PERSONALITY & SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY
Elliot Aronson was chosen by his peers as one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the twentieth century -- and that influence extends to all spheres of the academic life. He is the only psychologist in the history of the American Psychological Association to win its three highest awards: for scientific contributions, for teaching, and for writing.
Elliot Aronson was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1932, and grew up in nearby Revere, working as a barker at the Pokerino tables on the Revere boardwalk. In 1950, he entered Brandeis University, where he decided to major in psychology after sitting in on a lecture delivered by Abraham Maslow, one of two influential mentors who shaped his values and aspirations. Maslow also served as matchmaker for Elliot and a star classmate named Vera Rabinek, whom he married in 1954, before heading to the master’s program in psychology at Wesleyan University to work with David McClelland. From there Elliot went to Stanford for his Ph.D. and, on a dare, enrolled in a seminar taught by the brilliant and intimidating Leon Festinger, who became Elliot’s other influential mentor. Festinger introduced Elliot not only to cognitive dissonance theory, but also to the potential of creative and rigorous experiments to illuminate complex cognitive and motivational processes that many psychologists at the time assumed were either inaccessible or unworthy of study.
During his faculty tenure at Harvard University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, Elliot shaped the field of experimental social psychology, inviting readers to peer over his shoulder as he described the joys, challenges, and practical how-tos of designing and implementing rigorous, creative, and engaging experiments; illuminating the dynamics of human attraction; revising dissonance theory to emphasize the central role of the self in dissonance arousal and attempts to reduce it; and demonstrating the potential of scientific social psychology to make a difference in the world outside our laboratories.
Author of over 150 scientific articles and chapters, Elliot has also written with eloquence, humor, wit, and humanity for the wider public. The Social Animal, arguably the most influential social psychology textbook of all time, brought many talented individuals into the field. The Jigsaw Classroom introduced educators to the power of cooperative education to reduce interethnic conflict and improve minority student achievement. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), he brought dissonance theory into the modern world, illuminating the many ways in which the need to reduce dissonance through self-justification wreaks havoc in government, law, science, medicine, therapy -- and family life. And his elegant, warm memoir, Not By Chance Alone, tells the story of social psychology through the experiences, perceptions, and passions of one of the field’s greatest practitioners.
Throughout his illustrious and colorful career, Elliot Aronson has continued to shape the present and future of the discipline that he loves. He remains a master teacher in an international classroom, a prolific and gifted writer for professional colleagues and the public, and the personification of a public scholar whose formidable intellect is channeled through his unshakeable faith in human potential.
Marti Hope Gonzales and Carol Tavris
From Emerson Hall in Harvard Yard to Stevenson College, Kerr Hall, and finally College 10 at UCSC, we have kicked around together (and been kicked around!). Tennis in the early mornings (for me, VERY early!) to that unwritten great paper we designed back at Harvard (using dissonance to help explain some of the desegregation phenomena -- still a Zeigarnik unfinished task for me) and the fun energy conservation project with Dane Archer and all the great grad students in the 1980s. These are the memories I have of the past with you. Here's to some more!
Tom Pettigrew, University of California Santa Cruz
The trouble with my writing an appreciation of Elliot is that if I read it to him, he’ll immediately want to edit it. He’d improve it, that goes without saying. “I’d just make this little little change for accuracy,” he’d say. Then he might add, “What were you thinking here? How could you have created that clunky paragraph?” Nevertheless, I realize how fortunate I am: His former undergraduate and graduate students still treasure their stories of his classes, lectures, and mentoring—recently he received a thank-you email from a student he had 40 years ago, in a lecture class of more than 500 students—but although I was deprived of that experience, our friendship and working collaboration have repeatedly demonstrated his brilliance as a teacher. Elliot’s scientific contributions to social psychology are legendary and eternal, as others will describe. But the reason he is so admired and beloved go beyond those contributions, and may be found in one of his favorite songs: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach your children well.” I consider it his theme song, and his friends and students will understand why: The lesson is to take responsibility for our children’s—and students’—moral development as well as their intellectual development. And then to be able to accept the lessons they teach us.
That has always been Elliot’s guiding philosophy. It is why his teaching, on stage and off, is deeply embedded in the human condition, with its foibles, sorrows, and triumphs. In the past decade, confronting blindness, he has reacted as the consummate social psychologist-humanist he is: by getting the data on macular degeneration, learning new skills that allow him to continue writing and lecturing, and following his own philosophy of “pull up your socks and get on with it.” This ability to face whatever life serves up with reality and perspective is what makes him a master social psychologist who practices what he teaches. His ability to do it with grace, humor, and wisdom is what makes him a mensch who lives by what he has learned.
At UC Santa Cruz, Elliot invited graduate students into his home on a weekly basis. We’d take our shoes off before walking across the white carpet. We drank tea (sometimes beer) and critiqued published research reports. Elliot had this amazing ability to identify threats to internal validity. I learned almost everything I know about social psychological research while sitting on the floor in his living room.
Elliot taught a course in social psychology that was THE most popular course on campus. He required each of his teaching assistants to give a guest lecture at some point during the semester. As you can imagine, we felt intimidated because Elliot is a REALLY hard act to follow. When it was my turn, I devoted hours to preparing my lecture and then donned my nicest clothes for the big occasion. While walking along a trail to the lecture hall, I slipped and fell in some mud. My entire backside was covered. I showed Elliot what happened. He said, “Just show them your backside and take advantage of the pratfall effect.” Then he gave me the nicest introduction I’ve ever received. Thanks to Elliot’s generosity, the lecture was a hit and the students applauded. One of those students came up afterwards to thank me. And that’s how I met Hester, my wife.
Larry White, Beloit College
As an undergraduate, I took a social psychology course using the first edition of The Social Animal. Upon reading it, I knew I wanted to become a social psychologist and earn my Ph.D. as Elliot’s student. My experience is not unique. The Social Animal not only instructs, it inspires and continues to lead countless students to the field. As a researching pioneer who lead the way in applied social psychology, and as master teacher who changed countless lives, Elliot is the embodiment of Lewin’s legacy.
Suzanne Yates, Lehman College
Ever since my graduate school years, Elliot Aronson has been an inspiration both in terms of research and teaching. His many classic studies and methods chapter in the Handbook of Social Psychology taught me about the logic and, more importantly, the art of social psychology -- and inspired me to try, as best I could, to do research like ‘Elliot.’ Like many young faculty in social psychology, I started out teaching a course in the methods of social psychology as well as an introductory course in social psychology. For the methods course I always used Elliot’s methods text (first with Carlsmith & Ellsworth and then with Ellsworth, Carlsmith, & Gonzales); for the intro social psych course I always used (for over 25 years) The Social Animal and Readings About the Social Animal. By using these texts I was inspired to try, again as best I could, to teach like ‘Elliot.’
In thinking about where Social Psychology is today -- and, importantly, where it ought, perhaps even needs, to be -- I also think (and continue to be inspired) by Elliot’s ground-breaking intervention studies. Put simply, if Social Psychology is going to thrive in the future, the discipline needs to ‘go back to the future’ with Elliot Aronson and use our basic research to create and test interventions designed to make the world a better place.
Mark Zanna, University of Waterloo
Further Donations are always welcome, whether to honor Elliot Aronson or another psychologist. Be sure to leave a note regarding which mentor you would like to donate for and any testimonial you might like to give.
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