In 1954, in my senior year at Brandeis University, I heard an invited
lecture by the distinguished nuclear physicist Leo Szilard. Szilard
reminisced about how in the 1930s, when he was teaching at the University
of Berlin, he gradually realized that Hitlers Germany was no place
for a Jew. One day he packed a small valise,
Well, maybe. My guess is that you also have to be incredibly lucky. As I reflect on my life, Szilards story comes to mind because, as a psychologist, I am well aware that memory is an imperfect historian, and it tends to be imperfect in a self-serving direction. My aim is to be truthful, but what is the truth?
As I see it, there are essentially two ways to write an autobiography. One is to take credit for every good outcome: “I was smart enough to go to this prestigious university and choose to marry that wonderful woman and study with this brilliant professor and go to that leading graduate school so that I could apprentice myself to that prominent scholar, and then I wisely accepted that perfect job.” The other way is to attribute everything to the vicissitudes of chance: “My God, I have been incredibly lucky. At every step of the way I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time.” But both accounts are true. In my own case, most of the good things that happened to me were the result of being in the right place at the right time—in my career, in my choice of a life partner, and in the friendships and professional relationships I formed—and I also was adept at making pretty good use of the opportunities that presented themselves to me.
In my life the professional and the personal have been inextricably intertwined. The Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthy witch hunts, the civil rights movement, the years of sexual liberation and the clarion call to “make love, not war,” women’s liberation, the extremes of political correctness on the Right and the Left—all of these events left a deep impression on me, though sometimes I found myself out of step with the times. I loved the human potential movement and its efforts to “break down barriers” between people in the 1960s and 1970s, but that philosophy crashed and burned during the “respect my boundaries” 1980s. My active, highly visible commitment to civil rights and freedom of speech got me death threats and charges of being a “nigger lover” in Austin, Texas, where I was instrumental in bringing about a fair-housing ordinance. That same commitment also brought me protests and charges of being a “racist” in Santa Cruz, California, where I protected the right of Arthur Jensen to present his justifiably unpopular argument that racial differences in IQs are innate.
Social psychology, a field that examines how circumstances, generations, cultures, ideas, and guiding principles get inside individuals and shape their actions, has infused my life. It has provided me with a powerful lens through which I have been able to view the events around me and understand myself, my family, and my times. How, I wondered, does any man become a good father if his own father was absent, physically or psychologically? Traditionally, psychology has emphasized the power of genetics or of early childhood experiences—you will become your father whether you want to or not. In contrast, social psychology attempts to understand the power of your generation’s influence, your own experiences, and how you interpret them. When I was fourteen, I was a pretty good baseball player and a member of a championship team. Yet although we played some of our games on weekends close to home, my father never came to see me play. He loved baseball, but not enough to come to one of our games. It didn’t bother me at the time, because, in those days, hardly anybody’s father came to see his kid play. When I became a father, however, I had a strong desire to see my kids play, and that evoked a longing in me; I realized, for the first time, how much I wished my dad had come to one or two of my games. It would have made me so happy, and, I thought, it would have made him happy as well. I felt the loss, but only in retrospect. Being immersed in social psychology gives me a perspective that mitigates the common impulse to confuse how we feel now with how we felt then. It defuses any impulse I might have had to feel angry at my father for not showing up, and blaming him retrospectively.
So, how much of our lives is determined by luck, a random opportunity, chance? How much comes from the genetic hand we are dealt at birth? How much from what we make of the chances we get?
I was thirteen years old when World War II ended, when I first heard about the Holocaust and saw newsreels of the horrifying, gaunt figures liberated from concentration camps. And I remember thinking that if it had not been for my grandparents’ desperation and courage that brought them to America at the end of the nineteenth century, I would have been among those victims. I, too, could have died in a concentration camp. My stomach churned at the realization that it could have been me. I was flooded with gratitude toward my grandparents for having had the guts to get out when they did.
So my very survival as a Jew was a matter of luck, but, of course, luck was not the whole story. Insight is also important, as is the ability to take advantage of luck. For example, my mother, like most Jewish mothers of her day, wanted me to become a doctor, but, figuring that I lacked the brains and drive to become one, she kept pressing her second choice on me: If I couldn’t become rich on my own, I could marry rich. In particular, I could marry Barbara, my first college sweetheart, whose father owned not one but two five-and-dime stores. My mother was so delighted with the prospect that she fell in love with Barbara—or, rather, with Barbara’s father’s stores. “He’ll give one of those stores to you!” she kept reminding me. I had no conscious idea at the time how stupid it would have been for me to marry Barbara (for the sole purpose of having my own five-and-dime store), but my intuition got me out of there. Where does that come from, that intuition, that hunch, that sets a person on one course and not another?
Consider this: As a student, I had three mentors. As an undergraduate at Brandeis, my mentor was Abraham Maslow. As an M.A. candidate at Wesleyan, it was David McClelland. As a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, I worked with Leon Festinger. In a study rank-ordering the one hundred most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century, those three men were among the top fifteen. The probability of a student working with such distinguished mentors, solely by chance, is extremely remote. Yet I didn’t go to Brandeis to work with Maslow; I went to Brandeis because it was the only university that gave me a scholarship. I met Maslow because I wandered into his class quite by accident. Then I went to Wesleyan at the eleventh hour, as a last resort, because I had no other prospects. I had never even heard of McClelland. Finally, I did not go to Stanford because of Festinger; indeed, I spent most of my first year at Stanford trying to keep out of his way. So what is the role of chance? And how does one take advantage of lucky breaks?
Luck was certainly on my side, but it was more than chance that got me to fall in love with both scientific social psychology and the human potential movement. I was attracted by the notion that human personalities and abilities are not carved in stone. Granted, our genetic propensities impose limitations (I will never be as smart as Albert Einstein or as athletically gifted as Michael Jordan). But social psychology rests on the assumption that people are not locked in by their genetics or by their early childhood deprivations. Clinical psychology is about repair. It says, “You were damaged in childhood, but we can fix it—a little.” Social psychology is about change. It says, “Okay, you had a bad childhood, but let’s change your environment, change your motivation, and give you new opportunities, and you can transcend your origins, your self-defeating attitudes, your prejudices.” I was excited by the idea that people can grow and improve—that a shy, relatively untalented eighteen year old like me, who grew up in a financially and intellectually impoverished household, could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, get educated, find mentors, catch fire.
My mother was wrong when she tried to guide me into a marriage that would have led me to the ownership of a five-and-dime store. But she was merely being prudent, operating from her own experience in the Great Depression and the facts at hand. When I was entering college I was not a promising student, and my chances of achieving success seemed slim. Yet if I had gone on to marry a woman I didn’t love and to own a small business I had no interest in managing, I would have failed both as a husband and as a merchant. But how was my mother to know that I was soon to discover a field of interest that not only would excite me but I would, in turn, excite? How was she to know that after Barbara, I would meet a remarkable young woman and that we would live in magnificent harmony for fifty-five years (and counting)?
It is not accidental that the kinds of psychology that attracted me—”hard-nosed” experimental social psychology and “softheaded” encounter groups—were both American inventions. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant French historian and observer of the American scene, wrote in his masterpiece Democracy in America: “[Americans] have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man; they judge the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent; they admit that what appears to them today to be good, may be superseded by something better tomorrow.” This quintessential American belief in the power of change and self-improvement—that a factory worker’s son can become a professor, that people who hold deep-seated prejudices can in fact transcend them, and that the way things are is not the way they have to be—has been the dominant theme of my work and of my life.
For the past fifty years as a teacher, I have tried to impart this way of looking at things to my students. Early in my career I came to understand that this was the single most precious gift I could ever give them. Students are continually asking themselves, “Who am I?” My goal was to get them to reframe the question into “Who do I want to become?” Once they arrive at their own answer, they must also learn that getting there won’t come by chance alone.
ALSO BY ELLIOT ARONSON
Copyright © 2010 by Elliot Aronson