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Steven Pinker: ‘I’m a lucky person, my life has gone pretty well’

The psychologist and author’s horizons were expanded by science and music, but an anarchist phase was short-lived

Steven Pinker is a Canadian/American cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist and popular science author.

He was born in Montreal in 1954. He graduated from his home city’s McGill University in 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, then got a PhD in Experimental Psychology from Harvard in 1979, later becoming a professor both there and at Stanford. Numerous roles followed, and he is currently giving lectures as a visiting professor at the New Humanities College in London.

Pinker has also written a series of acclaimed books, including 1997’s How the Mind Works through to his most recent, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. He has been married three times and has two stepdaughters.

In a Letter To My Younger Self, Pinker talks about his career and how his consciousness was expanded not just by science, biut by the music of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

I was very into rock music when I was 16. The late ’60s and early ’70s were a high point for rock music. There was a time just after Woodstock when the British groups like The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles were all in their prime. And American Motown acts like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. And The Band and Bob Dylan.
I know I sound like a bit of an old person for saying this, but I have a bit of confidence about it. My students, who are a couple of generations younger, sometimes they’ll bring in, say, a Simon and Garfunkel record and say, “Hey, I just discovered this fantastic album, have you heard of this band?” 

As well as rock, I was also an avid reader. I was interested in ideas. My parents ordered these books, the Time Life Science Library series for kids. They came once a month, each book on a different subject; the planets, the Earth, evolution, light, electricity. I devoured each one, but in particular I was taken with the one on the mind. I was intrigued by the idea that there could be a science of the mind in the same way there was a science of electricity or plants. Many of the examples still stick with me.

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Both my parents were intelligent but if I inherited from anyone my fascination with ideas, arguments, facts, and abstract principles, it would have been [my mother]. She was a voracious reader, the intellectual in the family. She made a big life shift when I was a child. Like many mothers in the ’50s and ’60s, she was a homemaker. And, also like many women of her generation, she had an awakening in the ’70s. She went back to school and began a career as a high school guidance counsellor and then as a vice principal.

My father was a salesman. He trained as a lawyer but didn’t practise until I was an adult. He was resilient, with a very easy-going temperament. Whenever he suffered setbacks in his life or his career, he quickly put them behind him and moved on. You might say that was an unusual temperament for someone who grew up in grinding poverty. His parents were immigrants, he had nothing as a child, and in fact, had a number of misfortunes. He was in a car accident, and for a while he was homeless. But he didn’t seem to be bitter or pessimistic at all. 

Stevn Pinker, 1997
1997: The year Pinker’s acclaimed How The Mind Works was published.
Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images

I resist the idea that I make the case for optimism in my writing. What I argue is that our view of the world, when it comes from journalism, is shaped by the user’s bias towards pessimism. As a psychologist I also think that when we reminisce about ways in which we resemble our parents, we might be mistaking the effects of parenting for the effects of genes or the culture of our peer group. But if you say to me, you’ve got this optimistic father and you’ve written two books about positive trends – is that a coincidence? Well… maybe it’s not a coincidence. It is conceivable that I inherited a bit of his attitude. I did inherit a lot of his temperament. I think of myself as a positive person and slow to anger, and that probably came from my father. In fact, my book, Enlightenment Now, is dedicated to the memory of my father, who died while I was writing it. And the dedication reads, ‘To Harry Pinker, optimist’.

I don’t remember a time when I had an explicit belief in God. Or when I rejected the idea. As a child I didn’t give it a lot of thought. As I started to think more clearly, I realised that I never really believed in his existence in the first place. Though I didn’t have an experience like my late colleague at Harvard, the famous sociologist Daniel Bell. He said that when he was 13 and preparing for his bar mitzvah, he went to the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I have a confession. I’ve been thinking about it deeply and gone through agonising reflection. I have to be honest… I don’t believe God exists.” And the rabbi shot back, “You think God cares?”

Steven Pinker at Simon Fraser Uni
2014: At the Spring convocation at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Maria Janicki/Alamy.

I’m a lucky person, my life has gone pretty well. My teenage aspirations have pretty much been fulfilled. But the other lucky thing about it – and maybe I inherited this from my father – is that I appreciate my good fortune. My father rose out of terrible poverty, so he had much to appreciate. I was lucky because I grew up in a stable, middle-class home, in a peaceful affluent country. But I know there’s lots that can go wrong in life. I know many people who’ve gone through tragic, terrible misfortunes, and I’ve been lucky to escape a lot of the awful ones. Once I’d decided I wanted to become a professor, I was apprehensive as to whether I would get a job, because the academic job market was perilous. But by the time I graduated there was a great American expansion in universities and they were hiring professors left and right. So that was another piece of good luck.

I’ve been married three times so I guess in two of my romantic attachments something must have gone wrong. I could reflect back and tell my younger self what lies in store, but if I was any more specific it would be breaching the confidence of those women. So I’d better be discreet. But divorces are always unfortunate and they were two of the lowest points of my life. They exposed shortcomings in my own decisions. No one goes into a marriage expecting that it will end in divorce. So obviously there was something I didn’t see. 

My divorces taught me something that converges with my scientific belief regarding the formation of personality. In both cases, especially after the first divorce, I thought that starting over again, I would have developed new tastes and interests, but I pretty much went back to the same life I had before. That was a reminder that there is something about taste, comfort, passions, that remains constant over a lifetime, even through disruptions.

My life and my beliefs have been fairly steady, with a few exceptions. I went through a stage of being an anarchist when I was 15, but I was shaken out of that when the Montreal police went on strike in 1969 [the Murray-Hill riot, aka ‘Montreal’s night of terror’, was the climax of a day of civil unrest during a strike by the Montreal police]. Contrary to dinner table arguments I had with my parents, when I said we don’t need the police to keep us peaceful because we’re naturally cooperative, all hell broke loose in a nation famous for its politeness. Within hours there was massive looting, and there were some shootings. I changed my anarchic ideas pretty quickly after that.

Steven Pinker at the UN
2019: Speaking at the United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Like many professionals I get crazy busy a lot of the time, but I am conscious of friends and relatives who are ageing, and the time might come when I get a phone call telling me they’re no longer with us. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Oh, I just want to tell you how much I love you and appreciate you”. For whatever reason, I’d find that awkward. I’ve noticed a generational shift in that. For my generation, a child wouldn’t say “I love you” until their parent was on their deathbed. But with my stepchildren, every phone call to their mother ends with “Bye, I love you”. That just wasn’t the done thing when I grew up.

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I can remember moments in my life when I was in the presence of stunning natural beauty or perfect weather in a state of relaxation, just appreciating my good fortune. Beautiful Sunday afternoon skies with the breeze blowing through the trees and no work hanging over me. If I could relive just one, I think of when I proposed to my wife. We were kayaking on the ocean in Cape Cod during a stunning sunset. The entire surface of the water was gold and vermillion and crimson. It was almost out of a movie or a greeting card. And we decided to get married.

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why it Matters by Steven Pinker is out now in paperback (Penguin , £10.99)

Interview: Jane Graham

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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