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Research methods and theoretical issues[edit]

Social psychologists rely foremost on experimentation, usually by performing tests upon a sample of persons from a wider population. Social psychologists make use of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Quantitative methods include surveys, controlled experiments, and mathematical modeling, with some emphasis upon correlational research.

Controlled experimentation requires the manipulation of one or more independent variables in order to examine its effect on a dependent variable. Also required is the experimental control of potential confounding influences, known as extraneous variables.

Social psychologists typically use random assignment of participants and a control group that resembles the experimental groups in all respects other than the independent variable. When experiments take this form, it tends to mitigate the effects of potential confounds.

Controlled experiments are attractive for use in social psychology because they are high in internal validity, meaning that they show a clear casual link between variables. However, the small samples used in controlled experiments are low in external validity, or the degree to which the results can be generalized the larger population.

Social psychologists utilize survey research when they are interested in results that are high in external validity. Surveys use different forms of random sampling (simple, stratified, clustered) to obtain a sample or respondents that are representative of a population. This method of subject selection increases the chances that the results from a survey study are generalizable to the population in question. On the other hand, surveys are low in internal validity because they rely on correlational analysis, or the strength and direction of the relationship between variables. Because surveys do not systematically manipulate variables or control for confounds, the nature or direction of a potential causal relationship is unknown. However, new statistical methods like structural equation modeling are being used to test causal relationships in correlational data.

Qualitative methods include naturalistic observation and field research, participant observation, content analysis, discourse analysis, ethnomethodology, and etogenia. Also available to the social psychologist is the close examination of existing scientific literature, which is called a meta-analysis.

Observational methods like participant observation are sometimes employed by social psychologists. These methods have very little internal or external validity and are used mainly to generate theory and hypotheses for later testing through experimental or survey research.

Many researchers emphasize the importance of a multimethodological approach to social research, drawing from both qualitative and quantitative approaches. (Roth, 1987)

Underlying issues[edit]

In social psychology, as in any other discipline, there will be a number of underlying philosophical predispositions in the projects of scientists. Some of these predispositions involve the nature of social knowledge itself, the nature of social reality, and the locus of human control in action (Cote and Levine, 2002; Slife and Gantt, 1999).

One main and lasting crisis has been the debate over positivism and phenomenology. In the former, the research focus has been an attempt to find overarching, universal laws to social behavior and history. In the latter, by contrast, the emphasis is upon a focus of empirical study, and making accurate descriptions of social reality, regardless of whether or not they fit a grand theory or explanation. These two forms have tended to lend themselves to favor either quantitative or qualitative methods, respectively. In addition to these two orientations, there is a third outlook: a kind of social rationalism, which makes use of axiomatic presuppositions in order to explain social reality.

One underlying problem for the social psychologists is whether or not their studies can or should ultimately be understood in terms of the meaning and consciousness behind social action, as with folk psychology, or whether or not more objective materialist and behavioral facts are to be given exclusive study. This problem is especially important for those within social psychology who study meaning and language, and for those in the sociological social psychology tradition who favor symbolic interactionism, because a rejection of the study of meanings would lead to the reclassification of such research as unempirical.

Three persistent themes in the philosophy of the social sciences, and which directly affect social psychology, have been the structure-agency debate, and the related arguments over determinism and free will.

First, especially important among sociological social psychologists, the structure-agency debate (sometimes referred to by the terms "individualism" and "holism") involves questions about the nature of social behavior: whether it is ultimately predictable in terms of the creative volition of the individual, or is largely a product of socialization, interaction, and greater social structures. (Bunnin and Tsui-James, 2003)

The concern over free will has often been posed as philosophical and methodological, and not empirical, usually in the tradition of incompatibilism. However, some compatibilists see the issue as itself being something which can be investigated empirically by social psychologists. The work of Benjamin Libet is one example of research that has been taken to be an empirical refutation of the notion of free will.

Research ethics[edit]

Social psychologists are concerned with ethical issues, and there are certain ethical controversies that are especially apparent in this area. The goal of social psychology is to understand naturally occurring cognition and behavior in a social context, but the very act of observing people in social contexts tends to influence and alter their behavior. For this reason, many social psychology experiments utilize deception to conceal or distort certain aspects of the study. Deception may include false cover stories, false participants (known as confederates or stooges), false feedback given to the participants, and so on. This practice has been challenged by some psychologists who maintain that deception under any circumstances is not ethically correct, and that other research strategies (e.g. role-playing) should be used instead. Unfortunately, research has shown that role-playing studies do not produce the same results as deception studies and this has cast doubt on their validity. In addition to deception, experimenters have at times put people into potentially uncomfortable or embarrassing situations (e.g. the Milgram experiment), and this has also been criticized for ethical reasons.

To protect the rights and wellbeing of research participants, and at the same time discover meaningful results and insights into human behavior, virtually all social psychology research must pass an ethical review process. At most colleges and universities, this is conducted by an ethics committee or institutional review board. This group examines the proposed research to make sure that no harm is done to the participants, and that the benefits of the study outweigh any possible risks or discomforts to people taking part in the study. Furthermore, a process of informed consent is often used to make sure that volunteers know what will happen in the experiment and understand that they are allowed to quit the experiment at any time. A debriefing is typically done at the conclusion of the experiment in order to reveal any deceptions used and generally make sure that the participants are unharmed by the procedures. Today, most research in social psychology involves no more risk of harm than can be expected as by routine psychological testing or normal daily activities.

Important terms and concepts[edit]


Heuristics - Broadly, a Heuristic is the art and science of discovery and invention. The word comes from the same Greek root as "eureka". In psychology heuristics seen to be are simple, efficient rules of thumb which have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information. These rules work well under most circumstances, but in certain cases lead to systematic cognitive biases.

  • availability heuristic is a heuristic which occurs when people estimate the probability of an outcome based on how easy that outcome is to imagine. As such, vividly described, emotionally-charged possibilities will be perceived as being more likely than those that are harder to picture or are difficult to understand, resulting in a corresponding cognitive bias.


Persuasion is a form of influence. It is the process of guiding people toward the adoption of an idea, attitude, or action by rational and symbolic (though not only logical) means. It is a problem-solving strategy, and relies on "appeals" rather than force. There are four basic aspects:

  1. The Communicator, a person whose credibility, expertise, trustworthiness and attractiveness all play a role.
  2. The message, possessed of varying degrees of reason or emotion, is either one-sided or two sided, and is emphasized by primacy or recency.
  3. The Channel, whither it be interpersonal or media based, passive or active in nature.
  4. The audience, possessed of a wide variety of demographicss and preferences.
  • Influence - Social psychology considers a great number of ways in which an individual can be influenced. Two of the reasons why people consciously allow themselves to be influenced are:
  • Credibility is the believability of a statement, action, or source, and the ability of the observer to believe that statement. In public speaking, Aristotle considered the credibility of the speaker, his character, to be one of the forms of proof. Contemporary social science research has found that there are several dimensions of credibility. Berlo and Lemert (1961) noted three: competence, trustworthiness and dynamism.
  • Elaboration Likelihood Model distinguishes between two routes to persuasion: the Central Route and the Peripheral Route of processing. This is a dual-process theory of information processing. Central route processes involve careful, logical scrutiny of a persuasive communication (e.g., a speech, an advertisement, etc.) to determine the merits of the arguments. Under these conditions, a person’s unique cognitive responses to the message determine the persuasive outcome (i.e., the direction and magnitude of attitude change). Peripheral route processes, on the other hand, require little thought, and therefore predominate under conditions that promote low elaboration. These processes often rely on judgmental heuristics (e.g., “experts are always right”) or surface features of a message (e.g., the number of arguments presented) or its source (e.g., their attractiveness). Which route is taken is determined by the extent of elaboration. Both motivational and ability factors determine elaboration. Motivational factors include (among others) the personal relevance of the message topic, accountability, and a person’s need for Cognition (their innate desire to enjoy thinking). Ability factors include the availability of cognitive resources (e.g., the presence or absence of time pressures or distractions) or relevant knowledge needed to carefully scrutinize the arguments. Under conditions of moderate elaboration, a mixture of central and peripheral route processes will guide information processing.
  • Foot-in-the-door technique is a persuasion method. In it, the persuader does something small in order to catch the target's interest, before moving on to what he really wants. A related trick is the Bait and switch. An example is the practice of charities mass-mailing small free gifts (such as pens) to recipients in the hope of persuading them to open the letter and consider donating money, rather than simply throwing the letter in the wastebasket.

Group dynamics[edit]

Group dynamics is the study of how individual behaviors differs depending on individuals' current or prospective connections to a sociological group.

Social facilitation was traditionally seen to be the tendency for people to be aroused into better performance of simple tasks when under the eye of others rather than while they are alone. Complex tasks are often performed in an inferior manner in such situations however. Social facilitation has been redefined as the increased likelihood of the individual performing already likely tasks when in the company of others. This affect has been shown to be strongest among those who are most concerned about the opinions of others, and when the individual is being watched by someone they do not know, and/or cannot see well.

Social loafing is the tendency of individuals to slack when work is pooled and individual performance is not being evaluated. A good example of social facilitation is a foot race (where the individual runs faster when not alone) as opposed to a group tug-of-war (where the work is pooled, and an individuals lack of performance is hard to notice).

Deindividuation is the phenomenon of relinquishing one's sense of self-awareness or identity. This can happen as a result of becoming part of a group, such as an army or mob, but also as a result of meditation. It can have quite destructive effects, sometimes making people more likely to commit a crime, like stealing (Diener, 1976) or even over-enforce the law, such as police in riot situations.

Risky shift - in group conditions, people with relatively moderate viewpoints tend to assume that their groupmates hold more extreme views, and to alter their own views in compensation--a phenomenon known as groupthink. This can occur simultaneously and in isolation: all group members might adjust their views to a more conservative or liberal position, thus leading to a "consensus" that is totally false. The risky shift occurs when the group collectively agrees on a course of action that is likewise more extreme than they would have made if asked individually. Risky shift is one side of a more general phenomenon called group polarization.

Groupthink - In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. In a general sense this seems to be a rational way to approach the situation. However this results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees upon an action which each member might individually consider to be unwise (the risky shift).

Minority influence and leadership - Minority influence is the degree to which minorities influence the group. Their ability to influence is based upon several factors, including the consistent maintenance of their position, the degree of their defection from the majority, and their self-confidence. Leadership is the ability to guide, mobilize, and maintain the group. Some view leadership as a form of minority influence, in this case a minority of one. Leadership can be divided into two types: task leadership, and social leadership. Task leadership focuses on organization, standards and goals. Social leadership offers support and help to others, fosters teamwork and mediates conflict. Most organizations include aspects of both leadership styles within the hierarchy of their management.

Cognitive bias[edit]

Cognitive bias includes any of a wide range of observer effects identified in cognitive science and social psychology including very basic Statistics, social attribution, and memory errors that are common to all human beings. Biases drastically skew the reliability of anecdotal and legal evidence. Social biases, usually called attributional biases affect our everyday social interactions. And biases related to probability and decision making significantly affect the scientific method which is deliberately designed to minimize such bias from any one observer. See Cognitive psychology and list of cognitive biases for more information.

  • Confirmation bias - One of the most important discoveries in Social psychology is Confirmation bias a type of statistical bias describing the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. Researchers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or under weigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis. As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.
  • Hindsight bias - a false memory of having predicted events, or exaggeration of actual predictions, after becoming aware of the outcome. Phrases like "I knew it!" or "I told you so!" sometimes, but not always, incorporate hindsight bias.
  • Self-serving bias and Egocentric bias - Self-serving bias is our tendency to take credit for our successes, and blame others for our failures. Egocentric bias is related, and describes our tendency to over-emphasize our personal contribution to group projects (both success's and failures).
  • Fundamental attribution error - The tendency to view ones own actions as based on external circumstances, but the actions of others as based upon their inherent personality and disposition. These attributions are guided by consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness. The Fundamental attribution error is generally seen to be the result of perspective. The subtle root causes behind the behavior of others are often disregarded in favor of information deemed to be more of greater salience.
  • Overconfidence - Humans have been proven to be surprisingly overconfident. Incompetence has been shown to aggravate such overconfidence, while actual efficacy tends to reduce it.
  • Illusory correlations are beliefs that inaccurately suppose a relationship between a certain type of action and an effect. They can be caused by, among other things, an event that stands out as unique. They can be caused by, among other things, an event that stands out as unique. For example, "The only time I forget my pencil is when we have a test" is most likely an illusory correlation (unless the speaker is very, very, unlucky). It is likely caused by only a few other pencil-less tests, which stand out particularly well in the memory.
  • illusion of control is the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes of which researchers deem them to have no influence over. Prayer, superstitions and postulated paranormal powers underline the limitations of science to falsify many of these "illusory" controls.

Other cognitions and internal influences[edit]

  • Self-efficacy - Self-efficacy is the belief that one has the capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations. Unlike efficacy, which is the power to produce an effect (in essence, competence); self-efficacy is the belief (however accurate) that one has the power to produce that effect.
  • Self esteem - self-esteem or self-worth includes a person's subjective appraisal of himself or herself as intrinsically positive or negative to some degree (Sedikides & Gregg, 2003). Contrary to popular opinion high self esteem is not always viewed as beneficial. High self esteem can result in unrealistic expectations, and can result in arrogance, rudeness, bullying or aggression, particularly when an individual with high self esteem is threatened or feels out of control.
  • Locus of control - The Locus of control (originally developed by Julian Rotter in the 1950s) measures the extent to which an individual views events and outcomes as being controlled by internal personal efforts, or by external forces, such as fate or chance. Compare free will and determinism.
  • Self-handicapping - is defined as "any action or choice of performance setting that enhances the opportunities to externalize failure and to internalize success." It involves the placement of obstacles in ones own path so as to excuse ones subsequent failure. An example would be playing video games instead of studying before the big test.
  • Cognitive dissonance - Cognitive dissonance holds that contradicting cognitions serve as a force which compels the human mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to minimize the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions. In economics this term is also called buyer's remorse. This post-purchase behavior is more likely to happen when the purchase is a more expensive one. The consumer may experience some regrets or questioning as to whether the purchase was a good one.
  • Controlled and automatic processing - Controlled processing is our conscious mind, and includes thoughts we are aware of, and plan out in a linear manner. Automatic processing is our intuitive or instinctual subconscious thoughts and feelings, which we often do not expect and cannot predict.
  • self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that, in being made, actually causes itself to become true. For example, in the stock market, if it is widely believed that a crash is imminent, investors may lose confidence, sell most of their stock, and actually cause the crash.
  • Attitude is a cognition which has an affect on behavior. Despite such a seemingly clear correlation, Social psychologists have found that privately held (inner) attitudes have surprisingly little predictive value regarding actual behavior. Instead they have found a great deal of "moral hypocrisy" (Batson 1997, 2001, 2002). The situations when attitude has the most predictive value are when social or other influences on our behavior or moral claims are minimal, and when our attitudes are particularly strong or specific to the behavior in question.
  • Conformity is the degree to which members of a group will change their behavior, views and attitudes to fit the views of the group. The group can influence members via unconscious processes or via overt peer pressures on individuals. Group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, prior commitment and public opinion all help to determine the level of conformity an individual will reflect towards his group.
  • Reactance is an action in direct contradiction to rules and regulation; it can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended and also increases resistance to persuasion. A mild example could be a boy being all the more interested in a girl playing "hard to get", or teenagers drinking to excess in an environment of prohibition when they would not do so in a more liberal culture. The essence of reactance is rebellion.

Major theories in Social Psychology[edit]

Attribution theory[edit]

Attribution theory - Attribution theory is concerned with the ways in which people explain (or attribute) the behavior of others. The theory divides the way people attribute causes to events into two types.

  • "External" or "situational" attribution assigns causality to an outside factor, such as the weather,
  • "internal" or "dispositional" attribution assigns causality to factors within the person, such as their own level of intelligence or other variables that make the individual responsible for the event.

According to Harold Kelley, the three basic methods of determining if the actions of others are due to internal or external factors are: Distinctiveness (does the person behave in a manner unique to the situation, or do they often act this way?), consensus (would others behave this way in such a situation?), and consistency (does the person generally behave this way given this situation?).


Reinforcement theory understands social behavior to be caused by classical and operant conditioning (reinforcement). In radical form, it presumes that all social cognition starts out blank and is created by conditioning.

Evolutionary theory[edit]

Evolutionary theory attempts to explain the actions of persons in the context of gene transmission across generations. Evolutionary psychology may take the cognitive perspective and form hypotheses about function and design by acknowledging the evolutionary causal process that built these cognitive mechanisms.

Symbolic interactionism[edit]

Symbolic interactionism - a sociological theory that contains two major versions: Structural SI and Process SI. Structural SI utilizes shared social knowledge from a macro-level to explain social interactions and psychological factors at the micro-level. Structural SI focuses on the relatively static patterns in micro-level interactions that are caused by these macro-level structures. Structural SI researchers tend to use quantitative methods. Identity Theory (Styker & Burke, 2000) and Affect-Control Theory (Heise, 1979) grew out of this tradition. Process SI stems from the Second Chicago School and views social interactions to be constant flux and study it without reference to a larger social structure. Process SI researchers tend to use qualitative and ethnographic methods.

Cognitive psychology[edit]

Cognitive psychology is the psychological science that studies cognition, the mental processes that underlie behavior, including thinking, reasoning, decision making, and to some extent motivation and emotion. Cognitive psychology covers a broad range of research domains, examining questions about the workings of memory, attention, perception, knowledge representation, reasoning, creativity and problem solving.

Other theories in social psychology[edit]

  • Social Cognition - is mainly concerned with how people process social information, especially its encoding, storage, retrieval, and application to social situations. Social cognition’s focus on information processing has many affinities with its sister discipline, cognitive psychology.
  • Discursive psychology - also described as the second cognitive revolution. Its main idea states that there is no "cognitive level" as such, and that discursive phenomena like cognition should be studied only by observable methods like careful analysis of everyday use of language.
  • Social exchange theory - emphasizes the idea that, in relatively free societies, social action is the result of personal choice between optimal benefits and costs. See also rational choice theory.
  • Social learning theory - in contrast to reinforcement theory, social learning theory attempts to explain all of human behavior by observation and mimicry.
  • Psychosocial theory - explores and emphasizes the role of unconscious mental events on human social thought and behavior. Its psychological foundation is psychodynamic theory.
  • Social representation theory - an attempt to understand how people represent ideas of the world and themselves in similar ways.

Well-known cases, studies, and related works[edit]

Famous experiments in social psychology include:

  • the Milgram experiment, which studied how far people would go to avoid dissenting against authority even when the suffering of others was at stake. (At the time a poll of psychiatrists showed a belief that only 1% of the populace would be capable of continuing to cause pain to an extreme point.) Coming soon after World War II, it suggested that people are more susceptible to control by authority than was then assumed in the Western democratic world.
  • the Asch conformity experiments from the late 1950s, a series of studies that starkly demonstrated the power of conformity in groups on the perceptions/cognitions and behaviors of individuals.
  • Muzafer Sherif's boy camp experiment. Conducted twice in Robbers Cave. Researchers divided boys in to two competing groups and tried to combine them again later on through mutual challenges. Also known as the realistic conflict theory, because the intergroup conflict was induced through scarce resources.
  • The article social psychology as history by Kenneth Gergen. This article was one of the major works on the incident known as the 'crisis of social psychology' in the '70s.