What is social psychology?



I.                   Gordon Allport’s definition: “…an attempt to understand and explain how the thought, feeling, and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.”


II.               Conceptualizing social psychology in terms of levels of explanation

A.      Three levels of explanation

1.      The group level – behavior is explained in terms of the biological or social groups people belong to and in terms of the processes that mold these groups.  Examples of biological groups are: species and the biological sexes. Examples of social groups are: socioeconomic classes, cultural and ethnic groups, religious groups, gender.  The family classifies as both a biological and social group.  Processes studied include biological evolution, cultural evolution, and the effects and dynamics of social groups.  Social psychology has tended not to emphasize group-level explanations (unlike sociology and anthropology); however, evolutionary theory places an increasingly large role in social psychological theory

2.      The individual level – behavior is explained in terms of biological and environmental factors that influence the behavior of individuals.  These factors can include biological factors (heredity, genes, hormones, brain structure and physiology), past environmental factors (family rearing, past rewards and punishments), and current environmental factors (the current social setting, the people you are with).  Processes studied include behavior genetics, neurophysiology, learning, development, and social psychological processes.  Social psychology emphasizes social settings, particularly the current social situation, as a cause of behavior.

3.      Mediating variables – hypothetical factors that exist within individuals and that are inferred from behavior.  These internal factors include: personality traits, intelligence, beliefs, attitudes, emotional states, consciousness.  Traditionally, social psychology’s preferred mediating variables have been attitudes and beliefs.  Today, social psychologists also study personality traits, schemas, and emotions as mediating variables. 

4.  Psychologists try to predict and explain behavior; social psychologists in particular try to predict and explain social forms of behavior; three aspects or components of behavior are: thought (the cognitive side of behavior), feeling (the affective or emotional side of behavior), and action (the observable part of behavior);  social psychologists study, in particular, social thought (e.g., how we think about other people), social emotions (e.g., love and attraction), and social kinds of behavior (e.g., aggression, helping others)


Social Psychology as a Science: Research Methods

I.                   The Milgram obedience study as an example: One of the most influential social psychology experiments raises a host of questions about measurement, realism, and ethics in social psychological research


II.                The core of science: theories (models of reality) and empirical data (observations that are used to test the validity of theories)

A.     Theories are models of reality that help organize and explain data and predict people’s behavior; good theories are relatively simple (principle of parsimony), have a broad range of predictive utility, make specific predictions that can be supported or disproved by data, and generate interesting research

B.      Paradigms of science: Broad theoretical perspectives that serves as “lenses” through which scientists conceptualize research questions and empirical data  (Examples in social psychology are “cognitive consistency” versus “cognitive” and “attributional” perspectives


C.     Empirical data in social psychology

                                                              i.      Operation definitions: defining concepts (e.g., obedience, attitudes, love) in terms of concrete measurement procedures

                                                            ii.      Kinds of data: behavioral data, self-report data, “behavioroid” measures

                                                          iii.      Reliability and validity of measures


III.             There are two common kinds of study in social psychology

A.     Correlational studies: studies in which the researcher observes two or more variables (i.e., measured factors or behaviors) to see whether they are related to each other; for example: Is attitudinal similarity related to attraction?  Is religiousness associated with prejudice?  Are people’s attitudes correlated with their actual behaviors?  Is gender associated with people’s ability to read emotions from others’ faces?

                                                              i.      In correlational studies, the researcher does not control (i.e., “manipulate”) variables; rather, variables are observed “as they come” in some situation

                                                            ii.      The statistic used to measure association between two variables is the correlation coefficient, which can range from -1 to +1; positive correlations occur when there is a direct relationship between two variables (as one increases, the other increases as well); negative correlations occur when there is an inverse relationship between two variables (as one increases, the other decreases); the “strength” of a correlation depends on its absolute magnitude: the closer a correlation is to zero, the weaker it is; the closer a correlation is to either +1 or -1, the stronger it is

                                                          iii.      Does a correlation have to be close to -1 or +1 to be important in real life?  Example: TV viewing and aggression

                                                         iv.      Correlation does not imply causation.  Why? – when two variables (X and Y) are correlated it could be because X causes Y, becauseY causes X, or because there is some third variable (call it Z) that causes both X and Y

                                                           v.      “Causal modeling” and “structural equation modeling”: These are advanced statistical techniques that are applied to sets of measured variables; their goal is to see if specified causal models are consistent with observed patterns of correlations


B.      Experiments

i.                    Two defining characteristics of experiments in social psychology: a) the researcher controls (“manipulates”) one or more variables (termed, the “independent variable”) to determine whether it has an effect on another variables (termed the “dependent variable”);  thus, the independent variable is the “cause” and the dependent variable is the “effect”,  b) random assignment is used to assign participants to experimental conditions (i.e., different levels of the independent variable);  Definition of random assignment: an assignment process that ensures that any participant has an equal chance of being assigned to any experimental condition before the experiment is carried out – e.g., in a two-condition experiment, we might flip a coin to decide if a participant is assigned to condition 1 or condition 2

ii.                  The importance of random assignment:  Random assignment guarantees that the only systematic difference between experimental groups is the manipulation of the independent variables; it “evens out” across experimental conditions the effects of “extraneous variables” that might influence the dependent variable; ultimately, it is random assignment that allows researchers to make cause-effect conclusions from experimental results

iii.                Note: Random assignment in experiments is not the same as random sampling in polling and survey studies

iv.               Experimental groups (the presence of a “treatment” or independent variable) versus control groups (the absence of a treatment)

v.                 Internal and external validity in experiments: Internal validity refers to the internal world of the experiment – e.g., are variables properly manipulated and measured?; external validity refers to the world outside the experiment – e.g., do the results of an experiment generalize to other populations or to the world at large?

C.     Quasi-experimental studies: Studies in which there is a manipulation of a variable (as in an experiment), but not true random assignment of participants (as in a correlational study)


IV.            The issue of replicating studies and findings in social psychology

A.     Three kinds of replication: exact, conceptual, and systematic

B.      Must social psychological studies mirror real life? – the issue of mundane and experimental realism.

C.     Meta-analysis as a route to generalizing social psychological findings:  Meta-analysis is a term for the quantitative synthesis of the results of many studies on a given topic (such as: Is TV viewing linked to aggression in children?)  The goal of meta-analysis is often to see if results are reliable across studies and if there are identifiable factors that “moderate” results.

D.     A word about statistics:  What does “statistically significant” mean?


V.               Bias in social psychological research

A.     Experimenter bias: When experimenters’ expectations influence results.  Possible solutions: Standardization of experimental procedures and running “blind” experiments

B.      Subject or participant bias: When participants’ expectations, suspicions, or hypotheses about a study influence results; Demand characteristics: Cues in a study that inappropriately communicate how the participant should behave.   Possible solutions: deception, use of nonreactive or unobtrusive measures, high experimental realism

VI.            Ethical issues in social psychological research

A.     Problems: Deception, pain and discomfort, invasion of privacy, measuring people and exposing them to experimental stimuli without their consent or knowledge

B.      Possible solutions: Institutional review of research, use of informed consent, giving participants the option to cease participant without penalty, debriefing, access to resources and support after participation is over (e.g., counseling, medical assistance)


Personality and the Self


I.                   The person vs. the situation as a cause of behavior

A.   Social psychology’s emphasis on the social situation

B.    Personality: Internal dispositions as causes of behavior

C.   The self: 1) the active “decider” and “choser” within as a cause of behavior;

     2) beliefs about the self (the self-concept) as a cause of behavior

II.                Personality

A.   Definition: the distinctive, internal, and consistent qualities that influence an individual’s behavior and make him or her unlike other people; three themes: individual differences, internal causes of behavior, consistency of behavior; social psychology has tended not to emphasize internal traits as a cause of social behavior (e.g., helping, obedience, conformity, decision making in groups)

B.    Trait theories vs. social learning theories of personality

1.     Trait theories argue that there are stable internal factors that lead to consistencies, across situations and over time, in broad domains of our behavior (e.g., in our morality, aggressiveness, sociability, shyness)

2.     Social learning theories argue that learning influences broad domains of behavior; behavior may fluctuate across situations; cognitive social learning theories emphasize thoughts and beliefs (e.g., self-efficacy beliefs; attributions about the causes of our behavior)

3.     The “Big Five” model of personality: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience as primary dimensions of human personality

4.     Is human behavior trait-like?

a.      The “crisis” in personality research in the 60s and 70s

b.     Some resolutions to the crisis: 1)  importance of aggregating behaviors, 2) people may be consistent on some traits but not on others, 3) the moderator variable approach: identifying circumstances when people behavior consistently with their personality traits and circumstances when they don’t (e.g., when self-awareness is high vs. low, when people are low or high on self-monitoring, when people are in weak vs. strong situations)

III.             The self

A.   Do only humans have “selves”?

1.     Gallup’s research on self-awareness in chimps

2.     at what age do humans develop “selves”?

C.     Classic views of the self

1.     William James describes the “I” vs. the “me”;  other terms for the “I”: the “active self,” the “executive self”; other terms for the “me”: the self-concept, the self-schema, the self as object

2.     George Herbert Mead and the “looking-glass” self; the notion that the self requires social feedback and a social environment to develop; symbolic interactionism

3.     Freud: the id and the ego; the self develops through conflicts with the social environment; all begins with unconsciousness; consciousness (the ego) only develops to satisfy the id and to deal with external reality

4.     Duval and Wicklunk (1972): self-awareness can develop through social conflict and disparities between one’s own behavior and the behavior or others

5.     McGuire’s research: people are more like to describe themselves in terms of traits or characteristics on which they stand out from others


D.     The notion of a self-schema

1.     A schema is an organized “cognitive structure” (e.g., set of beliefs, knowledge) about a person, category, or thing; the “self-schema” is the organized knowledge we have about ourselves

2.     According to Markus (1977), when a person holds a strong self-schema on a certain dimension, he or she can describe the self more rapidly on that dimension and has richer information about that dimension.  Question: Does the self-schema influence how we perceive others?

3.     Are there cultural differences in self-schemas?   The “20-questions test” suggests that people in some cultures describe themselves more in terms of traits, abilities, and private aspects of the self (e.g., “I’m intelligent, a good athlete, friendly, and self-conscious”), whereas people in other cultures describe themselves more in terms of collective, communal, or social aspects of the self (“I’m a mother, a devoted friend, a member of the CSUF softball team”)

4.     Self-evaluation vs. self-verification: Do we generally want positive information about the self that makes us feel good, or do we want accurate information about ourselves, even if it makes us feel bad about ourselves?

a.      Swann and Read (1981) expt.: women rated themselves as either likable or unlikable, and then they reviewed statements by another person who apparently either like them or didn’t like them.  Results: women spent more time reviewing statements that confirmed their self-concept, and they remember more statements that confirmed their self-concept; another expt. showed that men who viewed themselves as likable were particularly likable when another person challenged their self-concept, whereas men who viewed themselves as unlikable were particularly unlikable when their self-concept was challenged


E.      Self-awareness and it’s effects on emotions and behavior

1.     Duval and Wicklund’s (1972) theory of self-awareness: attention can be focused either on the self or on external environment; when attention is self-focused we think more about our traits, attitudes, and feelings and behave more consistently with them; self-awareness can be triggered by the scrutiny of others or by stimuli (such a mirrors or video cameras pointed at us) that trigger self-focused attention

2.     consequences of self-focused attention: we compare our behavior to internal standards; when behavior doesn’t match standards, we feel uncomfortable; this discomfort leads us either to change our behavior to match standards or to escape from self-directed attention; do we avoid self-awareness after failure?

3.     a number of studies show that in the presence of a mirror, people act more consistently with their self-reported attitudes and personality traits

4.     Carver and Scheier’s control model of self (the TOTE system: test, operate, test, exit); the self as a cybernetic or control system

5.     Wegner and Vallacher’s action-identification theory: choosing to describe behaviors as “low-level” behaviors or in terms of high-level goals and purposes; if you want to reduce self-awareness and “dissociate” from an action, you may identify behaviors (e.g., eating or drinking during a binge, getting a gun before a suicide attempt) at a low-level

F.      Applying research on the self to depression

1.     Reactive depressions occur after a major loss – of a loved one, a romantic relationship, a job; in terms of the self-control TOTE-loop, you have a major discrepancy between your current state and your goal: you are in a painful control loop from which you cannot exit; the pain of the discrepancy and the feelings of loss are exacerbated by self-directed attention

2.     Once a depressive self-concept is established, self-verification research suggests people might act to perpetuate their depression – e.g., they attribute bad events to stable, internal characteristics; research does suggest that depressed people are highly self-focused

3.     Should therapy help teach depressed people to lessen their self-focus?  Possible link to sex differences in depression: Do women ruminate more than men do?

4.     Linville’s research on depression and the complexity of people’s self-concept – the value of “not putting all your cognitive eggs in one basket”



Person Perception


I.                   Some general issues in perception

A.     How do we know reality?  Reality vs. illusion.  How much of perception is inference and “construction”?   How accurate are we?

B.      How do we establish perceptual constancies?  (“constancies” are stable perceptions created from unstable and fluctuating sensory information)

C.     How is sensory and perceptual information organized?  --e.g., Gestalt rules of perception

D.     “Top-down” vs. “bottom-up” processing


II.                Some ways in which person perception is more complicated and difficult than object perception

A.     Person perception is more inferential

B.      There may be more errors and biases in person perception

C.     Other people may actively try to deceive us

D.     Person perception is reactive – i.e., our judgments of others influence their behavior, which in turn influences our judgments (there are self-fulfilling prophecies)


III.             Attribution – Perceiving the causes of other people’s behavior

A.     Basic attributional questions

1.     Does another person’s behavior have internal or external causes?

2.     Does behavior have stable or unstable causes?

B.      Heider’s Psychology of Interpersonal Relations

1.     The “naïve psychology” of the everyday person

2.     The importance of internal vs. external causes

3.     A preference for internal explanations?

4.     “behavior engulfs the field”


C.     Theories of attribution

1.     Jones and Davis’s theory of correspondent inferences: how do we infer the causes of single observed behaviors?

a.      the principle of social desirability

b.     common and noncommon effects

c.     personalism and hedonic relevance

d.     Are J & D’s principles examples of “top-down” or “bottom-up” processing

2.     Kelly’s cube or three-dimensional model of attribution

a.      the covariation principle: we tend to attribute behavior to the cause with which it systematically covaries over time or across situations

b.     three fundamental kind of information: 1 ) consistency (how does behavior vary over situations and time?),  2) consensus (how does one person’s behavior compare with other people’s behavior?), 3) distinctiveness (how does a person’s behavior vary across “targets” – e.g., when that person is with various other people?)

c.     Some patterns of information push to internal attributions (e.g., high consistency across situations, low consensus with others’ behavior, and low distinctiveness with various targets).  For example, Oscar gets A’s in all his classes; nobody else gets A’s in all their classes; it doesn’t matter what the subjects – psychology, calculus, English literature – but Oscar always does well in school.  Internal conclusion: Oscar is brilliant.

d.     Some patterns of information push to external attributions (high consistency with a given target, high consensus, and high distinctiveness).  Example: Mario always receives F’s in his biology class; most of the other students in his biology class also are receiving F’s; biology is the only class that Mario is failing.  External conclusion: this biology class is brutally difficult.

e.      Is Kelly’s model a “top-down” or “bottom-up” model?

f.       Doe people actually process information as Kelly’s model suggests?  Some research answers


D.     Attribution errors and biases

1.     Kelley’s discounting principle:  We assign less weight to one “cause” of a person’s behavior if a second obvious cause is also present.   Studies have often shown that we discount internal explanations of behavior when strong external explanations are available.  Examples: studies of worker supervision, studies (e.g., Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett, 1973) of the effects of reward on intrinsic motivation

2.     The Jones and Harris (1967) experiment: judging people’s attitudes when they either freely chose or were forced to give speeches for or against Fidel Castro.  Two conclusions: discounting took place, but the discounting was incomplete

3.     The Fundamental Attribution error: Do people have a pervasive tendency to overemphasize the internal causes of behavior and underemphasize the external causes of behavior?

4.     Ross, Amabile, and Steinmentz’s (1977) quiz game study

5.     The actor-observer effect: Do we tend to explain our own behavior in more situational terms, and others’ behavior in more dispositional and internal terms?  Some research examples.  Information and perceptual explanations for the actor-observer effect