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In Memoriam

Robert Paul Abelson, who was Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Professor of Political Science at Yale until his retirement in 1994, died on July 13, 2005 from pneumonia brought on by Parkinson's Disease.

By Ira J. Roseman, PhD, and Stephen J. Read, PhD

Robert Paul Abelson, who was Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Professor of Political Science at Yale until his retirement in 1994, died on July 13, 2005 from pneumonia brought on by Parkinson's Disease.

Bob was born in New York City on Sept. 12, 1928. He was educated at the Bronx High School of Science and MIT, and then worked with John Tukey and Silvan Tomkins at Princeton, where he received his Ph.D. in 1953. From Princeton he went to Yale, where he taught for 42 years.


Robert Paul Abelson, who was Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Professor of Political Science at Yale until his retirement in 1994, died on July 13, 2005 from pneumonia brought on by Parkinson's Disease.

Bob was born in New York City on Sept. 12, 1928. He was educated at the Bronx High School of Science and MIT, and then worked with John Tukey and Silvan Tomkins at Princeton, where he received his Ph.D. in 1953. From Princeton he went to Yale, where he taught for 42 years.

During his career, Bob made foundational contributions to several disciplines. Within social psychology, the 1958 Abelson and Rosenberg model of "symbolic psycho-logic" was one of the first attempts to map the psychological rather than logical structure of attitudes--identifying basic elements, key relationships between them, and conditions under which one attitude might influence another. This early paper was followed by classic, influential analyses of cognitive consistency and inconsistency.

Bob's computer modeling of "hot cognition" in 1963 presciently pointed out the importance of affective phenomena in an era of increased focus on cognitive processes. Along with other work, including a chapter in the 1968 Handbook of Social Psychology, this early example of a computer simulation also helped show psychologists the usefulness of such simulations for specifying complex theories (e.g., of personality processes, attitude formation, and belief systems).

Rather than build highly abstract formal systems, as did some of his contemporaries, or focusing on one or two variables, as did others, Bob instead explored how people actually thought and felt about concrete everyday reality, and was able to understand how that should be represented. First by himself and later with Roger Schank, Bob focused on the idea that human reasoning was largely based on highly detailed and rich representations of the specifics of the social world.

As Hamilton, Devine, and Ostrom wrote in 1994, "the career-long contributions of Robert P. Abelson had, in many important ways, both anticipated and laid the foundation for many of the developments that ultimately came to be described as 'social cognition.'"

In addition to his contributions to social psychology, Bob was one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. In a series of trail-blazing papers, written between 1973 and 1981, he proposed that knowledge and beliefs are coherently and hierarchically structured, with constituent elements organized into conceptual atoms, molecules, plans, themes, and scripts. These theoretical constructs provided psychologists and computer scientists with essential tools to understand processes of social perception, memory, comprehension, reasoning, and argumentation.

Bob's collaboration with Roger Schank resulted in the landmark 1977 publication of Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding, which argued forcefully and influentially that human thought was embedded in and depended upon a rich web of specific knowledge about the world. This work spawned numerous attempts by psychologists and computer scientists, often in collaboration, to understand how people reason in various domains. At Yale, Schank and Abelson established the first interdisciplinary graduate program in cognitive science--a model subsequently adopted by many other universities (as alumni Kristian Hammond & Colleen Seifert recalled in 1994).

Bob also made major theoretical and methodological contributions to political science and political psychology. With Ithiel de Sola Pool, he undertook, for the 1960 and 1964 elections, one of the first computer simulations of the voting behavior of Americans. Pool, Abelson, and Popkin's 1965 book describing this endeavor, Candidates, issues, and strategies was recognized as "a classic work of social science" by the Lasswell Award Committee of the International Society of Political Psychology in 1996.

Bob's substantive interest in public opinion, combined with his sense that, in the real world, important attitudes were often strongly resistant to change, led to his writing a computer program (with John S. Carroll in 1965) that attempted to simulate the responses of a true believer to a series of questions about political events. This "ideology machine" (a/k/a the Goldwater Machine) attracted considerable interest, was a significant early contribution to the emerging field of political psychology, and inspired other investigators to model ideological thinking. Bob subsequently argued, in a 1988 paper in American Psychologist, that researchers should pay more attention to beliefs held with conviction. This has helped to promote a new emphasis in the field on attitude strength and importance.

Bob also published (with Donald Kinder, Mark Peters, and Susan Fiske, in 1982) a pioneering study demonstrating that the emotions aroused by political candidates are key determinants of people's preferences among them--bringing emotions into a domain where partyidentification, issue positions, candidate trait perceptions, and rational voter models were often emphasized.

As a statistician, Bob was known for suggesting elegant and intuitively appealing ways to analyze data, interpret results, and test hypotheses (such as the Abelson-Tukey test for linear trends). At Yale, Bob taught generations of psychologists--with humor, metaphor, and vivid illustrations--how to design experiments, analyze the results, and clearly convey the findings. His 1995 book Statistics as Principled Argument situated the process of statistical analysis within the overall enterprise of making arguments that are appropriately based on data, and fleshed out general criteria (magnitude, articulation, generality, interestingness, and credibility) for the persuasiveness of empirical claims.

Bob complemented his academic accomplishments with important applied work. He helped John Tukey develop a system, first used by NBC in 1962, for projecting the outcome of elections (an early application of empirical Bayesian methods that are now widely used for making small area estimates), and served as statistical consultant for NBC Election News in 1964, 1968, and 1976. He was instrumental in the design of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, served on the NAEP Advisory Panel, and co-authored two reports on the results of this major study in 1970 and 1971. With Phil Zimbardo, he wrote Canvassing for Peace: A manual for volunteers which used social psychological knowledge to give advice on mounting petition drives and working effectively for peace candidates. He served as a pollster and consultant for numerous local and national political campaigns, including the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Walter Mondale.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions in multiple arenas, Bob received Distinguished Scientific Contribution Awards from the American Psychological Association, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology and the International Society of Political Psychology. He was also named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Statistical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychological Society.

Bob Abelson had a rare quality of mind. He was able to blend the formal with the concrete in a way that allowed him to capture key aspects of psychological and social reality. He was particularly gifted at "cutting nature at its joints," seeing what kinds of distinctions really mattered and would give us greater insight into the world. And with such memorable turns of phrase as psycho-logic and hot cognition, he niftily captured conceptual essences of wide and enduring interest and imprinted them upon the consciousness of the field. As his 1986 APA award citation noted, Bob's discerning sense of what problems were interesting and important, and his "creative ruminations" on them, repeatedly stimulated research and thinking in psychology. Bob's incisive analyses of the current state of knowledge, along with his talent for sketching out alternative possibilities, helped suggest new answers to the questions that he raised.

Bob was also a beloved mentor and colleague to many people. His students and collaborators benefited enormously from his intellectual rigor, creativity, open-mindedness, and generosity; and were inspired by his invitation to join in extending the field's understanding of timely issues (and the field itself). In the 1994 festschrift collection Beliefs, reasoning, and decision-making: Psycho-logic in honor of Bob Abelson, edited by Roger Schank and Ellen Langer, Mark Lepper (now Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology at Stanford) recounts with obvious affection how Bob's students absorbed his "colorful style of presentation, his enthusiasm for psychology, his sense of theater, and his basic values about what made an interesting idea or an important piece of research...that truly important research in social psychology spoke, whether directly or indirectly, to deep issues about the nature and the situation of humankind." Donald Kinder (now Philip Converse Professor of Psychology and Political Science and chair of the political science department at the University of Michigan) was far from alone when, in another chapter in that volume, he described his collaborative relationship with Abelson as "one of the glories of my professional life."

A cardinal lesson that Bob taught concerned the importance of intellectual honesty. He advocated and exemplified the benefits of examining one's own and others' arguments and data straightforwardly--appreciating both the strengths and the shortcomings of all formulations--and then seeking to find or develop the missing pieces. It was perhaps this non-defensive, integrative building on worthwhile accomplishments from many quarters, recognizing gaps, and questing for further, deeper, more comprehensive understanding, that enabled Bob to help lay the foundation for so many new directions in so many fields of inquiry, and to remain on the frontier of knowledge throughout his career.

He is, and will be, deeply missed.

Ira Roseman received his Ph.D. from Yale with Bob Abelson and Phoebe Ellsworth as dissertation co-chairs. He is best known for his work on appraisal and emotion, and he co-authored a paper on emotion and political cognition with Bob Abelson and Michael Ewing in 1984.

Stephen J. Read received his Ph.D. from UT Austin, with William B. Swann, Jr.. He attended Schank and Abelson's 1978 intensive summer workshop on the Knowledge Structure Approach and was an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow with Bob. He is best known for his work on a knowledge structure approach to causal reasoning and for his work on computational models of social reasoning and behavior.

We are grateful to Roger Tourangeau for providing information on Bob Abelson's work with John Tukey on election projections in 1962, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and on some of Bob's work at Yale.