“This may look like it was intelligently designed and planned from the inception,” Wasserman says, still holding his Post-It note. “But it wasn’t. My argument is that nothing is. That’s the starkest way I can put it. But that doesn’t in any way diminish the achievements—the contributions are all wonderful.”
Wasserman says creative ideas develop through a similar mechanical process of variation and selection. Context, consequence, and coincidence—the Three Cs, as Wasserman calls them—work together to produce innovations that radically change the course of human history. In the case of the Post-It note, the context was a workplace culture at 3M that encouraged experimentation, Silver’s training as a chemist, and his desire to create a new adhesive. Consequence came into play with the trial-and-error efforts to find a practical application for Spencer’s sticky-but-not-too-sticky substance. And coincidence arose when Fry’s hymnal bookmarks tumbled to the church floor after he attended Silver’s presentation. While Wasserman continues to search for clues about the nature of creativity in his laboratory and history books, he says the science of innovation remains largely untapped. “We have a lot of research looking for personality variables in people, but we don’t have such a rich literature about creative behaviors,” he says. “We still have a lot to learn.” Like all innovators, Wasserman has made an impact that neither began, nor ends, with his own work. Countless students—many of whom are now accomplished scientists in their own right— have emerged from under Wasserman’s wing ready to innovate in psychology and beyond. “Ed is a demanding mentor, but one who is generous with praise and proud of his mentees’ accomplishments,” says Blumberg, the chair of the psychology department. “I have interacted with many of these trainees over the years—both during and after their time here—and I am always impressed by the degree to which they’ve channeled Ed’s values and rigor in their own research.”
Edison, Darwin, and the Three Cs
So, if innovations like the Post-It note aren’t the result of ingenious foresight and design, where do they come from?
Wasserman turns to Thomas Edison, America’s most celebrated inventor, for answers. Edison not only gave us the incandescent lamp, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, but also a glimpse into the workings of his creative process. It turns out there was no lightbulb moment when Edison invented the lightbulb—or his 1,092 other patents. “I never had an idea in my life,” Edison once said. “I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.” Edison likewise shrugged off the notion of genius, declaring it to be “1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Wasserman agrees that the strongest creative forces come from outside of us, not within. In fact, he says, there’s a fundamental law of behavior behind all innovation known as the law of effect. Developed by psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1898, the law of effect asserts that behaviors resulting in successful outcomes are likely to be repeated, while behaviors with poor outcomes are less likely to continue. Wasserman calls it perhaps the most central law in all of psychology— one so simple that it hardly needs to be stated, yet it pulls at the strings of all human endeavors, from sports to politics to technology. In Wasserman’s laboratory, this principle is demonstrated when his pigeons learn to peck the appropriate buttons to earn more food. In history books, Wasserman sees it play out time and again in human stories of what’s often characterized as ingenuity, but what is in fact the cumulative nature of repeated successes and discarded missteps. Wasserman draws a parallel between the law of effect and the law of natural selection—the cornerstone of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The legendary naturalist, as it happens, was a pigeon keeper too. A fashionable hobby in Victorian England, pigeon fanciers bred birds with unique plumages and varied acrobatic abilities. While the finches of the Galapagos Islands are the birds most often associated with Darwin, the biologist’s work with pigeons in his garden may have had an even greater influence on his On the Origin of Species . In his revolutionary 1859 book, Darwin—inspired in part by his experiments with artificial selection in pigeon breeding—theorized that organisms adapt to their environments over time through natural selection.
It’s safe to say that when Wasserman arrived 50 years ago in Iowa City, he never could have imagined where it would lead him.
Story by Josh O’Leary from Iowa Magazine for Alumni and Friends, November 2021
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