Fritz Heider (1896-1988) was an Austrian born American psychologist of the Gestalt school, In 1958 he published The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which systematized and expanded upon his creation of balance theory and attribution theory.
Heider was born in Vienna, Austria in 1896. His approach to higher education was rather casual, and he wandered freely throughout Europe studying and traveling as he pleased for many years. At the age of 24 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Graz, for his innovative study of the causal structure of perception, and traveled to Berlin, where he worked at the Psychology Institute.
In 1930, Heider was offered an opportunity to conduct research at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, which was associated with Smith College, also in Northampton. This prospect was particularly attractive to him because Kurt Koffka, one of the founders of the Gestalt school of psychology, held a position at Smith College (Heider, 1983).
It was in Northampton that he met his wife Grace (née Moore). Grace was one of the first people Heider met in the United States. As an assistant to Koffka, she helped Heider find an apartment in Northampton and introduced him to the environs (Heider, 1983). They were married in 1930, and the marriage lasted for more than 50 years, producing three sons: Karl, John, and Stephan (in birth order). Karl Heider went on to become an important contributor to visual anthropology and ethnographic film. John Heider wrote the popular "The Tao of Leadership."
Heider published two important articles in 1944 that pioneered the concepts of social perception and causal attribution (Heider, 1944; Heider & Simmel, 1944). After this point, however, Heider published little for the next 14 years.
In 1957, Heider was hired by the University of Kansas, after being recruited by social psychologist Roger Barker (Heider, 1983). Shortly thereafter, Heider published his most famous work, which remains his most significant contribution to the field of social psychology.
Heider's The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958) was written in collaboration with the uncredited Beatrice Wright, a founder of rehabilitiation psychology. Wright was available to collaborate because the University of Kansas's nepotism rules prohibited her from a position at the University (her husband, Erik Wright, was a professor), and the Ford Foundation gave Heider funds and assistance to complete the project. (Wright is credited only in the Foreword; she later went on to become an endowed professor of psychology at the University of Kansas).
The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations essentially founded the modern field of social cognition. A giant of social psychology, Heider had few students, but his book on social perception had many readers, and its impact continues into the 21st Century, having been cited nearly 6,800 times.
The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations contains several influential ideas. Heider argued that social perception follows many of the same rules of physical object perception, and that the organization found in object perception is also found is social perception. Because biases in object perception sometimes lead to errors (e.g., optical illusions), one might expect to find that biases in social perception likewise lead to errors (e.g., underestimating the role social factors and overestimating the effect of personality and attitudes on behavior).
Heider also argued that the order people put on their perceptions followed the rule of psychological balance. Although tedious to spell out in completeness, the idea is that positive and negative sentiments need to be represented in ways that minimize ambivalence and maximize a simple, straightforward affective representation of the person. He writes "To conceive of a person as having positive and negative traits requires a more sophisticated view; it requires a differentiation of the representation of the person into subparts that are of unlike value (1958, p. 182)."
But the most influential idea in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations is the notion of how people see the causes of behavior, and the explanations they make for it—what Heider called "attributions".
Attribution theory (as one part of the larger and more complex Heiderian account of social perception) describes how people come to explain (make attributions about) the behavior of others and themselves. Behavior is attributed to a disposition (e.g., personality traits, motives, attitudes), or behavior can be attributed to situations (e.g., external pressures, social norms, peer pressure, accidents of the environment, acts of God, random chance, etc.) Heider first made the argument that people tend to overweight internal, dispositional causes over external causes—this later became known as the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977) or correspondence bias (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Jones, 1979, 1990).
Heider died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, on 2 January 1988 at the age of 91.
- Fiske, S.T., & Taylor, S.E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Heider, F. (1944). Social perception and phenomenal causality. Psychological Review, 51, 358–374.
- Heider, F, & Simmel, M. (1944). An experimental study of apparent behavior. American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–259.
- Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
- Heider, F. (1983). The life of a psychologist: An autobiography. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
- Jones, E.E. (1979). The rocky road from acts to dispositions. American Psychologist, 34, 107–117.
- Jones, E.E. (1990). Interpersonal perception. New York: Freeman.
- Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173–220). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
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