Called a man who has "fundamentally changed the way we look at everyday life," preeminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson has received a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Psychological Science.
Elliot Aronson (Photo: UCSC Photo Services)
A renowned scholar, teacher, and author, Aronson conducted pathbreaking research on cognitive dissonance and interpersonal attraction before championing the use of social psychological principles to address societal problems, including racial prejudice, energy and water shortages, and AIDS. In the laboratory, Aronson became known for the elegance and simplicity of his experiments. A resident of Santa Cruz, Aronson will receive the APS award at the association's annual convention, which will take place next spring in Washington, D.C.
The William James Fellow Award honors recipients for a lifetime of significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology. Recipients must be APS members recognized internationally for their outstanding contributions to scientific psychology.
Aronson, 74, who came to UCSC in 1974, has remained active since retiring in 1994. Despite suffering from macular degeneration, which has robbed him of his central vision, Aronson has coauthored with Carol Tavris the forthcoming book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. He is also revising his classic textbook, The Social Animal, and recently published a children's book, The Adventures of Ruthie and a Little Boy Named Grandpa, with his seven-year-old granddaughter Ruth Aronson. "After all, it is only my eyesight I have lost, not my vision!" quipped Aronson, who was one of only nine scholars invited to contribute a chapter for the book, The History of Psychology in Autobiography, Volume 9, due out next year from APA Books.
In announcing the award, the APS cited Aronson's "career-long contributions in empirical research, in theory, in research methodology, in practical application, and in education. His elegant and seminal experiments have fundamentally changed the way we look at everyday life."
Aronson's major contribution to the theory of cognitive dissonance, which revealed how people strive to alter their attitudes to conform to their actions, recognized the critical role of a person's self-concept in the arousal of cognitive dissonance.
He also conducted a series of experiments on interpersonal attraction that reversed the pop-psychology principle that the route to being liked is to be agreeable and complimentary to others. His work demonstrated the conditions under which a person who committed a clumsy blunder could be more liked than one who didn't, and the conditions under which a person who criticized another could be more liked than one who didn't. The experiments were "empirical and theoretical tours de force" in the field of psychology, said psychology professor Anthony G. Greenwald of the University of Washington, who nominated Aronson for the William James Award.
As Aronson turned his attention to applying social psychology to important societal problems, he developed a technique called "The Jigsaw Classroom" to reduce racial prejudice by increasing interaction, cooperation, and interdependence among students of different races. His subsequent work responded to energy shortages, water shortages, and the AIDS epidemic, harnessing induced hypocrisy to motivate behavioral changes, including conservation and increased use of condoms.
A master of "experimental realism," Aronson was expert at setting up realistic situations in the laboratory that had a powerful impact on his subjects' involvement in the experimental situation, for which Greenwald hailed him as part of a small group he called "a pantheon of modern social psychology."
The APS honor follows a lifetime achievement award from the American Psychological Association, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Distinguished Career Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology. In 1980, he became the first person in the history of the APA to receive both a distinguished teaching award and a distinguished research award. He has also been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as a special research award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1978, he was selected as the first recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award from the UCSC Alumni Association. His textbook, The Social Animal, received the coveted National Media Award in 1973 and remains among the most popular texts in social psychology.
Aronson received his B.A. from Brandeis University in 1954, his M.A. from Wesleyan University in 1956, and his Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University in 1959. He began teaching at Harvard University in 1959 and moved in 1962 to the University of Minnesota. He joined the University of Texas in 1965 and came to UCSC in 1974.