Computer Science and Psychology? How does that work?

I have Masters’ Degrees in both Computer Science and Psychology. Weaving that fact casually into conversations is an excellent filter for finding other polymaths out there; the poor interdisciplinary souls that can’t help but wonder if exploring another topic will satisfy their endless curiosity. Another perk – and arguably more valuable – is the early priming to the value of the seams of disciplines.

It all started with my dissatisfaction with the Computer Science curriculum. After the second year, I started wondering:

“Do I really feel all that excited about the Dijkstra algorithm and balancing binary trees”?

I felt disappointed with the narrow understanding of what’s involved with producing software. Humans are running it; why aren’t we talking about them? Facebook was in its infancy; why aren’t we exploring where this is going? I decided to add the “human side” to my understanding (here are some tactical notes on how I managed to pull off 2 degrees at the same time). What did I find out?

Psychology and Computer Science really are quite similar

Psychology strives to dissect and understand the underlying principles of human thought and behavior. Computer Science aims to create the principles and algorithms for easier operation of the “thinking machines.” The only difference is that one deals with people – the other one with computers.

Am I suggesting that correlation between disciplines boils down to the similarity between humans and computers? To be honest, I haven’t seen an argument to the contrary.

  1. Behavioral Psychology assumes that when presented with a particular input, we can predict the outcome. In Computer Science, we call that a function.
  2. Sigmund Freud himself was heavily influenced by the dominant technology of the day: the steam engine. He concluded that the pressure and drive buildup could create issues in the “pipelines,” causing malfunctions. I’m sure he would be talking about algorithms were he born today.
  3. Cognitive Psychology is a newer branch, so it is already liberally borrowing concepts from Computer Science: Kahneman’s “Cognitive Resources” theory suggests that when certain cognitive resources (like memory or willpower) are taxed with too many demands, issues follow. Just the same way your Macbook freezes when you are trying to do too many things at once.
  4. Your brain evolved from a long line of less brilliant creatures. Many problematic behaviors (emotional reactions, self-sabotage, and craving sugar) can be traced to a conflict between the “lizard brain” and your conscious goals from the prefrontal cortex. In computer science, we would call this working with a legacy codebase.

The list goes on. Psychology can be better understood with a Computer Science lens and vice versa. For example, the concept of Intelligence was developed by the US Army to assess the “general aptitude” of their candidates. Psychologists to this day are not convinced the “General Intelligence” exists (It is defined as a result in the “Intelligence Test”). Extrapolating that into Computer Science, I don’t believe General Artificial Intelligence is possible because I don’t think Regular Intelligence™️ exists. 

The world wants you in a box.

Once I finished my studies, I expected to be highly valued in the job market due to my unique perspective (even more than all 20-year olds do). But employers didn’t really know what to do with me – there are no positions advertised in the overlap of computer science and psychology. On the one hand – the tech companies are searching for CS graduates, and on the other – a psychology degree can get you hired recruiting engineers for tech companies (like 30% of my classmates do).

It’s a shame because the overlap of computer science and psychology is uniquely positioned to solve a variety of connected worlds’ issues:

  • How do we ensure Social Media is helping mental health instead of hampering it?
  • How do we help people navigate the world of disproportionate leverage provided by technology?
  • How do we help find meaning, purpose, and psychological safety when the stable jobs are gone, and entire industries disappear every year?

These challenges are falling between the cracks of traditional disciplines – they are too “technical” for academic psychologists proud of their “Humanist” mindsets and too “Human” for average programmers, steeped in the precise world predictable world of math and physics.

Our most pressing problems started small but have been allowed to grow unhindered due to their transdisciplinary nature. They didn’t land in the purview of any single discipline, so we all ignored them as long as possible.

The challenges of the future are in the seams of things.

Studying computer science and psychology has primed me to understand the unique challenges of humans interacting with technology. We also need transdisciplinary experts in combinations of climate science + really anything, or technology + education. You probably don’t need formal degrees. Just start exploring.

Book: Four Tendencies

Upholders ask: “Should I do this?” • Questioners ask: “Does this make sense?” • Obligers ask: “Does this matter to anyone else?” • Rebels ask: “Is this the person I want to be?”

In this book, Gretchen Rubin introduces another framework to categorize people. I know, the idea of boxing in folks is flawed, but this only creates a typology based on how people respond to expectation. It does not struggle to explain all behaviors and incongruencies of human interaction. The broad strokes are:

Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.

Questioners question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations

Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

This revelation blew my mind.

I am a classical Questioner and reading about myself was like getting a manual I never knew existed. It explained why I have trouble closing cabinet doors, why I love lists and spreadsheets and deep research about product before committing to purchase.

Most of all, it made me more aware of small differences between me and other people in their strategies. Thanks to this book I am less judgmental and more sensitive about whole variety of people’s choices. It has even cast a lot of light at the relationship with my Mom. Deep stuff.




Take the four tendencies quiz to find out which one are you

Obligers

Upholders

Questioners

Rebels

respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.

respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.

question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations.

resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

  • Good boss, responsive leader, team player

  • Feels great obligation to meet others’ expectations 

  • Responsible

  • Willing to go the extra mile

  • Responds to outer accountability

  • Self-starter

  • Self-motivated

  • Conscientious

  • Reliable Thorough Sticks to a schedule

  • Eager to understand and meet expectations 

  • Data-driven

  • Fair-minded (according to his or her judgment) Interested in creating systems that are efficient and effective

  • Willing to play devil’s advocate

  • Comfortable bucking the system if it’s warranted

  • Inner-directed

  • Unwilling to accept authority without justification

  • Independent-minded

  • Able to think outside the box

  • Unswayed by conventional wisdom

  • Willing to go his or her own way, to buck social conventions In touch with his or her authentic desires

  • Spontaneous 

  • Susceptible to overwork and burnout

  • May show the destructive pattern of Obliger-rebellion

  • Exploitable

  • May become resentful

  • Has trouble saying no or imposing limits

  • Defensive

  • Rigid

  • Often struggles when plans or schedules change

  • Can seem humorless and uptight

  • Uneasy when rules are ambiguous or undefined

  • Impatient when others need reminders, deadlines, supervision, or discussion

  • Demanding

  • May become anxious about obeying rules that don’t even exist

  • Can suffer analysis-paralysis

  • impatient with what he or she sees as others’ complacency

  • Crackpot potential

  • Unable to accept closure on matters that others consider settled if questions remain unanswered

  • May refuse to observe expectations that others find fair or at least nonoptional (e.g., traffic regulations)

  • May resist answering others’ questions

  • Likely to resist when asked or told to do something

  • Uncooperative

  • Inconsiderate

  • Has trouble accomplishing tasks that need to be done consistently, the same way, every time

  • Acts as though ordinary rules don’t apply

  • Restless; may find it difficult to settle down in a job, relationship, city

  • Struggles with routines and planning

  • May be indifferent to reputation

  • They readily meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations

  • They put a high value on meeting commitments to others

  • They succeed when given accountability, with supervision, deadlines, monitoring, and other forms of accountability, such as the duty to be a good role model

  • They may have trouble setting limits on others’ demands They may have trouble delegating, because they feel that some expectations attach to them personally They must have systems of external accountability in order to meet inner expectations

  • They may be exploited by people who take advantage of them, and because of that

  • They may feel resentful or burned out, in which case…

  • They may need managers or others to alleviate expectations, or they may rebel

  • They readily meet external and internal expectations

  • They’re self-directed, so they can meet deadlines, work on projects, and take the initiative without much supervision

  • They enjoy routine and may have trouble adjusting to a break in routine or sudden scheduling changes

  • They hate to make mistakes, and because of that…

  • They may become very angry or defensive at the suggestion that they’ve dropped the ball or made a mistake

  • They put a high value on follow-through

  • They may need to be reminded that, unlike them, others aren’t necessarily comforted or energized by getting things done

  • They may have trouble delegating responsibilities, because they suspect that others aren’t dependable

  • They question all expectations and meet them only if they believe they’re justified, with the result that they may meet only inner expectations

  • They put a high value on reason, research, and information

  • They make decisions based on information and reason; sometimes, the reason is that it’s important to someone else

  • They follow the advice of “authorities” only if they trust their expertise

  • They follow their own judgment—sometimes even when it flies in the face of experts who (allegedly) know more

  • They persistently ask questions, which may make them seem uncooperative or defiant They hate anything arbitrary—rules like “Five garments to a fitting room”

  • They dislike being questioned themselves; they consider their actions carefully so they find it tiresome or even insulting to be asked to justify their decisions

  • They may have trouble delegating decision making, because they suspect that others don’t have a sufficient basis for action

  • They resist both outer and inner expectations

  • They put a high value on freedom, choice, identity, and self-expression If someone asks or tells them to do something, they’re likely to resist.

  • They may respond to a challenge: “I’ll show you,” “Watch me,” “You can’t make me,” “You’re not the boss of me” They may choose to act out of love, a sense of mission, belief in a cause

  • They have trouble telling themselves what to do—even when it’s something they want to do

  • They meet a challenge, in their own way, in their own time

  • They don’t respond well to supervision, advice, or directions

  • They tend to be good at delegating If they’re in a long-term relationship, their partner is probably an Obliger

Obligers need accountability

Upholders want to know what should be done

Questioners want justifications

Rebels want freedom to do something their own way

My highlights

  • The simple, decisive question was: “How do you respond to expectations?” I’d found it!
  • As with all the Tendencies, arguments work better when they address that Tendency’s values.

Questioners:


  • In accepting those inner expectations, Questioners show a deep commitment to information, logic, and efficiency. They want to gather their own facts, decide for themselves, and act with good reason; they object to anything they consider arbitrary, ill-reasoned, ill-informed, or ineffective. Many, many people are Questioners; only the Obliger Tendency has more members.
  • Questioner was the Tendency most likely to agree with the statement “I do what I think makes the most sense, according to my judgment, even if that means ignoring the rules or other people’s expectations.”
  • why this task, why this way, why now?
  • Questioners have the self-direction of Upholders, the reliability of Obligers, and the authenticity of Rebels.
  • But an Upholder or an Obliger may think, “Why do you get to exempt yourself from a rule that everyone’s expected to follow?”
  • In fact, Questioners are often puzzled by others’ willingness to act without sound reasons.
  • I’ve noticed that a love of spreadsheets is very common among Questioners—they also tend to send people lots of articles.
  • Along the same lines, Questioners tend to be very interested in improving processes.
  • Similarly, for young Questioners, school can present a real challenge, because many school rules seem arbitrary or inefficient, and teachers and administrators often feel little obligation to justify them.
  • Along those same lines, the Questioners’ desire to customize, and their questioning of expert advice, can be frustrating for those to whom they turn for help, advice, or services:
  • For instance, legendary entrepreneur and business leader Steve Jobs was a Questioner, and when he was a young man he believed that eating a fruit-heavy, vegetarian diet meant that he didn’t need to worry about body odor—even though many people told him that, in fact, he did need to worry about
  • One puzzling note about Questioners: They often remark on how much they hate to wait in line. A friend told me, “I hate waiting in line so much that I can’t even carry on a conversation while waiting to be seated in a restaurant.” Perhaps it’s the inefficiency.
  • Delivery can sometimes make a big difference in whether others see a Questioner as constructive or obstructive.
  • “I’m definitely a Questioner. Although doesn’t everyone or at least most people think the same way?” Nope, they sure don’t.
  • “Have you noticed that Questioners resist being questioned themselves?”
  • A Questioner wrote to explain: We Questioners have thought about the logic behind our decision. So it’s a) exhausting to revisit something and lay out all the reasons and/or b) we feel we’re right, so we don’t feel like we have to justify it to someone else.”
  • Because Questioners make careful decisions, they’re often annoyed—even insulted—when people question them.
  • And, of course, Questioners particularly hate questions they consider a waste of their time.
  • so when I feel myself getting sucked into research mode, I ask myself, ‘Is this information actually relevant to what I’m trying to decide? Why am I spending this time and energy on this question?’ ”
  • Questioners need clarity, and to get clarity, they can ask questions.
  • Is Tony Robbins a questioner? Maybe that is why he appeals to me so much
  • Is there a better way to do this?
  • “Well, I’ll do these pointless things because they actually do have a point, which is to please my grandmother.”
  • “Don’t just focus on the first order of reason, but think about the second order of reason. You’re doing it for your reasons.
  • It’s important for Questioners to remind themselves to do what they must so that they can do what they want.
  • Their questioning ensures that an organization uses its resources most effectively.
  • My wife jokes that she knows we’re married forever, because I already did the research and made the decision. She’s actually right!”
  • Childhood can be a painful time for Questioners, because children are so often expected to do things because an adult “said so.”
  • It’s worth noting, too, that Questioners often show a strong urge to customize

Obligers:


  • How does an Obliger meet an inner expectation? By creating outer accountability.
  • When what others expect from Obligers is what they expect from themselves, they have the life they want.
  • Obligers vary dramatically in what makes them feel accountable.
  • Also, for some Obligers, accountability works better when it’s positive. Reminders and oversight feel like nagging, and nagging may trigger Obliger-rebellion.
  • But now I realize that this doing-it-for-my-kids strategy can help Obligers accomplish something worthwhile.
  • For instance, many Obligers characterize their behavior as “client first”—a reason for pride.
  • The Obliger pattern is not an issue of self-sacrifice, self-esteem, boundaries, motivation, people-pleasing, or discipline, but rather—and I repeat it yet again—an issue of external accountability.
  • For instance, for many Obligers, spouses or family count as part of themselves, so their spouses’ expectations become “inner” expectations and are therefore ignored.
  • the Obliger expects others to know to stop imposing their expectations, without prompting, to provide relief for the Obliger
  • “I work out every day by getting my husband to ask me about it when he gets home.
  • People who ask for accountability know they need it.

Rebels


  • Rebellion is the opposite of compliance, but rebellion is not freedom.
  • want other people to do what I want, just like I want me to be able to do what I want.”
  • Just as they often pair with Obligers, Rebels often pair with family members as work partners—perhaps because a relative has more understanding, experience, and tolerance for the Rebel.
  • information, consequences, choice—with no nagging or badgering.
  • If he thinks you’re not watching, he won’t need to rebel against your expectations.”

Pairs


  • One Obliger gave a small but telling example: “I use crosswalks and follow the walk signals, while my Questioner husband doesn’t find it important to use crosswalks or signals, so he jaywalks.”
  • An Obliger parent can get very impatient with a Questioner child, whose questions can seem tiresome or cheeky.
  • Similarly, when Obligers complain about something they “have” to do, Questioners don’t have much sympathy, because they think, “If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it” or “Why did you say you’d do it, if you don’t want to?”
  • We may think we know the “best” way, or the way others “should” work, but whether at home or at work, as long as the tasks are getting done, we should let other people suit themselves.
  • It’s all too easy to assume that what persuades us will persuade others—which isn’t true.
  • One of my Secrets of Adulthood is that we’re more like other people than we suppose and less like other people than we suppose. And it’s very hard to keep that in mind.
  • Upholders value self-command and performance • Questioners value justification and purpose • Obligers value teamwork and duty • Rebels value freedom and self-
  • And one of the worst, most common mistakes when we’re trying to help someone change a habit? Invoking the dreaded “You should be able to…”
  • To craft a sign that works well for all Four Tendencies, we should provide information, consequences, and choice.
  • The happiest and most successful people are those who have figured out ways to exploit their Tendency to their benefit and, just as important, found ways to counterbalance its limitations.
  • “How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions?”
  • Upholders ask: “Should I do this?” • Questioners ask: “Does this make sense?” • Obligers ask: “Does this matter to anyone else?” • Rebels ask: “Is this the person I want to be?”