PERSONALITY & SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY
Lee Ross was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario and studied as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. He received his PhD from Columbia University in 1969, working under the supervision of Stanley Schachter. He immediately joined the psychology faculty at Stanford, where he has remained ever since. |
Ross left his mark on social psychology very early in his career, first with a series of memorable studies on the fundamental attribution error, the false consensus effect, and belief perseverance, and then with a provocative theoretical position that people are best understood as “intuitive psychologists” who are susceptible to a number of predictable biases in understanding and anticipating the most important events in their lives.
Ross later expanded that position in two influential books with Richard Nisbett. Human Inference brought together research in social psychology with important work in the emerging field of judgment and decision making. The Person and the Situation identified three broad themes that explicate much of human social behavior—situationism, construal, and the Lewinian idea of tension systems. Much of Ross’s research has had an applied focus, with particular emphasis on conflict and conflict resolution. That work has highlighted the importance of such phenomena as the "hostile media effect," "reactive devaluation," and "naïve realism" -- all now standard topics in social psychology textbooks. His explorations of the psychological barriers that prevent disputants from reaching mutually beneficial agreements has hued to the Lewinian tradition in which he was trained, leading to applied work involving second-track diplomacy in the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
Ross was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, and he received the William James Award from the Association for Psychological Science and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.
I still remember vividly my first day in grad school, when Lee and I spent almost a whole day together walking and talking around the Stanford campus. That's when he asked, "Why are some people happier than others? What's the secret to happiness?" (and thus changed my life.) I recall him bringing me to the Rodin sculpture garden and explaining how a great experiment is like a great work of art. There are too many other memories to list; but I can assure you they are all happy ones. Here's to many more.
Lee is one of the most incredible individuals – both as a social psychologist and as a human being. He is a dear friend and colleague and the best mentor I could have hoped for. He shared with me (and all his students) his passion for psychology; his love of ideas, books, and intellectual life in general; his endless pursuit of carefully-staged experiments that tell a story; his talent for recognizing what is interesting and important; his graceful writing (oh, if only everyone wrote as beautifully!); his high standards; and countless hours of his time.
Lee Ross is a Jesuit. Well, not literally. But when I think of a “defender of the faith” -- in this case, the faith one should have in social psychology -- I can think of no better standard bearer for our field than Lee Ross. Indeed, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Lee’s contributions to social psychology often invoke religious terminology. Lee speaks of lay dispositionism, the doctrine of situationism, empirical parables, attributional charity, and, of course Lee’s seminal offering to us all, the fundamental(ist?) attribution error. As Lee’s student, I have never felt defensive about our field – not about its worth as a scientific endeavor or about its capacity to make contributions toward the betterment of society -- for Lee has embodied both of those values in everything he has given social psychology.
Not surprisingly, a typical Lee Ross lecture has the feel of a great sermon – it both educates and leaves one feeling inspired to “take up the cause.” I recall one in particular in which Lee pointed out that it needn’t have been inevitable that, historically, desegregation in this country ended up being viewed in such hostile terms by so many. Adopting his trademark social constructionist perspective, he argued that attending an integrated school could have been seen as a kind of “commencement” or “graduation” -- the logical next step in one’s education. And in general, the ability to look at the world and see it just a bit differently from those around him characterizes so much of what has made Lee a great psychologist and, equally important, someone committed to improving the lives of others.
My students have been known to make fun of how many times I mention the name Lee Ross in my own lectures -- I believe the record is 26 in one session -- but that is simply a reflection of how profoundly influential Lee’s work has been on the field, not to mention on my own work. I think it is safe to say that no one has done more than Lee to secure the legacy of the field’s modern founder, Kurt Lewin, in terms of both highlighting the contemporary implications of field theory and honoring Lewin’s model of action research.
I have been truly blessed (to continue the religious metaphor) to have had the opportunity to work with Lee Ross and even more blessed by his continued friendship and support. I am deeply grateful for all he has done for me, as well as for all he has given the field of social psychology, and I am delighted that he is being recognized with this honor. Lee Ross may not technically be a Jesuit, but I believe a similarly religious title is an even more fitting description of all he has meant to our field: Patron Saint of Social Psychology.
In the almost-40 years since I finished my Stanford PhD, as I start each new research project, as I set out to write each article, I hear Lee’s voice in my head: “What’s interesting about this? How can we make it more interesting? What’s the best story we could tell?” You were a good guide then, Lee, and you are a good guide still. I can’t thank you enough for all that you have given to the field and for all that you have given to me.
It is wonderfully fitting that it was Lee who made the term “the intuitive psychologist” part of our professional vocabulary with his 1977 Advances chapter. After all, is there anyone who is more of a non-stop observer of human social life, even when “off the job,” than Lee? It’s true that social psychologists generally are fond of saying that they like thinking about people all the time and that one of the great things about the profession is that it’s often unclear when they’re working and when they’re playing. But Lee takes it to another level. He is all ideas all the time. One of the (many) joys of being a graduate student at Stanford was bumping into Lee in the hallways of Jordan Hall or somewhere around campus and being tacitly invited to take part in an exploration of contemporary ideas in psychology or a discussion of issues and events going on in the broader world. And one of the great joys of being an ex-Stanford graduate is coming back to campus, running into Lee, and having him drop whatever he’s doing, impervious to the other demands on his time, and being invited back in to those conversations. Thanks, Lee, for making thinking about and talking about social psychology so much fun!
I’ve always viewed Lee as my academic “uncle,” because of his career-long collaboration and friendship with my graduate school adviser, Dick Nisbett. Like any good uncle, he has dispensed wise advice when asked. And who could serve as a better avuncular role model than Lee? Often, when designing experiments with my graduate students, I think to myself, “How would Lee bottle this idea?” Few of us ever meet that high standard, but we are better researchers for aspiring to it.
Once, when returning to Ann Arbor for a visit, I arranged to get together with Dick. He said that Lee would be in town as well and suggested that the three of us go out to dinner. After a lively meal we went for a walk and happened to pass by a playground. I don’t remember who suggested it, but the three of us ended up on the swings, each soaring into the air as the conversation continued. I’ve often wished I had a picture of this, because what better image would convey the playfulness with which Lee (and Dick) approach ideas?
Thanks Lee, for writing the History of Social Psychology chapter in the Handbook (with Mark Lepper and Andrew Ward), so that the rest of the world can experience the perspective on social psychology that you so wonderfully and graciously shared with your colleagues, collaborators, and students over your career. With great appreciation for being one of these students,
It was my good fortune in the last years of graduate school to snag Lee as an advisor. And it was just like Lee, it turns out, to notice a student trying to ask big questions and to be able to quickly cut to the essence of these, as he did with me. I remember well, in particular, taking a seminar with him and writing an elaborate treatise for this class, a critique of social psychology (in the heady late 70s). Beyond my youthful intensity (and hubris), what I best remember was Lee’s incisive, concise, and almost hilarious comment in the margin: 'So now that I know what you’re against, what are you for? Let’s talk.' This stunningly simple, somewhat embarrassing question cast in stark relief what I had neither specified nor integrated, while indirectly highlighting what remained that was also of value. Happily, it resulted too in the lovely generosity of his surprise invitation.
That moment then led to many wonderfully enriching dialogues and the privilege of learning from Lee, and ultimately to a collaboration that extended over subsequent years. Funnily enough, our work together back then proceeded straightaway to tackling head-on the very matters I had complained about (i.e., the narrow range of questions and the restrictive methodologies considered legitimate at the time, which tended not to tap people’s individual lives as lived and experienced). Rather than dismissing these issues, Lee was ravenous to fully clarify and productively examine them, which is exactly what we then did, while also in hot pursuit of his all-time favorite queries: What is the most provocative question we can ask here? What kind of data would best allow us to get at this? Is this really what’s interesting? And, what is best story we can tell?
It was through asking these questions, right alongside Lee and with him, that I finally learned to be a scientist and indeed also a mentor. So, here’s a toast to you, Lee, mentor par excellence, with gratitude and a smile.
Further Donations are always welcome, whether to honor Lee Ross 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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