The Legacy of European Social Psychology

An online compendium of ideas, schools and people in the field of Social Psychology

Jaspars, Jos

Jos Jaspars

Jos Jaspars was born on March 16th, 1934 in Maastricht (The Netherlands). He started to study psychology at Leiden University in 1955, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree (doctoraal) cum laude in clinical and mathematical psychology. At Leiden he was research and teaching assistant (docent) in psychology between 1961 and 1963. Initially, he was mostly engaged in psychodiagnostic work and vocational counseling. His very first publications were therefore not in social psychology, but in school psychology: They concerned an education program in home economics for girls. In 1962-1963 he stayed in the United States, where he visited - among others - George Kelly (personal construct psychology) and Raymond Cattell (mathematical models and statistical techniques). From 1963 to 1969 Jos Jaspars occupied several academic positions at Leiden University.

His Ph. D. thesis ‘On Social Perception’ (1966) introduced a mathematical and statistical analysis of the role played by naïve implicit personality theories in the perception of others. In this period Jos Jaspars’ interests clearly turned to social psychological topics, and very soon he became an international authority in that area. He was associate dean of the second European Research Training Seminar in experimental social psychology at the University of Leuven in 1967, the beginning of lifelong involvement with the EASP. In the academic year 1969-1970 Jos Jaspars, his wife Bea (also a psychologist) and their two young children stayed in Delaware, were he was appointed associate (Fulbright) professor , and where he worked with Ralf Exline on nonverbal communication.

In 1970 Jos Jaspars accepted a chair in social psychology at Nijmegen University. The next five years were both a period of growth and of stagnation. He supervised 13 Ph. D. theses and published more than twenty articles. As to growth, at first he conducted research on nonverbal communication, especially on eye contact. Later he became involved in the at that time vigorous debate on the relative effects of hereditary and environmental factors on intelligence. Jos reanalysed existing data sets and he developed new models of genetic and environmental covariance. As to stagnation, as chairman of the social psychology department Jos Jaspars had to live with a burden of administrative responsibilities and with an academic climate poisened by radical Marxist students. Worn out and disappointed, in 1976 he returned to Leiden, where he held a special exchange chair in behaviour genetics and comparative social sciences.

In 1977 Jos Jaspars became Lecturer in psychology in the Department of Psychology at Oxford University and Fellow of St. Edmund Hall. He would occupy these positions until his sudden death on July 31th, 1985. These eight years in Oxford were extremely productive in terms of supervised PhD theses (24) and publications (about 40). Most publications came about as a product of cooperative research with co-workers and former students, like Frank Fincham, Miles Hewstone, Bea Jaspars, Mansur Lalljee, and many others.

After the 1967 European Summer School Jos Jaspars served the EASP in many functions. He was a staff member in four more summer schools. He was a member of the Executive Committee from 1972 to 1978, and its acting president for two years (1977-1978). He was editor of the European Journal of Social Psychology between 1973 and 1978, and editor of the European Monographs in Social Psychology (1980-1985). He also wrote a moving personal view of the history of the EASP and the development of his own academic career (Jaspars, 1986).

From the presidential address at the end of his term in 1978: “I think it is quite clear that social psychology in Europe is moving in a direction which was advocated a few years ago by prominent members of this Association. We are moving on, it seems to me, in the direction of studying more and more social behavior in relation to its wider social context and appear to relate the results of our studies in a theoretically meaningful way to real social issues. The present committee feels that such a development should be encouraged and would hope that the activities of the Association in the future will continue along these lines. In doing so the present committee realizes that it puts more emphasis on the social relevance of social psychology than on its methodological problems, which have been so strongly emphasized by ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists.”

Beyond merely summing up these positions, functions and publications, it is instructive to look at the outstanding characteristics of Jos Jaspars’ research. His publications are lively, elegant and inquisitive. They speak to his broad intellectual background and his powerful critical-analytical approach. Many publications also demonstrate his exceptional skills at mathematics and statistics. Although Jos Jaspars studied a wide range of topics, three main themes recur throughout his entire career: social cognition, reflections on social psychology as a discipline, and applied social psychology (cf. Meertens, van der Kloot, & DeRidder, 1989).

The first main theme started already with his Ph. D. thesis on social perception. In the Oxford years this theme was broadened to social cognition, especially attribution processes. Together with his co-workers Jos Jaspars replaced Kelley’s (1967) seminal theory by a more sophisticated model of inductive logic. According to this model, people do not perform a mental analysis of variance as Kelley suggested, but they perform an intuitive regression analysis. Other publications were devoted to the circumstances under which people reason like scientists, arriving at a universal explanation of an event, and those under which they test idiosyncratic but functional hypotheses of causal attributions. Jos Jaspars’ attention was also drawn to the neglected issue of the ‘social’ nature of attribution processes. He emphasized the cultural origins of explanations, their collective nature, and the impact of the social categorizations of actors and perceivers upon them.

A second recurrent theme is the historical development and the interdisciplinary character of social psychology between psychology and sociology. In a number of publications Jos Jaspars emphasized the peculiar past and the development of the field. These publications contain profound historical analyses, and they demonstrate his optimistic view of the future.

The third theme is the application of theoretical social psychology in order to solve practical problems in society. As noted before, Jos Jaspars’ very first publications concerned home economics education for girls. In Oxford he applied his extensive work on attribution theory to educational problems. An example is a study on the cognitive processes and explanations of classroom disorders given by pupils, parents and teachers. The second field in which Jos Jaspars applied fundamental social psychology was health care, especially communication processes between family physicians and patients. In the last year of his life he published a paper in which he stressed the need for a comparative social psychology, both for the development of theories and for proper applications. In his view the discipline needs a taxonomy of situations and ‘principia media’ between general laws and specific situations.

Jos Jaspars’ sudden death in the summer of 1985, just shortly after his decision to accept a chair in theoretical psychology at Leiden Universty, caused widespread mourning among students and colleagues (e.g DeRidder, 1986). They remember his outstanding intellect, his warm and unselfish personality, and above all his everlasting inspiring vision on the partly already realised, partly potential scientific and societal significance of social psychology.


  • DeRidder, R. (1986). Obituary Jos Jaspars (1934-1985). European Journal of Social Psychology, 16, V-XI.
  • Jaspars, J.M.F. (1966). On social perception. Ph.D. thesis, University of Leiden.
  • Jaspars, J.M.F. (1986). Forum and focus: A personal view of European social psychology. European Journal of Social Psychology, 16, 3-15.
  • Kelley, H.H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (ed.). Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Meertens, R.W., van der Kloot, W.A., & DeRidder, R. (1989). The publications of Jos M.F. Jaspars: A bibliography. Leiden: Department of Psychology, Leiden University.