Cognition, Rationality, and Culture: Celebrating Dick Nisbett’s Career

In honor of Richard “Dick” Nisbett’s illustrious 46-year career as a researcher, professor, and world-class thinker, the U-M Department of Psychology held a day-long symposium on May 19 to celebrate his upcoming retirement. nisbett

Nisbett is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology, research professor at the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD), and co-director of U-M’s Culture and Cognition program. He began working at U-M in 1971 and served as the director of RCGD from 1989-1996. His studies focused on cultural differences in thinking and reasoning, environmental effects on intelligence, and ways of improving reasoning and intelligence.

The symposium’s speakers shared personal interactions with Nisbett, bits of wisdom he imparted, research collaborations, and insights into Nisbett’s career and legacy.

Hazel Rose Markus, Stanford University social psychologist, took a comical sociocultural approach, analyzing aspects of Nisbett’s social identity as a great thinker. She started her analysis by asking, “How did Dick Nisbett become the world’s best and most influential thinker about thinking?” Referencing a series of studies, Markus said she believes Nisbett’s particular combination of identities—white, male, American, etc.—characterizes him as the “independent self.” Someone with an independent self speaks truth to power and holds on to theories and ideas even if they are unpopular—traits that are necessary for social scientists. If you want to be a great thinker about thinking you need a strong independent self, Markus said.

Nisbett’s upbringing in Texas and years in the Midwest have also led him to possess some “interdependent self” qualities, she said. In small doses, this self is also necessary in scientific research because good thinking requires good relationships, Markus said. Nisbett has been able to cultivate meaningful relationships throughout his career due to his small interdependent self, she said.

“He has experienced the perfect cocktail of cultures,” Markus said.

Rutgers University Professor of philosophy and cognitive science Stephen Stich shared stories of working with Nisbett to pioneer the field of experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophy is a field of philosophical inquiry that makes use of empirical data—often gathered through surveys which probe the intuitions of ordinary people—in order to inform research on philosophical questions.

Stich talked about meeting Nisbett upon arriving at U-M and how Nisbett guided him to pursue his curiosity about the use of intuition as evidence in philosophy. Specific intuitions are not universal, Stich explained. Differences in culture produce differences in intuitions. Exploring this further, the pair carried out a cross-cultural study on intuition-related cultural disparities. While controversial, the paper is still frequently cited and the then-emerging field of experimental philosophy is now flourishing.

Nisbett became a U-M professor emeritus on June 1.

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