Story posted November 10, 2009
Author: David Treadwell '64
Photography: Eric Poggenpohl
Okay, just who is this guy Joe Tecce? And why does the media keep knocking on the door of this 75-year-old assistant professor of psychology to find out why people lie — or get stressed out or exhibit road rage or shoot up a high school? And why do Boston College students still clamor to take a psychology course from a guy old enough to be their grandfather?
I spent three hours with Joe Tecce to take the measure of the man and his mind. “Would you please sign my guest book,” he asked, shortly after I entered his small office on the 5th floor of the McGuinn Building at BC. Happily signed in to this dog-eared book, I asked him how he had ended up at Bowdoin, and Tecce’s answer – like all of his answers – took delightfully engaging turns, but always with an end point in sight.
“It was the summer of 1951, and I was reading water meters and doing other odd jobs. I’d been a good student at Wakefield (Mass.) High School, but I’d never gotten around to applying to college. I bumped into the high school counselor one day and, when I told him that I hadn’t yet applied to college, he said, ‘Come see me in the morning.’ The next day, I sat in his office while he called Bill Shaw (then Dean of Admissions at Bowdoin), and I was awarded a $700 scholarship right over the phone - $600 for the room/board/tuition and $100 for spending money.”
Bowdoin made a huge impact on this first-generation college student, the son of an Italian family. “We had no books in the house, but we did have lots of love and lots of food,” he remembered. While at Bowdoin, Joe held down several jobs, everything from washing dishes in the Kappa Sigma fraternity to taking attendance in Chapel, to serving as a proctor; listening to Robert Frost recite his poetry in Memorial Hall (“What a wonderfully deep and raspy voice!”); and hearing famed football coach Adam Walsh give a talk to the Newman Club, a Catholic organization which Joe himself got reorganized at Bowdoin.
“Bowdoin was so generous to me,” says Tecce, “and I will be forever grateful.”
Questions about the road that led to a psychology major yielded another surprising response. “I had originally planned to major in government, but I hadn’t signed up for any major by the end of the first semester of my sophomore year. I was walking by the Chapel and a friend told me that I had only one hour left to choose a major or I’d be fined $5, an impossible amount for me to come up with. I remembered that the psychology department was in the basement of the Chapel, so I ran downstairs and told Parker Johnson, a psychology professor, that I wanted to major in psychology. He wondered why I wanted to major in psychology since I hadn’t taken any psychology courses. I told him that I just knew I’d love psychology, and he said I could major in it if I took two courses in psychology the next semester.”
Tecce admits that his decision to major in psychology wasn’t quite as random as it sounds. “When I was growing up, every politician in Wakefield would come to our house and ask my mother how they could get the Italian vote. I learned a lot about people and psychology from hearing her discuss those politicians later at dinner. In fact, people came to my mother all the time seeking advice. Looking back, I can now give her an official title: ‘The Unofficial Director of Social Work on the East Side of Wakefield.’ She taught me how to be good to people, because she had such a good heart.”
After Bowdoin, Tecce earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Catholic University and then went on to fill teaching and research positions at Tufts, Boston University, and Harvard before joining the Boston College faculty in 1971. A prolific researcher with scores of scholarly publications and professional presentations to his credit, he describes himself as a “health psychologist.” Many of his papers and lectures have dealt with brain activity and, over the last several years, stress and meditation.
Tecce’s reputation within the media as the go-to guy for matters related to human behavior began in the blink of an eye or, more accurately, several blinks of the eye. He discovered that stress from an uncomfortable situation – such as lying – usually leads to an increased frequency of eye blinks.
He terms this phenomenon the “Nixon effect,” explaining that, “When Nixon resigned in 1974, he seemed calm, cool, and collected, but he was blinking very rapidly.” So Tecce counted the blinks and found that Nixon was “blinking faster than schizophrenics.”
Want to know who’s going to win the next presidential election? Count their eye blinks during a debate. “In U.S. presidential elections over the past 25 years,” says Joe, “the candidates who blinked fastest in the one-on-one presidential debates lost the election, except for 2000 when George W. Bush, the fastest blinker, lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote.”
Tecce’s discovery about the blink phenomenon during presidential elections brought the national media to his door. Because he is so personable and his explanations are so clear, the media soon began calling upon Tecce for commentary on other issues, such as murder cases (O. J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, Louise Woodward Nanny case) and President Clinton’s infidelity. He’s been asked to weigh in on everything from work stress to email addiction, from terrorism to reality television. “I’m really popular every four years during presidential elections,” he jokes, “ but in a normal year, I only get contacted by the media 30 or 40 times in a year.”
When Roger Clemens testified about whether he used steroids, Tecce believes that the ace pitcher exhibited many of the indicators of less-than-truthful behavior. Besides a high eye blink rate and avoiding the gaze of the questioner, Clemens would, he says, engage in what he terms the “three r’s of lying: redundancy, reliability, and relevance.” His answers were not consistent and, often, not relevant to the questions. And he often repeated the same phrase, the sign of a cover-up.
Countless position papers, each written in clear concise prose on a particular topic, jam the file drawers in Tecce’s office. Their titles reflect society’s issues: “Violence in Sports,” “Traffic Stress and Road Rage,” “How Do You Change a Bad Mood,” “Happiness,” “Addictions,” and “Video Addiction All Too Real.”
This first-generation college kid who confesses that he used the word “ain’t” when he talked to President Sills in 1951 has been cited in every major newspaper and magazine in the United States and several others around the world. This kid-at-heart who still feels humbled to have gone to the same college at the same time as such notables as Senator George Mitchell ’54 and retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering ’53 has appeared on every major television network and most major cable channels, including CNN and C-Span. He’s even been interviewed by Katie Couric and Bill O’ Reilly.
At one point during our conversation, Tecce paused, studied me for a second, smiled, and remarked, “You know, you and I are really bonding well. We’re both sitting the same way; mimicking the posture of the person you’re talking with indicates comfort. And we’re both blinking at about the same rate.” I seconded his observation, while trying to maintain my pose and blink rate.
At another point, he jumped up from his chair and said, “Let me show you one of the things I’m proudest about in my entire career.” He fiddled with his computer for a while until the screen lit up with the photograph of a young girl smiling dreamily at a computer screen, which contained an electronic image of her “finger painting.” Although the young girl was paralyzed, she had been able to “paint” on the screen by controlling the computer through electrodes placed around her eyes. Joe Tecce was one of the first researchers to have conceived the notion that a system could be developed whereby tracking eye movements could be used to replace a mouse.
While Tecce loves research and basks in the media limelight, his primary passion remains teaching undergraduates who are, he notes, “more open and less jaded than graduate students.” He’s taught courses covering all areas of psychology over the years, but today he teaches just two perennial favorites every semester: “Psychobiology of Mental Disorders” and “Stress and Behavior.”
What he really teaches, though, are lessons that extend well beyond psychological theory, such as how to live a full, relaxed and meaningful life; how to lift yourself by lifting others; and how to focus, really focus, on what’s important. He teaches all of his students to meditate, for example, as he knows the powerful impact that meditation has made upon his own life since he began meditating in 1974. “I’ve taught well over 5,000 students to meditate,” he notes, “and meditation will be useful to them wherever they go and whatever they do in life.”
And then there’s his innovative “Do Good Project” which arose from his own life experience. “I was enduring a very blue Monday, and I came upon this beautiful flower arrangement on campus that spelled out BC. I complimented the groundskeeper, and he was totally touched, telling me that no one had ever commented on it before. So I created the ‘Do Good Project,’ which requires all of my students to do something good for another person – preferably a stranger – every day for seven days. Then they have to record the activity in a journal, being sure to record how they felt about doing this good deed and the person’s response. At the end of the week, they have to write about the impact that the Do Good Project made upon their lives. Their comments are truly amazing.’
As we were winding up our conversation, Tecce asked if I wanted to get a close-up look at a human brain. “Sure,” I responded, being careful not to elevate my eye blink rate. “Well, I have a brain in that bucket over there,” he said indicating a bucket in the corner. From the bucket, which was filled with a preservative fluid, he extracted a real human brain. He then put on rubber gloves and proceeded to talk about the brain and all its magnificent properties.
One might assume that a noted psychologist so wise in the ways of human behavior and so widely cited in the media might possess a know-it-all attitude. Not so. What sets Joe Tecce apart, besides his deep wisdom, is his warm human spirit. He still savors life’s small offerings, delighting in new learning, exploring new ideas.”
This first-generation college student, this son of an Italian immigrant, this tireless worker who once held down eight jobs in a single semester at Bowdoin, has carved out an uncommonly productive career. And he has many truths yet to discover.
Joe Tecce '55 was one of the first researchers to have conceived the notion that a system could be developed whereby tracking eye movements could be used to replace a mouse.
In addition to quoting great minds in his Stress and Meditation Workshop, such as Emerson, Shakespeare and Nietzsche, Joe’s syllabus weaves in some pearls of his own:
“A meditation a day keeps the shrink away.”
“Awareness begets freedom.”
“The best cure for stress is to do something for someone else.”“People are our greatest source of stress and people are our greatest resource in dealing with stress.”
“When you patiently listen to someone you can’t help, you’ve already helped two people.”
“When one gives, two receive.”