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Richard Doty

John Kruschke
IU Psychology Department

Last modified: Thursday, February 14, 2002

IU psychology professor honored for research on how people think

John Kruschke always wanted to be a scientist.

Growing up in Northern California, he was first interested in astronomy and physics. This evolved into an undergraduate degree in mathematics and ultimately a doctorate in cognitive psychology. "I became fascinated with how the mind perceives the world," he said.

The IU professor of cognitive psychology was greatly influenced toward education by his father, an award-winning professor of political science at California State University, Chico.

"My father, Earl Kruschke, has been a very big influence on me. He emphasizes the value of academics and lives by the motto of 'service, excellence and decency.'" Indicative of this reverence is a framed picture on the wall of Kruschke's office recognizing his father as the California State University Board of Trustees Statewide Outstanding Professor in 1991.

The IU faculty member recently added to the family total of academic awards when he was named one of two nationwide recipients of the Leonard T. Troland Award by the National Academy of Sciences. The $50,000 award is presented to young investigators (age 40 or younger) to recognize unusual achievement and to further empirical research in psychology.

The 40-year-old Kruschke was selected for his "deep insights and empirical evaluations concerning concept formation and attention in learning and rigorous formalization of the underlying psychological principles in connectionist frameworks," according to a statement by NAS.

What this means, Kruschke explained, is that he is fascinated with how people think. This relates to his duties in the internationally acclaimed IU cognitive psychology and cognitive science programs. "Cognitive psychology studies how people perceive, learn and think, and often it treats the mind as a complex computer program. My research is to figure out that program. Cognitive science is a vastly complicated field that includes such disciplines as neuroscience, psychology, computer science, linguistics and philosophy," he said.

Kruschke's evolution into the field came after he received a bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1983. He then entered the nationally recognized cognitive science program there and received his doctorate in 1990. He came to IU as an assistant professor in psychology and rapidly advanced to associate professor in 1996 and full professor four years later.

At IU he is in select company regarding the Troland Award. Joseph Steinmetz, professor and chair of the IU Psychology Department, received the honor in 1996, and IU cognitive psychology professor Robert Nosofsky won the award in 1995. Kruschke's award for 2002 was announced last month and will be presented in formal ceremonies in April.

Commented Steinmetz on Kruschke's award, "It was amazing for this department to win again, but cognitive psychology is an extreme strength at IU. We have some of the best faculty in the world in cognitive psychology and cognitive science, and this certainly includes Professor Kruschke. He is able to use cognitive psychology experiments together with formal mathematical models to study phenomena such as learning, memory and attention."

Kruschke said, "People are always learning, but we are very selective in what we learn. What I study is how people determine what information is important to learn. I try to find ways to capture this in a mathematical model that mimics human attention and learning."

He reviewed some practical applications of his work: "We can make learning much more efficient in such areas as business and education if we can understand how people shift their attention in learning environments. A second application is a better understanding of side effects of attention. Selective attention can speed up learning, but also distort our idea of what's out there. If we could predict what kinds of errors can be made, we could perhaps head them off. A third application is to apply these principles to artificial intelligence by developing robots to learn like people learn," he said.

For now, however, Kruschke will use a portion of the award money to improve his computer equipment and enhance collaboration with other scientists while continuing to pursue his father's motto of service, excellence and decency.