. I., & Halpern, D. F. (2014). The new science of cognitive sex differencesTrends in Cognitive Sciences18(1), 37-45.

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