Harold Kelley

American psychologist & academic
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Harold H. Kelley (February 16, 1921 – January 29, 2003) was an American social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His major contributions have been the development of interdependence theory (with John Thibaut), the early work of attribution theory, and a lifelong interest in understanding close relationships processes.


  • Solutions require thinking through a series of interrelated steps or stages, analyzing a number of rules at each point, and always keeping in mind conclusions reached at earlier points.
    • Harold Kelley and John W. Thibaut. "Group problem solving." The handbook of social psychology 4 (1969): 1-101; p. 69-70

The social psychology of groups. 1959


John W. Thibaut and Harold H. Kelley (1959), The social psychology of groups. Oxford, England: John Wiley.

See John W. Thibaut#The social psychology of groups. 1959

"Attribution theory in social psychology." 1967


Harold H. Kelley, "Attribution theory in social psychology." in: D. Levine (ed). Nebraska symposium on motivation. Vol. 15. University of Nebraska Press, 1967. p. 192-241.

  • My purpose in this paper is to highlight some of the central ideas contained in Heider's theory, to present them in a systematic way, and to show their relevance to developments in several central fields of contemporary social psychology.
    • p. 192
  • Attribution theory concerns the process by which an individual interprets events "as being caused by particular parts of the relatively stable environment" (Heider, p. 297). Consideration of attribution theory is relevant for a symposium on motivation in several respects. The theory describes processes that operate as if the individual were motivated to attain a cognitive mastery of the causal structure of his environment.
    • p. 193
  • Am I to take my enjoyment of a movie as a basis for an attribution to the movie (that it is intrinsically enjoyable) or for an attribution to myself (that I have a specific kind of desire relevant to movies)? The inference as to where to locate the dispositional properties responsible for the effect is made by interpreting the raw data (the enjoyment) in the context of subsidiary information from experiment-like variations of conditions.
    • p. 194
  • [Kelley argued that OS's judgment of an inverse relation between inducement magnitude and attitude inference] is probably associated with assumptions (unchecked in Bern’s work, as far as I know) that there is a distribution of opinion toward the task, and only the more favorable subjects complied in the $1 case and almost all, favorable or not, complied in the $20 case.
    • p. 226; as cited in: Yaacov Trope, "Inferential processes in the forced compliance situation: A Bayesian analysis." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 10.1 (1974): 1-16.

"Attribution theory and research." 1980


Harold H. Kelley and John L. Michela. "Attribution theory and research." Annual review of psychology 31.1 (1980): 457-501.

  • The last decade has seen a great deal of research on the perception of causation and the consequences of such perception. Conducted primarily within social psychology, the focus has been the perceived causes of other persons' behavior. A parallel analysis has been made of the perceived causes of one's own behavior, and the liveliest recent topic has concerned differences between other-perception and self-perception. The study of perceived causation is identified by the term "attribution theory," attribution referring to the perception inference of cause. As we will see, there is not one but many attribution "theories" and the term refers to several different kinds of problem. The common ideas are that people interpret behavior in terms of its causes and that these interpretations play an important role in determining reactions to the behavior.
    • p. 458; Lead paragraph
  • A person is known by the behavior he displays consistently. An experiment by Himmelfarb (1972) makes the important point that consistency in other persons' characterizations of an actor carries more weight if they are based on observations in dissimilar rather than similar situations. The other side of the coin is that a person's inconsistent behavior is attributed not to him but to circumstances.
    • p. 465
  • SALIENCE The notion here is that an effect is attributed to the cause that is most salient in the perceptual field at the time the effect is observed.
    • p. 466
  • PRIMACY The general notion here is that a person scans and interprets a sequence of information until he attains an attribution from it and then disregards later information or assimilates it to his earlier impression.
    • p. 467
  • Attributional research shows that attributions affect our feelings about past events and our expectations about future ones, our attitudes toward other persons and our reactions to their behavior, and our conceptions of ourselves and our efforts to improve our fortunes.
    • p. 489

Quotes about Harold Kelley

  • Harold Kelley’s long-term relationship with John Thibaut, from 1953 until Thibaut’s demise in 1986, is considered an exemplary model of scientific collaboration. It began with their being invited to write a major chapter on group problem-solving and process for the Handbook of Social Psychology (1954). That chapter, updated in 1968, not only became a major resource in that field, but it led them to a separate volume, The Social Psychology of Groups (1959), which became one of the most influential works in social psychology. Although Kelley was ordinarily modest in referring to his work, he aptly described the result as “a stable focus on phenomena at the group level…hitting upon a comprehensive and systematic theory, the elements of which others might regard as mundane, but the combinatorial nature of which brings order to numerous interpersonal and intergroup phenomena.” A second volume, Interpersonal Relations: A Theory of Interdependence, elaborating and extending the original analysis, was published in 1978.
In the meantime, Kelley continued important innovations and leadership in several other areas. His research and theory on the processes and manner that we attribute causality resulted in a series of publications and a flurry of activity by many social psychologists. While exploring the conceptualizations and the possible “real life” applications of interdependence theory and attribution theory, Kelley began examining the interactions and perceptions of young couples in harmony and conflict, and the ways in which they negotiated and attempted to resolve conflicts. This work led him to elaborate both attribution and interdependence theories in the context of close relationships, resulting in the important and pioneering 1979 book, Personal Relationships. A subsequent co-authored volume (Close Relationships, Kelley et al, 1983) encouraged the examination of topics long ignored in social psychology such as attraction, love, commitment, power and conflict in relationships, etc., and gave birth to a new, active International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships.
  • Kelley’s (1967) paper on attribution theory in social psychology is generally considered the first systematic and general treatment of lay causal explanations. Kelley’s self-ascribed goal in the paper was “to highlight some of the central ideas contained in Heider’s theory” (Kelley, 1967, p. 192). Specifically, the two central ideas on which Kelley focused were:
  1. In the attribution process “the choice is between external attribution and internal... attribution” (Kelley, 1967, p. 194).
  2. The procedure of arriving at these external or internal attributions is analogous to experimental methodology.
Two questions must be considered here, one historical, one substantive. First, were these two ideas really central to Heider’s theory, as Kelley claimed? Second, do the two ideas together provide a strong foundation for a theory of behavior explanation?
  • Bertram F. Malle, "Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior." Theories in social psychology (2011): 72-95; p. 77
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