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Serge Moscovici

Nikos Kalampalikis
Denise Jodelet
Michel Wieviorka
et al.

– IV – Influence et minorités

The Shoulders of a Giant: Homage to Serge Moscovici

Charlan Nemeth

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1 Serge Moscovici was a pioneer in the field of social psychology. In fact, his reach was broader than that one field. He was one of those Renaissance men, well-read, intensely curious about the human condition and recognized that the exploration of those issues did not stop at the boundaries of a specific field. He made social psychologists recognize the importance of sociology, political science and the history of science. He made us recognize that we are embedded in the “social” of our groups, our cultures, our history and the times in which we live. This may seem obvious but it did not characterize the field—nor does it today.

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  • 2 See Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein, Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most (...)

2The field had long been dominated by a North American emphasis on methodology, on experimental design, on sizeable samples and a positivist attempt to find cause and effect between variables. Its problem, as Serge would tell me, was in searching for Leibniz’s monad, which is “irreducible to simpler components”1. The premise of the field was often to join simple components in robust ways. For Serge, the “social life” of individuals was neither simple nor linear no matter how sophisticated or rigorous the tools. It had context, historical and cultural. It involved relationships and reciprocal influences. It required observation and thought. In fact, it required “common sense”, the basic awareness and judgment that most people have naturally even if they cannot explain why. It takes a special mind to recognize the complexity of a behavior and yet offer clear and simple insights that get to the core of the issue. It comes from simplifying but not oversimplifying. He exhibited what Mitchell Wilson, an assistant to Enrico Fermi, described as a great scientist. “You don’t have to be able to understand very complicated things. It’s just the opposite. You have to be able to see what looks like the most complicated thing in the world and, in a flash, find the underlying simplicity”2.

3As one illustration, the field in which I have spent the bulk of my professional career is minority influence. Serge knew the classic experiments on the power of the majority. People followed the majority, right or wrong. He knew the research showing the ridicule and rejection that accompanies minority views. This is one reason why people often agree with the majority. But he didn’t just lament the facts or study ways to reduce the majority’s power. His own reading of history and his personal experiences helped him to recognize that minority views had the power to persuade. Holders of minority views were not just the targets of persuasion; they could be the persuaders. In their case, it was not through the vehicle of being liked. Rather, it was through consistency and conviction.

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4These observations, especially the notion that minority views could persuade—they could “win”—seems simple. It is. It has that simple core truth characteristic of creative minds, those whom Albert Szent-Györgyi described as “seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought”3. The field saw the same studies. They just assumed that influence flowed from the strong to the weak, from the many to the few. They assumed that being liked was the vehicle for being persuasive.

5Creative ideas have that characteristic. They have the quality of “why didn’t I think of that?” In my own interviews with Nobel laureates, I saw this in the laser of Charlie Townes, the anti-proton of Owen Chamberlain, the bubble chamber of Don Glaser. It is seen in the laptop of Steve Jobs—someone I wish I had been able to interview. These creative giants ask the right questions. They understand which are core issues and which are peripheral. They investigate issues that could profoundly change a field. Serge did that. He shaped the way we think about influence. In fact, his first experiment in 1969 on minority influence (Moscovici, Lage, and Naffrechoux, 1969) not only demonstrated persuasion by minority views (they were able to get the majority to say blue slides were “green”) but set out the most important elements of that phenomenon—the importance of consistency and the “latent” nature of influence by minorities. Forty-eight years later, these remain the insights and guiding forces of that field (Gardikiotis, 2011; Martin and Hewstone, 2010; Nemeth, 2011, 2018).

6My own work moved in the direction of the quality of decision-making and creativity of solutions with the core idea that dissent stimulates divergent thinking. This occurs whether the dissenters are right or wrong, whether they persuade or not. This work was deeply affected by authors such as John Stuart Mill and Serge’s insights. There is a reason why my first book for a nonacademic audience—one that literally has just been completed—is entitled In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (Nemeth, 2018). It is dedicated to my three most important mentors, Serge being the first.

The personal side

7Serge, the man, was complicated. He was thoughtful, opinionated and kind towards human nature. He was not self-revealing nor prone to showing emotion, certainly not frailties or indecision. I first met Serge at the founding meeting of the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology at Abbaye de Royaumont. The impetus for that organization came ironically from several American social psychologists who lamented the mix of languages and the lack of communication between Europeans who were doing similar work. Together with Serge and Henri Tajfel—and Ford Foundation money— social psychologists in Europe joined forces in 1966 to form this “European Union” of social psychology. Serge was its first President. At the time of that founding conference at Royaumont, I was a graduate student, working with Henri Tajfel in Oxford for a year. I had decided to quit social psychology and return to mathematics. The participants at that meeting were all heads of psychology in Europe—except me and another graduate student at Oxford. Those men (all men), all multilingual and multidisciplinary, dreamt and planned for a field that would bring culture to the fore and provide a needed balance to the then US dominated field of social psychology. That meeting showed me that social psychology could study important issues without oversimplifying them. It was a defining moment; I decided to remain in social psychology. Three years later, armed with a PhD from Cornell, I returned as a visiting professor to work with Henri in Bristol and Serge in Paris. That stay in Paris was the beginning of what would prove to be the most important influences on my professional career.

8As I look back on those over 40 years, Serge’s influence was not one of specific theories nor experimental results. In fact, we never designed an experiment together. What we did was talk—usually talk and walk—for sometimes ten hours straight. I was one of the privileged. I spent six important months in 1970 as a visiting professor in Serge’s équipe on rue de Chevreuse and, throughout the years, many sabbaticals and two-month “directeur d’études” positions at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. Years might go by but I always cared about what he thought. We would talk for hours, not designing studies but observing and trying to understand the bigger issues. Some days, those discussions would last from morning to evening.

9Serge never stopped observing life and reflecting on it. He observed better than anyone I knew, not just behavior on the street or in cafés or in meetings, but from history and politics. Who else could you talk to for ten hours straight and find it continuously interesting and insightful? It was always about the subject matter of social psychology, people in interaction, but it was not about the field of social psychology.

10Serge gave me (and many others) a perspective, a way of looking at human behavior. He also taught lessons in life: “Ignore what others think and write what you believe.” “Study issues that matter, not those which lead to publications.” “There is power in being an outsider.” They became a way of thinking about “truth”, about authenticity and about the power of the outsider. He became the homunculus on my shoulder and the guiding light for my research convictions.

11In some ways, Serge himself was an outsider. He had the respect and authority of major intellectual figures, of peers, colleagues, and students. Yet, he was still the immigrant from Romania who knew hard labor as a Jew. He preferred to live in an ethnically diverse community, one historically more filled with craftsmen and laborers than lawyers, academicians or politicians. He made his way up the academic ladder to a position of prominence. In some ways, his was what we call the American dream, though in France. He not only moved through the social strata himself but produced two accomplished sons in the process (one of whom now serves as European Commissioner for the Economy.)

12At heart, Serge was a keen observer of the human condition and while he had a special understanding of the underdog, of the victims of prejudice or those who lacked resources, he was never blind to the realities. He may have been most at home with the immigrants, the artists and the intellectuals—but he was curious about the world from which he felt apart. I was sometimes a conduit for that. Whenever we went to dinner, I would pick a bourgeois restaurant with good food; he would prefer the ones frequented by the intellectuals and artists. I even brought him to an haute couture runway show on avenue Montaigne— just to observe.

13Serge had an independence that many of us found either maddening or enviable. He never spent time with people unless he wanted to. In fact, I never saw him do anything he didn’t want to do, including having lunch with visitors from abroad. There were those he respected and valued—for them, he always made time. I always suspected, however, that he paid a price for his independence. Serge didn’t like to show dependency. As a result, he gave rather than took. And many times, what he gave were lessons in life or advice on what mattered. What was harder was for him to show warmth especially if it suggested a need to bond.

14Serge’s background, I believe, led to this independence and perhaps some of this reluctance to depend on others or show fragility. He loved his sons, more than anyone, I believe. But I suspect it was rarely expressed. I distinctly remember a conversation about his decision to write a book about the Lost Years of his youth, something he had never discussed—at least not with me. He was clear that it was so that his boys would know him—and hopefully understand him a bit better. He was contemplating his mortality. Several years later, when he was near the end of independent living in his apartment on rue d’Aligre, we talked about that book. When I asked if his sons had read it, he shook his head yes. When I then asked if they had discussed it (thinking he had opened the door to vulnerability and thus it would be an opportunity), he shook his head no.

15My instinct was that he had difficulty in expressing his needs for a close relationship with his sons—but he wanted one. When I then expressed an opinion (a risky decision) that sometimes people need to be told how important they are (a book is a bit indirect)—and suggested that he just say “I love you” to them—I could see the wish to do so and yet the discomfort. I don’t know if he ever took that suggestion but an indirect comment from his younger son, Denis (at the conference in March 2017), suggested that might in fact have occurred.

16Serge’s life was one of eternally searching for understanding and truth, and, up to the end, he imparted that wisdom through his teachings and writings. He even did so a few months before his passing, when Bernard and Marie Personnaz and I visited him. I, for one, miss him. No one else has made me confront myself, my profession, or the world as he did. No one was so consistently interesting that eight hours of talking to him was always a “high”. I feel so grateful to have known him and to have learned from him.

17His legacy will live in many of us—perhaps especially in the two that he loved most—his sons.



2 See Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein, Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, p. 78 (online).



(université de Californie, États-Unis)

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