The World Loses an Exemplary Evolutionist: Remembering Maureen O’Sullivan

Every now and then, through life, you run into someone who just amazes you – and who typically amazes everyone else who knows that person. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely at a point in life where the older I get, the more I realize how little I know and how much others have to offer. If you’re paying any attention, life is humbling. My respect for others deepens each day.

I have several heroes. Through graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, I got to work closely with Becky Warner. Other-oriented behavior (quietly) radiates from Becky all the time. I could not have had a more supportive and helpful mentor. Exemplary. When I moved to Oregon in 1997, I was fortunate to work in the psychology department at Western Oregon University. This was the kindest, funnest, most easygoing, capable, and supportive group I’d ever seen. Years later, this is still true. All the faculty there impressed me deeply. The person I worked most closely with was Vic Savicki. Also an understated person, Vic was capable of teaching 14 classes a year, publishing 5 or so articles a year, sailing the Puget Sound regularly, and always making time for others. With a smile.

Not surprisingly, I also have heroes in the field of evolutionary studies. I stand in awe of pretty much everything that David Sloan Wilson does – and Gordon Gallup, of course, makes Superman look like chump change. Having David and Gordon’s support has been enormous for my own development. These guys are heroes.

Over the past several years, I was extremely fortunate to work closely with Maureen O’Sullivan of the psychology department at the University of San Francisco. Just like Becky, Vic, David, and Gordon, Maureen was simply awe-inspiring in how she worked and in how she treated others. I still remember the day when she and Paul Ekman agreed to contribute a chapter to my first book (on the topic of measuring emotional intelligence). Maureen took the lead on this chapter. Two things stood out for me in working with her on this. First: Wow, she was razor-sharp! You had a question of her, and she was right back in your inbox – usually that same day – with everything you asked for – and more. And, as a plus, everything was delivered with exceptional humor. Second, Maureen and Paul’s chapter in my book turned out to be fantastic. It’s critical of the whole idea of emotional intelligence – but it’s critical in a productive manner. In academia, it’s easy to be critical. And it can be uninteresting, to be honest. Being critical while also being productive and respectful, now that’s something.

As anyone who knows Maureen will vouch for, she was fun to work with. A day with Maureen in the inbox was a good day. I remember a particularly tough week for me – in the span of a few days, I’d learned two depressing facts about my demographic group from the empirical literature. First, once a male gets past 30 (and I was 34 at the time), he tends to be rated as less physically attractive. Second, as a bonus, he also tends to score lower on standard measures of intelligence. Ouch! Looking for sympathy, I shared this news with Maureen – who quickly told me that I might be getting dumber and worse-looking, but that I had a long way to go before reaching the gutter! I needed that! I have that email printed and saved, as evidence in case I need it.

In seeking collaborators for my second edited book (on the topic of mating intelligence, co-edited with Geoffrey Miller), I immediately put Maureen near the top of the list of folks I’d ask to contribute. As luck would have it, Maureen and I had extremely parallel research trajectories. She got her PhD back in the day working with Guilford on the structure of intellect model of intelligence. Her research interests included intelligence, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, evolutionary psychology, deception-detection, and human mating. These are almost precisely my research interests! Maureen quickly agreed to be part of this new book – and she had a chapter based on data from hundreds of young adults on the topic of self and other deception in the context of mating. It turns out there’s lots of deception in the mating domain! Her chapter was fantastic – and it really played a pivotal role in getting the idea of mating intelligence cited in all sorts of media outlets.

Always fast to respond, always helpful, always kind. In a world where these qualities are all rare, Maureen was just unbelievable to work with. She and I had talked generally about future collaborations. Just the thought of future collaborations with Maureen made me happy.

And Maureen embraced evolution fully. Her work on emotion and deception-detection, largely done in collaboration with Paul Ekman, stands as some of the most important evolutionarily informed research in all of psychology. In fact, while many talk about how “new” the whole field of evolutionary psychology is, anyone paying attention knows that Paul and Maureen were doing this stuff for decades. The psychology of deception-detection was shaped by significant evolutionary forces across human phylogeny, and Maureen O’Sullivan knew more about this than did anyone in the world. Maureen was an evolutionary psychologist sine qua none. And she was the world’s leading expert on the topic of “truth wizards” – a highly appropriate topic of study for such an honest and genuine person.

The world of academia (let’s face it!) has its share of stuffiness and ego. In such a world, Maureen was a gem. Zero pretense. Zero arrogance. And a consistent and genuine kindness that made others feel good about themselves. Further, as a native New Yorker, Maureen totally had this “let’s get real” way about her. It’s sort of hard to not appreciate someone with this special constellation of traits.

On May 10 of this year, any possible future collaborations with Maureen came to a halt – as the world lost her to cancer. Maureen was an exemplary teacher, scholar, psychologist, and evolutionist. But more importantly, she was an exemplary person. And she will be missed sorely.

I end with a phrase that doesn’t seep into the evolutionist lexicon very frequently: God Bless you Maureen O’Sullivan.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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3 Responses to The World Loses an Exemplary Evolutionist: Remembering Maureen O’Sullivan

  1. Kaja says:

    This is an amazing tribute and totally spot-on. Today, two years after her death, I find myself googling her in hopes of finding a digital trace I’ve yet to unearth. How wonderful it is to find and read these words. She was a powerful, funny, intelligent, insightful and wholly “real” presence, as Glenn so perfectly captures. Thank you, Glenn, your tribute to this wonderful woman. May her work continue to guide and inspire and may she live on in our hearts.

  2. Kathleen M says:

    I was one of the 50 or so Truth Wizards Maureen identified. She was a gift, and I miss her raucous laughter and good heart, as well as her keen intellect. Godspeed, Maureen.

  3. Rose Chang says:

    This is a touching memorial Glenn. The little interaction I had with Maureen was certainly memorable – and as you say, impactful professionally as well as personally – and I am sorry to hear of such a loss to the greater research community at large.

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