University of California, Riverside
Because of his creative contributions to research methods and data analysis, as well as his substantive and theoretical discoveries and insights, Robert Rosenthal’s name and reputation as one of the giants of modern psychology are known throughout the world. He is the author or co-author of numerous articles, chapters, and books that are considered classics. His 1966 book, Experimenter Effects in Behavior Research, provided and impetus for hundreds of investigations and fostered the development of procedures to improve our science. The experimenter-efficacy effect, or Rosenthal Effect, refers to the phenomenon in which the researcher’s tacit hypothesis or expectancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the subject’s responses. Another methodological contribution was Rosenthal’s collaborative investigation of the nature and treatment of self-selection bias in research with human subjects, which resulted in the 1975 book, The Volunteer Subject.
Other seminal contributions are Rosenthal’s work on the effects of teachers’ expectations on students’ academic and physical performance and the effects of clinicians’ expectations on their patients’ mental and physical heath. For over 40 years, collaborating with a long line of outstanding doctoral students (virtually a “Who’s Who” of eminent psychologists themselves), Rosenthal did pioneering research on nonverbal communication in the mediation of interpersonal expectancy effects. This research, considered fundamental in social psychology, has in turn spawned further insights about the nature of nonverbal communication in teacher-student, doctor-patient, manger-employee, judge-jury, and therapist-client interaction.
Much of Rosenthal’s recent work has been on methodology and is interface with ethical issues and data analytic procedures. In an article in Psychological Science, he developed what has been described as a “waste not, want not” approach to science and ethics. His eminently sensible thesis was that squandering scientific opportunities in poorly designed or weakly analyzed studies makes for bad ethics, because scientific research can be costly in terms of life, effort, and money. He recommended a number of strategies to improve the situation. In recent years, he has also made many contributions of a statistical nature, introducing scientists to the binomial effect size display, the file-drawer problem, the counternull statistic, and other innovative concepts. Rosenthal’s major contributions to the meta-analysis and contrast analysis are also well known, and they are accessible because of his ability to express technical ideas in clearly written and comprehensible books and articles. His graduate text, Essentials of Behavioral Research, is generally considered by many psychologists the standard reference. Rosenthal’s most recent book, Contrast and Effect Sizes in Behavioral Research, coauthored with long-time colleague Ralph L. Rosnow and Donald B. Rubin, introduced a series of newly developed concepts, measures, and indices that encourage a wider and more useful application of contrast analysis.
Rosenthal’s intellectual versatility is reminiscent of the great Francis Galton’s tremendous accomplishments. Galton was famous not only for his methodological and empirical virtuosity, but also for many intuitive insights about statistics. The same is true of Robert Rosenthal, whose productivity continues to be matched by his brilliance and creativity. He is a virtuoso scientist and methodologist whose work has generated a staggering number of applications. It has also emphasized the significance of psychological science as a fundamental building block of intellectual sight.