What are you currently working on?
I started writing a book in February with the working title "Learning Democracy". Then, in mid-March, came the belated but all the more brutal government measures to combat the Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2), which we all know: social distancing rules, solitary confinement for care home residents, the compulsory wearing of masks and closure of day-care centres, schools and universities as well as shops, playgrounds, swimming pools, park benches etc. Hastily thrown together laws cancelled basic rights. Rights that seemed to be valid for eternity. Parliaments at all levels were only allowed to be active to a limited extent. Why this massive restriction of our fundamental rights even though the case numbers reduced significantly in mid-march?
I could not continue to work on a book about "Learning Democracy" while democracy was sliding into the deepest crisis since its existence. I had to find out why this had happened. Covid-19 is a serious disease, but the number of corona-induced deaths are not so high, that it warrants being called a "Pandemic".
Why has hardly anyone asked whether the measures are at all justified and sensible? Why has the opposition said nothing? Why did the media appear as if it had been brought into line? Why did the majority of the population accept the measures, with their enormous damage, without asking?
These were also the questions I wanted to address in my book - hypothetically - to show why we need to promote in our schools the ability of young people to think for themselves, to weigh up between important values and to deal with conflicting opinions. If I were a cynic, I would regard the government measures as advertisement for my book, which I now want to continue writing with a delay.
What qualities must a successful researcher possess?
Curiosity and freedom from fear. Curiosity is an obvious requirement for a researcher. But freedom from fear? Anyone who has ever made a truly new discovery will be able to confirm that, while it brings joy, it also causes fear. One source of fear is the possible consequences: What will people make of the discovery? The other source is the discovery itself: The psychological test theory I had to learn in university is only statistically based, but has no foundation in psychology. We do not therefore know what the tests constructed according to the test theory really measure. I was very lucky that one of the greatest representatives of the guild, Paul Meehl, agreed with me when I presented this to him. Otherwise I might have dismissed my discovery as a mistake in my thinking for fear of not being taken seriously.
What would you be if you hadn't become an academic?
Certainly not a glass cutter like the philosopher Spinoza. I have no talent for it. Spinoza could have had it better. His Jewish community had offered him a generous annuity, provided he kept his mouth shut in the future. But he would not let them buy his freedom.
Had I not been given the opportunity to become a scientist, I would have made my hobby of programming my profession. In 1979, largely out of curiosity, I bought one of the first real PCs and taught myself how to use the text system and how to write computer programs. With this I developed a small program system with which I could test whether my teaching methods made a difference. I wasn't interested in the blanket judgements of my students, but in whether they had the skills I wanted to teach them at the end of the courses. Since I was not interested in individual performance but in my teaching ability, the tests could be anonymous and short. Because of computerisation, the evaluation took very little time and the students obviously enjoyed assisting me with my self-evaluation. I have used the system in most of my courses and have been able to significantly increase the effectiveness of my Konstanzer Methode der Dilemma Diskussion (KMDD) in promoting democratic and moral competence. Had I not become a scientist, I would have made my living out of inspiring other professors and teachers to self-evaluate their teaching effectiveness.
What advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of your studies?
I would have advised myself to choose the university or department more carefully. After two failed attempts, the third one was a charm. There was no internet back then, but that would have been of little use to me. It was only after I had visited a few places and talked to students and professors there, that I realise that Heidelberg was the right place for me to complete my psychology studies.
Which three books have had an influence on you?
Difficult choice. I'll try:
Plato: Socrates' Dialogue with Menon. Socrates is considered a great philosopher. For me he's also one of the greatest psychologists. He had already recognized that everyone wants to act morally, but many fail because they lack the ability.
Mark Twain: The secret autobiography of Mark Twain. Twain knew why he specified not to publish the book until a hundred years after his death. It is ruthless against himself and others. But it is also very entertaining and gives interesting insights into his writing.
Hans Fallada: Every Man Dies Alone. It was spooky to read this non-fiction novel from the heyday of Nazi power (France overrun, pushing into Russia). I often woke up at night to reassure myself that the previously normal fear of being considered a dissenter was long gone. But the ghosts are stirring again. The simple truths reign again: "If you don't wear a mask when shopping or riding the train, you are acting antisocial." (Der Spiegel). Period. Every Man Dies Alone should become compulsory reading for everyone. Perhaps it would be more effective in preventing a return of this dark time than memorizing the Constitution.
Why do you write books?
In four decades I have written only three books. With my books I want to give an account to the people that they have not invested their tax money in my work for nothing. I think that some new insights have been achieved and confirmed, and they are being applied. The most important insight (think of Socrates): high ideals such as morality and democracy cannot be achieved through appeals. They can only be realized by fostering people's ability to solve the conflicts, and problems that inevitably arise from their implementation, through thought and discussion alone. Otherwise, they resort to immoral means such as violence, deceit or submission to autocratic leaders, or, in the end, they turn against these ideals in disappointment.
What are you currently learning, that you are not yet so good at?
I am learning, or still learning, how to communicate new knowledge in a way that is understandable - and in a way that does not cause fear. This has proven to be much more difficult than generating these insights.