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Prof. Richard Katzev [psychology 1967–91]

Richard Katzev

June 2018, of complications related to osteoporosis, in Portland.

Researcher, author, and mentor to generations of Reed students, Richard Katzev was an authority on social psychology with particular expertise in one of the knottiest problems of human society—getting people to change their behavior.

Prof. Katzev grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Stanford University, where he majored in philosophy. He married fellow Stanford grad Aphra in 1959; they had two children, Alex and David. After Stanford, Richard went to Harvard to study social relations; there he was exposed to the ideas of B.F. Skinner and became interested in psychology. Following the death of his father, the couple returned to California and he earned a PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley, joining the Reed psych department in 1967. 

Initially his research focused on behaviorism and conditioning. Over time, however, he became interested in social psychology—the study of human behavior in groups—and he devoted the rest of his career to this field. Together with his students, he devised ingenious experiments to investigate social behavior in its dazzling complexity. To explore the effects of social disapproval, for example, they spent hours at the Oregon Zoo waiting for people to feed snacks to the bears (a practice that was common, if frowned on) and then verbally admonishing them. It turned out that zoo-goers who were reprimanded were later more likely to help a woman who dropped her handbag (and who was secretly another of Katzev’s students). The stronger the scolding, the more likely people were to offer assistance.

Katzev was fascinated by the phenomenon of persuasion, particularly when it came to promoting environmentally conscious behavior, and published dozens of articles on bus ridership, car sharing, household recycling, and the use of energy-efficient light bulbs. In 1987, he published a book titled Promoting Energy Conservation; his student Ted Johnson ’82, who died tragically in an avalanche shortly after graduation, was listed as the posthumous coauthor.

“Katzev was a huge influence on me,” says Richard Brownstein ’85. “I took a class from him on psychology and the law. One of the central questions was whether prisons deter crime. We looked at the psychology of reward and punishment and the structure of the legal system. We visited the state penitentiary. All of our views were shattered and reformed. It was an incredible class.” Katzev and Brownstein published several papers together; Katzev insisted that Brownstein be listed first.

A sparkling lecturer, Katzev’s restless intellect simply could not be contained. After retiring from Reed, he launched a second career as a consultant in social and environmental research and was the principal of Public Policy Research, Inc. He also published ten books on classic literature, social research, the history of Florence, and other subjects. 

In 2009 he published a paper on the impact of a humanities reading program on people who were economically and educationally disadvantaged. Drawing students from low-income neighborhoods in Portland and from state prisons, the Humanity In Perspective program offered readings in Aristotle, Plato, Sappho, Sophocles, Henry David Thoreau, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Martin Luther King, and Toni Morrison. The results were striking—at the completion of the program, students showed significant improvement in volunteerism, critical thinking, and satisfaction with their life. It was a fitting conclusion for a man whose life was shaped by the relentless pursuit of truth.

His survivors include Aphra; children Alex and David; and five grandchildren.
—Chris Lydgate ’90

Appeared in Reed magazine: Septemer 2019

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