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Psychological and Brain Sciences Colloquium: Edward Wasserman

Friday, March 29, 2019 - 3:30pm
Pappajohn Business Building

Psychological and Brain Sciences Departmental Colloquium

Edward A. Wasserman, Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology, Department of Psychology, University of Iowa

As if by Design

It’s natural for us to take events that were to a significant extent the product of guesswork, accident, short-term opportunism, and good luck, and of demographic and technological changes whose consequences no one could have foreseen, and shape them into a heroic narrative about artistic breakthrough and social progress. But a legend is just one of the forms that history takes. Louis Menard, 2015, New Yorker

Genius. Inspiration. Insight. Foresight. Without deeper inquiry, most people blithely accept that these are the dominant forces that foster game changing innovations by highly celebrated heroes. But, the creative or eureka moment may be a myth: an altogether naïve and romantic explanation of human progress. Innovations may instead arise from an intricate web of historical, circumstantial, and adventitious influences, as Menard has proposed. But, don’t be intimidated by such complex determinism: a simple law of behavior is actively at work in the creative process. The Law of Effect inescapably and mechanically strengthens actions that have succeeded in the past over actions that have either failed or been maladaptive. That behavioral shaping process can often appear to be a haphazard, trial-and-error affair with no obvious end in sight; yet, it can generate innumerable innovations that significantly advance the human condition and deceive historians into incorrectly interpreting them as due to sparks of creative insight or foresightful design. I hope to show how the Law of Effect operates in diverse realms of human endeavor including: sports, the arts, politics, science, medicine, and technology.