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An Interview with Professor Jonathan Schooler (Part Three)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/08/22


An interview with Professor Jonathan Schooler. He discusses: the META lab; the big picture focus of the lab; conclusions from the research; counterintuitive emergent research; the research in free will; Elizabeth Loftus and collaboration; attitude towards research; the makings of a great psychologist; the possibility of the laws of psychology; verbal overshadowing and replication; and Weber’s law and unifying principles in psychology.

Keywords: decline effect, Jonathan Schooler, meta-awareness, meta-consciousness, psychology.

An Interview with Professor Jonathan Schooler: Professor, Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara; Director, The Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential (Part Three)[1],[2]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, & citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Next question set is to do with the META lab. So, you remain a principle investigator of the memory, emotion, thought, awareness lab, META? Its acronym explains its basic template and subject matter. How did the META lab begin and develop into the present?

Professor Jonathan Schooler: The META lab began when I was a, what was my title? I was a tier one Canada research chair in social cognitive science at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

It rose there. Jonathan Smallwood was involved at that time and I believed that he may be credited with it that. No, I came up with META. He came up with memory emotion, thought, awareness, that’s what it was. It reflects the branch of the topics that we tackle but also the perspective that we aim for in that it captures our big picture vantage.

2. Jacobsen: You focus a lot of your research on the “big picture.” So does this lab still pertain to that big picture focus?

Schooler: Yes, absolutely. Meta-awareness and meta-consciousness are two constructs that are essential to my perspective of things.

3. Jacobsen: What conclusions came from that research? Even the decline effect as well?

Schooler: My interest in the decline effect comes from the big picture perspective quite directly. It requires you to look at science from a larger perspective. Metascience is a core interest now in the lab and understanding how science itself operates and it is notable.

The decline effect, the nature piece and the discussion in the New Yorker came out and it is coincidental but striking that following that all of the evidence for this challenge of reproducibility has accumulated.

That comes from a big picture perspective. Recognizing that comes from a big picture perspective. Also, I originally became introduced to the idea of the decline effect in the context of parapsychological research and that’s where the term was first articulated by Ryan.

It may not come as a surprise to many that parapsychological findings have shown particularly substantial decline effects although you do see decline effects in other areas as well. However, my willingness to entertain parapsychology is also how I became introduced to the concept.

4. Jacobsen: What counterintuitive research emerged from this lab outside of the research you mentioned, the decline effect?

Schooler: The most counterintuitive results that have come from my lab is verbal overshot. That is the finding that when people verbally describe a nonverbal experience after the fact, describing a previously seen face, can interfere with the later ability, such as recognizing the face and that is counterintuitive.

You would think that talking about something would be helpful but in fact that in turns out to be disruptive. that finding was recently replicated in a major international replication effort. Another counterintuitive result was this basic idea that verbalization is disruptive generalizes to many different domains.

Such as analyzing why the way you feel you do interferes with your ability to make judgments. If people analyze why they feel the way they do, they make decisions that they are less satisfied within some circumstances and others are.

Analyzing why you feel the way you do about a nonverbal experience such as the taste of the jam, the appearance of a poster, can disrupt your ability to make a decision about that object. Another thing is telling people there is no such thing as free can influence their behaviour in marked ways.

We find that people are more likely to cheat when they’ve had the concept of free will undermined. We also find that they are less punitive when awarding damages to others.

5. Jacobsen: What is the explanation for that research with respect to free will in terms of people being less punitive in addition to being more likely to cheat?

Schooler: We are still trying to understand the full mechanism but it seems that it is changing the way people view themselves and others. With respect to themselves, they seem to hold themselves to a less high standard and with respect to others, they seem to the same for others, so they are less punitive towards them.

It seems to be a lowering of standards. Interestingly we find this effect seems to be going on below the surface. We get a larger effect if we tell them about the message in one study and then measure it in a totally separate study so it is a little bit more under the radar.

Also, we find if they make quick judgments, we see exaggerated effects. So, it seems to be that it somehow lowers people’s expectations of themselves and others and does so at a tactic level.

6. Jacobsen: So in the midst of your productive career you have collaborated with, as far as I can tell from citation listing, the single greatest living or dead woman psychologist, professor Elizabeth Loftus. What research methodologies emerged from this collaboration for you?

Schooler: I am humbled by that question because I would only hope that I could emulate the elegance of her approach. I would say that it was identifying meaningful questions. The questions that somebody on the bus would be interested in.

She had a knack for thinking about what is related to the kinds of things people care about and asking questions about that and figuring out ways to reduce that question to a paradigm that was empirically tractable and ideally simple.

So the verbal overshadowing, she has a misinformation effect where she told people after the fact that she asked a question that included misleading questions and we are too conditioned when necessary for the basic result and I came up with the verbal overshadowing effect where I asked them to describe the appearance of a previously seen face led to interference.

Then she, throughout her career, has been dedicated to significant questions and the questions that matter in the real world and I certainly do not presuppose that I have come anywhere near her pedigree or near her success in achieving that goal.

It certainly influenced me and my choice of issues such as mind wandering, which is something that everybody does but there is little research on. Or verbal overshadowing that potentially could have significant ramifications for people’s memory and even possibly for the legal system.

I was interested in recovered memories. There is so much different perspective on it but I share her appreciation for the significance of that topic. I would to think a willingness to be courageous in tackling questions that people may feel are not appropriate to ask or that are not suitable for science.

7. Jacobsen: What attitude towards research came out of this as well?

Schooler: I would say two things. Beth showed me how exciting research could be. finding passion in topics that matter. Secondly, trying to make that passion available to the general public to make use of and value from and to choose topics that have significant social importance.

8. Jacobsen: What seems her greatest strength in style of research?

Schooler: I would say it is her ability to identify important, tractable questions that are important to society that others have missed.

9. Jacobsen: You answered another question from a previous response, looking back at this. I’ll go to the next one. What makes a great psychologist such as Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, Kahneman, Loftus, and others?

Schooler: [Laughing] So, I would have to say that the capacity to promote provocative ideas that are some way or another somewhat extreme. However, to promote those ideas with complete conviction in a way that others may not even possess is critical.

If you look at all those people who you mentioned, a real case could be made that they all overstated their case. They all made claims that go beyond what many of us would feel entirely comfortable with. However, that’s their style.

They see things in that caricature, or caricature is not quite right, but somewhat extreme perspective. Interestingly, by taking the intricate idea and pushing it to it is extreme, that gives the idea greater and makes it more likely to stick and be remembered.

10. Jacobsen: Now to some exploratory subject matter. There is a series of questions I’ll ask but there are some things that came to mind in the midst of some other previous questions.

You made a particular note about the title science and many will critique social science in general, psychology and brain science in particular, as non-science in the sense that yes they do follow the procedures of science but they do not find fundamental laws.

In geology, you get plate tectonics and continental drift. In biology, you get the evolutionary theory. In physics, you get the universal law of gravitation and space and time are unified for instance. What does psychology offer in terms of laws if any, that might provide a response to this form of critique of the discipline as a whole?

Schooler: If you go back even a hundred years to psychophysics you find there is Weber’s law and there is Fechner’s law, there is a whole bunch of laws having to do with the relationship between people’s subjective experience and their judgment of physical measurements that are lawful.

There are rather lawful principles with respect to forgetting curves and there is quite a bit of qualities that has that lawful. However, that what happens is that as you move up the scale of observation, as we move from lower level to a higher level, even if you look at the difference between chemistry and biology, what you see is a gradual reduction in the lawful predictiveness of things being explicable from relatively simple variables.

You get essentially multiple converging factors and when you have multiple converging factors, it is going to be fuzzier. So, by it is nature, you see a greater fuzziness in empirical observations in psychology relative to more lower level types of processes.

Even there, it works its way up with sociology in some ways, although Durkheim, you definitely see some lawful relationships in sociology as but becomes difficult to predict with respect to any individual human being and there is likely that factors such as chaos theory and the way in which random variables interact make it challenging to make specific predictions for any given individual.

But basic phenomena, we can definitely characterize psychology as science with replicable phenomenon that when you reproduce the basic conditions, produce robust effects. So, verbal overshadowing has now been replicated by 20 labs, a single replication thing. It is unquestionably there. So, we do have observations that are meaningful but it is harder to find the simple laws to explain them.

11. Jacobsen: Two things come to mind from that. That verbal overshadowing remains one case and we do have a “crisis” in regards to replication as you noted earlier in the interview. Anything in response to that?

Schooler: We do but I do not think that’s limited to psychology at all. That includes medicine and genetics, ecology, biology and many areas seem to have issues with replication. I believe that psychology is leading the way in meta-science in demonstrating ways to understand the issues that some hard physical sciences do not, but many sciences are facing.

And in so doing we can better assess the situation. I used the word crisis myself and regret that in retrospect. I do not think we are in a crisis. we are in a growth phase of understanding our field in a way that we never had before. However, much of what we are finding is robust and it may be that the effects are not as big as expected.

We seem to be finding evidence for this. Some of them may not be done at all. The actual degree of that remains to be determined. My own intuition is that many effects that now claim to be not replicated were there, they were smaller then they were originally appreciated to be and so the dimensions are more specified.

And once we begin to be more precise and understanding the conditions and are more generous in the number of participants that we use, a lot this will resolve itself.

12. Jacobsen: You mentioned Weber’s law as and I mentioned continental dirt, plate tectonics, evolutionary theory, the universal law of gravitation among others and the latter 4 examples, continental drift, and so on, those do not seem to mirror Weber’s law in one sense.

For instance, in biology with evolutionary theory, it seems to provide a robust, unifying concept and process. Does Weber’s law perform the same for psychology? It seems less so to me. does psychology have any unifying principles from which it can derive most or all of it is conclusions or tentative conclusions at this point in time?

Schooler: That may be a good place to finish. I’ll tell you what, it is 4 now so let’s leave it at that. I’ll incubate. That’s an excellent question to incubate on and let’s set up a time to continue our conversation.

13. Jacobsen: Thank you much.

Schooler: Okay, bye-bye.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara; Director, The Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential.

[2] Individual Publication Date: August 22, 2017 at; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2017 at


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


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