My Work is My Hobby: An Interview with Elliot Aronson

Elliot Aronson, Ph.D., is best known for his research on cognitive dissonance and the jigsaw classroom.  From his widely-used textbook, The Social Animal:  “Elliot Aronson’s standing as one of the world’s most distinguished and versatile social psychologists is reflected in the wide variety of national and international awards he has received for his teaching, for his scientific research, for his writing, and for his contribution to society.”

Questions asked during the interview:

Tell me about your retirement/previous work.  Why did you retire?  Was the decision to retire made/planned by you?  Do you consider your retirement successful?  Happiness?  What’s better/gains?  Worse/losses?  How has retirement affected your relationships?  What is your relationship to OLLI?  What are your recommendations for others?

Elliot Aronson:

The notion of retirement is both interesting and elusive.  When I was about 50 years old, I did not even consider the possibility of retirement.  My fantasy was that, at age 93, while delivering a passionate lecture on cognitive dissonance to a roomful of students sitting on the edge of their chairs, I would collapse and die.  I figured that, if I was going to have to die, I would prefer to die with my boots on.  A charming and romantic notion.

Ellie & Desi

Ellie & Desi

There is an old saying:  “If you want to hear the sound of God’s laughter, just tell him your plans.”  In 1994, when I was still a youngish old man of 62, the University of California system was in terrible financial trouble and needed to slash its operating budget.  Because the retirement coffers were flush, they offered some of us older, more highly paid professors an extra financial incentive if we agreed to take early retirement.  (The plan was called VERIP). I was at the top of my game as a teacher, researcher, and writer. Although the financial incentive was tempting, I wasn’t going to take it.  My boots were still on, as it were.  Why quit now?

But, as it happened, that very week, on two successive evenings, Vera and I had been  invited to dinner at the home of two of our academic friends—Mike & Josette Nauenberg and Dick & Phyllis Wasserstrom. Mike is a distinguished physicist; Dick, a distinguished philosopher and Chair of the philosophy department.  In the course of dinner, I said to each of these guys, separately, “You aren’t going to take this VERIP thing, are you?” And each, in he turn, looked at me as if I were crazy and said. “Of course I am, you would be silly not to.” As each extolled the benefits of VERIP, I began to question my own judgment. So, the next week I went to my Dean, and asked him if he thought it was a good idea? He told me that he, himself, intended to take VERIP.  It was too good to pass up.  He added, “Well, of course, it’s up to you. What do you have against it?” I told him how much I would miss teaching.  He reminded me that the VERIP plan allowed retirees to keep teaching (one course a year for $8000) for an additional five years—guaranteed—“and, in the case of gifted teachers, like yourself, that arrangement would certainly be extended indefinitely.” That statement made me take a closer look.  I loved teaching, doing research, and writing.  The only things I disliked about being a professor were serving on committees, the endless, boring departmental meetings, and all the political crap of academia. If I took early retirement, I could ditch those things. What a great idea!  So I took early retirement.  Because the dean assured me that my teaching ability was valued by the University, I fully intended to keep going until I collapsed with my boots on at age 92—as I had originally planned!

Things didn’t work out exactly the way I had anticipated. For the first six years, it was pure bliss; I was teaching one course a year, I continued to do a little research, and I had some leisure time to write a couple of books.  It was paradise.   But then, a new Psychology Department Chair came on the scene—a Chair who apparently decided that he didn’t want us older, retired professors hanging around any more (there were four of us in psychology) and he announced that we would no longer be allowed to teach our courses—because, he claimed, he simply lacked the funds.  I should say that, both before and after retirement, I had been teaching a course on Introductory Social Psychology to a full auditorium of 300 students.  My salary was $8000. Upon learning of this, my friend, Gardner Lindzey (who had been Professor and Chair at Harvard) quipped,  “That comes out to a cost of $30 per student—arguably, one of the best bargains in academic history—since Socrates taught the youth of Athens free of charge!”

At that moment, I felt both angry and helpless.  For the first time in my academic life, I realized that I was totally powerless–because I was retired. Even when I was a beginning Assistant Professor, I had more autonomy to determine my own fate than I had at age 68.  I presented my case to Chancellor Greenwood.  She expressed surprise at the Chair’s decision and seemed sympathetic.  She exclaimed: “Weren’t you the first winner of the Alumni Associations distinguished teaching award?” I nodded (modestly, of course!).   She took a deep breath, looked at her watch and went on to inform me that there was nothing she could do about it because it his her policy never to over rule a Department Chair.  I found that statement astonishing and told her that I thought that was precisely what they paid her to do.  She laughed.  She then said that she would find a way to do something about it—and that, it might take a little time.  She urged me to be patient.  That was fourteen years ago!  Actually, my patience ran out after only one year.  I felt that the University had treated me shabbily and, for the next several years, I turned my back on the campus and refused all invitations to give lectures, commencement addresses and the like.  In retrospect, I must confess that my response was more than a little bit petulant—and I regret it.

About a year after my final class at UCSC, the Psychology Department at Stanford got wind of my retirement and they quickly proceeded to pick up the slack.   They offered to make me a visiting professor in perpetuity.  They told me that, if I didn’t mind the drive, I could come to Stanford once a week and teach a course—any course I wanted to.  They said what would please them most would be to make the course available to the entire campus.  I chose to teach a class called “Social Influence.”  The class attracted over 100 students from all over the campus.  In sophistication, the students ranged from college sophomores, taking only their second course in psychology to third year graduate students in psychology.  In terms of breadth, the class attracted students from sociology, political science, and the graduate schools of both business and journalism. It was a great challenge to teach a course that would satisfy such a wide ranging group– it was great fun. I loved it.

I taught that class for four consecutive years.  After the first year, I was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration—a progressive disease that gradually took away all my central vision. I could no longer drive.  But Anthony Pratkanis, one of my colleagues in the UCSC psychology department, stepped up; he graciously volunteered to drive me to and from Stanford every week. As the disease continued to progress, it got to the point where I could no longer read—even large print.  So, how could I lecture without being able to read my notes?  I resigned my position at Stanford because I didn’t feel I would be able to continue to teach at a level that satisfied me. The Chair at Stanford said, hey, “why don’t you just come and teach a small seminar on Elliot Aronson, just sit around and talk.” It was a kind offer but, at the time, it didn’t feel right to me.  Moreover, in spite of Anthony’s insistence to the contrary, I felt it was an imposition to keep prevailing on him to drive  me to Stanford.  It was those two things together, that made me decide to stop teaching.

This was around 2005.  As I look back on it, I believe I made a mistake. I wish I had continued for another five years or so. I do miss teaching—and, in spite of my visual and transportation problems, in retrospect, I am pretty sure that I could have pulled it off.

So, because of VERIP my retirement came on suddenly without much preparation.  In a sense, it was a surprise.  Although, as I said, I miss teaching, I still lecture from time to time—at psychology conventions and as an invited speaker at universities.  And I am able to write.  I have published four books since going blind, and revised my two textbooks several times. Fortunately, Vera and I do not have any financial problems. Although I did not plan on retiring so early, in a sense, we have been setting ourselves up for it for decades.   For one thing, I had always put maximum savings in IRA accounts.  In addition, the university retirement package is very generous.  Finally, Vera and I have always lived modestly; from my childhood in the great depression (when my father was unemployed and our family was on welfare) to the early days of our marriage as impecunious graduate students, Vera and I learned to live frugally—and frugality is a difficult habit to break!

I’m happy with my retirement. As I said, my major regrets are that I could not keep teaching longer at UCSC and that I wish I had continued teaching for a few more years at Stanford even though there were a couple of major obstacles that would have made it difficult.

There is one other occupation/hobby that I eventually was forced to give up because of my blindness.  I used to love to lead encounter groups at Esalen Institute but stopped doing it a short time ago. The major problem is that I can no longer see faces at a distance greater than three feet. Actually, it was one incident at Esalen that made me decide to end my career as an encounter group leader.  I was working with a woman regarding some problems she was having with her grown children.  We were doing some good, but difficult, work together when (as I learned later), she had begun to cry softly. I hadn’t realized it.  It dawned on me that, if my blindness made it difficult for me to see her tears, I should not be doing this work.  So I have not gone back to work at Esalen.

So, it’s true.  My lack of eyesight, which I mostly refer to as a nuisance is more than a mere nuisance.  It has kept me from doing some of the things that I normally would be doing.  At the same time, it hasn’t kept me from writing, hasn’t kept me from lecturing occasionally.  I spend a lot of time on the computer, on the internet, mostly writing, and often just communicating, sending emails to friends, doing skype with friends and, although it takes me a bit longer to get set up (than it did when I could see), it doesn’t stop me and it is a lot of fun.

I spend a lot more time with Vera since retirement and that’s always good. I am very fortunate in that my wife is my very best friend. My kids are also close friends of mine.  My colleague and co-author, Carol Tavris is also a friend of the family. Carol and I wrote Mistakes are Made and she helped me write my autobiography, Not by Chance Alone, She is a great editor. Carol lives in Los Angeles so we don’t get to see her often.

I also belong to a terrific men’s group that meets every Saturday morning for about four hours. There are 9 of us.  They are smart, warm, sophisticated, caring guys, and we talk about anything and everything. We can talk about mundane things like politics, the stock market and basketball. We can also talk about profound things like issues of marriage, the problems of aging, and issues of death and dying. Almost all of us are in our 70s and 80s so the talk often goes to the meaning of our lives and to what it means to be essentially in the last decade of our lives and how we want to handle that. I think every one of us is facing it without a lot of denial.  For example, we talk about when will we make the decision to pull the plug for ourselves, if we can. One of the guys is a retired trauma surgeon and he says “Don’t worry fellahs, I’ve got a stash of good drugs and there is enough here for all of us.”  It’s a great group. And I don’t want to leave you with the impression that our discussions are morbid.  We also have a lot of laughter and a lot of good food.

I consider my retirement successful as I have a lot of leisure time that I think I am using well. I am listening to music, interacting with my friends both on the internet and face-to-face.  But most of all, retirement has been easy because my work has always been my hobby.  I still consider myself a Professional Psychologist. As I said before, I still write, even though I cannot read—with the aid of some amazing computer technology which can convert the written word to the spoken word so I can play my writing back to myself in order to make editorial changes.   Although I have not taught an actual course in almost a decade, I still give lectures at psychology conventions, at universities around the country—and even in far off places like Budapest and Warsaw.  I also like to give lectures to groups like Lifelong Learners, Donors to Guide Dogs for the Blind, and so on.

The only activities I miss are due to blindness not retirement. I already mentioned how I miss leading groups at Esalen. In addition, if I had my eyesight, we would do more traveling. I miss traveling now that I have the leisure. I would love to spend more time, in my favorite cities like Venice, Florence, Paris and London. But, unless I have a specific thing to do, with people assigned to keep tabs on me (like when I am invited to give lectures abroad), travel is a drag for me and being in a strange city is difficult and stressful. My coping strategy is that I push the envelope about the blindness but I don’t want to push it too far out of my comfort zone. It does make me anxious to be in a strange city and not be able to see more than three or four feet in front of me. I miss out on what’s really exciting about the city. What’s the point of going to the Louvre if I can’t see the paintings? What’s the point of being in a beautiful city like Florence or Venice if I can’t really enjoy it to the fullest? I can’t enjoy going to the opera anymore because I cannot see the stage.  I’d much rather sit at home in an easy chair listening to opera on my stereo. Those are the things I miss. My way of being is to live in that space somewhere between denial, at one extreme, and self-pity on the other. What I mean is this:  I avoid dwelling on the things I miss. But when someone asks me about them, (like you are doing now), I want to be totally honest in my response. Yes, I miss those things but I try to see the humor in it as well. For example, in my autobiography, I wrote that, because of my blindness, I can no longer read scientific journal articles and can no longer enjoy cocktail parties–but, hey, who likes reading journal articles anyway (they are boring), who needs to go to cocktail parties anyway. I don’t go to as many scientific meetings as I used to because a lot of the joy of going to conventions is gone due to the simple fact that I can’t see people. I can no longer enter a room and look across a crowd of people and see an old student or a former colleague whom I haven’t seen in ten years. That is a real negative for me so I don’t go to as many conventions as I used to.  I miss these things but I am not feeling sorry for myself—I am simply reporting the way it is.  Again, I try to focus on the things I CAN do, and not waste a lot of time fretting about the things that are no longer fun for me because of my blindness.

It seems that the blindness has sort of forced me to consolidate my life but the consolidation has some obvious advantages. I have more time with Vera, my kids, my grand kids and my closest friends.  I love that aspect of consolidation. Three of my children live in the Bay area. (The other is a professor at NYU).  One of my sons, Neal is a retired Santa Cruz firefighter.  We hang out together a lot.  We have designated at least one afternoon a week to smoke a cigar and drink scotch.  Neal and I sit in my beautiful patio for 3 or 4 hours and talk about anything and everything.  It’s a joy for me, and Neal says that his friends are envious that he gets to spend one or two afternoons a week with his dad—with no agenda. He makes it clear that he comes around because he loves being with me—and I with him.  I think back about, when I was in my 40s, I would call my mother maybe once a week.  It would be the usual Jewish phone call where the first five minutes she’d say, “How come you never call?” and I’d say, “I’m calling you now! I’ve got an idea: let’s try to talk about something other than the fact that I never call.”  But, no matter how hard we tried, it was almost always 90% obligation and 10% joy. With our kids, I feel like it is 100% joy for them and for us and that’s great. In retirement, I have more fun, more time for that. And, I’m a pretty happy and present grandfather too. I get to spend a lot of time with the grandchildren and that’s pure joy.  Being a grandfather is a great racket:  All pleasure and almost no responsibility.

[I brought the interview back to what Elliot had said about not teaching.]

Yes, I was annoyed at UCSC for about five or six years. But I eventually got over it.  Moreover, in 2006, George Blumenthal became Chancellor.  I have always been fond of George—and so, when he took over, I made myself available to him and have participated in alumni reunions, given lectures to University donor groups and so on. It was interesting lecturing to OLLI last month because it gave me the idea that I might want to lead an interest group or teach an informal course for OLLI. I am thinking about teaching a course to a group of around a dozen people in my living room where we could meet once a week and talk psychology and actually do the kind of thing Stanford invited me to do. We could talk about an extension of what I talked about in the lecture and that could be fun.

[Has retirement affected your relationships?]

My important relationships have always been good. There is a kind of myth or a joke or maybe it’s true, that when people retire, their spouses don’t like having them around the house (underfoot!) so much or the time. It was different for Vera and me. I like being home and I think Vera likes having me around. Vera and I do a pretty good job of being together and being alone together. For example, she can be in her study reading or drawing and I can be in my study writing or playing on the Internet and it just feels good to know the other person is in the house. In the evenings we often sit in the living room together—sometimes we listen to music, other times we just chat, and other times we are simply together doing different thing—I might be listening to an audio book, with ear phones, while she is reading the old fashioned way.

Having retired, I do miss doing research with first-rate graduate students.  But, of course, even when I was working full time, there is no guarantee that all of my graduate students would have been first rate.  Often, out of a sense of duty, I felt the need to work with grad students who were mediocre, in ability or motivation—as a service–to provide them with research training and help them get their doctorate.  Working with a first rate student is exciting and energizing; working with a mediocre student is energy depleting.  I don’t miss that part of graduate education.

[What recommendations do you have for others retiring?]

All I can say is, I loved working and love being retired. I don’t know what I would recommend to others, but I will try. Some folks, when they retire, take up golf, or bridge, or bird-watching. That’s fine.  But for me, being a social psychologist, thinking about it, writing about it, talking about it, looking at current events through the magnificent lens that social psychology provides—this is my hobby.  Someone once said, “Find something you love to do and you will never have to work a day in your life.”  I agree.  And, for me, that something is social psychology.  It goes without saying that I have done a great many other things as well.  When I was young, I played a lot of baseball and was pretty good at it.  I have always loved playing tennis, hiking in the mountains, swimming in the ocean, playing poker, and so on.  But the one sustaining thing, the one thing I cannot get enough of is thinking, talking, and writing about social psychology. When you ask if I would recommend this for others, no I don’t think I could make that recommendation for others. Only for those who are in love with their discipline the way that I love mine.  In this regard, I feel incredibly blessed.  I also feel incredibly blessed to have found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with when I was 22 years old.  How could I have been so lucky?  Vera and I have now been married for 58 years.  Would I recommend that to others?  Well, of course, if you are in love as we are, and if you enjoy the hell out of all the time you spend together like we do?  Of course.

Writing Mistakes Were Made, was one of the great adventures of my life and I wrote it while I was blind.  While I was blind, I also wrote a children’s book (in collaboration with my then 7-year old granddaughter, Ruth Aronson).  Last year, writing my autobiography, Not By Chance Alone was great fun, revising The Social Animal  (now in its eleventh edition) is a joy.  Writing an analysis of the Columbine shootings (Nobody Left to Hate) was an important project. This is all social psychology (even the children’s book).  I guess what I’m saying is that retiring wasn’t a major step for me, because I am still a professional. I’m just not teaching as much as I used to and or going to as many meetings as I used to—hardly any!  I miss teaching but certainly don’t miss going to meetings!

Another word about my distaste for meetings:  Not only do I dislike meetings, but I also am not very good at participating.  Several years ago, I was invited to join the Board of Directors of the Vista Center for the Blind. It’s a wonderful organization run by several giving, generous people. I was honored to join.   I served on the Board for two years.  I gradually realized that, in my retirement, I had mindlessly volunteered to do the main thing I disliked about my job—going to committee meetings.  After a while, it dawned on me that I needed to resign—for the good of the group as well as for my own good.  Even though I appreciated what the organization was doing, I just hated sitting around. So when I said I think I am going to have to resign, I am convinced that they were happy to hear it because they were probably trying to find a graceful way to kick me off the Board. I was the only blind person on the Board.  When we did have meetings I occasionally found myself cast in the role of teacher. For example, on one occasion, the Chairman was saying something, when he finished, there was a long silence. After a while, it dawned on me that he was addressing his question to me.  I said, “I’m sorry; were you talking to me?”  And he said that he was.  I said, “Well, you know, it would help me if you would say my name when you are asking me a direct question because there are eight of us sitting around this table and I am incapable of seeing that you are looking at me.”  It is, of course, an important lesson—especially for those wonderful people who are giving their time freely in an effort to help the blind. I’m embarrassed to confess that I believe that, during my two years on the Board, this was probably my major contribution.

It was maybe a month after I was diagnosed that I first went to the Vista Center. I walked in and said to the receptionist, “I’ve just been diagnosed with macular degeneration and I want to make a connection with this place, can you tell me what you do for people who are going blind?” She said, “One thing we do is offer mobility training with white canes” and I thought, oh I could use that.  David, the terrific mobility instructor, who trained me said exactly that. “You know, it is so much better to get training while you still have some eyesight left because then you can see what you are doing and then when you do eventually lose most of your eyesight, you will have the skill.” He was absolutely right. In a very short time, I became adept at walking with the white cane. As I gradually lost more and more of my vision, I was grateful to David and the training.  The white cane was my ticket to mobility and relative independence.

Truth be told, I walk faster with the white cane than I do with my guide dog. But, I love my dog so much that I would never revert back to the cane on a permanent basis. I now use both, depending on the situation.  The guide dog has certain advantages over the cane.  When I started to use the white cane, I still had some eyesight left and I could see that, when people saw me coming, they gave me a fairly wide latitude.  My feeling is (and I may be wrong), the white cane is a scary thing to most people. It is not a warm fuzzy. Most people with visual impairments are aware of this and it makes them reluctant to use a white cane.  They don’t want strangers to treat them as “that poor old blind person.”  When I realized this, I was able to be helpful to other blind people.  One of the things I did while I was at Vista, was to convince people to overcome their reluctance to use a white cane.  I simply reported that, “with or without the white cane, I am not simply that old blind guy. This is me, this is who I am, Yes, I’m blind and I’m coping with it.”

I think that my insight stems from being a social psychologist. I’m forever thinking about, what’s the impact of this thing and what’s the impact on me? I am not going to let it be a stigma even though strangers might see it that way.   For me, in my own mind, the white cane became a badge of courage, a symbol of my independence, of the fact that I can go anywhere with the aid of this little implement.  I categorically refuse to stay home and curse the darkness. And ten years ago, after I mastered the white cane and came to terms with whatever stigma was attached to it, I wanted to teach other people to do that.

At the same time, I can well understand the reluctance visually impaired people had to using the cane. I saw it most clearly, two years ago, when I learned to work with a guide dog.  Although I still use the white cane a lot, I now mostly depend on my dog.   When I learned to work with a guide dog, I could detect a major change in the way sighted people reacted to me.   Many people approached, hey what a cute dog, It made a huge difference socially. But, although the guide dog is a wonderful companion and a helpful friend, I continue to view the white cane as a useful tool.  I use it a lot—especially when I go to places like scientific conventions, or other places where my guide dog might be uncomfortable.

[It seems like how you approach blindness is a metaphor for life. It’s better to do things while you can, and while you have abilities … deal with things while you can, think them through before they are upon you.]

Yes, that is an excellent insight.  And I think early planning is also a valuable tool for retirement.  When asked, the major thing I tell people about retirement is not to be afraid of it. Look, it can be an if, then. If you loved your job, then find a way to stay connected to that work in your retirement.  I have a close friend who is an excellent physician.  He is beginning to think about retirement.  An avid golfer and is actually looking forward to retirement so that he can spend more time on the golf course. There is nothing wrong with that.  But, for a guy who has spent 45 years serving others, retiring onto the golf course could become a bit boring after a while. So I have said to him (probably much too often, I’m afraid!),  “You might want to see if you can find a way to use your incredible skills in retirement. Maybe volunteer one day a week at a free clinic, for example.” I think retirement should not be the end of your career. If you like what you have spent your life doing, and you are retiring because you are getting too old or weak to do it full time, find a way to do it part time or in a more exciting way than you did while working full time. Find a way to use your skill that can be helpful to people and can enrich your own life.

7 thoughts on “My Work is My Hobby: An Interview with Elliot Aronson

  1. I was fortunate to be able to attend Professor Aronson’s talk to the Osher Lifelong Learners group. He was a compelling, warm and engaging speaker. Could’ve listened to him longer. I had heard of him in the past, but never had an opportunity to see/hear him. Afterwards, I approached him to ask a personal question and he took my hand, or I his–don’t remember, and he did his best to answer my question.

  2. What a “MENSCH”! A true human being. Lovable. Inspiring. Generous. I will share his message, especially with a very close friend (lover) who is dealing with Macular Degeneration. Thank you

  3. Thanks Jill for making this interview available. He has great attitude toward life and was impresses with him at the talk. Like your site and like your work as well.

  4. Professor Aronson,
    I registered for your upcoming OLLI Social Influence course. Psychology classes were alway my favorites in high school and university. One of my professors at Arizona State University urged me very strongly to change my major to psychology. I should have listened to him! Instead, I continued my major in engineering/chemistry because I could get a higher paying job sooner with my BS degree. I still love psychology and hope to be included in your course.

  5. I enjoyed reading this pages and I thank you and Jill to lend her website. I hope i get to attend to your next talk at OLLI. I am going to write about my retirement and I hope it will be readable and enjoyed by some of the readers.
    Your writing about your love for your wife and her love for you is very touching.
    My own retirement had a lot to do with my late husband’s early retirement. At that time I thought he was hurrying too much. Now, I know he did the right thing. I am sorry about his having enjoyed retirement for only two years because a fast growing lung cancer took him away.
    I am glad about your enjoying so many things and so many people during your retirement. Thank you.

  6. Thank you Jill, for great stories on living life to the fullest in our later years…and to Professor Aronson, for his terrific example in doing so. Dr. Aronson’s comments bring so many thoughts to mind, including the many men I work with who seemingly (even in their mid-60’s), give little thought to ‘preparation for retirement’, who worse still, appear to have few real interests outside their vocational endeavors. Professor Aronson’s genuine acceptance of and good counsel for dealing with a disability like loss of sight, gives me great hope in that, while I’m still gainfully employed (at age 70, with intentions to remain so for two more years), two avocational pursuits I’ve been working to learn/improve on for years include writing and painting. And for some reason I harbor fears that loss of sight could cut short my goals to be productive in those arena’s. His comments are most encouraging, that should my greatest fear become reality, there are ways to overcome these “inconveniences”. Thank you Professor!

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