Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist Paperback – Aug 7 2012
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"[Aronson] offers a revealing portrait both of himself and of social psychology in the past half-century." (Nature)"
About the Author
Elliot Aronson is the only person in the history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three of its major awards: for distinguished research, distinguished teaching, and distinguished writing. He was chosen by his peers as one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century. Aronson has written or edited twenty-two books, includingThe Handbook of Social Psychology andThe Social Animal, now in its 11th edition. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
My colleague Bob Cialdini recently bequeathed me a copy of Aronson's recent autobiography Not by Chance Alone: My life as a social psychologist. I was seriously behind in all my work, so of course, I felt compelled to pick up Aronson's book and start reading it. To be honest, I didn't expect to like it at first, but just needed a distraction. As it turned out, I couldn't put it down. And not only was I more impressed with Aronson than ever, it didn't make me feel the least bit bad about myself. On the contrary, I felt I could really relate to the guy.
Here's why: Aronson was not, as I'd imagined, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Indeed, his early life was a rough one, marked by poverty and a bad relationship with his father. He was shy and unaccomplished as a young lad, overshadowed by his brilliant older brother. He almost didn't go to college at all, but followed his big brother to Brandeis. When he lost his financial support, Aronson almost dropped out because he couldn't afford to pay for a dorm room. But he spent a semester sleeping in the back seats of cars and managed to make it through.
There's another well-known study of Aronson's that explains my reaction to his book. If you were a subject in that study, you'd have watched another student who was being considered to represent the university on a then well-known television show called The College Quiz Bowl. Not only does the guy get nearly all of a series of difficult questions correct, you learn that he is an honor student, the editor of the yearbook, and a member of the track team - Mr. Perfect. But at one point, Mr. Perfect commits a clumsy blunder, spilling a cup of coffee all over his new suit. The pratfall made this otherwise perfect guy significantly much more likeable. He's admirable, but also human, like you and me.
There's a lot more to like in Aronson's book than just his humanness, though. He's a gifted writer, and he tells a great story not only about his own life, but also about the history of social psychology, the influence of the civil rights movement on psychology, the ominous forces of political correctness on college campuses, and more. There are guest appearances by Stanley Milgram (who ran the classical study in which subjects believed they were following orders to deliver shocks to a fellow with a heart condition) , Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), and the new age guru Baba Ram Dass (who started out as one of Aronson's psychology hard-driven academic colleagues at Harvard). The book works at several levels, and even if you've never taken a social psychology course, you'll find it an uplifting and engaging story.
I just finished reading your autobiography this weekend. In all honesty, when I
signed up for your and Carol's workshop at Esalen, I had no idea who you were.
I knew nothing about the things that you had done professionally in your life,
or how you have influenced society. Even when I got your email invite to
Capitola, I still didn't know who you were, other than this man who taught a
workshop at Esalen. At that workshop, it was the first time I ever heard of
someone named Maslow and about the "pyramid" he developed. My education level
is a high school diploma achieved by attending night school, so I never was
exposed to higher education to gain that kind of knowledge. I've spent most of
my life busy working hard to pull myself up by my boot straps in order to
provide a head start for my children to gain a college education. I am proud to
say that my daughter is the first in my family to attend college.
After reading your autobiography, I feel very privileged to have met you and
have had the opportunity to learn from you. My reasoning is not because you are
a recognized famous person of achievement in your profession. It is because even
though you and I have walked different paths in life, we have had very similar
experiences as people, which I can relate to...I also remember my family's
dinner table at times becoming a battle ground. I've had my share of sleeping
on couches, in cars and campgrounds to survive. I've had my own versions of
people like Jason, Maslow and Festinger in my life too. Even though I am
younger than you, I came of age during the time you describe when you had your
experiences in life. I even had a dream so similar to yours about your brother
and the train station (my dream was of my father on a bicycle, leaving telling
me that I couldn't go with him where he was going...he unexpectedly died soon
after I had my dream) that I was blown away while reading your story.
So, being one who has had to struggle to be successful in achieving a balance in
all aspects of life, I understand what it felt like while reading your words on
the page. The beauty in reading your autobiography is that you've managed to
retain some respect of your roots from which you came. You used your roots in
life, as uncomfortable as they may have been, to launch yourself forward in a
positive manner and not fall backwards because growing to change can be
painful. Respecting our roots, as difficult as they may have been, is what
makes us successful people. Personally, I wouldn't change a thing about my life
because it made me become who I am today.
Thank you for taking the time to share your story. It is something that never
would have been told in a textbook at an educational institution. So, I'd say
that your autobiography's honesty, perhaps like your other academic books, is
another way that you have presented to society the challenge to learn growth.
If you are a scientist or aspiring scientist, this is a treatise on someone who can describe their passion for teaching and research like no other.
If you are looking for inspiration, this is a story of how poverty, shyness, and family difficulties are not manifest destiny. There is plenty of psychological space to shape our personality and our environment.
I was pleasantly surprised at the emotional poignancy of this book and refused to go to sleep until finishing it the day it arrived. My admiration for Aronson has only intensified and I suspect nearly every reader will feel the same.
He is a creative scientist of human behavior continuing and improving on the experimental tradition of one of his mentors, Leon Festinger. And he has designed studies and applied findings to critical problems that non-scientists and societies struggle with every day, e.g. his innovative development of the jigsaw classroom. And he has packaged all of his immense and valuable productivity for his social psychological colleagues, several generations of college students, and the general public with his palatable and accessible writing.
And it is with that same beautiful pen that he puts his life's work together with the fascinating story of his own life -- the lows of an impoverished childhood, including sleeping in the back of parked cars at college, to the heights of academic honors, widely acclaimed books, and possibly most importantly, his cherished marriage and four productive children.
If I may be permitted a personal note, I can offer first hand testimony that what Aronson has accomplished was definitely "not by chance alone." Although we are not friends, our paths intersected at many points over the years. We were both social psychology graduate students at Stanford a few years apart, and we worked with many of the same colleagues. Aronson even offered me an opportunity to join him on the U. Texas faculty in the 60's. We both performed laboratory studies, but wanted our data to impact a broader audience than scientific journal readers. Whereas I finally left academia in partial frustration 25 years ago to pursue an applied career in business and conflict resolution, Elliott Aronson has used his considerable talents to succeed as a teacher, writer, role-model and scientist whose work has benefitted many within academia and the greater human society.
PS: One corollary to the poker/life lesson Elliott learned from his brother Jason (p. 160): Yes it's well not to blame the hand and to play the dealt cards in the best possible manner; however the best strategy for a poor hand is often not to play it at all, instead opting to wait for a better deal. This advice courtesy of Kenny Rogers and the Serenity Prayer.