Ellen Berscheid was born in northwestern Wisconsin where her Norwegian ancestors settled when it was the Northwest Territory. Her life thereafter alternated between Wisconsin and Nevada where she graduated from Reno High School, then returned to Wisconsin to attend Beloit College where she planned to major in Mathematics as aptitude tests, past performance, and counselors advised her that she had a very high aptitude for math. However, the unwanted and inappropriate attentions of her first math professor contributed to her decision to go back to Nevada and enroll in the university there. Dismayed that all U of Nevada students were required to take Introductory Psychology, she wanted to rid herself of that nuisance quickly and added that course, taught by Paul Secord, to those needed for her new major in English Literature. At the end of his Psychology course Secord mentioned that next semester he would be offering a new seminar titled “Perception and Cognition.” Having not paid much attention to what he had taught in Intro Psychology, Berscheid signed up thinking the seminar would address the mysteries of extrasensory perception and pre-cognition. After a week in the seminar, just as Berscheid began wondering if Secord would ever get around to something interesting, he did. It was nothing on reading minds and such but Secord began to talk about Heider’s views of phenomenal causality, the “new look” in social perception, and interpersonal attraction.
Secord had just presented a paper on “Facial Features and Interference Processes” at the seminal 1957 Harvard—ONR symposium on Person Perception and he also had been given a grant from NIH, which had just begun to fund social science research. The grant included one research assistantship which he awarded to Berscheid (one of the few students who had taken his seminar and stayed to the end). When his departmental colleagues subsequently criticized him for giving that rare research assistantship to an undergraduate (not a graduate) student and one who was not even a Psychology major, Secord asked Berscheid if she would mind changing her major. She simply added on a Psychology major and received both her B.A. and Master’s degree in both fields in 1960.
The U of Nevada did not offer a doctorate in Psychology, but at Secord’s insistence Berscheid applied for, and surprisingly received, a Public Health Service Predoctoral Research Fellowship, which she could take to any university that would admit her to their graduate school. At that time, few universities admitted women to their graduate schools in Psychology (or any other field) even though the Fellowship would pay the university to train that woman and would also give her a stipend to live on. Higher education for women was widely seen to be a waste of resources. For example, Berscheid filled out Duke University’s very long doctoral application form only to find at the very end, in small print, the statement: “Applications accepted from men only”. Secord finally called his friend, Harold H. Kelley at the University of Minnesota, and prevailed upon him to take her. She went back to her native Northwest but Kelley’s luke-warm greeting, combined with the stress of personal adjustments to her recent marriage and a death in the family, led Berscheid to give her research fellowship back and go to work at Pillsbury in their Research & Development department. (Kelly later appeared in her life again when her work in Psychology was again jeopardized; he became a revered close friend and mentor). A year or so later, and bored with her job, she heard that Elliot Aronson had arrived at the U of Minnesota mid-spring and was looking for a research assistant. She applied for the job and got it despite their initial vigorous exchange of views about whether women belonged in graduate schools. She was enjoying the research job so much she thought it was too good to be true. It was. Aronson got a message from the Graduate School that research assistants had to be “graduate students in good standing”. So, he told Berscheid, “You have to take some courses”. “What courses?” she asked. “Just do what the other graduate students are doing”, he said. Berscheid had signed on to be a research assistant, not to spend her time taking courses, so she took the minimum possible. Also, she had no desire to get a Ph.D. as it was worthless—just another dead end as no one would hire a woman. But she loved the research job so she did what she had to do to keep in “good standing” and took the same doctoral exams the other graduate students did. This all led to Berscheid receiving a Ph.D., despite the fact that the Graduate School balked at giving the degree to someone who had taken so few courses in Psychology. Aronson then pointed out to them that she had met all their rules by passing all their examinations, written and oral, and authoring an accepted thesis; in other words, their Ph.D. essentially amounted to an “examination degree”. After begrudgingly forking over the degree to Berscheid, they immediately changed their rules and made a minimum number of courses in the doctoral subject a requirement.
Her previous work at Pillsbury then helped her secure a temporary professorship in the Marketing Department of the U of Minnesota Business School (where all her fellow students were male, as was the faculty). When that job was close to ending, her friend Elaine Hatfield had just secured a professorship in the Psychology Department at the U. of Rochester and arranged for Berscheid to get Hatfield’s job in the U of Minnesota Student Activities Bureau. Then, a year or so later, John (Jack) G. Darley, the new and powerful Chair of the Department of Psychology, surprised many at the U of Minnesota when he somehow got Berscheid a professorship in the all-male Psychology Department. It still is a mystery how he did it. When asked by curious people, the Dean of the College simply would say, “One morning Jack Darley got out of bed, went to the window, raised the blind, and said “Let there be woman!”. Darley had not informed Berscheid of the change beforehand; rather he only informed her after the fait accompli, telling her that she would now be working in the Psychology Department, not the Student Activities Bureau and that was the end of the story.
She remained in the U of Minnesota Psychology Department until she retired in 2010, having received the U of Minnesota’s highest honor “Regents’ Professor” in 1988. Among her other awards, Berscheid received the Donald T. Campbell Award for Distinguished Research in Social Psychology from the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (APA), and the William James Award from the American Psychological Society (APS). She is past president of the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships, past president of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, and served three terms on the Executive Board of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. Berscheid also served as Editor of the APA journal Contemporary Psychology and as Associate Editor of four other journals.
- Ellen Berscheid is a foremost pioneer, and then a continuing leading contributor to advancing relationship science, both from her research and her service. She stands out for her consistently ground-breaking, highly influential, creative, and just so valuable work for over half a century. And in the midst of making these contributions she has been enormously supportive of our field, and of so many of us individually (including me), in really significant ways.
- Arthur Aron
- Ellen Berscheid has inspired us in so many ways. Her role in establishing the field of close relationships is unparalleled. We hold her in our highest regard for her contributions to our field. With deep gratitude.
- Chris Agnew and Ximena Arriaga
I was a first-year college student in 1969 uninterested in psychology (but required to take a psychology course) when her book with Elaine Walster, Interpersonal Attraction, was assigned in my introductory psychology course. I had not a clue how important that initial book was. I had not a clue that there were almost no women in the field of social psychology. But the book captured my interest, it was one reason I kept taking psychology courses (despite my major being political science) and eventually I came to know how innovative it was. (I still have my copy.)
Years later I landed in graduate school. It was 1973. There wasn’t an established group or researchers studying close relationships. (Instead, social cognition was “the new thing” to study.) My new advisor, Judson Mills, studied attitudes. I’ve not forgotten his initial reaction to my desire to study close relationships. He was surprised but agreed to let me take a shot at it, “because Ellen Berscheid studies that and she does it well.” (It was important to him that her studies were truly experimental.). He told me to read her work.
Later in graduate school he introduced me to her. Throughout graduate school and, indeed, throughout my career she was supportive and encouraging. She often did this in invisible ways that often took place behind the scenes. I’d be invited to write something or to present something and, being pretty unknown, I’d ask why the inviter thought of me. More often than not the answer would be, “Ellen Berscheid suggested you.” (Ellen: I am so very, very grateful for that support.) Her empirical, theoretical and gutsy and beautiful commentaries on the field were always inspirational.
And it’s not just her scholarly work that mattered to me. I will never forget her talk at a symposium marking the 25th anniversary of SESP’s founding. The other speakers (all men) talked about their own contributions to and perspectives on the field. Not Ellen. Instead, she spoke eloquently and powerfully about what it was like to be a woman entering the field of social psychology early on. She was blunt, critical, and inspirational. The points she made were relevant then and continue to be relevant.
Ellen paved (and smoothed) the way for many women, myself included, in the field of social psychology. She also paved (and smoothed) the way, and offered lots of encouragement to fa small, early, cohort of relationship researchers in the late seventies and eighties. That group has grown much larger and is flourishing in no small part due to Ellen Berscheid’s early modeling and supportive actions.
Finally, I have to say that Ellen Berscheid is not only brilliant, gutsy, determined and straightforward, but also a lovely, elegant, caring and gracious person. (It’s a winning combination!) When I’d see her at conferences, she always asked how my family—including my dogs—were doing. She was always encouraging. She also once sent me a letter with some health advice which I continue to follow and for which I was and am very grateful.
It a pleasure to honor Ellen Berscheid and to thank her for how very much she has contributed to my career and to my life and to so many. What a role model. What a person.- Margaret (Peggy) Clark
- Ellen Berscheid is my William James, my Kurt Lewin, my Leon Festinger. She is the single most important figure in the history of relationship science. That she launched and developed the field—often in collaboration with the great Elaine Hatfield—in an era when women were so marginalized in academia is both dumbfounding and miraculous. On the occasion of APS honoring Ellen and Elaine with the William James Award in 2012, I teamed up with Harry Reis, Art Aron, and Peggy Clark on this Perspectives article summarizing many of their contributions to the field; it’s as good a place as any to learn about their contributions to the field. Those contributions are titanic.
- Eli Finkel
- Ellen Berscheid, along with Hal Kelley, is one of the giants in the field of close relationships. Over the years, she has been a commanding voice for the field, and her prominence helped to establish close relationships as a legitimate and important topic of study. I can remember how proud I was to attend an invited SESP talk where she wowed the audience: she was a very dynamic speaker. Ellen had several stages to her career. She was first a pioneer with Elaine Walster in the empirical study of interpersonal attraction, not daunted by the political and scientific opposition to studying the sacrosanct concept of love. She also achieved significant influence through brilliant theoretical work integrating interdependence theory dynamics with the development of emotions in relationships. And she conveyed her sophisticated ideas in an elegant writing style, paralleled by no one. Ellen has been an impeccable role model for me and others in the relationships field, and we celebrate her very significant contributions to our science.
- John Holmes
- I could write a book (or two) about Ellen’s contributions to our discipline, and there isn’t room for that here! So I will simply say that Ellen Berscheid is the finest scholar I have ever known. She possesses the most engaging and refined intellect I’ve ever come across, and a degree of professional and personal integrity that is unparalleled, in my experience. She changed my life. I’m grateful that she was my mentor in graduate school and for the work we accomplished together, and I remain deeply appreciative of her continued presence in my life both as a colleague and a friend. I’m so happy to be able to celebrate the quite remarkable achievements of this quite remarkable woman!
- Pamela Regan
- What a career Ellen Berscheid has had! It’s impossible to imagine anyone who has had made more important contributions to, or had more impact on, our discipline. As one of the very first women in social psychology, Ellen overcame innumerable obstacles while opening the door for the many others who followed in her footsteps. When Ellen began her research, few social psychologists thought that interpersonal attraction and close relationships were worthy of the field’s attention. Fortunately for us, she insisted, and in so doing, she revolutionized the field by demonstrating not only that these topics were worthwhile, but that they were fundamental to any proper understanding of social behavior. Her research and theory defined the field’s research priorities for more than three decades, leaving a legacy that underpins this now-vibrant area of inquiry. Later, she extended her work to the study of emotion and emotion regulation, and to the impact of social circumstances on human well-being, again showing that attention to the impact of relationship contexts was indispensable. Any subset of her work would mark a distinguished career; in the aggregate, they identify a truly remarkable scholar. If I were asked to select the single-most important social psychologist of the second half of the 20th century, her name would be Ellen Berscheid.
How might I characterize Ellen’s work? Meticulously designed research, rigorous theory that at the same time was firmly grounded in the experiences of real people, and an exceptional ability to tell the story in her exquisite writing. On a more personal note, no one had more impact on my career than Ellen. Her 1969 book, Interpersonal Attraction, written with Elaine Hatfield, is what drew me in the field. Later, Ellen reached out to me at a time when I was unsure of my direction in the field, and she helped me see what needed to be done. She also taught me how to distinguish sense from nonsense, and how to write science. I am deeply grateful for all this. The world needs more Ellen Berscheids.
- Harry Reis
- Ellen Berscheid is one of the leading figures in the history of social psychology, in terms of both the impact of her research and conceptual writing on the field and her service as a role model and pathfinder for young women scholars. She and Elaine Hatfield collaborated on pathbreaking field experiments and theoretical papers on love and attraction at a time when women were not welcome in the faculty club at Ellen’s university; when the central topics in the field (e.g., attitude change and group dynamics) were influenced by male psychologists’ experiences during World War II; and when the field of close relationships research was just beginning, partly thanks to Ellen’s leadership. Social psychology is so much richer as a result of Ellen’s work, both scientific and organizational. She is a model of thoughtful and ethical science and service. I owe her several personal debts of gratitude, for example making the topic of love acceptable, which paved the way for my own work on adult attachment, and for inviting me to stay at her house while my younger brother was dying of cancer at the University of Minnesota hospital. If there are any saints walking among us, she is surely one.
- Phil Shaver
- I think of Ellen Berscheid as my academic aunt. She and Elaine Hatfield (my mentor) were the early pioneers of the attraction and close relationships subfields within social psychology. I treasured any interaction I had with Ellen over the years. I also appreciated her early governance of the International Association for the Study of Personal Relationships (a parent organization to the current International Association for Relationship Research). She was President while I was the newsletter Editor. It was a very early time in the development of a professional society focused on personal relationships, and Ellen was instrumental in moving us forward to the society that exists today and also in my desire to continue to contribute to the professional society.
Thank you, Ellen, for all of your extremely insightful contributions to the field of close relationships. I rarely write a paper without citing one of your papers. When I return to read your papers, I am always reminded of the insight you had in your papers and your eloquent writing. And, thank you for the support you have given me over the years.
- Susan Sprecher
- Ellen Berscheid is the psychologist I respect and admire most of any in the world, and thus I am so very pleased that she is being honored in this way.
- Robert J. Sternberg