Alumni Changing the World

Fiery Cushman ’99

Associate Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Fiery studies how ordinary people make decisions, especially decisions about right and wrong. His research asks such questions as: What prevents people from harming each other in most situations, even if they could profit by it? Why is our instinct for revenge so powerful? When somebody causes a lot of harm by accident, how do we judge them? How do we guess what other people’s intentions are? How do we decide whether to think carefully about a problem or go with our gut? Among all the things we could possibly imagine from moment to moment, what makes certain things come to mind? Fiery also teaches undergraduate courses, mentors graduate students, and runs a research laboratory.

In order to ask these questions Fiery uses several different tools that are common in experimental psychology. Many studies are conducted online, by asking people to answer questions, or having them play games designed to reveal their behavior. Other studies use MRI to investigate patterns of brain activation. Some studies look at the behavior of young children, moral “experts” like philosophers, or individuals with brain damage. Many times the goal of the research is to develop mathematical models of how people make decisions, or to understand why our minds evolved to make decisions the way we do.

Fiery’s interest in evolution dates back to a project he did on the evolution of horses in Sue Harris’s 4th grade class, and was fostered by the energy and passion of science teachers like Mike Edgars (9th and 11th grade biology). Principles like Ben Benskin (Lower School), Paul Levy (High School), and Bill Young (High School) gave extraordinary opportunities to participate in governance. Richard Avidon was an irreplaceable influence, modeling rigorous analysis and introducing Fiery to his first readings in moral philosophy. 

"Friends, their families, every member of the faculty and staff—the whole GDS community provided a nurturing, fun, and exciting environment to grow from a four-year-old preschooler to an 18-year-old graduate."

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