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Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist [Hardcover]

Elliot Aronson
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Book Description

9 Sep 2010
How does a boy from a financially and intellectually impoverished background grow up to become a Harvard researcher, win international acclaim for his groundbreaking work, and catch fire as a pioneering psychologist? As the only person in the history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three of its highest honors--for distinguished research, teaching, and writing-- Elliot Aronson is living proof that humans are capable of capturing the power of the situation and conquering the prison of personality. A personal and compelling look into Aronson's profound contributions to the field of social psychology, Not by Chance Alone is a lifelong story of human potential and the power of social change.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (9 Sep 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465018335
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465018338
  • Product Dimensions: 24.6 x 16.5 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,115,623 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Elliot Aronson is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of California in Santa Cruz. He has long-standing research interests in social influence and attitude change, cognitive dissonance, research methodology, and interpersonal attraction. Professor Aronson's experiments are aimed both at testing theory and at improving the human condition by influencing people to change dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors.
Professor Aronson received his B.A. from Brandeis University in 1954, his M.A. from Wesleyan University in 1956, and his Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University in 1959. He has taught at Harvard University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas, and the University of California. In 1999, he won the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, making him the only psychologist to have won APA's highest awards in all three major academic categories: distinguished writing (1973), distinguished teaching (1980), and distinguished research (1999).

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Kirkus Reviews "[Aronson's] 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." Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, author of Stumbling on Happiness "An engaging and beautifully written account by one of the great social psychologists of our time. From the rags his father sold to the intellectual riches he would someday discover, Aronson's story is a quintessentially American inspiration." Phoebe C. Ellsworth, Frank Murphy Distinguished University Professor of Law and Psychology, University of Michigan "Elliot Aronson is a great social psychologist and a great man. In the beginning his life was poor and cramped, and this book is the story of how he used every new experience to make it richer and more fulfilling. We see his mind ever expanding to embrace the joy and responsibility of love, scientific rigor, the brilliant synthesis of precision and imagination in his psychological experiments, the application of psychology to pressing social problems, and finally, the loss of his eyesight - but never of his vision. And, as always, he writes beautifully, with honesty, humor, and insight." Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works "This is an autobiography with a difference. Not only is it a warm and graceful memoir of a gifted man who helped to shape the science of social life, but it is informed by insights from that very field. Elliot Aronson, more than any living person, knows that the stories we tell about ourselves are apt to be dubious and self-serving, and so his reflections on his own life are layered with reflections on how we reflect on our lives. The result is an immensely enjoyable and informative memoir." Phil Zimbardo, Ph.D., author of The Lucifer Effect "Elliot Aronson is our modern day Horatio Alger as revealed in this charmingly inviting memoir of a childhood in rags to intellectual riches as one of psychology's premier contributors. This master storyteller weaves his personal narrative in and around the events and people that marked his life path that was destined for greatness, without help from the vicissitudes of chance." Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr., Ph.D., Presidential Professor of Teaching Excellence, Professor of Psychology, Texas A&M University "Arguably Elliot Aronson is first and foremost a very gifted teacher. The clarity he brings to that enterprise is evident in his success as a distinguished researcher and as a writer (witness the enormous popularity of his engaging treatise on social psychology, The Social Animal). And it is well manifested in this fascinating life story of a professor's quest to improve the human condition by understanding the social forces that so powerfully influence our lives. For those interested in an inside look at the joys and frustrations of an intellectual life, this book is a wonderful read." Gordon H. Bower, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University "Not by Chance Alone describes the inspiring odyssey of one of the most eminent social psychologists of our times. Readers will admire the honest, witty, wise, and beautiful memoir of Aronson's rich life that is filled with brilliant scientific insights, powerful teaching, and humane compassion." Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor, University of California-Irvine, Past President of the Association for Psychological Science "Absolutely wonderful. Elliot Aronson has long shown that he can write engagingly for a wide audience, and in Not by Chance Alone he has outdone himself. Not only was I captivated by Aronson's truly inspirational life story, but I also learned so much about the people, theories, and experiments that helped define the field of social psychology." Gardner Lindzey, Editor of The Handbook of Social Psychology from 1954-2010 "If they ever get around to awarding a Nobel Prize in social psychology, I believe Elliot Aronson will be its first recipient. His ideas are creative, his experiments are elegant and his findings are of great importance." Thomas F. Pettigrew, Research Professor of Social Psychology, University of California-Santa Cruz "Aronson's candid autobiography is an instructive and enjoyable read. In addition, the volume offers an informed perspective on the sweeping development of social psychology as a discipline over the past six decades." Robert B. Cialdini, Author of Influence: Science and Practice "Elliot Aronson's done it again-revealed deep human insights from a deeply human story." Publishers Weekly "The intricacies of the human psyche-and one man's inquisitive mind-are illuminated in this shrewd, warm-hearted memoir" "Aronson's message-'People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy'-comes through with both analytic clarity and emotional resonance." Douglas Kenrick,"Fascinating memoir from a stellar social psychologist...Aronson is 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." Jewish Journal "A courageous effort to answer some of the most fundamental questions of human destiny." Nature "Aronson offers a revealing portrait both of himself and of social psychology in the past half-century." The Bookwatch "Aronson's autobiography documents his life and era in an inspirational, moving account recommended for general to college-level libraries." "What makes Not by Chance Alone unique is Aronson's talent as a storyteller...He crafts dozens of stories that are as rich in imagery as they are in substance."

About the Author

Elliot Aronson was chosen by his peers as one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century. He has written or edited twenty-two books, including The Handbook of Social Psychology and The Social Animal, now in its 11th edition. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eliot Aroson at his best 9 Mar 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I was an undergraduate in psychology in the mid 1970's and one of my most frequently used books for study was the Social Animal - it still represents one of the best social psychology book ever written and is now in its 11th edition or so. Not by Chance Alone is a good title because it represents a statement of just what can be achieved with hard work, ability, and good fortune, all of which came together in abunance in Eliot's life. After I read it, I emailed Eliot thanking him for another comtempory masterpiece, but suggesting that I now await Vera's verson of events.Vera is Eliot's wife and the person he dedicates all his books to with the simple phrase 'to Vera of course', something that appealed to me when I first read The Socia animal in 1976. I received a reply from Eliot almost by return. The book is full of what humanity can achieve for the good of all and by the carefull studying and experimentation of complex social problems, sometimes surprisingly simple explanations can be found. It is a book tht describes many of the most important developments in psychology over the past 60 years, written be one of psychology's greatest researchers and writers.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Best Book I've Read in Ages 4 May 2013
This books is a classic. Prof Aronson weaves a combination of beautiful personal stories, interesting thoughts and lucid explanations of his contributions to psychology. One of the stories was so poignant that after reading it, during my walks, I had to return home. Prof Aronson's explanations of various psychological theories have helped me make sense of many of my own experiences, and has been useful in analysing and understanding human behaviour.
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By DigiTAL
As a psychologist Elliot Aronson is perhaps best known for his work on "cognitive dissonance". This is the idea that, when actions and thoughts conflict -- ie are "dissonant" -- an uncomfortable situation is created that can often be most easily resolved by a change in opinion. Probably the best known example of this phenomenon is that of smokers willfully ignoring the side-effects of their habit. Another example was observed in the field by Aronson's teacher Leon Festinger in "When Prophecy Failed", when a UFO cult expected the end of the world, and had to invent a string of increasingly bizarre explanations for their failed prediction.

The great advantage of the experimental method is that it's the only way to isolate true causal factors. By holding all other factors constant in the lab you can remove competing explanations. The trouble with anacedotal evidence, as in Freud's theories or in Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends And Influence People, is that there's no true causal evidence. Maybe A causes B. But maybe B causes A? And what if some third factor, C, causes both A and B?

Aronson explains a great experiment which showed a counterintuitive prediction of cognitive dissonance, one that runs counter to Dale Carnegie's idea that people will help you if they like you. The trick is to get someone to do something taxing for you first. This can create dissonance, as why would they do something that you asked if they don't like you? The easiest way to resolve the dissonance is for them to in fact start liking you more. In this example the causation runs in the opposite direction to what might intuitively seem plausible -- and this could only be found out via experimentation.

All this says nothing of the human element of Aronson's memoirs. Autobiographies are always interesting but I really enjoyed this one.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating autobiography from a stellar psychologist 18 Sep 2010
By Douglas T. Kenrick - Published on
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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life Lived Well 26 Aug 2010
By DS - Published on
NOT BY CHANCE ALONE is in many ways like another autobiography I admire: Ben Franklin's. The title of Aronson's book invites the comparison. Like Franklin, Aronson's life is full of very good luck--who he meets and when. But luck would do him little good if he didn't, like Franklin, have the opportunistically elegant temperament to take advantage of being in the right place at the right time. Aronson is positive, empathic, curious and engaged. He is a terrific candidate for mentoring; and, in turn, becomes a terrific mentor. In this book we learn a lot about social psychology, the discipline Aronson celebrates by using it to address major social issues. We learn, also, that Aronson's "life as a social scientist" is a life lived well, garlanded by intellectual and ethical commitment.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an insider's guide to harmonious passion 10 Sep 2010
By Todd B. Kashdan - Published on
I was fortunate that a copy of this book randomly landed in my mailbox from the publisher. I have never met Aronson but he is one of the scientists that inspired me to become a scientist. However, knowing nothing about the man himself, I read this book with some trepidation. I quickly learned that this is not a self-serving, self-promotion autobiography. Rather, this is an insider's guide for how an eminent social scientist came to be. Aronson is a fantastic narrator who describes his difficult upbringing and the challenges in his life with exquisite details. This includes a fantastic array of characters that influenced him (Maslow, McClelland, Festinger) and befriended him (Ram Dass, Maurice Sendak).

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.

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science, Practice, & Presentation = A Magnificent Contribution 28 Dec 2010
By Alan E. Gross - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is the capstone of Elliot Aronson's magnificent lifework that combines theory and practice. He has in a single lifetime woven together several successful careers without sacrificing thoughtfulness or quality.

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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An open email to Elliot from Ron... 23 Sep 2010
By Ron Vilarino - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Elliot -

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.



Ron Vilarino
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