Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology Scott Lilienfeld died on Wednesday, Sept. 30 after battling stage IV pancreatic cancer for nearly a year. Though Lilienfeld’s groundbreaking work as a clinical psychologist led to international recognition as a pioneer in psychology research, he is remembered by Emory students and colleagues alike as a passionate, caring mentor.
“His humor, kindness, and generosity was contagious in and out of the lab,” Caroline Lee (22C), an undergraduate research assistant who worked with Lilienfeld, wrote in an email to the Wheel. “Dr. Lilienfeld was the best adviser a student could ever have.”
Born and raised in New York City, Lilienfeld attended Cornell University (N.Y.) as an undergraduate. It was there he met then-assistant professor and later Emory colleague, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology Elaine Walker. Walker, who knew Lilienfeld for four decades, recalled that he came to her for advice on graduate school, asking if he would be a competitive candidate.
“There was no doubt in my mind about that,” Walker wrote in an email to the Wheel. “He was very bright and genuinely intellectually curious.”
After graduating with a B.A. in psychology in 1982, Lilienfeld went on to get his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1990. He served as an assistant professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany for four years before joining the Emory community in 1994. He became a tenured professor in 2008.
Lilienfeld’s research focused on various areas in clinical psychology, ranging from analyzing personality disorders to debunking popular psychology misconceptions. His contributions to psychology literature were immense: authoring over 200 articles, Lilienfeld helped redefine key concepts like psychopathy and greatly expand research on human behavior in ways Walker called “critically important” and “paradigm-changing.”
“I am honored to have known Scott for so many years and to have witnessed his rise to a major figure in the field,” Walker wrote. “His creative intellect and the depth of his character will continue to be an inspiration.”
Lilienfeld also founded the journal “Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice,” served on editorial boards for 12 publications and held executive positions with numerous national clinical psychologist societies. In 2013, Lilienfeld received the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science for his extensive contributions to the field.
Academic accomplishments aside, colleagues and students respected Scott for his diligence and dedication to teaching psychology and assisting students with research at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
“Scott was the perfect colleague and over the six years I served as chair in psychology, he was the closest thing to the ideal faculty member,” Emory Professor of Psychology Harold Gouzoules wrote to the Wheel. “He was a champion for what is good and brilliant about psychology and worked tirelessly to make the field better.”
Lee echoed Gouzoules’ sentiments from a student perspective. Though she was initially intimidated by Lilienfeld’s prowess, she later came to see him as a professor who would maintain relationships with students in small ways, from striking up conversations in Starbucks to giving out snacks while they worked in the lab.
“Dr. Lilienfeld took me in as a research assistant even though I was a bumbling freshman at the time,” Lee wrote. “I’m not sure where I would be if not for Dr. Lilienfeld’s mentoring.”
Most recently at Emory, Lilienfeld taught Introduction to Psychology II, Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology and The Psychology of Scientific and Unscientific Thinking — a course that student and advisee Grace Shen (21C) said changed her life.
“Going into the class, I had very little knowledge of the field in general and didn’t really understand scientific thinking,” Shen said. “He told us during class that it’s not intuitive to humans because we process information with the least effort possible, and because I learned scientific thinking, I gained a very new perspective of the world that I never had before.”
Shen took the class in fall 2019, coinciding with when Lilienfeld discovered he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. Though she said the class was “shocked” to discover their beloved professor had the fatal disease, Shen admired that her professor “was so strong” and did not let his condition impact his teaching.
“He said, ‘If I can’t fight it physically, I’m going to fight it psychologically,’” Shen recalled. “It felt like he never had the illness, like he was just there trying to teach us.”
Now, following his death, Shen hopes Lilienfeld knew of his impact on students and the field of psychology alike.
“He changed my life in ways that I never really imagined … and I would definitely not be the same person today without him,” she said. “I am really grateful that I had him as my professor, my adviser, my mentor and my friend.”
I cannot think of anyone who embodies @EmoryUniversity’s motto, “the wise heart seeks knowledge” than Scott Lilienfeld did, combining warmth and compassion with remarkable intellectual curiosity. He will never, ever be forgotten 🙏🏻 https://t.co/yp97R99yJO
— Melissa Engel (@ItsMelissaEngel) October 1, 2020
Many former students, colleagues and admirers took to social media to post about the impact of Lilienfeld’s death. Emory fourth-year doctoral student Shauna Bowes (17C, 19G, 23G) expanded on Lilienfeld’s legacy for Psychology Today, noting that Lilienfeld always “made his students feel supported” despite his busy work and global acclaim.
“In his honor, I hope all of us can strive to be even just a little bit more intellectually humble, open-minded (but still skeptical), curious and courageous,” the article reads. “The most important parts of his legacy, it seems, are to be kind, be thoughtful and do good work.”
On Monday, the Emory psychology department created a discussion board for students to post thoughts and memories about Lilienfeld.
From furthering innovative discovery to inspiring future generations of psychologists, it is undeniable that Lilienfeld left an everlasting impression on those he interacted with during his time at Emory and beyond.