UPDATED: February 13, 2016, at 3:50 p.m.
Fiery A. Cushman ’03 is having a bit of trouble with the milk today. His one-year-old daughter, Nell, wriggles and stretches in her high chair, intrigued by the customers at the next table. She finally deems her father, a rising star in Harvard’s Psychology department, worthy of her attention. Holding a napkin under her chin, Cushman gently and steadily tilts the glass toward her mouth.
“They usually give us the milk in a little espresso cup,” he explains. “She’s still learning non-sippy-cup ways of drinking things.”
The scene is familiar to Cushman. Breakfast at Simon’s is a near-daily ritual for him and Nell before they begin their days—at day care for her, at the Moral Psychology Research Lab for him. Today’s breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal with cranberries and walnuts, which he and his daughter share. He orders a latte and insists that I do the same. Cushman points to a five-year-old girl at the next table, waving to her and her mother. The girl was Nell’s age when Cushman and his wife, Julie E. Kobick ’05, first came to this coffee shop.
The glass is still proving to be a challenge—Nell seems more interested in blowing bubbles than drinking milk. Cushman wipes her mouth again, then puts on her jacket and hat. When it’s time for us to leave Simon’s, he has barely touched his coffee.
The passenger seat of Cushman’s white Honda Civic is occupied by a small suitcase and a monogrammed briefcase—he leaves for San Diego this afternoon. Cushman and his colleagues are going to a convention of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, where Cushman will present on moral learning.
I load the bags into the trunk. Cushion places Nell’s car seat snugly in the backseat. Before bringingNell to daycare, he drives me back to the Yard, where I will meet him later. It’s shopping week, and lecture starts at 1 o’clock.
"I am Fiery," Cushman begins his first lecture of the semester. "Fiery is pronounced like the adjective. It is actually my real name, and it’s my preference that you use it."
Perhaps Cushman developed his preference for first names at Georgetown Day School, where students address teachers informally. When Cushman arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1999, he had to get accustomed to using more formal titles.
“When I came here, I sort of intellectually knew that I was supposed to call Cornel ‘Professor West,’” he recalls. “But it just intuitively felt wrong.”
Cushman is a new associate professor in Harvard’s Psychology department, and the course head for Psychology 15: “Social Psychology.” He taught a similar course at Brown after studying at Harvard for 10 years. When he isn’t taking care of Nell or teaching, he is working in the Moral Psychology Research Lab, investigating age-old questions of morality and human behavior, from a cognitive standpoint rather than a philosophical one.
Before coming to Harvard as an undergraduate, Cushman lived in Bethesda, Maryland. His father was a Washington correspondent for The New YorkTimes, and his mother taught psychology at American University. Cushman and his two younger siblings are evenly spaced in age, seven years apart.
Cushman’s first encountered psychology in middle school, when he read his mother’s developmental psychology textbooks in the basement. It was a “self-taught [lesson] in adolescence,” he jokes.
“My brother is a goof, as we all are,” Cushman’s sister Holloway says of her family. Now a junior at Kenyon College, she is the youngest of the Cushman siblings. “We’re thinking about the human condition all the time,” she says. The middle Cushman sibling, O’Neill, studied philosophy. Although the Cushmans joke that psychology is the family profession, Holloway recalls that it was a surprise when her brother decided to pursue the discipline at Harvard.
Although he was a precocious student in high school, Cushman had a free-spirited, rebellious side, which manifested itself in his hairstyle—a “fro-ponytail,” as Holloway describes it.
“None of my friends were anything approaching cool at our school,” Cushman says. “But just amongst the six of us, I was the least cool of the uncool.”
Richard Avidon, a faculty member at Georgetown Day School, recounts that Cushman was known for his remarkably analytical and creative mind. Avidon first taught Cushman in a sophomore year government class. One of his memorable assignments was a profile of current presidential candidate John Kasich, then a Representative for the state of Ohio.
The profile was one that could have been found in a newspaper, Avidon recalls. Apparently 16-year-old Cushman was as prophetic as he was eloquent—he ended the article with the question, “Will this man run for president someday?”
Avidon also recalls Cushman’s love of a good joke. During Cushman’s senior spring, Avidon, a self-described “tough teacher,” handed out one of the regular pop quizzes for his constitutional law class.
“You have 15 minutes. Good luck,” Avidon said. When the 15 minutes were up, Avidon was surprised to see that Cushman and a friend had opted out of taking the quiz. With forks, knives, and a bottle of hot sauce, they instead ate it.
“I can’t say I was happy when it happened,” Avidon says. (One of them did hand in the quiz, but it was hard to read because most of it had been chewed up.) “But it forever changed my policy on teaching second semester seniors.”
At 1 p.m., the auditorium is packed. Even before the clock has struck Harvard time, students spill into the aisles, making seats out of the stairs. The air pulses with the usual buzz of shopping week, but the room falls into rapt silence as Cushman begins his lecture. He may eschew the title of “Professor,” but he commands the classroom like the best of them do.
Cushman begins his lecture with a story of star-crossed lovers. A handsome man and a beautiful woman grow up together and end up working in Hollywood. It seems like they would make a great couple, but alas—an image of Jake and Maggie Gylenhaal pops up on the slide—they’re siblings. Today’s lecture begins with a discussion of the human aversion to incest.
“Every seat was filled, but it was dead quiet when he was talking,” says Curtis M. Hsu ’19, who is now enrolled in the course. “Even though it was a big lecture hall, it felt very personable, the way he talked.”
The feeling of intimacy in the classroom is no accident. Cushman later tells me that he tries to deliver each sentence of the lecture to a particular person in the audience.
“You get 300 people in front of you and there are lights shining in your eyes, and you can just sort of talk out there,” he says. “When you do that, you start using a professor voice, and you start saying sentences that no human being would ever say otherwise.”
It’s no surprise that many students liken Cushman’s lectures to TED talks. (Cushman doesn’t watch TED talks, so he can’t say if this comparison is accurate.)
“Class can be a game of Whack-a-Mole,” he tells me. “When I see someone’s eyelids fluttering, I just start talking to them personally, and I focus on getting them excited. Then by the time that person’s excited, someone else’s eyelids are fluttering. Out of 300 people, someone’s eyelids are always fluttering.”
The lecture skips swiftly and effortlessly across centuries and continents, from Hollywood to the inbred monarchy of 17th-century Britain to the abduction of Appalachian brides.
“During the colonial era, in the area of Appalachia settled by the Scotch-Irish, there were two types of weddings,” Cushman explains. “There were weddings by abduction, and there were weddings by consent, which were generally considered unexciting and needed some kind of enlivening feature."
The class finishes with a discussion of violence in the modern American South and its relation to other cultures of honor. Cushman investigates this topic, like the previous topic of incest, across the four levels of analysis developed by Dutch scientist Nikolaas Tinbergen: mechanism, ontogeny (development), phylogeny (evolution), and adaptation. He calls Tinbergen an academic ancestor of sorts—the two are connected by a lineage of advisors and advisees.
Cushman cut his ponytail in 1999, right before he started his freshman year at Harvard College. A resident of Pforzheimer House, he concentrated in Biology, but was not particularly excited by his coursework. Between his concentration, core requirements, and Expository Writing, he was left with only five elective courses for all four of his undergraduate years.
“I took a lot of philosophy courses,” Cushman recalls. “I was reading books about the evolution of cooperation and reciprocal altruism, but I was going to courses where I was learning signal transduction pathways and protein kinase and I wasn’t really passionate about what I was studying there.”
Outside of the classroom, Cushman’s undergraduate career was marked by swordplay with the Harvard-Radcliffe Kendo Society and conferences with Harvard Model Congress.
His wife, Julia E. Kobick ’05, was also active in HMC. (The two of them were presidents of the club during their respective senior years.) When Kobick was a sophomore and Cushman was a senior, the couple fell in love in Barcelona during an international HMC conference. They got married in 2007.
Though Cushman was busy with coursework and his budding romance, he still made time for his family during his college years. Once, five-year-old Holloway visited her brother, and declared that they would throw an Easter-Egg-decorating tea party. Cushman invited all of his friends to the event in his Pforzheimer suite, and they acted out scenes from Pride and Prejudice at Holloway’s request.
Cushman describes the beginning of his collegiate psychology studies as “totally serendipitous.” In the spring of his junior year, he enrolled in a moral psychology course at the recommendation of a roommate.
Cushman took the course and liked it: “The professor said that I should start working in his lab. I worked there, [and he] said I should be a research assistant, so I did that. One thing led to another and suddenly I didn’t have anything else to do and I ended up being a psychologist.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Cushman applied to the graduate Psychology program at Harvard.
“I only applied to one graduate school because no one else would accept me,” he says. “I had no credentials,no thesis. I had not only not majored in Psychology, I also hadn’t taken very many psychology classes.”
After graduation, Cushman worked in a primate lab led by Marc D. Hauser, who taught the moral psychology class he took during junior year. In a 2006 issue of Fifteen Minutes, Cushman shared insights from the lab, where monkeys were named after famous psychologists:
“Without thinking, you’ll say, ‘Steven Pinker… eats shit all day.’”
After a year in the lab, Cushman was accepted to Harvard. During graduate school, Cushman lived in Cabot House with his wife. The couple made an effort to get to know students by approaching them in the dining hall.
“We used to scare the bajeezus out of sophomores,” he recounts. He and his wife would tell sophomore students that they began dating at that age and subsequently got married. “You’d just see this look of horror— anyone who was dating someone in their sophomore year would get this pale look.”
He stayed in Cambridge for all four years of graduate school and for his two-year postdoctorate, which he completed under Psychology professor Joshua D. Greene’s advisory before a teaching stint at Brown.
Greene is well known for studying the cognitive science and moral psychology of the now-famous trolley problem, an ethical exercise that was generally constrained to philosophy classrooms before his career.
The trolley problem always begins with a runaway trolley about to kill five people. You have the choice of pushing someone in front of the train in order to slow it down and save the passengers, or redirecting the trolley, killing one person. Greene sought to understand why most people would not push a person in front of the trolley, but would flip a switch to redirect it.
“We evolved in an environment where if you wanted to hurt somebody, you had to punch ‘em,” Cushman explains. “Josh’s idea was that evolution designed us to really be averse to punching, kicking, and biting, except in extraordinary circumstances, but evolution never safeguarded us against the more distant and abstract forms of harm because they weren’t relevant.”
Cushman first heard his adviser speak about the trolley problem during graduate school, in William James Hall, the same building where he and Greene now have neighboring offices.
In one experiment, Cushman gave participants a disabled handgun and told them to shoot at his head. Even though he had shown the participants that the gun was disabled and could in no way harm anyone, most showed deep discomfort with the action they were performing and experienced a spike in blood pressure.
In this experiment, Cushman and his colleagues were studying how learning processes affect moral and social behavior. Cushman has built on Greene’s research, and expanded it by employing concepts from computer science and algorithms.
When Cushman began studying psychology, he thought that, like Greene, he would focus on the evolution of moral behaviors. After reading a textbook written by computer scientists, his interests shifted.
“Suddenly, it became clear that these theories of [machine] learning could also explain the difference between pushing a person and flipping a switch,” he says.
Cushman’s research builds upon Greene’s dual process theory. According to that theory, humans have two competing ways of making moral decisions: emotional gut reactions and deliberative, rational ones. The thought of pushing one person in front of a trolley to save its five passengers triggers a strong emotional response, one which overrides the rational conclusion that five lives saved is better than one.
Cushman analyzes the two competing mechanisms in terms of learning algorithms. Computer scientists have made the distinction between model-free learning and model-based learning for machines. Through model-free assessment, computers learn by habit, by assigning positive or negative value to past actions without fully considering consequences.
Greene says this could be likened to a rat who learns his way through a maze by memorizing a series of commands, “left right left right,” and finds the cheese through these habitual responses. Model-based learning could be represented by a rat who learns the maze by exploring it and understanding its whole layout, so that it could still find the cheese if one door in the maze were to close.
The handgun experiment found that model-free moral assessment—the emotional aversion to shooting a gun at a person—competes with the rational model-based assessment—that the gun could not hurt the person.
“There’s a habitual value assigned to the gun: It’s usually bad to pull the trigger of a gun that’s pointed at someone’s head,” Cushman says. “We’ve over learned that, even though most of us had never used a gun before.”
Cushman’s research has clear implications for fields other than psychology, such as philosophy and law. Although Cushman is interested in these implications, he understands that what a scientist might discover in a lab does not always manifest outside of it.
Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor and former federal judge, invited Cushman to speak to a class of Law students to discuss psychology as a form of evidence in the courtroom.
“They said, ‘Can you give a coherent theory of the mind and brain? We have about an hour,’” Cushman says. “The answer is no.”
According to Cushman, the issue with bringing brain scans into the courtroom is that neuroscience does not necessarily contribute the evidence that lawyers and judges need. Earlier in his career, Cushman gave a similar lecture to courtroom judges.
“Judges enjoyed the lecture the way they’d enjoy an interesting article in The New Yorker,” he says.
“They would usually say, ‘That was fascinating,' [or], 'I really enjoyed thinking about that. Doesn’t usually have a lot to do with the courtroom.’”
Cushman does, in fact, write articles, if not for The New Yorker, then for Huffington Post Science and New Scientist magazine. The website for Cushman’s lab has a specific section for general audience reading.
Cushman’s dedication to making his work accessible is somewhat surprising, according to Adam M. Morris, a Ph.D. student Cushman first taught as a freshman at Brown.
“If a professor writes a general audience book, it’s looked down on,” Morris says. “It hurts your chances of getting tenure.”
Regardless of tenure-track norms, Cushman remains committed to making his work available to a popular audience as well as his academic mentees.
“The only reason you do this work is because you want to communicate it to other people,” Cushman says.
The Peregrine falcon sits in a wooden frame on a wooden shelf—Cushman took the photo himself, on the rooftop of this very building. Using the tracking band on the bird’s foot, he contacted the man who gave the falcon its tracking number in New Hampshire when it was an infant.
“I sent him some pictures to say, ‘Everything’s all good, he goes to Harvard now,’” Cushman jokes.
Like the students in the Science Center lecture hall, the falcon seems to stay perfectly still, perfectly silent for Cushman. Here perches the world’s fastest animal, captured in an eternal stasis, surrounded by books.
Some of the books assert themselves so matter-of-factly, with such self-assurance, that their titles beg to be read in curmudgeonly voices. "On War." "On Intelligence." "On Killing." A leather-bound volume bears the same name as this building, William James. A flaming orange paperback asks, "Why Do Men Barbecue?"
The other contents of the shelves range from the mundane—a restroom sign-out log from an exam—to the whimsical—a hobby horse. Two namesakes sit on the top shelf: a bottle of Grill Mates Fiery 5 Pepper Spice, and a can of Idris Fiery Ginger Beer.
Predictably, there is a shelf filled with books whose titles contain some variation of the phrase “Social Psychology.”
On this Tuesday afternoon, a roster of postdocs, graduate students, and lab managers cycles through Cushman’s yellow-walled office for individual meetings.
This is a weekly event: As the principal investigator of the Moral Psychology Research Lab, Cushman meets with each member of the lab to discuss new findings or problems from the past week. The white board on the wall fills with overlapping diagrams and half-finished graphs—half-finished because when one person begins drawing something, the other immediately begins to understand.
The first person stops drawing at the epiphanic, “Oh, I see.”
“Finish it this semester,” Cushman tells Morris, his graduate student, about a project he is working on. “There are a lot of things you could give your first-year talk about, and it should be this.”
Morris has worked with Cushman since his sophomore year at Brown, and followed him to Cambridge this year.
“I’ll bring him an idea that I had in a meeting and he’ll always jump a step higher than I thought was possible,” Morris tells me.
“That’s a big part of my role in the lab,” Cushman says. “To keep myself one level of abstraction ahead of the students that I’m mentoring, to pull them to more and more integrative and powerful ideas.”
Just as Greene once inspired Cushman, Cushman now has his own set of mentees eager to build on his work. Cushman’s advisees often praise the same qualities that Cushman ascribes to Greene, such as an ability to communicate effectively in the lecture hall.
“[Cushman] has this knack for coming up with perfect, vivid, concrete examples of things,” Morris says. “You’ll be struggling to explain something to another grad student in these abstract terms and he’ll interject and say ‘Imagine…’ and you’re like, ‘That’s what I meant to say.’”
Sophie W. Smith ’11, one of Cushman’s 15 senior thesis advisees and longtime mentee, says that he taught her “how collaborative and supportive researchers can be.”
“There are these family trees in science, passing on their expertise and knowledge onto the next generation,” Smith says. “I felt very connected to this lineage of researchers who were dedicated to making sure the next generation is equipped to tackle the big questions that remain.”
“Lately, she’s been a little less jolly when I leave her at daycare,” Cushman says while feeding Nell a spoonful of oatmeal. After spending two weeks with her parents during winter break, she is beginning to realize that morning drop-off signifies a seemingly-permanent separation from her Mom and Dad.
Not that Cushman’s psycho-analyzing her. “No one lives like that, like some incompetent Jedi trick,” he says. “You don’t just walk around the world thinking like a psychologist. ”
For now, the advice Cushman has for his youngest mentee is more practical in nature. “You’re not even trying, kid,” Cushman tells his baby daughter as she tries to drink milk from the glass. “You’re just blowing bubbles.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: February 13, 2016
An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Curtis M. Hsu ’19.