Robert Zajonc has left the building

The New York Times has an obituary to psychologist Robert Zajonc, who made some of the most significant discoveries in cognitive science. What I didn’t know is that he’d also been bombed, captured by the Nazi’s, made his escape, joined the French resistance and acted as a translator for the Allied forces during the War.

Zajonc was one of those unsung heroes of psychology who you probably know through his discoveries, even if you don’t recognise the name.

He discovered the ‘mere exposure effect‘, the effect of birth order on IQ, the interaction between audience and expertise, and that smiles can lift the mood as well as be triggered by happiness.

Professor Zajonc was perhaps best known for discovering what he called the “mere exposure” effect. In a seminal experiment, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1968, he showed subjects a series of random shapes in rapid succession. The shapes appeared and disappeared so quickly that it was impossible to discern that some of them were actually repeated. Nevertheless, when subjects were later asked which shapes they found most pleasing, they reliably chose the ones to which they had been exposed the most often, though they had no conscious awareness of the fact.

I had the experience of reading through the piece thinking, ‘wow, I didn’t realise all these discoveries were from the same guy’.

Link to NYT obituary for psychologist Robert Zajonc (via AHP).

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