The psychology of learning

Leonard Green, Ph.D., has spent much of his career exploring the motivations that drive animal and human behavior. Still, he admits with feigned chagrin, it’s his own behavior that sometimes defies rational explanation.

“One of the reasons I like working here is that I can get away with saying most anything,” he quips, adding that on occasion something he’s intended to be funny or instructive has been misunderstood as mean-spirited. “I’m from New York, and in our family we didn’t have arguments. We just had lots of very loud discussions, so you’re always interrupting people — that’s just my style.

Leonard Green, Ph.D., talks with Pamela Talley (center), a sophomore double-majoring in psychology and in anthropology, both in Arts & Sciences, and Amanda Calvert, a graduate student in psychology.

“Occasionally I do inhibit, though” he continues. “There seems to be some small inhibitory center in my brain, although it’s clearly not fully developed.”

Green, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, enjoys poking fun at his social shortcomings, but his reputation with colleagues and students leaves little doubt that those who get to know him invariably come to appreciate him — even if they don’t always get his sense of humor.

“Green’s undergraduate course, ‘The Psychology of Learning,’ is one of the most rigorous in the department, yet students line up to get into it,” says Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger III, Ph.D., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and former chair of psychology.

“The waiting list is longer than the number enrolled,” he adds. “Len is known to be a superb teacher.”

Roediger, now dean of academic planning in Arts & Sciences, credits Green with building student interest in psychology.

“Psychology has more majors than any other department in Arts & Sciences, and Len Green is a big part of the reason,” Roediger says. “He works very hard in his role as director of undergraduate studies. He meets with students, sends out frequent newsletters to keep them updated on new developments and works constantly to improve the major.”

On faculty here since 1975, Green grew up in the Bronx and attended City College of New York on a Regents Fellowship, riding the subway between campus, home and his part-time job at a camera shop.

At City College, Green took a couple of psychology courses and fell hard for the discipline.

“It just struck me as conceptually rich,” he recalls. “There were these intricate theories, but they were well-grounded in empirical research. It wasn’t just speculation. There had to be data and the appropriate experimental research, and I found the research intriguing.”

Green’s undergraduate honors thesis involved learning-related experiments with nursery-school children. He admits spending much of his research time playing with the children and reading them stories, but still managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1969.

He moved on to graduate school at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, where he planned to continue his work on human behavior. Instead, he was assigned to the lab of Howard Rachlin, a leading expert on animal behavior and, as Green would soon learn, a “pigeon guy.”

“Len and Howie” began cranking out papers on such issues as “Economic and Biological Influences on a Pigeon’s Key Peck,” “Commodity-Choice Behavior with Pigeons as Subjects” and “Demand Curves for Animal Consumers.”

Their work, still influential, has been cited hundreds of times. Their first published paper is the basis for research on the experimental analysis of commitment and self-control, including Green’s current work on the psychology of discounting, gambling, risk-taking and delay of gratification.

Green earned a doctorate at SUNY in 1974. He stayed one year as a post-doctoral research associate before taking a cut in pay to join Washington University as assistant professor. He since has published more than 100 articles and book chapters and is editor of his field’s most prestigious publication, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

Green’s book series, “Advances in Behavioral Economics,” co-edited with John Kagel, helped popularize the use of traditional psychology lab experiments to investigate economic theories on individual behavior. The book includes contributions from noted economists and psychologists and argues that economic theories can be scientifically tested in the laboratory, even using animal experimentation.

Green’s family: Ana Coelho and their daughter, Hannah.

In addition to his undergraduate advising roles, Green is director of psychology’s study abroad program and oversees partner programs at the University of Sussex and Exeter in England and the University of Queensland in Australia. He’s the longtime campus adviser to the national honor society in psychology, Psi Chi, and a founding participant in Crossing Forsyth, a campus program that fosters faculty-student interaction on the South 40.

His most rewarding extracurricular activity may be his work on behalf of children with autism. Like so many of his interests, this one came by accident: A distraught mother called Green by mistake, thinking the acronym “ABA” on his resume meant he was certified to work with autistic children.

Green begged off, saying he had no background in clinical work. Eventually, he relented and offered to find students willing to help. This chance phone call has blossomed into whole networks of autism support services and sanctioned practicum work that pairs University students with parents needing autism-related assistance.

Green now serves on the board of Missouri Families for Effective Autism Treatment and as faculty adviser for the student-run Night Off Program, which provides free student babysitters for parents needing a “night off” from demands of caring for a child with autism.

Green shrugs off his involvement, suggesting that he has benefited most from the experience. He mentions a time when he scolded his daughter for wasting time re-reading a silly children’s novel in one sitting.

Later, he met with parents of an autistic child and was overwhelmed by the realization of what they would have given to see their child read any book.

“I really don’t know that much about autism,” Green says. “I don’t do that much. The parents do everything. They’re incredible. I’ve learned so much about myself just from being around them.”

Green’s daughter, Hannah, is 18 and a freshman at New York University. Her mother, Ana Coelho, came here from Portugal to pursue graduate work at WUSTL and is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley.

She and Green once conspired on a prank that involved Hannah and Sandra Hale, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology.

Hale, a longtime family friend, recounts the story this way: “Len Green is the kind of colleague who would send his 18-month-old daughter into the middle of a developmental lecture I was giving and have her hand me a note that said: ‘You are lecturing about kids. My name is Hannah, and I is one.’ Naturally, his daughter was a big hit, and I was touched that Len and Ana would take the time to set this up and pull it off without a hitch.”

Hale’s husband, Joel Myerson, Ph.D., research professor of psychology, is Len’s closest research colleague and his inseparable office sidekick.

Because Len and Joel bear a slight resemblance, students have been known to assume they are twins, and, because their thought processes are so interwoven, they might as well be.

Myerson has published dozens of articles with Green, but has never exchanged a draft.

Instead, they meet almost daily for a joint writing session. Myerson, who can type with all his fingers, works the keyboard, while Green, a two-fingered typist, is relegated to working the mouse.

“Most researchers love to do experiments, and then they do anything to avoid writing up the research,” Myerson says. “Working side-by-side with Len is so much fun that I actually look forward to the writing. It’s made us both much more productive.”

Leonard Green, Ph.D.

Education: Bachelor’s, City College of New York, 1969; doctorate, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1974

Recent research topics:

Psychology of tipping, gratuities

Gambling psychology offers insight into self-control, risk-taking

Holiday giving season complicated by shifting norms on gratuities

People willing to wait for money rewards over others

Sharon Stahl, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, has worked closely with Green since 1988. She credits him with making a huge difference in the campus experience for countless students — engaging them in the classroom, involving them in research, helping them cope with serious academic difficulties and life challenges.

“Len likes to come across as this real tough guy, like this hard-nosed guy from New York, but before it’s all over, it’s obvious he has a heart of gold,” Stahl says. “He’s everything this University looks for in its faculty — kind, caring and very generous with his time.”

Green admits playing tough with students on occasion, but does so, he says, because he takes them seriously. He wants them to think deeply about their opinions, to be aware of consequences.

“Ideas matter a great deal to me,” he says. “You should be passionate about things, because they matter.”

Often his influence has a lasting impression, shaping careers long after graduation.

Douglas Johnson, associate dean of psychology and chair of the scientific perspectives program at Colgate University, got his start working in Green’s lab as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s.

He went on to earn a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, followed by a four-year post-doc at the National Institutes of Health. He traces all these accomplishments to the initial excitement for experimental psychology generated by a dynamic and caring teacher.

“Len Green played an enormous role in my academic and personal growth, is directly responsible for my interest in psychology and contributed greatly to my desire to continue my education beyond Washington University,” Johnson says.

“Len expressed confidence in my mind and abilities at a time when I was less sure than he of my potential.

“Len Green is the best teacher I have ever interacted with, and I am certain there are hundreds of other graduates who will echo this sentiment.”