Lee Ross, expert in why we misunderstand each other, dies at 78
Personal humiliation inspired Lee Ross’s greatest insight.
In 1969, when he defended his doctoral thesis at Columbia University, a committee of faculty members unleashed a shower of esoteric questions. Mr. Ross had done a study of how perceptions differed in bright and dim light. What was, asked an inquisitor, the wavelength of weak light, calculated in the infinitesimal unit of measurement known as angstroms?
That’s what it meant to be a real scholar, Ross thought: to know things like angstroms. He was convinced he was unworthy.
That same month he went to Stanford University, where he had secured a post as a junior professor. He found himself at another thesis defense, this time in the role of professor.
“I had this remarkable experience that the student seemed intimidated and seemed to think of me like other professors,” Professor Ross recalled in an oral history created by Stanford last year. “I, too, could ask questions that revealed particular bits of knowledge that I had for a variety of reasons, and I could ask the questions in a pleasant or, if I chose, slightly dismissive manner.”
Experience, he said, has taught him “the huge difference between being the one asking the question and the one answering – or, more generally, being the person who sets the agenda for what happens. , compared to the person who has less power “.
Professor Ross expanded this notion in his 1977 article “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Flaws,” in which he asserted that much of social misunderstanding is caused by a general tendency to attribute human behavior to rather personalities. only to external circumstances.
He called this phenomenon “the fundamental attribution error”. The term has become a foundational concept in psychology and has provided a buzzword for commentators on everything from leadership and crime control to socialization in the workplace.
Professor Ross died on May 14 at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 78 years old. His son Josh said the cause was kidney and heart failure.
Professor Ross, who remained at Stanford faculty until his death, demonstrated the existence of the fundamental attribution error with an experiment. He designed a game in which Stanford undergraduates drew cards that assigned them the roles of quizmaster or candidate. The quizzer was asked to design tough questions and put them to the candidate, who always struggled to answer them. Other students watched.
After the game, observers said they considered the gamemaster exceptionally knowledgeable and the candidate particularly ignorant.
It was a fundamental attribution error. Behavior caused by randomly assigned social roles seemed to those involved to be the result rather of intrinsic character traits.
So began what Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, called “the reign of error in social psychology”, while Professor Ross’ area of interest “came to be. to dominate the field ”.
“Lee shed light on the central error people make in their social understanding,” Professor Gilbert said in a telephone interview, adding that Professor Ross’s article introducing the fundamental attribution error had become one of the most cited works in psychology.
The term entered popular discourse, sometimes as a tool to promote sympathy. A 2014 Psychology Today article titled “Why We Don’t Take a Break” used the example of someone cutting a line in front of you. You might think “What a fool” when in reality this person has never stood in line before and only does so now because they would otherwise miss a flight to see a dying relative.
Providing folk wisdom in multisyllabic wrapping, “fundamental attribution error” has become one of those academic expressions that add a touch of sophistication to any argument they adorn. The term has been used to criticize claims about differences between cultures – and to advocate for those differences. It has been used to suggest that leaders should not be held responsible for the successes of their institutions – or their failures.
Others recommend it as a self-help tip for employees – and for bosses. New York Times columnist David Brooks called it an exemplary case of a scientific concept whose dissemination could “improve everyone’s cognitive toolbox.”
No writer has done more to popularize Professor Ross’s ideas than Malcolm Gladwell. “Almost all of my books deal with the fundamental attribution error,” Gladwell said in a telephone interview. “It’s an idea that I have never been able to shake.
Professor Ross developed his views into a grand theory of psychology in “The Person and the Situation” (1991), which he wrote with his longtime collaborator Richard E. Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Mr Gladwell said he devoured the book in one day at New York University’s Bobst Library.
“The purpose of this book,” Mr. Gladwell said, “was simply that if we are to understand each other and each other, we need to pay much more attention to the situations we find ourselves in and to the environment, and stop dwelling so much on an imaginary notion of the intrinsic self.
In “The Tipping Point” (2000), Mr. Gladwell’s first best-selling book, he used this line of thought as the theoretical basis for his argument for the success of the “broken window” theory of policing. . This theory argues that serious crime can be deterred by making relatively minor changes to the surrounding environment, such as cracking down on graffiti.
“Someone once said that he thought ‘The Tipping Point’ created a kind of scientific writing,” Gladwell said. “I’m convinced that’s not the case, that it’s just a journalistic version of the kind of writing I encountered in ‘The Person and the Situation’. “
Lee David Ross was born August 25, 1942 in Toronto. Her father, Dan, was a salesman and her mother, Minnie (Rifle) Ross, worked in a garment factory. Both were communists.
The grim revelations about Soviet communism that emerged during de-Stalinization coincided with Lee’s childhood. This gave him an early training in psychology.
“They were absorbing shock, disillusionment after disillusionment, and yet they kept the faith,” he recalled of his parents and their classmates in a 2019 interview with the Association for Psychological Science. “I was intrigued by this, looking at the ability to rationalize – now we would say reduce dissonance. “
Professor Ross received a BA in Psychology from the University of Toronto in 1965 and a PhD. in Social Psychology from Columbia University in 1969. He began teaching at Stanford the same year.
In addition to the fundamental attribution error, Professor Ross has become known for his work on other psychological errors, including the “false consensus effect” – the bias that people harbor when they think their perceptions are greater. common than they are.
His latest book, “The Wisest One in the Room” (2015), written with Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, sought to make psychology lessons useful in everyday life. In “The Person and the Situation” he and Professor Nisbett wrote endorsing the basic material in psychology as “high profile gossip.”
“He does ‘Seinfeld’ type psychology,” Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago behavior economist Richard H. Thaler said in a telephone interview. “As soon as you hear it, there is a slice of life there.”
Besides his son Josh, Professor Ross is survived by his wife of 56 years, Judith (Spinks) Ross; another son, Tim; two daughters, Rebecca and Katie Ross; and seven grandchildren.
Professor Nisbett said that Professor Ross had not only been his writing partner, but also “my therapist and my guru”. Professor Nisbett once asked his friend what made him so good at giving advice.
“Here’s why, Dick: I’m not taking your point of view when you tell me what’s the problem,” Professor Nisbett told Professor Ross. “I’m trying to figure out how the other person or other people see it. “