John Bargh is a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His work focuses on automaticity and unconscious processing as a method to better understand social behavior, as well as philosophical topics such as free will. Aside from his academic affiliations, Bargh also has written several books, one of which is the bestseller Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I had a great childhood and I wonder if that kind of childhood still exists anywhere. Fresh milk delivered by horse-drawn delivery wagon every morning; we’d go out and ride to the end of the block because we weren’t allowed to cross streets. Tree climbing all day in giant hackberry trees, neighbors’ cherry trees who didn’t mind us sitting on the branches eating the ripe cherries all day. Baseball in vacant lots and bike riding all over the place. I was rarely indoors except in the harshest part of winter. Great big extended family and a troop of really good kids on the block as friends. Idyllic, really.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
This is especially in junior high and high school, teenage years, that other people your age were also shy and nervous too and you were not the only one. Regrets in life are usually things you did not do but wish later you had and I wish I’d been brave and less anxious enough to have told several people how I felt about them – all in a good way. Opportunities lost. Do you ever play that ‘time travel’ game or thought experiment where you are able to go back to any 30 minute period in your life and have a second chance at it – I think about that a lot and there are several of those periods I’d like to have back. I think the lesson I would go back and tell my younger self is to go for it more, act on things more, and don’t worry as much as I did what other people would think, which got in the way a lot.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Well, we have a high school science teacher here who tells his students that depression is a matter of choice, and you can just choose to be happy. This is just a hideously wrong and reckless thing to say to teenagers given the intensity of their emotional experience (it is established by new research that their emotional systems are more highly reactive, especially with anxiety, around age 13 and 14 than even a few years later) and it is tantamount to blaming the victim. Kind of like, well you are just too weak and with more willpower, you would not be depressed and anxious.
In my own area of psychological research, there has been a well-intentioned emphasis on having lots of people in your studies, and some who believe that the value of research is a function of how many people are in the study (and nothing else). The larger your sample the more you can trust your findings – in sports analytics, everyone now knows not to trust small sample sizes such as the first month of the baseball season predicting the entire year – which is the good thing, but often the larger number comes at the cost of realism of the study – a thousand people taking a survey at home, versus 100 people put into the actual situation you want to study. Studying anxiety, for example, with a questionnaire to 5000 people about times you feel anxious, compared to a study that puts a couple of hundred people in an actual anxiety-producing situation. Valuing research only based on how many people participated is short-sighted and we need our research studies to resemble and have relevance to the real-life situations we want to understand.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Yeah, this gets back to Churchill and also Lord of the Rings. Even now I don’t really want to get into it publicly but about 10 years ago I and my family came under severe outside attack, both home life and professional at the same time. It was a kind of perfect storm, an annus horribulus as Queen Elizabeth once said. I did not have the time to fight back on both fronts, I still had my day job and I was a full-time single parent of a 5-year-old. What I learned was what really mattered in (my) life, what my real priorities were, and I devoted all of my available time to that fight, and unfortunately, it came at the cost of the other fight, in which I did not have any time or chance to fight back. What I learned was first, never give up, and second, don’t fight two-front wars, just put everything into the most important battles – especially when others’ such as your children’s lives are involved, not just your own career or reputation.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
That I went into a field that allowed me to study the personally important, basically existential issues I’d always thought about and wanted to learn more about. I still do and that intrinsic interest and motivation made my professional life a joy. I think if you choose careers or jobs for extrinsic reasons such as status or income that could be ok but it is doing the job you’d want to do anyway and getting paid for it – wow, if you can do that, you’ll have a happy fulfilled life I think.
What is your morning routine?
Yeah, this varies with a child heading off to school very early but with remote learning this past year I’m usually up by 7 to 730, and then it is COFFEE to get me going and working til noon or so. It is hard for me to sleep past 715 or so even if I stay up really late the night before. Make Coffee, make a nice breakfast for our three cats, play some MarioKart on my phone, more coffee, try to get my email finished, and then get our two dogs up from the back room. The tricky thing in the morning is getting the cats fed, as they nibble and eat quite leisurely before the small beasts burst out of the back room.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
It’s probably the ‘two days in one’ approach that I developed when I was writing my book. As I still had my day job of teaching plus running a research lab, I had to get up about 6 to get some writing done before then heading into my office in the early afternoon. This got me into a cycle, especially when I could work at home and not have to go into work, of (thanks to coffee) working as long and hard as I could from 6 till about 11 or 12 noon, then taking a nap, then getting up and being fresh for the rest of the day. Knowing I was going to be able to take that nap around 1 pm or so helped me get up at 6 even if I felt tired and sleepy. I knew the coffee would fuel me and then I’d get a chance to rest. Five years later now and I still have these two days in one – getting up early and working hard and efficiently then getting rest and now, often, time to relax, cook, hang out with my family. A full workday and a full family day inside every calendar day – it’s worked out really well.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Yeah, I think the answer to #7 applies here too. My friend and long-time colleague Peter Gollwitzer taught me back in the 1990s when I was visiting for several years at his university in Germany, to work efficiently not necessarily long hours. So that is what I try to do each morning – get a lot done, and especially when I have a less hectic period on my calendar, to look ahead and get as much done of the upcoming hectic period tasks as I can in advance. So in the summer months, I get all my fall lectures prepared, with slides, etc. If I have some spare time I look ahead to talks I’m scheduled to give and work on those. Getting things taken care of well in advance really pays off later when you have multiple administrative committees, multiple student dissertations to read, your own classes to teach, writing deadlines – all of those seem to manage to hit at the same week or two in the year. Getting as much of that done beforehand makes life during those inevitable and unavoidable peak times much more manageable and less stressful.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
In chronological order, I’d say The Lord of the Rings, which I read in its entirety five times through before I’d even entered high school. It is something my entire family loved to read and read over again; thanks to my mother for that. The basic theme of being small and unimportant but having to face up bravely to the greatest evil of the time – written in the context of the growing Nazi threat of the late 1930s – is still quite relevant and inspiring today, and probably always will be.
The second was Beyond Freedom and Dignity by the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner which came out when I was 16 and taking a high school psychology class. Skinner had long dominated American psychology and actually prevented it from studying consciousness and the mind (believe it or not) for decades. His attack on free will and his insistence on us all being ‘played’ by our environments, not having a causal role in our own choices and actions, was a challenge to our naïve and pat beliefs about ourselves as ‘captains of our soul’. For me, the influence was that I did not dismiss Skinner out of hand, as many did, but took him seriously to see – over the next several decades – to what extent he was right, and to what extent wrong.
The third was Milan Kundera’s The Unforgettable Lightness of Being which became a popular movie but if you’ve only seen the movie, you really need to read the book. Yes, it was the love story of Tomas and Tereza in occupied postwar Czechoslovakia but Kundera was and is an intuitive psychologist with a deep understanding both of human nature and of existential angst. The main point of the novel was the great role of chance and coincidence in the major events of our lives. He faces that head-on and reading this book will change you, I guarantee it.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
It is a cliché, I know, but only the classic Churchill one about never giving up: “This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” He said this to the boys at Harrow School in the darkest hour of World War II, France had already fallen and the Germans were racing towards the gates of Moscow. Like a lot of people, I’m sure this quote and the spirit behind it has gotten me through some very tough times when I thought all was lost and over, and about to give up.