Robert Sternberg’s Rise to Fame

Robert Sternberg is a psychologist interested in being famous (Am I famous yet?).  Wellbeing theories predict that he is also dissatisfied because discrepancies between resources (being a psychologist) and goals (wanting to be famous) lead to dissatisfaction (Diener & Fujita, 1995).

Ask any undergraduate about famous psychologists and they typically can name two: Freud and Skinner.

Rorbert Sternberg is also smart. So, he realized that just publishing more good research is not going to increase his standing in the APA fame rankings from his current rank 60 out of 99 (APA; (In an alternative ranking by Ed Diener, who is not on the previous list but ranks #10 on his own list, he also ranks 60).

The problem is that being a good psychologist is simply not a recipe for fame.  So there is a need to think outside the box.  For example, a Google Search retrieves 40,000 hits for Diederik Stapel and only 30,000 for David Funder (we will address the distinction between good and bad creativity later on).

It looks like Robert Sternberg has found a way to become famous. More people are talking about him right now at least within psychology circles than ever before.  The trick was to turn the position of editor of the APS journal Perspectives on Psychological Science into a tool for self-promotion.

After all, if we equate psychological science with the activities of the most eminent psychologists, reflecting on psychological science means reflecting on the activities of eminent psychologists and if you are the editor of this journal you need to do self-reflection.  Thus, Perspectives on Psychological Science necessarily has to publish mostly auto-meta-psychological self-reflections of Robert Sternberg. These scientific self-reflections should not be confused this the paradigmatic example of Narcissus,  who famously fell in love with himself which led to a love-triangle between me, myself, and I.

Some envious second-stringers do not realize the need to focus on eminent psychologists who have made valuable contributions to psychological science and to stop the self-destructive, negative talk about a crisis in psychological science that was fueled by the long-forgotten previous editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science (her name escapes me right now).  Ironically, their petty complaints backfired and increased Robert Sternberg’s fame; not unlike petty criticism of Donald Trump by the leftist biased media help him to win the election in 2016.

I was pleased to see that Robert Sternberg remains undeterred in his mission to make Psychology great again and to ensure that eminent psychologists receive the recognition they deserve.

I am also pleased to share the highlights of his Introduction and Postscript to the forthcoming “Symposium on Modern Trends in Psychological Science: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?”  [the other contributions are not that important]


Robert Sternberg’s Introduction takes a historic perspective on psychological science, which overlaps not coincidentally to a large extent with Robert Sternberg’s career.

“I was 25 years old, a first-year assistant professor.I came to believe that my faculty mentor, the late Wendell Garner, had a mistaken idea about the structure of perceptual stimuli. I did a study to show Garner wrong: It worked—or at least I thought it did!  Garner told me he did not think much of the study.  I did, however.  I presented the work as a colloquium at Bell Labs.  My namesake, Saul Sternberg (no relation), was in the audience.  He asked what appeared to be a simple question.  The simple question demolished my study.  I found myself wishing that a hole would open up in the ground and swallow me up.  But I was actually lucky: The study was not published.  What if it had been? I went back to Yale and told Professor Garner that the study was a bad misfire.  I expected him to be angry; but he was not.  He said something like: “You learned a valuable lesson from the experience.  You are judged in this field by the positive contributions you make, not by the negative ones.”  Garner was intending to say, I think, that the most valuable contributions are those that build things up rather than tear things down.

The most valuable lesson from these formative years of psychological science is:

You are judged largely by the positive contributions you make, much more so than by the negative ones. 

The implications of this insight are clear and have been formalized by another eminent Cornell researcher (no not Wansink), Daryl Bem, in a contribution to one of Sternberg’s great books (“Let’s err on the side of discovery”).

If you are judged by your successes, eminence is achieved by making lots’ of positive contributions (p < .05).  It doesn’t matter whether some second-stringer replicators later show that some of your discoveries are false positives. Surely some will be true positives and you will be remembered forever by these positive contributions.  The negative contributions don’t count and don’t hurt your rise to fame or eminence (unless you fake it, Stapel).

For a long time even false positives were not a problem because nobody actually bothered to examine whether discoveries were true or false.  So just publishing as many positives as possible was the best way to become famous; nobody noticed that it was false fame.

This is no longer the case and replication failures are threatening the eminence of some psychologists. However, driven people know how to turn a crisis into an opportunity; for example, an opportunity for more self-citations.

Sternberg ponders deep questions about the replication revolution in psychology.

So replication generally is good, but is it always good, and how good?  Is there a danger that young scientists who might have gone on to creative careers pushing the boundaries of science (Sternberg, Kaufman, & Pretz, 2002) will instead become replicators, spending their time replacing insights about new ideas and phenomena (Sternberg & Davidson, 1982, 1983) with repetitions of old ideas and tired old phenomena?  

Or is replication and, generally, repeating what others have done before, one of many forms of creativity (Frank & Saxe, 2012; Niu & Sternberg, 2003; Sternberg, 2005; Sternberg, Kaufman, & Pretz, 2002; Zhang & Sternberg, 1998) that in the past has been undervalued?  Moreover, is anyone truly just a “replicator”?

These are important questions that require 7 self-citations because Sternberg has made numerous important contribution to meta-psychology.

There is also strong evidence that researchers should focus on positive contributions rather than trying to correct others’ mistakes.  After all, why should anybody be bothered by Bem’s (2011) demonstration that students can improve their exam grades by studying AFTER taking the exam, but only at Cornell U.

In my own experience, my critiques (Sternberg, 1985a, 1986) have had much less impact than my positive contributions (Sternberg, 1981, 1984, 1997a, 1997b; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2004; Sternberg & Hedlund, 2003; Sternberg & Smith, 1985), and I always thought this was generally true, but maybe that’s just my own limitation. [9 self-citations]

Be grateful for faculty mentors who are not only brilliant but also wise and kind—there are not so many of them.

An influential study also found that academics are more likely to be brilliant than wise or kind (Sternberg, 2016).  This is a problem in the age of social media, because some academics use their unkind brilliance to damage the reputation of researchers who are just trying to be famous.

The advent of social media, wherein essays, comments, and commentaries are not formally refereed, has led to much more aggressive language than those of us socialized in the latter years of the twentieth century ever were accustomed to.  Sometimes, attacks have become personal, not just professional.  And sometimes, replies to un-refereed critiques can look more like echo chambers than like genuinely critical responses to points that have been made.   

Sternberg himself shows wisdom and kindness in his words for graduate students and post-doctoral students.

How can one navigate a field in rapid transition?  I believe the answers to that question are the same as they always have been.  First, do the very best work of which you are capable.  I never worried too much about all the various crises the field went through as I grew up in it—I focused on doing my best work.  Second, remember that the most eminent scientists usually are not the crowd-followers but rather the crowd-defiers (Sternberg, 2003; Sternberg, Fiske, & Foss, 2016; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995) and the ones who can defy the current Zeitgeist (Sternberg, 2018).  So if you are not doing what everyone else is doing and following every trend everyone else is following, you may well end up being better off. 

In one word, don’t worry and just be like Sternberg [4 self-citations]

Of course, even an eminent scholar cannot do it all alone and Robert Sternberg does acknowledge the contribution of several people who helped him polish this brilliant and wise contribution to the current debate about the future of psychological science and it would be unkind if I didn’t mention their names (Brad Bushman, Alexandra Freund, June Gruber, Diane Halpern, Alex Holcombe, James Kaufman, Roddy Roediger, and Dan Simons).

Well done everybody.  Good to know that psychological science can build on solid foundations and a new generation of psychologists can stand on the broad shoulders of Robert Sternberg.


Robert Sternberg’s brilliance also shines in the concluding statements that bring together the valuable contributions of select, eminent, contributors to this “symposium.”  He points out his valuable contribution to publishing in psychological science journals.

In a book I edited on submitting papers to psychology journals, Bem (2000) wrote: There are two possible articles you can write: (a) the article you planned to write when you designed your study or (b) the article that makes the most sense now that you have seen the results. They are rarely the same, and the correct answer is (b).  

Bem’s advice reflected the state of the field in 1975, when I received my PhD, in 2000, when he wrote the article, and even more recently.  Today, such “HARKing” (Hypothesizing After the Results are Known) would likely be viewed with great suspicion. Both p-hacking and HARKing require a certain degree of creativity. 

Many professors and students, not only when I was in graduate school, but also throughout the world have built their careers on practices once considered both creative and perfectly legitimate but that today might be viewed as dubious.  What this fact highlights is that scientific creativity—indeed, any form of creativity—can be understood only in context (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, 2013; Plucker, 2017; Simonton, 1994, 2004; Sternberg, 2018).

Sternberg self-critically points out that his book may have contributed to the replication crisis in psychology by featuring Bem’s creative approach to science.

I would argue that in science as well as in society, we too often have valued creativity without considering whether the creativity we are valuing is positive or negative (or neutral).  In science, we can get so caught up in achieving eminence or merely the next step on a promotion ladder that we fail to consider whether the creativity we are exhibiting is truly positive.

He recognizes that falsely positive contributions are ultimately not advancing science.  He also acknowledges that it can be difficult to correct false positives.

Scholars sometimes have taken to social media because they have felt their potential contributions to refereed journals have been blocked. At the same time, it is likely that many scholars who post critiques on social media have never even tried to have their work published.  It just is easier to bypass peer review, which can be a lengthy and sometimes frustrating process.

But he is also keenly aware that social media can be abused by terrorists and totalitarian governments.

Such media initially probably seemed like a wholly good idea. The inventors of various forms of social media presumably did not think through how social media might be used to undermine free elections, to spread hateful propaganda, to serve as a platform for cyberbullying, or even to undermine careers. 

In the gold old says, scientific criticism was vetted by constructive and selfless peer-reviews which helped critics to avoid making embarrassing mistakes in public.

At one time, if a scientist wished publicly to criticize another’s work, he or she had to pass the critique through peer reviewers. These reviewers often saved scientists from saying foolish and even destructive things.

Nowadays, fake news and fake criticism can spread through echo-chambers on social media.

With social media, the push of a button can bypass the need for peer reviewers.  Echo chambers of like-minded people then may reinforce what is said, no matter how obnoxious or simply wrong it may be. 

Sternberg is painfully aware that social media can be used for good or bad and he provides a brilliant solution to the problem of distinguishing good blogs with valid criticism from evil blogs that have no merit.

I believe there is, and that the principles for distinguishing positive from negative creativity, whether in the short or the long run, are the same principles that have contributed to wisdom over the ages:  honesty, transparency, sincerity, following of the Golden Rule (of acting toward others the way one would have them act toward oneself), and of course deep analysis of the consequences of one’s actions. 

Again, if we just followed his example and leadership as editor of Perspectives and the convener of this Symposium, psychology could be improved or at least be restored to its former greatness.  Let’s follow the golden rule and act towards Sternberg as he would act to himself.

Last but not least, Robert Sternberg acknowledges the contributors to this symposium, although their contributions are overshadowed by the brilliant Introduction and Postscript by Sternberg himself.

These principles, or at least some of them, are exactly what current trends in psychological science are trying to achieve (see Frankenhuis, this issue; Grand et al., this issue; Wagenmakers, Dutilh, & Sarafoglou, this issue).  This is all to the good.  But as Brainerd and Reyna (this issue), Fiedler (this issue), Kaufman and Glaveanu (this issue), and Vazire (this issue) as well as some other contributors point out. 

To bad that space limitations did not allow him to name all contributors and the lesser ones were just mentioned as “other contributors,”  but space was already tight and there were more important things about Sternberg to say.

For example, Sternberg recognizes that some of the creativity in the old days was bad.

Our field has not done an adequate job of emphasizing the analytical skills we need to ensure that our results in psychological science are sound, or at least as sound as we can make them. We did not satisfactorily police ourselves.  

Yet he recognizes that too much self-control can deplete creative people.

But I worry that our societal emphasis on promoting people up the advancement ladder by standardized tests of analytical skills may create a generation of researchers who place more and more emphasis on what they find easy—analysis—at the expense of creativity, which they (most others) may find quite a bit harder.  And when they stall in their creativity, they may fall back on critique and analysis.  This idea is not new, as I made this point first in the mid-nineteen eighties (Sternberg, 1981, 1985a, 1985c).  Given the way our students are taught and then assessed for memory and analysis, it sometimes has been difficult to make them feel comfortable thinking creatively—are we risking the possibility that an emphasis on replication will make it even harder (Sternberg, 1988, 1997a, 1997b, 2016)?

Developing creativity in students means instilling certain attitudes toward life and work in those students (Sternberg, 2000): willingness to defy the crowd, defy oneself and one’s past beliefs, defy the ongoing Zeitgeist (Sternberg, 2018), overcome obstacles, believe in oneself in the face of severe criticism, realize that one’s expertise can get in the way of one’s creativity (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995).  What would it mean to develop positive creativity?

The real danger is that the replication crisis will lead to standardized scientific practices that stifle creativity.

Increasing emphasis on replication, preregistration procedures, and related practices undoubtedly will do much good for psychological science.  Too many studies have been published that have proven to be based on remarkably flimsy data or post hoc theorizing presented as a priori.  But we in psychological science need to ensure that we do not further shift an educational system that already heavily emphasizes analytic (SAT-like and ACT-like) skills at the expense of positive creative skills.

My Humble Opinion

It is difficult to criticize a giant in the field of psychology and just like young Sternberg was wrong when he tried to find a flaw with his mentor’s theory, I am probably wrong when I am trying to find a mistake in Sternberg’s brilliant analysis of the replication crisis.

However, fully aware that I am risking public humiliation, I am going to try.  Ironically, starting point for my critique is Sternberg’s own brilliant insight that “scientific creativity—indeed, any form of creativity—can be understood only in context (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, 2013; Plucker, 2017; Simonton, 1994, 2004; Sternberg, 2018).

And I think he fails to recognize the new emerging creativity in psychological science because the context (paradigm) has changed.  What looks like a threat in the old context looks like good creativity for young people who have a new perspective on psychological science.

He wrongly blames social media for cutting down creative people.

Being creative is uncomfortable—it potentially involves defying the crowd, defying oneself, and defying the Zeitgeist (Sternberg, 2018).  People always have been afraid of being creative, lest they fall prey to the “tall poppy” phenomenon, whereby they end up as the tall poppy that gets cut down, (today) by social media or by whatever means, to nothing more than the size of the other poppies.

But from the new perspective on psychological science, social media and other recent inventions are exactly the good creative forces that are needed. Eminent tall poppies have created an addiction to questionable research practices that make psychologists feel good about false discoveries need to be cut done.

The internet is changing psychological science and the most creative and disruptive innovations in psychological science are happening in response to the ability to exchange information in real time with minimal costs.

First, psychologists are no longer relying so heavily on undergraduate students to recruit participants.  Larger and more diverse samples can be recruited cheaply thanks to the Internet.  Initiatives like the Project Implicit are only possible due to the Internet.

Open science initiatives like data sharing or preregistration are only possible due to the Internet.

Sharing of pre-prints is only possible on the Internet. More important, the ability to publish critical articles and failed replications in peer-reviewed journals has increased thanks to the creation of online only journals. Some of these journals like Meta-Psychology are even free for authors and readers, unlike the for-profit journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

The Internet also makes it possible to write scientific blog posts without peer-review.  This can be valuable because for-profit journals have limited pages and little interest in publishing criticisms of failed replications. The reasons is that these articles (a) are not cited a lot and (b) can reduce citations of articles that were criticized. No good capitalist would be interested in publishing articles that undermine the reputation of a brand and  profitability.

And last but not least, the Internet enables researchers from all over the world, including countries that are typically ignored by US American WEIRD psychologists to participate in psychological science for free.  For example, the Psychological Methods Discussion Group on Facebook has thousands of active members from all over the world.

In conclusion, Robert Sternberg’s contributions to this Symposium demonstrate his eminence, brillance, wisdom, and kindess, but ironically he fails to see where positive innovation and creativity in psychological science lives these days. It doesn’t live in American organizations like APA or APS or in Perspectives on Psychological Science behind a paywall. It lives in the new, wild, chaotic, and creative world of 24/7 free communication; and this blog post is one example of this.

This blog has a comment section and Robert Sternberg is welcome to comment there. However, it is unlikely that he will do so because comments on this blog will not count towards his publications and self-citations in the comment are not counting towards his citation count.






8 thoughts on “Robert Sternberg’s Rise to Fame

  1. This. Was. HILARIOUS. And simultaneously frustrating to read through all of what Sternberg had to say (which in reality wasn’t much at all of note).

    Thank you for this work of art.

  2. I feel like I just read a Trump speech. Great job attacking a colleague. my only question is this… what did you accomplish? Irony alert… a few years ago, as part of Dr. Sternberg’s parting essays as the President of APA, he implored reviewers to be more civil with their reviews. His primary argument was that young researchers deserved more civil critiques, so that they do not become disallusion and leave the field. Dr. Sternberg clearly is not a saint, but then again nine of us are. However, I found your essay to be a sad cheap shot. You probably are great reviewer.

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