In many academic fields, the results of tens of thousands of studies, the conclusions of thousands of investigators, and the insights of hundreds of theorists can be boiled down to a few central ideas. Biology offers us natural selection and adaptation. Sociology builds on concepts such as social structure and organization. Music harnesses our ideas of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Similarly, social psychology builds on a short list of fundamental principles that will be worth remembering long after you have forgotten most of the details. My short list of “great ideas we ought never to forget” includes these (See Figure 1), each of which we will explore further in articles and posts to come. We Construct Our Social Reality We humans have an irresistible urge to explain behavior, to attribute it to some cause, and therefore to make it seem orderly, predictable, and controllable. You and I may react differently to a situation because we think differently. How we react to a friend’s insult depends on whether we attribute it to hostility or to a bad day.
A 1951 Princeton–Dartmouth football game provided a classic demonstration of how we construct reality (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954; see also Loy & Andrews, 1981). The game lived up to its billing as a grudge match; it was rough and dirty. A Princeton All-American was gang-tackled, piled on, and finally forced out of the game with a broken nose. Fistfights erupted, and there were further injuries on both sides. The whole performance hardly fit the Ivy League image of gentility. Not long afterward, two psychologists, one from each school, showed films of the game to students on each campus. The students played the role of scientist– observer, noting each infraction as they watched and who was responsible for it.
But they could not set aside their loyalties. The Princeton students, for example, saw twice as many Dartmouth violations as the Dartmouth students saw. The conclusion: There is an objective reality out there, but we always view it through the lens of our beliefs and values. We are all intuitive scientists. We explain people’s behavior, usually with enough speed and accuracy to suit our daily needs.
When someone’s behavior is consistent and distinctive, we attribute that behavior to his or her personality. For example, if you observe someone who makes repeated snide comments, you may infer that this person has a nasty disposition, and then you might try to avoid the person. Our beliefs about ourselves also matter. Do we have an optimistic outlook? Do we see ourselves as in control of things? Do we view ourselves as relatively superior or inferior? Our answers influence our emotions and actions. How we construe the world, and ourselves, matters.
Our Social Intuitions Are Often Powerful but Sometimes Perilous!
Our instant intuitions shape our fears (Is flying dangerous?), impressions (Can I trust him?), and relationships (Does she like me?). Intuitions influence presidents in times of crisis, gamblers at the table, jurors assessing guilt, and personnel directors screening applicants. Such intuitions are commonplace. Indeed, psychological science reveals a fascinating unconscious mind—an intuitive backstage mind—that Freud never told us about. More than psychologists realized until recently, thinking occurs offstage, out of sight. Our intuitive capacities are revealed by studies of what later posts will explain: “automatic processing,” “implicit memory,” “heuristics,” “spontaneous trait inference,” instant emotions, and nonverbal communication. Thinking, memory, and attitudes all operate on two levels—one conscious and deliberate, the other unconscious and automatic. Today’s researchers call it “dual processing.” We know more than we know we know. We think on two levels—“intuitive” and “deliberate” (Kruglanski & Gigerenzer, 2011).
A book title by Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman (2011) captures the idea: We do Thinking, Fast and Slow. Intuition is huge, but intuition is also perilous. For example, as we cruise through life, mostly on automatic pilot, we intuitively judge the likelihood of things by how easily various instances come to mind. We carry readily available mental images of plane crashes. Thus, most people fear flying more than driving, and many will drive great distances to avoid risking the skies. Actually, we are many times safer (per mile traveled) in a commercial plane than in a motor vehicle (in the United States, air travel was 170 times safer between 2005 and 2007, reports the National Safety Council ). Even our intuitions about ourselves often err. We intuitively trust our memories more than we should. We misread our own minds; in experiments, we deny being affected by things that do influence us. We mispredict our own feelings—how bad we’ll feel a year from now if we lose our job or our romance breaks up, and how good we’ll feel a year from now, or even a week from now if we win our state’s lottery.
And we often mispredict our own future. When selecting clothes, people approaching middle age will still buy snug (“I anticipate shedding a few pounds”); rarely does anyone say, more realistically, “I’d better buy a relatively loose fit; people my age tend to put on pounds.” Our social intuitions, then, are noteworthy for both their powers and their perils. By reminding us of intuition’s gifts and alerting us to its pitfalls, social psychologists aim to fortify our thinking. In most situations, “fast and frugal” snap judgments serve us well. But in others, in which accuracy matters—such as when needing to fear the right things and spend our resources accordingly—we had best restrain our impulsive intuitions with critical thinking. Our intuitions and unconscious information processing are routinely powerful and sometimes perilous.
Social Influences Shape Our Behavior!
We are, as Aristotle long ago observed, social animals. We speak and think in words we learned from others. We long to connect, to belong, and to be well thought of. Matthias Mehl and James Pennebaker (2003) quantified their University of Texas students’ social behavior by inviting them to wear microcassette recorders and microphones. Once every 12 minutes during their waking hours, the computer-operated recorder would imperceptibly record for 30 seconds. Although the observation period covered only weekdays (including class time), almost 30 percent of the students’ time was spent in conversation. Relationships are a big part of being human. A s social creatures, we respond to our immediate contexts. Sometimes the power of a social situation leads us to act contrary to our expressed attitudes. Indeed, powerfully evil situations sometimes overwhelm good intentions, inducing people to agree with falsehoods or comply with cruelty. Under the Nazi influence, many decent people became instruments of the Holocaust. Other situations may elicit great generosity and compassion. After a major earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Japan was overwhelmed with offers of assistance.
The power of the situation is also dramatically evident in varying attitudes regarding same-sex relationships. Tell me whether you live in Africa or the Middle East (where most oppose such relationships) or in western Europe, Canada, or A ustralia/New Zealand, and I will make a reasonable guess as to what your attitude is about these relationships. I will become even more confident in my guess if I know your educational level, the age of your peer group, and the media you watch. Our situations matter. O ur cultures help define our situations. For example, our standards regarding promptness, frankness, and clothing vary with our culture. • Whether you prefer a slim or a voluptuous body depends on when and where in the world you live. • Whether you define social justice as equality (all receive the same) or as equity (those who earn more receive more) depends on whether your ideology has been shaped more by socialism or by capitalism. • Whether you tend to be expressive or reserved, casual or formal, hinges partly on your culture and your ethnicity.
• Whether you focus primarily on yourself your personal needs, desires, and morality or on your family, clan, and communal groups depends on how much you are a product of modern Western individualism.
Social psychologist Hazel Markus (2005) sums it up: “People are, above all, malleable.” Said differently, we adapt to our social context. Our attitudes and behavior are shaped by external social forces.
Personal Attitudes and Dispositions Also Shape Behavior!
Internal forces also matter. We are not passive tumbleweeds, merely blown this way and that by the social winds. Our inner attitudes affect our behavior. Our political attitudes influence our voting behavior. Our smoking attitudes influence our susceptibility to peer pressure to smoke. Our attitudes toward the poor influence our willingness to help them. (As we will see, our attitudes also follow our behavior, which leads us to believe strongly in those things we have committed ourselves to or suffered for.) Personality dispositions also affect behavior. Facing the same situation, different people may react differently. Emerging from years of political imprisonment, one person exudes bitterness and seeks revenge. Another, such as South Africa’s N elson Mandela, seeks reconciliation and unity with his former enemies. Attitudes and personality influence behavior.
Social Behavior Is Biologically Rooted Twenty first-century social psychology is providing us with ever-growing insights into our behavior’s biological foundations. Many of our social behaviors reflect a deep biological wisdom. E veryone who has taken introductory psychology has learned that nature and nurture together form who we are. As the area of a rectangle is determined by both its length and its width, so do biology and experience together create us. As evolutionary psychologists remind us, our inherited human nature predisposes us to behave in ways that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce.
We carry the genes of those whose traits enabled them and their children to survive and reproduce. Our behavior, too, aims to send our DNA into the future. Thus, evolutionary psychologists ask how natural selection might predispose our actions and reactions when dating and mating, hating and hurting, caring and sharing. Nature also endows us with an enormous capacity to learn and to adapt to varied environments. We are sensitive and responsive to our social context.
If every psychological event (every thought, every emotion, every behavior) is simultaneously a biological event, then we can also examine the neurobiology that underlies social behavior. What brain areas enable our experiences of love and contempt, helping and aggression, perception and belief? Do extraverts, as some research suggests, require more stimulation to keep their brain aroused? When shown a friendly face, do socially secure people, more than shy people, respond in a brain area concerned with reward? How do the brain, mind, and behavior function together as one coordinated system? What does the timing of brain events reveal about how we process information? Such questions are asked by those in social neuroscience (Cacioppo & others, 2010; Klein & others, 2010).
Social neuroscientists do not reduce complex social behaviors, such as helping and hurting, to simple neural or molecular mechanisms. Their point is this: To understand social behavior, we must consider both under-the-skin (biological) and between-skins (social) influences. Mind and body are one grand system. Stress hormones affect how we feel and act: A testosterone dose decreases trust, oxytocin increases it (Bos & others, 2010). Social ostracism elevates blood pressure. Social support strengthens the disease-fighting immune system. We are bio-psycho-social organisms. We reflect the interplay of our biological, psychological, and social influences. And that is why today’s psychologists study behavior from these different levels of analysis.
Social Psychology’s Principles Are Applicable in Everyday Life S ocial psychology has the potential to illuminate your life, to make visible the subtle influences that guide your thinking and acting. And, as we will see, it offers many ideas about how to know ourselves better, how to win friends and influence people, how to transform closed fists into open arms. Scholars are also applying social psychological insights. Principles of social thinking, social influence, and social relations have implications for human health and well-being, for judicial procedures and juror decisions in courtrooms, and for influencing behaviors that will enable an environmentally sustainable human future. As but one perspective on human existence, psychological science does not answer life’s ultimate questions: What is the meaning of human life? What should be our purpose? What is our ultimate destiny? But social psychology does give us a method for asking and answering some exceedingly interesting and important questions.
Social psychology is all about life, your life: your beliefs, your attitudes, your relationships. The rest of this article takes us inside social psychology. Let’s first consider how social psychologists’ own values influence their work in obvious and subtle ways. And then let’s focus on this articles biggest task: glimpsing how we do social psychology. How do social psychologists search for explanations of social thinking, social influence, and social relations? And how might you and I use these analytical tools to think smarter?