Morton Deustch, Class of 1935
After Morton Deutsch learned that Lydia Shapiro was sunbathing along the Charles River in Boston when she was supposed to be interviewing subjects for his sociological experiment, he resorted to a conventional means of resolving a workplace dispute: He abruptly fired her.
A little more than a year later, though, he took a more creative and constructive approach to repairing their frayed relationship: They became fully cooperative partners, husband and wife.
“I have accused Lydia of marrying me to get even, but she asserts it was pure masochism,” Professor Deutsch wryly recalled.
After completing his experiment in graduate school, Professor Deutsch, who died on March 13, 2017 in Manhattan at 97, perfected his formula for reconciliation to become a leading expert on conflict resolution and mediation.
He not only remained married for nearly seven decades, he also co-wrote a prescriptive book titled “Preventing World War III” (1962).
Whatever credit he might have deserved for thwarting another global military conflict, Professor Deutsch’s principles provided a theoretical framework for various Cold War negotiations, for court decisions that voided legally sanctioned racial segregation in the United States, and for Poland’s peaceful transition from Communist rule in 1989.
He served on the faculty at Teachers College of Columbia University from 1963 until he became professor emeritus in 1990. There he founded the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (since renamed for him), which he ran until 1997.
“The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice,” which he edited in 2006 with Peter T. Coleman and Eric C. Marcus, became a standard manual for dealing with labor, commercial, international and marital disputes.
John T. Jost, a social psychologist at New York University, wrote in 2006 in the journal Social Justice Research that “in what is probably Deutsch’s most influential book, ‘The Resolution of Conflict’ (1973), he summarized the lessons of his first 25 years of research on, among other things, cooperation and conflict.”
“The point is that social forms are self-fulfilling, so that coercion, intimidation, deception, distrust and hostility are both causes and effects of competition, whereas assistance, openness, information sharing, perceived similarity, and friendliness are both causes and effects of cooperation,” Professor Jost wrote.
Morton Deutsch was born on Feb. 4, 1920, in the Bronx to Charles and Ida Deutsch, Jewish immigrants from what is now Poland. His father was a butter and egg wholesaler.
Raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, he read Freud and Marx when he was 10, graduated from Townsend Harris Hall and entered City College when he was 15 planning to become a psychiatrist.
“I became disenchanted with the idea of being a pre-med student after dissecting a pig in a biology lab,” he recalled. “I was happy to switch to a psychology major.”
He received a bachelor of science degree from City College in 1939 and a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania.
“I grew up in a time when, as a Jew, I experienced many instances of prejudice, blatant as well as subtle, and could observe the gross acts of injustice being suffered by blacks,” he recalled in 1999 in an essay in “Reflections on 100 Years of Experimental Social Psychology.”
He did not merely observe. He contributed lunch money to the Spanish Loyalists in the 1930s; organized a protest against the quality of high school cafeteria food and a strike by fellow waiters at a summer resort during college; challenged what he considered racist statements by a professor; and, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the Army Air Forces and flew 30 missions as a navigator over Nazi-occupied Europe.
“Being in World War II and experiencing the devastation and horror of war, even though I felt the war against the Nazis was justified, I became interested in prevention of war,” Professor Deutsch told Teachers College Today magazine in 2009.
It was at M.I.T., where he earned his doctorate on the G.I. Bill, where he also met his wife, Ms. Shapiro, who survives him and confirmed his death, along with their sons, Nick and Tony; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
It was also at M.I.T. where he became a disciple of Kurt Lewin, the German-American psychologist, whose favorite dictum was, “There’s nothing so practical as a good theory.”
Professor Deutsch’s postgraduate studies in the late 1940s were heavily influenced by the atomic bombings of Japan, followed by the formation of the United Nations. His doctoral dissertation was the basis for his theory of cooperation and competition, which postulated that a group’s success depends on the extent to which its members believe their goals are shared and see a potential to make common cause.
He had in mind the United Nation’s Security Council, he said, when “I had an image of them either cooperating or competing and had different senses of what the consequences would be for the world.”
But the same rules applied for confrontations big and small, and, since he fired Ms. Shapiro, his researcher at M.I.T., Professor Deutsch said there were plenty of occasions to practice what he preached.
“In our 60 years of marriage,” he said, “I have had splendid opportunities to study conflict as a participant observer.”
Courtesy: New York Times, March 21, 2017.