The Mere Zajonc Effect

Introductory comments to Honor Robert Zajonc
January 14, 2003, Budapest, Hungary

I title these comments “The Mere Zajonc Effect” to communicate what Bob Zajonc has meant to our field – his mere presence has made psychology shine with a brighter light through the sheer intellectual power of his work, through the demystification of complex mental processes so that a simpler one is revealed, and through the understanding of the power of social forces in the lives of ordinary humans. To me, for whom his work has been a constant beacon, Bob Zajonc's mere presence has been uplifting, inspiring, and simply awesome.

I was never a student or colleague of Bob's and I hope that this lack of a personal association with him only gives greater credence to what I say. The great joy of the business in which we are engaged is that teachers can be acquired and heroes created through the spoken and written word. In this sense, Bob Zajonc was a teacher of a special sort for me. He influenced me in profound ways, three of which I can put words to. First of all, in the content of what I chose to study, Bob influenced me by his own choices of problems. Second, through his style of research, Bob gave me confidence to stick with what seemed to be somewhat unorthodox ways of doing research even though I could not always articulate the basis of that preference. Third, for the lack of a better phrase, by the soul of our science that Bob embodies and exemplifies, he has inspired me to imagine the unique contributions that social psychologists can make. Let me say a few words about each because in doing so, you will see what Bob has done for many generations of psychologists who came after him.

Speaking of the first, I would say that by merely studying some topics, in particular his work on unconscious processes and emotion, Bob gave these topics legitimacy. Those of us who thought ourselves relatively alone in the 1980's in doing it had the assurance that Bob Zajonc had been there already and therefore that it was safe to go. By doing what he wanted to do and doing it in a peerless fashion, Bob allowed others of us to select topics that would otherwise have seemed monumental and untouchable. Teachers like Bob do this without seeking recognition, without being aware of their subtle but real influence. It was only years after I had come to do the work on implicit social cognition that I realized that what appeared to me to be my own lonely search was not realty in the wilderness at all - Bob had been there, done that.

Bob's influence on me can be seen even more clearly in my style of research. Here, I do feel we are kindred spirits, in the sense that I tend toward simplicity in my approach to understanding. Bob's may be a choice for simplicity, mine is a requirement - I am envious of those of my colleagues who can think in terms of 4 way interactions with their hands tied behind their backs. Bob gave me an out by elevating the study of the simple basics. His career had been built on showing the influence of the “mere”. The “mere” presence of others in his work on social facilitation; the “mere” exposure of an event as a determinant of liking. Those are two “meres” that are regularly mentioned in describing Bob's work – but I think one other quality falls into the same category: his work on confluence and his work on birth order and intelligence. In this work, Bob predicted, among other things, that one's mere position in the birth order, whether you were first or not, could determine intelligence because of the social forces that are differentially present in the environment. Because of the higher average I.Q. that makes up the environment of the first born, they end up smarter, Bob says, and as a first-born I see no flaw in that possibility. Each of these three “meres” (mere exposure, mere presence and mere position) are aesthetic examples of the simple and yet profound aspects of the human mind – how it goes about the unique tasks of thinking and feeling in a social context.

Finally, through the spirit he embodies, Bob captures for me a beautiful confluence of the humility that great science naturally produces in the explorer as well as the pride and sense of worth in the pursuit of the work. Bob has been internally critical of his family of psychologists, warning about the ignoring of the wet mind when the field continued to analyze its driest deserts, of the importance of the mind itself when psychology had become behaviorist, and the importance of taking on the most complex of phenomena such as genocide, because it is our business as social psychologists to tackle the hardest of questions. There is, in the spirit of psychology and social psychology Bob represents, a boldness of vision, and a clear sense that this is the closest it comes for some of us to experience what it must be to do God's work.

A few words about Bob's professional life and work. Zajonc was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923, and studied in both Paris and in the United States. The university that did great things for him and which he richly compensated by spending the next 40 years at, was the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. First as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student, later as a professor, and finally as director of both the Research Center for Group Dynamics and of the peerless Institute for Social Research. Since 1994, he has been at Stanford University.

Bob Zajonc has won numerous awards and recognitions for his work, and among them are: APA's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, SESP's Distinguished Scientist Award and honorary degrees from the University of Warsaw and the University of Leuven. Bob was editor of JASP, the precursor to JPSP, president of SESP, Division 1 (GP), and on APA's Board of Scientific Affairs. When I was in graduate school, I remember my university receiving a steady stream of Polish visitors – that was Bob's doing to get as many intellectual's out of Poland during its dark days as possible. He is also a founder of the Institute for Social Studies at the University of Warsaw.

There are many areas to which Bob Zajonc has made contributions, and in fact, areas that he has named. Cognitive tuning captured the fundamental idea that mental organization is a function of one's role – whether one is a communicator who is giving information, or the recipient of information. He brought order to work on social facilitation by showing the conditions under which the presence of others can help or hurt performance. His landmark paper in 1968 influenced me deeply – his chapter in the Handbook on Cognitive Theories (the first ever such chapter) and his JPSP article on mere exposure, the stunning discovery of the role of frequency on liking. In the 1980's his work on unconscious preferences and the notion that “preferences need no inferences” is the precursor to much of modern psychology's interest in such processes. Bob's always being “ahead of the game” was obvious in his predictions about the separation of affect and cognition -- in the absence of any neuroanatomical data on it. I recall being stunned by a talk he gave on measuring the temperature of the forehead to get a rough idea of brain activity – it seemed ridiculous and strangely compelling. Susan Fiske noted some years ago in a paper she wrote about Bob Zajonc that if we are lucky, Bob's predictions about brain, mind and social behavior would come true in the year 2010 – given the lag that is needed for the field to catch up with Bob. I hope it will make Bob happy that we sped things up in work I did with Liz Phelps on race and emotion using fMRI in 2001 – earlier than predicted, but still 20 years after Bob's predictions. Most recently, Bob has been at work on the question of hatred and genocide, again searching for answers in simple terms to a question that is the world's most urgent and frightening problem.

When one comes face to face with a genius like Bob Zajonc, it is important to recognize the leagues that separate him from the rest. It has also been important to me, to find connections because to do so makes it possible to find meaning in my work, to steadfastly pursue discoveries even in the face of rejection. For me, Bob is what I aspire to, in the type of work, in the manner or work, and in the spirit of the work. We are both immigrants to the United States, we both received our training in the Midwest to which we owe a great deal. Now, as we sit on different coasts, I find a sense of security in knowing that we are engaged in the same pursuit of understanding how good people can cause devastating harm. Bob's mere presence, his mere thoughts, and his mere words make this task a genuine preference that needs no inference.