Obituaries

Robert Levine, who studied kindness, identity, and time, dies at 73

NEW YORK — Robert V. Levine, a social psychologist who conducted attention-getting studies into how different cultures perceive time, how car dealerships persuade customers to buy, and whether a blind person is more likely to be helped across the street in Nashville, Tenn., or New York, died on June 22 in Santa Rosa, Calif. He was 73.

His son Andy said the cause was heart failure resulting from an infection. His illness was unexpected; his son said that the two of them had just returned from a trip to Nepal and that his father had been in good health.

Mr. Levine, who had taught at California State University, Fresno, for 45 years, made news in the mid-1990s with research that addressed civility and kindness. He and his students ran tests in cities large and small, looking for differences in responses to everyday help-a-stranger moments.

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“We asked not for Schindler-like acts of heroism but for simple acts of civility,” he wrote in a 1995 essay about the studies in The New York Times. “Does a man with a hurt leg receive assistance in picking up a dropped magazine? Will a blind person be helped across a busy street? Is an ‘unnoticed’ dropped pen retrieved by a passerby? Will a stranger try to make change for a quarter?”

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Paterson, N.J., and New York City ranked particularly low. Nashville, Houston, and Rochester, N.Y. scored high. But Mr. Levine did not draw simplistic conclusions. The results, he said, did not necessarily mean that people in Nashville were exceptionally friendly; rather, they spoke to differences in factors including population density and the pace of life.

“New Yorkers are unfriendly because of their environment, not because of who they are,” he told The Times in 1996. “Our study in no way proved that the people in any one place are inherently nicer or nastier than other people.”

Such studies, intriguing and accessible, were Mr. Levine’s specialty.

“Levine did brilliant radical research in the field — cities, countries and cultures — versus laboratories, for broad audiences, whether studying the pace of life in New York versus Fresno or the state of happiness in Bhutan,” Lynnette Zelezny, a former colleague at Fresno State and now president of California State University, Bakersfield, said by email. “He was not beyond infiltrating environments as a scientist, which he did as an undercover used car salesman learning about persuasion.”

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Zelezny was referring to Mr. Levine’s 2003 book, “The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold,” which examined a range of examples as mundane as the cosmetics counter and as consequential as Jonestown, the settlement in Guyana where hundreds died in a mass suicide-murder in 1978. He and his students put themselves in the path of people who were selling kitchenware, health cures, or religion, but he went a step further.

“I studied magicians, mentalists and assorted flimflam men,” he wrote in the introduction. “Most educational of all, I took jobs selling cars and hawking cutlery door to door.”

In the preface to another of his books, “A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist” (1997), Mr. Levine explained that he hadn’t always been absorbed by such down-to-earth matters. He used to study more academic questions, he wrote, “but I couldn’t help noticing how my friends’ eyes glazed over when I described my research.”

Robert Victor Levine was born on Aug. 25, 1945, in New York. His father, Abraham, was in the garment business, and his mother, Esther Edelman Levine, was a professor and associate dean of psychology at Queens College.

He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967, then received a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Florida State University in 1969. After earning a Ph.D. in personality and social psychology from New York University in 1974, he began teaching at Fresno State.

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He spent his whole career there, taking emeritus status in 2008 but continuing to teach and lecture. He was also a visiting professor at universities in Brazil, Japan, Sweden, and Britain.

“A Geography of Time” was inspired in part by his experiences teaching in Brazil in 1976.

“Adjusting to the pace of life in Brazil, I figured, would call for no more than a bit of fine tuning,” he wrote. “What I got instead was a dose of culture shock I wouldn’t wish on a hijacker.”

The views there of punctuality — or lack of it — led him to consider the perceptions of time in many cultures, along with things like the speeds that people walk and talk and whether such factors are related to productivity.

“The idea of what you think of as wasted time is very interesting culturally, I think, and religiously,” he explained on the podcast “Inside Personal Growth” in 2010.

“Sometimes,” he added, “the most productive thing that you can do is nothing — even if you’re thinking of achievement; even if your concept of wasted time means time that you’re not achieving, a big if.”

Andy Levine said the recent trip to Nepal was, in retrospect, a fitting sort of final journey for his father. They had been hosted there by the family of a Fresno State colleague, Gyanesh Lama, and while there they brainstormed ideas about how to rebuild the village, which had been damaged by an earthquake.

“For him, traveling was a spiritual experience and the best way he knew how to make sense of the world, one place and person at a time,” Andy Levine said by email. “It also represented how he so seamlessly integrated enjoying all the beauty the world has to offer while at the same time constantly trying to repair pieces of the brokenness all around.”

In addition to his son Andy, Mr. Levine is survived by his wife, Trudi Jean Thom, whom he married in 1983; another son, Zach; a sister, Alice Levine; and a brother, Dan.

Mr. Levine’s most recent book was “Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self” (2016), which examined whether we really have one fixed “self” or whether a fluid version of identity is more the norm. In the introduction, he turned the mirror on himself.

“How will I be remembered when I die?” he wrote. “Will there be an iconic Bob Levine — the guy who looked the way I did at some flattering moment when I was twenty-one, or when I was forty-one — who somehow stood out in people’s memories? Or will it be some kind of average me, as if all the people I’ve been were thrown into a blender?”