Join | Login

Printer friendly page

In Memoriam

Bob Zajonc
By Richard Moreland

Robert B. Zajonc, an eminent social psychologist whose work influenced many SPSSI members, died recently of pancreatic cancer at his home near Stanford University. Bob was 85. He is survived by his wife, Hazel Markus, and their daughter, Krysia. Bob also had three sons (Peter, Michael, Joseph) from an earlier marriage to Donna Benson, and through those three children, several grandchildren.

Bob spent most of his academic career at the University of Michigan, where he first earned a doctoral degree in Psychology and then joined that department’s faculty. Bob’s time at Michigan was spent mostly at the University’s Institute for Social Research, where he worked in the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD). Bob served as the director of RCGD from 1983 to 1988.

I first met Bob in the summer of 1973, when I began my own graduate training. Bob was my graduate advisor at Michigan from start to finish. Although my impact on Bob was small, his impact on me was large. In fact, it was almost impossible for anyone to spend time with Bob without experiencing significant changes as a result. I was thus happy for this chance to say a few words about Bob, from a SPSSI perspective.

Although Bob belonged to SPSSI, he was not an especially active member. Much of Bob’s research was basic, rather than applied, and he had little patience for the kinds of administrative activities that active membership in a large organization like SPSSI often entails. And yet I think Bob had an impact on SPSSI, not least because of his research. After all, SPSSI is a scientific organization, as well as a humanitarian one – we want to help solve the world’s social problems, but good science is needed to accomplish that goal. It would be difficult to think of any psychologist who has produced more and better science than did Bob Zajonc. Bob is associated with the identification and clarification of several important social phenomena, including social facilitation/inhibition, the effects of stimulus exposure on attitude formation and change, the many ways in which a family’s structure can influence its children’s intellectual development, and the interplay between cognition and affect. Many of us would be proud to have accomplished as much as Bob did in just one of these research areas; to accomplish this repeatedly, in distinct areas of research, is difficult to imagine. And though Bob’s research seldom focused on social issues, it is not difficult to see linkages between his research and efforts by others to help solve such issues. Consider, for example, the key role that exposure effects play in the contact hypothesis, which underlies many attempts to improve intergroup relations.

I also believe that Bob lived a very SPSSI kind of life. That is, he embodied many of the attitudes and behaviors that our organization endorses. Bob was a true “citizen of the world.” He was always knowledgeable about, and cared deeply about, what was going on in other countries, and he always did whatever he could, whenever he could, to improve things in that regard. I suspect that this had something to do with Bob’s early life – he was born in Poland, but was forced to leave there with his parents in 1939, in response to the Nazi invasion. Bob’s parents were both killed during that trip and Bob himself was seriously injured. During the next few years, Bob was in and out of prison camps in Germany and France, until he finally escaped to England, where he worked as a translator for American forces during the European campaign. When the war ended, Bob worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Paris and, then moved to the United States.

During that remarkable journey, from Poland to the United States, Bob received considerable help from others, and he paid those favors “forward” many times over as years went by, helping other people from several parts of the world come to the United States and adjust to life here. In fact, during my time at Michigan, I frequently saw Bob welcome such persons into his home (often for long periods), loan them money, assist them in applying for fellowships and scholarships, introduce them to influential people, and so on. Analogous efforts occurred at a more formal level. For example, Bob worked in various ways to bring social psychology to academic institutions in Eastern Europe. In the early 1970s, he helped to organize a special conference in Hungary at which social psychologists from both sides of the Iron Curtain met to discuss issues of mutual interest and plan possible research collaborations. And in the 1980s, Bob was instrumental in helping the Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor to set up a sister institution (the Center for Social Research) at the University of Warsaw.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, no one who met Bob was left unchanged, and in that way, SPSSI may also have been affected. Bob was a colleague, during his early years at Michigan, of many people who were very active in SPSSI, and I believe that some of their work for the organization was shaped by Bob, at least indirectly. Bob also trained many graduate students over the years, some of whom went on to play leadership roles in SPSSI (e.g., Beth Shinn), and Bob probably affected their work for the organization as well, perhaps in subtle ways.  Well, I could go on, but it’s time to finish this and move forward, as best I can. I miss Bob already, a problem that I’m sure will only get worse as years go by. I wish more of you had been blessed with the opportunity to meet Bob and maybe even work with him. Bob was one of a kind – there are few other people out there like him and certainly no one who can replace him. Bob’s death is a terrible loss to social psychology and to SPSSI.

Contents page                     Previous page / Next page