Steve Pinker

March 12, 2013

I am Steve Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard. Ask me anything.

I'm happy to discuss any topic related to language, mind, violence, human nature, or humanism. I'll start posting answers at 6PM EDT. proof: Edit: I will answer one more question before calling it a night ... Edit: Good night, redditers; thank you for the kind words, the insightful observations, and the thoughtful questions.

How close (in terms of years, decades, centuries...) do you think we are to a proper theory of consciousness?

It depends on what you mean by "consciousness" -- the word can refer to accessibility of information to reflection, decision-making, and language processes in the brain (sometimes called the "easy problem of consciousness" -- a bit of a joke, because there's nothing easy about it); or it can refer to phenomenal awareness, subjectivity, the fact that it "feels like something" to be awake and aware (the so-called "hard problem of consciousness -- though a better term might be the "strange problem of consciousness). I think we're well on the way to solving the so-called easy problem -- there are neurophysiological phenomena, such as connectivity to the frontal lobes and periodic brain activity in certain frequency bands, that correlate well with accessible information, and there are good functional/evolutionary accounts (related to "blackboard" or "global workspace" computational architectures) that explain why the brain might be organized into two pools of information processing. As for the strange problem of consciousness -- whether the red that I see is the same as the red that you see; whether there could be a "zombie" that is indistinguishable from you and me but not conscious of anything; whether an upload of the state of my brain to the cloud would feel anything -- I suspect the answer is "never," since these conundra may be artifacts of human intuition. Our best science tells us that subjectivity arises from certain kinds of information-processing in the brain, but why, intuitively, that should be the case is as puzzling to us as the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, relativity, and other problems that are far from everyday intuition. [Sorry for the long answer, but that's one of the deepest questions in all of human knowledge!]

Mr.Pinker, you've been a massive influence in my personal quest for knowledge and understanding. Loved your books. I'm presently at McGill in the Cog Sci program, so I'm fully immersed in the subject matter at hand.

Many different people in the field have influenced my approach to understanding consciousness...especially the "hard" problem of subjectivity. A couple of years ago, I read a book called Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey, whom you surely know of. I was taken aback by an approach he offers for understanding qualia.

In a nutshell

Though the road might be long and winding, bodily reflexes can be precursors to sensations. As he (Nicholas Humphrey) explains: “Both sensations and bodily actions (i) belong to the subject, (ii) implicate part of his body, (iii) are present tense, (iv) have a qualitative modality, and (v) have properties that are phenomenally immediate.” It could very well be that in the process of evolution, bodily reactions were highly informative cues for representing what’s out there beyond the confines of our selves. Monitoring our own bodily responses could have evolved into monitoring our responses “in secret”, meaning internally. In principle, natural selection could simply do some tidying up by eliminating the outward response. In a certain sense, responses became privatized within our brains. From this perspective, the subjective problem of sensation can be viewed as just another inappropriately named “easy problem”.

What's your take?

All of that could be true of a suitably sensored and intelligent robot, and we could still wonder (and not know) whether such a robot was conscious in the sense of there being "anyone home" who was feeling stuff. So I don't agree that it solves the strange (aka "hard") problem of consciousness.

Professor Pinker, by far the most vehement and hateful criticism I have heard of your masterpiece work The Better Angels of Our Nature has to do with your claims that hunter-gatherer societies were far more violent than most state societies. (Dr. Jared Diamond has also received strong criticism for a similar stance.)

Is this view very controversial among anthropologists generally? Do they largely disagree with you or agree with you? If they disagree, why do you think that is?

I suspect it has to do with the Blank Slate ideology you write about in your book of the same name. Namely, that leftists often argue that we are products of our culture, and hence without the corrupting influence of capitalist society, life in a state of nature should therefore be quite peaceful.

My claim wasn't about hunter-gatherer societies specifically, but about traditional societies that live in a state of anarchy, specifically, not under the control of a centralized state. Thus I present data from h-g societies, and separately data from hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups. Most of them have rates of rates of violence that are high by the standards of modern states. I presented every quantitative estimate I could find in the literature; the low end of the range extends to rates of death in warfare of 0, but the high end includes societies in which a quarter to a half of the men are killed by others. The average across all estimates is way higher than for state societies in the 20th century. As far as I can tell, this conclusion is not controversial among anthropologists who care about numbers, and have examined quantitative data on per-capita rates of violence in different societies. It is blazingly controversial among non-quantitative anthropologists, though the objections are often political and moral rather than empirical -- namely that it is harmful to non-state peoples to depict them as having high rates of violence, since it would make it easier to justify exploiting or oppressing them. My own view is that none of us should sign on to the bogus implication that IF a traditional people has high rates of violence THEN it would be OK to exploit them. People are what they are; all societies have violence, even if rates differ, and needless to say it is never justified to exploit or oppress people.

Speaking of Jared Diamond, what are your thoughts on his works, especially his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he argued that environmental factors explain most of the divergence of different societies.

It's a fascinating theory, which was explicated even before Diamond by my friend Thomas Sowell, the economist who wrote a trilogy of books on culture. The most interesting claim is that societies advance technologically, culturally, and (I would add) morally when they sit in a wide catchment area for innovations -- crossroads, trading routes, ports, cities. No one is smart enough to invent anything worthwhile on his or her own; we need to skim and combine and collect the greatest hits from a huge pool of potential innovators. It's cosmopolitan cities like London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Boston that allowed democracy and Enlightenment ideas to flourish; conversely, remote and insular societies tend to live by codes of tribal loyalty and blood revenge.

Do you find your understanding of the mind negatively affects your own happiness? I mean does your deterministic outlook sometimes make life seem arbitrary and pointless to you, and elation just some chemical reaction.

Quite the opposite -- I find a naturalistic understanding of human nature to be indispensable to leading a wise and mature life, and it is often exhilarating. Wisdom consists in appreciating the preciousness and finiteness of our own existence, and therefore not squandering it; of being cognizant of what makes people everywhere tick, and therefore enhancing happiness and minimizing suffering; of being alert to limitations and flaws in our own judgments and decisions and passions, and thereby doing our best to circumvent them. The exhilaration comes from understanding that we are a part of natural world; that deep mysteries can be explained; and that the world -- including our own mental lives -- can be intelligible, rather than a source of superstition and ignorance. Yes, mortality sucks, but given that it exists, I'd rather know that than be kept in a childlike state of delusion.

[Very long question]

Q1: It's the "moralistic fallacy," the idea that we should shape the facts in such a way as to point to the most morally desirable consequences. In the case of rape, the fear was that if rape has a sexual motive, then it would be natural, hence good; and instinctive, hence unavoidable. Since rape is bad and ought to be stamped out, it cannot come from "natural" sexual motives. My own view is that these are non-sequiturs -- rape is horrific no matter what its motives are, and we know that rates of rape can be reduced (in Better Angels I assemble statistics that US rates of rape are down by almost 80% since their peak). One surprise that I experienced upon re-reading Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book "Against Our Will," which originated the rape-is-about-power-not-sex doctrine, is that idea was a very tiny part of the book, thrown in almost as an afterthought (Brownmiller said she got the idea from one of her Marxist professors). Most of the book is a brilliant account of the history of rape, its treatment by the legal system, its depiction in literature and film, the experience of being raped and reporting it, and other topics. It's also written with great style, clarity, and erudition. Though I disagree with that one idea, I would recommend it as one of the best and most important books on violence I have read. Q2: There do appear to be some small sex differences in the tails of the distributions of spatial and abstract mathematical ability, though I think they play a far smaller role in observed sex imbalances in STEM occupations than differences in interests and life priorities (among male-female differences). There are also female-unfriendly STEM subcultures that have made talented women uncomfortable, compared to the alternatives available to them. I don't think we have any way to weight the relative influences of all these factors. Q3: It's possible, but I don't think that evolutionary theory predicts that they should occur. It's hard to think of an environment in which the human hallmarks of intelligence, sociality, and language would NOT be adaptive, which is why, as Ambrose Bierce put it, our species has infested the whole habitable earth and Canada. Intelligence just isn't particularly dependent on geography. Combine that with gene flow and you can't predict a priori that there ought to be race differences.

"...our species has infested the whole habitable earth and Canada."

What was Mr. Bierce implying about Canada?

It was a joke! Canada is cold! I say this as a proud Canadian.

What is your take on artificial intelligence? Is our lack of understanding of consciousness the barrier to building a more intelligent than human AI?

Not in the least. As I mentioned, we do have a decent understanding of consciousness in the sense of why an intelligent system might make available a pool of information to a variety of its modules while keeping other information encapsulated within those modules. The only sense of consciousness we don't understand is whether the artificially intelligent computer or robot we build would subjectively feel anything -- but that has nothing to do with how we built it. That's why the problem is "strange."

With your writing on the Flynn Effect in mind, do you have any thoughts on Khan Academy and other novel approaches to education?

I'm for them. The more ways that knowledge and analytical skills penetrate the population, the better.

1) A lot of new information about the brain's inner workings has come out since you wrote How the Mind Works. It does seem that the book was written cautiously enough that it is still very relevant and accurate to date. Hypothetically, if you were to write a similarly-themed book today, what new information would you seek to impart?

2) Although you are an atheist and a prominent intellectual, you haven't been associated with the so-called "atheist movement" identified with some other prominent atheists. Would you say this is because you do not have an agenda regarding the beliefs of others? Is there another distinction you might attribute it to?

Thanks so much for doing this. I've been a huge fan of your work for a long time. I've been saving these questions since before I ever heard of Reddit.

1: I wrote a new foreword to the 2009 edition of HTMW that addressed that question. Pretty much everything that I wrote about could be fleshed out in greater neurobiological detail today, but I continue to believe that the computational and functional (evolutionary) levels of analysis provide the greatest amount of insight (I am, after all, a psychologist, rather than a neurophysiologist) so the emphasis of the explanations of the book would not change today. As far as subject matter is concerned, the biggest addition I would make today is our new understanding of moral psychology, as elucidated by Rick Shweder, his former postdocs Alan Fiske and Jonathan Haidt (who ran with his ideas in slightly different directions), Philip Tetlock, and Joshua Greene. 2. Atheism is simply the denial of one set of beliefs, and it has never been a priority to stipulate one among the many things I don't believe in. The atheist/humanist/freethinker/secularist/bright movement found me (and I'm happy to support it) because I presented a thoroughly naturalistic, ghost-free account of the mind in How the Mind Works, including an analysis of religious belief as an interesting puzzle in psychology. After having written Better Angels I now have a stronger intellectual and moral commitment to Enlightenment humanism, classical liberalism, and the ideal of human rights, because I saw how those ideas were instrumental in bringing about the best things that have happened in human history -- the reduction of institutionalized violence, and the development of knowledge and technologies that have increasingly allowed human beings to flourish.

I have studied a lot of your opinions on second wave feminism, and was particularly inspired by your stance as an equity feminist. What do you think of third wave feminism? Do you think it is a waste of time to encourage women to pursue math and science because of biological differences?

Quite the contrary! Whatever differences exist are statistical and small, and tell us nothing about an individual. And it would be unethical and wasteful not to encourage every person, regardless of gender (or any other irrelevant factor) to pursue her or his talents to the utmost.

In your opinion, who are the least-read great thinkers and writers currently producing work?

(or merely interesting, or thought provoking, etc.)

The OSU political scientist (and, coincidentally, Fred Astaire expert) John Mueller, on the history and politics of war. The Tufts linguist Ray Jackendoff, on language and cognition. The U Penn psychologist Philip Tetlock, on the psychology of taboo, and the limitations of expert prediction. The philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein (disclosure: we are married). The UCLA anthropologist Alan Fiske, on the nature of human relationships and cross-cultural variation in them. The Cambridge U historical criminologist Manuel Eisner. The UCSB psychologist Leda Cosmides and the UCSB anthropologist John Tooby. The Northwestern U scholar of medicine, sexuality, and other topics Alice Dreger. I could go on ... we are living in a golden age of brilliant minds.

Professor Pinker, thank you for your work.

What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the human mind?

This question is motivated by Neil deGrasse Tyson's answer to a similar question, in reference to the universe. Many believe that the human mind is as astounding as the universe itself. If you agree, please, persuade us.

I'd have to single out language. Here we all are, banging at keyboards and reading squiggles on screens, and somehow we're exchanging ideas about consciousness, hunter-gatherer societies, rape, the meaning of life, and hair-care products (I'll get to that). Of course we're using written language, not to mention computer technology and the internet, but we could be having the same conversation at a bar, dinner table or seminar room, so it's language itself that is the astounding phenomenon.

Prof. Pinker, big fan of your books.

In How The Mind Works you opined that music probably has no purpose from an evolutionary psychology perspective. Do you still think that?

Are you still doing any basic linguistics research? I really loved Words and Rules and would like to read another book like that.

What do you think about the claim that evolutionary psychology is a lot of unverifiable just-so stories? What should and shouldn't we expect to learn from evo. psych.?

  1. Yes; I have still not seen a bona fide adaptive explanation for music. Ironically, when it comes to music, everyone is a rabid, evidence-free, panglossian, just-so-story loving adaptationist, while when it comes to psychological phenomena for which we have enormous bodies of empirical evidence, they are in a state of denial. I think it's the moralistic fallacy again: we value music, therefore want it to be an adaptation; we deplore violence, selfishness, tribalism, rape, and sex differences, therefore want them not to be adaptations.
  2. I'm doing research on the phenomena of innuendo, indirect speech, euphemism, and so on; also some historical studies on how we ended up with regular and irregular verbs. But most of my linguistic energy these days is concentrated on style and usage -- why is it so hard to write clearly? Who decides what's correct and incorrect? And that is in preparation for my next book, a writing style manual for the 21st century, rooted in modern linguistics and cognitive science. Evolutionary psychology has provided literally hundreds of testable hypotheses, many of which have received substantial support, many of which have been falsified. One only has to dip into journals like Evolutionary Psychology, Human Behavior and Evolution, and increasingly, mainstream psych journals to find them. I lay out the logic of how to test an adaptive hypothesis in several places, including the foreword to the new edition of HTMW, and in my review of The Literary Animal, among other places. Adaptive function is one of several indispensable levels of analysis of basic psychological phenomena, others being the neurobiological substrate, the developmental trajectory, the phylogentic history, and the information-processing software (I owe this, of course, to David Marr and Niko Tinbergen). The reason it is indispensable is the same reason that function is indispensable in understanding any biological system -- could we really claim to understand the heart, or the kidneys, if we ignored what they evolve to do? Is the hypothesis that the function of the kidney is to filter blood an unfalsifiable just-so story? Of course not!

I don't know if this has been asked yet, Professor, but...

Do you believe in the idea that violent video games could increase violent tendencies in children?

I've read a lot about the subject, but to be honest, I'm extremely doubtful that something like a video game could influence someone into hurting someone else.

My belief is that you are who you are, and if you're going to be violent then you're bound by fate to that path unless you change yourself. There is no outside influence (besides self-defense) that could make you hurt someone else if you weren't that type of person.


There is no good evidence that violent video games cause real-life violence. Christopher Ferguson has reviewed the literature extensively and shown that claims to the contrary are bogus (and the Supreme Court agreed). Just for starters: the era in which video games exploded in popularity is exactly the era in which violent crime among young people plummeted. It's not true, though, that anyone is fated to be violent. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, I presented a hundred graphs showing rates of violence changing over time, mostly downward. The near-80% decline in US rape since the early 1970s, and the halving of the homicide rate since 1992, are just two examples. Rates of violence respond to certain features of an environment, such as the incentives of an effective police and criminal justice system, and the surrounding norms of legitimate retaliation. They just don't respond to video games.

What is your take on supernatural events and the human mind?Such as pyrokinesis,telekinesis, etc.

Edit: Isn't our existence supernatural in and of itself? If cosmic evolution is always happening, who are we to say humans can't evolve into something greater? If there was a small percentage of humans who had strange abilities from radiation or evolution, this world would quickly suppress them and cover them up. What a shame.

As Fran Lebowitz put it in her dialogue with me last week, "I don't believe in anything you have to believe in." Supernatural events don't exist.

I'm having a tough time deciding-- which of your works should I read first?

I would recommend "How the Mind Works."

Do you support the hypothesis that depression is an adaption?

I don't know the literature well enough to say, but it's not implausible that occasional, mild, temporary depression in response to an identifiable setback is an adaptation -- the main reason being the phenomenon of depressive realism, namely the more accurate assessment of outcomes and probabilities among the (mildly, temporarily) depressed than among happy people. Clinical depression is another story.

Whiskey or Rum?


Hi! I've read your book The Blank Slate, am reading your book The Better Angels of Our Nature, and have the Stuff of Thought on one of my shelves and will get to it eventually, needless to say I'm a fan.

I recently read an article about how culture is so pervasive and powerful that research might not be giving us a full picture since so many white, western college kids are the participants in so many of our research studies done in the social sciences. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the issue in regard to social sciences as a whole; mostly on if it’s worthwhile to do studies, and brain scans, on people from different countries and cultures that are outside of the western world so as to get a more complete understanding of all humans and their behavior. And what, if anything, you think might change from that new information.

I agree with Henrichs et al. that too many conclusions about human psychology have been based on convenience samples of university undergraduates. I suspect that these are people who have honed the style of thinking that can variously be called Piagetian Formal Operations, Flynn-effect intelligence, and academic intelligence, as opposed to more species-typical ecological intelligence. Incidentally, one of the great virtues of evolutionary psychology has been its inclusion of data on non-Western populations in drawing conclusions about human emotion and cognition.

Hi Dr Pinker. I'm a psychology and linguistics double major at the University of Pittsburgh. A lot of the time, linguistics students here are inundated with either one side or the other of the generativist/functionalist debate. From what I've read of your work, you tend to side with the generativists. What's the strongest argument you've heard for a functionalist perspective?

I think the dichotomy is bogus.

Hi Dr. Pinker, I'd like to ask two questions about recent cog sci findings.

  1. So if I'm remembering the results right, the Science paper you did with Ned Sahin and Eric Halgren showed that Broca's area responds to manipulations of phonological, lexical and syntactic information on separate timecourses. Could you discourse a bit on how this should inform our theories of "dedicated" cortical modules (e.g., what the criteria for a cortical module ought to be)?

  2. I seem to remember hearing that you're interested in a cognitively (and neurally?) informed theory of prose style. Is that true? If so, would you mind talking about it?

  1. A major point of my paper with Sahin and Halgren is that functional specialization in the brain (aka "modules") is more likely to exist at the circuit level than at the level of Brodmann-size areas. Which should not come as a surprise -- the intelligence of the brain, after all, resides in the microcircuitry, not in slabs of wonder tissue. In our computers, cohesive programs and data structures are physically fragmented, and don't consist of contiguous patches of silicon; the brain may be even more subtle in the way information is distributed macroscopically across its tissues.

  2. Too early -- I never know exactly what I'm going to conclude until I write the book! There is a web video of a talk I gave at MIT's Nuclear Science & Engineering program which has some of my preliminary thoughts.

Could you please respond to Leon Wieseltier's review of Thomas Nagel's most recent work? Have you read Mind and Cosmos, and was your response to it perhaps more politically shaded than academic?

No, my response was intellectual. (See my comments buried in the comment list of the on-line version of Wieseltier's essay.) The reviews by Michael Weisberg & Brian Leiter (The Nation), H. Allen Orr (NYRB), and Elliott Sober (Boston Review) capture most of my objections -- all are available on the Web. I have to add that I have been enormously influenced by Thomas Nagel's brilliant earlier writings, including The View from Nowhere, The Last Word, the essay "What is it like to be a bat?" and other works. But Mind and Cosmos is, I agree with the reviewers, a poorly argued work, particularly given the astonishing claim in its subtitle. The strange late turn in Nagel's writing reminds me of an important lesson I drew long ago: Never be a disciple or yes-person of any thinker, no matter how brilliant --no one is right all of the time.

This interview was transcribed from an "ask me anything" question and answer session with Steve Pinker conducted on Reddit on 2013-03-12. The Reddit AMA can be found here.