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Zajonc, New Head of ISR, Is a Student of Humanity

Mark Thompson-Kolar
From The Michigan Journalist

picture of ISR chief Robert Zajonc/Creative Commons

Robert Zajonc

When University of Michigan scientist Robert Zajonc decided to settle down in Ann Arbor during the mid '60s, he built his house with his own hands—and not just any house, either. It was designed by Robert Pond, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I didn't have the money but I wanted to have an interesting house," said Zajonc. "I also wanted to see if I could do it."

The professor of psychology appears to have brought this desire for individual achievement and creativity to his new job as director of U-M's prestigious Institute for Social Research (ISR). He had been the director of the Group Dynamics Research Department, one of three ISR divisions, since 1983.

Zajonc (pronounced Zions), who resembles a slim Lee Iacocca with dark hair, is widely known through the scientific community and media as a well spoken and well respected researcher. Recently, he studied whether happiness causes people to smile, or whether the physical act of smiling influences people's happiness. He also has investigated the ways individuals form first impressions.

"For example, you can study impression formation by giving people a set of adjectives and asking someone what they think of a person who meets these adjectives," he said. "That is not really what people do when they form likes or dislikes for people."

Ultimately, he favors studies that do not lose touch with reality by attempting to trivialize people's behaviors and emotions into variables.

Zajonc, who was born in Poland, has seen firsthand what can happen when people are trivialized. During World War II, he was placed in a farm labor camp by Nazi soldiers at age 17. After he ran away and was recaptured, soldiers placed him in a prison in Metz, France. He was released when the allies came through France.

Despite the imprisonments, Zajonc said, wartime had no ill effects on him.

"The human organism can take a variety of things that are called hardships," he said in a smooth, low voice tinged with a slight Eastern-European accent. "My administrative decisions and scientific work are driven by my intellectual values, not by my past experiences."

After the war he went to Paris to study psychology and philosophy, but soon was drawn to the United States.

Zajonc chose U-M because it offered him a fellowship. He completed his bachelor's degree in psychology while working on a Ph.D., which he received in 1955. Zajonc has been a full professor at U-M since 1965.

Business executive Marvin Epstein, Zajonc's roommate at U-M and long-time friend, said exceptional maturity and an upbringing in a foreign country helped Zajonc's career. "Bob probably had the advantage of not being an American by birth," Epstein said. "He went into the social sciences and psychology without the conditioning of a purely American education, and that may have given him an advantage over his peers."

Epstein also said Zajonc has benefitted from a curiosity about down-to-earth subjects, such as whether first-born children are more intelligent than later siblings and whether only children are smarter than kids in multi-child families. "These are things anyone with kids has been curious about at one time or another," Epstein said.

Zajonc himself has four children. He, his second wife and 4-year-old daughter live in Ann Arbor. he has three adult sons from a prior marriage.

Despite his successes as a researcher, Zajonc expressed a philosophical attitude about his career choice.

"I don't believe there exists a unique occupation for each person, or a style of life for each person," he said. "I could be just as satisfied with hundreds of other occupations. It just so happened I slid into this one and I'm happy with it.

"Research has a self-propelling direction. I will continue to do what I do until I drop dead or find something more interesting."

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