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Richard Lazarus, UC Berkeley psychology faculty member and influential researcher, dies at 80
04 December 2002

By Carol Hyman, Media Relations

Berkeley - Richard S. Lazarus, recently named by the journal "American Psychologist" as one of the most influential psychologists in the history of the field and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, died on Nov. 24 in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 80 years old and had served on the UC Berkeley faculty since 1957.

When word of his death reached the psychology community, there was an outpouring of sentiment from around the world.

Richard S. Lazarus
Richard S. Lazarus (Saxon Donnelly photo)

"I remember my many meetings and talks with him. His brilliant contributions to the study of emotion are an important part of the history of psychology," said Meng Zhaolan, past chair of the psychology department at Peking University, China.

"Many of the top stress and emotion researchers in Israel today - and there are many included in this fold - owe their career and promotion to Dick's support," said Moshe Zeidner, dean of research at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research of Emotions at the University of Haifa, Israel. "I will certainly miss this gentleman and scholar."

A graduate of the City College of New York in 1942, Lazarus served for three and a half years in the U.S. Army during World War II. He obtained his doctorate in 1947 from the University of Pittsburgh and subsequently served on the faculties of The Johns Hopkins University and Clark University before moving to UC Berkeley to head the clinical psychology program.

Lazarus's work influenced psychology in many ways. At a time when psychology tried to understand human behavior by first understanding simple organisms engaging in simple behaviors learned by associations, rewards or punishments, Lazarus instead stressed the study of cognition. His position eventually won out. He conducted highly cited experiments on the role of unconscious processes in perception - studies which were years ahead of their time and confirmed in recent studies in affective neuroscience.

He also helped keep alive the concept of emotion during a time when it was ignored by psychology. His theory of emotion centered on the concept of appraisal - how an individual evaluates the impact of an event on his or her self or well-being - a concept which he elaborated upon extensively in his classic work, "Emotion and Adaptation," published in 1991. In this book, Lazarus synthesized empirical and theoretical arguments to show how patterns of appraisal enter into the generation of at least 18 emotions. He also showed how appraisal explains the meaning of a person's emotional behavior; how a single response, like a smile, can be in the service of many different emotions; and how totally different responses, like retaliation or passive aggressiveness, can be in the service of the same emotion.

Lazarus's strong convictions about the importance of cognition for understanding human behavior led to his investigating topics such as consciousness and unconsciousness, and to extending cognition into fields such as stress and coping. Early in his career, he studied a phenomenon he called "subception," whereby a person reacts emotionally but with no conscious awareness to stimuli that had been paired with electric shock, but does not react emotionally to stimuli not followed by a shock. This work documenting the sometimes unconscious nature of emotions was subsequently rediscovered in the 1980s when neurophysiologists found that certain brain-injured patients show strong emotional reactions to stimuli of which they are totally unaware - a phenomenon called "blindsight."

Lazarus went on to study the importance of preparing a person for emotion. He and his associates documented with experimental precision that a person's emotional reactions to witnessing a film of painful circumcision rites could be "short-circuited" by a soundtrack describing the procedure in a matter-of-fact way, or the emotional reactions heightened by a soundtrack emphasizing the pain the subject was experiencing. The subception and instructional set studies are now considered classics in both experimental psychology and psychophysiology.

These experiments led Lazarus to establish the UC Berkeley Stress and Coping Project, in which he extended his ideas on the importance of appraisal to explain exactly what stress is and what coping involves. This project culminated in the publication in 1984 of "Stress, Appraisal, and Coping," which became one of the most widely read and cited academic books in psychology. Lazarus and Susan Folkman, his former student who is now on the faculty of UC San Francisco, argued that people suffer stress when they believe they lack the resources to deal with difficult events, but that they do not suffer stress if they believe that they have such resources. Stress and coping were thus intimately related to each other and to cognitive factors.

"Richard Lazarus was a generous mentor and colleague," Folkman said. "He was always available to discuss ideas, and usually did so with great enthusiasm and tenacity. I could always depend on him to tell me exactly what he thought of my work, both the good and the not so good. Our last such conversation took place just a week before his death."

Lazarus and Folkman went on to make an important and now widely accepted distinction between two types of coping. In one, the person attempts to address directly the problems that he is facing; in the second, the person tries to dampen or minimize the emotional state itself, without addressing the problem that elicited the state. Both types of coping are important, and, if used properly, can have extraordinarily beneficial consequences for physical and mental health.

In another classic study, Lazarus documented the unsuspected benefits of the coping process. He demonstrated experimentally that patients who engage in forms of denial (for example, refusing to believe that a serious medical problem exists or to accept that the problem is as severe as it, in fact, is) recover better and more quickly from surgery than patients who do not engage in such denial. Lazarus thus came to believe, contrary to orthodox wisdom, that under certain conditions, false beliefs can have very beneficial consequences to one's health and well-being. The study on the benefits of denial has now been replicated by others, and its findings are taken into consideration in health psychology and psychosomatic medicine. The study on denial also documented Lazarus's claims that an event in itself, taken without consideration of how the person construes that event, does not explain the generation of physical, emotional or physiological states.

Lazarus was the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, honorary doctorates from the University of Haifa and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, and in 1989, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution to Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association.

Though Lazarus retired from UC Berkeley in 1991, his writing and research did not stop. Of his 13 books, five were written after his retirement, including "Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions," which was co-authored with his wife of 57 years, Bernice. He also continued to contribute many influential articles and book chapters. His most recent work was an extensive critique of the contemporary movement called "Positive Psychology." Just prior to his death, he completed a treatise on the emotion of gratitude, an emotion seldom studied or discussed in psychology.

In addition to his wife, Bernice, he is survived by their two children, David Lazarus of Pleasant Hill, Calif., and Nancy Holliday, of Orinda, Calif., and four grandchildren. The family will hold a private memorial service on Dec. 8 in Walnut Creek.