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Discussion #9 posting due 7/12: Social Psychology

Before we get started this week, I wanted to take this opportunity to speak to you about the importance of the education you’re getting. As I am teaching you psychology, and your other professors are teaching you other subjects, know that we hope you’re learning much more than the subject matter. I am hoping that you are learning some basic life skills and critical thinking through my class assignments. I hope I am teaching you how to find unbiased information through the RWP assignments and that I’m helping you to apply some of the ideas and theories we are learning about to your life and real world situations on the DB. This is an odd time we live in. News is rarely positive and is often partisan. I hope you are using your newfound skills of fact finding and critical thinking to question what you are seeing on the news and hearing from your friends and families.

Now on to this week’s topic: SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY! And boy, do we have some real-world examples out there of social psychological principles and theories playing out right now! At its core, social psychology (Links to an external site.) is all about understanding human interactions. Philip Zimbardo said, “Psychology is not excuse-ology” meaning that while we may explain why people do things, it does not excuse poor behavior. 

There is a lot to cover in this area of psychology, and we’ll only cover some aspects of it. Although I’m not a social psychologist by training, this is one area of psychology that fascinates me! I hope you find it interesting as well. This week we’ll cover the following topics in Chapter 15: Social Psychology:

· An introduction to social psychology

· What is social psychology?

· Social cognition and attribution theory

· Social influence sections on Conformity and Obedience

· Groups and Relationships

· Stereotypes and Discrimination

Useful infographics:

· Infographic 15.1: Errors in Attribution

· Infographic 15.2: Milgram’s Shocking Obedience Study

· Infographic 15.3: Thinking About Other People

Videos that may be useful / interesting:

· Solomon Asch’s Line studies (Links to an external site.) from Khan Academy

· This video is from a “reality” TV show called The Heist where they re-enacted the classic Milgram Study. Although this is for entertainment purposes, it’s a good 10 min video showing what people had to go through in this experiment, along with some pictures from the original study. Warning: this is kind of disturbing (no gore or anything, it’s just hard to watch someone’s anguish), but I promise that if you can stomach it, it’s well worth watching.Milgram Experiment from the TV show The Heist (Links to an external site.)

· Philip Zimbardo’s TED talk on the Psychology of Evil (Links to an external site.). He’ll talk about his  Prison Study, the Milgram Study, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (Links to an external site.). He’ll show a lot of original images from the studies and the scandal and will provide some historical context. Some disturbing images appear between the times of 4:50 and 6:25. You can skip this part, but watch the rest without missing any of the meaning.

Social Psychology Methods

Many social psychology experiments utilize 
deception (Links to an external site.)
. This is necessary because if people knew they were being asked to think or behave while others were looking on, they might not act as they normally would, but rather how they thought they should act. Think about how differently you would act when you’re out with friends if you knew your mom (or even your professor!) was with you. Sometimes, part of the deception is the inclusion of a 
confederate  (Links to an external site.)
– a person who is working for the researcher, but poses as another participant. 

BUT, participants are 
debriefed  (Links to an external site.)
after the experiment, which means they are told what the true intention of the study was. Although this may seem cruel, deception is a necessary part of the research process sometimes. Deception research always goes through strict IRB approval (Links to an external site.) and research (Links to an external site.) has shown that “the necessary use of deception, when paired with correct experimenter training and experimental procedures, poses limited psychological harm to participants” (Boynton, Portnoy, & Johnson, 2013, 15-16).

Social Cognition and Attribution Theory

Social Cognition (Links to an external site.) has to do with the way you think about others in relation to the situation they and you are currently in and how you use that information – either consciously or unconsciously.  Attribution theory (Links to an external site.) has to do with the beliefs that we develop based on our personal experiences that help us interpret why people do things. Why did you fail an exam? Why did you eat all the cookies? Why did that person cut you off in traffic? You can probably think of a few answers to these questions, but attribution theory goes further and tries to explain the root causes of your explanation of other people’s – and your own – behaviors.

Attributional dimensions (Links to an external site.)
 – three different continuums over which behaviors can be explained:


1. Controllable or uncontrollable: Why did you fail an exam? 

· Controllable: You failed the exam because you didn’t study. (You have control over the situation.)

· Uncontrollable: You failed the exam because you were feeling sick. (You can’t control when you get sick.)

2. Stable or unstable: Why did you eat all the cookies?  

· Stable: You ate all the cookies because you can’t eat just one. (This is usually long-lasting.)

· Unstable: You ate all the cookies because there wasn’t anything else to eat. (This is usually a temporary thing.)

3. Internal or external: Why did that person cut you off in traffic? 

· Internal (also known as a dispositional attribution): They are a jerk. (This reason assumes the cause lies within the person.)

· External (also known as a situational attribution): You were in their blind spot and they didn’t see you. (This reason assumes the cause lays outside the person and is situational.)


Attribution Errors – there are many different kinds of errors we can make when we try to understand why we or others do things based on the type of attributions we assign to their causes.


· Fundamental attribution error – overestimate dispositional explanations, minimize situational explanations; this is a pretty common error people make. 

· It can be the cause of road rage – “That guy’s a jerk, he just cut me off!” (dispositional attribution) instead of thinking, “Man, I was in that guy’s blind spot and he didn’t see me.” (situational attribution) 

· It can also be the cause of many a relationship fight – “She didn’t call me like she said she would because she’s not interested in me!” (dispositional attribution) instead of “I wonder if her phone died before she could call me.” (situational attribution) 


· Just-World Hypothesis – believing the world is a fair place so when something bad happens to someone, it happens for a reason. 

· Thinking “They got what they deserved.”

· This can result in victim shaming – she deserved to get assaulted because of what she was wearing; of course he got into a car accident because he cheated on his income taxes.


· Self-serving biases – we over-attribute our successes to dispositional explanations and over-attribute our failures to situational explanations.

· An example would be that if you fail an exam, it is because the exam was unfair or the teacher is too hard (over-attribute external/situational explanations), but if you pass the exam, it is because you are very smart (over-attribute internal/dispositional explanations).


· False consensus effect – when we try to figure out the actions of others, we rely too much on our own experiences. 

· This is the tendency to overestimate the degree to which others act and think the way we do.

· We’re seeing this a lot recently with the BLM protests. Black and white people, as well as others, are interpreting their experience with the police and other figures of authority as the experience that all people have – which is not the case.

Do you know which error Lucy (Links to an external site.) is displaying here?

Social Influence: Conformity

You might think that 
conformity (Links to an external site.)
 is a bad thing – and blindly following others can be a bad thing. However, conformity can help out in new situations so that we can figure out the 
norms (Links to an external site.)
 of a situation. For example, the first time you set foot in a cafeteria, how do you get your food? In this particular cafeteria, you notice you first have to pay at the back at the cafeteria and then get a ticket that you take to the food servers. So conforming to others behaviors can be a good thing in this instance. However, you also notice it is the norm to not say “Thank you” to the servers – what do you do now? Do you conform and stay silent or say thanks and possibly face retribution from the other students? This is a pretty tame example, but you can easily imagine a situation in which the norms are not the most moral or righteous option and you are stuck deciding what to do.

Perhaps the most well-known study of conformity is Soloman Asch’s study (Links to an external site.) where he had one person (S7 in the picture below) serve as the true participant surrounded by a bunch of confederates (S1, S2, S3, S4, S5, S6, and S8 in the picture) as they judged line lengths. The task was to say which of the 3 comparison lines was the same length as the standard line. It should be obvious to all that the answer is 2 (the middle line), but when confederates S1-S6 said it was 1 (or 3), the participant would often conform and give the wrong answer. We learn that the need we have to be accepted is often stronger than our need to be correct and that the situation we are in is just as important as ourselves when we consider why people do things.

So you might think, Well that’s a silly thing. I can imagine why someone might just go along with the majority of people who say a line is a particular length when it isn’t. When asked, the people who conformed gave answers like, “I figured they had a better angle than I did so they could see it better.” And besides, you think, who cares about this anyway? It’s not like it’s a life or death situation.

BUT, people will still conform even when their life could be in danger! Check out this video where people stay in a room that fills with smoke if there are others who don’t seem to care. There’s a real life news story covered in the video as well where real people died in a real fire because they conformed by doing nothing.Dangerous Conformity (Links to an external site.)

Social Influence: Obedience

In any society, there is an imbalance of power. This is just the way it is no matter how egalitarian a society claims to be. There are those at the top of the power structure tasked with keeping everyone safe. The way to keep people safe is then to task other people in other positions of power with different jobs. At the bottom are the least powerful – those that the top are meant to protect. 

In your life, you have many people who are in positions of power over you – your parents, landlords, bosses, teachers (me!), police, politicians, etc. You are also in a position of power over others – younger family members, your workers, those who you come into contact with with less privilege than you. So, the question becomes not how do we dismantle power differentials, but rather how can we make sure that power is not abused? Let’s turn to the question of why people will follow the directions of those in power, even if it leads to the harm of others. 

There is, of course, the famous Milgram experiment (Links to an external site.) (infographic 15.2, see video above too) where participants are convinced that they have been randomly selected to be a teacher while a confederate will be a learner (T and L in the figure below). The teacher and learner are separated and the teacher is put into a room with the experimenter (E in the figure) who instructs them to keep teaching the learner pairs of words. If the learner gets something wrong, the teacher must shock the learner by hitting a button that is connected to a wire that will shock the learner in the next room. The key here is that the learner is not hooked up to anything at all and the experiment is rigged so that the learner intentionally gets the answers wrong, and every time they get an answer incorrect, the shock intensity increases (Links to an external site.) all the way up to a label that says “intense shock” (see below). Ouch!

The learner starts screaming that they want to stop the experiment, but the teacher is encouraged to keep on going since the experimenter – the person who is in the position of power – tells them to keep on going. Put yourself in the teacher’s position here – you are shocking someone who is screaming to stop the experiment and you keep on going because someone tells you to do so. You might think, Not me!, but the research shows that the majority of people will do this. There have been many variations to this study (Links to an external site.), but the percent of people who will continue to the full 450V shock is always “shocking” (pun intended) to me:

You might think why would someone devise such a sick experiment? Milgram was responding to the question of the day which was 
how could normal everyday people in Germany do such atrocious things to other human beings during the Holocaust (Links to an external site.)

? This question is as relevant today as it was back then – how can people do such horrid things to other people? That, my friends, is the million dollar question and one that we can partially explain if we consider how people allow the situation around them to influence their own behavior.

Groups and Relationships

Even if we consider ourselves to be introverted, we are always around other people. And the presence of other people can have both positive and negative effects on our own behavior – whether we realize it or not:


· Social facilitation – when the presence of others leads to an increase in your performance

· Examples include runners who run faster when surrounded by other runners (as compared to solo training); people who type faster if there are other people around typing, etc


· Social loafing – when people put less than their best effort forward when their individual contribution is hard to figure out

· Example include: that person on your group project that does nothing


· Diffusion of Responsibility – related to social loafing, if responsibilities are diluted across all group members, no one does anything

· Example: Hey, if you’re not doing anything, neither will I!


· Bystander effect – related to diffusion of responsibility, people will often do nothing in a group environment because they think someone else will.

· Perhaps the most well-known example is the tragic case of Kitty Genovese (Links to an external site.), a woman who was assaulted and killed in the middle of the night in the parking lot of her apartment building by a man (Links to an external site.) while people looked on and did nothing. Yes, it was late and dark and the people were not in the parking lot, but rather in their apartments looking down at poor Kitty. Afterwards people said they didn’t do anything when they heard screaming because they assumed someone else would call the police or help her. No one did. 


Stereotypes and Discrimination

Finally, let’s talk about what happens when we rely on incorrect assumptions about people. Let me start by clarifying three terms that are often conflated with one another (also see infographic 15.3):


· Stereotypes (beliefs) – these are conclusions we draw about people based on their group memberships. Stereotypes by themselves are not inherently negative. For example, when we’re at a theme park or other festival, I tell my kids that if they get lost to look for “another mommy” to help them find me. I’m relying on the stereotype that “all mothers are nurturing”. This is a “positive” stereotype, but it is not 100% true and can lead to harmful situations.

· People use stereotypes to distinguish people who belong in their in-group versus their out-group to establish their social identity. We are more influenced (whether we know it or not) by people in our in-group than our out-group.


· Prejudice (thoughts) – these are hostile or negative attitudes / thoughts that someone has about someone else, usually based on a stereotype.


· Discrimination (actions) – treating others in a hostile or negative way based on their group affiliation.

You can see how holding untrue beliefs (stereotypes) can lead to negative thinking (prejudice) and eventually negative actions (discrimination). The good news is that the more you are made aware of these stereotypes and prejudice thoughts, the less you are prone to commit acts of discrimination. That is what some of the various social awareness campaigns (Links to an external site.) are aimed at doing – changing the way people think by making them aware of unconscious thoughts they might be harboring to cut down on discrimination.

One of the most famous experiments that examined how stereotypes and power play a role in our lives was conducted by Philip Zimbardo in his Stanford Prison Experiment (Links to an external site.). (Yes, I know it’s been made into a movie (Links to an external site.), and no I haven’t seen it yet!) In this experiment – which was stopped after just a few days because things got so bad – Zimbardo recruited people and randomly assigned them a role as prison guard or inmate. From that point on, Zimbardo witnessed the study break down into anarchy – the “prison guards” abused their powers while the “inmates” became psychologically ill and depressed.  Zimbardo argues that it was the situation that made the “prison guards” act in such a hateful manner – not that the people playing the “prison guards” were inherently evil (all the participants underwent psychological testing before the study began to weed out anyone who seemed “off”). Instead of it being a “few bad apples” that cause harm, Zimbardo talks about the “barrel that holds the apples” as being the true problem.

Zimbardo was actually high school friends with Stanley Milgram and they both sought to answer the questions of why seemingly good people did bad things. Zimbardo was an expert witness for some of the soldiers prosecuted in the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal. In his own words (Links to an external site.):

This body of work challenges the traditional focus on the individual’s inner nature and personality traits as the primary – and often sole – factors in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can readily be led to act antisocially because most are rarely solitary figures improvising soliloquies on the empty stage of life. On the contrary, people are often in an ensemble of different players on a stage with various props, scripts and stage directions. Together, they comprise situations that can dramatically influence behaviour.

So. Is it the situation or the person that enables evil to occur in this world? Another million dollar question.


Hit reply and type your answers to the following: 


1. Describe one of the 4 attribution errors mentioned above. Find a news article (this one does not have to be peer-reviewed!) in which someone has made one of the errors. Explain the situation as presented and how the error contributed to the situation that is being reported. Explain the attribution error in terms of the 3 dimensions – which side of the 3 dimensions did the error seem to fall on? Give the URL (not PDF) of the news article you are writing about.

2. During the early stages of the pandemic, we were in a situation where the majority of the medical and scientific evidence recommended that people wear a mask and engage in social distancing to stop the spread of the pandemic. Yet, some people did not following these basic guidelines. Why do some people conform to these guidelines, while others do not? Talk about conformity of individuals, what they were conforming to, and which aspects of attribution theory can explain their behavior.

3. Think of a situation in which social loafing, diffusion of responsibility, or the bystander effect has been at play in your own life (or make one up). Describe the situation and then explain how one of those concepts could be applied to the situation. How might you change the situation to correct for this effect.

4. Pick either the Milgram Obedience Study or the Stanford Prison Study.


· State the study’s hypothesis and explain the research design. Both studies sought to answer the question of why good people do bad things (this is not either study’s hypothesis).

· How did Milgram or Zimbardo think their study answered the question? Explain whether YOU think the experiment answered the question or not.

· Both studies have their criticisms – name a few for your chosen study. What are your thoughts?