Social Psychology: bringing it all Together

Human beings have always been thought of as social creatures. They live together in large groups of hundreds, thousands and millions and have massive division of labor and willingness to sacrifice for a group. How do humans do this? It is a question social psychology is trying to answer for many years. In this paper the overview of social psychology as a discipline and the key principles associated with its practice will be discussed. The work will particularly uncover how human beings perceive themselves and their interactions with others, judgments they make about other people, their usage of persuasion power, factors that lead them to conform and become obedient, as well as the idea of group dynamics.         

Discovering the self

The question “who am I?” is frequently asked by people, but rarely answered to the full because of its inexhaustibility. Why do people strive to answer it? Probably, because it is a major driving force of their lives. All their personal experiences, interactions with others, cultural forces play some role in person’s definition of self. A significant component of what is called “self’ is knowledge. All the ideas, information people have about themselves, about who they are, what characteristics they possess, what personal histories have made them, what they may yet become, make up a human self-concept (Bordens & Horowitz,2001). The idea of self includes private inner self and outer self that is shown by humans to others. Self-concept may be also viewed as a total sum of beliefs people have about themselves (Kassin, Fein, Markus, 2011).

Self-concept consists of self-schemas: beliefs about individual’s personality that influence working-out information relevant to the self. They may be considered to person’s total self-concept, as what books are to a library. For body weight schematics, a wide range of otherwise mundane events – a trip to supermarket, new clothing, a dinner at the restaurant, a day at a beach, friend’s eating habits – may trigger thoughts about oneself. Men and women, who think they are overweight, are considered to be schematic with respect to weight. Those who do not regard their own weight as extreme or important part of their lives are in this respect aschematic (Kassin, Fein, Markus, 2011).

If to review a daily routine of a particular person – work, chores, leisure, interactions, meal – one may be surprised at how little time this individual spends thinking about himself or herself. Most people are not self-focused all the time, but only in some situations that make them become the objects of their own attention, in other words – self-aware. When people talk about themselves, glance in a mirror, stand before an audience or the camera, watch themselves on a videotape, behave in a conspicuous manner, they become highly self-aware and this causes them to compare their behavior to some established norm. This comparison may reduce self-esteem. The more self-focused people are in general, the more likely they are to find themselves in a bad mood and depressed. They are also more likely to behave in ways that are consistent either with their own personal values or with socially-accepted ideals (Kassin, Fein, Markus, 2011).

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People devote much time to working out who they are, often by making comparisons with self-standards, other individuals and groups. Given the amount of time people spend thinking about their selves and comparing them to other selves it is not surprising that self is an important evaluative component. Individuals not only think about what their self-concepts are, but also whether aspects of their self-concepts are positive or negative. People’s self-esteem is their subjective appraisal of themselves as intrinsically positive or negative and can have implications on psychological functioning. People with higher self-esteem are better at mood regulation and therefore better able to react constructively to life events, than people with low self-esteem, who tend to dampen positive feelings, but dwell on negative feelings that they experience. Having high self-esteem can have also some negative consequences. Research has shown that narcissistic individuals, who have a high but fragile self-esteem, are more likely to be aggressive than people with lower self-esteem (Crisp, Turner, 2010).Self-efficacy is human being’s belief in the ability to succeed in particular life-situations. In other words, it appears if people believe in the fact that they can perform well, and think of difficult tasks as of something possible to complete rather than to avoid (Crisp & Turner, 2010).

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Thinking about others

All people may be considered naïve scientists of some sort. Motivated to understand others well enough, to manage their social lives, they observe, analyze and explain their behavior. The explanations they come up with are denominated attributions. In other words, people are prone of explaining other people’s behavior or attributing causality to actions they observe. Attributions are viewed as things human beings point to, as causes of events, people’s and their own behaviors. Internal attributions are explanations of behavior based on the inner characteristics or dispositions of the person performing behavior, while external attributions are explanations of behavior based on external circumstances or situations (Plotnic & Kouyoumjian, 2011).

Attitude is defined as a settled way of thinking about an object or a situation. Its’ purpose is to help people make sense of the world and decisions. So, attitude’s aim is to guide people’s reactions and interpretations of the events (Brown, 2006). People’s attitudes are to determine the ways in which they behave. If someone doesn’t like coffee, then why would they drink it? But it should be acknowledged that what seems to make sense intuitively does not always apply to human social perception. Contrary to common thinking, attitudes do not predict behavior. The relationship between attitudes and behavior depends on the specificity, time, accessibility and strength of the attitudes, as well as on self-awareness of a person. In order for attitudes to predict behavior, the two have to refer to the same level of specificity. That is why it is important to differentiate between specific behavior and general attitude. The longer the time between attitude measurement and measurement of behavior, the more likely the attitude will change. This may be observed during the voting procedure. People who are privately self-aware behave in line with their own attitude, whereas people, who are publicly self-aware, behave in line with the attitude they perceive the majority of people hold. This may be seen in littering while being on your own and thinking of it as an assault to the nature, and littering while being with a group of people, who consider it to be cool. The easier it is for something to come to mind, the more likely it is to affect behavior. This can be observed in the speed of responses to the questions of questionnaire: the faster the speed, the more likely is the future behavior. And the last point – the stronger people’s attitudes are, the more likely they are to have influence on behavior. It should be also mentioned that together with planned and habitual behaviors, there exist also another types, such as spontaneous and unintentional ones (Crisp &Turner, 2010).

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People in the contemporary world are frequently influenced by intergroup bias, among which the most frequent ones are stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypes and prejudice are attitudes towards the members of the group, based solely on their membership of that group. Discrimination is viewed as behavioral display of prejudice. There are multiple types of prejudice and discrimination in the modern society. Among the most frequent ones are: (1) sexism – prejudice on the basis of person’s gender (generally directed towards women); (2) racism – prejudice on the basis of ethnicity or race (frequently directed towards Black people); (3) ageism – prejudice on the basis of race (older people make little contribution to the society as compared to the young ones). The most common effects of prejudice and discrimination are: (a) dehumanization – it occurs, when people have their dignity taken away; (b) stigmatization – individuals are seen in terms of negative characteristics they are believed to possess (Brown, 2006).

Influencing others: persuasion

Social influence occurs when one person engages in some behavior like persuading, threatening, promising, issuing orders that causes another person to behave differently from how he or she would otherwise behave. The most obvious outcomes of social influence are: (1) attitude change – change in target’s beliefs, attitudes about some issue, person, situation; (2) compliance – when target’s behavior conforms to source’s requests or demands. Persuasion can be defined as changing the beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors of a target through the use of information or an argument. To convince someone in something various techniques can be used. One of them is the reciprocity rule, according to which, when someone does a favor for the person, this person feels obliged to return it. Another technique is named a rejection and retreat rule. It essence lies in the fact that, firstly, a person asks large and when rejected, appears to make a concession and makes a smaller request, which is usually met.  One more technique of persuasion is low-balling. It presumes presenting an option, person agrees to and subsequently changing it. It creates an illusion of irrevocability after a person has changed to the original request, as the person asked for a favor wants to be seen as consistent and thus agrees to the second proposal (Plotnic & Kouyoumjian, 2011). The key elements of persuasion paradigm are the persuader, the message and the audience.  The persuader is the source’s identity that provides the target with information about the content of the message. Some sources are more credible than others. Target pays attention to the source’s identity when assessing whether to believe the message. In this respect, communicator’s credibility denotes the extent, to which the communicator is perceived by the target as a believable source of information. Factors that influence the extent to which a source is credible are expertise and trustworthiness. Persuasive communications differ in content. Some messages contain arguments that are highly factual and rational; others contain emotional appeals that motivate action arousing fear and greed. Messages also differ in their detail and complexity (simple and complex), their strength of presentation (strong and weak), their balance of presentation (one-sided and two-sided). Discrepant message is the one, advocating a position that is different from what target believes. To cause a change in beliefs and attitudes, the message must be at least somewhat discrepant from target’s current position. A message that is moderately discrepant will be more effective in changing target’s beliefs and attitudes, than a message that is only slightly discrepant. The target of the persuasive message, the audience, is characterized by the different level of involvement with the issue. It must be acknowledged that those audiences, which enjoy thinking tasks and examine arguments carefully, need solid set of arguments to persuade them. Distraction, which is anything that prevents audience from giving full attention to the argument, affects any persuasion attempt (Delamater & Myers, 2011).

Influencing others: obedience and conformity

Obedience refers to change in behavior that is ordered by another person or group; the individual acted in some way because others commanded him or her to do, so and failing to obey was not presented as an option, though it may have been considered by the individual (Breckler, Olsen, Wiggins, 2006). An example of such situation, when one person issues an order and another one complies, is a situation when baseball umpire orders a player to leave the field. When persons occupy roles within a group, organization or larger social system, they accept certain rights and obligations vis-à-vis other members in that social unit. These rights and obligations give one person authority over another with respect to certain acts and performances. Persons with authority usually obtain compliance with their orders, especially when these are accepted as legitimate or backed by potential force. Among the factors affecting compliance are: (1) direct display of authority symbols; (2) whether the person in authority can back up his or her demand with punishment in the event of noncompliance; (3) whether the participants are under direct or remote surveillance (Delamater & Myers, 2011). The main difference between obedience and conformity lies in the fact that obedience occurs when there is a higher authority ordering a person what to do, while conformity occurs when a person is behaving according to the wishes of others in order to be a part of a group and not to be excluded (Delamater & Myers, 2011).

Aggressive behavior is a form of social influence that works in a short run but backfires in a long run. Frustration makes people angry and creates readiness for aggressive acts. Events such as being provoked or attacked, as well as previously acquired aggressive habits heighten person’s readiness for aggression. Aggressive behavior will not occur even given person’s readiness to aggress, unless there is some aggressive cue present in the situation. Presence of aggressive cues or stimuli previously associated with aggression can evoke aggressive responses from an angry individual. It should be mentioned that extremely angry person may behave aggressively regardless of whether aggressive cues are present. Contrary to aggressive behavior, pro-social behavior is intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself. This type of behavior is realized in helping, sharing, comforting and cooperation between people. Altruism is sometimes used to refer to a subset of these behaviors. But, in fact, pro-social behavior is not necessarily motivated by altruism, as well as altruistic motivation needs not to produce pro-social behavior (Breckler, Olsen, Wiggins, 2006).

Relationship building factors that impact interpersonal attraction are similarity, complementarity and reciprocity. Similarity is realized in the fact that we like people similar to ourselves, who have our attitudes, values, interests, and the same level of physical attractiveness. Complementarity is seen in the fact that qualities in the partner, different from our own qualities, are initially arousing and exciting, although can later be strongly disliked. Reciprocity presumes that attraction we experience has a feedback and is mutual. Being in love makes people feel better about themselves and creates higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy (Breckler, Olsen, Wiggins, 2006). 

Group dynamics

Generally, a group is to connect minimum two people between each other and this connection is to be meaningful. Members of a group are mutually dependent and share a common purpose or goal. Group structure is a complex of roles, norms and inter-member relations that organize the group. Roles of a leader and a follower specify general behaviors expected of people, who occupy different positions within a group. Norms are consensual standards that describe which behaviors should and should not be performed in a given context. One more important aspect of group structure is its unity and cohesion. Group dynamics is understood as influential actions, processes and changes that occur within and between groups over time. In other words, it is the way groups act and react to any changing circumstances. Groups are subdivided into primary, social, collectives and categories. Primary groups are small, long-term groups, characterized by face-to face interaction, high level of cohesiveness, solidarity and member identification. Close friends, family and gangs belong to this type. Social groups are small, with moderate duration and are characterized by moderate levels of interaction between group members over an extended period of time, often in goal-oriented situations. This type usually includes co-workers, sport team members and study groups. Collectives are aggregations of individuals that form spontaneously, last for a brief period of time, and have permeable boundaries. Waiting lines, crowds and audiences constitute this type of group. Categories are defined as aggregations of individuals, who are similar to one another in some way, such as gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality (Forsyth, 2010).

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Groupthink is a theoretical concept intended to explain why apparently good, cohesive groups, being under a considerable pressure to propose a high value solution to the problem, arrive at bad decisions. It was invented to explain cases of faulty decisions, made by groups consisting of highly competent individuals. Groupthink is considered to be a type of behavior exhibited by members of a cohesive in-group, where members strive for unanimity at the expense of critical, realistic evaluation. Members of the group involved in it try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without analyzing and seriously evaluating alternatives. Groupthink can have numerous destructive consequences, among which are: (1) members of a group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the parameters of perceived consensus; (2) groups make rushed, irrational decisions; (3) bad judgments and poor decision-making; (4) absence of creative alternatives; (5) examining few alternatives; (6) failure to examine idea critically; (7) avoidance of outside expert opinion (Forsyth, 2010).

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What is good for one individual is not necessarily good for the others. This is also the essence of social dilemma – the conflict between egoistic, self-serving desires and the common good. Such situations show a conflict between what individuals like to do and what they ought to do for the welfare of the society. The bright example of social dilemma is the global warming situation. On the one hand, people want to live with comfort and convenience and buy cars that accelerate air pollution and global warming. On the other hand, decreased air pollution and slower global warming may be achieved by every individual’s pollutant emissions from the cars into the atmosphere (Forsyth, 2010).

Social psychology is a wide sphere that has explained a lot in the field of human social behavior, but there is still much more to be uncovered and revealed. In future it will probably concentrate on explaining how brain and other biological systems, as well as the environment, interact to produce behavior. Social psychology will also attempt one more time to explicate how exactly human beings became so social and will also investigate in depth social influence and social relations.

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