The Large Effects of Dr. Robert Rosenthal


In the rat race of academia, Dr. Robert (Bob) Rosenthal is accurately recognized as one of the brightest in the maze. His career has spanned more than 60 years with significant appointments at the University of North DakotaHarvard University, and most recently at the University of California – Riverside (merely the last 25 years, but still going!). From a hard lesson that emerged in the process of his graduate thesis, Dr. Rosenthal quickly became influential for his Pygmalion-themed studies that demonstrated (among other things) how a teacher’s expectancy of her student’s intellectual ability could shape their classroom performance, i.e., the Pygmalion Effect aka the Rosenthal Effect aka the Experimenter Expectancy Effect. Dr. Rosenthal further developed highly influential collaborations with Dr. Ralph Rosnow on effect sizes and defining/implementing tools to create meta-analyses: analytical practices designed to evaluate the validity of our field’s major findings using many dozens of related studies. These lines of research have only gained in importance during the recent years of Psychology’s replication crisis.

I am pleased to present some tidbits from our conversation — all recalled by Dr. Rosenthal with his characteristic kindness and joviality. He describes some of his childhood successfully fleeing Nazi-Germany at the onset of WWII, his benefit from being an early recipient of a “head-start” program, and the development of his career across institutions and decades!

(And, yes, for those of you familiar with his career, referring to him as “bright” among us rats in the opening sentence is an intended bit of silliness :-). Dr. Rosenthal used the labels “maze-bright” and “maze-dull” with his rat participants to great effect in his early research, but more on that below).

Dr. Rosenthal introduces himself:

In this first excerpt, Dr. Rosenthal recalls a bit about his parents and being born at the University of Giessen (Germany) — an institution that years later granted him a doctorate! (1min 15 sec)

Robert was born in 1933 to a Jewish family in Germany. Only a few years later would be WWII and, fortunately, his family realized their need to leave the country and find safer environs. In this excerpt, Dr. Rosenthal recalls how his family managed to get out in time, making their way to Southern Rhodesia (or, as it is now known, Zimbabwe)! (3 min)

His life in Salisbury (or, as it is now known, Harare), Southern Rhodesia kept him safe from the atrocities that would befall many during WWII, but there were challenges. In this excerpt, Dr. Rosenthal recalls living in Salisbury, including his teacher’s attempt to spare him bullying at the hands of his new classmates with her “head-start” program. (2 min 10 sec)

After just less than a year in Southern Rhodesia, Robert’s family were able to make their way to the United States — as per their original intentions. Dr. Rosenthal recalls how they were able to support this immigration despite the restrictions leaving Germany. (2 min)

In 1940 Robert and his family settled in New York and he resumed his school work in the New York Public School System. In this next excerpt, Dr. Rosenthal recalled a little of his studies in high school and, more specifically, how he came to get involved in Psychology. His experiences may resonate with many who opt into Psychology for they are common themes among our students. Dr. Rosenthal recalls everything from being a favored confidante and listener for his friends, the personal influence from his parents and his mother’s prophetic dreams, and even his very earliest Psychology research with precognition and mindreading as a high school student! (4min)

Not only does that early memory give one a sense of Robert’s scientific curiosity as a student, but also provides something of a tease about the kind of statistical thinking that, later in his career, became an incredibly important part of his scholarship.  His family moved to the west coast, and Robert finished high school in Los Angeles then began his college education at the University of California – Los Angeles where he would go on to complete his PhD. He actually took most of the advanced, doctoral courses from UCLA as an undergrad and consequently completed his thesis graduated with his PhD in just three years (1956). His emphases were in clinical psychology (recall his embracing the role of confidante and proto-therapist in high school) and methodology (embracing the techniques and practices of good science).

Dr. Rosenthal completed his dissertation with the realization that there was a rather perplexing problem that nearly ruined his data collection! He has written extensively about this finding, but I’ll refer those interested in more background to this description from Rosenthal (1978). The issue at the heart of the problem is the following: can an experimenter change the outcome of his research with his own hypotheses? The answer is a resounding yes! Going into an experiment with a set of ideas about what the outcomes might can unintentionally, but effectively, be communicated to one’s participants through subtle interactions and expressions. Dr. Rosenthal’s early research and via the many studies that followed became the foundation of why we now do double-blind studies in most clinical tests — a method to keep an experimenter from direct interaction with those participating in research (thereby removing one source for potential bias).

With several notable co-authors including his then grad student Kermit Fode at University of North Dakota and later in collaboration with faculty colleague Reed Lawson at The Ohio State University, Dr. Rosenthal tested whether changing the label on a group of rats could alter their performance on behavioral tasks. I need to stress that these were all the same rats drawn from the same population! The only difference between the groups was the label on their cage “Maze-Bright” and “Maze-Dull.” Using these signs Rosenthal and colleagues were able to manipulate which of the rats their grad students thought would perform better on tasks. Changing the expectations of those running the tests altered the performance of the rats, themselves. If labeled “bright” the rats learned tasks more quickly and performed better! He further showed that this expectancy effect would also influence human participants — first in a laboratory in the mid-1960’s and later in a classroom as he produced some of his most renowned research with Lenore Jacobson (1968).

In this excerpt, Dr.  Rosenthal recalls his experience creating this research, testing it at various institutions, and then publishing those first studies. What is quite surprising, aside from the results themselves, was the reception he had to this research facing rejection while concurrently being lauded for the quality of the research!!! (4 min 10 sec)

I love that story: two letters about the same research! One letting him know that it is a failure and should not be published and one informing him of the importance the research has and his award for article of the year.

Clearly there is much more to the extensive career and contributions of Dr. Rosenthal! You can read more about Dr. Rosenthal in his profile at UC Riverside and I look forward to discussing more of his work in the forthcoming book!


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