World after
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Robert Sternberg, Cognitive Psychology


Cognitive Psychology

Robert Sternberg


Robert J. Sternberg is a Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Honorary Professor of Psychology at the University of Heidelberg. He is a member of the US National Academy of Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has won the Grawemeyer Award in Psychology, the William James, and James McKeen Cattell Fellow Awards of the Association for Psychological Science.

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Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

The most positive change would be the realization that nationalism, populism and other such ideologies don’t solve serious medical problems or other problems for that matter, that we’re all in things together. We can’t do it as America first or Canada first. That we need to balance long term interests, the long term well-being of the world as well as our countries with short term gains, and that we need to act ethically and not just talk about it.


What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

The realization that what matters is the common good and not petty ideologies. That sounds simple, but right now, many countries or many tribes within those countries are focused on petty ideologies, ignorance of facts, ignorance of science, ignorance of ethics. And we need to shift their emphasis to the common good, doing what will help not just ourselves or our tribe, but what’s good for all.


Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

It would be the realization that today for many people, their ideology trumps their concerns about human well-being and about life. And you can see this certainly in my own country, where the same people who vociferously argue for right to life, now are arguing for the right to behavior. For example, not wearing masks, that will literally kill other people. You can’t talk about right to life and then go around, acting in ways that will kill others. That’s not right to life. But also, the same people who have argued for the necessity of social distance, have made an exception for demonstrations against police brutality and violence. No matter how good the causes are, you need to have some consistency in what you say is wise. Right now, the negative change is, it seems, that people would rather see others die and maybe themselves die, than give up their ideologies.


What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

The main thing is the realization that to achieve a common good, to do what’s best for all, you have to look at long term interests, as well as short term ones. And that’s proven hard for people to do. You have to look and say, what effect will this have on not only me when I’m older, but on my children and my grandchildren and other people’s kids as well. And you have to balance different interests against each other, and that includes the interests of people who are not like yourself, people who are members of different, so called, tribes. So if you’re in our country a Republican, that includes Democrats, and if you’re a Democrat, that includes Republicans.


What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

If I were to distill it to one thing, I would distill it to the idea that lives are more important than ideology. That the future is more important than short term gratifications. That we should never lose sight of the effects of what we do, not only on our own lives, but on the lives of others around the world, and of future generations. And that preserving the world for the future is more important than the ideologies that inspire people to behave recklessly.

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