Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 stars Autobiography of an experimental social psychologist, 8 Mar 2012
This review is from: Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist (Hardcover)
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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