Ellen Katherine Rothschild
Chapter 1:An Invitation to Social Psychology
Characterizing social psychology
Social Psychology: the scientific study of the feelings, thoughts and behaviors of individuals in social situations.
Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraq:American atrocities against Iraqi prisoners.
• 30 years earlier, Zimbardo’s prison experiment, Stamford University
o showed that guards quickly turned to verbal abuse and physical humiliation towards prisoners.
(all started out as nice, normal people)
o balance of power in prisons is so unequal that they tend to be brutal places unless heavy
constraints are applied to curb guards worst impulses.
o “It’s not that we put bad apples in a good barrel, we put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel
corrupts anything it touched.”
Explaining situations: social psychologists seek to understand how individuals act in relation to others in social
situations and why.
• Influence government policy: Brown v Board of Education – Social psychology research that indicting
that segregated schools were inherently unequal in their effects (thus unconstitutional)
Personality psychology: stressed individual differences in behavior rather than the social situation.
Cognitive psychology: the study of how people perceive, think about, and remember, aspects of the world.
Sociology: the study of people in the aggregate. (institutions, subgroups, bureaucracies, mass movements)
The power of the situation
Hannah Arendt: any one of us is capable of performing acts or brutality.
• “the banality of evil”
• Kurt Lewin: a person’s own attributes are important determinants of behavior, but these attributes
always interact with the situation to produce the resulting behavior.
o The actions or mere presence of other people is a big determinant of behavior.
The Milgram Experiments
• To examine the roll of social influence, Stanley Milgam set up a study in which participants believed
they were testing a learner (actually a confederate) and punishing him with shocks when he gave the
• Most participants became concerned as the shock level increased and turned to the experimenter to ask
what should be done – experimenter insisted they go on.
o 80% of participants continued despite learners groans, pleas, screams and eventual silence
o 62.5% of participants went all the way and delivered full shock values.
• the situation was extraordinarily effective in getting them to do something that would normally fill them
• Experimenter explicitly took responsibility for what happened
Darley and Batson (1973): the mundane fact of being in a hurry is such a powerful situational factor that it
overrides people’s helpful tendencies.
Dispositions: internal factors, such as our beliefs, values, personality traits, or abilities that guide a person’s
behavior. • Fundamental attribution error: the failure to recognize the importance of situational influences on
behavior, and the corresponding tendency to overemphasize the importance of disposition or traits on
• You should look for situational factors that might be affecting someone’s behavior before assuming that
the person has a disposition that matches that behavior.
Channel Factors (Kurt Lewis): certain situational circumstances that appear unimportant on the surface but that
can have great consequences for behavior, either facilitating or blocking it or guiding behavior in a particular
• Situations can make it easier to fallow one path as opposed to another
• Most powerful determinant of usage of health service is the distance to the closet facility
The Role of Construal
Construal: people’s interpretation and inference about the stimuli or situations they confront
• Perceptions drive our behavior
Gestalt Psychology: based on the German word gestalt meaning “form” or “figure”, this approach stresses the
fact that people perceive objects not by means of some automatic registering device, but by active, usually
unconscious interpretation of what the object represents as a whole.
• Kanizsa triangle: people fill in the empty spaces in their mind and perceive a white triangle.
• Our judgments and beliefs are constructed from perceptions and thoughts, but they are not simply
readouts of reality.
Prisoner’s dilemma: a situation involving two people who must decide whether to ”cooperate” or “defect”. In
the end, trust and cooperation leads to a higher joint payoffs that mistrust and defection.
• When they are told playing the wall street game – more play competitively
• When told they are playing the community game – cooperate more.
Schema: a knowledge structure consisting of any organized body of stored information
• We rely on elaborate stores of systematized knowledge to understand even the simplest and most
“obvious” situations – how do we know how to behave in different situations?
• Capture the regularities of life and lead us to have certain expectations we can rely on so that we don’t
have to invent the world anew all the time (expectations)
• Stereotypes: schemas we have for people of various kinds.
o We tend to judge people based on a particular person schema we have
o Summaries may be necessary to function efficiently and effectively
o Can be wrong, applied in wrong way to wrong people, can give to much weight in relation to
more specific information we have about a particular person
Automatic Versus Controlled Processing
Automatic processing: people often react quickly to frightening situations so that they can take immediate
action to save themselves from danger if necessary.
• Emotional reactions occur before conscious thoughts take over
• Automatic and controlled processing can result in incompatible attitudes in the same person towards
members of out groups.
• Automatic processes give rise to implicit attitudes and beliefs that cannot be controlled by the conscious