Scott O. Lilienfeld, 1960-2020: Kind Champion of Rigor in Psychological Science

Scott Lilienfeld

“Some knew [Scott Lilienfeld] as a professor of clinical psychology; others as a general psychologist or a critic of pseudoscience. His work in each area was so remarkable that you might think there were three of him.”

– Chris Martin, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-founder of Heterodox Academy

Psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, a tireless ambassador of the psychological sciences to non-scientific audiences, died of pancreatic cancer on September 30. He was 59.

“He was extraordinarily dedicated to education at all levels, including the general public…he wanted to help people learn to think critically so that they could become better citizens”, said Patricia Brennan, professor and chair of Emory’s Department of Psychology, where Lilienfeld was the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology.

In the academy, Lilienfeld was well known for his work on clinical psychology, and his pursuit of rigor there evolved so that on the larger stage he was a known for challenging second-rate psychology or of pseudo-science masquerading as psychology. Those who knew him, like Chris Martin, said was not a cynic but was a skeptic (his Psychology Today blog was named The Skeptical Psychologist and he was a consulting editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine), whether in the classroom, on a dais, or as a writer and editor.

“In my experience as an instructor of graduate students in clinical psychology and allied fields,” he once wrote, “one of the most widespread thinking errors that I have encountered…[is] ‘breakthroughism’: the tendency to regard novel interventions as breakthroughs rather than merely as potentially promising techniques that may be worthy of investigation.” His article “Psychological treatments that cause harm” has been cited over 1,000 times, and his two popular audience books, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology with Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, Barry Beyerstein, and Brainwashed: The Seductive appeal of Mindless Neuroscience with Sally Satel (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science), were both critiques.

Lilienfeld was one of the first people to join Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan collaborative of professors, administrators, and students committed to “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.”

Scott O. Lilienfeld was born and raised in New York borough of Queens on December 23, 1960 and was raised in the New York City area. He studied psychology at Cornell University, receiving a bachelor’s degree there in 1982 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1990. After a clinical internship in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania he was assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at State University of New York , Albany from 1990 to 1994, until joining the Emory faculty in 1994.

Lilienfeld became one of the world’s leading experts on psychopathic personality while challenging conventional conceptions of evidence-based treatments in psychotherapy. His career encompassed clinical psychology and always worked to shake it free of empty theorizing and bad practice. In all that he did, Lilienfeld was intellectually honest, bold, and rigorous, a key player in his field. He ‘led the charge’ against unproven psychological “wisdom,” challenging the validity of some widespread diagnostic tools and therapies. His more recent work focused on the role of psychopathy and personality disorders in relationship to politics, leadership and the polarization of society.

As Thomas Costello – a graduate student at Emory University and in Lilienfeld’s lab – said, “Scott’s research showed how personality traits underlying psychopathic behaviors, like fearlessness and narcissism, can make for successful leaders. But when mixed with other psychopathic traits like callousness and impulsivity, the combination can potentially have disastrous consequences.”

In his own teaching career Lilienfeld took on his role as a mentor with seriousness and focus. (“The only time I saw him angry,” Martin recalled, “was when another senior professor—my adviser—was derelict.”) Lilienfeld’s work and his helped influence a wide range of researchers, students and thinkers across a multitude of psychology subjects. “I’m taking on Scott’s mantel and passion for making science understandable for the lay public,” said his research lab student, Shauna Bowes. “He inspired me to see the importance of that.”

As this suggests, Scott Lilienfeld was known as a steady friend and a kind voice – an obituary from Emory noted his kindness in its headline. “I can say first hand he was a true hero to junior people in the field, and fought against injustices others would shy away from,” tweeted June Gruber, director of the Positive Emotion & Psychopathology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, while Purdue University’s Elizabeth N. Aslinger tweeted, “Not only was Scott an intellectual powerhouse, but a thoroughly kind human being. … He saw everyone as important.”

Lilienfeld has been described as a scientific conscience, easygoing and precise in his critiques, and available for his students, reporters, and even rivals. “Scott never made you feel small or inadequate.” Bowes said. “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.”

Simultaneously, his role as an expert commentator for major media on psychology and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Psychology Today, and Scientific American among others, allowed his research to reach broad audiences. His written output included co-editing two textbooks for SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space): Personality Disorders: Toward the DSM-V and Health, Happiness, and Well-Being: Better Living Through Psychological Science. Until late last year he was editor of the journal Clinical Psychological Science and on the board of 10 other journals. His more than 350 academic publications garnered more than 36,000 citations.

He had been president of both the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology and the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy.

Lilienfeld received the APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow 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. The APS recently established the Scott O. Lilienfeld APS Travel Award which recognizes graduate student poster-presenters at association’s annual meeting.

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Kenalyn Ang

Kenalyn Ang is the Social Science Communications Intern with SAGE Publishing. She is also a communications student at the USC Annenberg School. Kenalyn is interested in all things related to narrative communication. Her research focuses on identity-making and representation through the written word, as well as through creative sensory marketing and branding strategies.

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