Think back to an instance where you’ve stood amongst a group of people at a crosswalk, watching the line of cars zip past you. Suddenly, there’s a break in the traffic, and you glance to other people in the group, waiting to see if anyone tries to cross.
Sure enough, one jaywalker makes the first bold step forward, only to convince five other people (in addition to yourself) to join him in committing the minor traffic violation. This might seem like a regular occurrence, but have you ever considered the cognitive factors involved in your decision? If you had been standing alone, would you have crossed?
How individuals act in groups, by themselves, or under the impression that they are not alone largely rests on social factors that have been constructed over time. In order to explain how others can sway people’s thoughts and actions, social psychologists explore these interactions between individuals and groups.
Exploring Social Constructs and their Effects
Social psychologists began studying characteristics of group and individual behaviors in the early 20th century, but the field did not gain more traction until World War II.
After the discovery of Nazi crimes committed during the Holocaust, the United States government wanted to explore propaganda and its effects on seemingly normal people. More specifically, scientists and political leaders wanted to understand exactly why individuals conformed and complied with group decisions – even when those decisions might have horrifying consequences.
Today, the field has expanded, and social psychologists spend their time conducting experiments that explore a variety of social concerns, including racism, gender discrimination, group dynamics, and leadership and power. According to “Research Methods in Social Psychology,” by Dana Dunn, these social concerns are rooted in three main concepts: social thought, social influence, and social connections.
Social thought, or social cognition, refers to how we think about ourselves or other people. Social psychologists critically evaluate people’s attitudes and beliefs to explore how they view others based on first impressions or social judgments.
Social cognition researchers hold that people develop attitudes over time that unconsciously affect their social interactions. For example, people develop stereotypes about certain groups in society, even though those people might disavow holding any prejudices toward those groups.
While our parents and teachers stress individuality and uniqueness in our childhood, the truth of the matter is that humans are very concerned about what others think of them. Social psychologists research how group dynamics, gender roles, and persuasive arguments are guided by social influences, offering insight on how the people around us affect how we feel and act.
Social influences include social norms – rules and standards followed by groups that have been constructed over time. When people do not conform to social norms, they often experience rejection from others, negatively affecting their opportunities for social connections.
While humans are naturally social beings, there are both positive and negative connections we make as we interact with others. Social psychologists study not only how and why people form friendships, but also why people develop negative prejudices toward specific groups.
Prejudices develop over time through a combination of family training, negative group contact, and strangeness. When a person meets with a member of a group they have not encountered, their first impression of that member is applied to the group as a whole.
Social Psychology in Action
While understanding these concepts can affect policies and our interactions in public, social psychologists are mainly interested in why we act certain ways purely in the pursuit of knowledge. Social psychologists typically work in academic settings at colleges or universities, developing field and laboratory experiments to explore social behavior. After conducting experiments and recording results, they submit studies to academic journals.
Conducting an effective empirical study requires social psychologists to pose a specific question and develop a measureable way to chart results. Because many experiments take place in the laboratory, social psychologists sometimes must engage in deception to ensure people act as they would in public.
Consider the earlier reference to the Holocaust. In 1961, during the trial of Nazi SS Officer Adolf Eichmann, Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram decided to embark on one of the most famous (or infamous) studies in social psychology. In groups, people naturally look to leaders who socially influence their actions. During the 1961 trial, Eichmann, who led the Holocaust effort, repeatedly claimed to be simply following orders while committing atrocities. Milgram wanted to explore the extent to which individuals would follow orders from an authority figure, and chose ordinary American citizens as his test subjects.
Milgram’s experiment asked citizen volunteers to participate in a memory study, where the citizen would play the role of a “teacher.” The teacher was introduced to a psychologist playing the “experimenter” in charge of the study, and a “learner” played by another psychologist, unbeknownst to the teacher. The experimenter explained to the teacher and the learner that they would be placed in separate rooms, where the learner would be hooked up to an electric shock device. The teacher’s role was to ask the learner questions, and then deliver an electric shock should the learner answer incorrectly.
However, not all was as it seemed to the teacher. In actuality, the learner was not hooked up to an electric shock device, but was simply sitting in the other room. As the experiment began, the learner would answer several questions incorrectly, forcing the teacher to shock him.
As the experiment continued, the teacher inflicted more severe shocks to the learner, who eventually became panicked, yelling, and requesting that the experiment end. When the teacher inevitably expressed distress at shocking the learner again and again, the experimenter would push them to continue, insisting that the experiment must go on.
Before embarking on this experiment, Milgram casually polled university members to guess how many people would continue simply because they were following orders. Of the roughly 50 university members he polled, most determined that only one to three teachers would continue with the shock experiment. In reality, 65% of the teachers “shocked” the learner repeatedly at dangerous levels, simply because an authority figure told them to.
Migram’s experiment underscores the power of social influence over others, even to the point where they act against their own morals. While his study is certainly one of the more controversial social psychology experiments, researchers in the field continue to perform experiments to hopefully discover similar truths behind the ways we act.
Becoming a Social Psychologist
If you’re interested in exploring human nature and how our actions are directly related to others, consider contacting schools offering degree programs in social psychology.
The self-fulfilling prophecy of stereotypes
One aspect of social cognition is how we think about ourselves in relation to others. For some prejudiced groups, these thoughts can actually impact base intellectual functioning.
In “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans,” published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers wanted to explore the self-fulfilling aspects that stereotypes induce in some groups.
The study, conducted by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, hypothesized that when African American students perform an intellectual or explicitly scholastic task, they think about risks posed by fulfilling negative stereotypes about their group. The anxiety caused by these thoughts in turn interferes with their performance during testing, sometimes leading to lower scores.
Experimentation by the researchers showed that stereotype threat causes inefficiencies in intellectual processing, similar to those caused by other testing pressures. Under the threat of fulfilling a stereotype, African American students spent more time alternating attention between the test and trying to address stereotype frustration.
While some students might have felt more motivated to perform well under this threat, their motivations were largely guided by anxiety and self-consciousness, in turn producing negative results.
Steele and Aronson’s findings show how social cognitions can affect everyday performance – regardless of our intellectual ability to actually perform. They note that perhaps stereotype threat is an underappreciated source of educational deficits between African Americans and Whites, and call for additional research on social cognition and its guiding effect on performance.