Fritz Heider

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Fritz Heider (February 19, 1896 – January 2, 1988)[1] was an Austrian psychologist whose work was related to the Gestalt school. In 1958 he published The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which expanded upon his creations of balance theory and attribution theory. This book presents a wide-range analysis of the conceptual framework and the psychological processes that influence human social perception (Malle,2008). It had taken 15 years to complete; before it was completed it had already circulated through a small group of social psychologists.


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. His father was an architect, which influenced him initially to study architecture at the University of Graz; he had first wanted to become a painter. He tried his hand at studying law, but didn't quite like it either.[2] Since he really liked to learn, he therefore went to audit courses at the university.[2] He eventually became more interested in psychology and philosophy.[2] 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 included the work on 'Thing and Medium' a work on the psychology of perception, and traveled to Berlin, where he worked at the Psychology Institute under Wolfgang Koehler, Max Wertheimer and Kurt Lewin.

In 1927 he accepted a position at the University of Hamburg, whose faculty included the psychologist William Stern and Ernst Cassirer, the philosopher whose thinking on the role of theory on science had an important influence on Kurt Lewin.

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 nearby 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. 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: "Social perception and phenomenal causality," and, with co-author Marianne Simmel, "An experimental study of apparent behavior." Subsequently, Heider would publish little for the next 14 years.

In 1948, Heider was recruited to the University of Kansas, by social psychologist Roger Barker (Heider, 1983). A decade later, Heider published his most famous work, which remains his most significant contribution to the field of social psychology.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). In his book, Heider presented a wide-ranging analysis of the conceptual framework and the psychological processes that undergird human social perception.[3]

The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations pioneered 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 over 13,000 times. Heider introduced two theories that correspond to his two articles from 1944: attribution theory and cognitive balance. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations illuminates a sophisticated approach toward naive or common-sense psychology.[4]

In The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, 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 in 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 perceptual organization follows 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).

In 1983, Heider documented his personal, career developments and achievements in his autobiography The Life of a Psychologist: An Autobiography.[4] He received many honors, including the American Psychological Association (APA) Distinguished Contribution Award, the Gold Medal for Scholarly Accomplishment in Psychological Science presented by the American Psychological Foundation, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[4] Heider died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, on 2 January 1988 at the age of 91. His intellectual legacy still lives on. His wife of 57 years, Grace, died in 1995. His son John died in 2010.[4]

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  1. ^ American Psychologist., "Fritz Heider (1896 - 1988)". American Psychological Association, 1989, p. 570.
  2. ^ a b c Ickes, W.; Harvey, J.H. (1978). "Fritz Heider: A Biographical Sketch". The Journal of Psychology 98: 159–170. doi:10.1080/00223980.1978.9915957. 
  3. ^ Malle, Bertham (January 2008). "Fritz Heider's Legacy: Celebrated Insights, Many of Them Misunderstood". American Psychologist 39 (3): 1–2. doi:10.1027/1864-9335.39.3.163. Retrieved 4 December 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d Harvey, John H. (March 1989). "Fritz Heider (1896-1988)" (PDF). American Psychologist 44 (3): 570–571. doi:10.1037/h0092108. Retrieved 7 April 2012. 


  • Department of Psychology, History, University of Kansas,
  • 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. doi:10.1037/h0055425. 
  • Heider, F; Simmel, M (1944). "An experimental study of apparent behavior". American Journal of Psychology 57: 243–259. doi:10.2307/1416950. 
  • 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.
  • Malle, Bertham (January 2008). "Fritz Heider's Legacy: Celebrated Insights, Many of Them Misunderstood". American Psychologist 39 (3): 1–2. doi:10.1027/1864-9335.39.3.163. Retrieved 4 December 2012. 
  • Jones, E.E. (1979). "The rocky road from acts to dispositions". American Psychologist 34: 107–117. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.34.2.107. 
  • 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.
  • Investors' risk tolerance and return aspirations, and financial advisors' interpretations: A conceptual model and exploratory data The Journal of Behavioral Economics (December 1990), 19 (4), 377-393
  • Heider, F., and M. Benesh-Weiner. [1987] 1989. The Notebooks: Volumes 1-6. Springer. ISBN 978-0387912998
  • Harvey, J.H. (1989). Fritz Heider (1896-1988). American Psychologis, 44 (3), March 1989, 570-571.

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