Carol Tavris, August 2010
September 17, 1944|
B.A.,Brandeis UniversityPh.D., University of Michigan
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Carol Anne Tavris (born September 17, 1944) is an American social psychologist and feminist. As a public intellectual, she has devoted her career to writing and lecturing about the contributions of psychological science to the beliefs and practices that guide people’s lives, and to criticizing “psychobabble,” “biobunk,” and pseudoscience. Her many writings have dealt with critical thinking, cognitive dissonance, anger, gender, and other topics in psychology.
Tavris received a B.A. in comparative literature and sociology from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan. She has taught psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and the New School for Social Research. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Tavris is also a member of the editorial board of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Her articles, book reviews, and op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Times Literary Supplement, Scientific American and other publications. In 2014 she began writing a column for Skeptic under the heading The Gadfly.
In an interview with The Skeptics Society, Carol Tavris describes her early life. She grew up in Los Angeles, California, with her parents, Sam and Dorothy Tavris, secular Jews who promoted and practiced critical thinking and equality for women. She was encouraged to argue and discuss everything with them, from household rules to religion. Her parents gave her books about successful women—ranging from Phillis Wheatley to Susan B. Anthony—and her father taught her poetry and storytelling. Her grandparents were Russian Jews who emigrated to Chicago in the early 1900s. Her mother, who earned a law degree at 21, became the sole breadwinner of the family in 1956 when Tavris’ father died suddenly. Tavris was 11 years old.
Tavris majored in comparative literature and sociology at Brandeis University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Brandeis faculty in her field were enamored with Freud during her college years, and her senior thesis was a “Freudian analysis of Hamlet and Don Quixote.” But her undergraduate infatuation with Freudian approaches did not survive her first year of graduate school. When Tavris went to the University of Michigan to get her Ph.D. in social psychology, she “fell in love with the process of science.” She loved learning about the “different methods of investigating questions, from field work and experiments to interviews and observations.” One reason she chose social psychology rather than comparative literature as her career was that she “liked the idea of testing ideas for their relative validity" and of being in a field whose research had immediate beneficial applications for people's private lives, relationships, and society.
Tavris took a year off from graduate school to write for a new magazine, Psychology Today. She returned to the magazine after receiving her Ph.D. and stayed for the next four years. She met Carole Wade, her future co-author, while writing for the publication; the two of them taught one of the first courses in women's studies at San Diego State University, and out of that teaching collaboration, they wrote The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective, an interdisciplinary approach to the age-old question of why gender inequality exists.
In the 1980s, Tavris joined Carole Wade in writing an introductory psychology textbook, Psychology. It “was the first to explicitly and systematically integrate principles of critical thinking” into the introductory psychology course, along with mainstreaming research on gender and culture, with the goal of making the field more inclusive. Wade and Tavris also published Invitation to Psychology, a shorter version of their main textbook. As of 2015, Psychology is in its 11th edition and Invitation its 6th.
Tavris’s first major trade book, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (1982, revised 1989), brought social-psychological research to light on many of the pop-psych, Freudian-based ideas about anger that were and are prevalent but wrong: such as that it is healthier, physically and psychologically, to “ventilate” anger than to “suppress” it. On the contrary, she showed, repeated venting rehearses anger, raises blood pressure, and often makes the other person angry back at you. In ways typical of her lifelong approach, she brought skepticism, data, and critical thinking to her evaluation of this and many other beliefs about anger. In her chapter on anger in social movements, she took as her main examples the efforts to promote women’s rights and civil rights, and the role of anger in igniting the pursuit of justice.
A more recent area of focus for Tavris is cognitive dissonance, a theory first developed by Leon Festinger and later advanced by his student Elliot Aronson into a theory of self-justification. Cognitive dissonance is the state of discomfort one feels when two beliefs, or a belief and behavior, contradict each other, or, when a deeply held belief is disconfirmed by evidence. Written with the social psychologist Elliot Aronson, Tavris and Aronson's book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, delves into the role cognitive dissonance has on people and how they see both the world and themselves. The book will be available in an updated, revised version on October 20, 2015.
According to Tavris and Aronson, cognitive dissonance allows us to justify our mistakes and harms, keeping us from conscious awareness that we even made any, and thereby allows us to live with ourselves. This is how even “charlatans, scammers, and tyrants sleep at night.” Given a choice between accepting information that we don't want to hear and justifying outdated beliefs or hurtful acts, most people choose self-justification. Indeed, Tavris says, “the more we pride ourselves on our intelligence and our competence, the stronger our commitment to an ideology or philosophy of life,...the harder it is to accept evidence that we might be wrong.” Mistakes Were Made explains how cognitive dissonance applies in all domains of life, from decisions made during the Bush administration, prosecutors who cannot accept that they put innocent people in prison, to quarreling couples who cannot understand the other person's point of view.
Tavris and Aronson use a pyramid metaphor to explain how self-justification can lead people far down a path they might never have imagined for themselves. Because of the need to reduce dissonance after we make a decision, once we have done so we become less able "to think skeptically and scientifically about it." Our attitudes now change to be consistent with our behavior, and we may end up far away from people who took a different path.
Gender, Feminism, and Women's Studies
Tavris began writing about women's status and gender differences in the 1970s. Her book with Carole Wade, The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective “[examines] the scientific evidence for and against many beliefs about women and women’s lower status historically and cross-culturally.”
In 1992, Tavris wrote The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex, a vigorous defense of equality feminism, the view that women are neither inferior to men nor superior to men, but are entitled to equality in all spheres. The title was an homage to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, because both books showed how societal prejudices can affect research—in his book, in the study of intelligence, and in hers, in the study of gender. Tavris' book draws on research in many disciplines to explode myths about "male and female" brains (a perennial issue), alleged gender differences in "natural" abilities, the social creation of "PMS", and other popular beliefs.
In a final chapter, she examined and critically evaluated the emerging "recovered memory" epidemic in America, in which women were going into therapy and coming out believing they had been victims of sexual abuse for years, but had repressed the memory. In January, 1993, she wrote a controversial but influential lead essay for The New York Times Book Review, "Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine," on the popular "sex-abuse-survivor" books, showing that their assumptions about memory, trauma, repression, and recovery were scientifically unwarranted. The Mismeasure of Woman received The Distinguished Media Contribution Award from the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology and the Heritage Publications Award from the division of the Psychology of Women of the American Psychological Association.
Tavris identifies as an equality feminist (in contrast to the strains of feminism that have promoted notions of female superiority or inherent differences in psychology and abilities). For Tavris, feminism and science are not incompatible: on the contrary, she regards the scientific method as a way to “further the goals of feminism, and feminism is a way of improving science.” Tavris has long believed that science and critical thinking are "the major tools we have for assessing which ideas are better than others, and of forcing ourselves to let go of ideas that don’t work.” In this goal, she maintains, skepticism—a willingness to question received wisdom, to demand good evidence, to be willing to hold even our own ideological beliefs up to scrutiny—is an essential ally. So, she would add, is a sense of humor.
Carol Tavris was married to the actor Ronan O’Casey until his death in April 2012. As Ronan’s son Matt wrote in an obituary, O’Casey “was a distinguished actor, producer and writer who enjoyed a picaresque life and career to the full. He was born in Montreal, Canada, to a poet father, Michael Casey, and actor mother, Margaret Sheehy, from Dublin, who had co-starred with the young James Joyce in his first stage role. Ronan began acting in his mother’s company in Montreal at the age of eight and, following theatrical and vaudeville touring, moved to Dublin and then to London.” He met Carol in New York in 1975 and the rest was history for them.
Tavris, like her mother Dorothy, has been a lifelong member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She has testified as an expert witness in several court cases where evidence against a defendant was based on pseudoscientific, unvalidated psychological ideas, and she has been an advisor for the National Center for Reason and Justice, an advocacy group devoted to fighting false allegations and wrongful convictions.
On August 21, 2010, Dr. Tavris was a special guest at the 10th Anniversary Gala by The Independent Investigations Group and received an award for contributions to skepticism and science. On May 10, 2013, she received an honorary doctorate of letters from Simmons College and on February 27, 2015, she received the Media Achievement Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
- Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (with Elliot Aronson) (Harcourt, 2007/2015) (ISBN 978-0-15-101098-1)
- Psychology (with Carole Wade and Maryanne Garry) (11th edition, 2014, Pearson, ISBN 0-205-25431-4)
- Invitation to Psychology (with Carole Wade) (6th edition, 2014, Pearson, ISBN 978-0-205-03519-9)
- Psychobabble and Biobunk: Using Psychology to Think Critically About Issues in the News (Pearson, 2011, ISBN 978-0-205-01591-7)
- The Scientist and the Humanist: A festschrift in honor of Elliot Aronson (with Marti Hope Gonzales and Joshua Aronson) (New York: Psychology Press, 2010 ISBN 978-1848728677)
- Psychology in Perspective (with Carole Wade) (Three editions, latest 2001, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-028326-6)
- The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex (Simon and Schuster, 1992) (ISBN 0-671-66274-0)
- Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (Revised edition 1989, Touchstone, ISBN 0-671-67523-0)
- EveryWoman's Emotional Well-Being: Heart & Mind, Body & Soul (Doubleday, 1986, ISBN 978-0385185615)
- The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective (with Carole Wade) (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, revised 1984, ISBN 978-0155511866)
- The Redbook Report on Female Sexuality: 100,000 married women disclose the good news about sex (Delacorte, 1977, ISBN 978-0385288675)
- "Carol Tavris", Contemporary Authors Online (Gale, Literature Resource Center)
- Shermer, Michael (February 9, 2011). "The Measure of a Woman: An interview with social scientist Carol Tavris". eSkeptic. ISSN 1556-5696. Retrieved February 21, 2015. originally published in The Skeptic v7 n1 1999.
- D.J. Grothe (3 August 2007). "Podcast:Carol Tavris-Mistakes Were Made". Point of Inquiry. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- Indre Viskontas (25 March 2013). "Podcast: Carol Tavris - The Science of Sex and Gender". Point of Inquiry. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- Carol Tavris (26 February 2014). "Believe the Survivors or the Science? What the science of memory can teach us about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case, 19(1)". Skeptic Magazine. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
- Jane E. Brody (March 8, 1983). "VENTING ANGER MAY DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- Jo Benhamu (27 August 2010). "Podcast: The Skeptic Zone #97". For Good Reason. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- Anatole Broyard (February 19, 1983). "Books of the Times". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- D.J. Grothe (20 February 2010). "Podcast: Mistakes Were Made". For Good Reason. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- TAM2014-Carol Tavris - Who's Lying Who's Self-Justifying (YouTube video). James Randi Foundation. 6 August 2014. Retrieved March 23, 2014.
- Carol Tavris (3 January 1993). "Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
- Carol Tavris and Leonore Tiefer (October 30, 1994). "For Better Sex, Says Dr. Frieda, See 'Robert's Rules of Order". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
- O'Casey, Matt (2012-05-09). "Ronan O'Casey obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-03-27.
- "ACLU 2014 Annual Report" (PDF). American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved April 6, 2015.
- "NCRJ Advisors". National Center for Reason and Justice. Retrieved April 6, 2015.
- "The IIG Celebrates its 10th Anniversary". Independent Investigations Group. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
- "‘Miss Representation,' Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker is Simmons College's Commencement Speaker, May 10". Simmons College. Archived from the original on 25 August 2014. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
- "2014 Award Recipients". Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved April 2, 2015.
- Home pages
- Mistakes Were Made – For Good Reason (audio interview)
- Dr. Carol Tavris: Social Psychologist, Writer, and Lecturer
- The Measure of a Woman: An interview with social scientist Carol Tavris-Skeptic
- Carol Tavris-Mistakes Were Made- Point of Inquiry (audio interview)
- Carol Tavris - The Science of Sex and Gender - Point of Inquiry (audio interview)
- The Skeptic Zone #97 - Skeptic Zone(audio interview)
- An Interview With Carol Tavris - American Scientist
- Interview with Carol Tavris - Ken Low from Action Studies Institute (video interview)
- Champions of Psychological Science: Carol Tavris-Association for Psychological Science
- Public talks
- Who's Lying, Who's Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations at TAM 2014 on YouTube
- Keynote Address at TAM 2012: "A Skeptical Look at Pseudoneuroscience on YouTube
- Presentation at TAM 2011: "Dissent and Dissonance: The Science and Art of Argument" on YouTube
- Let's Talk About Sex Differences. Again (November 23, 2010 - The Guardian)
- Review of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore (October 25, 2014 - The Wall Street Journal)
- Review of Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine (TLS)
- Review of Shrinks: The untold story of psychiatry, by Jeffrey Lieberman (March 10, 2015 - The Wall Street Journal)
- Review of Rape: A history from 1860 to the present, by Joanna Bourke (TLS, anthologized in Psychobabble and Biobunk (Third Ed.) as well)
- Review of Sex and the Psyche, by Brett Kahr (TLS, anthologized in Psychobabble and Biobunk (Third Ed.) as well)
- Review of The ADHD Explosion, by Stephen Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler, and ADHD Does Not Exist, by Richard Saul (March 22, 2014 - The Wall Street Journal)
- Review of Behind the Shock Machine, by Gina Perry (September 7, 2013 - Wall Street Journal)
- Review of The Book of Woe, by Gary Greenberg, and Saving Normal by Allen Frances (May 18, 2013 - The Wall Street Journal)
- Review of The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin( September 8, 2012 - The Wall Street Journal)
- "Lessons from the Lab: Teaching Contentious Classics: Sherif, Milgram, and Harlow revisited (based on APS lecture of May 24, 2014)” (July 16, 2014 - TLS)
- Interview with Dr. Frieda Tingle (October 30, 1994 - The New York Times)
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