An Interview with Steven Pinker

Interview by Ryan Smith

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Dr. Pinker has been named as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals and his work has won numerous awards. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest volume, The Sense of Style, which is subtitled ‘The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.’

Dr. Pinker, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions regarding your new book, The Sense of Style, and perhaps also a question or two concerning your other books.

I’ve enjoyed your site, and am happy to chat with you.

IIevX5rRWhen I tell people that your new book is about writing in style, they typically remark that it was an obvious subject for you to tackle (since your own style is widely appreciated). But ideas that are blindingly obvious in hindsight are not always so obvious at the moment of their conception. How did you come upon the idea of writing a book about writing?

Like most of my book projects, it had been ricocheting in the back of my mind for many years, waiting for an occasion that would make me decide to do it as the next project. My previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, was on genocide, war, torture, rape, sadism, and domestic violence. So I decided I should next write a book on really controversial topics, like split infinitives and fused participles. Seriously, I like to alternate books on human nature with books on language. The immediate impetus to do the style manual that had long been on my mind was the clumsy copy-editing done on the manuscript for Better Angels – the copy-editor was clearly following a number of rules robotically, like switching every passive sentence into the active voice. It’s true that academics, politicians, and corporate hacks overuse the passive, but it’s not true that you can improve prose by eliminating the passive—in many contexts, the passive is the better choice. I decided that the world needed a style manual that explained the rationale behind rules of style, rather than just listing them, and that those rationales ultimately came from my fields of expertise, psycholinguistics and cognitive science.

Your writing style is generally acknowledged to be elegant, entertaining, and clear. I assume that you, like most other good writers, weren’t born with this ability. How has your own process been in learning to write well? Can you share a little of your ‘coming of age’ story when it comes to acquiring the sense of style? Also, is there anyone in particular – a book, teacher, or role model – whom you look back upon as having had a foundational impact on your writing style?

Starting in grad school, I began to consume style manuals, both to improve my writing and as a source of phenomena that were relevant to my interest in psycholinguistics. But as I say in the new book, most writers acquire their craft not by consulting style manuals but by reading a lot, and savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good writing. I was particularly influenced by two gifted prose stylists who were also brilliant pioneers in the psychology of language: George A. Miller, famous (among other things) for his “Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two” paper, and my advisor Roger Brown, who wrote Words and Things in 1957 and founded the modern study of child language acquisition.

Books on how to write well generally have a reputation for being tedious. The market is saturated with titles still in print, and a common criticism is that they are all cut from the same cloth. As a prospective reader, how can I expect The Sense of Style to be different from other style manuals?

pinker2The “thinking person’s guide” in the subtitle alludes to the fact that I explain the rationale behind my advice, rather than issuing edicts, so that readers have a way of judging why and when they should apply a particular guideline. Together with cognitive science and psycholinguistics, this requires a look at the study of usage, and here my experience as Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary is relevant. Most people assume that dictionaries are like the rules committee of Major League Baseball – the stipulators and arbitrators of correctness. In fact, dictionaries cultivate an ear for actual usage, particularly among careful writers, and craft their definitions and usage notes accordingly. My advice on traditional questions of correct usage – whether to end a sentence with a preposition, whether aggravate can be used to mean “annoy” as well as “intensify” – are based on data and historical evidence on how these forms are used by careful writers, not on my peeves and prejudices.

One thing I hear that a lot of college professors inculcate into their students these days is that “good writing is re-writing.” As a consequence, a lot of college graduates seem to be under the impression that the more they re-write, the better. But on the other hand, a common criticism of first-time academic authors is that their books are “overwritten” and that they seek to impress with posture rather than substance. What advice would you give to fledgling authors who have yet to find their own sense of style?

The advice is good. The “overwritten” quality of academese does not come from too many revisions. Quite the contrary – it’s surprisingly easy to write in turgid mush. It takes a lot of work and skill to write clearly and elegantly.

You have previously been active in the field of Evolutionary Psychology and that theoretical framework has either underpinned, or been the overt topic of, several of your books. Since you first wrote about the subject, there has been a deluge of writings on Evolutionary Psychology and it can be very hard for the non-specialist to separate the wheat from the chaff. How do you see the field of Evolutionary Psychology today versus, say, 12 years ago when you wrote The Blank Slate?

It’s matured tremendously, and has become an indispensable part of psychology today. This is not to say that every hypothesis is correct, just that psychologists are increasingly realizing that no psychological explanation is complete unless it says something on the phylogenetic and adaptive basis of a trait.

Lastly, I’m sure our readers would find it amusing if you could point out an error of style that I have committed in this interview.

I didn’t spot any errors, but then I don’t think that playing “Gotcha!” is the best way to encourage good writing – clarity and coherence are far more important than avoiding the occasional error of usage or diction.

Well, I guess in your own way you ‘got me’ there – Dr. Pinker, thank you for doing this interview and best of luck with your new book, The Sense of Style.

Many thanks for having me on the site.


Dr. Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, is available via Amazon.

Shankara’s Criticism of Yogacara

To view the contents of this post, you must be logged in. Click on Store in the sidebar on the left to learn more.

Presidential Personality

Presidential Personality

The Context of Pauli’s Typings

To view the contents of this post, you must be logged in. Click on Store in the sidebar on the left to learn more.

Tips for the Fledgling Psychologist

Malin Gustavsson is a contributing guest writer for CelebrityTypes. In this article, Gustavsson draws on her personal experience as a therapist to share some tips on how to be an effective counselor. As with other guest writers on the site (such as Michael Pierce and Jesse Gerroir) we do not necessarily agree with Gustavsson on every point. In fact, we positively disagree with Gustavsson on the importance of diagnosis. Still, we consider her admonition to be a valuable counterpart to our usual perspective.

By Malin Gustavsson

In this article I am going to provide a handful of tips for the psychologist who wants to better his or her therapeutic skills. Though people have come to think of “psychologists” as being merely the members of one specific profession, my view is rather that we are really all psychologists.

cupidoLikewise, because the history of psychotherapy has focused heavily on abnormal people and clinical settings, the cartoonish image of the therapist as an all-knowing expert has been allowed to form in people’s minds. This image tends to obscure the fact that we are all therapists in different areas of our lives and that our loved ones may benefit from our therapeutic assistance when dealing with a whole range of everyday situations. Commonplace problems, such as deciding whether or not to accept a given promotion, may just as easily benefit from being met with therapeutic assistance as clinical ones. So here are some tips for the fledgling psychologist.

Tip #1: Help the Other Person Become Himself

A fundamental mistake that people make when approaching the practice of psychotherapy is that they think of it as advice-giving: The better the advice that is given to the patient, the more of a psychologist you are (or so the thinking goes). Viewed through these spectacles, psychotherapy almost becomes a sort of guide to the stock-exchange: “Buy!”, “Sell!”, “Up!”, “Down!” Follow the therapist’s advice and all of your problems will be naught.

When practicing psychotherapy, a useful rule of thumb is that even if the person is genuinely in doubt about what to do, the psychologist should think of the therapeutic situation as if the other person already knows what to do. She carries the answer inside herself; she just hasn’t been able to clarify that answer to her conscious mind yet. The task of the psychologist in therapy is really to help the other person figure out what she is going to do of her own accord – not to give advice or to be the infallible expert that the patient will look up to.

Again, because the misleading image of the dejected patient and the all-knowing therapist has been allowed to form in people’s minds, people all too often assume that the patient is a weak and indecisive individual with no resourcefulness of her own. But the truth is that most of us are able to come to our own conclusions if we’re encouraged to, allowed to, and listened attentively to.

Think of it like this: When the patient presents a problem, the lazy psychologist will search his pre-existing and personal knowledge to come up with an answer and deliver the best possible piece of advice to the patient. “Your boyfriend doesn’t clean up after himself and expects you to do all the housework? – Of course you should move out!”

This is a mistake – a form of laziness that even many professional psychologists fall prey to. The diligent psychologist will instead remind herself that there is a wealth of emotional nuance and factual information that she is not privy to and which she has not experienced first-hand.

As wonderful a gift as the practice of psychotherapy is, there is still a whole range of things that therapy cannot do. For example, if a person is not emotionally ready to leave her relationship, there is nothing you can say from your own perspective that will impart that readiness to her. It has to come of her own volition, and it will come of her own volition, once the therapist helps her clarify her own thoughts and emotions by reflecting the elements of her own considerations back to her.

The exception to this rule is when the other person is trapped in a relationship with overtly violent elements. In such situations, it is permissible, even advisable, to use whatever authority or closeness you have with the other person to get her to leave the relationship. The reason it can be okay to advise someone to get out of a violent relationship is because a person’s base biological instincts take over when one is habitually subjected to violence. The person who lives in fear cannot rationally decide whether she wants to remain in a relationship or not – her limbic system has kicked in and is deciding for her.

Tip #2: Be Cautious About Diagnosis

While CelebrityTypes obviously places great value on diagnosis here on the site, the psychologist should nevertheless be wary of making diagnosis too central a component of the therapeutic situation. Way too often, diagnosis becomes an attempt to transplant a hard-science mindset onto the practice of psychotherapy – a setting in which such certitude is neither desirable nor possible.

Of course, the practice of proper diagnosis is critical when dealing with patients beset by conditions that have a firm biological foundation (e.g. schizophrenia, epilepsy, brain disease, etc.). But in everyday psychotherapy, diagnosis becomes less crucial. It can even be counterproductive.

The dangers of applying diagnosis should be obvious to most students of psychology: A diagnosis is an idealized prototype, but the actual patient is a concrete and specific phenotype that is shaped by her unique blend of experiences and dispositions. Once we apply a diagnosis (such as a Jungian type or DSM style) everything about the patient that conforms to the type or style immediately springs to mind. This sudden blaze of illumination can be helpful, of course, but it often comes at the cost of our neglect of those aspects of the other person’s psyche that do not fit the diagnosis.

A diagnosis may also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially in a clinical setting where the therapist is imbued with medical authority. From the very earliest days of psychology, the field has been rife with patients who unwittingly became more “borderline” or “narcissistic” because the therapist kept referring to them as such. It was hardly a coincidence that the sexually deprived Freud and the erotically licentious Jung kept discovering “hysterical” women who needed help sorting out their sex lives.

Even when applying a diagnosis, the psychologist should always keep the relatively poor reliability of the Jungian types and the DSM styles in mind. Even the mighty Big Five system of personality, so often hailed as the gold standard in psychometric testing, cannot relieve the therapist of his obligation to engage with the whole human being.

Tip #3: Help the Patient Develop Empathy

When people are struggling with problems that are within the normal range of psychological functioning, the gist of their problems can often be traced back to an inability to develop and deploy proper empathy in their relationships.

For the majority of relations in life, empathy is the key to developing meaningful relationships with others. Think about the most empathetic person you know: Even if you don’t like that person when thinking of him critically and from afar, chances are that you nevertheless tend to be charmed by him in the hours that follow an extended interaction between the two of you. This ambiguity illustrates the raw power of empathy to act as the plaster that binds people together and which leads them to perceive relations with one another as meaningful.

Obviously, not every patient is able to develop empathy to the level that could ideally be desired. Like a person’s capacity for mathematics, much of a person’s empathic ability is inborn and cannot be altered by the therapeutic process. Yet no matter what capacity for empathy the other person brings to counseling, the therapist must approach the conversation with an optimistic mindset. The fact that an ideal outcome is not always achievable does not discount whatever actual gains the patient is able to make.

Like I mentioned in tip #1, the psychologist should not set out to equip the patient with a textbook understanding of empathy. The patient is fully capable of acquiring such knowledge of her own accord or to pursue such knowledge in other settings. Instead, the therapist should use the here-and-now of the therapeutic situation to be empathetic towards the patient, so that she will experience empathy first-hand. If the psychologist is successful in getting the patient to feel that the two of them are sharing an empathic connection, the patient will quite naturally wish to extend that feeling to other important people in her life. And she will do so all by herself.


Image of Hermes in the article commissioned from artist Francesca Elettra.

This article provides educational information on psychotherapy. The information is provided “as-is” and should not be construed to constitute professional services or warranties of any kind.

Function Biases in Buddhism and Vedanta

To view the contents of this post, you must be logged in. Click on Store in the sidebar on the left to learn more.

Is It Possible to Change Types?

To view the contents of this post, you must be logged in. Click on Store in the sidebar on the left to learn more.

How Jung Saw E/I, Part 2

To view the contents of this post, you must be logged in. Click on Store in the sidebar on the left to learn more.

How to Meditate

To view the contents of this post, you must be logged in. Click on Store in the sidebar on the left to learn more.

No One Is “Obviously” a Type

By Sigurd Arild and Ryan Smith

“…it is often very difficult to find out whether a person belongs to one type or the other…” – Jung: Psychological Types §3

A popular means of assertion to back up one’s own type assessments in an argument is to state that someone is “obviously” a certain type instead of producing a proper argument. For example, people may say that Donald Trump is “obviously” an ENTJ and then lean back, content that they have now (in their mind) augmented their case. But in fact, if all they have said is that someone is “obviously” a certain type, then all they have said is that they have no real arguments to back up their claim.

Let us consider the matter as seen through the eyes of two capable epistemologists. First, consider the words of the German mathematician and philosopher Leonard Nelson:

“People who call some piece of knowledge ‘evident’ do not usually have any one clear characteristic in mind. Expressions of this sort are often used simply to describe the certainty that we do in fact have in respect of our judgment; our firm conviction of its truth. The description of a judgment as evident can, however, also bear another and more precise sense: that the state of affairs re-capitulated in our judgment is immediately clear to us, so that the truth of the judgment needs no further illumination, i.e. we do not need to think about it in order to realize that it is true. This means that we are not only certain, i.e. convinced, of the truth of the judgment, but that we are certain in a particular way, namely, that that truth is clear by itself, independently of reflection.” – Nelson: Progress and Regress in Philosophy vol. I (Blackwell 1970 ed.) p. 88

Something may more easily be said to be “obvious” or “self-evidently true” if that thing is a simple and distinct characteristic. For example, the proposition that Donald Trump “obviously” had red hair may more easily be said to be “obvious” or self-evidently true than more complex propositions such as “Trump’s smile communicates smugness.” When we are trying to determine someone’s type, we are not dealing with a simple and distinct characteristic, but with a complex pattern of deductive inferences. Therefore the question of someone’s psychological type is wholly unsuited to this type of prima facie appeal.

One could avert the criticism by adopting a “common sense” philosophy in the vein of Thomas Reid. But the obvious problem then arises that psychological types do not exist as a matter of common sense. If they did, we would hardly have had to wait until 1921 for the first credible theory of truly psychological types to appear. Psychological types could more properly be said to exist as heuristics or Platonic forms; the people who say that types exist as a priori empirical occurrences are at odds with the science.

As Nelson points out, to assert that a claim is “obviously” true can have two meanings: (1) One meaning is to simply declare that one has great personal conviction in one’s own claim. (2) The other meaning is declaring that one has great personal conviction in one’s own claim and that the question at hand is of a kind that needs no reflection in order to be decided.

It is our contention that the matter of determining someone’s type is not a question that can be decided without analysis or reflection. (We have argued the point here, here, here, and here.) So if the premise is granted that (2) can never be true when dealing with the question of someone’s psychological type, then it follows that all people are really saying when they are saying that someone is “obviously” a certain type is that they feel certain about their own judgment. To gauge the value of such statements, let us turn to Karl Popper:

 “… I would insist … that these experiences, important as they may be … can never serve to establish the truth of any idea or theory, however strongly somebody may feel, intuitively, that it must be true, or that it is ‘self-evident’. Such intuitions cannot even serve as an argument. … For somebody else may have just as strong an intuition that the same theory is false. … Intuition undoubtedly plays a great part in the life of a scientist, just as it does in the life of a poet. It leads him to his discoveries. But it may also lead him to his failures. And it always remains his private affair, as it were. Science does not ask how he got his ideas, it is only interested in arguments that can be tested by everybody.” – Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies (Routledge 2002) p. 232

Certitude in one’s own intuitions can never be a real argument. It is a person’s private affair and belongs more fittingly in a personal diary than in an exchange on someone’s type.

Note that we are not trying to discourage anyone from having intuitions about other people’s types. We are merely saying that stating that someone is “obviously” a certain type as a means to back up your claim is not an argument, but at best an attempt to shame or browbeat the other person into submission.

Even if you are someone whose judgment is generally acknowledged to be correct, your personal certitude is still ineligible as an argument because you may still be wrong on this occasion. For example, Jung’s self-assessment as a Ti type presumably led him to commit a series of errors with regards to identifying other Ti types correctly (see note 3 here).

Finally, note that Popper says that we should be interested in arguments that can be tested by anyone. Within the Jungian type community, as well as the field of self-development as a whole, there is a regrettable tendency to “seek a master” who is then presumed to have all the answers. These “masters” are frequently talented and entertaining, but a proper argument is rarely possible with them or with their followers. Even if you refute their stated arguments, show their research to be factually inaccurate, and expose their understanding of Jungian typology as lackluster, you are still bound to get nowhere, because such groupings really depend on group instinct and identity rather than critical argument. They have pawned their critical judgment with the master and are beholden to the convenient delusion that answers to complex questions can be handed to them on a silver platter if they simply stick to their guru.


It must be mentioned that though the flinging of unsupported type assessments as “obviously” true is exactly the kind of thing that might be expected from hobbyists on the internet, they are not alone in this regard: Keirsey Jr. has also made use of this technique on several occasions, and even Jung resorted to this sort of non-argument from time to time. Von Franz and van der Hoop were more neutral with regards to the manner in which they advanced their type assessments, while Myers deserves special credit in this regard for stating her type assessments in the non-combative, deferential, and open-ended manner that is conducive to true discussion.