memories

Visualize, if you will, the following scene: It's late on a winter day, in the seminar room on the 15th floor of William James Hall. The heat was acting up that day and it was sweltering. Standing behind the podium is a huge man, wearing a jacket and tie. This man, Richard Hackman, was interviewing for a senior faculty position. We were all baking. About 10 minutes into his talk, Richard took off his tie. Five minutes later he took off his jacket. And then a few minutes later he took off his shoes. At this point the audience was transfixed, waiting to see what was next. All the while he was presenting his work, absolutely clear and with an intensity that signaled his deep commitment to what he was doing. He somehow made his giving the talk and his incremental disrobing seem absolutely natural.

This incident proved to encapsulate many of Richard's qualities. Most obviously, he was not a creature of convention. Richard was intellectually fearless; he relished going boldly where no man had gone before. For instance, I recall when I first broached to him what I thought might be a flakey idea: Maybe a team could be considered as a kind of uber-brain, with each person playing the role of a specific brain system. (Someone else, not a researcher, had first raised this idea to me casually in conversation.) Richard loved the idea, and the Group Brain Project was born soon thereafter. This project took that idea seriously and produced some ground-breaking work. Richard was not afraid to follow his instincts, which were almost always right on-target.

During the course of the Group Brain Project I got to know Richard well, as a close collaborator and close friend. Richard was a joy to work with. Richard was one of the overall smartest people I’ve ever known. He was equally comfortable with things quantitative and qualitative, and picked up new ideas without effort. I loved talking to him; he was always thinking and always willing to lend you not just his ear, but his brain. He was the most constructive critic I've ever known. But more than that, he took seriously what you had to say and used it as a springboard for creative thinking.

Richard was intensely committed to his work, and uncompromisingly serious about achieving the highest possible quality. He would sometimes sit on a paper we co-authored for many months, not sure that it was really good enough. He truly believed in the value of psychological science, but only if it was done right – and his standards made that a very high bar.

Richard was also one of the most ethical people I've ever known. He reflexively considered whether an idea or action was appropriate. But that's not to say that he was dogmatic. Far from it; Richard was always open to discussion, always willing to debate. He listened and—characteristically—thought about what the other person had to say.

In spite of his great gifts and enormous range of knowledge and skills, Richard was humble. He knew his own faults and frailties, perhaps too well, and never in my experience showed a shred of arrogance or hubris. Richard embodied a deep kind of humanity. He cared about other people and made time for them. People who knew Richard came to love him. For good reason.

 -Stephen M. Kosslyn