- Name: Artur Nilsson
- Number of lab members or colleagues (excluding PI): I don’t have my own lab, but I’m affiliated with a lab (the JEDI-lab at Linköping University) and I have many collaborators in various constellations.
- Location: Linköping University, Sweden
- Graduation Date: Ph.D., June 2013
- H index: 10+
- Grants: A Fulbright scholarship, a Crafoord research grant, some travel grants, and a few awards (the King Oscar II award for my doctoral dissertation and the Course Literature Honor’s Prize for a textbook I wrote with a colleague).
- Success of lab’s members: Some major grants and awards in Sweden (e.g., from the Swedish Research Council, the National Committee for Psychology, and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond).
- Twitter followers: 60
Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
I am an associate professor of psychology at Linköping University in Sweden. I completed my PhD at Lund University in Sweden, but I also spent a Fulbright year at New York University in the United States.
I study people’s worldviews – their most basic beliefs about the world, values, and moral convictions. I try to figure out how to conceptualize and measure worldviews and I study their impact on people’s lives, for example, on religiosity, moral behavior, political polarization, and receptivity to misinformation. More generally, I try to square the ambition to understand persons as rational, existentially aware, meaning-making creatures with the principles of rigorous science. I would like to contribute to making personality psychology more comprehensive, more systematic, and more in tune with contemporary philosophy. I would like my research to ultimately help people to understand themselves, to become resistant to misinformation,
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I first got interested in personality psychology as a double-degree student of psychology and philosophy. I was fascinated by the psychology of philosophical divisions and started thinking about how people’s views of the world reflect their personalities. My thesis supervisor Bert Westerlundh introduced me to the work of Silvan Tomkins on personal ideologies, which I found fascinating. I also drew a lot of inspiration from the philosophy of mind and classical existentialist philosophy. I felt that contemporary personality theory was missing a critical aspect of personality.
I was accepted into a PhD-program in 2008 with a project focused on the psychology of worldviews. After finishing the PhD in 2013, I continued this path.
Please describe the process of learning, iterating, and creating the project
I had the good fortune of receiving advice from several experienced professors. I initially contacted a professor of cognitive psychology who I knew was interested in philosophical issues in psychology. He got behind my project and helped me to formulate the initial research plan (but moved to a different university before my project started). During my PhD, I was supervised by several other professors with different kinds of expertise, from whom I learnt different skill sets. They helped me to sharpen both the theoretical and empirical parts of my work, to improve my writing, and to understand the field I was trying to make my way into. In my experience, it is very important to have good mentors in science. It takes so much longer to try to figure out everything by yourself.
There were nevertheless hurdles along the way. I was naïve at the start. I didn’t understand the social and psychological aspects of science very well. I didn’t understand that if you are a rookie researcher and you propose a new theoretical perspective, then most researchers are likely to not notice or to ignore your work – they are simply too busy with their own research programs and wedded to their own theories and traditions of research. Researchers today generally start their careers with what the philosopher Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” within well-established theoretical traditions, fields, and programs of research. After building up a track record of publications and citations and a reputation in their field, they might venture into more critical, innovative work. I tried to do things in the opposite order. This is not something I recommend.
The first time I submitted my work to a journal of personality psychology, the editor wrote that the worldviews I studied are not a part of personality “per se” and desk rejected the manuscript. Shortly thereafter, I managed to publish a theoretical paper arguing, from a philosophical perspective, that worldviews are in fact a basic aspect of personality that is often neglected within the field. After this, I have never had a problem convincing the editors of personality journals that my work is relevant to personality psychology, although many researchers still subscribe to a narrower definition of personality.
Please describe the process of launching the project
I gave some talks at the department I was in to let others know what I was working on. I have also been quite open to talking to the press and I have given public talks on a few occasions.
Credit: TEDx Talks, Artur Nilsson
Since launch, what has worked to make your project grow/be successful?
Collaborations with other researchers have been essential for the success of my project. Because I do not have a major research grant, I have been dependent on the resources of others to get a hold of high-quality data. It’s hard to argue with high-quality data, so this has been super helpful for publishing my research in leading journals. In addition, my collaborations with others has given insights into new areas of research (e.g., on prosocial behavior, nudging, and receptivity to misinformation). I have found collaborators among other doctoral students at the department where I completed my PhD, through contacts acquired during my year at New York University, and through the researchers who were faculty opponents for my doctoral dissertation.
Another important factor was that I have been able to build bridges between my own more philosophically inspired interest in the psychology of worldviews and hot topics in political and moral psychology. This has enabled me to publish some papers in leading journals in my field.
How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?
I recently got a tenured position, so that’s great. I get to teach a lot of philosophy of science, philosophical issues in psychology, and quantitative methods, while I like. I am also working on a paper in which we develop an integrative, hierarchical model of basic beliefs about the world and a few papers on philosophical issues in personality psychology (e.g., the explanatory status of trait constructs and major principles for a psychology of worldviews). At this point, I really need a major recent grant to be able to go through with some of my more ambitious research goals. For example, I would like to conduct longitudinal studies of how worldviews (and personality characteristics in general) change as a function of exposure to new educational environments, new cultures, and major life events, and how they predict major life choices, and I would like to try to develop methods that inoculate persons with different worldviews against misinformation. Hopefully, knowledge about the nature of worldviews can help us to improve people’s lives in the long run.
Through your science, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
To other young researchers who are venturing into science I would say this. Science is the most magnificent of human inventions. But academia is often irrational, unpredictable, and myopic, and competition over jobs and grants can be fierce. It is important to know what you are getting yourself into. If you are passionate about science, you should absolutely pursue an academic career – but you should do so with realistic expectations and with a plan. You should think strategically about what research programs, environments, or publications are likely to both help you survive in academia and give you enough room for passion, curiosity, integrity, intellectual engagement, and well-being in the long run. You should remain open to other career options if things are not going your way and try to have a backup plan. Persistence can pay off in the long run, but too much idealism can also be costly.
Our readers would like to know more about you. Please let us know what is your morning routine (first 2 hours of your day) like?
If I don’t have any meetings or classes to teach, I always drink an ice coffee while checking my e-mails and the news, often while taking a bath to wake myself up. Then I work a couple of hours until lunch. I don’t eat breakfast on a daily basis. I never exercise in the morning. This is mostly because I am as far from a morning person as you can find. But I also think that it’s better to exercise, go for a walk, or do a bit of relaxation between work sessions than before starting to work. That gives you a chance to activate your body and replenish your energy, which is really advantageous if your job involves cerebral activity but physical inactivity. I therefore think that it’s best to get started early and take breaks during the day if you have a lot of work to do. By starting early, I don’t mean sacrificing sleep – never do this unless you have to! I mean not having an excessive morning ritual. I can keep my concentration for many hours straight and get very involved in my work, so I sometimes need to force myself to take breaks, because I know that it’s good for my body and brain in the run.
And how does a typical day look for you?
During the pandemic, I work from home. If I have no classes to teach and no meeting, I sit on my couch and work for a few hours. I make lunch at home. Sometimes I go for a walk in the afternoon or talk to a colleague before resuming work. If the weather is nice, I might go for a run outside. I then work a couple of hours more until the evening. Then I do other stuff – dinner, physical exercise, social activities, movies, etc. I used to work a lot very late in the evening or in the night as well after other activities, and I still do if I have deadlines or a lot of work. But I have tried to stop doing that in general, because I think it affects my well-being and sleep negatively. You need time off from work.
What does your workstation look like?
Right now, my workstation is a comfortable couch in my apartment. I have a laptop in front of me. If I am teaching classes I use two laptops – one for my presentation and one for the faces of the participants. I also have a cellphone at my side to be able to take calls (I have HP and Huawei laptops and two iPhones). This is essentially what I need to do my job. Everything is so digitalized these days. I rarely print articles on paper. I read them on my laptop unless they are unusually important to me. I do however also have a large collection of books. This is the one thing that you can’t access from a computer. As an academic, you cannot remember everything you’ve read, but you often know exactly where to look if you need to refresh your memory of some topic or quote a particular author.
What platform/tools do you use for your professional life?
I use standard Windows tools, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, and Adobe Reader. I also use statistics software a lot, including IBM SPSS, R, and IBM Amos. I use Zoom for teaching and sometimes Teams or Skype for communicating with colleagues.
What secondary software and apps do you use daily?
G-mail, Google Scholar, Twitter, the iPhone podcast app, Swedish national radio and television, sometimes exercise and weather apps. Nothing that fancy.
How do you stay up to date on news and resources?
I get automatic updates from Google Scholar and from ResearchGate. I also check Twitter every now and then. I follow many well-known scientists and researchers in psychology. I think that I get most of my news from Twitter. Sometimes I also visit the webpages of researchers whose work I’m interested in. Listening to podcasts can also be a good way of staying up to date with what’s going on in your field.
What have been the most influential podcasts, or other resources?
I do regularly listen to podcasts by leading figures in psychology and the open science movement. But I would say that this is mostly for entertainment, distraction, and staying up to date. Books often provide more intellectual stimulation. Podcasts rarely go that deep, although I must say that listening to podcasts from other fields that I am less versed in, such as history or anthropology, can be quite interesting.
What tools do you use in your personal life? Cook? Self Care? Hobbies?
It’s pretty standard. I exercise a lot, I take walks in nature, I try to take time off from work every now and then, to nourish my social connections, and to not let work take over my life. I do try to think about healthy eating habits too, but I probably like chocolate a bit too much. Going to a spa or taking a sauna bath after some vigorous physical activity can be very relaxing. Running in nature is also superb for health and psychological well-being.
Advice for other scientists who want to get started or are just starting out?
See my response to the previous question about what I have learned through my project. Also, think about work-life balance. Don’t sacrifice everything for an academic career.
Thank you very much for your time, Artur. Where can we go to learn more?