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Fritz Heider

Begins research on interpersonal behavior, Allows publication of notebooks

Austrian-American psychologist who developed concept of attribution theory.

How we interpret our own behavior, as well as that of others, formed the basis for Fritz Heider's work during a career that lasted more than 60 years. Heider explored the nature of interpersonal relations, and his work culminated in the 1958 book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Heider espoused the concept of what he called "common-sense" or "naïve" psychology. He believed that people attribute the behavior of others to their own perceptions; and that those perceptions could be determined either by specific situations or by longheld beliefs. The concept may not seem complicated, but it opened important doors to the question of how people relate to each other and why.

Heider, the younger of two sons, was born in Vienna on February 18, 1896, to Moriz and Eugenie von Halaczy Heider. He was an avid reader and a good student, and he entered the University of Graz (Austria). He received his Ph.D. in 1920, and spent the next several years traveling through Europe. Part of this time was spent as a student at the Psychological Institute of Berlin. Pre-World War II Berlin was one of the most intellectually stimulating cities in Europe, and he was privileged to study with outstanding scholars.

Begins research on interpersonal behavior

In 1930, Heider accepted an offer to conduct research at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachutsetts, and to be an assistant professor at Smith College. Heider's decision to come to the United States proved auspicious for two reasons. In addition to the work he was to do—first at Smith, and later at the University of Kansas—Heider met Grace Moore, who was doing research of her own at Clarke. They married in December 1930; in his autobiography, The Life of a Psychologist (1983), Heider credits his wife for her invaluable contribution to his work. The Heiders had three sons during their years in Northampton.

Beginning at Smith, Heider began to do the research that led to his theories on interpersonal relations. He continued his work when he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1947 to take a professorship at the University of Kansas. It has been said that Heider approached psychology the way a physicist would approach scientific theory. He was extremely methodical and meticulous in his research, which could often be frustrating, but he carefully developed the ideas that he ultimately outlined in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.

In its simplest terms, attribution theory explains the means people use to attribute the behavior of others. Sometimes, behavior is attributed to disposition; in other words, we might decide that altruism is what makes a particular person donate money to a charity. Other times, behavior can be attributed to situations; in this model, the donor gives money to charity because of social pressure. Heider believed that people generally tended to give more attribution than they should to personality, and, conversely, less than they should to situations. In other words, personality is not as consistent an indicator of behavior as people tend to believe.

Allows publication of notebooks

Heider received numerous awards for his research, including the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1965. Although Heider ostensibly retired in the 1960s, he continued to do research as an emeritus professor. He worked on his memoirs, which became his autobiography. More important, however, were series of notebooks Heider had kept during his career, in which he explained and diagramed many of his theories, listed references, and discussed many of the questions he had tried to answer through his research. A former student of Heider's, Marijana Benesh-Weiner, offered to edit and compile the notes. Working with Heider, she put the notes into a six-volume set published by Springer-Verlag under the title, Fritz Heider: The Notebooks. The first volume was published in 1987; Benesh-Weiner completed editing the final volume shortly after Heider, aged 91, died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, on January 2, 1988.

See also Attribution theory

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Harvey, John H. "Fritz Heider." American Psychologist, (March 1989): 570-571.

Heider, Fritz. The Life of a Psychologist: An Autobiography. Lawrence, KS, University of Kansas Press, 1983.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists