Fritz Heider (February 19, 1896 – January 2, 1988) was an Austrian-American psychologist whose work was related to the Gestalt school. He is considered to be one of social psychology's pre-eminent theorists. Heider's 1958 book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations is a theoretical masterpiece that laid the foundations for much of contemporary social psychology. In particular, his work on attribution, balance, and cognitive consistency were vital contributions to the field.
Heider's theoretical position began from the concept of what he called "commonsense psychology." He believed that people use their perceptions of others to explain why they behave the way they do. To do this, Heider suggested that people employ similar means to understanding their physical environment, namely perception of their attributes and behavior and cognition to understand the relationship between objects and their environments. These "social perceptions" may or may not be accurate, as they are subjective and may be based on limited previous experience with the individual, or by placing too much emphasis on the personality of the individual and too little on environmental factors. Heider's thinking was innovative and pioneered a new exploration of how human beings understand and relate to each other, reflecting the essential social nature of human beings which leads people attempt to make sense not just of the physical world of objects but also of their social environment.
Fritz Heider was born in Vienna, Austria on February 19, 1896. He grew up in Graz as the second son of Moriz Heider, a prosperous architect, and his wife Eugenie. Around the age of ten, he suffered damage to the retina of his left eye while playing with a toy pistol. This had the effect of making him more introverted as well as more interested in the processes affecting visual perception. His interest in perception was further developed in the painting and sketching he did throughout his adolescent and young adult years.
His approach to higher education was rather casual, and he wandered freely throughout Europe studying and traveling as he pleased for many years. On his father's encouragement, Fritz Heider studied first architecture, and then law in Graz, but soon became bored with both subjects. He persuaded his father to let him simply audit university courses for four years, promising that afterward he would raise pigs for a living. Gradually, as his interests began to focus, his studies became more concentrated in the areas of philosophy and psychology. After seeing other students begin work on their doctoral dissertation, Heider asked his adviser, Alexius Meinong, if he could attempt to write one as well. This request was granted, and Heider eventually submitted his thesis in March 1920.
At the age of 24 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Graz, and traveled to Berlin, where he lived with his uncle Karl and his cousin Doris, while attending lectures at the Psychological Institute. His studies there focused on the Gestalt psychology of Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler. Heider was also strongly influenced by his association with Kurt Lewin, another researcher in Berlin, and their friendship continued after both men had emigrated to America in the early 1930s, until the time of Lewin's death in 1947.
In 1930, Heider was offered an opportunity to conduct research at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, which was associated with Smith College, also in Northampton. This prospect was particularly attractive to him because Kurt Koffka held a position at Smith (Heider 1983).
It was in Northampton that he met his wife Grace (neé Moore). Grace was one of the first people Heider met in the United States. As an assistant to Koffka, she helped Heider find an apartment in Northampton and introduced him to the environs (Heider 1983). They were married in 1930, and the marriage lasted for more than 50 years, producing three sons: Karl, John, and Stephan. Karl Heider went on to become an important contributor to visual anthropology and ethnographic film. John Heider wrote the popular The Tao of Leadership.
In 1947, Heider was hired by the University of Kansas, after being recruited by social psychologist Roger Barker (Heider 1983). In Kansas, he continued the research he began at Smith, in 1958 publishing his most famous work, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which remains his most significant contribution to the field of social psychology.
The American Psychological Association awarded Heider the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1965 and the Psychological Science Gold Medal Award in 1987.
He was named a University Distinguished Professor at Kansas University in 1965 and retired in 1966. However, he continued to carry out research as an emeritus professor. In particular, he worked on his memoirs, which became his autobiography, published in 1983. Also, he worked with a former student, Marijana Benesh-Weiner, to compile the contents of his notebooks, which had accumulated over decades. They contained diagrams and explanations of his theories, and were edited and published in six volumes, from 1987 to 1990.
Fritz Heider died on January 2, 1988, in Lawrence, Kansas, at the age of 91.
Heider published two important articles in 1944 that pioneered the concepts of social perception and causal attribution (Heider 1944; Heider & Simmel 1944). After this point, however, Heider published little for the next 14 years.
Having been fascinated with the cognitive dynamics of interpersonal relations since his young adult years in Graz during World War I, Heider subsequently spent more of his time attempting to analyze them. Using concepts drawn from commonsense psychology, he analyzed the plots of Aesop's fables, plays by Henrik Ibsen, Jean Racine, and other playwrights, and dozens of short stories and jokes. His goal was to reduce them to a set of fundamental concepts that could be linked by a set of equally fundamental relations.
Heider's most important work, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958), was written in collaboration with the uncredited Beatrice Wright, a founder of rehabilitation psychology. Beatrice Wright was available to collaborate because the University of Kansas' nepotism rules prohibited her from a position at the University (her husband, Erik Wright, was a professor there), and the Ford Foundation gave Heider funds and assistance to complete the project. (Wright is credited only in the Foreword; she later went on to become an endowed professor of psychology at the University of Kansas).
The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (Heider 1958) contains several ideas that influenced the further development of social psychology. Heider argued that social perception follows many of the same rules of physical object perception, and that the organization found in object perception is also found is social perception. Because biases in object perception sometimes lead to errors (for example in optical illusions), one might expect to find that biases in social perception likewise can lead to errors (such as underestimating the role social factors and overestimating the effect of personality and attitudes on human behavior). Fritz Heider also argued that the order people put on their perceptions follows the rule of "psychological balance." His basic idea is that positive and negative sentiments need to be represented in ways that minimize ambivalence and maximize a simple, straightforward affective representation of the person:
To conceive of a person as having positive and negative traits requires a more sophisticated view; it requires a differentiation of the representation of the person into subparts that are of unlike value (Heider 1958, 182).
But the most important idea in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations is the notion of how people see the causes of behavior, and the explanations they make for it—what Heider called "attributions." Attribution theory (as one part of his larger and more complex account of social perception) describes how people come to explain (make attributions about) the behavior of others and themselves. The theory divides the way people attribute causes of events into two types:
Thus, Heider suggested that behavior may be attributed to a disposition (such as personality traits, motives, attitudes), or behavior can be attributed to situations (for example, external pressures, social norms, peer pressure, accidents of the environment, "acts of God," random chance, and so forth). Heider first made the argument that people tend to overweight internal, dispositional causes over external causes—this later became known as the "fundamental attribution error" (Ross 1977) or "correspondence bias" (Fiske & Taylor 1991; Jones 1979, 1990).
The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations essentially founded the modern field of social cognition. A giant of social psychology, Fritz Heider had few students, but his book on social perception had many readers, and its impact has continued into the twenty-first century. Heider credited his intense study of propositions set forth in Spinoza's Ethics as a major source of his insights regarding "balanced versus imbalanced cognitive structure" (Heider 1983).
In addition to the significant work Heider carried out systematizing and expanding upon his creation of "balance theory" and attribution theory, he is also remembered for his early and important contributions to the study of perception.
Heider espoused the concept of what he called "commonsense psychology." He believed that people use their perceptions of others to explain why they behave the way they do. These social perceptions can be determined by previous experience with the individual, or with the situation, or by beliefs that have been held over a long period. Heider's thinking in this way, using "commonsense," was innovative and pioneered a new exploration of how human beings understand and relate to each other.
Unlike his friend Kurt Lewin, who was assertive, energetic, and charismatic, Fritz Heider was gentle, reflective, and unassuming. No less than Kurt Lewin, however, Fritz Heider has had a theoretical influence on social psychology that is both pervasive and enduring.
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