Celebrating the Life of Harry Triandis


By Dov Cohen.

For many years, the epicenter of the “battle for human nature” was the third floor of the psychology building at 603 E. Daniel Street.

That was the location of Harry Triandis’s office at the University of Illinois, where he taught for 4 decades, leaving Champaign only a few years before his death in 2019.

Psychology had always been defined as the study of human behavior, emotion, and thought.  For the longest time, this study of people had been conducted on one of the narrowest slices of humanity imaginable:  the American undergraduate college student.  This was seen as acceptable because human nature was assumed to be universal:  People thought, felt, wanted, and acted the same way everywhere.

Anyone who thought otherwise was on the fringes of the discipline and could not be a serious scholar – until Harry Triandis and the pioneering research that made him the father of modern cross-cultural psychology shook the field.

Among many other scholarly contributions, Harry Triandis’s name is synonymous with work showing that individualism-collectivism is one of the major – and perhaps THE major axis – on which the world’s cultures can be described.  Individualist cultures focus on the individual, prioritize personal goals over group goals, and make less of a distinction between ingroup and outgroup (us and them).  Collectivist cultures focus on the group and its needs, emphasize people’s duties rather than rights, and make more of a distinction between people in the group and those outside it. On this major dimension of cultural difference, Harry found the United States was an extreme outlier.  The US was more individualistic than Europe and far more individualistic than any other region of the world.

Harry’s work was read widely within psychology, in social science generally, and by important people within business circles who found themselves in a surging wave of globalization that reshaped the late 20th and early 21st century.   Harry’s work was broadly recognized as having important implications for understanding human relations practices, government effectiveness, corruption in the public and private sector, consumer behavior, health, intergroup relations, persuasion, and the science of human happiness and flourishing (see related article on Harry’s colleague Ed Diener).

Harry’s great success as a scholar was probably due to an unusual combination of attributes.  He had a keen analytic mind, capable of methodically and logically thinking through an issue (he worked as an engineer before going to graduate school in social psychology at Cornell), and he had an unfailing eye for seeing the big picture.  The latter quality was a product of his broad-ranging intellect and curiosity as well as his life-long love of travel, languages, and making friends with people of diverse backgrounds (many of whom came to North America from abroad as had Harry when he left Greece to study engineering at Montreal’s McGill University at the age of 22).  Curiosity and love of knowledge were evident in Harry early on.  During World War II, when he was 16 and the Italians invaded and occupied the island of Corfu where Harry lived, they replaced all the Greek schoolteachers with Italians.  The students, including Harry, went on strike.  That year, Harry read the 24 volume encyclopedia that was in his room.

Harry’s passion for finding out about new peoples and cultures was legendary. “The world was his bucket list,” said Pola Triandis, Harry’s wife of 52 years who preceded him in death in 2018.  Harry had circled the world four times during his life, meeting people, seeking out-of-the-way attractions, and always drinking the local water. (Harry’s favorite film was Around the World in Eighty Days).  “I call him Ulysses,” wrote the eminent cross-cultural psychologist Michael Bond.  And Bond meant this in more than the literal sense. Like Homer’s hero of the Trojan war, Harry “is the enterprising, energetic, and clever explorer, crafting…methods necessary for wresting social-scientific truth about culture from the politicians and ideologues who assert their chauvinistic claims,” wrote Bond.

Those who make predictions about the future of the world often have the timing of Neville Chamberlin.  Harry’s prescience was more like Churchill’s. At the time in the 1990s when many were writing about the triumph of the West and declaring “the end of history” predicting that liberal democracy would continue sweeping the world, Harry was writing some of his most influential articles and books such as Individualism and Collectivism and Culture and Social Behavior, which discussed developments since his groundbreaking 1972 work The Analysis of Subjective Culture.  For readers, the books would be good antidotes to the premature triumphalism pervading the West at the time.  Then, about a decade before anyone had ever heard the phrase “fake news” and each side began accusing the other of bad faith and disinformation,  Harry wrote Fooling Ourselves: Self-Deception in Politics, Religion, and Terrorism.  Published in 2009, it would win the William James Book Prize from the American Psychological Association as “an outstanding example of integrative work in psychology across specialty areas.”  His grasp of the big picture made Harry an insightful interpreter of world affairs.  A colleague recalls the many lunches he shared with Harry, chatting about current events and listening to Harry’s take on a range of issues.  This colleague noted that if Harry was as prescient about sports – a topic no one can recall him discussing – as he was on world events, you could have made millions by taking Harry out to lunch and then just calling in your bets to Vegas.

Harry helped build cross-cultural psychology through his research and also by encouraging the research of others, particularly those who were not in North America.  However famous Harry was in the U.S., he was positively revered by scholars from other countries, who would frequently ask to have their picture taken with him at conferences.  His gigantic international stature may be why so many excellent international students came to work with Harry as well as why his students have gone on to have appointments at places such as Colombia University, Yale, Stanford, University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, Pomona, and top universities in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Turkey, and Australia.  His students – who sometimes say they studied at the “University of Triandis” – recall Harry as a supportive, caring mentor who gave sound advice about scientific and personal matters, big and small.  Some got more than a PhD out of the deal as Harry, through a little legerdemain, introduced two students whose marriage is now going on 40 years.  “That’s Harry the Trickster,” wrote Yoshi Kashima, the future groom and now eminent scholar at the University of Melbourne, “a man with a cheeky smile who taught me serious scholarship and an element of fun go hand in hand, and a life without fun is not worth living.”

Harry and Pola both felt strongly about increasing international understanding.  Pola was from a diplomatic family.  Her father was, prior to the communist takeover, Yugoslavia’s ambassador to the United States.  (Lore has it that a member of Pola’s family advised Austria-Hungary’s officials that June 1914 might not be a great time for Archduke Franz Ferdinand to visit Sarajevo.  The argument was probably made more forcefully than that.  Unfortunately, they didn’t listen). 

In Champaign, Pola began her work with the University of Illinois Extension in International Affairs, where for 30 years she organized conferences and activities to help inform the public about world events and edited the International Affairs Bulletin.  Pola traveled extensively with Harry, as did their daughter Louisa.  (Adept at going with the flow and understanding that life has its way of creating surprises, Harry was nonetheless a methodical planner.  According to Pola, after Louisa was born and before their first trip to Europe, Harry thought they should “practice” traveling with her. They put a life preserver on Louisa and took her out on a rowboat to see how she would do on a ferry.  To see how her ears would adjust to changes in air pressure on the plane, they took her up a mountain. Obviously this latter trial run was not done in Champaign.  If this anecdote seems straight out of Cheaper by the Dozen, it may be more than coincidence.  In his autobiography, Harry recalls that when he first considered studying psychology, “I wrote to Lillian Gilbreth, of Cheaper by the Dozen fame, who was a psychologist married to an engineer, and asked if it made sense for me to try to get a PhD in psychology.”  Luckily for Harry and the future of cross-cultural research, “she encouraged me to do that.”)

Consistent with Harry and Pola’s mission of promoting cultural understanding, they established the Harry and Pola Triandis Doctoral Thesis Award, given by the International Association for Cross Cultural Psychology (one of six organizations for which Harry served as president).  Closer to home, it was their wish that the strong legacy of cross-cultural research continue within Illinois’s Department of Psychology, and they established the Pola and Harry Triandis Fellowship in Cross-Cultural Psychology for graduate students.

The two were also generous supporters of a number of other charitable causes and patrons of the arts, regular attendees at events from world-class operas to children’s orchestras.

Harry and Pola’s greatest legacy, however, is not monetary: it is in the scholarly corpus of work, the way Harry brought an understanding of culture and human diversity to the center of the field, the nurturing of international scholars abroad and at the second home they created for graduate students in Champaign, and in the goodwill that this energetic, caring, and cosmopolitan couple brought to people all over the world.

Harry and Pola are survived by their daughter Louisa – a clinical social worker, former adjunct faculty at University of Southern California, and co-author of There’s Always Something Going Right: Workbook for Creating Truly Great Schools  – her husband Jim Giolitto, and their sons Alexander and Nicholas.