Research Heroes: Karl Halvor Teigen

TeigenGraduated as a psychologist from the University of Oslo in 1966, where he is now an emeritus professor in general psychology. He also held positions in cognitive psychology at the universities of Bergen and Tromsø (Norway) where he was for some years the northernmost professor of psychology in the world (until a colleague beat him with half a mile). He is a past president of EADM, and has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bergen. His main research interests concern probability judgments, including verbal probabilities, social cognition (counterfactual thinking), and the history of psychology.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… that I would have a career! I also wish I had been strongly encouraged to go abroad and to attend international conferences. Norwegian psychology at the time I graduated was quite provincial. In 1967 it was considered a big leap even to move from one Norwegian city (Oslo) to another (Bergen). It took me more than 15 years before I dared to step out on the international scene, so I now have to continue research far into senility to make up for those lost years.

I most admire academically … As a young student I came across “Chance, skill and luck” by John Cohen (Penguin books, 1960). I admired his studies of psychological probability which he combined with a rich historical perspective. In fact this was a book I would have liked to write myself. Later came Kahneman and Tversky who did similar studies even better, except leaving out the historical aspect. It is in such cases hard to distinguish between envy and admiration, but it has fortunately been shown that benign envy outperforms admiration (Van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2011), so I can confess my benign envy for a number of scholars inside and outside of our field. 

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….Many years ago I became puzzled by the fact that newspaper articles about “lucky” people (with the exception of occasional lottery winners) almost invariably described accident victims. When I asked students to give autobiographical instances of their own luck, they produced similar, rather negative instances. Degrees of luck seemed to be almost completely determined by the discrepancy between what happened and what could have happened, that is, by close and worse counterfactuals. The closer and the worse they are, the luckier you feel. This issue has haunted me for years, partly because of its popular appeal (journalists love it), and partly because it can be linked to several other themes, like risk perception, counterfactual thinking, probability judgments, superstitions, and gratitude. But its main fascination resides in the observation that people seem to know it, through the stories they tell and the judgments they pass, yet our findings make them puzzled and surprised.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…I once had to conduct a research project with students and decided to spare them for background reading by finding a topic that had never been experimentally investigated before. It turned out that nobody had at that time studied “sighing” in healthy adults (it had been studied in patients with panic disorder and in rats), so we had to invent our own “sigh-cology”, for instance by observing participants working on insoluble puzzles. They had to give up every new attempt, and they sighed. I wrote a paper which, to my surprise, was accepted for publication, but did not exactly revolutionize the (nonexistent) field. It would have remained a forgotten oddity, when I suddenly received an invitation to receive the Ig Nobel prize in psychology from Improbable Research “for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh”. So I had to go to Harvard for a parodical celebration of “research that makes people laugh and then think”. Or in our case: to make people think and then sigh.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….There have been several such experiences. Doing research often feels like trying to force open a door that appears to be slightly ajar. You have an idea, a theory, an intuition that you feel could work, but the door proves surprisingly resistant to all applications of the foot-in-the-door technique.  Then there are moments where the door simply needs a gentle push before swinging wide open. Such moments, when you get more than you asked for, are the researcher’s peak events. I experienced one almost 40 years ago when I first “discovered” that people consistently violated the 100% limit when estimating probabilities for several mutually exclusive alternatives. Again when I found that most people have to be unlucky to feel lucky, as described above; that they attach more confidence to specific (fallible) rather than to general (true) statements, that they think that events are more unlikely when they happen than when they do not occur, that negative outcomes are less surprising than equivalent positive ones, and several other robust paradoxes that seemingly defy common sense.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…Peter Ayton already told the story of the spider in Cambridge, which I can confirm (although we may disagree about the details).  I also experienced in Cambridge (same SPUDM meeting I believe) my most successful presentation; the audience seemed more attentive to what I had to say than ever before (or since), showing their keen interest with synchronized head movements to the right and to the left, following me like a bunch of hypnotized cobras. Only after the talk I discovered I had been standing in front of the projector, obstructing their view of the screen.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I am fascinated by the role chance plays in shaping our lives, from the small details that make our day amusing, to more momentous decisions about marriage and career. We once carried out a set of pilot interviews with colleagues, asking them about their choices of research themes. They seemed to believe in the idea of a recurrent theme, or common thread running through their professional life, but when we pushed it further back they typically responded: “It all began quite accidentally”.  We did not follow this up, for methodological, theoretical, and perhaps even philosophical reasons, but I wish there was a neat and tractable way to observe chance at work in real-life settings. Perhaps I will stumble over one, accidentally.

 If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…perhaps a historian – of ideas, or of art. But every time I have had a brief encounter with these fields I have thanked God that I belong to a discipline where one can do experimental work, not restrained by events already settled in a hazy past, and where hypotheses can actively be put to test. To indulge in my historical interests I have published quite a bit on the history of psychology.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… To disentangle the psychology of judgment from the psychology of decision making. These are in my opinion two overlapping themes rather than a single field. And even if I am strongly in favor the cross-disciplinary applications of JDM in economics, management, political science, medicine, and law, I feel it extremely important that it should keep and perhaps expand its psychological roots.

 My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… (1) Travel and seek new research environments; (2) realize that your freedom of choice concerning themes, ideas, theories, methods, and approaches is greater than you think; (3) listen to advice, so that you can disregard it on purpose, and have something to tell when Elina, Neda or their successor ask you, 20 years from now, what you had wished someone had told you at the beginning of your career (they did).

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One thought on “Research Heroes: Karl Halvor Teigen

  1. I have attended a lot of presentations given by Carl. They all were entertaining – and most of them were surprising and full of creativity. They made me sigh – with benign envy (probably another instance making people sigh, and another question: is benign envy transitive?

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