framed print of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” hangs above the moss-green, L-shaped sectional in John Bargh’s office on the third floor of Yale University’s Kirtland Hall. Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych imagines a natural environment that is like ours (water, flowers) yet not (enormous spiked and translucent orbs). What precisely the 15th-century Dutch master had in mind is still a mystery, though theories abound. On the left is presumably paradise, in the middle is the world, and on the right is hell, complete with knife-faced monster and human-devouring bird devil.
By Bosch’s standard, it’s too much to say the past year has been hellish for Bargh, but it hasn’t been paradise either. Along with personal upheaval, including a lengthy child-custody battle, he has coped with what amounts to an assault on his life’s work, the research that pushed him into prominence, the studies that Malcolm Gladwell called “fascinating” and Daniel Kahneman deemed “classic.” What was once widely praised is now being pilloried in some quarters as emblematic of the shoddiness and shallowness of social psychology. When Bargh responded to one such salvo with a couple of sarcastic blog posts, he was ridiculed as going on a “one-man rampage.” He took the posts down and regrets writing them, but his frustration and sadness at how he’s been treated remain.