Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology, dies at 85
He witnessed and survived some of the worst of human behavior to become one of the world’s leading experts on how people behave.
And during the 85 years between his birth in Poland and death Dec. 3 in Palo Alto—a span that led him through Nazi bombings and prisons before winding toward a life in academia—Robert Zajonc laid the foundation for the field of social psychology by exploring the connections between how people feel and how they think.
As an emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford since 1994, Zajonc (his name rhymes with “science”), focused his research on genocide, racism and terrorism.
He had already made a name for himself while teaching at the University of Michigan, conducting groundbreaking experiments that attracted controversy and acclaim.
As the scientist who demonstrated and coined the “mere exposure effect,” Zajonc found that people have positive feelings about things they’re familiar with. In a series of studies in the 1960s, Zajonc flashed random images in front of his subjects—Chinese characters, faces and geometric figures. When asked which images they liked the most, the subjects picked the ones they saw the most.
Zajonc also made news a decade later when he found that larger families have lower overall IQ scores than smaller ones. His studies showed that IQs would decline among siblings from the oldest to the youngest. Part of the reason, he explained, was that older children had more time to receive the undivided attention of their parents.
He found that first-borns do better on college entrance exams, and older children who tutor their little brothers and sisters get the biggest benefit out of the arrangement.
“Explaining something to a younger sibling solidifies your knowledge and allows you to grow more extensively,” he told the New York Times last year. “The younger one is asking questions, and challenging meanings and explanations, and that will contribute to the intellectual maturity of the older one.”
These were the conclusions of an only child who triumphed over the most difficult situations, finally succumbing to the pancreatic cancer that he fought for the last few years.
Born in Lodz in 1923, Zajonc and his parents fled to Warsaw in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. They moved into a relative’s apartment, but the building was bombed two weeks after they arrived. Zajonc’s parents were killed, and his legs were broken.
After recuperating in a hospital for six months, the 16-year-old was arrested by Nazi soldiers for not having any identification papers and was sent to a German labor camp. Put to work on a farm, he managed to escape with two other prisoners in 1942. They walked more than 200 miles into France, but were recaptured by the Germans after crossing the border and sent to a French prison.
He again staged a breakout with another prisoner, and the two walked for about 550 miles, stealing food and clothes before finding a fisherman who brought them to Ireland. From there, Zajonc made his way to England, where he worked as a translator for the U.S. Army.
After World War II, he came to the United States and earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan. It was there that he established himself as a leading psychologist and met wife, Hazel Rose Markus, who is the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.
Along with showing how family structure influences intellectual performance and proving that people prefer things they are familiar with, Zajonc’s work at Michigan also found that people who do something well do it even better with others watching. But they’re more likely to make mistakes doing a new task in front of others as opposed to working alone.
He also studied married couples and determined that, after years of unconsciously mimicking one another’s facial expressions, husbands and wives start looking alike.
Zajonc retired from Michigan in 1994 and became an emeritus professor at Stanford. He remained active, urging interdisciplinary research on massacres and analyzing responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In addition to Markus, Zajonc is survived by their daughter, Krysia Zajonc, of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica; three sons from a previous marriage, Peter Zajonc of Nyack, N.Y., Michael Zajonc of Leuven, Belgium, and Joseph Zajonc of Seattle; and four grandchildren.