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Dec. 15: Obituary: CMU's Robyn Dawes Transformed Psychological Sciences; Helped Found the Behavioral Decision Research Field

Contact: Shilo Raube / 412-268-6094 /

CMU's Robyn Dawes Transformed Psychological Sciences;
Helped Found the Behavioral Decision Research Field

DawesPITTSBURGH—Robyn Dawes, the Charles J. Queenan Jr. University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who helped establish the field of behavioral decision research and made a significant impact in several areas of psychological sciences, died Dec. 14 at age 74.

"Robyn was an academic pioneer whose scholarship and leadership brought distinction to the university. His high standards and commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and research were deeply emblematic of Carnegie Mellon," said CMU President Jared L. Cohon.

Dawes was one of the most distinguished researchers in behavioral science and significantly advanced the understanding of how people think, learn, judge and decide. Dawes was known for research in several areas, including characterizing the limits to judgment for experts and lay people, as well as the conditions that encourage people to cooperate with one another. He also became well known as a critic of clinical psychology practices not supported by empirical research.

"Robyn was a giant in the field of psychology, constantly pushing the boundaries and taking a fresh, innovative approach to real problems," said John Lehoczky, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "He helped create the area of behavioral decision research — an intellectual field that merged psychology and economic theory and that has since given us behavioral economics. His contributions to his research, Carnegie Mellon and his students are impossible to measure. His legacy will live on through the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, which he built."

Dawes received his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1958. After taking a class in experimental psychodynamics, Dawes became interested in psychological problems from an empirical perspective. He attended the University of Michigan for his post-graduate work, earning a master's degree in clinical psychology in 1960 and a doctorate in mathematical psychology in 1963. His first faculty appointment was at the University of Oregon, where he taught psychology and served as department head. 

In 1985, Dawes joined the Carnegie Mellon faculty as a professor of psychology and head of the Department of Social Sciences. He embarked on establishing a core in decision-making, a discipline that his own research had helped to define.

"Robyn actually put the 'decision' into Carnegie Mellon's Social and Decision Sciences Department, and his leadership and research set the stage for us becoming a world-class presence in this area," said John H. Miller, head of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences. "His research gracefully transcended the social sciences, having major impacts on the fields of economics, political science and psychology."

Dawes work in debunking myths and the views of self-proclaimed experts was based in the concern for humanity that motivated his research.  As a member of the National Research Council's Committee on AIDS Research in the 1990s, Dawes fought the unfounded misconception that needle exchange programs — which can reduce the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users — promote drug abuse. In his book "House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth," Dawes called out mental health professionals for ignoring empirical research in favor of techniques that do not hold up to scientific inquiry.

Baruch Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy, was influenced by Dawes' work when he was a graduate student in the early 1970s. Fischhoff later became Dawes' colleague at Decision Research, in Eugene, Ore., and then at Carnegie Mellon. "Robyn was a great man, scientist and intellectual, who devoted his career to creating a psychology that makes the world a better place," he said. "He was fearless in seeking the truth and in fighting those who would subvert it. He was a hero to those with the good fortune to know him."

Dawes authored several books including "Mathematical Psychology: An Elementary Introduction," one of the first text books on the topic, "The Fundamentals of Attitude Measurement" and "Everyday Irrationality: How Pseudoscientists, Lunatics and the Rest of Us Fail to Think Rationally."

During the course of his career, Dawes earned many honors including the American Psychological Association's William James Award in 1990 for his book "Rational Choice in an Uncertain World," an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and an elected fellowship to the American Statistical Association in 2006. In 2005, the American Psychological Society honored his lifetime of scientific contributions with a Festschrift, a collection of essays about his work written by colleagues from around the country.

Dawes is survived by his wife Mary Schafer; his two daughters, Jennifer Dawes of Pittsburgh, Pa., and Molly Meyers of Eugene, Ore.; two grandchildren, Kaylynn Meyers and Avery Meyers; and two cousins, Marcia Meadows of Mesa, Ariz., and Jane Hill of Eureka, Calif.

A memorial service is planned for Jan. 29, 2011, at the First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh. Contributions may be made in Dawes' memory to Transitional Services, Inc., 806 West St., Homestead, PA 15120.

For more information on the acclaimed career of Robyn Dawes, watch an interview with him that was made in conjunction with his Festschrift at


Pictured above is Robyn Dawes, the Charles J. Queenan Jr. University Professor of Psychology.