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Dr. Carol Tavris: Social Psychologist, Writer, Lecturer


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/01/01

1. What academic positions have you held?

Although I have taught at various institutions, including the New School for Social Research in New York and UCLA, I have never held a full-time academic position. I have always loved teaching, especially the intro course, but my career has primarily been as a writer—of textbooks, general interest books, book reviews and essays, articles for journals and magazines—all with the goal of promoting critical thinking and psychological science.  In a world full of pop-psych pseudoscience, that is a full-time job!

2. How did you develop that career? 

When I was in graduate school, a new magazine called Psychology Today was born. It was meant to be the Scientific American of psychology—a magazine that would bring good psychological science to general audiences. I wrote to them, looking for a summer job. They told me they would hire me, but only if I came for a year. Though scared to death to take a year off the Ph.D. program, I did, and that experience changed my life. There, working with brilliant editors, I learned to write, edit, and conduct interviews. When I went back to Michigan, I was an Associate Editor.  When I got my Ph.D., I had a choice: proceed with an academic career or go back to the magazine as a Senior Editor.  The latter option was risky: no tenure or even job security, after all. But my beloved mentors at UM said, “You know, there are many ways to be a good social psychologist, and one of them is having the ability to educate the public about what social psychology is.”

3. When did psychology interest you?

Not as an undergraduate! I took one intro course and got a C+. I majored in comparative literature and sociology, and went to the University of Michigan in sociology—to study “the sociology of literature,” whatever that was. But there I found the interdisciplinary program in social psychology, and loved it. I switched into that program immediately. We learned an array of methods, topics, and perspectives.

4. Where did you acquire your education?

I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, and a graduate student at Michigan. But I “acquired my education” also first and foremost from my parents, who were committed to critical and creative thinking, and social activism; from working at general-interest magazines, which taught me the importance of using my education to help inform the public about science and critical thinking; and by coming of age during the civil-rights and women’s rights movements.

5. Since you began studying psychology, what do you consider the controversial topics?

There is always “controversy” in any field: sometimes over politically sensitive issues (e.g., sex and race differences), or over methods, or about findings. In my lifetime, the most divisive and emotional issues were the “recovered memory” and “multiple personality” hysteria of the 1990s, along with widespread claims in Canada and the U.S. of ritual sex abuse going on in daycare centers. So many lives and families were shattered by these faulty beliefs—notably, the idea that traumatic memories of sexual abuse are repressed until “recovered” in therapy with hypnosis, dream analysis, and other methods now known to create confabulations; that trauma causes the self to “dissociate” into many personalities; that “children never lie” about being molested. These epidemics made many psychological scientists more committed than ever to educating the public about the importance of good psychological research. That research has showed how best to interview children to avoid coercing or inducing them into telling fanciful tales, while being open to their telling about actual abuse; how “multiple personalities” can be manufactured in a collaboration between therapist and patient; and how trauma and memory really do function.

Of all my writings, I am especially partial to the popular book I wrote with Elliot Aronson, Mistakes were made (but not by ME): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. In this book, we use cognitive dissonance to show why it is so hard for people to deal with controversies, once they have taken a position: why it is so hard to say, “hmm, time to give up that outdated belief after all” or to admit that a particular choice we made might have been wrong.

6. You have devoted much of your life to criticizing work most often termed ‘pseudoscience’.  How do you define pseudoscience?  What do you consider its most common markers? 

At least in its ideal form, science is falsifiable. A scientific premise can be disconfirmed; it is testable.  Do you believe that dowsing and ESP exist? Do you believe that the Bible says the world will end next Friday? These are beliefs that can be tested empirically. If the test repeatedly fails, the hypothesis is wrong—you need to modify it or drop it. But pseudoscientists keep the belief despite the disconfirming evidence: “It was the wrong day for dowsing because of clouds.” The world did not end Friday? Nothing wrong with my prediction, I just read that page of the Bible incorrectly—I meant Tuesday.

7. You earned numerous awards for your book The Mismeasure of Woman–such as the Distinguished Media Contribution from the Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology, the Heritage Publications award from Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, and the Distinguished Contribution to Women’s Health Award from the APA Conference on Women’s Health. You have received other awards, as from the Independent Investigations Group of the Center for Inquiry, for your contributions to skepticism.  What do these awards mean to you? 

Getting awards is extremely gratifying; it means your peers and colleagues respect and honor your work. But it’s also humbling. The next day, everyone forgets, so it’s back to work.

8. Who most influenced you?  Can you recommend any seminal books/articles by them?

I hate lists! This question is impossible, because my influences were feminism, and the countless important books in psychology, politics, and culture about gender equality and how to achieve it; great studies in social psychology; great writers and poets, who have inspired me as a writer . . .  how long have you got?  Besides, what had an impact on me might have no interest to you. My advice to students, therefore, is always to follow your heart, mind, and nose—explore. Read in areas other than your specialty. Read for fun. Read and memorize poetry. Take courses not only because it is a required subject, but because you’ve heard the professor is brilliant and compelling—even if that course is far afield from your major.

9. Where do you see psychology going?

The biggest issue that psychology will face, in my view, is to remember that it is psychology. The biomedical revolution is transforming research and how we understand human behavior; neuroscience in psychology and other fields is rising in dominance. But we must not overlook the equally powerful influences of culture, learning, and the environment in determining how we behave, what we believe, and how we shape our worlds.


1)      Center for Inquiry (2014). Center for Inquiry.  Retrieved from

2)      James Randi Foundation [JamesRandiFoundation] (2012, August 8). Carol Tavris, Ph.D. – “A Skeptical look at Neuroscience – TAM 2012. James Randi Foundation. Retrieved from

3)      Tavris, C. (2006). The high cost of courage. In M. Garry & H. Hayne (Eds.), Do justice and let the sky fall: Elizabeth F. Loftus and her contributions to science, law, and academic freedom. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

4)      Tavris, Carol, & Aronson, Elliot (2007).  Mistakes Were Made (but not by me):  Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.  New York: Harcourt.  Paperback edition, 2008, Harvest books.  Foreign editions: England, Poland, Germany, Japan, Hungary, Romania, France, Taiwan, China (Taiwan and mainland), South Korea, Turkey, Holland, Czech Republic.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’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 Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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