Daniel M. Wegner Autobiography

Daniel M. Wegner was born in 1948 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, little knowing that he would someday write about himself in these pages in the third person.  He was the only child of Ewald, a minister, and Amanda, a musician, and happily shared their belief that the world revolved around him.  The family relocated, eventually to Lansing, Michigan (even the center of the universe tags along when his parents move).  He resisted their hopes that he follow them in ministry or music and emerged instead as Dan Wegner, Boy Scientist.  He played with a chemistry set and dabbled in fireworks.  He made a Tesla coil to generate indoor lightning, built a home-made gas laser, and fashioned a world-class stink bomb that was inadvertently detonated in the basement.  One nerdy high school project after another garnered him awards at science fairs for work in botany, electronics, and physics, and also a reputation as someone whose social life bordered on tragic.

The science projects were mentored by helpful scientists he had met by poking his nose into labs at Michigan State, the university next door, and it was natural he would sign up as a physics major there.  But physics seemed to be less fun as a life calling than it had been in the good old stink-bomb days, and the sixties were happening.  Consciousness was breaking out all over, and hopes of making more love than war led him to psychology (and to more interesting parties).  His social life was in fact becoming almost normal—and the science of psychology was far more fluid than physics.  Here was a way to satisfy the desire for discovery that could unfold in a hurry—like a science project—but that could reach deep into the mind.  Research with Jim Uleman drew him into the psychology lab, and he continued studying at MSU all the way through graduate school without ever thinking there might be lives other than being a Spartan or a psychologist.

Graduate school was a mix of challenge and delight.  A few professors loomed into view like fun-house ghouls, but the most memorable among his early influences were admirable models of expertise, kindness, and generous advice:  Henry Clay Smith, Lawrence Messé, and dissertation supervisor William Crano each turned out to be the kind of adviser who deserves having a statue in his honor guaranteed pigeon-free forever.  Two graduate school classmates were also deeply influential, first as thinkers, and then as life-long friends who continued thinking:  Robin Vallacher’s knack for the self-referent turn of phrase was inspiring, often giving new meaning to the words “new meaning”; and Chris Gilbert’s ability to launch pencils into the ceiling while inventing smart absurdities was legendary.  The Hidden Brain Damage Scale that the three authored in their MSU offices remains the only instrument capable of predicting preference for pimento loaf.

And then there was his first academic job, at Trinity University in San Antonio in 1974.  Teaching four courses a semester and learning to cook Tex-Mex were all he could manage for a while, but he continued to be inordinately amused by Vallacher, and in 1977 they wrote Implicit Psychology, an introduction to social cognition that appeared just as the field was developing.  At Trinity, he met Toni Giuliano and began a productive collaboration in research that soon snowballed into a delightful collaboration in life—and led her to change her name.  Things always went so darn well when they were together:  even their conversation around the house about who was responsible for remembering where to find the car-washing sponge blossomed into a paper with Paula Hertel that introduced transactive memory—the study of how people remember things in relationships and groups by keeping track of who knows what.

South Texas was a hotbed of social psychology where Wegner enjoyed a wealth of creative influences in the seventies and eighties. His talks with Robert Wicklund sparked his realization that theory could be done, not just read about, and that research ideas are better gathered from life than from JPSP.  Vallacher visited on sabbatical, a year of such giddy fun that they were moved to spend several further years crafting the elegant, intricate, and widely overlooked theory of action identification.  Chats with Jamie Pennebaker were magical, bringing Wegner to appreciate the role of the body in psychology—and the role of Jamie in thinking up amazing ideas.  And there were all those happy evenings at Peppers at the Falls in San Marcos, where social psychology got done al fresco with amigos Dave Schneider, Rich Wenzlaff, Ralph Erber, Bill Swann, and Dan Gilbert—a series of extraordinary collaborators who brought to the table gifts of experience, careful thought, enthusiasm, ambition, and wisecracks, respectively.

In the late eighties, he turned to the problem of thought suppression. Daughter Kelsey came along as a wonderful distraction, but he was ruminating on Dostoevsky’s observation that it is impossible to stop thinking of a white bear.  How could this be studied?  Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White (1987) did it by asking people to suppress the thought of a white bear in the lab—and found that those thinking aloud during this task typically mention the bear once per minute.  A trifle obsessed with the topic of suppression himself, he quickly wrote White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts (1989) to outline implications of this finding for the psychology of obsession, anxiety, and depression.  A theory of suppression effects hadn’t surfaced yet—that was awaiting his 1990 move to the University of Virginia.

The nineties at UVa were joyous, with all the benefits of a top research institution, plus brilliant colleagues like Tim Wilson, Tom Oltmanns, Bella DePaulo, and Jon Haidt—and new daughter Haley adding to the warm Charlottesville family atmosphere.  The theory of ironic processes of mental control rolled out in 1994—finally, a way of understanding why the white bear wouldn’t leave.  The paradoxical effects of self-control could be understood as the counterintentional influence of an active monitoring process that looks for unwanted mental states in order to control them, but that in so doing, tends to cause them. Work on the theory grew in interactions with Neil Macrae, Todd Heatherton, Roy Baumeister, and Laura Smart Richman, and ironic processes preoccupied him—until a 1996 sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto gave him a glorious year in the sun to think of something new.  He learned immensely from fellow Fellows Jerry Clore and Jon Krosnick, gazed out at San Francisco Bay past a pair of big feet on the desk, and figured it was time for another science project:  an attempt to understand conscious will.

That attempt was a theory of apparent mental causation authored with Thalia Wheatley in 1999, that later got out of hand to become his 2002 The Illusion of Conscious Will.  The idea was to understand how people experience conscious will when their actions arise from deterministic processes of mind.  Rightly perceived by many as an attack on free will, the book received wide attention and wider misinterpretation.  But it stimulated rewarding associations with Henk Aarts, John Bargh, Dan Dennett, Ap Dijksterhuis, Abby Marsh, James Moore, Carey Morewedge, Jesse Preston, Emily Pronin, and Betsy Sparrow, and continues to perplex philosophers with its focus on empiricism.  The ironic process theory mingled with issues of will in projects with James Erskine, Meg Kozak, and Sadia Najmi.  And though oddly never a collaborator, Jonathan Schooler must be mentioned here for his friendship and personal glow.

Wegner moved the science projects in 2000 to Harvard University, where he moved to join best friend Dan Gilbert in an attempt to recreate Peppers at the Falls.  He currently studies mind perception—how people differentially perceive human and nonhuman minds—with Kurt Gray and with current Weglab members Jeff Ebert, Andrea Heberlein, Amanda Ie, Anna Jenkins, Joe Paxton, and Adrian Ward.  His research has benefitted from regular support by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.  He is a Fellow, usually jolly and sometimes good, of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He is 2011 recipient of the Association for Psychological Science William James Fellow Award, and is happy to stop talking about himself as though he were someone else.

 

Addendum: Daniel Wegner died of ALS on July 5, 2013. Daniel Gilbert's euology can be found here.