INTRO TO PSYCHOLOGY
(Lectures 19, 20 & 21)
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1 Lecture 19
November 10 2009h
Im going to talk about social psychology this week. Social psychology has followed a somewhat
different tradition from cognitive psychology and its generally practiced by people with different
training and with different concerns although thats changed in the last 10 years or so. We now have
a field called social cognition in which people who are interested in the way in which societies and
individuals within a society behave is influenced and affected by our thoughts and thought patterns
and our cognitions. Increasingly, social psychology and cognitive psychology are seen as
Wed like to be able to predict one anothers behavior. Youd like to be able to know when youll
be yelled at, or when youll be praised. In fact, thats one of the goals of psychology: predicting
behavior whether human or animal. One of the ways which social psychologists and personality
psychologists have differed for decades is the way in which they think one should go for predicting
behavior. Im going to give you the social psychologist perspective this week. Next week on Tuesday
Laura Mitchell, who is a visitor from Glasgow University, is going to talk about personality.
The social psychology perspective in a nutshell is that you can predict anothers behavior by
understanding the situation that they are in. The personality psychology viewpoint is that you need to
look at their personality or traits and I want to talk about these different approaches. Most personality
and social psychologists have come to the conclusion that you need to take both approaches; that
behavior is actually the combination of personality and situation. In many cases, we tend to
underestimate the power of the situation at determining behavior. This is a fundamental finding of
social psychology. When people are asked to predict their behavior, they tend to resort to traits, that
is, standard disposition variables, and underestimate the power that the actual situation might have.
This is such an important mistake that we make that is called Fundamental Attribution Error.
Fundamental means that its foundational and important. Attribution means that when we attribute a
persons behavior to some internal cause, we tend to attribute to their personality and not to the
situation or the role that they are playing.
We also use attitudes to predict behavior. So there are attitudes, traits and situations. An attitude is
something that you hold, which is a belief about things. You might have an attitude about criminality,
abortion, or less serious things like whether to party before youre done with your studying.
Traits are stable and believed to be more or less stable dispositions that we carry throughout our
lifetimes. A trait is whether youre generous, relaxed, cheerful, somber, talkative or quiet. Theres a
science devoted to measuring and understanding these ways in which we differ from one another.
The idea of a trait though is that more or less, some people seem to be different than others in a kind
of a stable way, independent of the situation. You might have a friend whos generous and you might
2 have another friend whos stingy. Theres variability in those traits. Nobody is generous all the time
about everything or vice versa, but you can probably characterize people you know as being more or
less of these things. Personality psychology is study of traits.
Importance of situation:
Today I want to focus on situation. Across many experiments, we see that people tend to
underestimate the power of the situation for determining a persons behavior. The emphasis of a lot
of research came out during World War 2. Psychologists tried to understand how it is that in an entire
nation, the Germans were able to act in ways that were so contrary to values that the German people
held. Germany has produced lots of philosophers and musicians that were seen as a sign of high
culture and then Nazism took over and Germany succeeded in extinguishing millions of people and
tried to take over Europe and the rest of the world in a very aggressive way. The question is how is it
that the entire country fell into it? How is it that all the people in the military and the government
went along with it? They couldnt all be monsters, so what was the power of the situation?
One of the first experiments that looked at this was an experiment by Stanley Milgram, which you
read about it in the book. Milgram had people come into a lab at Yale University and there was a
very formal official looking sign on the door that said Yale University Lab for Memory. And the
experimenter was there, wearing a white coat and you were brought in at the same time as another
person and this other person was here to learn some memory techniques. And the learning included
mild electrical shocks, a motivator for being able to improve memory and your role was to sit at a
table with the experimenter while the memory learning person was in another room and either you or
the experimenter would read a list of words that this learner had already memorized as word pairs,
words that had nothing to do with each other. You might say lamp and the person in the other room
was supposed to say pickle. When the person got an answer wrong, you were supposed to administer
a shock. There was a device there that had different buttons and it was calibrated from 10 volts all the
way up to 450 volts and an XXX Danger sign at the end. The experimenter would read a word, if the
person gets it wrong, you give him a shock and if he gets 2 wrong in a row, youd move up. Youre
also told that he has a heart condition. Prior to this experiment, Milgram asked people how high you
think youd go up before you stopped and three quarters of the people said: No way Im going to go
to the end. 450 volts and XXX, that sounds like a bad idea. Id never do that. So the person in the
other room, a confederate, was not hooked up to the shocks. The person was acting as though he was
however. At some point , the person begins to get the questions wrong and Milgram prompts: Okay
you have to give him a shock. And at some point the person in the other room would say things like:
Ouch that hurts.
There are some interesting features of the experiment as it unfolds. One is that a few participants
would say: Im not sure if Im comfortable with giving a higher shock and Milgram would say:
3 The experiment requires that you continue. These simple words had a very chilling effect on the
outcome of the experiment. Carefully chosen words and then people would hit the button. According
to the script when you get to the 50 or 60-volt mark, the person in the other room would say: Stop! I
have a heart condition. And the person would say: Do you think its okay and Milgram would say:
The experiment requires that you continue and the person would hit the button again. Ask yourself
if youd do this. Most people said they wouldnt, but in the situation, 3 quarters of the people kept
going and at some point you get around the 150 volts. According to the script, the person in the other
room stops responding and the experimenter would say the next word on the list and no answer
comes from the other room. You cant see the person. He stopped responding and then the person
says: What do I do? and Milgram says: He didnt respond, thats a wrong answer, you have to
push the button. Three quarters of the people in the experiment, after the person stopped responding,
presumably unconscious or maybe even death, continued to administer the shocks all the way up to
The experiment requires that you continue: not a threat, just a very steady voice. People would
seem to do things that seem monstrous with that voice. This experiment was repeated many many
times and it turns out there are some subtle features of it that have to be in place. When Milgram
moved the experiment of the Yale campus to a kind of chapel building in New Haven and he no
longer wore the white coat and it was a commercial prize, the compliance rates dropped. There was
something about it being Yale and being a professor in a white coat doing all that, it seemed to land
some authority to it. The other thing that reduced the compliance was if the person was in the same
room with you, or if you were touching the person, you were less likely to go that high.
But still people did cruel things with very little provocation. These were not psychopaths. These were
ordinary college students, ordinary working people. What Milgram and social psychology have
concluded from this is that there is something about the power of the situation to cause people behave
when against their attitudes and against their traits.
We saw the power of the situation when I told you about the Darley and Latans study. This was the
one when the seminary students were crossing the Princeton campus late and encountered a man who
was asking for help and the ones who were in a hurry would not stop and help and ones who had time
did stop to help him. People who were