I wouldn't have guessed I had much in common with Elliot Aronson. From a distance, he doesn't seem like a regular guy, even if that regular guy is also a social psychologist. Aronson's always been the kind of guy that makes for annoyingly unfavorable social comparisons: His first job was at Harvard, and his last job was at Stanford. When he was a student, his advisors were: Abraham Maslow, David McClelland, and Leon Festinger. Each of those three not only made a list of the top 100 figures in 20th century psychology, they were all in the top fifteen. His book the Social Animal has likely sold millions of copies over the years, and is still in print - in its 10th edition. Look up that book at Amazon, and you'll discover that Aronson is "the only person in the 110 year history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three of its major awards: Distinguished Research (1999), Distinguished Teaching (1980), and Distinguished Writing (1975)." Oh, not to mention the Gordon Allport Prize and the Donald Campbell Award. According to Google Scholar, a single paper of his -- on the "Jigsaw Classroom" -- has been cited 1650 times. Aronson has several classic research findings, including a study with Judson Mills that demonstrated that people become more committed to a group when they have to suffer to get in. Another paper with Darwyn Linder found that we like other people less if they are nice to us from the beginning than if they start out disliking us, then come around to our side. Both of these papers challenged the simple reinforcement view of behavior that was dominant in psychology when Aronson entered the field. Aronson's chapter on research methods in social psychology is also a classic. A couple of decades ago I met Aronson at a conference and there was something else about him that made social comparison even more unfavorable than all his success - he was handsomer than most of us mortal schmoes. Oscar Wilde said that people will forgive you for anything but your success. In that light, Aronson could be seen as unforgivable.
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.