Unit 14 Social Psychology

Social Psychology


Social psychology is the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another. In thinking about others’ behavior and its possible causes, we tend to underestimate the influence of the situation, thus committing the fundamental attribution error. Attitudes affect behavior when external influences are minimal, especially when the attitude is stable, specific to the behavior, and easily recalled. Our actions can also modify our attitudes, especially when we feel responsible for those actions.

Research on social influence indicates that behavior is contagious. When we are unsure about our judgments, we are likely to adjust them toward the group standard. Sometimes, social influences are even strong enough to make people conform to falsehoods or capitulate to cruelty. The presence of others can arouse individuals, boosting their performance on easy tasks but hindering it on difficult ones. When people pool their efforts toward a group goal, individuals may free-ride on others’ efforts. Sometimes, group experiences arouse people and make them anonymous, and thus less self-aware and self-restrained. Within groups, discussions can enhance members’ prevailing attitudes and produce groupthink. A minority committed to a position can, however, influence a majority.

Prejudice can be both overt and subtle. As overt prejudice wanes, subtle prejudice lingers. Social barriers and biases are often unconscious. Prejudice arises from social inequalities, social divisions, and emotional scapegoating. Prejudice also has emotional and cognitive roots.
Aggression is a product of nature and nurture. In addition to genetic, neural, and biochemical influences, aversive events heighten people’s hostilities. Aggressive behavior is also learned through rewards and by observing role models and media violence.

Geographical proximity, physical attractiveness, and similarity of attitudes and interests influence our liking for one another. Passionate love is an aroused state we cognitively label as love. Companionate love often emerges as a relationship matures and is enhanced by equity and

Altruism is the unselfish regard for the welfare of others. The presence of others at an emergency can inhibit helping. The bystander effect is most apparent in situations where the presence of others inhibits one’s noticing an event, interpreting it as an emergency, or assuming responsibility for offering help. Many factors influence our willingness to help someone in distress, including cost-benefit analysis and social norms or expectations.

Conflicts are fueled by social traps and by enemies forming mirror-image perceptions of one another. Enemies become friends when they work toward superordinate goals, communicate clearly, and reciprocate conciliatory gestures.


Social Thinking


Social psychology scientifically studies how (1) we think about, (2) influence, and (3) relate to one another. Attribution theory states that we tend to give a causal explanation for someone’s behavior. We may explain people’s behavior in terms of internal dispositions or in terms of the external situation. For example, a teacher may explain a child’s hostility in terms of an aggressive personality or as a reaction to stress or abuse. The fundamental attribution error—our tendency to overestimate personality influences and to underestimate situational influences—can lead us to unwarranted conclusions about others’ personality traits. For example, we may blame the poor and the unemployed for their own misfortune.

Attitudes are feelings, often influenced by our beliefs, that predispose us to respond in a particular way to objects, people, and events. For example, we may feel dislike for a person because we believe he or she is mean, and, as a result, act unfriendly toward that person.
Attitudes often predict our behavior. Public opinion about the reality and dangers of global climate change can change with effects on both personal behaviors and public policies. Many campuses and corporations are now going green. Central route persuasion occurs when interested people focus on the arguments and respond with favorable thoughts. Peripheral route persuasion occurs when people are influenced by incidental cues, such as a speaker’s attractiveness. Attitudes affect actions when external influences on what we say and do are minimal, and when the attitude is stable, specific to the behavior, and easily recalled.

Attitudes also follow behavior. For example, the foot-in-the-door phenomenon is the tendency for people who first agree to a small request to comply later with a larger request. Because doing becomes believing, a trivial act makes the next act easier. Similarly, the behaviors associated with a new role may initially feel artificial. However, they soon seem to reflect our true self as we adopt attitudes in keeping with our roles. Cognitive dissonance theory, proposed by Leon Festinger, argues that people feel discomfort when their actions conflict with their attitudes; they reduce the discomfort by bringing their attitudes more in line with their actions.


The chameleon effect refers to our natural tendency to mimic others. Unconsciously mimicking others’ expressions, postures, and voice tones helps us feel what they are feeling. This helps explain why we feel happier around happy people and why research has revealed a mood linkage, a sharing of ups and downs. Research participants in an experiment tend to rub their own face when confederates rub their face; similarly, the participants shake their own foot when they are with a foot-shaking person. The most empathic people mimic and are liked the most.

Conformity is adjusting our behavior or thinking toward some group standard. Solomon Asch found that under certain conditions, people will conform to a group’s judgment, even when it is clearly incorrect. Experiments indicate that conformity increases when we feel incompetent or insecure, admire the group’s status and attractiveness, have made no prior commitment to a response, are being observed by other group members, come from a culture that encourages respect for social standards, and are in a group with at least three people who are unanimous in their judgment.

We are sensitive to social norms and so we sometimes conform to gain social approval (normativesocial influence). At other times, we accept information about reality provided by the group (informational social influence).




In the Milgram studies, the experimenter ordered “teachers” to deliver shocks to a “learner” for
wrong answers. Torn between obeying the experimenter and responding to the learner’s pleas, the people usually chose to obey orders, even though it supposedly meant harming the learner. Obedience was highest when the person giving the orders was close at hand and was perceived to be a legitimate authority, when the authority figure was supported by a prestigious institution, when the victim was depersonalized or at a distance, and when there were no role models for defiance.

The experiments demonstrate that social influences can be strong enough to make people conform to falsehoods or capitulate to cruelty. The studies, because of their design, also illustrate how great evil sometimes grows out of people’s compliance with lesser evils. Evil does not require monstrous characters but ordinary people corrupted by an evil situation. By understanding the processes that shape our behavior, we may be less susceptible to external social pressures in real-life situations that lead us to violate our own internal standards.


Experiments on social facilitation reveal that the presence of observers can arouse individuals, strengthening the most likely response and so boosting their performance on easy or well-learned tasks but hindering it on difficult or newly learned ones. When people pool their efforts toward a group goal, social loafing may occur as individuals exert less effort. When a group experience arouses people and makes them anonymous, they become less self-aware and self-restrained, a psychological state known as deindividuation.


Within groups, discussions among like-minded members often produce group polarization, an enhancement of the group’s prevailing tendencies. Group polarization can have beneficial results, as when it reinforces the resolve of those in a self-help group. But it can also have dire consequences, as it can strengthen a terrorist mentality. Sometimes, group interaction distorts important decisions. In groupthink, the desire for harmony overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives.


Culture is the behaviors, ideas, attitudes, values, and traditions shared by a group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next. Culture enables the preservation of innovation and the efficient division of labor.

All cultural groups evolve their own norms—rules that govern their members’ behaviors. Although these rules sometimes seem oppressive, they also grease the social machinery. Cultures vary in their requirements for personal space, their expressiveness, and their pace of life. When cultures collide, their differing norms may make us uncomfortable.

Over time, cultures change. For example, with greater economic independence, today’s women are less likely to endure abusive relationships out of economic need. Many minority groups enjoy expanded human rights. Not all culture change is positive. For example, within the last 40 years or so, the United States has seen sharply increased rates of divorce, delinquency, and depression.
Changes in the human gene pool evolve far too slowly to account for these rapid cultural changes.

It is important to remember that social control and personal control interact. A minority that consistently holds to its position can sway the majority. This is especially true if the minority’s selfconfidence stimulates others to consider why the minority reacts as it does. Even when a
minority’s influence is not yet visible, it may be convincing members of the majority to rethink their views.



Social Relations


Prejudice is a mixture of beliefs (often overgeneralized and called stereotypes), emotions (hostility, envy, or fear), and predispositions to action (to discriminate). Prejudice is a negative attitude; discrimination is a negative behavior.

Overt prejudice, such as denying children of a particular racial group the opportunity to attend school, is discrimination that explicitly (openly and consciously) expresses negative beliefs and emotions. Subtle (implicit, automatic) prejudice, such as that reflected in people’s facial muscle responses and in the activation of their amygdala to viewing Black and White faces, is an implicit (often unconscious) expression of negative beliefs and emotions. Overt prejudice has decreased, but subtle prejudice lingers. Researchers found that 9 in 10 White respondents took longer to identify pleasant words (such as peace and paradise) as “good” when presented with Black-sounding
names rather than White-sounding names. Priming people with a flashed Black face rather than a White face also makes them more likely to misperceive a flashed tool as a gun.

Prejudice often arises as those who enjoy social and economic superiority attempt to justify the status quo by blaming the victim. Through our social identities, we also associate ourselves with some groups and contrast ourselves with others. Mentally drawing a circle that defines “us” (the ingroup) also excludes “them” (the outgroup). Such group identifications promote an ingroup bias, that is, a favoring of one’s own group. Even creating an “us-them” distinction by the toss of a coin leads people to show ingroup bias.
Facing the fear of death tends to heighten patriotism and produce loathing and aggression toward those who threaten one’s world. Scapegoat theory suggests that prejudice offers an outlet for anger by providing someone to blame. To boost our own sense of status, it also helps to have others to denigrate.


One way we simplify the world is to form categories. In categorizing others, we often stereotype them, overestimating the similarity of those within another group. The other-race effect (or ownrace bias) is the tendency to recall faces of one’s own race more accurately than faces of other races. It emerges during infancy, between 3 and 9 months of age. We also estimate the frequency of events by vivid cases (violence, for example) that come to mind more readily than the less vivid events involving the same group. Third, impartial observers may blame victims by assuming the world is just and that people therefore get what they deserve and deserve what they get (called the just-world phenomenon). Hindsight bias may contribute to the tendency to blame the victim.




In psychology, aggression is any physical or verbal behavior intended to hurt or destroy. This definition of aggression has a more precise meaning than it does in everyday usage where an assertive, persistent salesperson or a dentist who make us wince with pain may be described as “aggressive.” On the other hand, psychology’s definition recognizes a verbally assaultive person or one who
spreads a vicious rumor as aggressive.

Biological influences on aggression operate at the genetic, neural, and biochemical levels. Animals have been bred for aggressiveness, and twin studies suggest that genes also influence human aggression. Animal and human brains have neural systems that, when stimulated, either inhibit or produce aggression. For example, studies of violent criminals have revealed diminished activity in the frontal lobes, which play an important role in controlling impulses. Finally, studies of the effect of hormones (e.g., testosterone), alcohol, and other substances in the blood show that biochemical influences contribute to aggression.


The frustration-aggression principle states that the blocking of an attempt to reach some goal creates anger, which can generate aggression, especially in the presence of an aggressive cue such asa gun. Frustration (and aggression) arise less from deprivation than from the gap between reality and expectations. Like frustration, other aversive stimuli, such as physical pain, personal insults,
foul odors, cigarette smoke, and hot temperatures, can also evoke hostility.

Our reactions are more likely to be aggressive in situations where experience has taught us that aggression pays. Ostracism or social rejection can also intensify aggression. Different cultures reinforce and evoke different tendencies toward violence. For example, crime rates are higher in countries marked by a great disparity between rich and poor. Social influence also appears in high violence rates among cultures and families that experience minimal father care. Once established, aggressive behavior patterns are difficult to change.

Parent-training programs that encourage parents to reinforce desirable behaviors and to frame statements positively have been fairly successful. One aggression-replacement program has brought down re-arrest rates of juvenile offenders and gang members by teaching the youths and their parents communication skills, training them to control anger, and encouraging more thoughtful moral reasoning

People can learn aggression by observing models who act aggressively, for example, in the family or in the media (watching violence on TV or in film). When interviewed, Canadian and U.S. sex offenders report a greater-than-usual appetite for sexually explicit and sexually violent materials typically labeled as pornography. Laboratory experiments reveal that repeatedly watching X-rated films makes sexual aggression seem less serious. Media depictions of violence also trigger aggression by providing social scripts (mental tapes for how to act provided by our culture).

Playing violent video games can heighten aggressive behavior by providing social scripts and opportunities to observe modeled aggression. Studies have found that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The studies also disconfirm the catharsis hypothesis—the idea that we feel better if we vent our emotions. To sum up, research reveals biological, psychological, and social-cultural influences on aggressive behavior. Like so much else, aggression is a biopsychosocial phenomenon.


Three factors are known to influence our liking for one another. Geographical proximity is conducive to attraction, partly because of the mere exposure effect: Repeated exposure to novel stimuli enhances liking of them. Physical attractiveness influences social opportunities and the way one is perceived. We view attractive people as healthier, happier, more sensitive, and more successful.
As acquaintanceship moves toward friendship, similarity of attitudes and interests greatly increases liking. The factors that foster attraction are explained by a reward theory of attraction: We like those whose behavior is rewarding to us, and we will continue relationships that offer more rewards than costs.


We can view passionate love as an aroused state that we cognitively label as love. The strong affection of companionate love, which often emerges as a relationship matures, is enhanced by equity, a condition in which both parties receive in proportion to what they give. Another vital ingredient of loving relationships is mutual self-disclosure, in which partners reveal to each other intimate details about themselves.


Altruism is unselfish regard for the welfare of others. Risking one’s life to save victims of genocide with no expectation of personal reward is an example of altruism. The bystander effect is the tendency for any given bystander to an emergency to be less likely to give aid if other bystanders are present. Research on the bystander effects indicates that to decide to help, one must (1) notice the event, (2) interpret it as an emergency, or (3) assume responsibility for helping.


Social exchange theory proposes that underlying all behavior, including helping, is the desire to maximize our benefits (which may include our own good feelings) and minimize our costs. For example, we will donate blood if we anticipate that the rewards (e.g., social approval, good feelings) for doing so exceed the costs (e.g., time, discomfort). Social norms may also prescribe altruistic behavior. The reciprocity norm is the expectation that people will help, not hurt, those who have helped them. The social-responsibility norm is the expectation that people will help those who are dependent on them.


A conflict is a perceived incompatibility of actions, goals, or ideas. Social traps are situations in which conflicting parties may become caught in mutually destructive behavior as they pursue their own ends, thus creating an outcome that no one wants. Helping people to agree on regulations, to communicate better, and to be more aware of responsibilities toward others foster cooperation. The spiral of conflict also feeds and is fed by distorted mirror-image perceptions, in which each party views itself as moral and the other as unworthy and evil-intentioned. Mirror-image perceptions often feed a vicious cycle of hostility. As with individuals, so with countries. Perceptions can
become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Research suggests that noncompetitive contact between parties of equal status may help reduce conflict. More important, the discovery of superordinate, or shared, goals that require cooperation can turn enemies into friends. Communication, sometimes through a third-party mediator, also promotes mutual understanding. Finally, the GRIT (Graduated and Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension-Reduction) strategy suggests that reciprocated conciliatory gestures bring peace.






*Work Cited:  All summary notes come from *Myers Pyschology for AP, Lecture Guides (2011 Worth Publishers)