PERSONALITY & SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY
Richard Nisbett was born in West Texas and schooled at Tufts and Columbia, where he earned his PhD working with Stanley Schachter. He taught at Yale from 1966 to 1971 and then was recruited to the University of Michigan, his current home, by Bob Zajonc. His early work advanced the field’s understanding of causal attribution processes, sparking productive research that continues to this day on self-other differences in inference and on the limits of introspection and self-report. Along with Lee Ross, he later greatly expanded the study of causal attribution processes in Human Inference, which combined insights from social psychology with ideas from the emerging field of judgment and decision making to offer a penetrating examination of how people interpret the past, understand the present, and predict the future. That work was followed up a decade later with Ross and Nisbett’s, The Person and the Situation, which argued that human social behavior can be best understood in terms of three broad themes—situationism, construal, and the Lewinian idea of tension systems.
Nisbett went on to examine the rules people follow when tackling difficult problems of induction and deduction, and how their ability to follow abstract rules can be improved through formal instruction. This gave way to a broader interest in intelligence and how it can be enhanced (summarized in his book Intelligence and How to Get It) that continues to this day. Beginning in the 1990s, Nisbett has played an important role in focusing social psychologists’ attention on the importance of cultural determinants of human behavior. His work on culture has featured his characteristic methodological virtuosity and flair, and produced two notable trade books, The Geography of Thought and Culture of Honor.
Nisbett is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, and a winner of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, the William James Award from the Association for Psychological Science, and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.
As a top researcher in the field, Dick expects his students to excel to their greatest potential. He is genuinely caring and devoted to his students. It is an honor to be the student of such an inspirational and compassionate researcher. The fact that Dick has produced such a large number of excellent PhD students, so many of whom have gone on to become influential researchers themselves, is a testament to his excellent mentorship.
Dick is rightly known for his genius at both experimental craftsmanship and theoretical integration. His culture-of-honor-inspired game of “chicken” in the hallways of the Psychology Department is but one representative example of his deft methodological touch. Human Inference and The Person and the Situation speak loudly and clearly to his theoretical gifts. But there are two other things that everyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of working with Dick should know about him. First, he’s hilarious. One can sense that from his writing, of course, but it’s even more in evidence in person. Second, if James Brown was the “hardest working man in show business,” Dick Nisbett is “the James Brown of social psychology.” Collaborations work best when all parties are willing to do a bit more than their share and in this respect and many others, Dick is an exceptional collaborator! Putting all of these dispositions (can I say that?) together, imagine how much fun—and how much of an honor—it has been to sit down with Dick and discuss the broad field of social psychology and allied behavioral sciences in order to map out what a textbook in social psychology might look like. How did I get so lucky?
I first met Dick when I became his colleague at the University of Michigan almost 2 decades ago. Being a brand new Assistant Professor and occupying the office next to Dick Nisbett--this was a bit of a surreal experience. My memories of Dick during my short time at UM are fond--he was supportive, a team player, well-regarded by the graduate students and his colleagues alike--but not extensive. This is one reason why, about 3-4 years ago, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to collaborate with Dick on his social psychology textbook (co-authored with Tom Gilovich and Dacher Keltner, and now me). Dick's ideas and insights, and contributions to our field, are well-known and greatly admired, but what many people might not know is that Dick is a person of enormous humor and warmth, which I have had the pleasure to experience time and time again in working on the textbook together. He doesn't mince words, but takes others' words and opinions seriously. I feel so fortunate to have gotten this second opportunity to learn from and simply hang out with Dick.
I arrived in Ann Arbor in 1973 after graduating from a small liberal arts college, knowing very little about research. Dick accepted to me in his lab and—to my amazement—treated me as an intellectual equal in our quest to answer questions about the limits of human consciousness. By that I don’t mean he abdicated his role as the expert researcher who was teaching a newbie the ropes. What was so amazing was that we would sit in his office for hours at a time talking about ideas, and he clearly valued what I had to say. I’m sure that the ratio of good to ridiculous ideas was quite low in my case, but Dick skillfully drew out the good ones and taught me how to play with them and, eventually, bottle them into experiments. All of Dick’s students learned to love these conversations. Indeed, it is great fun to talk with Dick about any topic, but especially gratifying to play with questions about people and situations and boil them down into testable hypotheses.
Another thing Dick taught me was that thinking like a psychologist is not just a vocation, but a way of life. Personal experiences of all sorts were grist for hypotheses and theory, and thinking about ideas was not a 9-5 job. This became clear to me one Saturday morning during the time Dick and I were working on the Nisbett and Wilson (1977) Psych Review paper. I lived in a group house with several roommates, and I think we had had a party the night before, because I had just rolled out of bed, bleary eyed, when the phone rang. One of my roommates said it was for me, and there was Dick on the line, wanting some feedback on a paragraph he had just written for our paper. “Wow,” I remember thinking to myself, “this is serious business.” Social psychology would not have become my calling without Dick’s expert guidance, for which I will always be grateful.
My life would not be the same if it weren’t for the influence that Dick has had on me as a person and as a psychologist. Working with Dick’s brilliant scientific mind profoundly shaped how I think about the human condition. Dick is the real McCoy!
Mazel tov! This is yet another well-deserved honor. Not only has your work shaped the fields of human inference and cultural psychology, but you have profoundly influenced my career and the careers of a very large and distinguished group of social and cultural psychologists doing and teaching science in this country and abroad. Folks need to know why working with you has been so significant for me and others.
Here are a few reasons:
First, you treated me from Day #1 in an egalitarian, collegial manner, with respect, and as someone who had something to contribute to our work together despite my being really wet behind the ears on all counts at the start. In contrast to what I expected from the so-called “apprenticeship model of graduate training,” with you there was not a whiff of hierarchical treatment, not a whiff that my task was to listen, keep my head down, and merely do what I was told to do. You regarded me, as you have regarded all of your graduate advisees, as a full partner in the enterprise.
Second, I learned an enormous amount from you back in graduate school that I have emulated and passed on to my own graduate advisees. Several “lessons” out of many stand out in the context of your mentorship. Philosophically, you urged us to be intellectually fearless and imaginative, to pursue research questions with vigor and a sound scientific thoroughness. You emphasized that we should always be respectful of precedent in the field, but at the same time not be beholden to it. Knowing “the literature” was crucial, but one also had to be wary of the ways in which overly close adherence to precedents in normal science at times can constrain the development of new ideas and on one’s ability to break set on approaches to established research questions.
Third, from you I learned that there was no privileged “starting point” when thinking about and doing research in social psychology. Inspiration can come from being knowledgeable about pertinent work in other sub-fields of psychology or from other disciplines. You urged us (and I have conveyed to my own students) the importance of casting the net widely when framing research questions; draw from past and current theory and research, to be sure, but also trust your intuitions about human nature and your experiences in life to shape your own contributions. Anchor on theory and move forward, for example, or anchor on your informed hunches but then shape and test your hunches and proceed – both are valuable approaches in scientific inquiry and are by no means mutually exclusive.
Another “lesson” that I learned from you that shaped my approach to research since I joined the Minnesota faculty in 1976 is to seek the research questions that you are intrinsically interested in, that fascinate you. Specifically, these may lead to a single program of research that defines your scholarly reputation in the field over the course of your career, but it is equally fine, in the Nisbett tradition, if one moves from problem domain to problem domain, or if one establishes more than one program of research, as long as one brings the above-described distinctive qualities and standards of excellence to bear on the questions at hand. My own career is best characterized by the latter style of research, and I feel I am no worse for the wear, at least in my humble and utterly biased view.
Finally, you have been a colleague and confidant ever since I departed Ann Arbor. Now into our fifth decade together, you have always been most generous and gracious with your time and friendship, always willing to listen and provide your two cents whether the issues are professional or personal. For me, after all this time, when I need advice, I still call you first. I suspect I am not alone in this regard among the rather large community of terrific scholars who have worked with you. As you well know, there is a high level of affection and respect that we all maintain for you. There is the wonderful realization that you mentored all of us in a way that we instantly recognize and unhesitatingly attribute to our respective career successes. Yet it is also crystal clear that each and every one of us somehow established our own individualized and personal relationship with you that you continue to nourish and that we all cherish immensely.
Dick has influenced my life in so many ways. His visionary and elegant lines of work on human inference, spanning over five decade, inspired me to pursue my career in the United States to begin with. In graduate school, he taught me not only how to think and write in an analytic and linear way, but also the importance of not being afraid to take risks and go beyond disciplinary boundaries both conceptually and methodologically. His scholarship and mentorship have greatly shaped the way I think and conduct research. I feel very fortunate to have had him as my mentor.
Dick’s contributions to social psychology are stunning for their breadth and their depth. I think his greatest strength is his intuition, his ability to see an interesting idea (that engages his aesthetic as well as his scientific sense), and the raw insight he has into problems and paradoxes. These are the abilities that have allowed Dick to make contributions to so many disparate areas – the study of obesity, the study of how humans think about their social world and particularly their shortcomings in doing so, the study of reasoning, and the study of culture. The Dick Nisbett in the obesity research and the Dick Nisbett in the social cognition research are so different that one might conclude there must be two R. E. Nisbetts – except that the work in both cases has the same quality of penetrating insight. The Dick Nisbett in the papers on reasoning and the Dick Nisbett in the study of culture must be different people – except that in both cases, the author has managed to completely change the way you think about the issues. What’s remarkable about Dick is that his contributions have ranged so widely across the field, united not by a common theme or methodology but by a quality of brilliant intuition that few can match.
Further Donations are always welcome, whether to honor Richard Nisbett or another psychologist. Be sure to leave a note regarding which mentor you would like to donate for and any testimonial you might like to give.
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