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  October 7, 2002

Kenny's Research Has Made Lasting
Impression on Field of Social Psychology
By Claudia Chamberlain

David Kenny is a master of first impressions.

A professor of social psychology, Kenny has built an international reputation on interpersonal relationships. He's done it scientifically, through ground-breaking research.

"What we pioneered at Storrs is a naturalistic approach to interpersona l perception," says Kenny about his Social Relations Model.

Image: David Kenny and Lori Scott-Sheldon
Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor David Kenny meets with Lori Scott-Sheldon, a doctoral student. Kenny's research career has focused on interpersonal perception, or what happens when people interact.

Photo by Shannon McAvoy

Introduced in 1984, the model provides the methods and statistical procedures, as well as a number of integrated theoretical constructs, to understand interpersonal perception - or what occurs when two or more people interact.

Kenny's model, which pioneered the development of methods for the study of real people, has had a profound impact on research in the social sciences. Prior work had limited perceptions to hypothetical or artificial people.

Among the questions he's investigated are factors that lead people to agree and disagree in their perceptions of others; the accuracy of perceptions; and the degree to which people know how others may perceive them.

"We know much more about people we've just met than we think we do, and much less about people we've known a long time," says Kenny. "Part of the reason is that people we've known for 20 years have changed, and we do not pay much attention to them because we think we already understand them.

"Although we still know more about people we've known a long time than those we have just met, it's a curious fact that people we don't know well, we know better than we think we do," he says.

Considered among the 100 most cited social psychologists in the country, Kenny has been cited more than 3,400 times on a single published paper and the Social Science Citation Index has consistently reported him as one of the most widely cited psychologists in the world. The number of citations is more than 8,000.

Kenny's knack for explaining difficult concepts in a way that most research psychologists can understand may hold the clue to his record-making citations.

"David has become arguably the leading figure in the field of interpersonal perception, a position that is indicated in part by his membership on editorial boards and grant review panels, in part by his continuous grant support from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health over the past 20 years, and in part by his professional citations," says Charles A. Lowe, professor and head of the psychology department. "David is also in constant demand as a colloquium speaker and as a research consultant and collaborator."

Despite occasional frustrations, such as rejected papers and grant proposals and students who have dropped out of his beloved field, Kenny has had a remarkably successful career.

"I have a great job," he says, "and if you accept the frustrations, you enjoy the process of the work."

Intellectual Odyssey
All experience, said the 19th-century scholar Henry Adams, is an arch to build upon.

Kenny's arch began in Sacramento where he grew up the oldest of six boys and entered the seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest.

"I didn't get much of a sense of social science in the seminary, but I learned a good deal of Latin," says Kenny. "When I left the seminary, I became involved in the Civil Rights and farm workers' movements and worked on behalf of CŽsar Ch‡vez," he recalls. "Ch‡vez is one of my heroes."

Kenny's intellectual journey was launched as an undergraduate student in the mid-1960s at the University of California-Davis, where he was fascinated by a psychology course taught by Professor Robert Sommer. Sommer not only sparked his interest, but encouraged him to go to graduate school.

At Northwestern, he found a mentor in Don Campbell, a psychology professor who, Kenny says, earned a reputation as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

"Don was measuring the benefit of social change due to interventions such as drug rehabilitation programs, and why some people change and some don't," he says.

Over time, the relationship between student and professor would mature, as the two became colleagues and friends. Campbell died in 1996, but not before the two co-authored a book, A Primer on Regression Artifacts, that was published posthumously in 1999 by Guilford. The book, Kenny says, deals with the statistical necessity of what goes up, must come down, and what goes down, must come up.

"The impact of this primer will be as ubiquitous and as important as is the topic with which it deals - regression toward the mean," says Lowe.

In Demand
It was Campbell's influence that sent Kenny on his career path in social psychology - and to Harvard for his first teaching job as an assistant and later associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Relations. In 1978, he traded the Harvard post for a similar post at UConn because he felt that the University offered a better environment both personally and professionally. He's remained at the University for the past 24 years, turning down many invitations to teach elsewhere.

"David is what our marketing friends would call a hot commodity," says Lowe. "Each year, one or two departments of psychology at other universities - and some years there are more than two - try to convince David to leave UConn and join them. The list is very impressive."

Kenny recently received a training grant from the National Science Foundation to offer workshops at UConn based on his model. These workshops, which will take place at UConn during the next two summers, are expected to draw social science researchers from universities in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Kenny is the author of five books, more than 80 journal articles, and 25 book chapters and five reviews. He has also published 11 first-authored papers in the Psychological Bulletin, considered one of the most read journals in social science.

He has been a distinguished visiting professor at Arizona State and Oxford University, and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Chief among the prestigious awards he has received is the inaugural Distinguished New Contribution Award of the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships in 1990. On home turf, he was named this year as a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, the highest academic title a UConn professor can attain.

"David is one of the most effective and well liked teachers at the University," says Joseph S. Renzulli, Neag Professor for Gifted Education and Talent Development. "He is always willing to help students and colleagues with complicated research design problems and has inspired many graduate students to go on to important positions in research."

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