Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book Review - Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist by Elliot Aronson

Title: Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist
Author:  by Elliot Aronson
Year: 2010
Page: 304
Genre: Memoir

New to me author? Yes
Read this author again? YES!
Tearjerker? No
Where did it take place? US
FTC Disclosure: Borrowed from the library

Summary (from
How does a boy from a financially and intellectually impoverished background grow up to become a Harvard researcher, win international acclaim for his groundbreaking work, and catch fire as a pioneering psychologist? As the only person in the history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three of its highest honors—for distinguished research, teaching, and writing— Elliot Aronson is living proof that humans are capable of capturing the power of the situation and conquering the prison of personality.A personal and compelling look into Aronson’s profound contributions to the field of social psychology, Not by Chance Alone is a lifelong story of human potential and the power of social change

First Sentence:
Parents love to tell stories about their children.

Why did I pick this book?
I was browsing the library New Non-Fiction shelves and saw this book. I haven't heard of Elliot Aronson before, but I was a psych major and social psychology was my favorite subject, so I thought I'd I'd read this as I am still interested in psychology.

My thoughts:
  • I almost returned this book, without reading it, because I had too many books borrowed from the library and want to return some that I don't think I am in the mood to read anymore (happens a lot). I mean, I am interested in a book about social psych, but the cover is kinda boring looking, and the title isn't very catchy.... however the 10 reviews on amazon were all 5 stars, and the 2 reviews on goodreads were both 5 stars too... so I thought I'd read a few pages before bed to judge for myself. It was almost midnight and I was going to go to bed soon as I was tired, but I ended up reading 60 pages and if I didn't have to get up early the next day I'd have stayed up later!
  • While reading this book, it was almost like listening to your grandparents (or parents) telling you their childhood stories and what it was like back in the days. It was honest, and I appreciated his dry humor - this is taken from the Acknowledgments (p263): The problem is compounded when the work in question is an autobiography. How can I avoid thanking my first grade teacher, who taught me how to read, or my first employer, who fired me, thus closing the door on a career as a produce manager at a supermarket, or my first girlfriend, who taught me that she didn't always want me to take no for an answer?
  • His relationship with his brother was also touching, and the love he and his wife had for each other is admirable. I think he really demonstrated the "show, not tell" technique when he described these relationships. 
  • And he was definitely PASSIONATE about what he did, even though he kinda stumbled upon social psychology at first and discovered his love for the subject (hence the title). He was also a great professor, and I wish I had more professors like him! I think a great teacher really make or break a subject. Sometimes, it's not so much about what they teach you, but HOW they teach you.
  • Even though I don't recall his name when I picked up the book, I do remember some of the theories he mentioned in the book (I have a tendency to forget names, but remember the concept). Just to remind myself - cognitive dissonance,  jigsaw classroom and hypocrisy paradigm (p241-243), e.g. "invited students to sign a poster urging everyone to conserve water by taking shorter showers. (Students were happy to sign the poster; after all, everybody believes in conserving water.) We then made half of them mindful of their hypocrisy by asking them to estimate how long their own most recent showers had been. Students in the hypocrisy condition showed, on average (3.5 minutes) - a fraction of the time spent in the shower by those in the control condition. - I knew from my years of research on cognitive-dissonance theory that change is greater and lasts longer when behavior precedes attitude, when people are not simply admonished to change but placed in a situation that induces them to convince themselves to change.
  • Most of all, this book really inspires and speaks to me. It reignites something within me that I'd forgotten about - my love for social / applied / experimental psychology. After graduating from college, I really wanted to go to grad school for psychology (you can't do much with an undergrad psych degree). However, due to circumstances, I ended up with a MBA instead (plus there are no local grad school for psych). As I was reading this book, I mentioned more than once to my husband (who also had studied psych and liked it) how much I missed doing experiments in psychology. It sparked a series of research online to see what is available out there - are there any distance or online degrees I could take? Are there any conferences I could go to? Or more importantly, what can I do to apply psychology in my day job (which I do like a lot)? 
  • It was very timely to read this book in December, as I plan what I want to achieve in 2011 and I am excited! 
  • PS - for those with no interest in psychology, I don't know if you'd be as inspired as I was with this book. However, I think if you are into memoir, you'd still enjoy it. The writing flows easily, and this book is more than just about psychology - it's about doing something you love, family relationships, mentoring / teaching and more.

    But, more important, Gurwitsch had shown me, almost wordlessly, that it was a good thing -- perhaps even a noble thing -- to be able to love a book, an idea, with which you disagreed." (p81)

    Although it's true that changing people's attitudes sometimes changes their behavior, if you want a more powerful change to take place, you will try to evoke a change in behavior first; attitudes will follow. (p108)

    All I had to do was identify the law, hone it into a testable hypothesis, and invent a procedure to get at the essence of that hypothesis. (p113)

    I gave Merrill a crash course in acting. "You don't simply say that the assistant hasn't shown up," I said. "You fidget, you sweat, you pace up and down, you wring your hands, you convey to the subject that you are in real trouble here. And then, you act as if you just now got an idea. You look at the subject, and you brighten up." (p116)

    Rating: 5 Stars

    Have you read this book? 
    If you have, I would love to hear what you think! I'll link your review here if you wish!

    100+ Reading
    Memorable Memoir

    Science Books 


    1. Oh a great one for you. Psychology intrigues me so we will see.

    2. @Marce - Yes this book would fit under the "the book that has the most impact on me in 2010" category. To think that I almost didn't read it... I think this would be a good audio book because it'd just be like listening to grandpa telling stories.