December 5, 2008

Robert Zajonc (1923 - 2008)

This is unfortunate news for social psychologists. I just found out that Robert Zajonc, an early contributor to social psychology and simply a superstar of the field, died Wednesday (Dec. 3rd).

Amazingly, I still haven't found an obituary for him. Actually, I was searching for a paper of his and went to the Social Psychology Network profile previously linked, and that's how I found out. Not something that I was expecting.

Robert Zajonc was (and still is) an important figure in the field of social psychology. He held positions at the University of Michigan as the director to both, the Institute for Social Research and the Research Center for Group Dynamics. He later joined Stanford University, eventually becoming Professor Emeritus of Psychology.

He is known for his research in a myriad of areas, but what I perhaps know best is his work on the mere exposure effect (the tendency to like something more after being repeatedly exposed to it). In 1968, Zajonc conducted 3 studies showing that the more people were exposed to stimuli, such as Turkish words, Chinese characters and yearbook photographs, the more they liked them. This effect even occurs in animals, like chickens (Zajonc et al., 1973).

Another area that Zajonc was an early contributor to was social facilitation theory. At the time (1960's), research was showing that people performed better on certain tasks if they were in the presence of others. Yet, at the same time, research also showed that people performed worse on tasks if in the presence of others (known as social loafing). Zajonc offered an explanation for these seemingly contradictory findings, proposing a "dominant response" theory of social facilitation. He explained that being in the presence of others causes physiological arousal. For instance, imagine giving a lecture in front of 100 people. You'll probably breathe faster, have a faster heart beat, sweat, etc. Zajonc believed that this arousal causes people to react in situations with their most dominant response. In other words, when we are in the presence of others, we'll feel heightened arousal, and this arousal will provoke behaviors that we most commonly elicit or display in the given situation. Take the following example, say you usually choose to drink coke over sweet tea, even though sometimes you do in fact enjoy a glass of tea. Then choosing coke is your dominant response. So when others are present, you will be even more likely to choose coke over sweet tea.

Zajonc's theory helps explain why the presence of others can help or hinder your performance on certain tasks. With tasks that seem simple or familiar, your dominant response is to perform well. On the other hand, with unfamiliar or difficult tasks your dominant response is to perform more poorly. So when you are around people while carrying out familiar tasks, you'll perform even better. And when you are performing on more complex tasks, you'll make more mistakes when others are watching you. The dominant response effect is so robust that it even occurs in cockroaches! Zajonc and his colleagues (1969) found that cockroaches completed simple mazes quicker when they performed with four other cockroaches present than when alone. Yet they were slower on difficult mazes when other cockroaches were present, rather than alone. Pretty cool eh?

Well, to sum up, this is just a sampling of the great ideas that Robert Zajonc contributed to the field. Social psychology definitely suffered a loss this week.

If you are interested, below are some citations that cover the mere exposure effect and social facilitation . . . enjoy!

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Monograph Supplement, 9, 1 - 27.

Zajonc, R. B., Reimer, D. J., & Hausser, D. (1973). Imprinting and the development of object preference in chicks by mere exposure. Journal of Comparative Physiological Psychology, 83, 434 - 440.

Zajonc, R.B., Heingartner, A., & Herman, E.M. (1969). Social enhancement and impairment of performance in the cockroach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 83-92.


pz said...

Thanks for getting this kind notice posted so soon. The family has been together in California over the past few days. It's been a big loss for us. We had a wonderful celebration of Bob's life at his home on December 6.

My father died early on December 3. If you could correct this fact, we'd appreciate it.

Again, thank you for posting any comments about him.

Peter Zajonc, Nyack, NY

Zoe said...

I'm Peters niece Zoe. I'm doing a project on this expirement and i need the times.

pr1ttyricky said...

Hey Zoe,

I'm not exactly sure what you're asking for, the times for what?