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Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist Hardcover – August 24, 2010

4.9 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The intricacies of the human psyche--and one man's inquisitive mind--are illuminated in this shrewd, warm-hearted memoir. Aronson (The Social Animal) is a leading theorist of the "cognitive dissonance" that prompts people to change their perceptions of reality to resolve contradictions between experiences and beliefs. It's a rich concept, and the author explains its quirky corollaries--e.g., people like groups more and discount negative elements if they had to endure an ordeal to join--through delightful accounts of the theatrical experiments that lend them scientific rigor. Surrounding these expository gems is a chronicle of a prominent, occasionally adventuresome academic career in which, as a young professor in the '50s, Aronson weathered faculty "pomposity" at Harvard, political correctness witch-hunts at U.C.–Santa Cruz for supporting Arthur Jensen's right to speak on innate racial differences in IQ, and racist death threats after an experiment prompted a fair housing law in Texas. These sections are somewhat staid, but his searing memories of Depression-era poverty and family discord brim with psychological insight. Aronson's message--"People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy"--comes through with both analytic clarity and emotional resonance. Photos.
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Kirkus Reviews
“[Aronson’s] descriptions of experimental design and theory are thorough yet accessible to the average reader, but it is his profound insights, observations and compassion that make this a fascinating read…An illuminating account of how a great thinker with insatiable curiosity overcame a difficult childhood through his love of social science.”

Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, author of Stumbling on Happiness 
“An engaging and beautifully written account by one of the great social psychologists of our time. From the rags his father sold to the intellectual riches he would someday discover, Aronson’s story is a quintessentially American inspiration.”

Phoebe C. Ellsworth, Frank Murphy Distinguished University Professor of Law and Psychology, University of Michigan
“Elliot Aronson is a great social psychologist and a great man. In the beginning his life was poor and cramped, and this book is the story of how he used every new experience to make it richer and more fulfilling. We see his mind ever expanding to embrace the joy and responsibility of love, scientific rigor, the brilliant synthesis of precision and imagination in his psychological experiments, the application of psychology to pressing social problems, and finally, the loss of his eyesight – but never of his vision. And, as always, he writes beautifully, with honesty, humor, and insight.”

Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works
“This is an autobiography with a difference. Not only is it a warm and graceful memoir of a gifted man who helped to shape the science of social life, but it is informed by insights from that very field. Elliot Aronson, more than any living person, knows that the stories we tell about ourselves are apt to be dubious and self-serving, and so his reflections on his own life are layered with reflections on how we reflect on our lives. The result is an immensely enjoyable and informative memoir.”

Phil Zimbardo, Ph.D., author of The Lucifer Effect 
“Elliot Aronson is our modern day Horatio Alger as revealed in this charmingly inviting memoir of a childhood in rags to intellectual riches as one of psychology’s premier contributors. This master storyteller weaves his personal narrative in and around the events and people that marked his life path that was destined for greatness, without help from the vicissitudes of chance.”

Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr., Ph.D., Presidential Professor of Teaching Excellence, Professor of Psychology, Texas A&M University
“Arguably Elliot Aronson is first and foremost a very gifted teacher. The clarity he brings to that enterprise is evident in his success as a distinguished researcher and as a writer (witness the enormous popularity of his engaging treatise on social psychology, The Social Animal). And it is well manifested in this fascinating life story of a professor's quest to improve the human condition by understanding the social forces that so powerfully influence our lives. For those interested in an inside look at the joys and frustrations of an intellectual life, this book is a wonderful read.”

Gordon H. Bower, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University 
Not by Chance Alone describes the inspiring odyssey of one of the most eminent social psychologists of our times. Readers will admire the honest, witty, wise, and beautiful memoir of Aronson’s rich life that is filled with brilliant scientific insights, powerful teaching, and humane compassion.”

Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor, University of California-Irvine, Past President of the Association for Psychological Science 
“Absolutely wonderful. Elliot Aronson has long shown that he can write engagingly for a wide audience, and in Not by Chance Alone he has outdone himself. Not only was I captivated by Aronson’s truly inspirational life story, but I also learned so much about the people, theories, and experiments that helped define the field of social psychology.”

Gardner Lindzey, Editor of The Handbook of Social Psychology from 1954-2010
“If they ever get around to awarding a Nobel Prize in social psychology, I believe Elliot Aronson will be its first recipient. His ideas are creative, his experiments are elegant and his findings are of great importance.”

Thomas F. Pettigrew, Research Professor of Social Psychology, University of California-Santa Cruz
“Aronson’s candid autobiography is an instructive and enjoyable read. In addition, the volume offers an informed perspective on the sweeping development of social psychology as a discipline over the past six decades.”

Robert B. Cialdini, Author of Influence: Science and Practice
“Elliot Aronson’s done it again—revealed deep human insights from a deeply human story.”

Publishers Weekly

“The intricacies of the human psyche—and one man’s inquisitive mind—are illuminated in this shrewd, warm-hearted memoir”
“Aronson’s message—‘People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy’—comes through with both analytic clarity and emotional resonance.”
Douglas Kenrick, PsychologyToday.com
“Fascinating memoir from a stellar social psychologist…Aronson is a gifted writer, and he tells a great story not only about his own life, but also about the history of social psychology, the influence of the civil rights movement on psychology, the ominous forces of political correctness on college campuses, and more.”

Jewish Journal
“A courageous effort to answer some of the most fundamental questions of human destiny.”

“Aronson offers a revealing portrait both of himself and of social psychology in the past half-century.”

The Bookwatch
“Aronson’s autobiography documents his life and era in an inspirational, moving account recommended for general to college-level libraries.”


“What makes Not by Chance Alone unique is Aronson’s talent as a storyteller…He crafts dozens of stories that are as rich in imagery as they are in substance.”



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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (August 24, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465018335
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465018338
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,671,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I wouldn't have guessed I had much in common with Elliot Aronson. From a distance, he doesn't seem like a regular guy, even if that regular guy is also a social psychologist. Aronson's always been the kind of guy that makes for annoyingly unfavorable social comparisons: His first job was at Harvard, and his last job was at Stanford. When he was a student, his advisors were: Abraham Maslow, David McClelland, and Leon Festinger. Each of those three not only made a list of the top 100 figures in 20th century psychology, they were all in the top fifteen. His book the Social Animal has likely sold millions of copies over the years, and is still in print - in its 10th edition. Look up that book at Amazon, and you'll discover that Aronson is "the only person in the 110 year history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three of its major awards: Distinguished Research (1999), Distinguished Teaching (1980), and Distinguished Writing (1975)." Oh, not to mention the Gordon Allport Prize and the Donald Campbell Award. According to Google Scholar, a single paper of his -- on the "Jigsaw Classroom" -- has been cited 1650 times. Aronson has several classic research findings, including a study with Judson Mills that demonstrated that people become more committed to a group when they have to suffer to get in. Another paper with Darwyn Linder found that we like other people less if they are nice to us from the beginning than if they start out disliking us, then come around to our side. Both of these papers challenged the simple reinforcement view of behavior that was dominant in psychology when Aronson entered the field. Aronson's chapter on research methods in social psychology is also a classic.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
NOT BY CHANCE ALONE is in many ways like another autobiography I admire: Ben Franklin's. The title of Aronson's book invites the comparison. Like Franklin, Aronson's life is full of very good luck--who he meets and when. But luck would do him little good if he didn't, like Franklin, have the opportunistically elegant temperament to take advantage of being in the right place at the right time. Aronson is positive, empathic, curious and engaged. He is a terrific candidate for mentoring; and, in turn, becomes a terrific mentor. In this book we learn a lot about social psychology, the discipline Aronson celebrates by using it to address major social issues. We learn, also, that Aronson's "life as a social scientist" is a life lived well, garlanded by intellectual and ethical commitment.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Elliot -

I just finished reading your autobiography this weekend. In all honesty, when I
signed up for your and Carol's workshop at Esalen, I had no idea who you were.
I knew nothing about the things that you had done professionally in your life,
or how you have influenced society. Even when I got your email invite to
Capitola, I still didn't know who you were, other than this man who taught a
workshop at Esalen. At that workshop, it was the first time I ever heard of
someone named Maslow and about the "pyramid" he developed. My education level
is a high school diploma achieved by attending night school, so I never was
exposed to higher education to gain that kind of knowledge. I've spent most of
my life busy working hard to pull myself up by my boot straps in order to
provide a head start for my children to gain a college education. I am proud to
say that my daughter is the first in my family to attend college.

After reading your autobiography, I feel very privileged to have met you and
have had the opportunity to learn from you. My reasoning is not because you are
a recognized famous person of achievement in your profession. It is because even
though you and I have walked different paths in life, we have had very similar
experiences as people, which I can relate to...I also remember my family's
dinner table at times becoming a battle ground. I've had my share of sleeping
on couches, in cars and campgrounds to survive. I've had my own versions of
people like Jason, Maslow and Festinger in my life too. Even though I am
younger than you, I came of age during the time you describe when you had your
experiences in life.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I was fortunate that a copy of this book randomly landed in my mailbox from the publisher. I have never met Aronson but he is one of the scientists that inspired me to become a scientist. However, knowing nothing about the man himself, I read this book with some trepidation. I quickly learned that this is not a self-serving, self-promotion autobiography. Rather, this is an insider's guide for how an eminent social scientist came to be. Aronson is a fantastic narrator who describes his difficult upbringing and the challenges in his life with exquisite details. This includes a fantastic array of characters that influenced him (Maslow, McClelland, Festinger) and befriended him (Ram Dass, Maurice Sendak).

If you are a scientist or aspiring scientist, this is a treatise on someone who can describe their passion for teaching and research like no other.

If you are looking for inspiration, this is a story of how poverty, shyness, and family difficulties are not manifest destiny. There is plenty of psychological space to shape our personality and our environment.

I was pleasantly surprised at the emotional poignancy of this book and refused to go to sleep until finishing it the day it arrived. My admiration for Aronson has only intensified and I suspect nearly every reader will feel the same.

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