David L. Hamilton
Board of
Foundation for
David L. Hamilton
David L. Hamilton has been a clear leader and strong advocate of the social cognition approach in social psychology since its inception in the mid-1970s. His numerous contributions have advanced our understanding of the perception of individuals and groups, and his research exemplifies the theoretical integration offered by the social cognitive approach.

Dave received a B.A. from Gettysburg College and later an M.A. from the University of Richmond. He began the Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois in pursuit of a degree in clinical psychology, but eventually his interest in clinical waned. He then began to conduct research under the supervision of a prominent social psychologist, Ivan Steiner. Dave’s dissertation probed individual differences when people encounter inconsistency. After completing his doctorate, Dave spent the next eight years at Yale University as an assistant and associate professor. During this time, his interest shifted from trying to understand personality to trying to understand how people perceive personality. Dave left Yale to move to the University of California, Santa Barbara, playing a central role over the next several decades in creating one of the most vibrant and active social psychology programs in the world.

Dave has made several important contributions to independent, yet related lines of research. In the domain of person perception, Dave’s early work challenged the notion that impressions reflected a simple weighted average of all the information known about a person. His research showed how construal processes play a central role in impression formation. In particular, several studies showed that the interpretation of a person’s behavior depends upon prior knowledge about the person. Emphasizing prior knowledge and expectations as a crucial aspect of impression formation harkened back to Asch, but Dave brought that idea into the rapidly developing literature on person memory and the nascent field of social cognition, more broadly.

Another major conceptual contribution to the impression formation literature was Dave’s demonstration of the importance of goals. In a series of influential studies, he showed that perceivers’ memory for information is enhanced when they try to form an impression of a person rather than merely aim to remember the same information. He also demonstrated that perceivers impose organization on the information when forming impressions, a finding not predicted by the mechanistic approach to person perception dominant during that era. These results were important for two reasons. First, they confirmed Asch’s view that perceivers play an active and dynamic role in processing information about persons. Second, they demonstrated how goals influence the formation of mental representations of other people. In spite of the common early criticism that social cognition neglected motivational factors, Dave’s discoveries highlighted the importance of perceivers’ active goals in information processing.

During this same time, Dave also began to examine cognitive processes that contribute to the formation and use of stereotypes. He was particularly intrigued by the possibility that processing biases could produce erroneous judgments of correlation between classes of events that were not, in fact, related. He found that “illusory correlations” form such that numerically small groups become associated with infrequent behavior, even when the commonality of behaviors did not differ between groups. This research was groundbreaking in demonstrating that attentional and retrieval processes can produce distinct impressions of groups without prejudiced motivations, need for self-esteem, social learning processes, or even any “kernel of truth.” Dave’s research on illusory correlation, along with Tajfel’s classic work on category accentuation, served as the foundation of the social cognitive approach to intergroup perception and behavior that has been dominant in the field over the last several decades.

A third major contribution is Dave’s more recent research on entitativity, developed in collaboration with Jim Sherman. Together they explored the similarities in and differences between person and group perception. Until their scholarship, the perception of individuals and the perception of groups had been seen as distinct topics, each with their own research traditions and applicable theories. Using the organizing principle of perceived entitativity, a construct first proposed by Campbell decades earlier, Dave and his collaborators have shown that perceived coherence within social entities, whether persons or groups, has important consequences for judgments of those entities. This integration of the previously distinct literatures on person and group perception through a set of common cognitive processes and mental representations represents one of the clearest realizations of the promise of the social cognitive approach.


To me, Dave Hamilton represents and embodies the trajectory of social cognition research from its emergence in the late 1970s through today. His early work on the structure of mental representations of traits and behaviors showed how social psychologists could employ memory dependent variables to test theories. The illusory correlation phenomenon he identified is still studied today. His insightful work with Jim Sherman on differences between perception of individuals and groups sparked a rich and still-growing body of work on group entitativity. Volumes he helped edit marked major stages in the development of social cognition – including the seminal 1980 volume on person memory as well as two important collections on cognitive and affective approaches to stereotyping. Without exception, everyone who has worked in the field of social cognition owes Dave a tremendous intellectual debt.

Eliot Smith

Congratulations To David Hamilton on this most deserved honor. Dave's original 1976 paper with Gifford was a landmark in social cognition as it showed how basic cognitive processes alone (attention to relatively infrequent information, leading to memory biases) could create biased impressions of minority social groups, without any motivation underlying the bias at all. Since then he has made major contribution after major contribution in our understanding of stereotype and interpersonal processes and the similarities and differences between individual and group impressions. This is not to mention his huge mentorship and leadership of younger researchers over the years, starting in the 1980s at Nags Head when he was tremendously supportive of me, for one, when I was just getting started. It's wonderful to be able to say 'thanks' in this way!

John Bargh

Dave has been a great colleague over the decades, an incredible mentor to scores of his students and others who've attended the conferences he's organized, and a stimulating and prolific scholar and researcher. He's literally helped form the shape of "social cognition" since the early days, and deserves much of the credit for its vigor and sustained contributions. He's created an intellectual and social home for many of us, and in that has been a true world shaper. Bravo, molto bene!

Jim Uleman

The crystal clear logic of Dave’s research paradigm of illusory correlation at the turn of the 70-80’s greatly contributed to the understanding of the then new approach of social cognition, and to the concept of stereotypes receiving new meaning and significance in the conceptual construction of social psychology even in isolated countries of remote continents. I can pride myself in being perhaps his first visitor from Europe – furthermore, from its more shadowy eastern end – who visited him, his excellent colleagues, and his PhD students in Santa Barbara. Our decades-long friendly and collegial cooperation meant a lot to the education and research of our field taking root in Budapest as well. It was interesting and exemplary for many of us how strictly consistently he conducted research, how his range of interest constantly widened, and how open he was to the cooperation with the European colleagues – as also acknowledged by Eötvös Loránd University with the Honorary Doctoral Degree awarded to him. To me, however, beyond our mutual professional interest, the repeated meetings with his family and friends, the excursions we made together in America and in Hungary mean long lasting personal memories, as an experience of friendship spanning over continents.

György Hunyady

David Hamilton and Social Cognition are practically synonyms. Dave is an outstanding researcher, a remarkable mentor, and a great friend. And although lesser known, he is also a virtuoso a capella singer and able to play tennis with both his right and left hand.

Jonathan Schooler

I first met Dave at the 1990 meeting of the Person Memory Interest Group. I was a brand new unpublished PhD and had been arm-twisted into attending by Tom Ostrom. Tom and I arrived in time for the first lunch, and with a big smile he motioned me toward the only empty seat at a large round table while he went off to check the aquavit supplies. As I sat down, in almost perfect synchrony the two people on either side of me swiveled away, deeply engaged in their conversations. Two minutes later Dave happened to walk by on his way to his seat at the far side of the table. Upon seeing me sitting forlorn between the backs of two heads, he abandoned his lunch, pulled up a chair at an empty table across from me, and proceeded to ask me who I was and what I do. This proved to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with one of the nicest guys in social psychology.

Bill von Hippel

When David Hamilton returned to the scene of his assistant professorship (at Yale) in the early 1990s, the graduate students joked that he looked like he belonged on top of a football trophy: leather helmet strapped on, arm thrust forward, fingers extended to the sky. He gave a great talk – I think it was about group entitativity; I had no idea that I would hear it again repeatedly for the next 15 years, but I feel fortunate to have spent that much time with one of the true greats in social cognition.

David Hamilton became a friend and mentor to me, and he even takes credit – with more than a little justice – for introducing me to my wife. In 1999, he and I arrived in Csopak, a small Hungarian village on Lake Balaton (where, as it turns out, I am writing this now), as the only American guests of Professor György Hunyady. While David “pretended” that he wanted to go for a walk on the lake to smoke his pipe and took most of the entourage with him, I chose to exercise my feminist credentials by staying to help György’s stunningly beautiful daughter, Orsi, prepare the house for the guests. (She and I married in 2001 and now have two stunningly beautiful daughters together).

Later, Dave and I found other, more scientific but similarly fruitful ways of collaborating, including co-authoring a chapter on “Stereotyping in Our Culture” for the 50th anniversary of Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice. There we got to make the point that there are at least two social psychological perspectives on stereotype content that do not require the assumption that stereotypes reflect a kernel of truth: the illusory correlation model and system justification theory.

Thanks for everything, Dave, and congratulations. Are you ready to be mounted on the trophy yet?

John T. Jost

It is difficult to over-state the influence Dave has had on me as a scientist and an academic. He taught me how to identify a good research question, how to design a compelling experiment, how to talk about research to others, and how to write for a scientific audience. I don't often achieve Dave's standards, but, if not for him, things would have been so much worse.

Much more than this, Dave taught me an ethic for being a good scientist. He showed me how to take research seriously without taking yourself too seriously. Indeed, he is among the most humble people I know, and he doesn't have to be. He taught me the importance of substance over style; the distinction between clever demonstrations and hard-earned understanding; and the value of process-level explanations. I am grateful for these lessons, and they have defined my own research and how I see myself as a scientist.

Beyond the professional mentoring, Dave also has been a good friend and confidant to so many. In his role organizing the Person Memory conference, he has welcomed innumerable young researchers into the field, giving them an extended academic family and helping them feel like they belong. Among his own students, he is much beloved for his personal attention to their welfare. Not surprisingly, Dave has maintained close friendships with many of his former students that have only grown in strength over the years.

This is a nice honor for Dave and reflects both his professional standing and the warmth with which he is held by former students, collaborators, colleagues, and pretty much anyone who had the privilege of working with him.

Congratulations, Dave!

Jeff Sherman

Further Donations are always welcome, whether to honor David L. Hamilton 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.