Former professor leaves $2.2 million for psychology faculty, student research

Brehm taught at KU for more than 20 years

A KU professor who pioneered the theory of psychological reactance, also known as “reverse psychology,” has donated $2.2 million for KU’s Department of Psychology.

Jack Brehm taught full time at KU from 1975 to 1997 and continued working as professor emeritus until he died last year. He left the bulk of his estate to KU Endowment for the psychology department. Brehm’s gifts to KU, including those made during his lifetime, totaled $2.2 million — the largest ever made to the psychology department.

“It will allow the department of psychology, particularly the social psychology program, to better support the research efforts of both the faculty and graduate students, and to do it in a way that fills Jack’s vision for building the stature of social psychology research that happens at KU,” said Ruth Ann Atchley, chair of the Department of Psychology.

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said Brehm is fondly remembered by his colleagues within and outside the psychology department.

“Through his career here, and now through his estate gift, he left an indelible mark on the University of Kansas,” said Gray-Little.

Atchley described Brehm as an innovative researcher who firmly believed emotions could affect human behavior. This was a taboo topic among psychology researchers in the 1950s and ’60s, she said.

“Jack was one of the brave souls in the field who had the courage to say, ‘This is important,’ ” Atchley said. “He kept this alive as part of the conversation of psychology. Today, all the fields of psychology consider the importance of emotion processes.”

Chris Crandall, professor of social psychology, said Brehm’s most innovative work was on reactance — which explains that when in the face of a threat to one’s freedom, a person will work hard to re-establish it.

“Freedom of choice is a powerful motivator for people,” Crandall said.

The theory also reflected Brehm’s personality, Crandall said.

“In his own life, Jack resisted losses of choice and freedom vigorously.”

Brehm was an excellent adviser and mentor to graduate students and well-liked by faculty members, Crandall said.

“Jack was one of the anchors of our program for years. He was a very loyal person — loyal to his friends, loyal to KU. And in turn, people who were Jack’s friends were amazingly devoted to him, very deeply committed to him as a person. We loved having Jack as our colleague.”

Brehm grew up in Iowa, served in the U.S. Navy, graduated from Harvard and earned a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. He taught at Yale and Duke before coming to KU.

Although Brehm gained international acclaim for his research, he remained throughout his life a humble man who was a friend to all, said department administrative assistant Cindy Sexton.

“With Jack, there was no faculty/staff divide,” she said. “He didn’t care that I didn’t have a degree after my name.”

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