Eminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson publishes memoir

Lucky breaks and the foresight to make the most of them set Aronson on his journey

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In his new memoir, UC Santa Cruz emeritus professor of psychology Elliot Aronson writes of the influences during his career as one of the most eminent social psychologists of our time. (Photo by Guy Lasnier)

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Boardwalks figure in both his home town Revere, Mass. and his current town Santa Cruz.
Elliot Aronson will talk about his book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, September 30 at the Capitola Book Café.

Elliot Aronson is telling a story.  One of the preeminent social psychologists of our times, Aronson loves telling stories. He's good at it and has an abundant collection to choose from.

His favorite in a candid and engaging new memoir Not by Chance Alone, My Life as a Social Psychologist (Basic Books) concerns Leon Festinger, a prickly professor at Stanford University in the 1950s when Aronson was a graduate student.

Aronson is walking down the hall when Festinger barks out his name. Pulling a paper from a pile of hundreds on his desk, Festinger holds it between his thumb and forefinger as if it were a piece of trash. "I believe this is yours," he says with a mix of pity and contempt, Aronson remembers.

Aronson dreaded the red marks he expected to find. Instead there was nothing.  He steeled himself to inquire why. With that same mix of pity and contempt, Festinger told him that if he didn’t care enough about his work to give it his best effort the result was not worth his comment.

Getting that paper was a critical moment in Aronson's life. He had a choice.  He could drop the class and accept defeat.

Instead, he spent the next 72 hours reworking the paper and handed it to his mentor. Fifteen minutes later Festinger walked into his office, sat on the edge of his desk, put his hand on his student’s shoulder and said: “Now this is worth criticizing.”

“At that moment we became colleagues,” he says. “It was an incredible gift.”  

Impoverished upbringing

His impoverished upbringing in Revere, Mass. during the depression shaped his story. His background helped determine who he was and who he became.

As a boy, Aronson was painfully shy, a mediocre student at best, with uneducated parents, including an angry and often unemployed father. There were no books in the house but plenty of anti-Semitic toughs in his neighborhood who often jumped him. The sting of anti-Semitism would guide his later work in combating prejudice.

So how did he become the man whom his colleagues listed among the 100 most influential social psychologists of the 20th century -- and the only person in the 120-year history of the American Psychological Association to win all three of its major awards for distinguished research, distinguished teaching, and distinguished writing?

As he'll tell you, he got some good breaks and made the most of them, thus the title.  Along the way, he encountered some inspired mentors.

Older brother Jason

Let's begin with the first, his brother Jason, 2½ years older.

"My brother was an incredible influence in every respect," Aronson said during an interview at his Santa Cruz home. "For one thing, he was the first person who thought I was really smart.

"He was very clear on what he wanted to do and what he wanted me to do," Aronson said. Jason was determined both brothers would attend college. When their father died, the extended family decided Elliot should drop out of high school and work. Jason, however, persuaded him he was smart enough to apply to college, and that he could work his way through.

It's a good thing the admission officer at the newly opened Brandeis University didn't see his grades before they saw his SAT scores, Aronson says. The university didn’t just admit him. They gave him a scholarship, too.  However, it wasn't renewed after the first year. Aronson slept in the woods or unlocked parked cars and occasionally boosted food and books to get by.

At Brandeis, he reluctantly chose economics -- a "practical" major. But after accompanying an attractive young woman into an introductory psychology class he was inspired by a new professor, Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology. Maslow became a second key mentor in Aronson’s life. Maslow's work on the hierarchy of needs influenced Aronson's "soft" side.

If Maslow was the yin, the yang was Festinger at Stanford where Aronson obtained his Ph.D. It was Festinger who introduced him to cognitive dissonance, which Aronson regards as an exciting and provocative theory that still figures prominently in his research and writing. Festinger, whom Aronson calls the “single most influential social psychologist who ever lived,” taught him – forced him, really – to set the bar high and not settle for anything the least bit sloppy.

"Heart of Maslow, tough-mindedness of Festinger"

Aronson "combined the heart of Abraham Maslow with the tough-mindedness of Leon Festinger,” a colleague observes in another new book, The Scientist and the Humanist: A Festschrift in Honor of Elliot Aronson, (Psychology Press 2010).

Maslow hired Aronson and another student – his "absolute favorite" – Aronson remembers, as assistants. The other student was Vera Rabinek, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, who was "brilliant, gorgeous, and fairly glowed with a quality that I would call serenity," he writes. They've been married for 56 years and have raised four children  -- all of whom graduated from UC Santa Cruz. 

"I see it as one lucky break after another,'' he said.

From Brandeis the couple went to Wesleyan for a master's degree and then Stanford, lured by a Wesleyan colleague Richard Alpert, later and better known at Baba Ram Dass. Alpert “taunted” Aronson into taking Festinger’s graduate seminar.

Aronson weaves his stories of the people he has met with the major trends in social psychology over the past 60 years including encounter groups and sensitivity training in the '60s, movements in which he played a major part. He describes his work developing the "jigsaw classroom," his experiment in cooperative learning to counter the stresses of school desegregation, and experiments to encourage condom use among sexually active college students.

Aronson taught at Harvard and the University of Texas, Austin before arriving at UC Santa Cruz in 1974, attracted by the location and the unique experimental (at the time) focus on undergraduate education.

Macular degeneration

Since 2000, Aronson has suffered progressively worsening macular degeneration that has rendered him legally blind. He can see shapes but not faces, especially painful for a grandfather with four young granddaughters.

Aronson said he’s been “reading” more than ever these days but now it’s audio books. His blindness led to the memoir. He cannot do book research anymore, cannot “skim five pages in 30 seconds,” but writing an autobiography doesn’t require library research, he said.

A few years ago, Aronson was invited to write a chapter on his life for an American Psychological Association history of psychology. His agent for his previous book - Mistakes were Made (but not by me) (Harcourt, 2007) - wanted to read anything he wrote and read the chapter. The agent insisted it should be a book.

Aronson said he figured it would sell 11 copies, “nine to people named Aronson.”  But, he thought, if nothing else the stories would be a nice present for his grandchildren. 

Turns out, “It’s the most fun I’ve had writing anything.”

A storyteller thrives in his element – telling stories.