Social psychology is less a collection of findings than a set of strategies for answering questions. In science, as in courts of law, personal opinions are inadmissible. When ideas are put on trial, evidence determines the verdict. But are social psychologists really that objective? Because they are human beings, don’t their values their personal convictions about what is desirable and how people ought to behave-seep into their work? If so, can social psychology really be scientific?  There are two general ways that values enter psychology: the obvious and the subtle.  

-Obvious Ways Values Enter Psychology

Values enter the picture when social psychologists choose research topics.  These choices typically reflect social history (Kagan, 2009). It was no accident that the study of prejudice flourished during the 1940s as fascism raged in Europe; that the 1950s, a time of look-alike fashions and intolerance of differing views, gave us studies of conformity; that the 1960s saw interest in aggression increase with riots and rising crime rates; that the feminist movement of the 1970s helped stimulate a wave of research on gender and sexism; that the 1980s offered a resurgence of attention to psychological aspects of the arms race; and that the 1990s and the early twenty-first century were marked by heightened interest in how people respond to diversity in culture, race, and sexual orientation.

Susan Fiske (2011a) suggests that we can expect future research to reflect today’s and tomorrow’s issues, including immigration, income inequality, and aging. Values differ not only across time but also across cultures. In Europe, people take pride in their nationalities. The Scots are more self-consciously distinct from the English, and the Austrians from the Germans, that are similarly adjacent Michiganders from Ohioans. Consequently, Europe has given us a major theory of “social identity,” whereas American social psychologists have focused more on individuals—how one person thinks about others, is  influenced by them, and relates to them (Fiske, 2004; Tajfel, 1981; Turner, 1984). Australian social psychologists have drawn theories and methods from both Europe and North America (Feather, 2005).  Values also influence the types of people who are attracted to various disciplines (Campbell, 1975a; M Moynihan, 1979).

At your school, do the students majoring in the humanities, the arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences differ noticeably from one another? Do social psychology and sociology attract people who are—for  example— relatively eager to challenge tradition, people more inclined to shape the future than preserve the past? And does social science study enhance such inclinations (Dambrun & others, 2009)? Such factors explain why, when psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2011) asked approximately 1000 social psychologists at a national convention about their politics, 80 to 90 percent raised their hands to indicate they were “liberal.” When he asked for those who were “conservative,”

three hands raised. (Be assured that most topics covered in this text—from “How do our attitudes influence our behavior?” to “Does TV violence influence aggressive  behavior?”—are not partisan.)  Finally, values obviously enter the picture as the  object  of social psychological analysis. Social psychologists investigate how values form, why they change, and how they influence attitudes and actions. None of that, however, tells us which values are “right.”

Not So Obvious Ways Values Enter Psychology!

we less often recognize the subtle ways in which value commitments masquerade as objective truth. What are three not-so-obvious ways values enter psychology?



Scientists and philosophers agree: Science is not purely objective. Scientists do not simply read the book of nature. Rather, they interpret nature, using their own mental categories. In our daily lives, too, we view the world through the lens of our preconceptions. Whether we see a moving light in the sky as a flying saucer or see a face in a pie crust depends on our perceptual set. While reading these words, you have been unaware that you are also looking at your nose. Your mind blocks from awareness something that is there, if only you were predisposed to perceive it.

This tendency to prejudge reality based on our expectations is a basic fact about the human mind. Because scholars at work in any given area often share a common viewpoint or come from the same culture,  their assumptions may go unchallenged. What we take for granted—the shared beliefs that some European social psychologists call our social representations (Augoustinos & Innes, 1990; Moscovici, 1988, 2001)—are often our most important yet most unexamined convictions. Sometimes, however, someone from outside the camp will call attention to those assumptions. During the 1980s, feminists and Marxists exposed some of social psychology’s unexamined assumptions.

Feminist critics called attention to subtle biases—for example, the political conservatism of some scientists who favored a biological interpretation of gender differences in social behavior (Unger, 1985). Marxist critics called attention to competitive, individualist biases—for example, the assumption that conformity is bad and that individual rewards are good. Marxists and feminists, of course, make their own assumptions, as critics of academic “political correctness” are fond of noting. Social psychologist Lee Jussim (2005), for example, argues that progressive social psychologists sometimes feel compelled to deny group differences and to assume that stereotypes of group difference are never rooted in reality but always in racism. As those Princeton and Dartmouth football fans remind us, what guides our behavior is less the situation-as-it-is than the situation-as-we-construe-it.


 Implicit in our understanding that psychology is not objective is the realization that psychologists’ own values may play an important part in the theories and judgments they support. Psychologists may refer to people as mature or immature, as well adjusted or poorly adjusted, as mentally healthy or mentally ill. They may talk as if they were stating facts when they are really making value judgments.  The following are examples:  

DEFINING THE GOOD LIFE >   Values influence our idea of how best to live. The personality psychologist Abraham Maslow, for example, was known for his sensitive descriptions of “self-actualized” people—people who, with their needs for survival, safety, belonging, and self-esteem satisfied, go on to fulfill their human potential. He described, among other individuals, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and E Eleanor Roosevelt. Few readers noticed that Maslow, guided by his own values, selected his sample of self-actualized people himself. The resulting description of self-actualized

Personalities as spontaneous, autonomous, mystical, and so forth reflected Maslow’s personal values. Had he begun with someone else’s heroes say, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and John D. Rockefeller his resulting description of self-actualization would have differed (Smith, 1978).

  PROFESSIONAL ADVICE   > Psychological advice also reflects the advice giver’s personal values. When mental health professionals advise us how to get along with our spouse or our co-workers, when child-rearing experts tell us how to handle our children, and when some psychologists advocate living free of concern for others’ expectations, they are expressing their personal values. (In Western cultures, those values usually will be individualistic—encouraging what feels best for “me.” Non-Western cultures more often encourage what is best for “we.”) Unaware of those hidden values, many people defer to the “professional.” But professional psychologists cannot answer questions of ultimate moral obligation, of purpose and direction, and of life’s meaning.

 FORMING CONCEPTS >   Hidden values even seep into psychology’s research-based concepts.  Pretend you have taken a personality test and the psychologist, after scoring your answers, announces: “You scored high in self-esteem. You are low in anxiety. And you have exceptional ego-strength.” “Ah,” you think, “I suspected as much, but it feels good to know that.” Now another psychologist gives you a similar test, which asks some of the same questions. Afterward, the psychologist informs you that you seem defensive, for you scored high in “repressiveness.” “How could this be?” you wonder. “The other psychologist said such nice things about me.” It could be because all these labels describe the same set of responses (a tendency to say nice things about oneself and not to acknowledge problems). Shall we call it high self-esteem or defensiveness? The label reflects the judgment.

   LABELING >  Value judgments, then, are often hidden within our social psychological language, but that is also true of everyday language:  

• Whether we label a quiet child as “bashful” on “cautious,” as “holding back” or as “an observer,” conveys a judgment.   

• Whether we label someone engaged in guerrilla warfare a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter” depends on our view of the cause.

    • Whether we view wartime civilian deaths as “the loss of innocent lives” or as “collateral damage” affects our acceptance of such.   

• Whether we call public assistance “welfare” or “aid to the needy” reflects our political views.   

• When “they” exalt their country and people, it is nationalism; when “we” do it, it is patriotism.  

• Whether someone involved in an extramarital affair is practicing “open marriage” or “adultery” depends on one’s personal values.  

• “Brainwashing” is social influence we do not approve of.   

• “Perversions” are sex acts we do not practice. As these examples indicate, values lie hidden within our cultural definitions of mental health, our psychological advice for living, our concepts, and our psychological labels. Throughout this book, I will call your attention to additional examples of hidden values. The point is never that the implicit values are necessarily bad.

The point is that scientific interpretation, even at the level of labeling phenomena, is a human activity. It is therefore inevitable that prior beliefs and values will influence what social psychologists think and write.

Should we dismiss science because it has its subjective side? Quite the contrary: The realization that human thinking always involves interpretation is precisely why we need researchers with varying biases to undertake the scientific analysis. By constantly checking our beliefs against the facts, we restrain our biases. Systematic observation and experimentation help us clean the lens through which we see reality.      

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