Introducing Social


There once was a man whose second wife was a vain and self­ish woman. This woman’s two daughters were similarly vain and selfish. The man’s own daughter, however, was meek and unselfish. This

sweet, kind daughter, whom we all know as Cinderella, learned early on

that she should do as she was told, accept ill treatment and insults, and

avoid doing anything to upstage her stepsisters and their mother.

But then, thanks to her fairy godmother, Cinderella was able to

escape her situation for an evening and attend a grand ball, where she

attracted the attention of a handsome prince. When the love-struck

prince later encountered Cinderella back in her degrading home, he

failed to recognize her.

Implausible? The folktale demands that we accept the power of

the situation. In the presence of her oppressive stepmother, Cinder­

ella was humble and unattractive. At the ball, Cinderella felt more

beautiful—and walked and talked and smiled as if she were. In one

situation, she cowered. In the other, she charmed.

The French philosopher-novelist Jean-Paul Sartre (1946) would

have had no problem accepting the Cinderella premise. We humans

are “first of all beings in a situation,” he wrote. “We cannot be distin­

guished from our situations, for they form us and decide our possibili­

ties” (pp. 59-60, paraphrased).

What is social psychology?

What are social psychology’s big ideas?

How do human values influence social psychology?

I knew it all along: Is social psychology simply common sense?

Research methods: How do we do social psychology?

Postscript: Why I wrote this book

4 Chapter 1

social psychology The scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another.

Throughout this book, sources for information are cited parenthetically. The complete source is provided in the reference section that begins on page R-1.

FIGURE :: 1.1 Social Psychology Is .. .

WHAT IS SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY? I Define social psychology and explain what it does.

Social psychology is a science that studies the influences of our situations, with spe­ cial attention to how we view and affect one another. More precisely, it is the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another (Figure 1.1).

Social psychology lies at psychology’s boundary with sociology. Compared with sociology (the study of people in groups and societies), social psychology focuses more on individuals and does more experimentation. Compared with personality psychology, social psychology focuses less on individuals’ differences and more on hovf individuals, in general, view and affect one another.

Social psychology is still a young science. The first social psychology experi­ ments were reported barely more than a century ago, and the first social psychol­ ogy texts did not appear until approximately 1900 (Smith, 2005). Not until the 1930s did social psychology assume its current form. Not until World War II did it begin to emerge as the vibrant field it is today. And not until the 1970s and beyond did social psychology enjoy accelerating growth in Asia—first in India, then in Hong Kong and Japan, and, recently, in China and Taiwan (Haslam & Kashima, 2010).

Social psychology studies our thinking, influences, and relationships by asking questions that have intrigued us all. Here are some examples:

• Does our social behavior depend more on the objective situations we face or how we construe them? Social beliefs can be self-fulfilling. For example, happily married people will attribute their spouse’s acid remark (“Can’t you ever put that where it belongs?”) to something external (“He must have had a frustrating day”). Unhappily married people will attribute the same remark to a mean disposition (“Is he ever hostile!”) and may respond with a coun­ terattack. Moreover, expecting hostility from their spouse, they may behave resentfully, thereby eliciting the hostility they expect.

• Would people be cruel if ordered? How did Nazi Germany conceive and implement the unconscionable slaughter of 6 million Jews? Those evil acts occurred partly because thousands of people followed orders. They put the prisoners on trains, herded them into crowded “showers,” and poisoned

Introducing Social Psychology

Social psychology is the scientific study of …

Social thinking

• How we perceive ourselves and others

• What we believe • Judgments we make • Our attitudes

Social influence

• Culture • Pressures to conform • Persuasion • Groups of people I

Social relations Prejudice

Aggression Attraction and intimacy Helping

Introducing Social Psychology Chapter 1 5

them with gas. How could people engage in such horrific actions? Were those individuals normal human beings? Stanley Milgram (1974) wondered. So he set up a situation in which people were ordered to administer increasing lev­ els of electric shock to someone who was having difficulty learning a series of words. As discussed in Chapter 6, nearly two-thirds of the participants fully complied.

• To help? Or to help oneself? As bags of cash tumbled from an armored truck one fall day, $2 million was scattered along a Columbus, Ohio, street. Some motorists stopped to help, returning $100,000. Judging from the $1,900,000 that dis­ appeared, many more stopped to help themselves. (What would you have done?) When similar incidents occurred several months later in San Francisco and Toronto, the results were the same: Passersby grabbed most of the money (Bowen, 1988). What situations trigger people to be helpful or greedy? Do some cultural contexts—perhaps villages and small towns—^breed greater helpfulness?

These questions all deal with how people view and affect one another. And that is what social psychology is all about. Social psy­ chologists study attitudes and beliefs, conformity and independence, love and hate.



Tired of looking at the stars. Professor Mueller takes up social psychology. Reprinted with permission of Jason Love at

Identify and describe the central concepts behind social psychology.

In many academic fields, the results of tens of thousands of studies, the conclu­ sions of thousands of investigators, and the insights of hundreds of theorists can be boiled down to a few central ideas. Biology offers us natural selection and adapta­ tion. Sociology builds on concepts such as social structure and organization. Music harnesses our ideas of rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Similarly, social psychology builds on a short list of fundamental principles that will be worth remembering long after you have forgotten most of the details. My short list of “great ideas we ought never to forget” includes these (Figure 1.2), each of which we will explore further in chapters to come.

We Construct Our Social Reality We humans have an irresistible urge to explain behavior, to attribute it to some cause, and therefore to make it seem orderly, predictable, and controllable. You and I may react differently to a situation because we think differently. How we react to a friend’s insult depends on whether we attribute it to hostility or to a bad day.

A 1951 Princeton-Dartmouth football game provided a classic demonstration of how we construct reality (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954; see also Toy & Andrews, 1981). The game lived up to its billing as a grudge match; it was rough and dirty. A Prince­ ton All-American was gang-tackled, piled on, and finally forced out of the game with a broken nose. Fistfights erupted, and there were further injuries on both sides. The whole performance hardly fit the Ivy League image of gentility.

Not long afterward, two psychologists, one from each school, showed films of the game to students on each campus. The students played the role of scientist- observer, noting each infraction as they watched and who was responsible for it.


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