Karen Wynn

Professor of Psychology

Karen Wynn, B.A. McGill University, Ph.D. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faculty member at Yale since 1999: You have made it your life’s work to study the most complex object in the known universe—the human mind. This was apparently not enough of a challenge for you, though, since you also opted to focus many of your groundbreaking studies on those experimental subjects who are among the least cooperative: young infants. Though your subjects may not be able to talk to us, you have figured out, as one of the most prominent researchers of infant cognition in the world, how to read their minds.

Multiple times during your distinguished career you have revolutionized the field of infant studies with your striking demonstrations that philosophers like Plato and Kant were right when they proposed that certain foundational systems of knowledge are inborn. You first did this in your landmark demonstrations of mathematical abilities, showing that even five-month- olds are already sensitive to facts such as 1+1=2, and 3-2=1. You then showed how infants also possess a kernel of moral reasoning, distinguishing prosocial characters from antisocial characters and wishing to reward the good and punish the bad. Then, more recently, you showed that this morality is tragically limited, that even young babies separate the social world into Us versus Them, giving preferential treatment to those they see as in-group members. A fair and unbiased morality, you have argued, is similar to an understanding of zero and negative numbers—it is a cultural accomplishment that builds on an innate foundation.

These days, “infant mathematics” and “infant morality” are much-studied research topics throughout the world, but neither would exist if it weren’t for you. And throughout this work, you have been a paragon not only of experimental rigor, but also of philosophical depth, as you have grappled with Big Questions involving innateness, ethics, and the relationship between language and thought.

Your work has frequently been lauded, both by the scientific establishment and in the wider world. You have won your field’s most cherished prizes, such as the Troland Research Award (from the National Academy of Sciences) and the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology (from the American Psychological Association). And the public has also eagerly followed your discoveries, as they have been featured in countless newspapers, radio shows, and many times on television, being profiled on dozens of venues, including Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole and Sixty Minutes. You are one of the few developmental scientists that lay people recognize by name. Here with us at Yale you have been equally influential. 

You once published a paper called “Constraints on natural altruism,” but yours appears to have no such constraints—as you have served our university community selflessly, as a devoted mentor and adviser, a council member on the Women Faculty Forum, and one of the inaugural FAS Senators.

You have noted that your own education began in a school “whose Kindergarten teacher hated children.” What a contrast! You have loved children, and have done more than almost anyone to explain them. As you retire, we say thank you for showing us all where we come from, and how we got to be this way!

You are now leaving Yale after twenty years, making a mid-career pivot to pursue your artistic ambitions in painting and printmaking. As a scientist, you dedicated yourself to expressing truth through the creation of knowledge; as an artist, your work is dedicated to expressing truth via the creation of beauty. We look forward to seeing your contributions in this next chapter of your life.