11/18/2011 12:19 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2012

Is Daniel Kahneman Really the World's Greatest Living Psychologist?

If The Guardian and the BBC are to be believed, Daniel Kahnemann is the world's greatest living psychologist. This is quite a claim -- but is it true? Let's examine some of the candidates.

Albert Bandura is the most cited psychologist alive. That means that other academics quote his work more often than any other psychologist. In fact, he comes fourth out of all psychologists ever -- after Freud, Piaget and Skinner. That he comes after Skinner may rankle somewhat since it was Bandura who effectively put the nail in the coffin of Skinner's behaviorism. Before Bandura, behaviorists believed that children learned only by rewards and punishments. It is thanks to Bandura that we no longer believe in this mechanistic model; in fact, it's hard to imagine that there ever was a time before we understood that children learn by watching others. It is thanks to Bandura's early experiments -- of which the Bobo doll experiment is the most famous -- that we have social learning theory: an understanding that we are social animals who pattern behavior and norms from what we see in others. The very concept of a role model is impossible pre-Bandura. Perhaps even more important was his subsequent work on self-efficacy: the degree to which what we do is determined by what we believe and learn we are capable of. In December, Bandura will be 86; he's still working at Stanford, a keen observer of how people learn and mis-learn.

Down the hall from Bandura is another giant of modern psychology, Philip Zimbardo. In one of the most sensational and resonant experiments in the history of psychology, Zimbardo co-opted a group of Stanford students and put them in a mock prison. Half were guards and half were prisoners. Given their new environment, how would these highly intelligent, well educated and healthy young students behave? What Zimbardo found in his Stanford Prison Experiment was that they adapted -- profoundly and suddenly -- to the situation in which they found themselves. Guards rapidly became authoritarian and abusive; prisoners became compliant and submissive. These findings informed our understanding of how good people did bad things from World War II to Abu Ghraib. At the age of 78, Zimbardo is something of a rock star, passionately delivering the message that we need to understand the powerful influence of situations if we are going to find in ourselves the courage we need to resist it. His Heroic Imagination Project teaches children and adults how to resist the evil of bad situations.

Further down the same hallway is Stanford's Carol Dweck who has, for years, been uncovering the utter foolishness of the self-esteem movement. It does nothing for your children, it turns out, to praise them endlessly and open-endedly. Such indiscriminate boosting merely makes them give up whenever a task becomes difficult. Continuing on from Bandura's work on social learning, Dweck has focused on mindsets: the degree to which our capacity to learn is determined by how we view learning. If we believe in innate talent -- that you either have it or you haven't -- you will quit early and often. If however you see achievements as a process, you're more likely to keep going until you've notched some up.

And just to prove that not all the great psychologists are at Stanford, two on America's east coast continue to do shape-shifting work: John Darley and Roy Baumeister. Darley is the co-author of bystander effect, the rule of thumb which has demonstrated that the more people who observe something going wrong, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene. In other words, there is NO safety in numbers. In a series of elegant and engaging experiments. Darley and his colleague Bibb Latane showed participants sitting in a room as it filled with smoke; that they did not move -- to get help for themselves or others -- was because they took their cues from others. This diffusion of responsibility -- 'someone will do something' -- kept them rooted to the spot even as they lost the ability to see their hands in front of their faces.

Roy Baumeister, an equally elegant experimenter, has focused on one of the least fashionable of concepts: willpower. Going against the feel-good grain of self-esteem, he argues in his important new book that self-control and discipline do help us get things done. Forget feeling in the mood; focus, delay gratification and get down to work. Parents around the world are cheering.

Bandura, Zimbardo, Darley, Dweck and Baumeister are all giants in their field. They continue to shape how we understand ourselves and our world. Are they as important as Daniel Kahnemann? The question is, of course, utterly fatuous. But I'm struck that all five of them are highly concerned not just with how we think -- but with the moral content of the decisions that our thinking leads to. In particular, they concern themselves with how we might do better. This, it has to be said, is pretty unfashionable in a world more concerned with the rational and irrational.

The rise of neuroscience has merely accelerated the dominance of a purely mechanistic model of thought, personality and behavior. Although the field is characterized by deep and persistent confusion between brain, mind, self and consciousness, it plays to our curiosity about how the mind works. The high priest of neuroscience is Steven Pinker, whose mad scientist hair and populist theories have brought him fame and fortune. That his work has also appeared to encourage the misogyny of Lawrence Summers (maybe girls just can't do higher maths) and the comforting idea that the Final Solution wasn't really that violent (because not many people were actively involved) has merely stoked controversy and booksales. In his wake (and definitely not his fault) is a vast field of neuro-trash that circles neatly back to the mechanical behaviorism of Skinner et all. This engineering approach to psychology makes me wonder how long it will be before a murderer enters the defence: my brain made me do it.

No psychologist or neuroscientist alive today would argue that Kahnemann's work isn't elegant, fascinating and important. Of course it is. But the truth is that we have the good fortune to live at a time when many of the giants of psychology (of which Kahnemann certainly is one) are alive and productive, doing elegant and thoughtful work with immediate and lasting relevance to how we live our lives. That body of thought goes well beyond marveling at our own stupidity.