Steven Pinker

Harvard University

Election Year: 2016
Primary Section: 52, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences
Secondary Section: 53, Social and Political Sciences
Membership Type: Member


Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who has done research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations, and has written widely on language, mind, and human nature. He grew up in Montreal, and earned his Bachelor’s degree from McGill University and his PhD from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT, where he directed the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. His research has won the Troland Prize from NAS and prizes from the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. He has also received several teaching awards, and numerous prizes for his nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style. He has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist twice, Humanist of the Year, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, The Guardian, Time, and other publications.

Research Interests

Steven Pinker has conducted experimental and theoretical research on a diverse range of topics in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. His experiments in visual cognition showed how imagery, attention, and shape recognition are both three-dimensional and specific to a vantage point. He developed the first comprehensive theory of language acquisition in children, and investigated how they learn the meanings and syntax of verbs and the regular and irregular forms of plurals and past tenses. He used the latter phenomenon to probe the limits of neural network models of language, and the interaction between memory and computation in language processing and change. He helped launch the modern study of language evolution, and has recently used evolutionary models to illuminate innuendo, emotional expression, and social coordination. In analyses of datasets on violence he documented surprising historical declines in every form of aggression, and explained them with a combination of psychology, neuroscience, political science, and history, in which distinct violent motives and peaceable motives interact in specific ways in different contexts and eras. He has also investigated how research in linguistics and cognitive science can lead to effective advice on clear writing.

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