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Dr. Sven van de Wetering: Instructor, Psychology, University of the Fraser Valley


Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 1.A, Subject: Psychology

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Undergraduate Journal

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: October 2, 2012

Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2013

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 3,212

ISSN 2369-6885

Issue 1.A, Subject: Psychology

1. Where did you acquire your education?

I did my education all over.  I went to grade school at various schools in Powell River, Greater Vancouver, and Calgary, including three alternative schools: the Oxford House of Knowledge (an extremely unpretentious place that happened to be on Oxford Street), the Ideal School (which didn’t quite live up to its name but was a big step up from conventional schools), and, in Calgary, the Alternative High School.

I received a B.Sc. in biology at UBC in 1983.  Then, after some years of drift, I went back to school in 1988 and studied psychology at Concordia University in Montreal (though I spent a visiting year at Albert Ludwigs Universität in Freiburg, Germany), got my B.A. in psychology in 1992, then spent the next ten years doing my graduate work at SFU.

2. Why did you pursue that field of study? How did psychology interest to you?

I originally intended to be a clinician.  I was working in a home for the mentally handicapped in 1988, and was quite burned out, but thought the work was important and wanted to pursue it at a higher level.  I thought clinical psychology was the field for me.  Of course, that didn’t quite work out.

3. What topics have you researched in your career? 

I have researched only a restricted range of topics in my empirical research career.  As an undergraduate, I was looking at belief in the paranormal.  As a masters student I tried to develop a relatively nonreactive measure of prejudice, then as a doctoral student, I stayed in the area of prejudice, but tried to study whether people use gossip as a technique to incite prejudice in others.  Once I started teaching full time, I could only do one project a year, but have looked at things like beliefs about the nature of evil, predictors of people’s car purchase decisions (this was in an environmental context), a couple of studies on system justification theory.  My last several studies have had a very striking tendency to produce null results.

4. What areas are you currently researching?

If I can ever get it up and running, I hope to conduct a study on the relationship between narcissism and political attitudes.  It’ll be a correlational study, and I’ll probably toss in a whole bunch of variables in the hopes of finding something.

5. How do you engage in research?  What methodologies do you employ?

My methodology tends to be very straightforward, either simple correlational studies or experimental studies with just one or two variables manipulated.  Most of the time this is done using simple paper-and-pencil measures, but sometimes I’ll do something a little fancier in an attempt to assess implicit cognition.

6. Within the field of psychology, what do you consider the most controversial topics?  How do you examine the debates pertaining to these topics?

If one takes “controversial” to mean that everyone has a very strong opinion about the issue, and the opinions aren’t all the same, I would have to say that number one is still the status of psychoanalysis.  A determined minority of psychologists still considers Freud half a step below God, a majority seem to think of him as some deluded anti-empirical megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur and no data, and not many psychologists sit on the fence about this.  I may be one of them, though.  The number of issues on which Freud may have been right is slowly growing in my mind, and I’m not quite as ready to dismiss him as I once was.  To be honest, I barely examine this issue at all, though.  Just in a few isolated moments I think “Hey!  Freud may’ve been right about that!”

Another debate of the same ilk concerns the status of evolutionary thinking in psychology.  Relatively few academic psychologists actually deny that human evolution has occurred.  The issue is more whether the fact of our having evolved actually furnishes significant insights into current human psychology.  This is a thorny issue that I do have to deal with on a fairly regular basis, and I must confess that my strategy here is to read the arguments on both sides, and then come to an informed decision based largely on intuition.

The most troubling argument I have heard goes something like this: “Evolutionary psychology promotes patriarchy.”  I don’t think it does; at least, there are a number of feminist evolutionary psychologists out there, one of whom I know personally.  Furthermore, having taught evolutionary psychology, I’ve gotten the impression that there is almost no other point of view so very good at making a lot of typical male dominance behaviours look completely ridiculous.  Nevertheless, I must admit that, when I go to evolutionary psychology conferences, I do get the impression that the typical evolutionary psychologist is somewhat to the political right of the typical non-evolutionary psychologist.

What disturbs me about the argument though, is the idea that an idea should be suppressed if it has negative consequences, even if it happens to be true.  I feel ambivalent about this idea, but tend to think that suppressing potentially true ideas is, if not always wrong, at least almost always wrong.  The quest for truth is what got me into academic life in the first place, and I find the idea that we should hide the truth distasteful and potentially destructive.

A third controversy that doesn’t so much play out within psychology but instead between psychologists and other fields in the humanities and social sciences is whether there is such a thing as human nature at all.  Most psychologists who are not behaviourists will answer this in the affirmative, but some learning theorists and many anthropologists and sociologists will contend that human behaviour is almost infinitely plastic, and that those who seek to find an enduring core to human nature will find nothing but sand.  Given the large number of cross-cultural universals we have found that also seem to be thoroughly anchored in individual human development, I find the idea of an infinitely plastic human nature odd and contrary to all evidence I am aware of.  This is not a dispute I spend a lot of time on; I’ve never yet heard a decent argument from the infinite plasticity camp, and so I consider it a big waste of time.

Please note that I am note contending that there is no plasticity; clearly there is.  Learning takes place, cultures differ, and the brain rewires itself under certain circumstances.  My objection is only to the idea that these processes are so all-encompassing that there is no longer an unchanging core that is resistant to these processes.

7. What do you consider the conventional epistemological framework in psychology?

This is of course hard to summarize in a few words, since we teach whole courses on epistemology to our undergraduates (though we call them “research methods” and “statistics”), and then make our graduate students study more epistemology.  So it’s a complicated topic.

Despite this complexity, I may be able to point to a few basic assumptions.  First, we tend to assume that there is no great mystery about what people do, only about why they do it.  Hence, relatively little energy goes into purely descriptive work, whereas a tremendous amount goes into elucidating the causes of those simple, taken-for-granted behaviours.  Thus, we may say that the goal of psychology is to attempt to explain human behaviour in terms of chains, or more likely webs, of cause and effect linkages.

A second mainstream assumption, one not shared by many environmental psychologists, is that these causes have the potential to be isolated from each other.  That is, although all competent psychologists (and many incompetent ones as well) are aware that in many everyday situations a large number of causes may be operating at the same time, that it is nevertheless a viable analytical strategy to assume that this complex causal web can be usefully broken up into a number of simple, measurable causes, each of which can be experimented upon or otherwise examined individually.

A third mainstream assumption is that psychological propensities are relatively stable entities that do not change from time to time and place to place.  You can see this if you look at the verb tenses in an APA-style article.  The description of what was done in the experiment is written in the past tense, indicating (very properly) that the experiment was conducted in the past.  The interpretation of the results, however, is written in the simple present indicating that the particular results obtained in the past was a particular manifestation of a broad, general, enduring core of human propensities.  Please note that I endorsed the idea of an enduring human nature a few paragraphs back, so I don’t necessarily think this assumption is wrong (though I do think many psychologists’ lists of enduring human propensities are too long, and that a lot of psychological findings are the product of ephemeral culturally and historically situated propensities).

8. If you could restructure the epistemological foundation of psychology, how would you do it?  Furthermore, how would you reframe the approach to that foundation?

I think the approach described above has some huge successes to its credit, so I certainly don’t want to see it scrapped or seriously revamped.  What I would like to see is greater pluralism in epistemology, a recognition that we don’t really know what that psychological knowledge is, and that we should therefore be tolerant of a fairly wide range of epistemological approaches.

There’s a great section near the end of Kurt Danziger’s Constructing the Subject where Danziger points out that two basic classes of factors go into any psychological finding.  One, of course, is the “real” world telling us how it works.  The other is social factors (what some people might call artifacts) derived from the way the investigative situation has been set up and interpreted.  Looking at any given psychological investigation or even any given psychological research program, it’s not clear how much, if any, of the core finding is “true” rather than a product of the investigative situation.  However, if a bunch of people with very different epistemologies that have led them to set up very different investigative situations and interpret them using very different concepts and processes of reasoning nevertheless investigate the same approximate issue and come to the same basic conclusions, then it seems likely that the social factors largely cancel each other out and that that agreed-upon finding is derived from some fairly fundamental feature of the way the world works.

I always thought that this was a cool idea, but it only works if psychology comprises a wide variety of vibrant research programs based on a variety of very different epistemological foundations.  A second prerequisite for this to work is that there have to be psychologists willing to look at work from all these different paradigms without to much prejudice to the effect that psychologists working in such-and-such a tradition are not “real” psychologists.

9. If you had unlimited funding, what would you research?

I’m not sure unlimited funding would change the general topics of my research all that much, but it would make the scope of the research projects much greater, and if the funding included course releases, I might also do more than one project a year.

My number one area of interest is summarized by the title of a paper I presented 11 years ago, “If everyone’s an environmentalist, why are SUVs selling so well?”  There is a big disconnect between people’s stated concern for environmental issues and what they actually do, and I would love to explore that a little more.  The question of discrepancies between attitudes and behaviours has been around since at least the 1930s and LaPiere, but in this applied context, there’s a lot more still to learn.

The other area I would love to research a little more is the study of trust, cynicism, and political participation.  One of the most frightening trends I’ve seen lately is for young people to disengage from politics more or less completely, to the point where many people (not just the young) know nothing about what the politicians are up to in their name, and then either don’t vote or vote from a position of near total ignorance.  The more widespread this becomes, the less politicians are held to account, with the result that the lying, corrupt scumbag politicians who turn people off politics in the first place find it easier to rise to the top without even having to pretend to be decent human beings.  A better understanding of why this is happening would be a great thing.

10. What do you consider the most salient point for people to understand about psychology in light of your background, research, and current perspective?

I’m not sure there is a salient core truth about psychology that I can impart.  Psychology is a sprawling multi-tentacle monster with no obvious centre and very few widely shared premises.  As I indicated above, I consider this a good thing, and maybe would even like to see it become more like this.

After saying that, I have to admit that pluralism makes me a little uncomfortable.  I went into psychology thinking that there were a relatively small number of core truths about human nature.  That those truths were discoverable, and that psychology either had found or would soon find the way to get at those truths.  The truth about human nature would lead to a technology of human nature, which would make the solution of a large number of problems with psychological roots a much more straightforward matter than it currently is.  I find it much harder to believe in this now, for two reasons.  First, I seriously doubt that psychology is on track to discover many such truths.  Second, to the extent that we do have a technology of human behavior, the people who use it are not concerned citizens trying to solve human problems, but rather rich people trying to get richer and powerful people trying to get more powerful.  For example, advertisers use a technology of behaviour to induce people to buy goods they don’t need with money they don’t have, which is all right, I guess.  However, in the process the advertisers incidentally persuade many people that buying things is the primary route to happiness.  We have data suggesting that this is an astonishingly pernicious belief to hold.

11. As you observe academics pursue their careers in search of fame, fortune, and/or utility (personal and/or societal), what course do you recommend for amateur academics? If you perceive pitfalls or benefits in particular reasons for and types of an academic career, can you bring some of these to the fore?

There are a bunch of different people who fall under the heading of amateur academics, and I think different things will bring them utility.

First, there are those who are in the academic world more or less by accident, perhaps even against their will.  They`re living at home, and their parents will kick them out unless they either get a job or go to school.  So they go to school.  Or they`re on their own, but the economy`s bad, so they get student loans and study for a while.

I have a lot of sympathy for people in this situation.  I have ‘been there, done that’.  As an instructor, I often don`t like having people like this in my class, because their palpable boredom drags down the rest of the class, but I usually manage to avoid blaming them for it.  I do have advice for such people: pretend you care.  It`s not as good as really caring, of course, but it`s better than simmering in ennui and resentment for four years.

A second group, unfortunately much smaller, is motivated primarily by curiosity.  These people don`t need advice.  They`re in the right place, their appetite for new information will be satisfied as in almost no other environment, and all they have to do is follow their natural proclivities in order to succeed.

A third group, overlapping with the second, is the glory seekers.  They hope to make a name for themselves by making some sort of big discovery, etc.  My advice here is more complicated.  First, if you`re part of this group, you`d better also be part of the second group, or you`re not going to make it.  The process of discovery is so demanding of time and energy that if you don`t enjoy the actual process, you`re not going to get anywhere.  Second, I`ve discovered that freedom is overrated.

Let me explain that remark.  I`ve discovered that in graduate school, there are two sorts of academic supervisors.  One type has a highly active research program on the go, with lots of graduate students and research assistants working on various components of that program.  When the new graduate student comes, their range of freedom is severely limited: do they want to plug into this part of the program or that part?  The second type of supervisor, for one reason or another, does not have a program of research which the student can plug into.  They therefore give the student a great degree of freedom to do what they want.  This has the advantage that the student can pursue their true interests, but also the disadvantage that the student gets relatively little guidance, and endlessly seems to be reinventing the wheel.  This is a lot of fun for students in the second group, the highly curious, but a bit of a handicap for students in the third group, the glory-seekers, because productivity is likely to be low throughout graduate school and may remain low in their academic career.

12. Who have been the biggest intellectual influences on you? 

When looking back on who has exerted the biggest influence on my thinking, it`s remarkable how few are psychologists.  My move into social psychology in the early 1990s was inspired by Shelley Taylor, but the longer I stay in the field, the less I actually draw on her ideas.  The two books I have read in the last 10 years that have influenced me the most have been Jared Diamond`s Collapse and Robert Putnam`s Making Democracy Work.  I`ve traditionally been a big fan of Wittgenstein, though that influence is also waning.  Probably the single psychologist who has changed my thinking the most in the last little while is Philip Tetlock with his Expert Political Judgment, which really revitalized my uneasy endorsement of pluralism.


Creative Commons Licence In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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