Psychology Class Notes > Social Psychology


Ours is a social world. It's awash with some 5.8 billion people, and these billions of people are busily interacting with one another. How many people, on this particular day, are meeting one another for the first time, shaking hands, exchanging bows, and forming first impressions? How many times today will two people be drawn to one another, and share the thought that they might become friends or lovers? How many times today will someone convince someone else to change their politics, to donate a few dollars to a charity, or hire him or her to do a job? How many groups will form today, how many will dissolve, how many will make excellent decisions, and how many will draw ill-founded conclusions? How many people will hurt each other, help each other, love each other, and kill each other?

These billions of social encounters are the subject matter of social psychology. Like meteorologists predicting the weather, economists charting changes in wages and prices over decades, and physicists identifying the fundamental elements of matter, social psychologists study complex, ever-changing phenomena. These phenomena, however, are social ones: they originate in the countless interactions that take place between people each day. Some of these processes are disturbing; people harming others; people isolated and alone; people failing to reach their potential.Others, though, are uplifting, for they highlight the positive side of human action: loving others, helping people, and working together to achieve important goals.Some are routine and mundane whereas others are extraordinary and exciting.Social psychologists study such everyday actions as getting to know another person or making a decision in a group, but they also investigate events with far-reaching ramifications for our society and the world-at-large: Violence, cooperation, prejudice, sexism, and helping.

Social Psychology is the study of the way individuals are influenced by others.
A. Topics
Social psychologists, like sociologists, are interested in social values, culture, and groups.They focus, however, on the individual in the social context rather than the social context per se.Social psychologists, like psychologists, are also interested in personal processes, including personality, perception, memory, and learning.They prefer, however, to focus on the way the social context and psychological processes influence each other.Their approach, then, is two-fold, for they focus on:

1.Intrapersonal Processes:psychological processes acting at the individual level

Examples: attitudes, perception of people, etc.

2.Interpersonal Processes: Social, Interactional Processes, Operating Between People

*Group Behavior

II. Obedience: An Example

  1. Milgram's Studies of Obedience

    Milgram's paradigm: In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University, carried out a series of studies of obedience.

    1. Rigged Drawing (teacher, learner)
    2. Shock Machine
    3. Basic Condition: series of errors, pounding on the wall at 300 volts, refused to answer at 315 volts Prods: "The experiment requires that you continue," "It is absolutely essential that you continue," "You have no other choice, you must go on" (Milgram, 1974, p. 21)

  2. Results: 65% obedience (most of those who disobeyed did so at the 300-315 volt level).
    Variations on the theme basic condition:
    65% Touch: 30%
    Heart Condition: 50%
    Bridgeport: 48%
    Voice-Feedback: .5%
    Obedient Others: 72%
    Same Room: 40%
    Disobedient Others: 10%

III. The Perspective: Why Obedience?

  1. To hurt the learner

    1. Aggressive Impulse
    2. Frustration - Aggression
    But unlikely causes of Milgram's subjects behaviors

  2. Strange, abnormal subjects

    1. Authoritarian Personality
    2. Immoral, Weak Personalities

  3. Social influence?

    Yes: caught up in a powerful social situation, they acted in accordance with basic norms, requirements)

    1. Conformity Pressure
    2. Social Roles
    3. Diffusion of Responsibility

IV. Beyond Obedience

  1. Attribution and Person Perception

    1. Attribution
      1. Perceiving
      2. Causes of behavior

    2. F.A.E.
      Several biases systematically distort our causal inferences.When we make attributions about other people we under-estimate how much that person's behavior is influenced by the situation and overestimate the causal influence of dispositional factors.Because of this fundamental attribution error, we often assume that people mean what they say, even when their verbal declarations are heavily constrained by the situation (the correspondence bias) and observers frequently emphasize personal causes more than actors do (the actor-observer difference).

  2. Attitude Change

    1. Festinger's

      Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

      Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance argues that cognitive inconsistency creates a state of psychological tension that we are motivated to reduce.When we engage in counter-attitudinal behavior we reduce the ensuing dissonance by changing our attitude to match our behavior. Dissonance offers an explanation for a number of tendencies foractions to influence our attitudes, including change following counter-attitudinal advocacy, spreading of alternatives and selective exposure after making choices, the tendency to justify the effort we expend to reach our goals, and reactions toinformation that disconfirms our beliefs.

    2. Example: Joining a Group

  3. Altruism

    Kitty Genovese Incident in Queens, New York

    Winston Moseley stabbed Kitty Genovese outside of her apartment in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York.When one of her neighbors shouted at him Moseley retreated to his car. But no one called the police, and Moseley returned 20 minutes later to renew his attack.He found Genovese hiding in the stairwell of her apartment building.He raped her and stabbed her to death. The police receive the first call from a witness at 3:50.Theyare on the scene in two minutes, but 37 minutes after the first attack.Journalists who described the incident claimed that as many as 38 people witnessed the murder, yet no one helped

    1. How many helped the learner?
    2. Bystander intervention: Latani and Darley had succeeded in documenting the bystander effect: people are less likely to help ingroups than when they are alone.

      Note:Beware of the "Anti-social" Bias

      Social psychological causes can be invisible to the untrained eye (e.g., explaining Milgram study)

      • Psychogenicism: look first to internal processes
      • Sociogenicism: look first at the situation (behaviorism)
      • Interactionism: look at interaction of both

        [Are your choices based on your personal values, or do they reflect social pressures?]

      Social psychological explanations are consistent, in many cases, with common sense, but common sense is not a reliable guide for explaining social behavior.

      • Common sense is contradictory, vague.
      • People don't test commonsensical ideas.
      • A commonsense conclusion that is true in one situation may be false in another.
      • Common sense is sometimes inaccurate.
      • Common sense doesn't explain why things happen.
V. Festinger & Carlsmith Study (1959)
VI. Interpersonal Attraction

  • Positive feelings toward another person
  • The psychological investigation of liking and loving
  1. 3 Key Aspects
    1. Cognitive - how we mentally view others; our thoughts about them, both positive and negative
    2. Emotional - our feelings about others, both positive and negative
    3. Behavioral - how we act towards others
  1. The Factors that Influence Liking and Loving
    1. Proximity - geographical nearness. Very powerful predictor of liking, loving, and hostility

      Studies have shown that most people marry someone who lives in the same neighborhood, works in the same location, or sits in the same classroom

    2. Festinger, Schachter, & Back (1950)
      1. Randomly assigned married couples at MIT to apartments in one building for 1 semester
      2. Two thirds or wives reported that their best friends were those in the same
      3. Two thirds of "best friends" were on the same floor of the building
      4. Forty-one percent of participants indicated that their best friends lived next door
      5. Replicated many times
    3. Although proximity is important, INTERACTION may be more telling - how often do people cross paths?

      What is your "functional distance" with another person - this may be the key
    4. But WHY?
      1. Availability
      2. Anticipation of Interaction

        1) Creates feeling of belonging to a group (in-group bias)
        2) We want to view those we spend time with as compatible and friendly...maximizes chance of forming a relationship
      Mere Exposure Effect: tendency for novel stimuli to be liked more after repeated exposures.

      "They grow on us"

    5. Physical Attractiveness: no matter how sophisticated a society we may think we live in, physical attractiveness has been shown to be a very powerful predictor of attraction.
      1. Dating - a woman's physical appearance is strong predictor of dating frequency; slightly less for men, but almost identical

        Subjects told they were matched by computer to another person based on personality, aptitude scores, etc...but actually they were randomly assigned to another individual (couples).

        Had a 2.5 hour "dance", then completed rating scales. Only one factor appeared from all data - the more physically attractive the person was rated by their match, the more likely they were liked and wanted to be seen again by their match (FOR BOTH GENDERS)

      2. Matching Phenomenon - people tend to pair with someone they believe is similar in terms of physical attractiveness. We may tend or try to date someone that is maximally attractive, but we tend to marry someone more similar to us. "In our own league"

        1) This phenomenon includes intelligence
        2) Those unusual couples - usually some other factor present...bring something of value to the relationship. For example, Prince Charles and Princess Diana

    6. Similarity vs. Complementary

      Was Tolstoy correct, that "love depends...on frequent meeting, and on the style in which the hair is done up, and on the color and cut of the dress"? To a point, YES.

      But, as people become more familiar, other factors become important:
      1. Do birds of a feather flock together?
        1. 1) YES - friends, married, engaged all tend to remain happier the more similar they are
          2) Similarity of attitudes, beliefs, and values
          3) But, does similarity lead to liking, or does liking lead to similarity?
      2. Likeness Begets Liking
        1) Many studies have shown that people rate others (even a complete stranger) higher in terms of liking the more similar the other person's attitudes are to their own.
        2) How often does a radical feminist marry a conservative republican?
        3) How often do we remain friends with someone whose values and attitudes are very different from our own?
        4) This does NOT mean we need a mirror image of ourselves, but someone who compliments us
      3. Liking Begets Perceived Likeness
        1) The more we like someone, the more apt we are to perceive us as similar
      4. Do opposites attract?
        1) NO - despite the myth (they may "lust", but not like or love - generally...there are exceptions)
        2) We may be attracted to someone whose needs are different from ours, but often in ways that compliment our own.
        3) David Buss "the tendency of opposites to marry, or mate...has never been reliably demonstrated, with a single exception of sex (males and females)"


Despite our desire to BE INDIVIDUALS, is it possible that we are actually all simply followers? Do we stay within the boundaries dictated by our societies? Even those who define themselves as RADICAL, don't they still remain within the confines of societal rules - maybe at one end of the spectrum, but still within the spectrum.
Is it possible that there are no wolves, but that we are all just sheep?
Some quotes about groups:

  1. Emerson wrote "there need be but one wise man in a company and all are wise, so a blockhead makes a blockhead of his companions"
  2. Samuel Johnsßon wrote "I live in the crowd of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself."
  3. "Every crowd has a silver lining:" P. T. Barnum
  4. Was Charles de Gaulle correct when he said that "The French will only be united under the threat of danger. Nobody can simply bring together a country that has 265 kinds of cheese"?
  5. Samuel Clemens wrote "we are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove."
  6. Cicero: "The mob has no judgment, no discretion, no direction, no discrimination, no consistency."
  7. Leonardo da Vinci: "While you are alone you are entirely your own master and if you have one companion you are but half your own and the less so in proportion to the indiscretion of his behavior."
  8. Psychologist Carl Jung: whenever "a 100 clever heads join a group, one big nincompoop is the result."
  9. Nietzsche: "madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups."
  1. The Case of Heaven's Gate: Is it so hard to understand?

    Other people influence our thoughts, our emotions, and our behaviors. This assumption, axiomatic in social psychology and group dynamics, is inarguable. But does it explain why 39 people would make so permanent a decision of committing suicide?

    A social psychological analysis of the Heaven's Gate incident requires (at least) three parts.

    First, why is the public, in general, so intrigued by the incident, and why do most people misunderstand it?

    Second, what group level processes operate in such groups? Are these processes so powerful that they could induce a sane person into taking what appears to be an insane action?

    Third, why would a group of people make such a horrific decision, with such drastic consequences?

  2. Why Are People Fascinated by the Heaven's Gate Group?

    The Heaven's Gate group is news--big news. Newspapers around the world showed the special morgue truck needed to carry the multiple suicides. The groups' web page was flooded with Internet hits. The media flocked to the site. Other news--wars, weather, and the basketball playoffs--took a backseat to suicide.

    Why are people intrigued by groups that commit mass suicide? The intrigue stems, in part, from their unusualness. But the intrigue also derives from misunderstanding.

    1. First, we explain away the suicide of an individual by blaming illness, pain, and depression, but these explanations don't work very well when a group takes its life.

      1. We can understand (although perhaps not condone the actions of) people who, suffering incredible pain with a fatal disease, ending their lives.
      2. We can also understand that people suffering from psychological problems-- such as deep, unrelenting depression--may become so confused, so negative, so distressed over who they are that they escape their own existence. But the Heaven's Gate group wasn't fatally ill. The members weren't depressed and confused. So the assumptions that we usually rely on to explain away a suicide don't help us explain their actions. If they weren't suffering, if they weren't depressed, then why would they commit suicide? We are puzzled.
    2. Second, we think of suicide as the most irrational of behavior. Except in cases of extreme pain when the person is terminally ill, we assume that the person is dazed, confused, not thinking clearly- -and, indeed, people who commit suicide often are dazed, confused, and not thinking clearly.

      1. BUT A GROUP, by its very nature, cannot be as irrational as an individual. Thirty-nine people had to discuss how they would die. They had make plans: How would they do it? Who would be in charge of removing the plastic bags and shrouding the bodies? Who would go first, who would go last? How could a group discuss such things? The very idea of group suicide is paradoxical, because we assume that suicide is irrational, and that groups are rational. We understand when groups make bad decisions or work ineffectively, but to commit suicide? Unlikely. We realize that individuals commit suicide regularly--so frequently that only a movie or rock star's self-immolation is newsworthy. But a suicidal group is a rarity.
    3. Third, because suicide is such horrible outcome--the ending of a life and any opportunity for further development--we intuitively seek a dramatic explanation.

      A 1978 a representative sample of Americans were asked "Why do you think people become involved in cults?" (Gallup, 1978, p.275). Most people blamed the personality characteristics and flaws of the cult members. They were seeking:
      A "father figure;" they were "unhappy" or "gullible" or "searching for a deeper meaning to life;" they were "mentally disturbed," "escapists," or addicted to drugs." And now people are arguing that its the Internet that did it: The WEB is to blame for the spread of bizarre ideas about UFOs and Christianity.
      These explanations are all simplistic ones--they demean the group members, blaming their personalities or their weaknesses since their actions make no sense to us.

      When we read about the individuals in Heaven's Gate we assume they are weak, gullible people who are easily influenced by others. When we read that 39 people committed suicide, we immediately assume that some leader brainwashed them. That they were tortured, forced to watch indoctrination videos, injected with mind-altering drugs, or deprived of sleep for days. Yet they weren't

  3. Why Do People Let Groups Influence Them So Dramatically?

    Picture in your mind a member of Heaven's Gate. Who do you see? A brainwashed devotee mumbling her prayers mindlessly. A weak-kneed follower who blindly follows Elder Jonathan's orders? A truthseeker who is so desperate to understand the meaning of life that she will accept an odd version replete with allusions to spaceships and UFOs?

    These images of people who take part in nontraditional religious and social groups are unfair exaggerations. Although the word cult summons up thoughts of brainwashed automatons so intimidated by a charismatic leader that they can't stand up for their rights, this stereotype is naive and incomplete. Everyone's actions are controlled, in part, by social factors, and the actions of members of so-called cults require no reference to the "magical powers" of a leader or the "twisted" personalities of the followers.

    1. What are these group-level processes?

      1. INFORMATIONAL INFLUENCE occurs when other people provide us with information that we then use to make decisions and form opinions. If we spend years and years in the company of people who explain things in terms of UFOs and out-of-the-body experiences, we will in time begin to explain things in that way as well.
      2. NORMATIVE INFLUENCE occurs when we tailor our actions to fit the social norms of the situation. We take such norms as "Do not tell lies" and "Help other people when they are in need" for granted, but some societies and some groups have different norms which are equally powerful and taken-for-granted. Normative influence accounts for the transmission of religious, economic, moral, political, and interpersonal beliefs across generations.
      3. Interpersonal influence is used in those rare instances when someone violates the group's norms. The individual who publicly violates a group's norm will likely meet with reproach or even be ostracized from the group.

      First: Information Influence
      One member of a religious group describes his first meeting with a cult as: It
      Was strange, but the intensity of the two days left me much clearer about why I had been so uncertain, and where I might head for the future; it was as if a haze had been lifted. I began to understand things that had made no sense before, why most people rushed around for no reason, without any lasting sense of purpose. I had a sense that I could look for direction to my friends in the One-World Crusade.(quoted in M. Gallanter, 1989, p. 61, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion, Oxford University Press).
      Second: Normative Influence
      Members feel obligated to conform to group norms that encouraged friendliness, cooperation, and total acceptance of the principles of the group. Self-reports of conversions are very similar in that people begin as skeptics, recognizing that the ideas are possibly bizarre and "kooky." But over time they accept them as the their own. One writes:
      I "went along in all the activities because they were sincere people doing things for a good cause, even though sometimes it seemed silly. "Eventually, though, he internalized the group's norms.
      Third: Interpersonal Influence
      Cult members won't take no for an answers. Such groups are often isolated, intensely cohesive, and led by an individual who brooks no disagreement. Nearly everyone recognizes that there is danger in "falling in" with the members of cult, for even though we believe that we are individualists who make up our own minds, we intuitively realize that such a group could change us from who were are now into one of "them."
      Studies of radical religious groups describe very similar dynamics across all the groups: intense cohesiveness, public statements of principles, pressure placed on anyone who dissents, ostracism from the group for disagreement, strong rewards for agreement with the group's ideals.
      As Dr. Forsyth States:
      I am the first to admit that an explanation that stress normal, everyday sorts of determinants of behavior seems inadequate to explain such abnormal, unusual behavior as mass suicide. Yet the law of parsimony requires nothing more if this basic account is sufficient. Informational, normative, and interpersonal influence processes guide us constantly. In ambiguous situations, other people's actions provide us with the social proof we need to make our own choices. If it's OK for them, we assume it must be OK for us. And should we fail to match the expectations of those around us, they will be pleased to guide us back to the right path. We may feel the need to dehumanize the group for its actions by calling them crazy or hypothesizing weird social forces that constrained them, but in the end their actions stem from the same processes that guide the behavior of the accountant crunching numbers for a client, the gang member facing down a rival, the soldier readying for another patrol, or the frat boy drinking to heavily at keg party.

  4. Why did Heaven's group make the mistake they made?

    When people must make important decisions, they turn to groups.

    1. Groups can draw on more resources than a lone individual.
    2. Groups can also generate more ideas and possible solutions by discussing the problem.
    3. Groups can also pressure individual members to accept the solution, even if they have doubts.
    4. People generally feel that a group's decision will be superior to an individual's decisions.
    Groups, however, don't always make good decisions. JURIES sometimes render verdicts that run counter to the evidence presented. COMMUNITY GROUPS take radical stances on issues before thinking through all the ramifications. MILITARY STRATEGISTS concoct plans that seem, in retrospect, ill-conceived and short-sighted. But such a disastrous decision requires special explanation.

    1. One such explanation is GROUPTHINK: a distorted style of thinking that renders group members incapable of making a rational decision (Forsyth, 1995, Our Social World, Brooks/Cole).

      Groupthink, which was coined by Irving Janis in his classic book Victims of Groupthink, is considered a disease that infects healthy groups, rendering them inefficient, unproductive, and irrational.

      Did Heaven's Gate suffer from groupthink? Janis has identified a number of causes of groupthink, and many were likely operating in the Heaven's Gate group.

    2. Cohesiveness. Groupthink only occurs in cohesive groups. Such groups have many advantages over groups that lack unity. People enjoy their membership much more in cohesive groups, they less likely to abandon the group, and they work harder in pursuit of the group's goals.
    But extreme cohesiveness can be dangerous. When cohesiveness intensifies, members become more likely to accept the goals, decisions, and norms of the group without reservation. Conformity pressures also rise as members become reluctant to say or do anything that goes against the grain of the group, and the number of internal disagreements--so necessary for good decision making - decreases.

    1. Isolation. Groupthink groups work in secret. They isolate themselves from outsiders, and refuse to modify their beliefs to bring them into line with society's beliefs. They avoid leaks by maintaining strict confidentiality and working only with people who are members of their group.
    2. Biased Leadership.A biased leader who exerts too much authority over the group members can increase conformity pressures and railroad decisions. In groupthink groups the leader determines the agenda for each meeting, sets limits on discussion, and can even decide who will be heard.
    3. Decisional Stress. Groupthink becomes more likely when the group is stressed, particularly by time pressures. The Heaven's Gate group experienced such stress, as the arrival of the comment Hale-Bopp and the Christian holy days forced them to come to a decision regarding their assumed transportation. When groups are stressed they minimize their discomfort by quickly choosing a plan of action, with little argument or dissension. Then, through collective discussion, the group members can rationalize their choice by exaggerating the positive consequences, minimizing the possibility of negative outcomes, concentrating on minor details, and overlooking larger issues.

  5. Symptoms of Groupthink

    1. Overestimation of the Group. Groups that have fallen into the trap of groupthink are actually planning fiascoes and making all the wrong choices. Yet the members usually assume that everything is working perfectly. They are happy and confident.
    2. Biased Perceptions.During groupthink members respond to people who oppose their plan with suspicion. They often adopt ideas that are completely inconsistent with reality, and yet they rationalize their beliefs.
    3. Conformity Pressures. In groupthink situations, pressures to conform become overwhelming. Each individual member of the group experiences a personal reluctance to disagree. Through self-censorship, pressuring dissenters, and mind-guarding, the group develops an atmosphere of unanimity. Every person may privately disagree with what is occurring in the group, yet publicly everyone expresses total agreement with the group's policies. The fact that the Heaven's Gate members dressed similarly and looked so identical that the first officers on the scene assumed that all of the members were men speaks to the magnitude of the pressures to seek uniformity.
    4. Defective Decision-Making Strategies. Groups usually make decisions by sharing information, weighing alternatives, discussing costs and benefits, and seeking new information. When a group experiences groupthink, it locks into a plan of action and does not waiver from it. It experiences tunnel vision, and no longer uses effective decision-making strategies.

    Bottom Line

    1. Heaven's Gate is a tragedy
    2. Thirty-nine people took their own lives, leaving behind family and friends.
    3. Yet, we should not rush to demean the group with simplistic explanations that call them "crazy."
    4. Studies of groupthink have traced such decisions as the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the mission to rescue the hostages held in Tehran, the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, and the defense of Pearl Harbor back too much cohesion, isolation, biased leaders, and too much stress. Rather than dismiss the Heaven's Gate group as insane, we consider them to be a group that made a bad decision.
    5. The area in the brain which plays a major part in touch, pressure and temperature. The parietal lobe would inform you the temperature of a hard boiled egg and would allow you to pick up that egg with just enough pressure to hold it and not crush it.