Elliot Aronson - Social Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Elliot Aronson
Social Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1932, Chelsea, Massachusetts


Educated at Brandeis University, Wesleyan University, and Stanford University



Elliot Aronson is a beloved name in psychology, and his vast career—stretching to our own time—has helped shape the direction of psychology, especially social psychology, in myriad ways. There is only one person in the history of the American Psychological Association who has won all its top awards—for research, for writing, and for teaching. That person is Elliot Aronson.

The development of the jigsaw classroom is perhaps his greatest accomplishment. For more than four decades, it has proved able to reduce student conflict and increase cooperation, learning, and motivation. It was first used in 1971, when one of Aronson’s former students, then superintendent of public schools in Austin, Texas, was brainstorming ways to help lessen racial strife after desegregation. Aronson came up with the idea of dividing children in grades four through six into small groups, each one with a mix of kids from diverse backgrounds, and creating the objective for them to work together as a whole, with each individual serving the specific role of researching a certain concept and teaching it to the others. In order for everyone to be able to do well on later tests, it was clearly necessary for all of them to work together as a group. This arrangement brought resentment at first, but acceptance eventually followed. And then the groups really started paying off—signs of prejudice declined. And, compared to children in traditional learning situations, students in the jigsaw classrooms learned more effectively and showed more liking for each other, more liking for school, and greater self-esteem.

Over the ensuing decades, the implantation of jigsaw classrooms grew significantly. Additional benefits were found, such as reduced absenteeism, increased enjoyment of learning, and even better test scores. What sets the jigsaw classroom apart from traditional classroom setups is just how active each student must be within the group, as opposed to how passive learning can be in typical classrooms. It’s also different in terms of how interconnected each student’s role is with that of every other individual. There is less attention wasted on competition because all the students, in order to do well themselves, need the others to do well, too.

In a simple but effective way, the jigsaw classroom also safeguards against underperformers bringing down the group. For example, if a class is learning about the instruments in a symphony orchestra, then within every jigsaw group is a person assigned to strings, a different person assigned to woodwinds, a different one to percussion, and so on. During the initial research process, before the individual students present their assigned topics to their jigsaw groups, individual members across all the jigsaw groups who have matching roles get together in “expert” groups. All the students assigned to percussion, for example, will meet, rehearse, and compare notes. By the time those students go back to their jigsaw groups to teach, their work has been strengthened and has had some oversight, and underperforming students have had the benefit of specific collaboration and support to improve what they will present to their groups. The teacher gets to play a facilitative role through all of it. The cooperative nature of the jigsaw classroom decreases the competition that sometimes exists between high achievers and also reduces resentment on the part of those who tend to feel left behind by the highest-achieving students. All the while, interpersonal skills and relationships are building.

Another of Aronson’s big ideas was the pratfall effect. He showed that committing a blunder can influence someone’s likability in very interesting ways, depending on whether the person who commits the blunder is or is not generally perceived as competent. People who are generally perceived as competent become more likable and attractive after a minor goof-up (such as spilling coffee); the blunder can be seen as endearing. Aronson has posited that this is probably because perfection can be intimidating and can make someone less relatable. Someone already perceived to be incompetent, however, is hurt by making an additional mistake—we likely just use it as further evidence for the negative opinion we already hold of him or her.

Aronson conducted several other classic studies that looked at how and why we like each other. One showed that we are bound to like someone more if that person starts off disliking us, and then grows to like us, than if the person has liked us from the beginning. This effect has to do with what has become known as the gain-loss theory of attraction, and it probably occurs because when we feel that we have won people over, it increases our good feelings about them. Aronson has also demonstrated that people are more committed to a group if they have to suffer significantly in order to be admitted, an effect that further illustrates the cognitive dissonance theory originated by Aronson’s mentor, Leon Festinger.


Many consider Aronson’s textbook The Social Animal the best social psychology text of all time. First published in 1972, it is currently in its 11th edition.


The jigsaw classroom continues to be implemented in many educational settings. Elliot Aronson further explored and expanded cognitive dissonance theory, including research that looked at how we resolve feelings of hypocrisy—and at how doing so can make people more likely to act in healthier ways, as in using condoms to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted illnesses after having had the role of teaching others about safe sex. His work has inspired further applications of social psychology to societal challenges, such as the use of peer pressure in energy conservation.


Aronson’s jigsaw classroom has been shown to have benefits in a wide range of school settings, even those with no overt racial conflict. Think about your school experience as an adolescent. Bullying, cliques, social anxiety, tension between teachers and students—these seem to be fundamental to the teen and even preteen experience, even for students who generally do well. But collaboration toward a shared goal appears to be helpful in all these situations. The evidence says that when diverse children come together for a common goal—rich kids and poor kids, athletes and artists, computer whizzes and class clowns—they like each other more, and they also do better at meeting educational goals.

Aronson has argued that the jigsaw classroom can even play a significant role in preventing school violence. Those who commit violent acts at school are often socially isolated and consider themselves persecuted by bullies and cliques. Rejection, shame, and humiliation are frequent themes among those who act out. The types of gains shown in the jigsaw classroom, in terms of improving relationships between students of different backgrounds, can probably go a long way toward reducing isolation, rejection, and the sense of being an outsider.

As for the pratfall effect, we often see this play out in our attitudes toward celebrities. Those who are thought of as maintaining an impenetrable field of perfection often develop a reputation for being somewhat annoying. But if a celebrity is generally deemed good at what she does but is prone to the occasional goof-up, we tend to like her even more. We can see this effect with the literal pratfalls of Jennifer Lawrence.

And what about the gain-loss theory of attraction? Let’s say that one of your bosses is particularly gruff and hard to please. He doesn’t give you great feedback, and you feel that he may even have an unfairly negative opinion of you. At some point, you do a particularly great presentation, or just make a great joke that he loves, and now he seems to really like you. The good feedback starts coming, and he is warmer and much more interested in you than he was before. You’ve triumphed! Meanwhile, the boss who has always been complimentary of you starts to fade from your interest. You want to please this other boss instead, more than anything. You know that the boss who has always liked you is a sure bet to keep liking of you, but now the apple of your eye during your PowerPoint presentations is the boss who was formerly gruff toward you. This dynamic often seems to play out with teenagers as well. Let’s say Colin has generally been ignored by the most popular set. But now, for whatever reason, the reigning king of his high school takes a liking to Colin, buddying around with him. Colin used to scoff at the popular kids, but now he thinks King Popular walks on water. Meanwhile, the friend who was always there for Colin from the beginning looks downright bland and lackluster by comparison.