Professor Wendy Johnson, The University of Edinbuygh, School of Philosophy.


Interviewd by Professor Kung Pengcheng 


Prof. Kung: I am very fascinated by your career trajectory. You graduated in 1977 in mathematics and about a decade later you founded an actuarial consultancy company. Then in 1995 you started studying psychology at the San Francisco state university, which was the start of a successful career as an academic. Why did you decide to study psychology after a successful career as a mathematician and manager in the private sector? What advice would you give to people that want to make a similar career change?

Prof. Johnson: I intended when I took my first job as an actuarial trainee/student that it was not going to be permanent – I’d been working at another job that had been great fun, but I really needed a bigger challenge, and I knew the actuarial job that an old uni friend was telling me about would offer the kind of intellectual challenge I was looking for, so I figured it was worth a try. I also knew it wasn’t actually the challenge I really wanted, but I didn’t know exactly what that one was. I thrived doing it, rose in the ‘ranks’, grew hugely in the social self-confidence skills I’d lacked sorely met my then-husband, had our daughter and two years later our son. I think that psychological research was the challenge I’d long looked for emerged via their births. There they were – full biological siblings, born into the same household, growing up together with the same parents, but such very different people from the get-go! How does this happen? How does the genetic heritage we’re each born with transact with our environments to build us into the people we become? I wanted to see what I could figure out about that! I knew I’d need a PhD in psychology to merit a job doing it, and that I’d need to do some preparatory work to make a credible PhD application, which would also give me a chance to confirm to myself it was the right challenge and build my confidence that I had some chance of being able to do it well. The kids were still very little too, so it wasn’t time yet to dig myself into a whole new career anyway. I took some undergrad pysch courses at a local university, one course at a time and then a Master’s while continuing the actuarial consulting until the kids were launched in primary school, and then applied. All went well with the family move halfway across the US and with the PhD programme – I was thriving! When I finished, I was extremely lucky to land the position I have now with the University of Edinburgh. This change was the right move for me.

I’d encourage anyone thinking of making a career change such as I did to go for it. Make a back-up plan in case it isn’t working out and think even more carefully about how to do as much as you can in advance of leaving your current career to make sure the new one goes well. Make sure you’ve got your finances in order and room to spare for contingency expenses, get your family on board with the idea and all it will entail for them, make sure you’ve got the skills and credentials to be competent, check out as much as possible that your heart really will be in it, and when all that’s in place, throw yourself at it with everything you’ve got!


Prof. Kung:Has your training as a mathematician and your experience in the private sector have helped you pursue a career in psychology? 

Prof. Johnson:
My mathematics background and experience in the business world have been invaluable to me in academia, each in its own way. Mathematics teaches one to think critically and thoroughly, to examine and test every conceivable twist in a problem, in a way that’s applicable to questions in any area of life. And of course it’s the underpinnings of all the methods of pursuing sciences, including psychology. Psychological training doesn’t teach its methods conceptually though – one would need to spend some time in a mathematics department to get the conceptual foundations psychologists really need to do good research, but I got them before entering the field, so I came ready to absorb thoroughly and expand on all the best psychological training does teach. Business consultation of any kind involves social interactions with a broader swathe of the population than academia, and this exposure to people as they live their lives rather than in artificial lab or survey situations very often helps me figure out how to interpret my data and develop ideas for further studies.


Prof. Kung:
Could you talk about your research project ‘Gene-Environment Interplay of Social Context and Aging Related Outcomes’ and the main findings?

Prof. Johnson:
That phrase is just what I came up with to describe the ageing-related aspect of my overall research project in very summarised terms one particular day for on long-forgotten particular purpose. It’s not some one single project with a particular title. What I’ve learned about gene-environment interplay in ageing is very similar to what I’ve learned about other aspects I’ve studied: interplay is pervasive and genes and environment are completely intertwined, genetic – and shared environmental – underpinnings at population level strongly parallel those at the observed level, nonshared environmental influences are always quite strong -- often stronger than the other two, patterns within individuals usually differ considerably from those at population level, population genetic stratification for socially rewarded characteristics is common and substantive, and despite their statistical and technological sophistication, our models are very inadequate to gain much traction in understanding more – especially the molecular genetic ones. This has led me to focus most of my attention on getting the field to see this so that maybe researchers will join me in my efforts to develop better ones, or at least stop overinterpreting their study results and ignoring the pervasive violations, often in actually inaccurate ways, and ignoring the pervasive violations of their models’ underlying assumptions.


Prof. Kung:
Some scientists argue that intelligence is a single number that can be measured with an IQ test, whereas others argue that intelligence is more complex and should be quantified with several variables. In your opinion, what is intelligence? 

Prof. Johnson:
In concept, intelligence is ability to navigate and arrange one’s circumstances in ways that work for one as a person. This always involves adapting to social constraints but it also means carving out a good path among society’s various opportunities according to one’s own lights about what’s good. Inevitably, in modern society, this means adapting to schooling to at least some degree, solving problems that emerge, making trade-offs among desired undesired but required things, at least when necessary to reach one’s goal, etc. IQ tests tap this ability throughout the lifespan, but in limited and socially constrained ways, so they measure the concept better in those more socially conventional, and in no one are they actually the intended intelligence concept, But this is true of all psychological measures, and, if anything less so for intelligence than any other. I think this is because mainstream society has come to value and reward good intelligence performance very highly.


Prof. Kung:
It is known that education has a clear impact on the development of intelligence. How does this work? Can you develop intelligence in the way you develop a sports skill, such as basketball? Can pedagogues use your research to improve their teaching practices?

Prof. Johnson:
Lots of education’s impact on ‘intelligence’ is teaching and practice with the kinds of tasks on IQ tests: ‘teaching to the test’. And what education builds is maintained via keeping one’s hand in academic-like activities for the same reason: overt overlap of those activities with IQ-test tasks. Another big chunk arises via gene-environment correlation. That is, there’s a ‘culture’ associated with people who have, in particular, gotten university degrees that tends to differ from that associated with people who haven’t. They also tend to be more intelligent in the conceptual sense, and they bring both their educated ‘culture’ and their genes ‘for’ intelligence to their children – and that cultural inculcation starts even before conception, with tendency towards better health and nutrition, access to information about healthy pregnancy, ‘space’ in their lives to make sure they get prenatal care, etc., etc., etc. Early parenting tends to differ too, especially in use of language with young children. Children of educated parents tend to get spoken to more often, using more varied language, explaining what’s going on, seeking their thoughts and desires about it, reading to them, etc. All this leaves them better prepared for school – and all too often the schools they go to are better too. In most countries, neighbourhoods and school quality are all too stratified by socioeconomic status of their residents. The evidence that you can actually improve what’s meant in concept by ‘intelligence’ through instruction and practice is slim at best, but there’s no question anyone can improve their skills in the tasks we use to test intelligence – and pedagogues do this quite readily as I noted up top. But throughout the world, schools – and universities – struggle to teach effectively things like actual creativity, reasoning through to solve new problems, and critical thinking, which represent the concept of intelligence in action. I suspect that stuff each person who does them well grows into them first through the ways educated parents tend to talk to them at first but this gradually shifts as they grow to seeing their use and figuring out more for themselves through experiments interacting with and exploring the world – with what tools and how depending on interests, resources, and opportunities.