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May 3, 1999

A lifetime of curiosity about human motivation garners psychology's top prize for Elliot Aronson

By Jennifer McNulty

Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class or read a best-selling self-help book has been touched by the work of Elliot Aronson, a man whose research has fundamentally shaped our knowledge of what motivates human behavior.

Elliot Aronson
Photo: Jon Kersey

From cognitive dissonance to the causes of interpersonal attraction, Aronson's research has pushed the envelope, often challenging established theories and always addressing important social problems, including prejudice reduction, energy conservation, and AIDS prevention.

One of the most distinguished social psychologists of our time, Aronson, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCSC, will receive the American Psychological Association's 1998-99 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award at the APA's convention in August. Considered the "Nobel Prize of psychology," the award is the highest recognition offered to psychologists for a lifetime of research. Previous recipients include B. F. Skinner, Carl Rogers, Jean Piaget, and Leon Festinger.

Aronson, 67, who came to UCSC in 1974, credits his mentors and students with his success. "I've been very lucky to have had some brilliant teachers and to have worked with some terrific students along the way," said Aronson. "Social psychology has always thrilled me because it is such a wonderful blend of art and science. To tell you the truth, I don't think I'm that smart--I just found the perfect thing in the world for me. I can't imagine I would've been as happy or productive doing anything else."

Aronson has always been very good at working at the intersection of art and science. His first experiment, "The Initiation Experiment," which he did as a graduate student, became a classic in the field. It showed that people who endure severe initiations, such as boot camp or fraternity rites, develop stronger allegiances to the group than those who are admitted after going through mild initiations.

Aronson's findings challenged reinforcement theory, the dominant theory of human behavior at the time, which contends that behavior is motivated by rewards and punishment. His study revealed the critical role of self-justification, showing that the more hardship people endure, the more they'll be motivated to justify those hardships by focusing their attention on the most attractive aspects of that group and downplaying the least attractive aspects. A powerful study, it quickly became one of the most frequently cited articles in the psychological literature.

"Most major researchers produce one experiment of that magnitude in their lifetime, if they are lucky, but Elliot Aronson has done that level of work regularly throughout his career," said his colleague Anthony Pratkanis, a professor of psychology at UCSC. "His work has fundamentally changed the way we look at human behavior."

One of Aronson's major contributions was a refinement of the theory of cognitive dissonance, which first revealed how people strive to alter their attitudes to conform to their actions. The theory asserts that people will experience discomfort, or dissonance, if their actions are inconsistent with their beliefs, and, in order to reduce that discomfort, will find a way to resolve the conflict.

Aronson refined what was originally a rather loose theory by showing that individuals are particularly motivated to resolve conflict if it reflects poorly on their concept of themselves as moral and competent people. This reformulation was of immense importance, foreshadowing the role of the self in much of social psychology and shifting the focus away from behaviorism and group dynamics.

The APA award recognizes Aronson's contributions to basic research, the brilliance of his experimental style, and his courage to investigate difficult phenomena--a style that some of his peers have called "audacious."

"I believe that with sufficient ingenuity, almost any phenomenon can be tested in the laboratory," said Aronson.

Mark Lepper, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, said Aronson is "a genius at creating precisely the right laboratory scenarios to test his hypotheses." For example, in the initiation experiment, conducted while he was at Stanford in 1959, Aronson created a scenario in which undergraduate women thought they were joining a discussion group about sex. As part of the screening process for selection to the group, the women were placed in one of two experimental conditions. In one condition, they were asked to read a list of mildly explicit sexual words aloud, while the other group read very explicit "forbidden words."

Individuals in each group were told that they passed the screening and were invited to join the discussion group, which Aronson made deliberately boring and unappealing. During subsequent evaluations of the group, however, the group of women who'd undergone the more severe initiation consistently rated it much higher than did the mild-initiation group. "The results were crystal clear," said Aronson.

Lee Ross, a professor of psychology at Stanford and a distinguished researcher, says that when he is designing an experiment, he would rather spend ten minutes with Aronson than an hour with anyone else.

Indeed, Aronson's masterful style of experimentation has inspired a generation of social psychologists. But his dedication to lab work is matched by an unparalleled interest in applying his research findings to the "real world," where they have helped improve people's lives. "I don't want simply to observe," said Aronson. "I want to determine precisely what's causing a phenomenon, and if it's a situation that is impacting people's lives negatively, I want to take the next step and create an intervention that makes things better."

Aronson's revolutionary work on reducing classroom prejudice, known as "The Jigsaw Classroom," produced groundbreaking findings on how to overcome the racial, gender, and socioeconomic divisions that occur in American classrooms. Aronson's technique requires students to interact as equals in a cooperative, interdependent manner, as opposed to in the kind of competitive atmosphere that permeates many classrooms.

"When the structure of the classroom is set up so that students must cooperate with one another in order to do well, they begin to see positive things in each other that they wouldn't have seen while competing against each other," said Aronson. "This creates a climate where prejudicial attitudes can begin to fade." Over the past 25 years, "The Jigsaw Classroom" has had a major impact on classrooms across the country.

That research was followed by experiments that revealed ways to use peer pressure to encourage energy conservation, and, most recently, how to convince sexually active teenagers to use condoms as a way of protecting themselves from AIDS.

"Among academic theorists and researchers, he's unique in his willingness to step out of the basic laboratory and into the applied realm, as well," said Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. "Not only has his research shed light on the basic question of how the human mind works, but he is also willing to ask--and answer--the question: What does this finding mean for people outside of the experimental situation? Elliot believes that society deserves the fruits of those investigations."

The condom research is among Aronson's personal favorites, in part because of its rich blend of basic and applied research. The experiment uses people's aversion to hypocrisy as a way to motivate them to use condoms. Subjects take on the role of peer educators, making a video speech encouraging fellow students to use condoms. They are then reminded of their own failure to use condoms. This creates feelings of hypocrisy, which generates sufficient psychological tension so that the subjects are motivated to change their ways to reduce the discomfort they feel about the difference between "what they practice and what they preach." The only way to remove these feelings of hypocrisy is to start using condoms regularly.

In addition to his research and applied work, however, Aronson's mentorship of students has made a significant contribution to the field of social psychology, said John Cacciopo, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University who served on the APA committee that selected Aronson to receive the award. "He is a wonderful mentor," noted Cacciopo. "His former students are now among the leading researchers in the field. His mentoring behavior extends even beyond his students."

Aronson, who continues to teach at UCSC, is currently working on a book about self-compassion. "I'm enjoying the luxury of trying to synthesize a wide variety of disparate research into a coherent picture," he said.

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