I. Definition: How people are
influenced by others, whether the presence of others is
Two implications of this definition:
- actual (others are physically present)
- imagined (you are concerned about what others might think if you did
something [e.g., chewed our nails] or didn't do something [e.g., didn't shower for a week]) , or
presence of others (no people are sitting at that table but the food indicates
that people are around. Similarly, signs like this
no trespassing sign might change your behavior.).
#1 Your behavior always of interest
to social psychologists because people are hyper-social animals.
Even when we are physically alone, we are not truly alone because we are
being influenced by the implied (if you see a coat on a chair, you
assume the seat is taken even if nobody is there) or imagined (For
example, we may ask, "What would my partner, friends, or parents think
if I did that?") presence of others.
* Just as a
goldfish may not realize the importance of water and children may not
appreciate the importance of air, people underestimate the social
#2 Social psychologists study almost everything.
See the main topics
The main topics fall into 3 general areas:
- Thinking about others and thinking about ourselves (e.g., attitudes, the
prejudice, attraction, persuasion)
- Being influenced by others, often through conformity
- Interacting with (helping, loving, hating, liking,
influencing, and hurting) others.
II. Social psychologists get less respect than they deserve because they have an unpopular perspective: They look at
the power of the situation, rather than the power of
traits, character, or personality. So, they largely agree with Herodotus,
who said, " Circumstances rule people; people do not rule circumstances." That is,
social psychologists look at external,
factors rather than internal, inside, personality factors. Rather than asking
"What inside you made you do that?", social psychologists ask "What
outside you made you do that?" (As the famous social psychologist Marilyn Brewer said, "It's
what's on the outside that counts"). In short, whereas most people ignore
the situation, social psychologists focus on the power of the situation.
To think about social psychology's unique viewpoint, look at the figure below.
Imagine that most people focus on the dark part and see individuals (the people's faces)
whereas social psychologists focus on the light parts and see the background
vase). That is, while others focus on personality and put the situation in
the background, social psychologists focus on the situation and relegate
personality to the background.
Bryan Derksen, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
To get a sense of the power of situation, you might watch an episode of "What
Would You Do?" or imagine how you would behave if you were put in some of
the tense situation that the Borat movies have put people in. For a more
in-depth understanding of the social psychological view, you may want to watch this 28-minute "Power
of the Situation" video.
Examples of the power of the situation
The Zimbardo Prison Experiment
(well-adjusted college students became sadistic when assigned the role of
Video of interview of Dr.
Zimbardo, discussing relationship of the Prison experiment to American
atrocities in Iraq (the Abu-Ghirab scandal).
Two-minute video reenactment of the Asch experiment (the line experiment)
III. People's ignorance of situational influences.
- Milgram's shocking examples of the situation being more
powerful than personality differences.
A. On themselves.
- People often say, "I'm surprised I did that, "
or "That's not like me." --and people are often wrong
about what they would do if they were in a certain situation. In short,
people are often remarkably bad at predicting their own behavior.
- People who are born with financial advantages often don't acknowledge those advantages. As has been said about Donald Trump,
"He was born on third base, but thinks he hit a triple."
B. On judging others--the fundamental attribution error: the
tendency to overestimate the role of
internal, dispositional causes (personality) and
underestimate the role of
external causes (the situation)
in explaining the behavior of other people. We blame or credit others when
we should be blaming or crediting the situation.
Examples of this error (people's ignorance of the situation):
Our willingness to believe commercials starring celebrities: We think
the celebrity is endorsing the product because the celebrity believes in
the product rather than because the celebrity was paid to do it.
Our legal system: We assume people who do bad things are bad people
and must be put in prison, even though that is not always the case.
In some cases, we even pay police to encourage people to break the
law and then punish those people for breaking the law. Not
surprisingly then, there are some very good people in prison.
Some people think Donald Trump was a successful businessman when his
"success" (tax records indicate that in a 10-year period, he lost
more money than anyone in the U.S.) seems to be due to being given a
fortune by his father. He "earned" his money the old-fashioned way:
He inherited it.
Many drivers don't seem to learn that the roads are slippery from seeing
other drivers slide of the road.
votes seems to be partly determined by how long people have to wait in
line to vote.
IV. If situations matter, why do people talk about personality?
A. Maybe people are fooled.
How could people see others as constant and consistent when others are
really changing from situation to situation?
- People see often only see others in a certain situation and role. (They see Sam in the same old situation and role,
and assume that Sam's personality, rather than Sam's situation, that is
causing Sam to act the same every time they see Sam.) For example, a
student may only see a professor in the classroom.
- People like to see constancy because that means they think
they know how others will act. So, by thinking Sam has a certain
personality, they feel they can predict Sam's behavior (even though they may
occasionally complain about "seeing the same old Sam.")
People are so eager to believe in personality that they tend to
believe phony personality descriptions. To see one way in which people
are suckers for personality, try the following website which
the Barnum effect.
(Try that page's computerized "personality" test).
B. People are (partially) correct: Personality matters, but not as much as
people think. To use an analogy, when we see someone riding a bike, we may
view their speed as being due entirely to them. Although their speed does
depend on them, their speed also depends on the wind, whether they are going
uphill or downhill, their bike, and many other factors that we tend to
ignore. Similarly, a person's actions are affected by both their personality
and their situation. Some people--high self-monitors--are social chameleons
who seem to be more influenced by the situation than low self-monitors. You
can see where you are in terms of self-monitoring by taking a self-monitoring test
at one of these two sites:
V. Conclusions: 7 principles that may change how you see the world-- if
you avoid the "not me!" idea that social psychological principles apply to other
people but not to you.
Conformity is common and complex.
- Do not assume that a person did something because of their personality.
Instead, consider that they may be doing it because of their role or because of
the situation. For example,
People do things because of factors inside them (e.g., their beliefs) and
factors outside of them (e.g, the situation). If you ignore the impact of
outside influences on people and decide that someone did something because "that's the way
they are," you may be making the
fundamental attribution error..
By asking whether something besides their personality caused the behavior, you
can fight the fundamental attribution error. By recognizing the power of the
situation on people's behavior (perhaps by "putting yourself in their shoes"),
you may understand others better.
- Good people may do bad things. (Most of the Nazis tried in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity
scored normally on personality tests).
- Attitudes often do a poor job of predicting behavior.
- Soldiers who do terrible things (e.g., the
My Lai Massacre,
Abu Ghraib torture,
Haditha massacre, or other
war crimes), like executing children under the age of 6, usually do not score abnormally
on personality tests.
- Do not assume that your behavior is due to your personality: If you
want to change, change your situation. Changing your situation may mean
changing who your friends are or even who your partner is: If you don't like who
you are when you are with them, you should avoid them.
- Do not assume that your finding evidence that you are right is proof that
you are right. Instead, realize that you may just be displaying the confirmation bias.
That is, if you ask "Am I right or am I right?", you tend to find out that you
are right. The confirmation bias causes us to hold on to our first impressions
and some of our biases, prejudices, and other
incorrect beliefs. To fight the confirmation bias, ask how you might be wrong.
Otherwise, you may end up being like some of the
people who deny that COVID exists--as they lie dying from COVID! For some,
last words are "This can't be happening, this isn't real."
- Do not assume that your thinking you are rational means that you are
rational: You could just be rationalizing. Because knowing that you are being
inconsistent makes you feel an uncomfortable feeling called cognitive
dissonance, you will want to rationalize your
inconsistencies. The result is that, by trying to convince yourself that
you are being consistent, you may actually be foolish (To quote Emerson, "A
foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"). To their credit,
many people who voted for Trump in 2016 admitted that they were wrong and
changed their vote in 2020. The following very short video is a spoof
about what happened when several people suffered hypothermia after a Trump
rally. However, note how the video captures the essence of how
affects some Trump supporters.
More information about dissonance
Awareness of a problem, "education," or knowing what should be done may not
have any effect on what people do (e.g., as Jackson Brown, Jr. said, "No parent
ever convinced a child to eat something by saying, "It's good for you."). Among the reasons for the disconnect
between knowledge and action are conformity and feeling that there is little
that the individual can do about the problem. If you want to change other
people's behavior, consider
- People may conform in terms of public actions but not in terms of their
private thoughts (e.g., according to the award-winning journalist Carl
21 republican Senators have privately stated that Trump was not fit to be
President (click here for
one example), but most have publicly supported him. Another example of the
difference between public conformity and private conformity seems to explain the
apparently contradictory votes of House Republicans. In a public vote, House
Republicans overwhelmingly voted against impeachment; in a private vote, they
supported Liz Cheney for voting for impeachment.
- Public conformity may lead to private conformity. For example,
some people, as a result of publicly conforming, apparently have talked
themselves into privately conforming.
- The value of anything-- including
art, stocks, houses,
bitcoin, a private college education,
gold, dollars, and
tulips-- is largely
determined by what people think other people think its worth.
- People and products are promoted by saying that they are popular. One result
is that many people hire bots to follow themselves on Twitter (by one analysis,
61% of President Trump's twitter followers were bots).
- Most people will obey an order from an authority, even if that order is
clearly illegal and immoral. In one study, over 90% of nurses followed instructions
from a doctor even when they thought that following those instructions was
unethical and would hurt
the patient. In one case, a nurse gave a patient complaining of an ear ache in
the right ear, 5 ear drops in the anus! Why? The nurse misinterpreted the
doctor's note of "5 drops in R ear" as "5 drops in Rear."
- Most basketball players could shoot free throws better if they shot them
underhanded. However, they don't shoot underhanded primarily because of
- People will often do things just because they are told to do it --or because
they are told that everyone else is doing it. (You may not think of yourself as
a conformist, but you might have trouble singing on a bus or shopping in a
Our desire to to be right and to want to know the truth is sometimes in
conflict with wanting to feel good and wanting to look good to others. President
Trump has resolved this conflict by not being that concerned with the truth: He
denies science and comforts himself by watching Fox News, holding rallies in
front of his adoring fans, and surrounding himself by people who are afraid to
disagree with him. Tim Ferriss tries a different approach. He
tells "my story to myself from the perspective of victim, then I tell the exact
same story from a place of 100 percent responsibility." In short, as shown
by statements on insurance claims such as "The pedestrian hit me and went under
my car," to error is human, but to blame it on someone else is even more human.
- Making the path to the goal clearer and easier
- Making people believe they can change and that changing will make a difference
- Making social and peer pressure work for you rather than against you (e.g.,
one reason smoking has decreased seems to be because the amount of smoking seen in films and on television
has been reduced).
- Get people to change their behavior and their attitudes may follow. That is, rather than trying to change attitudes in the hopes that you will change their behavior, change
their behavior and their attitudes may follow.
- Warning: Although getting people to change their behavior can be an effective way to change their behavior, if people think you are forcing them to change their behavior, your efforts will
backfire. As Monta Crane said, "There are three ways to get something done: do it yourself, hire someone, or forbid your kids to do it."
- Behaviors can strengthen attitudes which, in turn, can strengthen
behaviors, as this quote from William Graham Summer suggests: "It's this way
with children. It's cumulative. The more you love them, the more your sacrifice;
and the more you sacrifice, the more you love."
- Making the goal relevant to people's self-image (e.g., "I am an anti-racist")
- Making the goal seem relevant to the group's identity (e.g., the "Don't mess with Texas" anti-littering campaign
related anti-littering with being a proud Texan)
Back to Lecture Notes Menu