Ellen Langer

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Ellen Langer
close-up of Ellen Langer wearing dark striped top with thin gold necklace, grinning at camera
Langer in 2013
Born (1947-03-25) March 25, 1947 (age 77)
The Bronx, New York
OccupationPsychology professor
Scientific career
Notable students

Ellen Jane Langer (/ˈlæŋər/; born March 25, 1947) is an American professor of psychology at Harvard University; in 1981, she became the first woman ever to be tenured in psychology at Harvard.[1][2] Langer studies the illusion of control, decision-making, aging, and mindfulness theory.[3][2] Her most influential work is Counterclockwise, published in 2009, which answers questions about aging from her research and interest in the particulars of aging across the nation.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Langer was born in The Bronx, New York. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from New York University, and her PhD in Social and Clinical Psychology from Yale University in 1974.[1]


Langer has had a significant influence on the positive psychology movement.[5] Along with being known as the mother of positive psychology, her contributions to the study of mindfulness have earned her the moniker of the "mother of mindfulness."[6][7] Her work helped to presage mind/body medicine,[8] which has been regarded by many scientists to be an important intellectual movement and one that now has "considerable evidence that an array of mind-body therapies can be used as effective adjuncts to conventional medical treatment."[9] She has co-authored experimental research indicating a connection between time perception and wound healing.[10]

She has published over 200 articles and academic texts, was published in The New York Times, and discussed her works on Good Morning America.[1] Additionally, in many introductory psychology courses at universities across the United States, her studies are required reading.[5]

Many regard Langer as a trailblazer who initiated a transformative shift in perspective. Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor, stated in the 1989 anthology Unintended Thought, “[Langer] pointed out that social inference is not always a conscious and deliberate act; rather it is often the province of mindless automata.” He further noted, “This clarion call was widely appreciated, and if Langer did not quite set the stage for a psychology of unconscious social inference, she at least rented the theatre.”[1]


Langer at PopTech 2013

Langer and colleagues have conducted multiple forms of research to promote the flexibility of aging.[5] Some of her most impactful work has been her pioneering research on her famous Counterclockwise Study (1979). This study was originally published by Oxford University Press[11] and later described in her best seller, Mindfulness.[12] It is the basis of what is now called Reminiscence Therapy. The study was replicated in England, South Korea and the Netherlands[8] and was the basis of a British Academy of Film and Television Awards nominated BBC series, The Young Ones.

Other important work has shown that rewarding behaviors and following completion of memory tasks improves memory. Another study showed that simply taking care of a plant improves mental and physical health, as well as life expectancy.[13] These studies were the primitive steps to creating the Langer Mindfulness Scale.[14] Her research provided for improved methods in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Langer demonstrated the benefits of mind/body unity theory. By having chambermaids call their everyday activity “exercise” rather than “labor,” Langer found that the chambermaids experienced a myriad of health benefits including: "a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio — and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure."[15][16]


Langer is well known for her contributions to the study of mindfulness and of mindless behaviour, with these contributions having provided the basis for many studies focused on individual differences in unconscious behavior and decision-making processes in humans.[17] In 1989, she published Mindfulness, her first book, and some have referred to her as the "mother of mindfulness".[6][7] In an interview with Krista Tippett on the National Public Radio program "On Being," broadcast on September 13, 2015, Langer defined mindfulness as "the simple act of noticing new things."[16]


In 1980, she was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.[7][18] Other honors include the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest of the American Psychological Association, the Liberty Science Center Genius Award, the Distinguished Contributions of Basic Science to Applied Psychology award from the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology, the James McKeen Cattel Award, and the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize.


Her finding that taking care of a plant significantly improved health outcomes in nursing home patients was shown to be the result of a statistical error.[19] In one of her famous "counterclockwise" studies, Langer claimed that when elderly men were temporarily placed in a setting that recreated their past, their health improved, and they even looked younger. However, this study was never published in a peer-reviewed journal. The only publication of this finding is in a chapter of a book edited by Langer.[20]

In a 2014 New York Times Magazine profile, Langer described the week-long paid adult counterclockwise retreats she was creating in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, aimed at replicating the effects found in her New Hampshire study. According to the article, "Langer makes no apologies for the paid retreats, nor for what will be their steep price."[21] Langer was defiant when pressed on the ethics of her study:

"To my question of whether such a nakedly commercial venture will undermine her academic credibility, Langer rolled her eyes a bit. 'Look, I'm not 40 years old. I've paid my dues, and there's nothing wrong with making this more widely available to people, since I deeply believe it.'"[21]

Bibliography (selection)[edit]

  • Langer, Ellen J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley. ISBN 978-0-201-52341-6.
  • Langer, Ellen J. (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 978-0-201-33991-8.
  • Langer, Ellen J. (2005). On Becoming an Artist. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-45629-8.
  • Langer, Ellen J. (2009). Counter clockwise: mindful health and the power of possibility. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-50204-9.


  1. ^ a b c d Hilts, Philip J (September 23, 1997). "Scientist At Work: Ellen Langer; A Scholar of the Absent Mind". The New York Times. Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  2. ^ a b Feinberg, Cara (2010). "The Mindfulness Chronicles". Harvard Magazine. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  3. ^ "season 2 episode 9 - be confident in your uncertainty | Ellen Langer". The Artian. May 20, 2021. Retrieved May 20, 2021.
  4. ^ "Counterclockwise". Ellen Langer. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  5. ^ a b c Bennett, Drake (February 21, 2010). "Mind Power". The Boston Globe. Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  6. ^ a b PsychCentral (February 27, 2010). "The Mother of Mindfulness, Ellen Langer". psychcentral.com. Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  7. ^ a b c Langer, Ellen. "Ellen Langer Bio". ellenlanger.com. Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  8. ^ a b Grierson, Bruce (October 22, 2014). "What if Age is Nothing but a Mindset?". New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  9. ^ Astin, John; Shapiro, Shauna; Eisenberg, David; Forys, Kelly (March 1, 2003). "Mind-Body Medicine: State of the Science, Implications for Practice". Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. 16 (2): 131–47. doi:10.3122/jabfm.16.2.131. PMID 12665179.
  10. ^ Dolan, Eric W. (February 2, 2024). "Surprising link between time perception and wound healing revealed in Harvard psychology study". PsyPost. Retrieved February 2, 2024.
  11. ^ Alexander (Ed.), Charles; Langer (Ed.), Ellen (1990). Higher stages of human development: Perspectives on adult growth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195034837. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  12. ^ Langer, Ellen (1989). Mindfulness. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-7382-1800-7.
  13. ^ Rodin, Judith; Langer, Ellen J. (1977). "Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 35 (12): 897–902. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.35.12.897. PMID 592095.
  14. ^ Pirson, Michael; Langer, Ellen; Bodner, Todd; Zilcha-Mano, Sigal (October 9, 2012). "The Development and Validation of the Langer Mindfulness Scale - Enabling a Socio-Cognitive Perspective of Mindfulness in Organizational Contexts". Fordham University Schools of Business Research Paper: 54. SSRN 2158921.
  15. ^ Spiegel, Alix. "Hotel Maids Challenge the Placebo Effect". NPR.org.
  16. ^ a b "Ellen Langer - Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness". On Being with Krista Tippett. Retrieved September 11, 2015.
  17. ^ Scholar, Harvard. "Ellen Langer, Research". scholar.harvard.edu. Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  18. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | All Fellows". Archived from the original on November 10, 2020. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  19. ^ Rodin, Judith; Langer, Ellen J. (December 1977). "Erratum to Rodin and Langer". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 35[12]: 897–902. Retrieved January 11, 2024.
  20. ^ "Ellen Langer's reversing aging experiment – Business Insider".
  21. ^ a b Grierson, Bruce (October 22, 2014). "What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?". The New York Times.

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