Saturday, January 28, 2012

Social Psychology - Introduction

The field


Social psychology studies how “a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are affected by others” (Feldman, 1985).


Social psychology focuses on the way other people influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.


The study of social cognition--how we think about other people and ourselves includes such topics as attitudes, person perception, stereotypes, and close relationships.




An attitude is a psychological tendency we express when we evaluate someone or something. It may be positive, negative, or neutral.


Attitudes influence behavior but not in a proactive manner. Correlations between attitudes and such behaviors as signing petitions or writing letters to government officials are often quite small. This may be due in part to the fact that opportunities to behave in accordance with attitudes are not always available; subjective norms (beliefs about what other people think you ought to do) may also interfere with acting upon our attitudes.


Theory of cognitive dissonance


The theory of cognitive dissonance argues that when two cognitions (attitudes) are in conflict, psychological distress is produced and people are motivated to modify their attitudes.


How can people be persuaded to change their attitudes?


Chaiken's heuristic-systematic model argues that persuasion can create attitude change through two separate routes:

(1) reliance on heuristics when you are not very involved in the issue or unable to analyze a message fully; or

(2) using systematic processing when you are involved in the issue and have the ability to analyze it. When heuristic shortcuts are used, the expertise and attractiveness of the persuader can make a message more believable; likewise, frequent exposure to the message will make it more credible.

Person Perception


Person perception examines two important issues in social cognition: Impression formation concerns integrating pieces of information about a person, whereas attribution concerns the way we explain the behavior of others and ourselves.

Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination


Stereotypes are organized sets of beliefs about the characteristics of a group of people. They apply to whole groups, whereas person schemas apply to individual people.


Prejudice is a negative attitude toward a group of people. Prejudiced attitudes often lead to discrimination in one's behavior toward a group of people.


Racism is bias toward certain racial or ethnic groups. Racism is often seen in subtle forms, as when the government levies larger fines against companies that pollute White communities than those that pollute Black communities. Surveys of Black individuals with college degrees indicate that 100% of them believe that discrimination against Blacks is still common today.


Sexism is bias toward people on the basis of their gender. For example, women with assertive personalities may be judged differently than men with assertive personalities. Men can also be victimized by sexism when they show feminine traits or apply for a stereotypically feminine job such as receptionist. Unfortunately, our stereotypes about typical males and females are often inaccurate; real gender differences are usually smaller than we assume them to be.


The cognitive approach to stereotypes argues that stereotypes are a product of normal categorization processes. Such categorization usually helps us to deal with the vast quantities of information in our world, but it sometimes has negative side-effects. It may, for instance, lead us to exaggerate the contrast between different categories. Stereotypes can also bias memory so that we remember attributes consistent with our stereotype while forgetting those that are not; this is particularly true when we are distracted by other tasks or when we have well-developed stereotypes. In general, we tend to evaluate members of our own group more favorably than members of another group, a phenomenon known as in-group favoritism. Sadly, negative stereotypes and evaluations of other groups often lead to self-fulfilling prophecies that keep members of other groups from being successful.


Discrimination is difficult to reduce. When a company wishes to decrease racial tension by hiring more people of color, for example, it will not help to hire just one good Black worker. Studies suggest that minority group members must constitute roughly 20% of a group before discrimination drops substantially. However, when groups of people must work together toward a common goal more positive attitudes can develop. Also, discrimination can be minimized when we attempt to overcome mindlessness through questioning our own categorizations.


Close Relationships


What factors determine which people we choose to be our friends? Social psychologists have shown that similarity is an important determinant of friendship. Proximity is also important: People tend to be friends with those who live or work near them. Male friends also tend to be matched in attractiveness, although this does not seem to hold true for female friends.


Similarity, proximity, and attractiveness are also important in love relationships. We tend to fall in love with people who share similar interests and backgrounds, who live nearby, and who are physically appealing but not significantly more appealing than ourselves.


 Research by Beverly Fehr suggests that trust, caring, honesty, friendship and respect are central to the concept of love; these qualities of love may be combined in our prototype of love. A very different theory, however, suggests that men look for attractive, healthy females to bear their children, while women look for a good provider; this theory is based on the evolutionary approach and is quite controversial. A third approach is Shaver's attachment theory. Here, adults exhibit different attachment styles in much the same way as infants do.


Adults may

(1) exhibit secure attachment and feel comfortable depending upon each other;

(2) they may exhibit avoid and attachment and feel uncomfortable trusting others completely; or

(3) they may exhibit anxious/ambivalent attachment, wanting to get closer to others than others would like.



Group Processes


Social psychologists define a group as two or more people interacting with each other. Groups establish social roles for their members. A role is the shared expectation about how people in a group ought to behave.



Group settings can either improve or hurt productivity depending on circumstances. Our tendency to perform better on easy tasks and worse on difficult tasks when another person is present is called social facilitation. Social psychologists believe that when another person is present, we become more alert to the other person's evaluation of us.


This monitoring may lead us to perform better on an easy task, but it may distract us from more difficult tasks. When groups of people work together on the same task, the result may be social loafing; each individual works less hard in a group than he or she would work independently.


Groups also influence the way their members make decisions. In group polarization, discussion among group members tends to produce a more extreme position than members would have taken individually.


In groupthink group harmony becomes more important than wise decision making, and the preservation of group harmony becomes an unspoken heuristic. Groupthink can create the illusions of invulnerability and unanimity, as group members exert pressure on dissenters. We can try to avoid groupthink by encouraging discussion with people outside of the group, and by holding a second chance meeting after the initial decision, to discuss any remaining doubts.


Although group processes seem to have primarily negative effects within our individualistic culture, cross cultural research shows that collectivist societies see the world quite differently. In collectivist cultures, social roles help define one's identity, and people work more effectively in a group than alone.


For Further Reading


Jerome Kagan and Julius Segal (1992), Psychology: An Introduction, 7th Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Fort Worth, USA.


Web References






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