Scott Lilienfeld remembered for advancing psychology while embodying kindness

By Carol Clark | Emory Report | Oct. 1, 2020

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Scott Lilienfeld, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology at Emory, passed away Sept. 30. He was widely recognized as the foremost authority on pseudoscience in psychology, as well as a pre-eminent scholar of psychopathy.

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Scott Lilienfeld, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology at Emory, passed away Sept. 30 from pancreatic cancer. Lilienfeld was widely recognized as the foremost authority on pseudoscience in psychology, as well as a preeminent scholar of psychopathy. More recently, he began exploring the interface of psychology, politics and the polarization of society. He was also renowned for his kindness and humility.

“Scott was a giant of psychology and the impact of his research will obviously be long lasting,” says Thomas Costello, an Emory graduate student in the Lilienfeld lab. “But his legacy among his colleagues and his students is foremost his warmth, empathy and kindness, along with his intellectual and moral courage. Everyone who knew Scott was amazed by his humanity.”

“He treated students like colleagues from day one,” says Shauna Bowes, who joined the Lilienfeld lab as a junior in the Neuroscience, Behavior and Biology Program and is now a graduate student in the lab. “Scott never made you feel small or inadequate. Anything that you brought to the table he would look at and discuss. He built you up. He wasn’t just a great intellect and a titan in his field. He was a wonderful person.”

“We’ve lost a great friend and colleague, and our students have lost a master teacher,” adds Patricia Brennan, professor and chair of Emory’s Department of Psychology. “It’s a loss not just for Emory, but for the entire field and the world.”

Lilienfeld, who was 59, was born and raised in New York City. He attended Cornell University and went on to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Minnesota. He joined the Emory faculty in 1994, where he built an international reputation as a clinical researcher specializing in psychopathy and other personality disorders. 

Lilienfeld also became a fierce and courageous advocate for rigorous science in his field. He led the charge against unproven psychological “wisdom,” challenging the validity of some widespread diagnostic tools and therapies. In 2002 he founded a journal, “The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice,” with the stated goal to present “objective investigations of controversial and unorthodox claims in clinical psychiatry, psychology and social work.”

In addition to publishing more than 350 journal articles, Lilienfeld’s reach extended to the general public. He often served as an expert commentator for major media on psychology topics, and regularly contributed articles to the New York Times, Psychology Today, Scientific American and other outlets.

He wrote and edited both influential textbooks and books aimed at broad audiences. Among the popular titles he co-authored are: “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior,” “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience” and “What’s Wrong with the Rorschach? Science Confronts the Controversial Inkblot Test.” 

“He was extraordinarily dedicated to education at all levels, including the general public,” Brennan says. “He wanted to help people learn to think critically so that they could become better citizens.”

In recent years, Lilienfeld began exploring the role of psychopathy and personality disorders in relationship to politics, leadership and the polarization of society. He published an opinion piece in the New York Times in 2015, “The Narcissist in Chief,” which referred to the political rise of Donald Trump and whether the public should consider personality when voting for presidential candidates.

It was this focus that drew Thomas Costello to join Emory in 2016 as a graduate student in Lilienfeld’s lab. “Scott’s research showed how personality traits underlying psychopathic behaviors, like fearlessness and narcissism, can make for successful leaders,” Costello says. “But when mixed with other psychopathic traits, like callousness and impulsivity, the combination can potentially have disastrous consequences.”

Inspired by Lilienfeld, Costello plans for a career as an academic researcher focused on the psychology of politics. “Now more than ever, it’s important to understand why people have the political opinions that they do,” he says. “Scott’s recent work was basically trying to find ways to bring people together by better understanding why they are so polarized right now.”

Funded by a Templeton Grant, the Lilienfeld lab began investigating whether intellectual humility may temper extremism and polarization and, if so, whether it is a skill that can be taught and learned. As Lilienfeld summed it up: “It’s good to disagree if we hold respect for the other side. When we disagree to the point of not liking each other or hating each other, there is an increased risk for discord, extremism and violence.” 

“Scott had his thumb on the pulse of both science and culture,” says graduate student Shauna Bowes, who joined the Lilienfield lab in 2017, tackling constructs like authoritarianism, decision-making and interpersonal dialogue. Like Costello, she hopes for a career in academic research.

“I’m interested in how we think and make decisions,” she says. “How do we operate under ideal circumstances and how does that change when things go wrong?”

Bowes was recently interview by the New York Times about a study she led on personality traits associated with a belief in conspiracy theories. The analysis found links to conspiracy beliefs and a sense of entitlement, self-centered impulsivity, cold-heartedness, depressive moods and anxiousness.

Psychology Today asked Bowes to write a regular column on conspiracy theories and she gladly accepted. “I’m taking on Scott’s mantel and passion for making science understandable for the lay public,” she says. “He inspired me to see the importance of that.” 

She notes that many more major papers led by students, guided by Lilienfeld, are nearing publication. 

“Publishing is bittersweet because Scott is not here to enjoy the fruits of his latest labors,” Bowes says. “But what a gift he has given to his students, setting us up to be able to make a difference.”

Lilienfeld is survived by his wife, Candice Basterfield, and his sister, Laura Lilienfeld, who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida. Memorial plans are still under way.

Among his many honors, Lilienfeld received the James McKeen Cattell Award for Lifetime Contributions to Applied Psychological Science from the Association for Psychological Science (APS) and the David Shakow Award for Early Distinguished Contributions to Clinical Psychology, from the American Psychological Association.

Lilienfeld was editor-in-chief of Clinical Psychological Science and a member of 10 editorial boards. He also served as president of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology and the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy. 

The APS recently established The Scott O. Lilienfeld APS Travel Award, to honor Lilienfeld as “a transformative leader in the field of clinical science.” The award will recognize graduate student achievement in clinical psychological science research by funding one or more graduate students to attend the APS annual Convention each year.