Man of his words: Inspired by fun, UT’s star psychologist is a font of discoveries that matter to average people
April 13, 2008, Austin American-Statesman
James Pennebaker is so mild-mannered, so placid and easy-going, so preposterously twinkly, you wonder just what it would take to ruffle the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas.
How do you flap the chronically unflappable, a world-renowned intellectual who multitasks with the energy of a whirligig, yet chirps such philosophical fillips as “It just doesn’t matter” with a shrug and a smile?
But it does matter, we remind him.
He’s not buying it. Shrug. Smile. Next.
Such nonchalance can be maddening for we brooders who exist in a Pigpen cloud of fret and furrow. Pennebaker is a skipping Winnie the Pooh to our shuffling Eeyore, and if these childlike analogies ring fatuous (and they do), understand that Pennebaker, 58, is radiantly boyish.
To friends and family he’s not James or Jim but, kind of cutely, “Jamie.” He loves the Texas State Fair, board games and fireworks. He likes to fish.
“I like fish you can eat,” he says with a mild Texas twang born of his native Midland.
And, my, he’s crazy about Popeyes fried chicken.
“Their red beans and rice is brilliant, but their fried chicken is primo,” Pennebaker says, his face going dreamy.
We are discussing the yumminess of fast food with UT’s chair of psychology, an eminent scientist and professor. He lights up, nearly swoons.
“Number two is Church’s,” he says. “They have superb chicken, and their fried okra is quite good. You’ve got to try that.”
Compact, with elfin features, his clothes rumpled with oblivious disregard, Pennebaker’s byword for his very serious work is “play.” Again and again, he says that what he loves about his research is that he gets to, like an outsize kid, play.
“Jamie’s a great deal of fun as a colleague,” David Beaver, associate professor of linguistics at UT, says. “He’s very playful in conversation and always has 10 different ideas and a sparkle in his eye. I don’t know how he simultaneously manages to run a department and a rather large laboratory of (graduate) students while still finding time for thinking and playing.” Continue reading