Steven Pinker: Biography highlights

Steven Pinker is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

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Full biography of Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s background

He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time and The Atlantic and is the author of ten books, including The Language InstinctHow the Mind WorksThe Blank SlateThe Stuff of ThoughtThe Better Angels of Our Nature and most recently, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Pinker was born in 1954 in the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, Canada. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Experimental Psychology at McGill University and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976, where he has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT.

He earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, a one-year stint as an assistant professor at Harvard and in 1982, a move back to MIT that lasted until 2003, when he returned to Harvard.

Currently he is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology. He also has spent two years in California: in 1981-82, when he was an assistant professor at Stanford and in 1995-96, when he spent a sabbatical year at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Pinker is an experimental psychologist who is interested in all aspects of language and mind. His doctoral dissertation and much of his early research focused on visual cognition, the ability to imagine shapes, recognize faces and objects and direct attention within the visual field.

But beginning in graduate school he cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children and this topic eventually took over his research activities.

In addition to his experimental papers, he wrote two technical books early in his career. One presented a comprehensive theory of how children acquire the words and grammatical structures of their mother tongue. The second focused on the meaning, syntax and acquisition of verbs and what they reveal about the mental representation of reality.

For the next two decades his research focused on the distinction between irregular verbs like bring-brought and regular verbs like walk-walked. The two kinds of verbs, he showed, embody the two cognitive processes that make language possible: looking up words in memory and combining words (or parts of words) according to combinatorial rules.

He has also published several studies of the genetics and neurobiology of language. Most recently, his research has begun to investigate the psychology of common knowledge and how it illuminates phenomena such as innuendo, euphemism, social coordination and emotional expression.

In 1994 he published the first of seven books written for a general audience. The Language Instinct was an introduction to all aspects of language, held together by the idea that language is a biological adaptation. This was followed in 1997 by How the Mind Works, which offered a similar synthesis of the rest of the mind, from vision and reasoning to the emotions, humor and art.

In 1999 he published Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language which presented his research on regular and irregular verbs as a way of explaining how language works.

In 2002 he published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which explored the political, moral and emotional colorings of the concept of human nature. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, published in 2007, discussed the ways in which language reveals our thoughts, emotions and social relationships.

In 2011 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. His latest book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Pinker frequently writes for The New York Times, The Guardian, Time, The Atlantic and other magazines on diverse topics including language, consciousness, education, morality, politics, genetics, bioethics and trends in violence.

Pinker is the Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary and has served as editor or advisor for numerous scientific, scholarly, media and humanist organizations, including the American Association the Advancement of Science, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Psychological Association and the Linguistic Society of America.

He has won many prizes for his books including:

  • The William James Book Prize three times
  • The Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize
  • The Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize
  • The Cundill Recognition of Excellence in History Award
  • The Plain English International Award

And his research including:

  • The Troland Research Prize from the National Academy of Sciences
  • The Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association
  • The Henry Dale Prize from the Royal Institution of Great Britain
  • The William James Award from the Association for Psychological Science

He has also been named the Humanist of the Year, Honorary President of the Canadian Psychological Association, Time magazine’s Hundred Most Influential People in the World Today, Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers and the recipient of eight honorary doctorates.

Pinker lives in Boston and in Truro with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The other writers in the family are his stepdaughters Yael Goldstein Love and Danielle Blau, his sister Susan Pinker and his nephew Eric Boodman.



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Author Steven Pinker
Author Steven Pinker
2018 Lovett C. Peters Keynote Speaker Steven Pinker
2018 Lovett C. Peters Keynote Speaker Steven Pinker
Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers | Steven Pinker
Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers | Steven Pinker
The Case for Progress: Steven Pinker
The Case for Progress: Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker's ever written. It's my new favorite book of all time'

Bill Gates
The New York Times

'The Better Angels of Our Nature is a supremely important book.'

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