My colleagues and I are deeply saddened about the unexpected passing of Anders Ericsson on June 17. Dr. Ericsson was not only a massive figure in psychology, philosophy, performance, and beyond but—in my experience—an outstanding person.
There is much to say about Anders. I can speak only to the past few years—and only a slice of it. Nonetheless, that slice of Anders is rich. Indulge me just three stories.
1. Leaning Towers
I may never forget my first encounter with Anders. Anders made eye contact, kindly greeted me, and gently asked me to sit in the chair facing his desk. As soon as I sat down, I could no longer see Anders. He was occluded by the piles of books and manuscripts on his desk. Looking around, I realized that the piles were everywhere. With the exception of our two chairs, Anders’s’ desk, a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse, the office was waist- to shoulder-high towers of knowledge. You can appreciate a small portion of these monuments in this screenshot from my dissertation defense.
After losing sight of one another behind the books, we began talking about our research and future collaborations. During the subsequent hour or so of edifying discussion, we occasionally saw portions of one another’s faces through cracks in the stacks of scholarship.
2. Rare Collegiality
Even though Anders was in another department and planning to retire in just a few years, he agreed to join my dissertation committee and advise research more generally. He provided loads of invaluable input. Some of my best work (currently under review) was made possible by Anders. Strong support for students’ research seemed like the norm for Anders. In his final seminar, Anders saved a large portion of almost every meeting to discuss students’ ongoing projects and how we—himself included—could support it.
Anders was also humble enough to solicit feedback on his writing from students before it was submitted for publication. In the Spring Anders invited multiple rounds of feedback on this now-published, open access commentary about the longitudinal explications of ‘deliberate practice’ (2020). No seminar has made me feel more like a professors’ colleague than Dr. Ericsson’s.
3. Remarkable History
Anders’s enviable career starts in Sweden and features some of the biggest names and institutions in my fields. There are many fantastic stories to tell (e.g., Neil Charness’s and colleagues’ stories, Florida State University’s overview, or Dr. Ericsson’s Wikipedia page).
Some stories that stand out in my mind go back to Anders’s days as a postdoc. at Carnegie Mellon University. His memory tasks were incredible! Participants would listen to a string of numbers with a second of silence between each number, wait quietly for at least 30 seconds after hearing the final number, and then speak the strings back. And there are tapes!
The tape recordings of the memory training sessions are remarkable for a few reasons.
- They’re tapes—like veritable cassette tapes. And the audio sounds really old! The hiss and crackle of the audio feels like going back in time. Listening to them is a potent reminder of what psychology was like when Anders was getting started.
- The tasks might as well be sporting events. Participants must not only recall a long string of numbers from short term memory, but also verbalize every thought that occurs to them in real-time—a la Ericsson’s & Simon’s well-known think aloud protocol analysis (1993). And they have to do all of this before the short term memory degrades. So participants are racing against the limits of human memory and speech.
- The researchers’ and participants’ investment was tremendous. And the excitement was commensurate. When a task gave a participant an opportunity to break their record, the were audibly excited and anxious to make the attempt. Sometimes they spoke with the same crescendoing intensity of a radio commentator trying to describe a fast-unfolding historic event in real-time. They were shouting and out of breath by the end. The training and documentation continued for days or even weeks for each participant. I don’t know any researchers investing so much in or witnessing as much of each participant’s psychology today.
Working Until The End
Anders had recently retired, but everyone was expecting Anders to continue working in some capacity. In his last email to me on June 11, Anders closed with the following.
My plan is to keep working until I cannot do a good job. I am hoping that I will keep an office in psych department as an emeritus when I retire.
My mentor Herb Simon kept on working until days before he passed away due to an infection he got at the hospital when he had some relatively benign procedure. He was 85 years old at the time.
Like his famous mentor, Anders Ericsson did admirable work until days before he passed. Alas, it was sooner than anyone expected—too soon if you ask me.