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old post: Kevin and Merrill Carlsmith

Also from 2011, December: 

This morning, I learned the sad news that social  psychologist Kevin Carlsmith had died. Three months ago, the news was  that my sister-in-law Carol had died. Shortly after, for varied reasons,  I fell too far behind to continue the blog. As I start it back up,  writing a somewhat more personal story of social psychology seems  fitting.

Kevin's father, Merrill Carlsmith, laid the foundations for any  understanding I have of statistics. He taught the intuitions that lie  behind the statistics, the elegant English language ideas that are  captured so succinctly in the language of t and F and p. While taking  his class my first year of grad school, I had the insight about  within-subject correlations that drove my subsequent JPSP paper with  Lauren Alloy.
I was Merrill's teaching assistant the last time he taught Basic  Statistics, a semester in which he was dying, far too young, of cancer. My first lecture was for a day when he said he just could not go. It  was on chi-square, with which I was at best minimally familiar. I  recall Merrill, afterwards, expressing his surprise in hearing an aspect  of the statistic taught as I had. I proclaimed that I had read this  approach and found it interesting, only to later reread with the  realization that I had misunderstood.Merrill knew circumspection.
If you have ever heard of cognitive dissonance, you've likely heard  of Merrill. He was paired in authorship with Leon Festinger on perhaps  the most famous of dissonance studies. Students did a boring task, were  paid a lot or a little to tell another person it was interesting, then  came to like the study more if they were paid only a little to lie  rather than a lot. A beautiful, important study, that, and it is right  that Merrill is remembered for it. But I recall Merrill, instead, for  his kind approach after my first lecture. For briefly playing  volleyball pepper with me in front of the psych building back when I was  quick, though he was quicker. For being a clear thinker who cared to  and was able to convey clarity to others. And I remember him as the  father of his children.
I suspect I last saw Kevin at his dad's funeral.  He was so young--it  was 1984, and Kevin must been about 16. But I read the comments sent  out on the SPSP listerv and saw him, and Merrill, again. Read them. They tell a story of living, of thinking, of studying that which  matters, of caring for one's students, of family. The thought of  Kevin's daughters, of Merrill's granddaughters, brings joy--such people I  am sure they will grow to be. The story of the Carlsmiths is so much  more than the story of a famous experiment.

It is my sad duty to report that Kevin Carlsmith died on November 19. Those of us who were fortunate to know Kevin will miss him greatly; he was an incredibly nice person and an amazing scholar. Chris Carlsmith (Kevin's brother), John Darley, (his Ph.D. adviser), Rebecca Shiner (the Chair of Kevin's department at Colgate), and I (his postdoc adviser) wrote the following comments and observations about Kevin:  

Kevin M. Carlsmith died peacefully on November 19, 2011 from cancer in his boyhood home in Portola Valley, CA, surrounded by his family.

An accomplished researcher and a popular professor of Psychology at Colgate University since 2003, Kevin earned a Ph.D. at Princeton University (2001), an M.A. at University of New Hampshire (1996), and a B.A. from Lewis & Clark College (1989).

Kevin grew up next to Stanford University as the son of two academic psychologists, J. Merrill Carlsmith and Lyn K. Carlsmith. At the age of four he was a participant in Walter Mischel's famous study of delayed gratification at Bing Nursery School. He knew many members of the Stanford Psychology faculty informally, and his childhood antics were frequently cited by Lyn in her classes on childhood development. Despite (or perhaps because of) his proximity to the field of psychology, he did not embrace that academic discipline until his freshman year of college, when he discovered it was a topic for which he exhibited both passion and talent. His other great collegiate passion was the outdoors, which he had come to love as a boy on backpacking trips to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Kevin was deeply involved with the outdoor program at Lewis & Clark and led frequent trips into the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. After college he worked at the North Face and served as a river guide and rock-climbing instructor for Outward Bound. He loved the wilderness for both its beauty and its unpredictability. He taught for four years at the White Mountain School in New Hampshire, tutoring students with learning disabilities, supervising a dormitory, and offering instruction in a variety of outdoor activities all year long.

Kevin's experience at the White Mountain School was transformative in several ways. He realized that while he loved outdoor education, he was equally fascinated by classroom pedagogy and by the opportunity to figure out how his students were thinking.  He had rediscovered his interest in psychology, and in 1994 he returned to academia to pursue an M.A. degree at the University of New Hampshire under the direction of Jack Mayer.  In 1997 Kevin moved on to Princeton to study with John Darley and earned his doctorate there in Psychology in 2001 with a dissertation on revenge and justice. John Darley remembers that Kevin was consistently prepared and wonderfully well-organized, with well-developed skills in statistics and in expository prose. Kevin himself was proud of his ability to thrive intellectually in such a rigorous academic environment. He had found his calling at last.

Kevin's research examined lay theories of morality and justice, including people's naive theories about important kinds of social behavior (e.g., punishment for deviant acts) and how these theories drive behavior (e.g., the kinds of prison sentences people recommend).  One interesting question he examined, for example, is whether people are fully aware of how they form judgments about transgression; there appear to be many cases in which people say one thing but do another when it comes to determining punishment.  He uncovered a number of interesting cases in which people's theories about transgression and punishment bear little relation to the rationale behind the legal codes.  In addition to examining basic questions about people's views of morality and social behavior, this work has intriguing implications for social policy.

He and John Darley found a joint interest in determining which of the many goals that exist for punishing wrongdoers are the ones that really motivate ordinary people to assign punishment to those who have been convicted of crimes.  Certainly, people do this in order to deter crime but Kevin and John discovered that individuals from western cultures tend to have an immediate intuition that the offender "deserves" punishment and the magnitude of the punishment is to a considerable extent shared on most offenses.

A two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia allowed Kevin to work with Tim Wilson and to further refine his research agenda.  During this time Kevin conducted research on the affective consequences of revenge, finding that whereas people believe that exerting revenge (punishing a free rider) will make them feel better, it actually makes them feel worse. He also taught the introductory social psychology course at UVa to rave reviews.  He once said that he treasured every minute of class and hated letting the students go, feeling that he had more to say about the many fascinating topics in social psychology. Clearly his students felt the same way, giving him some of the best course evaluations in the department.  One student sent an unsolicited letter to the Chair of the department that read, ���Kevin Carlsmith is a phenomenal professor . . . I view this course as one of my most valuable experiences in the past few years, and will carry the lessons learned here with me forever."

In 2003, Kevin became an assistant professor at Colgate; he was promoted to associate professor in 2009.  He taught a variety of classes at Colgate, including Social Psychology, Statistics, Propaganda and Persuasion (initially developed with Joel Cooper at Princeton), and a freshman seminar of his own design entitled "Just Punishment." A 2008 letter in support of Kevin's tenure application described him as "a thought provoking, dynamic, organized, and enthusiastic teacher" who routinely incorporated new academic technology into his classroom. At a gathering in Fall 2011 to honor Kevin, his Colgate students spoke and wrote with poignancy about how his teaching influenced their view of the world in very practical ways. For example, many of his students reflected with laughter and wonder on Kevin���s assignment for them to consciously break a social norm on campus, and to document the reactions of others and of themselves; this is a clear example of Kevin's ability to help students apply academic material to their own lives and to societal issues. He also served as Chair of the Institutional Review Board at Colgate and as Faculty Advisor to the Psychology Club. His students and colleagues there speak in glowing terms of the contributions that Kevin made to the department and to the school. His advisees praised his compassion and his willingness to let students make the major decisions. Kevin inspired students to pursue challenging theses and ambitious research projects; he championed both efficiency and collegiality in department decision-making; he provided humanity and practical suggestions in administrative capacities; he was a valuable resource for colleagues in thinking through the research design and statistical analyses of their own research.

Kevin published his findings in numerous prestigious journals, and was regularly invited to comment in the mass media, including the New York Times, LA Times, and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, about contemporary issues of punishment, such as analyzing the motivations and justification for the killing of Osama Bin Laden. He possessed a particular expertise in statistics, an ability that he may have inherited from his father, Stanford professor J. Merrill Carlsmith. The recipient of three grants from the National Science Foundation, Kevin was first author of more than a dozen articles as well as numerous encyclopedia entries, and a regular reviewer of scholarly articles for journals in psychology and law.

In 2009 Kevin received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to advance his research on revenge and punishment. The anonymous reviewers were unanimous in their praise for Kevin's project. One wrote: "I see Carlsmith's work as transformative in the most profound sense, because his research will help shape the future of research and public discourse on an important scientific, social, and political question: why do people support and carry out torture? This question is not just important for the United States, and not just for the Bush and Obama administrations. This is a global issue." Another reviewer added: "[T]his proposal is of interest to many disciplines including law, political science, and public policy, not simply to psychology. It is also of great relevance to current events, and has the potential to make an impact not only within academic circles but also on actual public policy decisions. The broader impact of this research is not in doubt."

Perhaps the most telling comment of all came from a reviewer who expressed frustration at being unable to find any flaws at all in the project's design:

Reviewers are supposed to read proposals carefully and point out all of the ways in which the proposal could be improved. This grant has me feeling like the Maytag repairman. I think this grant is terrific in all ways, and I have nothing to criticize or even recommend to improve the PIs existing ideas.  .  . I clearly have no ideas that the PI has not considered already, and the ones I was considering were not as interesting as the ones he proposes. The predictions are interesting and counterintuitive, with pilot data to support them. The experiments are programmatic and ambitious, moving the clear ideas mentioned in the introduction into new and interesting areas.. I anticipate that the PI will generate many more interesting follow-ups than he even anticipates at this point. It's among the best proposals I have seen. That it's being conducted at an undergraduate institution only augments my very positive impression of this proposal. It is terrific, and deserves the highest priority of funding.

In 2001 Kevin married Alison Mathias, a Virginia native whom he had met in a swing-dance class at Princeton University. They have two daughters, Abigail and Julia. A devoted father, Kevin lavished attention upon "his girls" as he affectionately referred to all three of them. He relished the opportunities to introduce his daughters to ice-skating in the winter, Disneyworld in the spring, and swimming at his family's camp in New Hampshire during the summer.

In 2010-11 Kevin was appointed as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He was eager to introduce his wife Alison and his two young daughters to the splendors of the Bay Area, and he was delighted to have the chance to collaborate with so many other social scientists. He was also pleased to follow so closely in his parent's footsteps: Merrill had been a Fellow at CASBS in the 1970s, and Lyn was a frequent visitor there as the steadfast companion of Director emeritus Gardner Lindzey. Sadly, Kevin's cancer prevented him from utilizing the resources there to his full advantage, and his health declined significantly during his year there. During that same year, Kevin provided sensitive and compassionate care to his ailing mother Lyn while managing his own health issues, taking care of his family, and arranging his affairs. A clear-eyed social scientist right to the end, Kevin wrote a blog about his illness that showcased his dry wit, his optimism and zest for life, and his detailed understanding of the disease that afflicted him.

Kevin was always thoughtful and deliberative. Gentle and kind, he retained a fierce desire to live coupled with a serene dignity in the face of death. Even as he battled his own disease, he paid extraordinary attention to his ailing mother to make sure that she was well-cared for, and to his daughters so that they would be prepared for his passing. We will miss his wise counsel; his delight in the achievements of his children; his keen insights into the human mind; and his enthusiasm for family, friends, psychology, and the outdoors.

In addition to his immediate family of Alison, Abby, and Julia, he is survived by his brother Chris Carlsmith and his family of Arlington, MA, and his sister Kim Sampson and her family of Orlando, FL.

Christopher Carlsmith (University of Massachusetts-Lowell)
John Darley (Princeton University)
Rebecca L. Shiner (Colgate University)
Timothy D. Wilson (University of Virginia)


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