The Champions of Psychological Science

Champions of Psychology: John T. Jost

Sponsored by the APS Student Caucus

APS Fellow John T. Jost received his PhD from Yale University in 1995 and is currently Professor of Psychology at New York University, where he has taught since 2003. He has published over 80 scientific journal articles and book chapters and has received numerous awards and honors. In 2007, Jost was named as one of the five most highly cited social-personality psychologists at the rank of associate professor. His active research interests include stereotyping, prejudice, ideology, and intergroup relations; social justice; political psychology; and the theory of system justification. He has received  the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Award (three times), the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Theoretical Innovation Prize, the International Society for Self & Identity Early Career Award, the Erik Erikson Early Career Research Achievement Award in Political Psychology, and the Morton Deutsch Award for Distinguished Scholarly and Practical Contributions to Social Justice. Jost was Editor-in-Chief of Social Justice Research and has served on several editorial boards and executive committees of professional societies. He is also Editor of a book series on political psychology published by Oxford University Press.

APSSC: What led you to choose psychology as a career?

J.J.: I made the mistake of answering that question honestly on my very first faculty job interview! I didn’t get the job, but there were probably several reasons for that…. I guess I can answer the question now. The truth is that I knew at age 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a psychologist, but, like many others, I expected that I would become a clinical psychologist. The reason for that was that as a child and adolescent, I was very close to someone (an extended family member) who had a serious mental illness. I thought — quite unrealistically, of course — that I could understand him better than other people and that I could somehow help him. It wasn’t until college that I decided that I would rather try to fix the “holes” in the social system than force individual “pegs” into them. So I gravitated toward social, personality, and political psychology.

APSSC: How did you go about developing your current research interests, and how have they influenced you as a person and a professional?

J.J.: I suppose that they have a personal and familial basis as well. From an early age, I was aware of differences between people in terms of political and religious attitudes. The fact that the Nixon administration spied on my father for teaching university courses on the philosophy of Karl Marx probably forced the issue. I grew up in a relatively liberal enclave of a largely conservative community and was attuned to social class and other differences — especially ideological differences. Later, when I (and others) tried, mostly in vain, to organize a union of beleaguered graduate students, I became intrigued by the question of why so many people fail to support social change efforts that are designed specifically to help them and their fellow group members. This is really the focal issue addressed by system justification theory.

How have these research interests influenced me personally? They have inspired me by setting ambitious goals that (I think) are meaningful and ultimately beneficial to society as a whole. They have also, at times, dispirited me, because I have come to see society as (under the best of circumstances) progressing by taking two steps forward and one step backward.

APSSC: What suggestions do you have for choosing an area of study within a field as large and diverse as psychology?

J.J.: Finally, an easy question! Study something that you are passionate about. It can be something about human behavior that inspires you (like language or creativity or wisdom) or worries you (like our capacity for self-destruction) or simply fascinates you. It should be a fairly big issue or set of questions, but not so big as to be intractable. To sustain yourself over the years, it seems to me that you cannot be working on something just because it hasn’t quite been done yet, nor should it be something that you can imagine being bored by. It may not be part of the stereotype of a scientist, but I think that passion is crucial. My colleague, Yaacov Trope, calls it “fire in the belly.”

APSSC: How did you go about selecting a graduate program?

J.J.: Well, that was fairly haphazard. I was an undergraduate student at Duke University at a time (the late 1980s) when there were very good clinical, cognitive, and developmental psychologists but virtually no social psychologists. So I had to rely on pretty indirect advice, and I was only 20 years old when I applied for graduate school. Given all of that, I was tremendously fortunate to have been accepted for admission at Princeton, Yale, Michigan, and Cornell.

Most faculty members I knew at the time advised me to go to Princeton or Michigan, and they had very good reasons for giving that advice. But I felt something especially exciting and worldly and hungry and, yes, passionate when I visited Yale, so I decided to go there, and I’m so glad that I did! In terms of senior faculty, I studied with Bill McGuire (who eventually became my dissertation advisor), Bob Abelson, Leonard Doob, and Bill Kessen, all of whom provided tremendous historical as well as scientific grounding for my thinking. They were brilliant teachers and very different from one another. And the junior faculty at the time included Mahzarin Banaji and Peter Salovey, both of whom were so inspiring, even as assistant professors!

APSSC: What were the most rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?

J.J.: There were so many things. It turned out to be a fantastic time to be at Yale in social psychology, although it might not have seemed that way from the outside. The particular constellation of faculty was well-suited to my interests; for instance, there was an interdisciplinary group of political psychologists that met almost weekly for talks, discussions, and group projects.

I was told before going to graduate school that I would learn almost as much from my fellow graduate students as from my professors, and that turned out to be true. At Yale, I “overlapped” with Curtis Hardin, Alex Rothman, Irene Blair, Chris Hsee, Buju Dasgupta, and Jack Glaser, among many others who have gone on to have very successful careers. During the summers (when we were not playing softball), we organized our own reading groups to absorb and discuss 19th and 20th century classics in psychology and philosophy. I think that we were all trying to figure out how we could contribute something lasting.

APSSC: How does a graduate student work toward becoming a first-rate researcher?

J.J.: I suppose that it’s some elusive, sublime combination of following the best and most heartfelt advice of one’s mentors; trusting one’s own abilities and insights, even when others do not (yet); asking for help when necessary; identifying interesting and worthwhile problems; persisting stubbornly in a prolonged attempt to solve those problems; and just plain luck.

APSSC: What are some of the common mistakes you see graduate students and young professionals making?

J.J.: I would say chasing disciplinary fads instead of engaging a truly interesting and important problem, taking on too many projects before they are ready, discounting the advice of mentors because it differs from their own intuitions or from the advice of fellow students, and thinking they know it all already. I suffered from a few of those mistakes myself.

APSSC: What advice would you give to graduate students who want to have careers in academia?

J.J.: Choose research topics that you think will be interesting to you in 5, 10, or 20 years, because it might take that long to obtain profoundly satisfying answers. And prepare yourself to withstand withering criticism until then. Above all, hang in there when you do receive criticism, and figure out what it is that you have to say to the world and how to say it so that people will listen.

APSSC: Writing and publishing are often anxiety provoking events for graduate students. You already have a lot of experience as a writer, editor, and reviewer; what do you know now about this process that you wish you would have known earlier in your career?

J.J.: That the first draft is usually the hardest one, that you are not incompetent or necessarily even wrong just because a paper gets rejected, and that persistence and tenacity really pay off in the long run.

APSSC: Much of your research has focused on psychological characteristics of liberals and conservatives. What have you learned that could be applied in the increasingly partisan world of politics?

J.J.: Well, that is an interview in itself, and I have given several on this topic (including one that is archived at http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/2008/12/15/john-jost-on-political-psychology/). The bottom line is that major differences of opinion (such as the debate over health care reform) are not easy to resolve because they are rooted in fundamental differences not only in personalities and values, but also in lifestyles, social networks, and even physiological responses, as our work has shown.

In general, liberals are more drawn to flexibility, tolerance, progress, complexity, ambiguity, creativity, curiosity, diversity, equality, and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives are more drawn to order, stability, structure, closure, discipline, tradition, familiarity, and conscientiousness. Presumably, society needs at least a little of both types of characteristics.

Democracy is an ingenious system when it works well, because it seeks to establish a set of rules and procedures that are fair and efficient by which individuals and groups are compelled to rise above relatively narrow needs and interests. My colleague, Tom Tyler, and I have written about this. How else can we resolve disputes except to require opposing sides to make the best possible case for policies that their adversaries are inclined to resist for their own social and psychological (as well as ideological) reasons? But when democratic norms are flouted or otherwise fail to protect us, we are lost. We find ourselves in very deep trouble.

APSSC: You’ve also spent a lot of time studying and developing system justification theory, which describes how one works to maintain society’s status quo, even when it’s not in one’s best interest. Do you think that system justification can be found in the field of psychology?

J.J.: I think you’re trying to get me in trouble now. But, yes, as long as the science and practice of psychology is undertaken by human beings, I expect that some degree of system justification is likely, at least on occasion. Do I think that it’s easier to publish an article in one of our top journals that is largely compatible or incompatible with the status quo (i.e., past precedent and existing theory, as institutionalized in textbooks and so forth), I would bet on compatible.

The same is true of our legal system, which is heavily reliant on past precedent (stare decisis) and therefore inherently conservative. I am not saying that there are never good reasons to privilege what comes first — often there are. But if there is a bias that is built into scientific and legal systems, it is probably in favor of what has already been established (the status quo) and against what appears to challenge it. I suspect that this is part of human nature, and such a bias characterizes our way of thinking and most, if not all, of our social and cultural institutions.

APSSC: How has what you’ve learned through your research influenced how you live your life?

J.J.: I suppose that because of my research I am more skeptical of decision outcomes that preserve the status quo than I otherwise would be. So when I had the chance to move to NYU a few years ago, I knew that psychological inertia would work against the move, and I tried to adjust for that. I even spent a wonderful year in a “neutral” location at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I moved to NYU. Since coming here, I have had terrific colleagues and the kinds of PhD students that one dreams of working with! I feel very fortunate. Maybe the system does work after all!

APSSC: What do you see in the future for the field of psychology?

J.J.: I have no idea, but I certainly agree with various APS luminaries who regard psychology as a “hub” science. I would like to see us do a better job of connecting to — and translating important insights from — the social and behavioral sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, and so on. And I’m sure that psychology will continue to be influenced by the biological sciences, and hopefully we can give something back to them, too.

APSSC: Is there a question that you wish I had asked? What would your answer have been?

J.J.: Is it possible to care deeply about something, like the problem of global climate change, and still investigate it scientifically? Yes, because the rules of the scientific method, if you follow them scrupulously, actually work, and (in my opinion) the rules have nothing to do with being dispassionate or disinterested. Much as genuine engagement with and adherence to democratic norms and procedures serves to elevate discourse and action above particularized interests, so, too, does genuine engagement with and adherence to scientific norms and procedures. Following the scientific method matters far more, in my view, than the specific social or personal characteristics of any given scientist, which — at the end of the day — are irrelevant. The evidence and the quality of the argument are what matter. As Kurt Lewin noted at the outbreak of World War II, this is why science and democracy go hand in hand.

APSSC: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and for your myriad contributions to the field of psychology.

J.J.: Thank you for asking. I am a huge fan of APS, and I consider it a great honor to have been selected for this interview. I hope that it helps young researchers to see that there are many different career paths. Mine, obviously, is just one and was not necessarily the safest or most direct one at that!

Observer Vol.22, No.10 December, 2009

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