Have you ever found yourself wondering why people respond the way they do in certain situations? What factors influence how someone responds or how they behave? What causes us to be attracted to someone? And what factors may contribute to prejudiced attitudes or beliefs? What about aggression—are individuals who are aggressive and who harm others different from the rest of us? Or are we all capable of harming someone in certain circumstances? This first chapter will provide both an overview of the field of social psychology, as well as a review of common research methods used within the field. The field of social psychology examines a variety of factors related to how we interpret our social world and how this affects our attitudes, behaviors, and cognitions.
- Understand and define social psychology
- Recognize the distinct differences between social psychology and other forms of psychology, such as developmental and clinical psychology
- Review and recognize at least three of the major areas of focus in social psychology
- Develop an understanding of the “levels of analysis” and be able to apply these various levels to case examples
- Identify primary research methods used in social psychology, such as experiments, correlations, and survey research
Social psychology is such an exciting science precisely because it tackles issues that are so familiar and so relevant to our everyday life. Humans are “social animals.” Like bees and deer, we live together in groups. Unlike those animals, however, people are unique, in that we care a great deal about our relationships. In fact, a classic study of life stress found that the most stressful events in a person’s life—the death of a spouse, divorce, and going to jail—are so painful because they entail the loss of relationships (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). We spend a huge amount of time thinking about and interacting with other people, and researchers are interested in understanding these thoughts and actions. Giving up a seat on the bus for another person is an example of social psychology. So is disliking a person because he is wearing a shirt with the logo of a rival sports team. Flirting, conforming, arguing, trusting, competing—these are all examples of topics that interest social psychology researchers.
At times, science can seem abstract and far removed from the concerns of daily life. When neuroscientists discuss the workings of the anterior cingulate cortex, for example, it might sound important. But the specific parts of the brain and their functions do not always seem directly connected to the stuff you care about: parking tickets, holding hands, or getting a job. Social psychology feels so close to home because it often deals with universal psychological processes to which people can easily relate. For example, people have a powerful (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). It doesn’t matter if a person is from Israel, Mexico, or the Philippines; we all have a strong need to make friends, start families, and spend time together. We fulfill this need by doing things such as joining teams and clubs, wearing clothing that represents “our group,” and identifying ourselves based on national or religious affiliation. It feels good to belong to a group. Research supports this idea. In a study of the most and least happy people, the differentiating factor was not gender, income, or religion; it was having high-quality relationships (Diener & Seligman, 2002). Even introverts report being happier when they are in social situations (Pavot, Diener & Fujita, 1990). Further evidence can be found by looking at the negative psychological experiences of people who do not feel they belong. People who feel lonely or isolated are more vulnerable to depression and problems with physical health (Cacioppo, & Patrick, 2008).
Social Psychology is a Science
The need to belong is also a useful example of the ways the various aspects of psychology fit together. Psychology is a science that can be sub-divided into specialties such as “abnormal psychology” (the study of mental illness) or “developmental psychology” (the study of how people develop across the life span). In daily life, however, we don’t stop and examine our thoughts or behaviors as being distinctly social versus developmental versus personality-based versus clinical. In daily life, these all blend together. For example, the need to belong is rooted in developmental psychology. Developmental psychologists have long paid attention to the importance of attaching to a caregiver, feeling safe and supported during childhood, and the tendency to conform to peer pressure during adolescence. Similarly, clinical psychologists—those who research mental disorders– have pointed to people feeling a lack of belonging to help explain loneliness, depression, and other psychological pains. In practice, psychologists separate concepts into categories such as “clinical,” “developmental,” and “social” only out of scientific necessity. It is easier to simplify thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to study them. Each psychological sub-discipline has its own unique approaches to research. You may have noticed that this is almost always how psychology is taught, as well. You take a course in personality, another in human sexuality, and a third in gender studies, as if these topics are unrelated. In day-to-day life, however, these distinctions do not actually exist, and there is heavy overlap between the various areas of psychology.
In psychology, there are varying . Figure 1 summarizes the different levels at which scientists might understand a single event. Take the example of a toddler watching her mother make a phone call: the toddler is curious, and is using to teach herself about this machine called a telephone. At the most specific levels of analysis, we might understand that various neurochemical processes are occurring in the toddler’s brain. We might be able to use imaging techniques to see that the cerebellum, among other parts of the brain, is activated with electrical energy. If we could “pull back” our scientific lens, we might also be able to gain insight into the toddler’s own experience of the phone call. She might be confused, interested, or jealous. Moving up to the next level of analysis, we might notice a change in the toddler’s behavior: during the call she furrows her brow, squints her eyes, and stares at her mother and the phone. She might even reach out and grab at the phone. At still another level of analysis, we could see the ways that her relationships enter into the equation. We might observe, for instance, that the toddler frowns and grabs at the phone when her mother uses it, but plays happily and ignores it when her stepbrother makes a call. All of these chemical, emotional, behavioral, and social processes occur simultaneously. None of them is the objective truth. Instead, each offers clues into better understanding what, psychologically speaking, is happening.
Social psychologists attend to all levels of analysis but—historically—this branch of psychology has emphasized the higher levels of analysis. Researchers in this field are drawn to questions related to relationships, groups, and culture. This means that they frame their research hypotheses in these terms. Imagine for a moment that you are a social researcher. In your daily life, you notice that older men on average seem to talk about their feelings less than do younger men. You might want to explore your by recording natural conversations between males of different ages. This would allow you to see if there was evidence supporting your original observation. It would also allow you to begin to sift through all the factors that might influence this phenomenon: What happens when an older man talks to a younger man? What happens when an older man talks to a stranger versus his best friend? What happens when two highly educated men interact versus two working class men? Exploring each of these questions focuses on interactions, behavior, and culture rather than on perceptions, hormones, or DNA.
In part, this focus on complex relationships and interactions is one of the things that makes research in social psychology so difficult. High quality research often involves the ability to control the environment, as in the case of laboratory experiments. The research laboratory, however, is artificial, and what happens there may not translate to the more natural circumstances of life. This is why social psychologists have developed their own set of unique methods for studying attitudes and social behavior. For example, they use naturalistic observation to see how people behave when they don’t know they are being watched. Whereas people in the laboratory might report that they personally hold no racist views or opinions (biases most people wouldn’t readily admit to), if you were to observe how close they sat next to people of other ethnicities while riding the bus, you might discover a behavioral clue to their actual attitudes and preferences.
What is Included in Social Psychology?
Social psychology is the study of group processes: how we behave in groups, and how we feel and think about one another. While it is difficult to summarize the many areas of social psychology research, it can be helpful to lump them into major categories as a starting point to wrap our minds around. There is, in reality, no specific number of definitive categories, but for the purpose of illustration, let’s use five. Most social psychology research topics fall into one (but sometimes more) of each of these areas:
A large amount of study in social psychology has focused on the process of . Think about a young adult going off to college for the first time. He takes an art history course and sits next to a young woman he finds attractive. This feeling raises several interesting questions: Where does the attraction come from? Is it biological or learned? Why do his standards for beauty differ somewhat from those of his best friend? The study of attraction covers a huge range of topics. It can begin with first impressions, then extend to courtship and commitment. It involves the concepts of beauty, sex, and evolution. Attraction researchers might study stalking behavior. They might research divorce or remarriage. They might study changing standards of beauty across decades.
In a series of studies focusing on the topic of attraction, researchers were curious how people make judgments of the extent to which the faces of their friends and of strangers are good looking (Wirtz, Biswas-Diener, Diener & Drogos, 2011). To do this, the researchers showed a set of photographs of faces of young men and women to several assistants who were . Some of the people in the photos were Caucasian, some were African-American, and some were Maasai, a tribe of traditional people from Kenya. The assistants were asked to rate the various facial features in the photos, including skin smoothness, eye size, prominence of cheekbones, symmetry (how similar the left and the right halves of the face are), and other characteristics. The photos were then shown to the research participants—of the same three ethnicities as the people in the photos—who were asked to rate the faces for overall attractiveness. Interestingly, when rating the faces of strangers, white people, Maasai, and African-Americans were in general agreement about which faces were better looking. Not only that, but there was high consistency in which specific facial features were associated with being good looking. For instance, across ethnicities and cultures, everyone seemed to find smooth skin more attractive than blemished skin. Everyone seemed to also agree that larger chins made men more attractive, but not women.
Then came an interesting discovery. The researchers found that Maasai tribal people agreed about the faces of strangers—but not about the faces of people they knew! Two people might look at the same photo of someone they knew; one would give a thumbs up for attractiveness, the other one, not so much. It appeared that friends were using some other standard of beauty than simply nose, eyes, skin, and other facial features. To explore this further, the researchers conducted a second study in the United States. They brought university students into their laboratory in pairs. Each pair were friends; some were same-sex friends and some were opposite-sex friends. They had their photographs taken and were then asked to privately rate each other’s attractiveness, along with photos of other participants whom they did not know (strangers). Friends were also asked to rate each other on personality traits, including “admirable,” “generous,” “likable,” “outgoing,” “sensitive,” and “warm.”
In doing this, the researchers discovered two things. First, they found the exact same pattern as in the earlier study: when the university students rated strangers, they focused on actual facial features, such as skin smoothness and large eyes, to make their judgments (whether or not they realized it). But when it came to the hotness-factor of their friends, these features appeared not to be very important. Suddenly, likable personality characteristics were a better predictor of who was considered good looking. This makes sense. Attractiveness is, in part, an evolutionary and biological process. Certain features such as smooth skin are signals of health and reproductive fitness—something especially important when scoping out strangers. Once we know a person, however, it is possible to swap those biological criteria for psychological ones. People tend to be attracted not just to muscles and symmetrical faces but also to kindness and generosity. As more information about a person’s personality becomes available, it becomes the most important aspect of a person’s attractiveness.
Understanding how attraction works is more than an intellectual exercise; it can also lead to better interventions. Insights from studies on attraction can find their way into public policy conversations, couples therapy, and sex education programs.
Social psychology shares with its intellectual cousins sociology and political science an interest in . Attitudes are opinions, feelings, and beliefs about a person, concept, or group. People hold attitudes about all types of things: the films they see, political issues, and what constitutes a good date. Social psychology researchers are interested in what attitudes people hold, where these attitudes come from, and how they change over time. Researchers are especially interested in social attitudes people hold about categories of people, such as the elderly, military veterans, or people with mental disabilities.
Among the most studied topics in attitude research are stereotyping and prejudice. Although people often use these words interchangeably, they are actually different concepts. is a way of using information shortcuts about a group to effectively navigate social situations or make decisions. For instance, you might hold a stereotype that elderly people are physically slower and frailer than twenty-year-olds. If so, you are more likely to treat interactions with the elderly in a different manner than interactions with younger people. Although you might delight in jumping on your friend’s back, punching a buddy in the arm, or jumping out and scaring a friend you probably do not engage in these behaviors with the elderly. Stereotypical information may or may not be correct. Also, stereotypical information may be positive or negative. Regardless of accuracy, all people use stereotypes, because they are efficient and inescapable ways to deal with huge amounts of social information. It is important to keep in mind, however, that stereotypes, even if they are correct in general, likely do not apply to every member of the group. As a result, it can seem unfair to judge an individual based on perceived group norms.
, on the other hand, refers to how a person feels about an individual based on their group membership. For example, someone with a prejudice against tattoos may feel uncomfortable sitting on the metro next to a young man with multiple, visible tattoos. In this case, the person is pre-judging the man with tattoos based on group members (people with tattoos) rather than getting to know the man as an individual. Like stereotypes, prejudice can be positive or negative.
occurs when a person is biased against an individual, simply because of the individual’s membership in a social category. For instance, if you were to learn that a person has gone to rehabilitation for alcohol treatment, it might be unfair to treat him or her as untrustworthy. You might hold a stereotype that people who have been involved with drugs are untrustworthy or that they have an arrest record. Discrimination would come when you act on that stereotype by, for example, refusing to hire the person for a job for which they are otherwise qualified. Understanding the psychological mechanisms of problems like prejudice can be the first step in solving them.
Social psychology focuses on basic processes, but also on applications. That is, researchers are interested in ways to make the world a better place, so they look for ways to put their discoveries into constructive practice. This can be clearly seen in studies on attitude change. In such experiments, researchers are interested in how people can overcome negative attitudes and feel more empathy towards members of other groups. Take, for example, a study by Daniel Batson and his colleagues (1997) on attitudes about people from . In particular, the researchers were curious how college students in their study felt about homeless people. They had students listen to a recording of a fictitious homeless man—Harold Mitchell—describing his life. Half of the participants were told to be objective and fair in their consideration of his story. The other half were instructed to try to see life through Harold’s eyes and imagine how he felt. After the recording finished, the participants rated their attitudes toward homeless people in general. They addressed attitudes such as “Most homeless people could get a job if they wanted to,” or “Most homeless people choose to live that way.” It turns out that when people are instructed to have empathy—to try to see the world through another person’s eyes—it gives them not only more empathy for that individual, but also for the group as a whole. In the Batson et al. experiment (1997), the high empathy participants reported a favorable rating of homeless people than did those participants in the low empathy condition.
Studies like these are important because they reveal practical possibilities for creating a more positive society. In this case, the results tell us that it is possible for people to change their attitudes and look more favorably on people they might otherwise avoid or be prejudiced against. In fact, it appears that it takes relatively little—simply the effort to see another’s point of view—to nudge people toward being a bit kinder and more generous toward one another. In a world where religious and political divisions are highly publicized, this type of research might be an important step toward working together.
Peace & Conflict
Social psychologists are also interested in peace and conflict. They research conflicts ranging from the small—such as a spat between lovers—to the large—such as wars between nations. Researchers are interested in why people fight, how they fight, and what the possible costs and benefits of fighting are. In particular, social psychologists are interested in the mental processes associated with conflict and reconciliation. They want to understand how emotions, thoughts, and sense of identity play into conflicts, as well as making up afterward.
Take, for instance, a 1996 study by Dov Cohen and his colleagues. They were interested in people who come from a “” — that is, a cultural background that emphasizes personal or family reputation and social status. Cohen and his colleagues realized that cultural forces influence why people take offense and how they behave when others offend them. To investigate how people from a culture of honor react to aggression, the Cohen research team invited dozens of university students into the laboratory, half of whom were from a culture of honor. In their experiment, they had a “accidentally” bump the as they passed one another in the hallway, then say “asshole” quietly. They discovered that people from the Northern United States were likely to laugh off the incident with amusement (only 35% became angry), while 85% of folks from the Southern United States—a culture of honor region—became angry.
In a follow-up study, the researchers were curious as to whether this anger would boil over and lead people from cultures of honor to react more violently than others (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996). In a cafeteria setting, the researchers “accidentally” knocked over drinks of people from cultures of honor as well as drinks of people not from honor cultures. As expected, the people from honor cultures became angrier; however, they did not act out more aggressively. Interestingly, in follow-up interviews, the people from cultures of honor said they would expect their peers—other people from their culture of honor—to act violently even though they, themselves, had not. This follow-up study provides insights into the links between emotions and social behavior. It also sheds light on the ways that people perceive certain groups.
This line of research is just a single example of how social psychologists study the forces that give rise to aggression and violence. Just as in the case of attitudes, a better understanding of these forces might help researchers, therapists, and policy makers intervene more effectively in conflicts.
Take a moment and think about television commercials. How influenced do you think you are by the ads you see? A very common perception voiced among psychology students is “Other people are influenced by ads, but not me!” To some degree, it is an unsettling thought that outside influences might sway us to spend money on, make decisions about, or even feel what they want us to. Nevertheless, none of us can escape . Perhaps, more than any other topic, social influence is the heart and soul of social psychology. Our most famous studies deal with the ways that other people affect our behavior; they are studies on —being persuaded to give up our own opinions and go along with the group—and —following orders or requests from people in authority.
Among the most researched topics is persuasion. Persuasion is the act of delivering a particular message so that it influences a person’s behavior in a desired way. Your friends try to persuade you to join their group for lunch. Your parents try to persuade you to go to college and to take your studies seriously. Doctors try to persuade you to eat a healthy diet or exercise more often. And, yes, advertisers try to persuade you also. They showcase their products in a way that makes them seem useful, affordable, reliable, or cool.
One example of persuasion can be seen in a very common situation: tipping the serving staff at a restaurant. In some societies, especially in the United States, tipping is an important part of dining. As you probably know, servers hope to get a large tip in exchange for good service. One group of researchers was curious what servers do to coax diners into giving bigger tips. Occasionally, for instance, servers write a personal message of thanks on the bill. In a series of studies, the researchers were interested in how gift-giving would affect tipping. First, they had two male waiters in New York deliver a piece of foil-wrapped chocolate along with the bill at the end of the meal. Half of 66 diners received the chocolate and the other half did not. When patrons were given the unexpected sweet, they tipped, on average, 2% more (Strohmetz, Rind, Fisher & Lynn 2002).
In a follow-up study, the researchers changed the conditions. In this case, two female servers brought a small basket of assorted chocolates to the table (Strohmetz et al., 2002). In one research condition, they told diners they could pick two sweets; in a separate research condition, however, they told diners they could pick one sweet, but then—as the diners were getting ready to leave—the waiters returned and offered them a second sweet. In both situations, the diners received the same number of sweets, but in the second condition the waiters appeared to be more generous, as if they were making a personal decision to give an additional little gift. In both of these conditions the average amount of tips went up, but tips increased a whopping 21% in the “very generous” condition. The researchers concluded that giving a small gift puts people in the frame of mind to give a little something back, a principle called .
Research on persuasion is very useful. Although it is tempting to dismiss it as a mere attempt by advertisers to get you to purchase goods and services, persuasion is used for many purposes. For example, medical professionals often hope people will donate their organs after they die. Donated organs can be used to train medical students, advance scientific discovery, or save other people’s lives through transplantation. For years, doctors and researchers tried to persuade people to donate, but relatively few people did. Then, policy makers offered an organ donation option for people getting their driver’s license, and donations rose. When people received their license, they could tick a box that signed them up for the organ donation program. By coupling the decision to donate organs with a more common event—getting a license—policy makers were able to increase the number of donors. Then, they had the further idea of “nudging” people to donate—by making them “opt out” rather than “opt in.” Now, people are automatically signed up to donate organs unless they make the effort to check a box indicating they don’t want to. By making organ donation the default, more people have donated and more lives have been saved. This is a small but powerful example of how we can be persuaded to behave certain ways, often without even realizing what is influencing us.
You, me, all of us—we spend much of our time thinking about other people. We make guesses as to their honesty, their motives, and their opinions. is the term for the way we think about the social world and how we perceive others. In some sense, we are continually telling a story in our own minds about the people around us. We struggle to understand why a date failed to show up, whether we can trust the notes of a fellow student, or if our friends are laughing at our jokes because we are funny or if they are just being nice. When we make educated guesses about the efforts or motives of others, this is called . We are “attributing” their behavior to a particular cause. For example, we might attribute the failure of a date to arrive on time to car trouble, forgetfulness, or the wrong-headed possibility that we are not worthy of being loved.
Because the information we have regarding other people’s motives and behavior is not as complete as our insights into our own, we are likely to make unreliable judgments of them. Imagine, for example, that a person on the freeway speeds up behind you, follows dangerously close, then swerves around and passes you illegally. As the driver speeds off into the distance you might think to yourself, “What a jerk!” You are beginning to tell yourself a story about why that person behaved that way. Because you don’t have any information about his or her situation—rushing to the hospital, or escaping a bank robbery?—you default to judgments of character: clearly, that driver is impatient, aggressive, and downright rude. If you were to do the exact same thing, however—cut someone off on the freeway—you would be less likely to attribute the same behavior to poor character, and more likely to chalk it up to the situation. (Perhaps you were momentarily distracted by the radio.) The consistent way we attribute people’s actions to personality traits while overlooking situational influences is called the .
The fundamental attribution error can also emerge in other ways. It can include groups we belong to versus opposing groups. Imagine, for example, that you are a fan of rugby. Your favorite team is the All Blacks, from New Zealand. In one particular match, you notice how unsporting the opposing team is. They appear to pout and seem to commit an unusually high number of fouls. Their fouling behavior is clearly linked to their character; they are mean people! Yet, when a player from the All Blacks is called for a foul, you may be inclined to see that as a bad call by the referee or a product of the fact that your team is pressured from a tough schedule and a number of injuries to their star players. This mental process allows a person to maintain his or her own high self-esteem while dismissing the bad behavior of others.
People are more connected to one another today than at any time in history. For the first time, it is easy to have thousands of acquaintances on social media. It is easier than ever before to travel and meet people from different cultures. Businesses, schools, religious groups, political parties, and governments interact more than they ever have. For the first time, people in greater numbers live clustered in cities than live spread out across rural settings. These changes have psychological consequences. Over the last hundred years, we have seen dramatic shifts in political engagement, ethnic relations, and even the very definition of family itself.
Social psychologists are scientists who are interested in understanding the ways we relate to one another, and the impact these relationships have on us, individually and collectively. Not only can social psychology research lead to a better understanding of personal relationships, but it can lead to practical solutions for many social ills. Lawmakers, teachers and parents, therapists, and policy makers can all use this science to help develop societies with less conflict and more social support.
Test Your Knowledge
Research Methods in Social Psychology
Social psychologists are interested in the ways that other people affect thought, emotion, and behavior. To explore these concepts requires special research methods. Following a brief overview of traditional research designs, this module introduces how complex experimental designs, field experiments, naturalistic observation, experience sampling techniques, survey research, subtle and nonconscious techniques such as priming, and archival research and the use of big data may each be adapted to address social psychological questions. This module also discusses the importance of obtaining a representative sample along with some ethical considerations that social psychologists face.
- Describe the key features of basic and complex experimental designs.
- Describe the key features of field experiments, naturalistic observation, and experience sampling techniques.
- Describe survey research and explain the importance of obtaining a representative sample.
- Describe the implicit association test and the use of priming.
- Describe use of archival research techniques.
- Explain five principles of ethical research that most concern social psychologists.
Although Triplett’s research fell short of contemporary standards of scientific rigor (e.g., he eyeballed the data instead of measuring performance precisely; Stroebe, 2012), we now know that this effect, referred to as “,” is reliable—performance on simple or well-rehearsed tasks tends to be enhanced when we are in the presence of others (even when we are not competing against them). To put it another way, the next time you think about showing off your pool-playing skills on a date, the odds are you’ll play better than when you practice by yourself. (If you haven’t practiced, maybe you should watch a movie instead!)
Research Methods in Social Psychology
One of the things Triplett’s early experiment illustrated is scientists’ reliance on systematic observation over opinion, or . The usually begins with observing the world around us (e.g., results of cycling competitions) and thinking of an interesting question (e.g., Why do cyclists perform better in groups?). The next step involves generating a specific testable prediction, or (e.g., performance on simple tasks is enhanced in the presence of others). Next, scientists must the variables they are studying. This means they must figure out a way to define and measure abstract concepts. For example, the phrase “perform better” could mean different things in different situations; in Triplett’s experiment it referred to the amount of time (measured with a stopwatch) it took to wind a fishing reel. Similarly, “in the presence of others” in this case was operationalized as another child winding a fishing reel at the same time in the same room. Creating specific operational definitions like this allows scientists to precisely manipulate the , or “cause” (the presence of others), and to measure the , or “effect” (performance)—in other words, to collect data. Clearly described operational definitions also help reveal possible limitations to studies (e.g., Triplett’s study did not investigate the impact of another child in the room who was not also winding a fishing reel) and help later researchers replicate them precisely.
As you can see, social psychologists have always relied on carefully designed to run experiments where they can closely control situations and manipulate variables (see the NOBA module on Research Designs for an overview of traditional methods). However, in the decades since Triplett discovered social facilitation, a wide range of methods and techniques have been devised, uniquely suited to demystifying the mechanics of how we relate to and influence one another. This module provides an introduction to the use of complex laboratory experiments, field experiments, naturalistic observation, survey research, nonconscious techniques, and archival research, as well as more recent methods that harness the power of technology and large data sets, to study the broad range of topics that fall within the domain of social psychology. At the end of this module we will also consider some of the key ethical principles that govern research in this diverse field.
The use of , with multiple independent and/or dependent variables, has grown increasingly popular because they permit researchers to study both the individual and joint effects of several factors on a range of related situations. Moreover, thanks to technological advancements and the growth of , an increasing number of researchers now integrate biological markers (e.g., hormones) or use neuroimaging techniques (e.g., fMRI) in their research designs to better understand the biological mechanisms that underlie social processes.
We can dissect the fascinating research of Dov Cohen and his colleagues (1996) on “culture of honor” to provide insights into complex lab studies. A culture of honor is one that emphasizes personal or family reputation. In a series of lab studies, the Cohen research team invited dozens of university students into the lab to see how they responded to aggression. Half were from the Southern United States (a culture of honor) and half were from the Northern United States (not a culture of honor; this type of setup constitutes a of two levels). Region of origin was independent variable #1. Participants also provided a saliva sample immediately upon arriving at the lab; (they were given a about how their blood sugar levels would be monitored over a series of tasks).
The participants completed a brief questionnaire and were then sent down a narrow corridor to drop it off on a table. En route, they encountered a at an open file cabinet who pushed the drawer in to let them pass. When the participant returned a few seconds later, the confederate, who had re-opened the file drawer, slammed it shut and bumped into the participant with his shoulder, muttering “asshole” before walking away. In a manipulation of an independent variable—in this case, the insult—some of the participants were insulted publicly (in view of two other confederates pretending to be doing homework) while others were insulted privately (no one else was around). In a third condition—the control group—participants experienced a modified procedure in which they were not insulted at all.
Although this is a fairly elaborate procedure on its face, what is particularly impressive is the number of dependent variables the researchers were able to measure. First, in the public insult condition, the two additional confederates (who observed the interaction, pretending to do homework) rated the participants’ emotional reaction (e.g., anger, amusement, etc.) to being bumped into and insulted. Second, upon returning to the lab, participants in all three conditions were told they would later undergo electric shocks as part of a stress test, and were asked how much of a shock they would be willing to receive (between 10 volts and 250 volts). This decision was made in front of two confederates who had already chosen shock levels of 75 and 25 volts, presumably providing an opportunity for participants to publicly demonstrate their toughness. Third, across all conditions, the participants rated the likelihood of a variety of ambiguously provocative scenarios (e.g., one driver cutting another driver off) escalating into a fight or verbal argument. And fourth, in one of the studies, participants provided saliva samples, one right after returning to the lab, and a final one after completing the questionnaire with the ambiguous scenarios. Later, all three saliva samples were tested for levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) and testosterone (a hormone associated with aggression).
The results showed that people from the Northern United States were far more likely to laugh off the incident (only 35% having anger ratings as high as or higher than amusement ratings), whereas the opposite was true for people from the South (85% of whom had anger ratings as high as or higher than amusement ratings). Also, only those from the South experienced significant increases in cortisol and testosterone following the insult (with no difference between the public and private insult conditions). Finally, no regional differences emerged in the interpretation of the ambiguous scenarios; however, the participants from the South were more likely to choose to receive a greater shock in the presence of the two confederates.
Because social psychology is primarily focused on the social context—groups, families, cultures—researchers commonly leave the laboratory to collect data on life as it is actually lived. To do so, they use a variation of the laboratory experiment, called a . A field experiment is similar to a lab experiment except it uses real-world situations, such as people shopping at a grocery store. One of the major differences between field experiments and laboratory experiments is that the people in field experiments do not know they are participating in research, so—in theory—they will act more naturally. In a classic example from 1972, Alice Isen and Paula Levin wanted to explore the ways emotions affect helping behavior. To investigate this they observed the behavior of people at pay phones (I know! Pay phones!). Half of the unsuspecting participants (determined by ) found a dime planted by researchers (I know! A dime!) in the coin slot, while the other half did not. Presumably, finding a dime felt surprising and lucky and gave people a small jolt of happiness. Immediately after the unsuspecting participant left the phone booth, a confederate walked by and dropped a stack of papers. Almost 100% of those who found a dime helped to pick up the papers. And what about those who didn’t find a dime? Only 1 out 25 of them bothered to help.
In cases where it’s not practical or ethical to randomly assign participants to different experimental conditions, we can use —unobtrusively watching people as they go about their lives. Consider, for example, a classic demonstration of the “” phenomenon: Robert Cialdini and his colleagues used naturalistic observation at seven universities to confirm that students are significantly more likely to wear clothing bearing the school name or logo on days following wins (vs. draws or losses) by the school’s varsity football team (Cialdini et al., 1976). In another study, by Jenny Radesky and her colleagues (2014), 40 out of 55 observations of caregivers eating at fast food restaurants with children involved a caregiver using a mobile device. The researchers also noted that caregivers who were most absorbed in their device tended to ignore the children’s behavior, followed by scolding, issuing repeated instructions, or using physical responses, such as kicking the children’s feet or pushing away their hands.
A group of techniques collectively referred to as experience sampling methods represent yet another way of conducting naturalistic observation, often by harnessing the power of technology. In some cases, participants are notified several times during the day by a pager, wristwatch, or a smartphone app to record data (e.g., by responding to a brief survey or scale on their smartphone, or in a diary). For example, in a study by Reed Larson and his colleagues (1994), mothers and fathers carried pagers for one week and reported their emotional states when beeped at random times during their daily activities at work or at home. The results showed that mothers reported experiencing more positive emotional states when away from home (including at work), whereas fathers showed the reverse pattern. A more recently developed technique, known as the , or EAR, does not even require participants to stop what they are doing to record their thoughts or feelings; instead, a small portable audio recorder or smartphone app is used to automatically record brief snippets of participants’ conversations throughout the day for later coding and analysis. For a more in-depth description of the EAR technique and other experience-sampling methods, see the NOBA module on Conducting Psychology Research in the Real World.
In this diverse world, offers itself as an invaluable tool for social psychologists to study individual and group differences in people’s feelings, attitudes, or behaviors. For example, the World Values Survey II was based on large representative samples of 19 countries and allowed researchers to determine that the relationship between income and subjective well-being was stronger in poorer countries (Diener & Oishi, 2000). In other words, an increase in income has a much larger impact on your life satisfaction if you live in Nigeria than if you live in Canada. In another example, a nationally-representative survey in Germany with 16,000 respondents revealed that holding cynical beliefs is related to lower income (e.g., between 2003-2012 the income of the least cynical individuals increased by $300 per month, whereas the income of the most cynical individuals did not increase at all). Furthermore, survey data collected from 41 countries revealed that this negative correlation between cynicism and income is especially strong in countries where people in general engage in more altruistic behavior and tend not to be very cynical (Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2016).
Of course, obtaining large, cross-cultural, and representative samples has become far easier since the advent of the internet and the proliferation of web-based survey platforms—such as Qualtrics—and participant recruitment platforms—such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. And although some researchers harbor doubts about the representativeness of online samples, studies have shown that internet samples are in many ways more diverse and representative than samples recruited from human subject pools (e.g., with respect to gender; Gosling et al., 2004). Online samples also compare favorably with traditional samples on attentiveness while completing the survey, reliability of data, and proportion of non-respondents (Paolacci et al., 2010).
Subtle/Nonconscious Research Methods
The methods we have considered thus far—field experiments, naturalistic observation, and surveys—work well when the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors being investigated are conscious and directly or indirectly observable. However, social psychologists often wish to measure or manipulate elements that are involuntary or nonconscious, such as when studying prejudicial attitudes people may be unaware of or embarrassed by. A good example of a technique that was developed to measure people’s nonconscious (and often ugly) attitudes is known as the (Greenwald et al., 1998). This computer-based task requires participants to sort a series of stimuli (as rapidly and accurately as possible) into simple and combined categories while their reaction time is measured (in milliseconds). For example, an IAT might begin with participants sorting the names of relatives (such as “Niece” or “Grandfather”) into the categories “Male” and “Female,” followed by a round of sorting the names of disciplines (such as “Chemistry” or “English”) into the categories “Arts” and “Science.” A third round might combine the earlier two by requiring participants to sort stimuli into either “Male or Science” or “Female and Arts” before the fourth round switches the combinations to “Female or Science” and “Male and Arts.” If across all of the trials a person is quicker at accurately sorting incoming stimuli into the compound category “Male or Science” than into “Female or Science,” the authors of the IAT suggest that the participant likely has a stronger association between males and science than between females and science. Incredibly, this specific gender-science IAT has been completed by more than half a million participants across 34 countries, about 70% of whom show an implicit stereotype associating science with males more than with females (Nosek et al., 2009). What’s more, when the data are grouped by country, national differences in implicit stereotypes predict national differences in the achievement gap between boys and girls in science and math. Our automatic associations, apparently, carry serious societal consequences.
Another nonconscious technique, known as , is often used to subtly manipulate behavior by activating or making more accessible certain concepts or beliefs. Consider the fascinating example of , whose authors believe that human beings are (unconsciously) terrified of their mortality (i.e., the fact that, some day, we will all die; Pyszczynski et al., 2003). According to TMT, in order to cope with this unpleasant reality (and the possibility that our lives are ultimately essentially meaningless), we cling firmly to systems of cultural and religious beliefs that give our lives meaning and purpose. If this hypothesis is correct, one straightforward prediction would be that people should cling even more firmly to their cultural beliefs when they are subtly reminded of their own mortality.
In one of the earliest tests of this hypothesis, actual municipal court judges in Arizona were asked to set a bond for an alleged prostitute immediately after completing a brief questionnaire. For half of the judges the questionnaire ended with questions about their thoughts and feelings regarding the prospect of their own death. Incredibly, judges in the experimental group that were primed with thoughts about their mortality set a significantly higher bond than those in the control group ($455 vs. $50!)—presumably because they were especially motivated to defend their belief system in the face of a violation of the law (Rosenblatt et al., 1989). Although the judges consciously completed the survey, what makes this a study of priming is that the second task (sentencing) was unrelated, so any influence of the survey on their later judgments would have been nonconscious. Similar results have been found in TMT studies in which participants were primed to think about death even more subtly, such as by having them complete questionnaires just before or after they passed a funeral home (Pyszczynski et al., 1996).
To verify that the subtle manipulation (e.g., questions about one’s death) has the intended effect (activating death-related thoughts), priming studies like these often include a following the introduction of a prime. For example, right after being primed, participants in a TMT study might be given a word fragment task in which they have to complete words such as COFF_ _ or SK _ _ L. As you might imagine, participants in the mortality-primed experimental group typically complete these fragments as COFFIN and SKULL, whereas participants in the control group complete them as COFFEE and SKILL.
The use of priming to unwittingly influence behavior, known as (Ferguson & Mann, 2014), has been at the center of the recent “replication crisis” in Psychology (see the NOBA module on replication). Whereas earlier studies showed, for example, that priming people to think about old age makes them walk slower (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996), that priming them to think about a university professor boosts performance on a trivia game (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998), and that reminding them of mating motives (e.g., sex) makes them more willing to engage in risky behavior (Greitemeyer, Kastenmüller, & Fischer, 2013), several recent efforts to replicate these findings have failed (e.g., Harris et al., 2013; Shanks et al., 2013). Such failures to replicate findings highlight the need to ensure that both the original studies and replications are carefully designed, have adequate sample sizes, and that researchers pre-register their hypotheses and openly share their results—whether these support the initial hypothesis or not.
Imagine that a researcher wants to investigate how the presence of passengers in a car affects drivers’ performance. She could ask research participants to respond to questions about their own driving habits. Alternately, she might be able to access police records of the number of speeding tickets issued by automatic camera devices, then count the number of solo drivers versus those with passengers. This would be an example of . The examination of archives, statistics, and other records such as speeches, letters, or even tweets, provides yet another window into social psychology. Although this method is typically used as a type of design—due to the lack of control over the relevant variables—archival research shares the higher of naturalistic observation. That is, the observations are conducted outside the laboratory and represent real world behaviors. Moreover, because the archives being examined can be collected at any time and from many sources, this technique is especially flexible and often involves less expenditure of time and other resources during data collection.
Social psychologists have used archival research to test a wide variety of hypotheses using real-world data. For example, analyses of major league baseball games played during the 1986, 1987, and 1988 seasons showed that baseball pitchers were more likely to hit batters with a pitch on hot days (Reifman et al., 1991). Another study compared records of race-based lynching in the United States between 1882-1930 to the inflation-adjusted price of cotton during that time (a key indicator of the Deep South’s economic health), demonstrating a significant negative correlation between these variables. Simply put, there were significantly more lynchings when the price of cotton stayed flat, and fewer lynchings when the price of cotton rose (Beck & Tolnay, 1990; Hovland & Sears, 1940). This suggests that race-based violence is associated with the health of the economy.
More recently, analyses of social media posts have provided social psychologists with extremely large sets of data (“”) to test creative hypotheses. In an example of research on attitudes about vaccinations, Mitra and her colleagues (2016) collected over 3 million tweets sent by more than 32 thousand users over four years. Interestingly, they found that those who held (and tweeted) anti-vaccination attitudes were also more likely to tweet about their mistrust of government and beliefs in government conspiracies. Similarly, Eichstaedt and his colleagues (2015) used the language of 826 million tweets to predict community-level mortality rates from heart disease. That’s right: more anger-related words and fewer positive-emotion words in tweets predicted higher rates of heart disease.
In a more controversial example, researchers at Facebook attempted to test whether emotional contagion—the transfer of emotional states from one person to another—would occur if Facebook manipulated the content that showed up in its users’ News Feed (Kramer et al., 2014). And it did. When friends’ posts with positive expressions were concealed, users wrote slightly fewer positive posts (e.g., “Loving my new phone!”). Conversely, when posts with negative expressions were hidden, users wrote slightly fewer negative posts (e.g., “Got to go to work. Ugh.”). This suggests that people’s positivity or negativity can impact their social circles.
The controversial part of this study—which included 689,003 Facebook users and involved the analysis of over 3 million posts made over just one week—was the fact that Facebook did not explicitly request permission from users to participate. Instead, Facebook relied on the fine print in their data-use policy. And, although academic researchers who collaborated with Facebook on this study applied for ethical approval from their institutional review board (IRB), they apparently only did so after data collection was complete, raising further questions about the ethicality of the study and highlighting concerns about the ability of large, profit-driven corporations to subtly manipulate people’s social lives and choices.
Research Issues in Social Psychology
The Question of Representativeness
Along with our counterparts in the other areas of psychology, social psychologists have been guilty of largely recruiting from the thin slice of humanity—students—found at universities and colleges (Sears, 1986). This presents a problem when trying to assess the social mechanics of the public at large. Aside from being an overrepresentation of young, middle-class Caucasians, college students may also be more compliant and more susceptible to attitude change, have less stable personality traits and interpersonal relationships, and possess stronger cognitive skills than samples reflecting a wider range of age and experience (Peterson & Merunka, 2014; Visser, Krosnick, & Lavrakas, 2000). Put simply, these traditional samples (college students) may not be sufficiently representative of the broader population. Furthermore, considering that 96% of participants in psychology studies come from western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries (so-called ; Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010), and that the majority of these are also psychology students, the question of non-representativeness becomes even more serious.
Of course, when studying a basic cognitive process (like working memory capacity) or an aspect of social behavior that appears to be fairly universal (e.g., even cockroaches exhibit social facilitation!), a non-representative sample may not be a big deal. However, over time research has repeatedly demonstrated the important role that individual differences (e.g., personality traits, cognitive abilities, etc.) and culture (e.g., individualism vs. collectivism) play in shaping social behavior. For instance, even if we only consider a tiny sample of research on aggression, we know that narcissists are more likely to respond to criticism with aggression (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998); conservatives, who have a low tolerance for uncertainty, are more likely to prefer aggressive actions against those considered to be “outsiders” (de Zavala et al., 2010); countries where men hold the bulk of power in society have higher rates of physical aggression directed against female partners (Archer, 2006); and males from the southern part of the United States are more likely to react with aggression following an insult (Cohen et al., 1996).
Ethics in Social Psychological Research
For better or worse (but probably for worse), when we think about the most unethical studies in psychology, we think about social psychology. Imagine, for example, encouraging people to deliver what they believe to be a dangerous electric shock to a stranger (with bloodcurdling screams for added effect!). This is considered a “classic” study in social psychology. Or, how about having students play the role of prison guards, deliberately and sadistically abusing other students in the role of prison inmates. Yep, social psychology too. Of course, both Stanley Milgram’s (1963) experiments on obedience to authority and the Stanford prison study (Haney et al., 1973) would be considered unethical by today’s standards, which have progressed with our understanding of the field. Today, we follow a series of guidelines and receive prior approval from our institutional research boards before beginning such experiments. Among the most important principles are the following:
- Informed consent: In general, people should know when they are involved in research, and understand what will happen to them during the study (at least in general terms that do not give away the hypothesis). They are then given the choice to participate, along with the freedom to withdraw from the study at any time. This is precisely why the Facebook emotional contagion study discussed earlier is considered ethically questionable. Still, it’s important to note that certain kinds of methods—such as naturalistic observation in public spaces, or archival research based on public records—do not require obtaining informed consent.
- Privacy: Although it is permissible to observe people’s actions in public—even without them knowing—researchers cannot violate their privacy by observing them in restrooms or other private spaces without their knowledge and consent. Researchers also may not identify individual participants in their research reports (we typically report only group means and other statistics). With online data collection becoming increasingly popular, researchers also have to be mindful that they follow local data privacy laws, collect only the data that they really need (e.g., avoiding including unnecessary questions in surveys), strictly restrict access to the raw data, and have a plan in place to securely destroy the data after it is no longer needed.
- Risks and Benefits: People who participate in psychological studies should be exposed to risk only if they fully understand the risks and only if the likely benefits clearly outweigh those risks. The Stanford prison study is a notorious example of a failure to meet this obligation. It was planned to run for two weeks but had to be shut down after only six days because of the abuse suffered by the “prison inmates.” But even less extreme cases, such as researchers wishing to investigate implicit prejudice using the IAT, need to be considerate of the consequences of providing feedback to participants about their nonconscious biases. Similarly, any manipulations that could potentially provoke serious emotional reactions (e.g., the culture of honor study described above) or relatively permanent changes in people’s beliefs or behaviors (e.g., attitudes towards recycling) need to be carefully reviewed by the IRB.
- Deception: Social psychologists sometimes need to deceive participants (e.g., using a cover story) to avoid by hiding the true nature of the study. This is typically done to prevent participants from modifying their behavior in unnatural ways, especially in laboratory or field experiments. For example, when Milgram recruited participants for his experiments on obedience to authority, he described it as being a study of the effects of punishment on memory! Deception is typically only permitted (a) when the benefits of the study outweigh the risks, (b) participants are not reasonably expected to be harmed, (c) the research question cannot be answered without the use of deception, and (d) participants are informed about the deception as soon as possible, usually through debriefing.
- Debriefing: This is the process of informing research participants as soon as possible of the purpose of the study, revealing any deceptions, and correcting any misconceptions they might have as a result of participating. Debriefing also involves minimizing harm that might have occurred. For example, an experiment examining the effects of sad moods on charitable behavior might involve inducing a sad mood in participants by having them think sad thoughts, watch a sad video, or listen to sad music. Debriefing would therefore be the time to return participants’ moods to normal by having them think happy thoughts, watch a happy video, or listen to happy music.
As an immensely social species, we affect and influence each other in many ways, particularly through our interactions and cultural expectations, both conscious and nonconscious. The study of social psychology examines much of the business of our everyday lives, including our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we are unaware or ashamed of. The desire to carefully and precisely study these topics, together with advances in technology, has led to the development of many creative techniques that allow researchers to explore the mechanics of how we relate to one another. Consider this your invitation to join the investigation.
Test Your Knowledge
Biswas-Diener, R. (2020). An introduction to the science of social psychology. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from Research Methods in Social Psychology Resources
- Web: A collection of links on the topic of peace psychology
- Read the article on peace psychology
- Web: A great resource for all things social psychology, all in one place – Social Psychology Network
- Social Psychology Network home page
- Web: A list of profiles of major historical figures in social psychology
- Read about historical Figures in Social Psychology
- Web: A review of the history of social psychology as well as the topics of interest in the field
- The Wikipedia definition of social psychology
- Web: A succinct review of major historical figures in social psychology
- The definition of social psychology by Simply Psychology
- Web: An article on the definition and areas of influence of peace psychology
- The Wikipedia definition of peace psychology
- Web: Article describing another way of conceptualizing levels of analysis in social psychology
- Read about the levels of analysis in social psychology
- Web: Extended list of major historical figures in social psychology
- Read about psychology major figures on SparkNotes
- Web: History and principles of social psychology
- Read about social psychology on Pressbooks
- Web: Links to sources on history of social psychology as well as major historical figures
- Find more links on the history of psychology on Social Psychology Network
- Web: The Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence
- Read about peace, conflict and violence
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Research Methods in Social Psychology Resources
Jhangiani, R. (2020). Research methods in social psychology. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from Research methods in social psychology
- Article: Do research ethics need updating for the digital age? Questions raised by the Facebook emotional contagion study.
- Read an article about research ethics and the digital age
- Article: Psychology is WEIRD. A commentary on non-representative samples in Psychology.
- Read an article on non-representative samples in psychology
- Web: Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. Paste in text from a speech, article, or other archive to analyze its linguistic structure.
- Web: Project Implicit. Take a demonstration implicit association test
- Take an attitude test on Project Implicit
- Web: Research Randomizer. An interactive tool for random sampling and random assignment.
- An interactive research sample and assignment randomizer
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