Fritz Heider Research Paper

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Fritz Heider was born in Vienna on February 19, 1896, spent his childhood in Graz, and received a classical education at the official state Gymnasium. Unable to serve in the army during World War I because of the loss of vision in one eye due to an injury during his childhood, he entered the University of Graz (where ironically at one point he studied depth perception). He did not have a professional goal in mind, and in the European tradition attended a wide range of lectures open to all University students. His interests eventually centered on the study of philosophy and psychology (in opposition to the pursuit of architecture desired by his more practical father).

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As a student, Heider met Alexius Meinong, an influential figure in European philosophy, who suggested the topic of Heider’s doctoral thesis with the obscure question: ‘Why do we say we see the house, rather than saying that we see the sun, for the reflected rays of sunlight are the stimuli that actually strike the eye?’ In discussing this problem, Heider distinguished between ‘thing,’ or the objective structure in the environment, and ‘medium,’ or that in the environment providing information about the object. This theme reappears in much of his work on person perception. He believed in a ‘real’ world, with the task of the observer being to come to know this reality. In Graz, Heider was also influenced by the psychologist Vittorio Benussi, one of the first people to publish experiments in the field of gestalt perception.

After finishing his dissertation, written during 1919, Heider worked for a year as an applied psychologist. But he soon became restless and moved to Berlin. At the suggestion of Bernussi, he made contact with the psychologists at the University of Berlin. An air of excitement permeated the Berlin Department of Psychology. The lectures in perception, especially those of Max Wertheimer, were very popular among students and intellectuals. There was a feeling that Gestalt principles would have an important influence on the development of psychology. Heider attended the lectures of Wertheimer, as well as those of Wolfgang Kohler. He found many Gestalt concepts, such as laws governing ‘unit formation,’ useful in his later work in person perception and interpersonal relationships. He also formed a lasting social and intellectual friendship with Kurt Lewin, at that time a younger member of the Berlin faculty.

After Berlin came the Wanderjahre, a period when Heider spent a good deal of time meandering and reading philosophy, especially Spinoza and Nietzsche, as well as psychology and literature. Then, in 1927, he became an assistant to Wilhelm Stern at the University of Hamburg. In 1930, supported by a recommendation from Stern, Heider took leave from Hamburg to accept what he thought of as a one-year position with the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, who was on a research fellowship at Smith College in Massachusetts, USA. Heider’s principle work was at the Clark School for the Deaf, where Grace Moore was also a member of Koffka’s research group. They were married shortly thereafter and Heider remained in the USA.

Heider settled at Smith College as an Assistant Professor until 1947, where he combined research at the school for the deaf, teaching, and raising three sons. In 1947, he accepted an offer from the University of Kansas as Professor of Psychology. Roger Barker, the new Chairperson of the Psychology Department, had brought with him a group of people like himself who had been closely associated with Kurt Lewin. Then, with the aid of Beatrice Wright, Heider completed his long-awaited book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958). A number of awards followed, including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. Fritz Heider died in Lawrence, Kansas, on January 2, 1988 at the age of 92. He was a gentle man with a sly twinkle in his eye, shy and introspective, with a love of art and literature, and a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity.

1. Scientific Contributions

Unlike other influential psychologists, Heider published few articles, did little experimental work, had few students, and was removed from the mainstream of American psychology. He apparently sought neither power nor fame. Nonetheless, his book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958), published when he was 62 and nearing retirement, had enormous impact. In this work, Heider applied the laws of the perception of physical objects and events developed by Gestalt psychologists to the perception of persons and their actions. Synthesizing object and person perception is one of Heider’s important scientific accomplishments.

1.1 Balance Theory

Two central and associated thematic statements were most fully articulated in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958). One of these relates to the concept of balance. Balance theory as formulated by Heider should be considered within the context of Gestalt views regarding the perception of objects. Gestaltists contended that there is a tendency toward simplicity in the perceptual system such that simple structures are preferred. For example, faces are perceived as symmetrical although this is not exactly the case, and even when a circular form is not quite closed, it is nonetheless perceived as a circle. Furthermore, parts of a system become organized and the groupings form a particular structure in an uncontrollable and inevitable manner. For example, two similar objects in close proximity to one another are joined to form a unit, as in the following example: ** . In the perceptual field, organisms impose particular arrangements.

Heider reasoned that object configurations, including social objects, could be classified into those that are in a balanced or in an imbalanced state. Balanced states are preferred to imbalanced states because they form ‘good’ figures or simple structures. For example, in a two-person system, if a likes b and b likes a, then the system is in balance. But if a likes b while b does not like a, then there is disequilibrium—imbalance exists and there is a force to change in the direction of balance. This can be brought about by changing attitudes toward the other, misperceiving the sentiments of the other, changing the attitudes of the other, and the like.

Configurations with three entities, such as those involving two persons and an object, are more complex. If, for example, a likes b as well as object x (e.g., the elected president), then if b does not like x, the situation is again imbalanced and a force will be created to bring the system into a state of equilibrium by, for example, a change in one’s attitude toward b or toward x. In Heider’s characteristic manner of integrating everyday observations, literary examples, and scientific analysis, he noted that many literary tragedies make use of balance principles (e.g., Romeo loves Juliet, Juliet loves Romeo, Juliet loves and obeys her parents, but her parents do not accept Romeo). An example of ‘latent’ imbalance, which contributed to the dramatic tension in Ibsen’s Wild Duck, occurs when a scrupulous husband loves his wife who, unbeknownst to him, has engaged in a dishonest act for his benefit. Here we can see the relations between object perception, unit formation, the preference for particular arrangements, and social behavior.

Balance principles have been widely applied in the study of interpersonal relations, attitude change, social cognition, and other areas of research. They also provided a new approach in motivation inasmuch as motivation to change was derived from the configuration of cognitive elements, rather than from viscerogenic need states, which were involved in most studies of motivation. In accord with Gestalt principles, the whole pattern of the structure determines its motivational effects.

1.2 Causal Attributions

Causal attributions, or beliefs regarding the causes of events, were the second major focus in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Attribution theory was even more impactful than Heider’s balance ideas, and became the dominant theme in social psychology for nearly fifteen years, between 1970–1985.

Heider postulated that people are motivated to understand and to master their environment—understanding is adaptive and instrumental to future behavior, and also there is a basic curiosity and desire ‘to know.’ Understanding and mastery require knowledge of the causes of events.

Pursuing the distinction in his thesis between thing versus medium, Heider stated that we are often only in contact with immediate facts or raw date (the ‘medium’) but we search for the underlying core processes or dispositional properties to explain these facts (the causal ‘things’). These perceived causes are generally enduring aspects of the world. Covariation information regarding the presence and absence of the inferred cause and the effect are important sources of causal knowledge. But when explaining the actions of persons, Heider reasoned that we often ascribe their behavior to some stable dispositional quality or trait, rather than to situational factors. The underestimation of the situation as a perceived cause of the behavior of others, and over-attribution to the person, subsequently was labeled ‘the fundamental attribution error.’

Although the topics of balance and attribution have been treated separately in the psychological literature, Heider saw them as intertwined. He reasoned that balance principles guide causal attributions. Thus, we infer that a good act was done by a good person, and ascribe success more than failure to the self (the ‘hedonic bias’), for in both of these examples the inferences result in balanced states or simple structures.

1.3 Scientific Method

The sources of Heider’s ideas were largely observational and literary: he often relied upon ‘thought experiments’ in which interpersonal situations were imagined and altered in a systematic manner (e.g., assume Romeo does not like Juliet, or that Juliet does not care about her parents). The psychological consequences of these new cognitive configurations were then inferred. This method may seem atavistic given the movement of psychology toward an experimental science, but it proved fruitful for Heider.

Heider also made use of a second methodology: Examining common speech in order to capture a priori logical relations. Concepts such as belonging, benefit, harm, and sentiment were subject to his logical analysis. This was particularly the case regarding perceptions concerning the causes of success and failure, where he articulated the relations between can and try as causal determinants of achievement outcomes. Because of his mental experiments (rather than manipulation of variables and responses by other), and the use of everyday language in his theoretical analysis, Heider is often labeled a ‘naıve’ psychologist. This characterization is not entirely correct inasmuch as his theoretical analyses embrace abstract principles that transcend any one concrete situation, providing laws that a layperson could not articulate.

2. Contemporary Relevance

As already indicated, attribution theory dominated social psychology in the 1970s. However, its influence did not end there. It remains a presence in social psychology and has made deep inroads as well in the fields of clinical psychology, motivation and emotion, cognitive psychology, educational psychology, and personality. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to discuss interpersonal relationships without making some reference to the concepts of balance or attribution. When assessing the contemporary impact of Heider, it must be recognized that this influence is now carried through more contemporary figures in social psychology who interpreted and elaborated Heider’s ideas, while adding their own insights. Among the figures one generation removed from Heider are Edward Jones, Harold Kelley, and Bernard Weiner, three among the authors of the book: Attribution: Percei ing the Causes of Behavior (1972). More recently, other researchers two generations removed from Heider have, in turn, replaced these figures as leaders in their field.

What follows is a sampling of some of the attribution-related research areas outside of social psychology that can be traced to the foundation laid by Heider. Rather than assess the ‘truth’ of the various hypotheses that have been suggested, these are presented to show the presence of research activity stimulated by Heider’s ideas.

2.1 Clinical Psychology

There is substantial research examining whether causal ascriptions are precursors to depression. It has been contended that when the causes of aversive outcomes are perceived as unchanging, unchangeable, and/or implicate the self (i.e., there is learned helplessness), then depression may follow. Furthermore, perceptions of the causes of dysfunctional symptoms by others may contribute to the course of the illness. Critical and hostile emotional expressions, spawned by causal beliefs that the other is responsible for the illness, affect the recidivism rates of schizophrenics as well as depressives.

2.2 Aggression and Prejudice

A number of different forms of aggression have been subject to attributional analyses. Some types of child abuse, wife battering, and marital hostility have been traced to the aggressor ascribing intentional misbehavior to the other (e.g., ‘My child refuses to obey me;’ ‘She purposively made me a bad meal’). In general, aggressive individuals tend to over-attribute intentionally to others when experiencing a negative outcome. Prejudice also is a product of (or may give rise to) different attributions for in-group and out-group members. For example, aggression by an out-group member may by perceived as controllable by others and intentional, thus producing further out-group derogation.

2.3 Coping

Following a negative life stressor, such as rape, unwanted pregnancy, or illness, there often is a search for causality (‘Why me?’). Some individuals ascribe the aversive event or outcome to their character (‘I am too impulsive’), whereas others place blame on a particular behavior (‘I was at the wrong place at the wrong time’). Those causal beliefs elicit different coping mechanisms, with the more adaptive behavioral blame resulting in active coping, whereas the less adaptive avoidance coping is in part evoked by attributions to properties of the self that are unchanging.

2.4 Motivation And Emotion

A large literature documents that attributions for achievement success and failure have important consequences on subsequent striving. Guided by the can try distinction articulated by Heider, it has been found that attributions for failure to low aptitude are particularly debilitating, in contrast to ascriptions to insufficient effort, which promote action. In a similar manner, the belief that ability is changeable is more adaptive than the belief that one’s ability level is fixed. In addition, reactions of others are guided by beliefs about the causes of failure. Non-attainment of a goal because of lack of aptitude elicits sympathy and help from others, whereas failure due to low effort gives rise to anger and neglect.

A great deal of research under the rubric of appraisal approaches to emotion has contended that how one feels is determined by what one thinks. As intimated above, beliefs about the causes of events comprise an important aspect of this literature. For example, guilt is often preceded by the belief that one ‘could and should have done otherwise’ whereas shame often follows from the causal inference that the causes of personal failure mark one as different from others and cannot be changed. Anger, sympathy, regret, and gratitude also are typically preceded by specific causal beliefs.

2.5 Cognitive Psychology And Psycholinguistics

Many researchers are examining the antecedents of causal beliefs, ranging from individual differences in cognitive preferences to the role of covariation information and the probabilistic co-occurrence of antecedents and consequences. Not all research attempting to understand the contents and process of causal inferences can be traced back to Heider. Nonetheless, some of this research is directly related to his thinking. Linguists have pointed out that verb forms also implicate causality. For example, the phrase ‘I admire him’ results in causality residing in the admired person, whereas ‘I hit him’ places causality in the person committing the act. Some people interested in gender issues have pointed out that journalists may influence lay causal beliefs when they state: ‘The flirtatious woman was raped by him’ as opposed to ‘He raped the flirtatious woman.’ In sum, it is evident from this very select review that, like his ideas about perceived interpersonal relations represented in balance theory, the understanding of perceptions of causality, represented in attribution theory, had a broad influence in psychology. Fritz Heider, an armchair psychologist with knowledge of philosophy and literature, and armed with theoretical acuity, has left a flourishing psychological legacy.


  1. Heider F 1927 Ding und Medium. Symposium, Philosophische Zeitschrift fur Forschung und Ausprache 1: 109–57
  2. Heider F 1944 Social perception and phenomenal causality. Psychological Review 51: 358–74
  3. Heider F 1946 Attitudes and cognitive organization. Journal of Psychology 21: 107–12
  4. Heider F 1958 The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Wiley, New York
  5. Heider F 1976 A conversation with Fritz Heider. In: Harvey J H, Ickes W J, Kidd R F (eds.) New Directions in Attribution Research. Erlbaum Hillsdale, NJ, Vol. 1, pp. 3–21
  6. Heider F 1983 The Life of a Psychologist: An Autobiography. University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, KS
  7. Heider F 1988 The Notebooks of Fritz Heider. M. Benesh-Weiner (ed.) Psychologie Verlags Union, Munchen-Weinheim, Germany, Vols. 1–6
  8. Jones E E, Kanouse D E, Kelley H H, Nisbett R E, Valins S, Weiner B 1972 Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior. General Learning Press, Morristown, NJ
  9. Weiner B 1995 Judgments of Responsibility: A Foundation for a Theory of Social Conduct. Guilford, New York
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