Episode 89: Robert Epstein reflects on his career and the threat big tech poses to privacy and democracy

// May 21, 2019

Our guest today is Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychologist, professor and journalist who is the former editor of Psychology Today.

Robert is currently a co-founder and the senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California. He has had a distinguished career as a scientist and journalist researching and writing about advances in mental health, the behavioral sciences, and, most recently, the invisible influence that technology companies have on consumer and political behavior.

Robert is the author of 15 books and has written more than 300 scientific and popular articles. He is the founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. He became well known early in his career for his work on creativity. Since then, he has conducted research on a diverse range of topics such as adolescent-and-adult competency, arranged marriages, sexual orientation, self-control and voter manipulation. He also has also developed a number of unique online competency tests which are annually taken by more than a million people.

Show notes:

[00:03:38] Dawn begins the interview asking Robert about growing up in Connecticut.

[00:04:57] Dawn asks if Robert skipped a grade in school, given that he graduated from high school at 16.

[00:06:16] Robert talks about his interest in computers in the 60’s, and how his high school was one of the first in the country to even have a computer.

[00:07:27] Ken asks about what lead Robert to attend Trinity.

[00:08:23] Dawn inquires as to whether Robert knew he was going to major in psychology when he first showed up at Trinity, or if he simply ended up gravitating toward the field.

[00:10:14] Robert talks about collecting and analyzing the first ever campus-wide sex survey conducted at Trinity.

[00:11:40] Robert explains what he did in the two years between obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 1976 and pursing graduate school.

[00:13:07] Dawn asks about Robert’s experience at the University of Maryland Baltimore.

[00:13:48] Robert tells the interesting story of how he ended up at Harvard, in part, thanks to the behaviorist B.F. Skinner.

[00:15:40] Ken asks how Robert managed to be one of the few people who never had to write a dissertation while at Harvard to obtain his doctorate.

[00:20:29] Dawn mentions how, at the time, Robert was becoming well known for his work with Skinner.  She points out that many behaviorists at the time were working with chimpanzees and asks why Robert and Skinner were working with pigeons instead.

[00:23:49] Dawn mentions that after his work with pigeons, Robert began to study creativity. He explains why he concluded that creativity is an orderly and predictable process that can be learned, rather than something one is simply born with.

[00:27:34] Robert talks about how he founded the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies after his time at Harvard, and how he took on the role of executive director despite Skinner’s warning to never go into administrative work.

[00:29:56] Ken asks about Robert’s time at the Cambridge Center and if all the papers he wrote during that time had a theme, or if they were just in general social-science communication.

[00:31:28] Robert discusses his book “Cognition, Creativity and Behavior” which is a book of selected essays that he published in 1996. He discusses the various topics in the collection, ranging from creativity to parenting to artificial intelligence.

[00:33:09] Ken asks why, after ten years at the Cambridge Center, Robert moved to the west coast.

[00:35:40] Dawn asks about Robert’s research into arranged marriages and his finding that couples in arranged marriages developed a greater affection for each other than those who married for love. She asks him about his view that people can deliberately learn to love each other.

[00:40:02] Robert discusses his time at the University of California San Diego where he gave students extra credit for participating in “affection building exercises.” He also explains what these were like and what he learned from them.

[00:42:37] Ken asks about Robert’s work on psychological maturity, and his criticism of the “artificial extension of childhood” that is prevalent today.

[00:47:43] Dawn asks about a study on sexual orientation that Robert published in 2007 that supported Freud’s position that bisexuality is the human norm.

[00:50:53] Dawn mentions a book that Robert coedited called Parsing the Turing Test, which refers to Alan Turing’s philosophical test for machine intelligence in which a human judge engages in a three-way conversation between a machine and a person, and if the judge is unable to differentiate the two, then the machine is deemed intelligent.

[00:55:53] Ken mentions that he, Clark Glymour and Pat Hayes provided a running commentary on Turing’s paper for Robert’s book, Parsing the Turing Test.

Editor’s Note:  Ken deems the Turing Test a silly goal for AI.  See his paper published in Scientific American (with Pat Hayes) on this topic.

[00:57:15] Dawn mentions that in 2012, Robert co-founded with a former student The American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. It’s goal is promote and conduct research that has the potential to improve people’s wellbeing. She goes on to mention that he is the senior research psychologist at the institute, and asks about a current study he is working on that is the largest sexual orientation study ever conducted.

[00:58:43] Ken brings up the issue of online manipulation, which has become a hot topic since the 2016 election. He goes on to mention Robert’s 2015 paper on what is known as the search engine manipulation effect, or SEME. This paper showed, in a series of controlled experiments, that biased search results could easily shift the opinions of undecided voters by maybe 20% or more, and even by 80% in certain demographics. Given that most elections are won by small margins this was a potentially very significant finding, and Ken inquires more into this research.

[01:03:08] Dawn mentions that Google was recently fined 1.5 billion euros, which equates to approximately $1.7 billion, by the EU. This was the third time Google was fined by the union for anti-trust violations regarding online advertising. While the EU’s regulatory approach has been criticized as unfairly targeting tech companies, this view is beginning to change. She asks if Robert sees Europe’s approach as a potential global model for tempering the influence of Silicon Valley.

[01:06:33] Ken talks about Silicon Valley’s relationship to Washington.

[01:08:26] Ken asks about Robert’s development of online monitoring systems for search engines. He goes on to ask about the monitoring system used to monitor what search engine companies showed people while conducting election-related searches in the days leading up to the 2016 and 2018 elections.

[01:13:04] Robert explains why government regulation isn’t likely to be successful in combating the influence of large tech companies, particularly in light of Mark Zuckerberg’s op-ed piece for the Washington Post in which he proposed government regulation of the whole internet.

[01:16:28] Dawn asks about Robert’s opinion on the new documentary The Creepy Linewhich features several interviews with him.

[01:18:21] Ken mentions that in our society we are addicted to convenience and it seems that we are willing to trade privacy for convenience every time.

[01:19:43] Dawn mention’s Robert’s AIBRT website, on which there are a number of resources and tests ranging from “Parenting a Teen” to “Do You Need Therapy?” and “How Infantilized Are You?”

[01:20:49] Ken asks Robert to talk about a 2017 article, in which he provided people 7 simple steps that they could take to guard their online presence.

[01:23:53] Dawn closes the interview asking if Robert has any interests or hobbies outside of his work.


Dr. Robert Epstein bio

Epstein’s online tests

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Ken Ford bio

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