Who are the most eminent psychologists of the modern era?

A new paper identifies Albert Bandura as the
most eminent psychologist of the modern era.

Twelve years ago the behaviourist B.F. Skinner topped a list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century, followed by Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. Now a team led by Ed Diener has used their own criteria to compile a list of the 200 most eminent psychologists of the modern era (i.e. people whose careers occurred primarily after 1956).

Here is the top 10: Albert Bandura in first place, Jean Piaget, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Lazarus, Martin Seligman, B.F. Skinner, Noam Chomsky, Shelley Taylor, Amos Tversky, and Ed Diener himself (links are to relevant articles in The Psychologist magazine archive).

What do the authors mean by eminent? They stress the list is intended to reflect psychologists’ recognition by their peers, and is not a barometer of the importance of their work. The metrics they used combine three elements – major awards earned from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association for Psychological Science; mentions and coverage in five popular US introductory psychology textbooks; and citations, including consideration of the total number of citations and an individual’s most highly cited single paper. For further validation, the authors checked Wikipedia coverage – their higher ranked psychologists tended to have bigger profiles on the site.

With these criteria, this is clearly a US-biased list, although several British psychologists feature, including John Bowlby at 18, Michael Rutter at 45, Hans Eysenck at 46, and Alan Baddeley at 51. What about the distribution of specialisms? The best represented field was social psychology (making up 16 per cent of the list), followed by biological psychology (11 per cent) and developmental psychology (10 per cent).

Diener and his colleagues said the purpose of compiling this list – which they acknowledge is bound to be imperfect and to omit some stars – is to help identify the highest impact contributions in psychology, to discover the characteristics of eminent psychologists, and to identify imbalances in the field. On this last point, the authors raise concerns about the lack of women on the list (they constitute 27 per cent of the 200), especially given that more women now complete PhDs in psychology than men. The highest ranked woman is Shelley Taylor at 8, followed by Susan Fiske at 22. There is also a notable lack of ethnic minority psychologists – just five people are listed who match this description, including Shinobu Kitayama at 159, John Garcia at 112 and Claude Steele at 63.

What other lessons can we take from this exercise? Diener and his team highlighted the fact that the list was positively skewed – that is, the top performers were way ahead of the rest of the pack. These characters had in common that they tended to work in a focused field, rather than on a mix of topics. Most of them dared to defy received wisdom and to propose ideas that were heretical at the time. These eminent high-flyers also tend to be skilled writers and oral communicators.

The authors note that eminence takes time – the youngest person in the top 100 was 58 at the time the list was drawn up; 22 people earned the top APA award in their 70s. And perseverance. Few psychologists on the list gained their place through a handful of high impact of articles. Most were prolific and continued to work late into life. “A student who is motivated by recognition or money rather than the love of research might find it difficult or impossible to keep up this level of productivity for decades,” warn Diener and his colleagues.

One last thing. Of course it’s difficult to prove the direction of causality here, but we note with humility that over the years many of the eminent psychologists listed in this paper have kindly written for the Research Digest. James Coyne, at 200 on the list, wrote for us just a few weeks ago on suicide prevention; Martin Seligman (listed 5) wrote for us about his own self-control; Paul Ekman (15) about death and forgiveness; Michael Posner (29) about his learning difficulties; Jerome Kagan (31) on his obsession with highlighting methodological flaws; Elizabeth Loftus (55) on prestige-enhancing memory distortions; Robert Sternberg (60) on using psychology to find love; Howard Gardner (74) on forming a synergistic team; Paul Rozin (122) on time management; and David Buss (143) on the way we derogate our romantic competitors.


Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Park, J. (2014). An incomplete list of eminent psychologists of the modern era. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 2 (1), 20-31 DOI: 10.1037/arc0000006

further reading
More from and about the listed psychologists over at The Psychologist mag.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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