Q&A with Don Forsyth

July 15, 2022

Psychologist shares insights on human behavior and reflects on his time in academia

Social and personality psychologist Donelson (Don) Forsyth joined the Jepson School of Leadership Studies in 2005 as a professor of leadership studies and the Colonel Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership. A renowned researcher of group dynamics and ethical behavior, he retired in May as professor of leadership studies emeritus. What follows is a Q&A about his 44-year career in higher education, including his 17-year tenure at the University of Richmond.

Why psychology?

My mother and grandmother were fascinated by the psychology of people. As astrologists, they believed people were who they were based upon the location of the planets at the time of their birth. I took exception to the idea that someone had certain traits because they were a Scorpio. I was interested in a more rational explanation for why people act the way they do.

How do you explain human behavior?

Initially, I focused on personality psychology’s Big Five personality traits as determinants of behavior. In graduate school, my focus shifted to context—how situational factors interact with personality traits to determine behavior.

A good person in a powerful, fraught situation is likely to engage in untoward behavior. The social forces of a situation—such as conformity and the contagion of strong emotions—can overwhelm individuals in the moment, as was the case for some individuals caught up in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

How can we resist acting unethically in fraught situations?

Anticipate. Forecast. Conceptualize outcomes. Make a personal plan to act according to your values. Practice self-regulation. People don’t realize the power and ubiquity of social influence because it’s invisible, so it’s best to think ahead and stay out of certain situations. Listen to your inner moral compass and act on the basis of your values even when the people around you do not.

What are some highlights of your time at the University of Richmond?

A teaching highlight was sending students in my Theories and Models of Leadership class out to interview community leaders. Some of those leaders—including a former governor, police chief, and state senator—subsequently came to campus to speak at a forum my students organized. I also enjoyed getting students in my first-year Groupology seminar up on our campus ropes course to work on group processes.   

Being the Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership was a scholarship highlight. It helped me retain a focus on ethics and morality. It also gave me the chance to speak about ethics with practitioners, such as when I made a presentation to the CIA. My endowed chair funded the open source publishing of “Making Moral Judgments,” my most recent book, which covers my research on morality.

In terms of a service highlight, I enjoyed serving on and, for a few years, chairing, the University’s Institutional Review Board, which focuses on the ethics of research. And every group meeting I attended, from Faculty Senate to Jepson faculty meetings, no matter how boring, was of interest to me as someone who studies group dynamics.

What next? 

The hardest thing will be turning off the research button. Almost every day I think of an interesting question. But I no longer have the resources to collect and analyze data to answer these questions. Although I won’t be doing original research anymore, I’ll read and summarize others’ research and work on the eighth edition of my “Group Dynamics” textbook.

Mostly, I enjoy knowing it is July and I don’t need to panic. The publish or perish is over. Instead of heading back to campus, my wife and I can stay in our Blue Ridge Mountains “summer” home.

Photo: Dr. Donelson Forsyth gave the 2022 keynote remarks at Finale, the Jepson School's Commencement weekend celebration of seniors