Gerald R. Patterson
Gerald Roy Patterson, internationally renowned scientist and psychologist, died 22 August 2016 in Eugene, Oregon (US). Born in Lakota, North Dakota (US), on 26 July 1926, Patterson was considered by many to be among the founders of contemporary family psychology, particularly for his contributions to the scientific understanding of parent-child and marital relations. In addition, however, those who knew “Jerry” knew that he also embraced life closely, engaging in many outdoors activities, enjoying fine dining, and gathering with friends.
After serving in the Army in the Pacific theater in World War II, Patterson returned home and began post-secondary studies at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and then Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peters, Minnesota. Ultimately, he earned a bachelors degree and then a masters degree in psychology from the University of Oregon. He then matriculated at the University of Minnesota, from which he earned a Ph.D. in 1956, defending a dissertation entitled “A Tentative Approach to the Classification of Children’s Behavior Problems.”
Over 50 years later, the University of Minnesota recognized Patterson’s contributions by awarding him its Outstanding Achievement Award. The Minnesota award is one among many Patterson received during his lifetime. The American Psychological Association (APA) and groups within it recognized him repeatedly. He received the Distinguished Scientific Award for the Applications of Psychology from the APA, itself; the G. Stanley Hall Award and the Urie Bronfenbrenner Award for Lifetime Contribution to Developmental Psychology in the Service of Science and Society from the APA’s Developmental Psychology, Division 7; the Distinguished Scientist Award from from the APA’s Section III, Division 12; the Distinguished Professional Contribution Award from the APA’s Section I, Division 12. Other awards include the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the American Psychological Society; the Trailblazer Award from the American Association of Behavior Therapists’ Parenting and Families Special Interest Group; Presidential Award from the Society for Prevention Research; the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Developmental Psychology from the Society for Research in Child Development; the Cumulative Contribution to Research in Family Therapy Award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy; and the Distinguished Contributions to Family Therapy award from the American Family Therapy Association.
The reasons for Patterson receiving such substantial recognition are many, but they reduce to just a few major themes. He and his colleagues considered it sensible to study social aggression (or conduct problems) in children by closely examining the interactions between children and others—particularly their parents—in their environments; using intensive observations of these interactions, they were able to identify basic psychological mechanisms (especially negative reinforcement) the led to the development of coercive family processes (Patterson, 1982). Using this understanding, Patterson and his colleagues were able to develop and refine a successful method for teaching parents how to manage the behavior of their socially-aggressive children by, essentially, learning to manage their own parenting behavior. Having a stable way to examine coercive family processes and a powerful program for changing them allowed the group then to examine systematically other contributors (e.g., maternal depression, child abuse, stress) to difficulty in family processes.
Patterson and his colleagues insisted on employing strong scientific methods throughout their work. He was, he said, as much concerned with the methods employed to study phenomena as he was concerned with what he learned from the studies; if he couldn’t trust the methods, then he couldn’t trust the findings. Although he was a capable designer of studies and data analyst, Patterson collaborated with measurement experts and other methodologists, as well. He regularly engaged in detailed discussions about not just the theoretical aspects of scientific problems but also how different analyses might lead to different conclusions. His attention to such matters enhanced the strength of his contributions.
Patterson documented his work in 100s of articles, chapters, and books, often collaborating with the late John B. Reid, Thomas Dishion, and his long-time companion, Marion Forgatch. Many of the books (e.g., Antisocial Boys) were resources for scholars, but other books (e.g., Living with Children) were widely distributed because they clearly explained important principles to general audiences.
According to his own Web site and the published obituary, Jerry grew up in the northern woods and lakes and had a great love of the outdoors. He joked about catching fish from a canoe, cutting them open to examine the contents of their stomachs, conducting a quick analysis of variance, and then choosing which flies to use for his next casts accordingly. When I first got to know him in the mid-1970s, he and Marion were preparing to hike part of the north slope of Alaska—starting from inside the Arctic Circle and crossing the Brooks Range—before the area was going to be opened for oil drilling and the “arctic pipeline.” They returned with magnificent pictures of wilderness accompanied by superb stories of wearing bells on their packs and “tussocking” across the tundra.
A gentle man and a scholar graced our time and left us gifts. I’ll cherish them.
Patterson, G. R. (1982). Coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia.
Patterson, G. R., & Gullion, M. E. (1968). Living with children: New methods for parents and teachers. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Patterson, G. R., Reid, J. B., & Dishion, T. J. (1992). A social learning approach: IV. Antisocial boys. Eugene, OR: Castalia.