About Dr. Robert S. Siegler

How I got into Psychology

My studying cognitive development could be viewed either as a logical culmination of other interests or as complete happenstance. At a very general level, I’ve always been interested in change. My favorite subject in school was history, and the part of it I liked best was thinking about how the pasts of different countries influenced their presents and their likely futures. My parents also had two of Freud’s books in the house, and I read them and found them interesting, though strange.
At a more specific level, there were a great many fortunate coincidences. I was an economics major for most of my undergraduate years and didn’t take any psychology courses until I was a junior. It happened that the semester that I took my first psychology course, I also took an economics course that I greatly disliked, largely because of the professor. The next semester, I took two psychology and two economics courses. This time, the economics courses were interesting enough, but I liked the psychology courses better, especially a course on perception, taught by a great professor named Harry Hake.

Also contributing to my decision to change majors was the fact that this was the late 1960’s, and there was lots of money around for undergraduates who wanted to do research in psychology. I got a job on a project evaluating a curriculum for teaching language skills to children with Down Syndrome, which led to my acquiring some methodological skills and becoming aware of the kinds of issues that psychological data could address.

When I applied to grad school, I wasn’t sure whether I should go into clinical or experimental psychology. I applied to both kinds of programs, and in the end the choice came down to the best experimental program to which I was accepted (Harvard) or the best clinical one (SUNY at Stony Brook). I visited both, and found that the students at Stony Brook seemed much happier than at Harvard, and that the place was much friendlier. I also reasoned, incorrectly as it turned out, that if I got a degree in clinical, I could always switch to experimental research (that part was true), whereas if I got a degree in experimental, I wouldn’t be able to switch to clinical (that turned out to be less difficult than I thought). So off to Stony Brook I went.

Once I was in the clinical program at Stony Brook, I realized within a year that I was more interested in research than in clinical practice. I stayed in the clinical program, though, and even did an internship and received my PhD in clinical. All through the program, though, I did research on cognitive development. This too was in part happenstance. I was taking a required child development course with Bob Liebert. One of the course requirements was writing a review paper on some topic. I didn’t want to do this, because it sounded boring, so I asked Liebert if I could design an experiment instead. Being a lot smarter than me, he said ok, but added that I’d need to find out enough about what had been done to see that I wasn’t just doing something that someone else had already done. He said that I should write just enough to tell him what had been done and how my experiment would add in important ways to existing knowledge. He knew, though I didn’t, that this would wind up requiring me to write the review paper and design the experiment. When I did so, he liked the experiment sufficiently that he said that he’d give me RA help in getting it run. In piloting the procedure, I saw a petite 5-year-old defy a large, imposing man with a deep voice (Liebert) who explained the logic of conservation to her but who could not convince her that it was right. This really impressed me, and led me to decide that understanding children’s thinking was what I wanted to do.

One of the most important things I learned from Liebert was that researchers should do what makes sense to them, rather than trying to imitate what others have done. His advice was “If it makes sense to you, it’ll probably make sense to other people as well.” This was good advice.

Over the years, my theoretical perspective has changed, though there are continuous strands in it too. While in graduate school, I was pretty much a behaviorist, thinking that what people told children, as well as their physical experiences with the world, was the largest force shaping their thinking. At the same time, my thinking, like that of almost everyone who studies cognitive development, has been influenced by Piaget. I’ve never believed that his theory was on target, but always thought he was a genius at coming up with fascinating tasks and observations of children’s behavior on them. His characterizations of general trends in development also are very insightful. When I came to Carnegie Mellon after grad school, I was exposed to information processing theory for the first time, and immediately found it very congenial. It corresponded closely to the natural way in which I thought. I kept this approach for many years, and still am heavily influenced by it. Over the past decade, however, I’ve increasingly been influenced by evolutionary theory, in the sense that I believe that generation of variation, selection among the variants, and increasing dominance of the successful variants are key contributors to cognitive change, as they are to biological change. This has led to my current emphasis on strategy discovery and strategy choice. These emphases are compatible with an information processing approach, but are not typical of it; in this way, my current thinking is a meld of evolutionary and information processing approaches.

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