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Spinoza prize for organisation psychologist Carsten de Dreu

Leiden social and organisational psychologist Carsten de Dreu has been awarded a Spinoza Prize, the top science prize in the Netherlands. We talked to him about his passion for group processes, Leiden University and his dreams for the future. ‘A Spinoza opens up a world of possibilities.'

Carsten de Dreu was in a meeting when he received the call, so he cut the caller off.  When he called back later, he heard the voicemail message of  Stan Gielen. Stan Gielen? He is chairman of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific research (NWO)! That was the point when De Dreu's mind started working overtime. Surely it wasn't possible...? Half an hour later, Gielen called back with the good news.  

So did you have an inkling about it?

‘My career has really taken off in recent years. I have published articles in leading scientific journals, and earliler this year I received an ERC Advanced Grant, the highest European science subsidy that can be awarded to a single person. That makes it quite conceivable that you could be nominated for a Spinoza Prize, and also that your name might find its way to the top of the pile. But, there's nothing at all you can do about it yourself, so if the thought came into my head, I just pushed it to one side. Until that phone call from Gielen!' 

What thoughts went through your head when it was confirmed?

‘It is a tremendous honour. The good thing about a Spinoza Prize is that is isn't based on a research proposal, so you have carte blanche to use it however you want. All that freedom with no demands, expectations or accountability. I can just follow my scientific heart and test out a number of wild hypotheses that I'd otherwise never get funded. A Spinoza Prize opens up a world of opportunities.' 

What are you researching?

‘I'm lookinig at the tensions between the common interest and self-interest. There are a lot of group situations where people are dependent on one another. You can't build a dike on your own, for example; everyone has to chip in to pay for it. The same applies to many other collective provisions. I look at the considerations that people make with these kinds of issues. When does distrust turn into trust? How can you make sure that people don't just passively take advantage of collective efforts, but actually make a contribution themselves? These are the questions that interest me.'

You have been researching this since 1990. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the human ability to collaborate?

‘Both. I am, for example, extremely pessimistic about people's willingness to work together to fight climate change, the subject of my ERC Advanced Grant. We're simply not able to conquer this problem. The only thing we can do is to anticipate what's coming: the rise in sea level and changing climatological circumstances. But fortunately humans have an enormous capacity not only for destruction, but also for innovation. This research is intended to discover at what point we switch over from one to the other. Why does something end one time in war and another time in shared innovations? Maybe I'll use my Spinoza Prize to look at the positive side of the story.' 

What are the practical consequences of your work for collaboration between people? 

‘I do a lot of my research in the clinical environment. At the moment, my colleagues and I are looking at teamwork in operating theatres at the Leiden University Medical Center. How do doctors and assistants treat one another? There may be room for improvement, which would also improve the care of patients, and ultimately their chances of survival.  We previously looked at cooperation in multiple courts, where several judges decide together on a case. The research showed that the work overload endangered the exchange of information between judges and consequently also the judgements. Judges have to be able to process a lot of information in a short time, which increases the chance of their making a wrong judgement.'

Why is Leiden University a good place to do your  research on group processes?

‘I have a good group of colleagues around me who are also among the world's top researchers. Cooperation within the Institute of Psychology is also good, and that puts me in a better position to do my research. And using brain scanners for neuroscientific research is relatively inexpensive. That made it possible for me to conduct brain research even when I had no large subsidies at my disposal.' 

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photo: Sabrina Otterloo
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About the Spinoza Prize

The Spinoza Prize is awarded every year to a maximum of four scientists who are among the leading scholars in their field. Each scholar receives a sum of2.5 million euros  that he or she may use for new research. It is the largest personal science prize in the Netherlands. You will find all the Leiden winners of the Spinoza Prize here.

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