May 15, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 16

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    Fiske, 86, created ways to measure human characteristics

    Donald W. Fiske, Professor Emeritus in Psychology, whose research taught scholars how to measure a person’s abilities and personality, died Sunday, April 6, in his Hyde Park home. He promoted rigorous methods to make psychology a true science and accordingly influenced generations of researchers. He was 86.

    Fiske and former University psychologist Donald Campbell co-authored an early article that provided a quantitative approach for measuring differences between people. This analysis separated the distorted information gathered in questionnaires, interviews and other research methods from the information that was a truer reading of a person’s actual characteristics. It became a classic in the field and is still required reading for many students in psychology.

    “That 1959 paper, entitled ‘Convergent and Discriminant Validation by the Multitrait-Multimethod Matrix,’ which appeared in the Psychological Bulletin, is the most cited article in the history of the Psychological Bulletin,” said John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology. As of 10 years ago, it had received more than 2,000 citations, twice as many as any other article in the 100-year-old flagship journal.

    The paper addressed a fundamental problem in scholarship–how to interpret psychological measurements. “When scientists seek to study an abstract characteristic of an individual, such as intelligence or extroversion, they need measures or instruments of that characteristic. What Don did was to establish a rigorous means of evaluating whether the putative (commonly used) measures of such characteristics were valid,” Cacioppo said. Fiske developed rigorous criteria for scientific validity, now widely accepted in behavioral science.

    “Although he often investigated personality traits and measures, the methods he developed were tremendously influential because they could be applied widely in the field of psychology,” Cacioppo said. “Don pointed out ways in which the concepts in the field were imprecise, and he provided a means of increasing their precision.”

    Fiske was the author, co-author or editor of 11 books dealing with measurement and other methodological issues in psychology. One of his books, Measuring the Concepts of Personality (1971), traced the core issues of his early research.

    He continued his work by studying the use of observer ratings, including people’s self-observations. He argued that researchers should avoid interpreting self-observations as accurate measures of the traits they were describing. His books, Face-to-Face Interactions: Research, Methods, and Theory (1977, co-authored with Starkey Duncan, Professor in Psychology and the College), Strategies for Personality Research (1978), and Interaction Structure and Strategy (1985, also co-authored with Duncan), established more reliable methods of measuring personality traits. He advocated using nonverbal behavior and concrete indicators so judgments about personality could be made reliably.

    “Personality traits are abstractions. When we say someone is shy or outgoing, we are characterizing the way in which an individual behaves over time and across situations,” Cacioppo said. “For instance, someone might appear to be outgoing, when in fact he or she is in a social role that requires him or her to act in an outgoing fashion, such as a teacher in a classroom, or because the person is particularly knowledgeable about the topic being considered in a specific circumstance. Don developed formal methods that made it possible to isolate and identify the most likely meaning of measures or observations of this phenomenon.”

    In later work, including the book, Metatheory in Social Science (1986, co-edited with Richard Shweder, the William Claude Reavis Professor in Human Development), he expanded on how psychology and the other social sciences could become more rigorous.

    Born in Lincoln, N.H., and raised in Medford, Mass., Fiske received an A.B. in philosophy in 1937, and an A.M. in psychology in 1939, both from Harvard University.

    He taught at Harvard and at Wellesley College and later joined the aviation psychology section of the U.S. Navy, for which he became director in 1946. He then went to the University of Michigan where he was an instructor and completed his Ph.D. in psychology in 1948.

    He joined the Chicago faculty in 1948 and was Chairman of Psychology from 1982 to 1985. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and president of the Midwestern Psychological Association.

    In 1999, the Department of Psychology established an annual Donald W. Fiske Distinguished Lecture series in his honor. His daughter, Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, delivered the inaugural lecture in 2000.

    Besides Susan, survivors include his wife, Barbara Page Fiske; his son, Alan Page Fiske, a professor of anthropology at UCLA; three granddaughters; three grandsons; one step-granddaughter; and one step-grandson.