Ed Wasserman in the UI’s Psychological and Brain Sciences Building.
“Ed is one of the most committed, intellectually engaged psychologists I know,” says UI professor Mark Blumberg , chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and a longtime colleague of Wasserman. “He knows how to do the research that he does better than anyone in the world. He’s still at it and as excited about it as he was when he started. He cares deeply about behavior, which is at the heart of what our department studies.” A Los Angeles native, Wasserman first studied physics as an undergraduate at UCLA before taking an elective in the psychology of learning that changed the trajectory of his career. The course opened Wasserman’s eyes to the scientific possibilities of psychology and appealed to his penchant for precise methodology. Today, Wasserman teaches a class by the same name—Psychology of Learning—to undergraduates at the UI, where he’s mentored generations of students and budding scientists. Wasserman earned a PhD at Indiana University, traveled for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sussex in England, and, in 1972, joined the University of Iowa’s faculty. The teaching post was an attractive one for the promising young researcher; Iowa’s storied tradition in psychology dates to 1887 and included some of the leading psychologists of the 20th century, including Kenneth Spence, Leon Festinger (40MA, 42PhD), and Albert Bandura (51MA, 52PhD). “I bet on tradition, and it was a very good bet,” says Wasserman. Wasserman founded the Comparative Cognition Laboratory during his early days in Iowa City, and he’s been developing experiments that probe the animal mind ever since. Collaborating with
institutions around the world, Wasserman’s team has produced key findings in human and animal object categorization, including breakthrough studies that proved pigeons can learn several new object categories simultaneously and selectively ignore irrelevant information. As novel as his pigeon studies have been, Wasserman is quick to note that he’s hardly the first scientist to work with the birds. B.F. Skinner, for instance—the pioneering behavioral psychologist for whom the Skinner box was named—first taught pigeons to peck small discs for food and even trained them to guide missiles for the U.S. military during World War II. While “Project Pigeon” was never deployed in battle, Skinner later became one of the world’s most influential thinkers and a pioneer in the school of psychology known as behaviorism. In contrast to the introspective, psychoanalytic approach of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Skinner theorized that all behaviors, in animals and humans alike, are learned through interactions with the environment and conditioning. Wasserman, who as a graduate student met Skinner in 1970 when the famed psychologist received an honorary degree at Indiana University, follows in that behaviorist tradition. “Much of my analysis pays homage to Skinner because he was particularly interested in applying the basic principles of behavior that you learn in the laboratory to the things that you and I do every day, as well as the exceptional things that some people do,” says Wasserman. “But if you ask me, what is it that’s so exceptional about some people? I would say, not really so much.” 21
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