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A Conversation with Professor Rick Mehta on Self-Discovery, View Changes, and Conveyed Messages (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/03/22


An interview with Professor Rick Mehta. He discusses: geographic, cultural, and family background; discovering himself; main research findings from the doctoral thesis; major trends in the way we look at the way human beings process information; reflections on Mehta’s transition from militant atheism to new views; problems with slant in social and political views and the influences on findings and interpretations; Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence and Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, the work of Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji with the IAT, general intelligence, and conscientiousness linked to discussion on biology; values to convey in a first-year class; fragmentation of epistemology in academic disciplines; inavertently stepping into controversy; amelioration of the fragmentation in psychology; and his hoped-for message for the next generations conveyed in classes.

Keywords: controversy, epistemology, free speech, militant atheism, psychology, research, Rick Mehta.

A Conversation with Professor Rick Mehta on Self-Discovery, View Changes, and Conveyed Messages (Part One)[1],[2],[3]

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was geography, culture, and family life – heritage – and so on?

Professor Rick Mehta: My parents came to Canada in 1967. They started from India and went to Coventry, England, then from Coventry, England came to Canada in 1967. I was born in 1970

It was one month before the October Crisis. I was living in Lasalle at the time. It was a turbulent time because this was, as I said, around the time of the October Crisis and the times leading up to the Referendum of 1980.

There was tension between the English and French. With our family being East Indian, we were viewed as enemies by both sides. We were not that liked at that time. There was racism that I experienced during that time.

After the referendum, I found things got better in Canada. I never had any regrets about living in Canada. I have adopted the Western values as part of who I am. That is the cultural part.

Religion, my parents are Hindu. I have never been religious. I may be a bit spiritual, maybe, but not outright religious. I was a militant atheist for a bit. But then I noticed when I went online that many of the militant atheists were probably more intolerant of the people they were criticizing.

I gave that up. I am open to other people’s views. If we are connected to each other somehow, that’s good enough. For language, I had trouble learning multiple languages when I was in elementary school.

For better or worse, my parents decided to speak only English at home. The downside is we didn’t know the research on language. It shows that children might struggle at first if they are learning multiple languages.

But they will excel at all three later in life. If my parents had later known that, my parents would have taken a different tactic. They did the best with what they knew at the time.

I guess having grown up around that time with the animosity between the English and French. I developed a closed-minded attitude, “Why do I have to learn French when they can just learn English?”

In retrospect, I wish I had gotten rid of that attitude and had been more open-minded. Unfortunately, I am a unilingual Anglophone with some very basic working knowledge of French, so I can get by in Montreal.

2. Jacobsen: I want to get into some of your earlier educational experiences. When it came to university, did you know what you wanted to do, or did you need a little bit of time to, as they say, discover yourself?

Mehta: A little bit of time, in terms of how I evolved over time, it changed. In my first year at the undergraduate level, I discovered that I liked the psychology courses. But I was not particularly keen on some areas like the personality of the person who taught some courses. They did not seem to have one.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Mehta: [Laughing] There were certain courses like that that I did not want to take. Biology, there was a plants course. I did not like it. It was a required course [Laughing]. At the time, there was a new program opening in neuroscience that was being offered at the satellite campuses at the University of Toronto.

It was a way of getting people to go to the Scarborough and Erindale campuses. So, I was living in Scarborough at the time. It seemed like the best degree at the time. It was a way to get the best of psychology and the best of biology and avoid certain courses that I did not want to take [Laughing].

3. Jacobsen: [Laughing] Eventually, you did earn up to the highest level that we do have, which is Ph.D. What was the main research question in the doctoral thesis? What was the finding? Or what were the findings?

Mehta: Basically, the Master’s degree was in psychopharmacology and involved research with rats. I found it very limiting and narrow because I could not see the connection between the rat models and addiction. I probably could have done a better job in my own research.

Some were my own shortcoming at the time, too. But also working with the animals and the way everyone is treating the animals as if they are commodities, it never felt right to me on that front.

I was also developing allergies to the rats. I think at least 60% if not more of people who work with rodents develop allergies that are severe. I switched to human cognition for my Ph.D.

I was trying to look at how people learn correlations or associations between events, so that one event magically predicts another. That is the information we use to detect relationships with our world and predict what will happen next.

That was what I was interested in. It was more of the basic level. I was working with different associative or mathematical models versus other more top-down models. I found those a mix that could explain how people do their reasoning.

It was the easiest way to explain those reasonings. I did that line of work. For a postdoc at the University of Winnipeg, I was doing that as my early research at Acadia University. I found that the models were getting so convoluted.

The research was so inaccessible. If I was having difficulty, how could I get my students to do that? So, I switched to decision-making to have something more broadly defined and more accessible for students to be involved in.

4. Jacobsen: When you’re dealing with human cognition and you’re looking at the research now, what have been the major trends in the research or the big changes? In other words, what new findings have changed the way we look at the way human beings process information?

Mehta: I find that the main problem of a lot of the literature is that it has become so fragmented with these small questions. Not so much in dealing with the big issues, I think probably the main frustration of being an academic is that it is very small and territorial. We are all working in these small realms.

That is my dissatisfaction with that. So, there are these small little sub-fields. In academia in general, though, the part that has me worried is all these fields with identity because all they do is look at themselves and see how oppressed they are.

I do not see where there is the human condition. Let’s take a degree like Fat Studies, how much can you really learn from a degree where you learn that “I’m fat and if there are exercise programs that they are somehow victimizing me by telling me to change my diet”?

It seems like the fields are getting much more fragmented. Some more than others. Since I am interested in decision-making, with one honors student, we are interested in looking at the perception of singles vs. couples and so on.

One big name in the field, Bella DePaulo. Her earlier books were on how single people are stigmatized and that maybe they should get some respect, but her latest book for the public is about how singles are badass

That does not sit with me because that is not a message that I want to convey to people. That we are superior in any way. We are different and should deserve the same level of dignity as others. Some of the messages in these research areas to do with identity worry me.

5. Jacobsen: I reflect on the minor comment stated about early life for you in relation to the term in the TED Talk by Richard Dawkins in that period where you were a militant atheist.

You noted the unpleasant convictions and bigotry at times coming from that sector of some of the atheist, of the New Atheist, population as well as this thing that you just said.

It is not arguing for equality of singlehood. It is arguing for the superiority of it. It is not arguing for, in the former case, an equality of atheism with general society. It is arguing for superiority in a sense.

I notice that one consistent thread.

Mehta: Yes, I notice that with even with some of the cognition. They will design these studies and the result of it shows that conservatives are somehow morally inferior or something like that compared to liberals.

Of course, if it is all run by liberals, it sounds like what we did in the past to use science to justify our own bigotry. For a little while, I was a like that, except I caught myself. I have tried to realign my thinking to how we can have different ways of respecting each other with different ways of things in terms of how we view the world.

I think not having tied an emotion to my way of thinking has made a world of difference in terms of being open to new ideas and new perspectives.

6. Jacobsen: As you know the research better than I do, with the massive slant in social and political views, especially in psychology, more towards liberal than conservative, though I don’t know how they defined liberal and conservative in the research, the research will slant within that framework of demographics.

Also, not only the questions are asked, but the findings that are found and the interpretations that are given to them, how big of a problem does this present in psychology?

Mehta: I would say it is quite major. I am teaching the first-year psychology. I haven’t taught the second half in over 10 years. You would think after all this time that some of the stuff in the textbook would change, but it hasn’t.

We still have the Sternberg Multiple Intelligences. The whole idea that we all think differently.

Jacobsen: Oh, he is Triarchic.

Mehta: Yes! All of that is still there, even though it doesn’t work. The idea that we all learn in different ways is false. The things like stereotype threat explain racial differences is still there. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is still there.

People are saying this is an area of controversy. This is being claimed as if it is established as fact. I am looking at the second half of the textbook trying to figure out how to teach it, even though I know a bunch of it is outright false.

Even looking at family structures, it is still under the assumption that we will get married, have children, and have the nuclear family. That is not the way we are living these days. There was an article recently in Maclean’s reporting the number of mothers regretting having their children.

That is not a topic at all discussed in psychology. If you think under developmental, that would be one of the big questions, it clearly isn’t. There is clearly much missing in our field in terms of big ways that we can’t even address the society we are claiming to serve.

7. Jacobsen: Also, to clarify, you mentioned Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence and Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences as well as the work of Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji with the IAT.

At least in terms of general intelligence, tied to conscientiousness, especially in a knowledge economy, it is probably more predictive of life success. Let’s take intelligence, why are these two theories alongside general intelligence pushed in the first year, in that half of the textbook you mentioned?

Mehta: I think the reason they didn’t acknowledge that side is the role of biology is far stronger than we had even thought; I was shocked having taken a break from it for ten years and then looking at the latest research.

I remember going through and my jaw dropping at what I had seen. It was so different than what I had thought before. With heritability, the fact of its role seems to increase over the course of development from childhood to adolescence.

Whereas, I would think it would decrease or be a small role. It increased from .5 to .7. It goes beyond what I expected. But because I did not have a vested interest in that research area. I was able to present the information as fact and let the students think for themselves.

But if I was a social psychologist or in that line, that would be a threat to me if I was liberal and seeing the world as being a social construct. That explains the racial disparities.

Because I was able to do it neutrally, I thought, “This is what the evidence is, and this is what I am going to present to my class.” When I went into the social psychology textbook and went through the explanation, none of them seemed valid.

What I ended up showing in the class was a clip from Thomas Sowell, I mean, the question that bugged me over all these years when covering the section on intelligence. Lots of groups got the short end of the stick.

They were treated quite poorly by our European settlers. But some groups have thrived where some groups haven’t. The question was “Why?” None of the explanations in the textbook seemed at all convincing.

So, looking at the economics and who we vote for, it was a shock to my students. My own initial reaction, being a left-liberal, but listening to Thomas Sowell. It is hard to attack him, which is what we do.

We discount the person. Here we are, a black person who has lived 80 years and seen the world changed through the different eras and is knowledgeable and well-spoken and has a soft, gentle demeanor, so there is nothing you can attack on a personal level.

But it was amazing to hear him. Now, I bought some of his books to put for my summer reading and try to look at that whole angle; it was a learning experience for me that I have been a voter all these years voting on economic issues, but I don’t have an idea how economics works.

That is not a good feeling [Laughing]. But, of course, it is true. You can’t know everything. What do I do now? I learn about it. How do we correct these mistakes and tell the students that “you are the next generation, and these are some of the issues that you will have to deal with”?

8. Jacobsen: What do you see as some of the values to take onboard from a class, even though it is nothing that you are forcing on them? It is a learning environment. What do they tend to take away from that first-year psychology?

Mehta: It has been interesting. In the first half, it was straightforward because it did not that go against their thinking, e.g. talking about inattentional blindness and tie it to driving. Most people are willing to accept that.

But the second half, and as I am seeing, it has a political lens to it. Given that, I think they come from a background where their teachers and elementary school teachers were liberal-left leaning.

For some, I know they became defensive, when I brought up the fact that the wage gap is false. Many got angry and upset with me when I showed the Thomas Sowell video. I saw some students walking out.

It is strange, the defensive reaction. I did talk about that the following class as a debrief. My observation was the reaction was not in line with what I was saying. From a mental health perspective, it is in line with an immune system that hasn’t been exposed to germs and then has a strong reaction.

I said that if that was happening with something I thought was innocuous, then I would be worried about their resiliency.

It is like giving the patient the bad news. I try to frame it as “here is something to think about,” especially race. It is one no one wants to touch and if it is touched then the only explanation must be environmental as opposed to biological.

9. Jacobsen: When it comes to the two forms of fragmentation of knowledge that you noted in the earlier part of the interview, the one with identity politics-oriented disciplines and the other within psychology.

This fragmentation of the epistemology that the disciplines are bringing to the fore. It breeds some issues because at least in the identity politics areas or disciplines. They will be focusing on themselves in terms of their research and citations.

So, if their focus is on themselves in terms of their research and citations, it can breed problems of new ideas coming in from the outside and the reactions to it. What are some?

Mehta: Oh, I can give you an example. It was at Acadia, last summer. It was a major announcement release that a thesis got an award. The title of the thesis was about how that person came to be in touch with the sexual identity through interpretive dance.

It was released on the Research and Graduate Studies website saying that what made this thesis so special is that dance was the focus of the thesis and not just an add-on. I read the thesis.

There could be, as a research question, some merit to it. So, I don’t want to minimize that or someone’s coming out experience, but the problem with that is that it used autoethnography.

That was the key part I forgot to mention. You read the thesis. It reads like a diary entry, where “this is my diary and I will use references to reinforce my view of the world.” This is an exercise in confirmation bias.

There is no attempt to challenge your worldview from different angles. It was “all about me.” There was no attempt to use his experience to see if this can generalize to other people. That would be an interesting question.

It is not the question, but it is the approach. It is all very insular. You come through that thesis more ingrained in your views than you were to begin with because that process is reinforced.

This was a thesis in education, a counseling degree.

Jacobsen: This doesn’t seem as rigorous as one would hope in a graduate program, frankly.

Mehta: Yes, in a discussion on Facebook, I posted about that; it was one of my public posts. It was a different context about our union about to go on strike. That discussion led to this.

I said to that student that if you don’t think a university education is a Left-wing indoctrination, then go to New Real Peer Review on Twitter and see what’s there. If you don’t think that would happen at Acadia, then look here.

Then I gave a link to the Research in Graduate Studies website. So, then afterward, the dean came to see me. He said that if someone could, in theory, say that what I was saying was minimizing the person’s coming out experience, and if that was the case, then I would be violating the university’s policy on homophobia.

He said that he recommended that I take it down. I outright refused. That became a bit of a kerfuffle.

10. Jacobsen: What would you say has been the main controversy that you inadvertently stepped into in Canada?

Mehta: [Laughing] I thought that it would be my big claim to fame because after that I tried to tweet to media outlets and whatnot. I thought I was going to have an interview. That didn’t materialize. That fizzled.

I tried attempts at saying to Acadia, “If you really want to deal with racism, then abandon the decolonization and your commitment to social justice.” I hoped that would be the big stir. That didn’t happen, even though I ended it with the hashtag: “#itsokaytobewhite.”

Still nothing, but it happened inadvertently when I least expected it, which was when Andrew Scheer, our conservative opposition leader had removed his senator Lynn Beyak from the conservative caucus.

I tweeted out to him: You claim to be for free speech on the one hand, but then you remove her from your caucus. So then, are you saying First Nations are a group that cannot be criticized anyway? Then that is a bad move for race relations.

All I had done was tweet that. I hadn’t thought much of it. That is what led to the Twitter mobbing and all of these being in the media spotlight.

11. Jacobsen: When it comes to the underlying point, if I get the tacit message, in an ethic, you do not want to be a hypocrite. You want to apply standards to yourself as you would to others.

Mehta: As humanly possible.

Jacobsen: Within the constraints of energy, time, and so on, if someone was tired and drunk [Laughing], they would act like rats on narcotics. It would be roughly the same model. It would not be running at 100% so to speak.

I want to touch on more academic issues with regards to the fragmentation of knowledge. It is a formal interview setting, but I think it is a valuable conversation – especially in the context of North American academia, Canadian academia for shorthand.

What I notice with regards to the various disciplines in psychology, e.g. evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, etc., these fields obviously have some moments of distinct overlap in findings but coming from different frameworks of reference.

So, I would take a metaphor of the entire hopes and dreams of all knowledge in psychology in some Platonic world, some abstract, would be a big black sphere. Each discipline is a light shone on that sphere.

At times, they form something like a Venn diagram with each other with this mutually distinct but partially overlapping findings but coming from those different frameworks of reference or lenses.

What might ameliorate the issues with regards to the fragmentation of that knowledge based on differences in perspective in epistemology in psychology?

Mehta: I guess if there was some way of getting groups of people who do not think the same way to work with each other. I think right now the trend is “let’s encourage collaboration,” but what happens naturally is people who think alike work together because that is what you need for a collaboration [Laughing] to work.

Jacobsen: Political affiliation links to personality, right?

Mehta: There is partly that. I think those political links would affect how you think in terms of how you would approach problems, especially if there is going to be an ideological part.

Let us say within social neuroscience, “Let’s look for a biological basis for these constructs that we are viewing through a very limited lens,” you have all this work using event-related potentials trying to look at the biological basis of the implicit associations, but it always involves targets of white vs. black with white people using it.

But we are not using some crucial comparisons such as black look at white vs. black because that is what you would need to say it is that in-group and out-group difference. If I have read the social psychology literature, nobody wants to touch it.

What I have noticed in reading the beginning of articles, they say blacks show the same prejudices that whites do against blacks. I remember one study they showed faces on a screen.

The black faces were seen as larger and more threatening, but it was not only by whites but by blacks as well. There is something about having a darker skin color that our brains, for whatever reason is not clear to me, is registered as more threatening and that is putting them at more risk for all these horrible things that are happening to them.

If that got out and people knew that, then we could address the core problems but because no one wants to look at that side then the problems here will be solved because nobody wants to talk about that angle whatsoever.

Jacobsen: So, that part of the sphere remains dark or even if not dark only partially lit.

Mehta: Yes, it is like inattentional blindness or willful hemi-neglect.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Mehta: “We must not look at that.” We must be blind to that, even though it is staring you in the face.

12. Jacobsen: I remember some of the research on spousal abuse, where the focus is rightfully on women in the home, but looking at the rates it was something like a 1% difference between men and women.

It was a difference in style. Men were more prone to physical violence. Women were more prone to social and emotional violence, or abuse. That second part of that statement is that part not brought into the discussion. I do not see it.

Mehta: Yes, it is very hard. If you bring it up, you are called a Men’s Rights Activist, as if that is somehow a bad thing. But by extension of being one, you must somehow be a misogynist. Unfortunately, the political climate has gotten very heated.

But I think people are clueing in that all that is happening is that the Left/Liberal side of that doesn’t have arguments and are resorting to name calling. We are starting to see people say, “We have had enough and your game is up.”

Hopefully, that is what I try to do in my class. “Let’s be the voice of reason, you guys are going to the be the next generation, show the public that you can tackle these discussions. That you can lead and can do that in a positive manner.”

That whole idea of balancing the positive psychology with being realistic and open to people who think very differently from ourselves, so we can reach common ground. Maybe, not everyone will be 100% happy.

But at least, they can feel like part of the conversation and can get part of what they were looking for. I think that is a more realistic way of trying to approach things than what the social movements of the past did, which was “let’s grab life by the horns and our way is the right way.”


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Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Psychology, Acadia University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: March 22, 2018 at; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2018 at

[3]B.Sc. (Honours), University of Toronto; M.Sc., McGill University; Ph.D., McGill University.


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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