NOT BY CHANCE ALONE by Elliot Aronson


My Life as a Social Psychologist
Email this review


A titan in his field recounts professional and personal achievements.

Growing up impoverished in a hardscrabble Boston suburb, Aronson never dreamed that one day he would teach at Harvard, let alone be considered one of the preeminent psychologists of the 20th century. The son of a Russian émigré who lost everything in the Depression, the author describes himself as a “painfully shy” and bullied boy always compared unfavorably to his star sibling, Jason. His brother nurtured him, however, imparting many valuable life lessons and insisting that he attend college despite financial hardship and poor grades. In perhaps his first social-learning experiment, Aronson decided to act “as if” he were outgoing and relaxed his first semester at Brandeis. This strategy was effective, and with newfound popularity came increased confidence. Always interested in the basis of others’ beliefs, allegiances and opinions, he selected social psychologist Leon Festinger—famous for his theory of cognitive dissonance—as his mentor, and then designed an experiment that emphasized self-concept, transforming the focus of this field of study. During the next five decades, Aronson remained at the center of dynamic developments in the field. This warm, humble and brilliant man takes pride as much in being a successful teacher, husband, father and friend as in his academic accomplishments. He peppers the narrative with amusing anecdotes about luminaries and colleagues such as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass), who asked for his help with the design of their LSD experiments. A humanist who led encounter groups in the ’70s and created the jigsaw classroom to address discrimination in the era of enforced school desegregation in Texas, the author demonstrates dramatically the real-world impact of research. His descriptions of experimental design and theory are thorough yet accessible to the average reader, but it is his profound insights, observations and compassion that make this a fascinating read.

An illuminating account of how a great thinker with insatiable curiosity overcame a difficult childhood through his love of social science.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-465-01833-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2010