Ask the Author: Ed Wasserman

“As if by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve” is a new book by University of Iowa Experimental Psychology Professor Ed Wasserman.



Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Ed Wasserman is a Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Iowa and his latest book “As if by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve” came out in September. In an email interview with The Daily Iowan, he discussed the psychological topics and behavioral innovations mentioned in the book, along with how his idea originated. Wasserman received the Career Development Award from the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2018, which helped to set in motion the creation of “As if by Design.” Alongside Washington University professor Len Green, Wasserman will hold a reading at Prairie Lights on Nov. 17.

DI: What is the book about?

Wasserman: As if by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve is concerned with how innovative behaviors originate. The creative behaviors that advance the human condition are rarely the result of what we so often call genius and foresight. Instead, their origin is commonly unplanned or accidental. That doesn’t mean science will be unable to explain the creative process; it instead means that we have to look more deeply into how at least three objective factors — context, consequence, and coincidence — combine to bring about those innovations. In other words, creative behaviors usually arise, not by design, but as if by design!

DI: What inspired you to write it?

Wasserman: As a behavioral scientist who studies learning, I’ve long recognized that accounting for innovative behaviors poses an extremely daunting challenge. That recognition suggested I take a fresh approach, because appealing to such vague notions as genius, inspiration, insight, and foresight really takes us nowhere — these are merely labels for what has to be explained. 

DI: What was your writing process like for As if by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve?

Wasserman: For well over 10 years, I’ve been collecting stories that provide special clues to clarify the origins of innovative behaviors. Because they come from realms as diverse as sports, medicine, science, and the arts, I had to read widely for stories that provide enough fertile ground to allow effective documentation and examination. After I decided on 25, I then had to subject all of them to my own theoretical analysis. 

DI: What is your favorite “behavioral innovation” that you mention in the book and why? 

Wasserman: I’m especially fond of the chapter on Acey Deucy. The idea for the chapter came from my cousin, Ron, who was a horseracing aficionado. In this innovation, the jockey places the left stirrup below the right. This allows the left leg to be fully extended and the right leg to be tightly flexed — a position which is believed to permit the horse and jockey to lean more effectively into left turns around the racetrack. But this innovation was accidental. The “creative” jockey had a freak mishap which prevented him from flexing his left leg, so this was the best way for him to guide his horse past competitors. Not only was this innovation unplanned, it was fortuitous; had the jockey raced in England, his career would have surely ended, as more races there are run clockwise, whereas here they’re run counterclockwise. 

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