Iowa Psychologist Ed Wasserman Investigates the Origin of Innovation
By Josh O'Leary
The Ponseti Method. The butterfly stroke. Field of Dreams. These are just a few of the Iowa-hatched ideas that have changed the world during the University of Iowa’s 175-year history. A UI scientist studies how creative breakthroughs like these evolve—and tells us why the eureka moment is a myth.
Inside the University of Iowa’s gleaming new Psychological and Brain Sciences Building, experimental psychologist Ed Wasserman and his laboratory team put their unique research subjects through their paces. Test takers stand inside a small cubicle known as a Skinner box, where they face a glowing screen displaying a series of ultrasound videos. Some videos show an isolated ventricle of a human heart expanding and contracting normally. Others show a constricted ventricle struggling to pump blood.
The research subjects tap a blue or yellow button on the touchscreen to identify what they’re seeing—a healthy or constricted ventricle. When they answer correctly, a device on the back wall drops their reward into the cubicle. The beady-eyed test takers—part of Wasserman’s flock of research pigeons—nosh on the fresh pile of birdseed before returning their attention to the screen.
The study is the latest in Wasserman’s long career investigating the cognitive processes behind animal behavior. Currently, his laboratory is studying whether pigeons can be trained to diagnose heart disease in much the same way that artificial intelligence can be fed data to learn to detect disease.
Humans aren’t the only clever organisms under the sun, says Wasserman. Psychological researchers have found that pigeons and other animals can exhibit behaviors that a casual observer might declare to be insightful or even creative. “There’s a lot more going on in that little noggin than you might otherwise suspect,” Wasserman says. “You would never guess that they can do the things they do. But, of course, from just watching people on a daily basis, you wouldn’t know that we can do Boolean algebra or write stage plays either.”
Wasserman, who began his 50th year in the classroom and the laboratory at Iowa this fall, researches intelligence in pigeons, as well as baboons, dogs, parrots, and other animals. In recent years, Wasserman’s team has published findings as varied as proving that pigeons can understand abstract ideas like space and time, to demonstrating the birds’ ability to identify signs of breast cancer on X-rays. His most recent study has shown that these pigeon pathologists can achieve human-level accuracy in diagnosing heart disease from ultrasound images—though the birds require much more training than their human counterparts.
Through animal research, Wasserman works to reveal the processes behind human learning, memory, and cognition. It also gives him unique insight into some of psychology’s biggest mysteries, including one at the heart of his new book, As If By Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve (2021, Cambridge University Press). In it, Wasserman tackles a profound question: Where does innovative thinking come from? Are some people creative geniuses who have the unique ability to conjure new ideas? Or are there simpler, more scientifically observable mechanisms at play?
As it turns out, we may not be that much different than Wasserman’s feathered research partners.
PIGEON-GUIDED MISSILES AND THE MYTH OF GENIUS
Not only does Wasserman study innovation, but he’s also an innovator in his own right. One of the world’s most respected learning scientists who’s admired by colleagues for his methodological creativity, Wasserman has made headlines since the 1980s, when The New York Times first noted he had trained eight pigeons to recognize human emotional expressions, including on the faces of people they had never seen before.
“Ed is one of the most committed, intellectually engaged psychologists I know,” says UI professor Mark Blumberg, chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and a longtime colleague of Wasserman. “He knows how to do the research that he does better than anyone in the world. He’s still at it and as excited about it as he was when he started. He cares deeply about behavior, which is at the heart of what our department studies.”
A Los Angeles native, Wasserman first studied physics as an undergraduate at UCLA before taking an elective in the psychology of learning that changed the trajectory of his career. The course opened Wasserman’s eyes to the scientific possibilities of psychology and appealed to his penchant for precise methodology. Today, Wasserman teaches a class by the same name—Psychology of Learning—to undergraduates at the UI, where he’s mentored generations of students and budding scientists.
Wasserman earned a PhD at Indiana University, traveled for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sussex in England, and, in 1972, joined the University of Iowa’s faculty. The teaching post was an attractive one for the promising young researcher; Iowa’s storied tradition in psychology dates to 1887 and included some of the leading psychologists of the 20th century, including Kenneth Spence, Leon Festinger (40MA, 42PhD), and Albert Bandura (51MA, 52PhD). “I bet on tradition, and it was a very good bet,” says Wasserman.
Wasserman founded the Comparative Cognition Laboratory during his early days in Iowa City, and he’s been developing experiments that probe the animal mind ever since. Collaborating with institutions around the world, Wasserman’s team has produced key findings in human and animal object categorization, including breakthrough studies that proved pigeons can learn several new object categories simultaneously and selectively ignore irrelevant information.
As novel as his pigeon studies have been, Wasserman is quick to note that he’s hardly the first scientist to work with the birds. B.F. Skinner, for instance—the pioneering behavioral psychologist for whom the Skinner box was named—first taught pigeons to peck small discs for food and even trained them to guide missiles for the U.S. military during World War II. While “Project Pigeon” was never deployed in battle, Skinner later became one of the world’s most influential thinkers and a pioneer in the school of psychology known as behaviorism.
In contrast to the introspective, psychoanalytic approach of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Skinner theorized that all behaviors, in animals and humans alike, are learned through interactions with the environment and conditioning. Wasserman, who as a graduate student met Skinner in 1970 when the famed psychologist received an honorary degree at Indiana University, follows in that behaviorist tradition. “Much of my analysis pays homage to Skinner because he was particularly interested in applying the basic principles of behavior that you learn in the laboratory to the things that you and I do every day, as well as the exceptional things that some people do,” says Wasserman. “But if you ask me, what is it that’s so exceptional about some people? I would say, not really so much.”
Just as his own creative research has built upon the work of Skinner—and just as Skinner’s research stood on the shoulders of earlier psychologists like Edward Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov—Wasserman argues that all innovations, no matter what the field, are evolutionary. In recent years, Wasserman has devoted time beyond the laboratory to researching and reporting on dozens of creative breakthroughs for his new book, including Iowa-centric inventions like the Ponseti Method, the butterfly stroke, and the Field of Dreams. (See "Three Iowa Innovations and Their Evolutions" below.) The deeper he dug into the histories behind innovations, the more evidence Wasserman found refuting the “eureka!” moment—a concept that he dismisses as a naïve and fanciful explanation for human progress.
“We’ll say someone’s creative or a genius,” Wasserman says. “Well, that doesn’t explain anything. They’re just words that carry no explanatory meaning. People have this idea of the moment of epiphany, but most moments of epiphany go right into the trash. We have a selective memory problem. We forget about the ideas that fail and remember the ones that succeed.”
WHEN INNOVATIONS STICK
Down the long hallway from the pigeon laboratory, Wasserman plucks a canary yellow slip of paper from the side of his computer. It’s a Post-It note. “Look at how purposeful it is,” says Wasserman, holding it in front of him like Steve Jobs showing off a new iPhone. “I’ve got it stuck right here so I don’t forget my password. I have it in books where I’ve marked passages. What a beautiful design.”
As with many things, Wasserman is something of an expert on Post-It notes. He’s been researching the history of the ubiquitous office product for his latest case study on the psychology of innovation. While the Post-It note today may seem perfectly designed in its simple utility, Wasserman explains that wasn’t always the case. Instead, like so many other innovations, it evolved out of circumstance, trial and error, and a good deal of luck.
Wasserman sits back and tells the story. The Post-It note’s origins can be traced back to Spencer Silver, who in 1968 was a young chemist at 3M working to create a heavy-duty adhesive for aircraft construction. But what he concocted in the laboratory was the opposite: an adhesive that stuck to surfaces but peeled off easily. Silver’s discovery was novel, but its usefulness wasn’t readily apparent.
Years later, a colleague named Art Fry was in church one fateful Sunday when the torn slips of paper he used as bookmarks fell out of his hymnal. Fry had once attended a presentation Silver gave on his peculiar adhesive, and the idea stuck with him, so to speak. What if he used Silver’s adhesive for bookmarks? He pitched the idea at 3M but was initially told there wasn’t a market for it.
Fry once said the real “aha!” moment came when he sent a report to his supervisor with a note scrawled on one of his prototype sticky bookmarks. His supervisor sent the folder back and added his own handwritten note on the sticky paper. “What we have here isn’t a bookmark,” thought Fry. “It’s a whole new way to communicate.” After 12 long years of development and marketing research at 3M, the rest of the story is now office supply cabinet history.
“This may look like it was intelligently designed and planned from the inception,” Wasserman says, still holding his Post-It note. “But it wasn’t. My argument is that nothing is. That’s the starkest way I can put it. But that doesn’t in any way diminish the achievements—the contributions are all wonderful.”
EDISON, DARWIN, AND THE THREE CS
So, if innovations like the Post-It note aren’t the result of ingenious foresight and design, where do they come from?
Wasserman turns to Thomas Edison, America’s most celebrated inventor, for answers. Edison not only gave us the incandescent lamp, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, but also a glimpse into the workings of his creative process. It turns out there was no lightbulb moment when Edison invented the lightbulb—or his 1,092 other patents. “I never had an idea in my life,” Edison once said. “I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.”
Edison likewise shrugged off the notion of genius, declaring it to be “1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Wasserman agrees that the strongest creative forces come from outside of us, not within. In fact, he says, there’s a fundamental law of behavior behind all innovation known as the law of effect. Developed by psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1898, the law of effect asserts that behaviors resulting in successful outcomes are likely to be repeated, while behaviors with poor outcomes are less likely to continue. Wasserman calls it perhaps the most central law in all of psychology—one so simple that it hardly needs to be stated, yet it pulls at the strings of all human endeavors, from sports to politics to technology. In Wasserman’s laboratory, this principle is demonstrated when his pigeons learn to peck the appropriate buttons to earn more food. In history books, Wasserman sees it play out time and again in human stories of what’s often characterized as ingenuity, but what is in fact the cumulative nature of repeated successes and discarded missteps.
Wasserman draws a parallel between the law of effect and the law of natural selection—the cornerstone of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The legendary naturalist, as it happens, was a pigeon keeper too. A fashionable hobby in Victorian England, pigeon fanciers bred birds with unique plumages and varied acrobatic abilities. While the finches of the Galapagos Islands are the birds most often associated with Darwin, the biologist’s work with pigeons in his garden may have had an even greater influence on his On the Origin of Species. In his revolutionary 1859 book, Darwin—inspired in part by his experiments with artificial selection in pigeon breeding—theorized that organisms adapt to their environments over time through natural selection.
Wasserman says creative ideas develop through a similar mechanical process of variation and selection. Context, consequence, and coincidence—the Three Cs, as Wasserman calls them—work together to produce innovations that radically change the course of human history. In the case of the Post-It note, the context was a workplace culture at 3M that encouraged experimentation, Silver’s training as a chemist, and his desire to create a new adhesive. Consequence came into play with the trial-and-error efforts to find a practical application for Spencer’s sticky-but-not-too-sticky substance. And coincidence arose when Fry’s hymnal bookmarks tumbled to the church floor after he attended Silver’s presentation.
While Wasserman continues to search for clues about the nature of creativity in his laboratory and history books, he says the science of innovation remains largely untapped. “We have a lot of research looking for personality variables in people, but we don’t have such a rich literature about creative behaviors,” he says. “We still have a lot to learn.”
Like all innovators, Wasserman has made an impact that neither began, nor ends, with his own work. Countless students—many of whom are now accomplished scientists in their own right—have emerged from under Wasserman’s wing ready to innovate in psychology and beyond. “Ed is a demanding mentor, but one who is generous with praise and proud of his mentees’ accomplishments,” says Blumberg, the chair of the psychology department. “I have interacted with many of these trainees over the years—both during and after their time here—and I am always impressed by the degree to which they’ve channeled Ed’s values and rigor in their own research.”
It’s safe to say that when Wasserman arrived 50 years ago in Iowa City, he never could have imagined where it would lead him.