Maybe I'm Not Such a Bad Conversationalist
Meet Adam Mastroianni, Social Psychologist
It takes all kinds to make the wheels of society turn. The joy of this newsletter is exploring the many variations of work. Today, I have someone who essentially crafts thought experiments to better understand the collective us. Let me introduce Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia Business School, whose research on conversation and societal perception of change, among other works, has garnered national attention.
His resume is, well, intimidating: Here’s an actual screenshot of it.
That’s not even the most impressive part. Ivy League pedigrees are not exactly a dime a dozen, but this kind of progression is typical of the professorial type. The Rhodes Scholarship, it’s a nice touch, especially since he also shoehorned time in as a contestant on a British cooking show. His list of research projects, published papers, invited talks, and academic awards--fine, it’s daunting, particularly from an individual of only 31 years old. Here’s where the resume hits the “oh, just stop” moment: Adam is also formerly a “professional instructor” at the ImprovBoston Comedy School. Damn, he’s certifiably funny too.
Before our interview, I googled him and unearthed this gem from his Princeton graduation. It’s ribald, hilarious, and I-can’t-believe-they-let-him-get-away-with-it fun! Watching the parents and faculty squirm in their chairs as he delivers one punchline after the next is priceless.
“That was peak for me,” Adam says of the speech. “It’s all been downhill since.”
This is not a paid advertisement for Adam, though after the next plug, I might give him my Venmo handle. Adam is also the creator of the popular newsletter Experimental History where he challenges conventional wisdom on a panorama of subjects, including education, happiness, memory, and the liking gap between people in social circles. While writing this profile, he released his latest bromide: “Psychology might be a big stinkin’ load of hogwash and that’s just fine.”
Every time I read his name, I see “Maestro” instead of “Mastro” and that might be everything left that needs to be said on why I reached out to him in the first place. At his newsletter, he identifies himself as an “experimental psychologist,” whose job is “to put people in situations and see what happens.” Cool work if you can get it.
We talk first about how he found his passion, then how he learned his trade, and finally his research into conversation—and the misperceptions most of us have over whether we’re any good at it. Short answer: We’re better than we think!
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Let’s start at the beginning, where you came from?
Sure. It all started…well, that part I don’t remember very well, coming into the light. [At this juncture, I already I knew I was in trouble with this interview!]
I grew up in a small town called Monroeville in the middle of nowhere Ohio. There are 1,400 people there. My seventh-grade teacher was also the mayor. I didn’t know that was small until my first day of college at Princeton, my professor said he lived in a small town nearby with 30,000 people. The world sort of zoomed out quick. Monroeville is 25 minutes from Cedar Point, the entertainment mecca of the Midwest. But in our town, we had to roll tires with a stick for our version of fun. My father was a rural mail carrier. My mother was an administrator at a vocational school.
I was a nerd in school, and I could have easily been bullied. My body armor was my sense of humor. I grew up watching lots of Comedy Central and I started doing standup myself at school talent shows. I would whisper jokes to the class clown, and he would say them out loud and get in trouble instead of me. It kept me from being a target––people won’t steal your lunch money if you can make them laugh.
I didn’t know anyone who had gone to a selective college; most people from my town don’t go in the first place, or they go but don’t finish. I read a book about college admissions that made me think I had a shot at getting in somewhere good, so I took it, and Princeton took a chance on me. That changed everything. For instance, I grew up thinking that 80% of the world is Catholic because 80% of my world was Catholic. I understood there were other people out there, but I hadn’t met them.
How did you first get interested in psychology?
I was taking a social psychology class, and we played a Jeopardy game to review for the midterm. I answered one of the bottom row questions the difficult ones, and the guy running the review session was like, ‘Oh, you're pretty good at this.’ And I was like, “Me?” Then I said to myself, I guess I do work hard at this, maybe that means I like it. That’s what self-perception theory would predict. That’s when I realized, oh, maybe I should be a psychologist.
Then I got an email that a guy, Dan Gilbert, was looking for some research assistants. [Professor Daniel Gilbert is a world-renowned social psychologist at Harvard and author of the worldwide bestselling Stumbling on Happiness). I worked in his lab that summer and fell in love with it. The people were smart. The questions were interesting. It was fun. I didn't realize that people got to just think about why people do what they do and run studies trying to figure out why, and then write about them.
It just seemed to me why would I study anything else than social psychology. The stuff I learn in chemistry is interesting and all, but it doesn’t change how I live my life––“ooh I’m made out of rubidium, cool.” But in psychology, what I learn might change what I do afterward. Why read the user’s manual for the microwave if you can read the user’s manual for the human mind instead?
What exactly is social psychology? Or rather, why do you call it “Experimental History” like your newsletter of the same name?
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