Lee D. Ross, professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and co-founder of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation (SCICN), died May 14. He was 78.

Lee D. Ross, 1942-2021 (Image credit: Courtesy Josh Ross)

For Ross’s decades of international peace negotiations in the Middle East and Northern Ireland he received the inaugural Stanford Federal Credit Union Professorship, a position created in 2003 to support a faculty member focused on public service and the betterment of the community.

In 1969, Ross began teaching in Stanford’s Department of Psychology even before he had defended his dissertation at Columbia University. Over 52 years at Stanford, he built lifelong friendships with his colleagues, inspired generations of students and cemented his role as one of the world’s most influential social psychologists.

His longtime friend and colleague of 50 years, Mark Lepper, the Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, said Ross “could generate more new ideas in a short time than most people could after days of study.”

Lepper recalled how Ross found inspiration from a close examination of paradoxes and peculiarities in everyday life. This made it “easy for others to study the applications of his ideas to real-world problems and settings outside the laboratory,” Lepper said.

When his Stanford tenure seemed uncertain in 1977, Ross wrote what was essentially his research statement about all his work up to that point in an effort to prove his mettle. It was in that paper, “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,” that Ross coined the term “fundamental attribution error,” referring to the failure to acknowledge the importance of the situation in determining behavior, and which is one of his most lasting contributions to the field, among many. The paper successfully secured Ross’s tenure and has since become one of the most quoted articles in all of social psychology.

Hazel Rose Markus, the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, explained that an idea that knits together many of Lee’s classic findings “is the underestimated power of people’s illusion that they see the world objectively, as it is, while those who have another perspective must be biased, uninformed or irrational.”

One of Ross’s longest-lasting collaborations was the social psychology graduate seminar, History of Social Psychology, that he co-taught with Lepper for 40 years.

Lepper recalls that they started the course in the 1970s as an experiment, but found it so rewarding and so much fun that they kept at it for another 40 years. “We were pleasantly surprised to find that, after a while, students from the schools of Business, Education, Engineering, and departments in Humanities and Sciences were being ‘required’ to take our course by their own programs, and we enjoyed the chance to react to each other’s ideas as times and research topics changed,” Lepper said.

Working to resolve conflict

During his days at Columbia in the late 1960s, Ross found himself acting as an intermediary between the undergraduate antiwar protestors and faculty. Later, at Stanford, a recurring faculty seminar on conflict resolution evolved into the SCICN.

Ross co-founded SCICN in 1984 with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky, economist Kenneth Arrow, law professor Robert Mnookin and game theorist Robert Wilson, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, Emeritus, at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

For three decades, Ross and his SCICN colleagues, especially Byron Bland, engaged in conflict resolution processes with groups like the Community Dialogue in Northern Ireland as well as with individuals and groups in Israel and Palestine.

“Lee always urged students and colleagues ‘to get more of the world into their science and more of their science into the world,’” said Markus, who is also a faculty director of Stanford SPARQ. “This exhortation will continue to inspire and motivate us.”

Master of mentorship

Ross was a lifelong mentor and inspiration to generations of students, leading to a Humanities and Sciences Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1991.

Psychology Professor Jeanne Tsai, ’91, decided to become a psychologist after taking Ross’s Applications of Social Psychology course as an undergraduate and after working with Ross and Lepper on one of their studies related to conflict resolution.

“He helped me think about how to be a better researcher, teacher and mentor. Everyone talks about Lee’s brilliance, but he was also a warm, generous and loyal mentor, colleague and friend. Ever since I was an undergraduate, Lee made the department feel like a second home, and it just won’t be the same without him,” said Tsai, who is also director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab.

Former student Andrew Ward, now a professor at Swarthmore College, recalls that Ross “treated his graduate students like intellectual peers, and he and his wife, Judy, put me up many times at their home in Palo Alto after I graduated. It’s difficult to imagine the Stanford Psychology Department without Lee Ross there. He is quite simply irreplaceable.”

Ross was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994 and the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. He received numerous awards, including the William James Fellow Award from the American Psychological Society and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in recognition of his extensive research on judgment, inferences and decision-making.

Ross authored many highly cited papers and three influential books. He wrote Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment (Prentice-Hall, 1980) and The Person and the Situation: Perspectives from Social Psychology (Pinter and Martin Ltd., second edition 2011) with his long-time collaborator and intellectual partner Richard Nisbett, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan. Ross also wrote The Wisest One in the Room: How You Can Benefit from Social Psychology’s Most Powerful Insights (Free Press, 2015) with his former student Thomas Gilovich, now a professor of psychology at Cornell University.

It was no coincidence

Ross was born in Toronto in 1942. Ross described his parents, both factory workers and children of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants, as “resolutely irreligious” and staunchly Bolshevik, though they never imposed their politics on their son.

Before graduating from the University of Toronto, Ross and his girlfriend, Judy, got married so she could travel with him to New York for graduate school.

During an interview with “Inside the Psychologist’s Studio,” Ross said that as a young man he thought that the good things that happened to him were just “lucky weird things.” He saw it as a lucky encounter that he ran into his advisor who recommended he attend Columbia, where he then happened to meet some of the best researchers in psychology, who then brought him to Stanford when they came.

But, with time, he realized that perhaps these were not coincidences that just happened, but rather results of who he was and what he could do.

When asked what he was most proud of, Ross said it was “doing work that had real-world significance and addressed real-world problems. And at the same time doing research that had a little bit of splash and dash and narrative value.”

Ross is survived by his wife of 56 years, Judy; sons Josh (’94) and Tim; daughters Rebecca (’98) and Katie; and grandchildren Alex (’23), Jonah, Lily, Elisabeth, Madeline, Allison and Bennie.

Media Contacts

Holly Alyssa MacCormick, Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences: hollymac@stanford.edu