Being Human. Chapter 2. Cultural And Social Dimensions Of The Self

A group of international students is sitting around the dinner table discussing the television menu for the evening. A Norwegian woman student says, “let’s watch the soap, exciting things are happening to the relationships in the show”. A student from Asia disagrees since soaps “show disrespect for social values and relationships”. Someone from the States suggests watching a boxing match since that “demonstrates personal courage and achievement of the up and coming athletes”. The Asian student replies that rather than boxing, watching a team sport like soccer is more interesting. Another supporter of the soap option however, suggests that soap dramas are much more exciting as they deal with relationships, and “that is all there really is to life”.

Cultural and gender stereotypes that are parodied above are addressed in this chapter. Our social selves are partially defined by gender and cultural values, and much else. How do we come to be who we are? How is the self formed and what function does it play in the psychological economy of the individual? Are we motivated to behave in certain ways depending on our social selves? What is the route to well-being; does it help to have illusions about life? Why do we spend so much time and effort trying to impress others, and is impression management adaptable? These and many other issues are discussed in this chapter.

Who we are and where we come from has engaged the attention of philosophers and psychologists for generations. In more recent times the methods of experimental social psychology have been employed in the quest to understand the self and its dominant attributes. The self is defined as a set of beliefs we hold about our attributes and ourselves. We think of ourselves in terms of important personal characteristics like our career choice, our level of competence, and our plans for the future. The latter defines our possible selves. The continuity we feel in life is due to the self-concept. Similarity in personality with siblings, and especially identical twins, is based on common biological heritability that also contributes to self-hood.

Everything important about our lives, our family relationships, our development, the cultural and social context of our lives, all contribute to the topic of this chapter. Self-knowledge provides direction and order in our lives. Since we all fall short in goal attainment, there is a balance between flaws and self-efficacy. These discrepancies directly impact how we feel about ourselves, our self-esteem. Since feelings of self-esteem are also bound up with how others think about us, we perform in the great theater that is life, playing out roles of self-presentation. We want to convince others of our positive qualities and therefore have strong motives to manage the impression we make. We know how to react appropriately to varying situational demands because culture creates the parameters of appropriate conduct. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 3: Attraction And Relationships: The Journey From Initial Attachments To Romantic Love

Many years ago two boys were walking home from school. They were seven years old, lived in the same neighborhood, but went to different grade schools. Although living close to each other they had not met before running into each other on this day on the road leading up the hill to their neighborhood. Both seemed quite determined to assert themselves that day, and soon they began pushing each other that gradually turned to wrestling, and attempts to dominate. After what seemed hours, the two little boys were still rolling down the surrounding hills as the sun was going down. Neither succeeded in achieving victory that day. In fact, they never again exchanged blows but became the best of friends. Today it is more than 50 years later, and their friendship has endured time and distance. Friendship is like a rusty coin; all you need to do is polish it at times!

In this essay we shall examine the research on attachment, attraction and relationships. The intrinsic interest in these fields by most people is shared by social psychologists, and attachment, attraction, and love relationships constitute one of the most prolific areas of investigation in social psychology. The early attachment theory advanced by Bowlby (1982) emphasized the importance of the field when he suggested that our attachments to parents to a large extent shape all succeeding relationships in the future. Other research focus on exchange and communal relationships and point to the different ways we have of relating to each other. The importance of relationships cannot be overemphasized since we as humans have a fundamental need to belong. Relationships also contribute to the social self as discussed in the book, and effects social cognition discussed in the same (see: at the end of this article). The variables that determine attraction may be understood theoretically as functions of a reward perspective.

The importance of relationships is demonstrated by findings that show that among all age groups relationships are considered essential to happiness (Berscheid, 1985; Berscheid & Reis, 1998). The absence of close relationships makes the individual feel worthless, powerless, and alienated (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996). Our very humanity is defined by our relationships (Bersheid & Regan, 2005).

1. Attachment: The start to relationships
This chapter is about the development of attachment, intimate relationships between adults, and the road leading toward love relationships. No greater love has a person than giving his life for another. This idea from the Bible brings to mind the passion of deep commitment and the willingness to sacrifice, even in the ultimate sense. This willingness to sacrifice is one manifestation of love, but as we all know there is much more to relationships and love. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 4: Social Cognition: How We Think About The Social World

Every day we are confronted with situations requiring judgment and decisions. At times, in emergencies, rapid decisions are required allowing little time for reflection. In other situations, the outcome matters greatly and motivates us to carefully evaluate the judgment and consequences of our decision. Social cognition is a fundamental area of social psychology, and refers to how people utilize information in making decisions. Specifically, we will attend to how we select the information, how we interpret the information, and how we organize it to respond to the decision making demand.

In situations involving police or other emergency teams there is little time to evaluate. The police may have fractions of seconds to decide if a suspect is holding a gun or some harmless object and to subsequently decide either to fire to kill, or to pursue another line of action. How does a police officer make such decisions? There are those who would argue that in the case of suspects the police use race to determine whether a suspect is dangerous or not (Singer, 2002). For example, in Cincinnati, USA the police killed 16 black suspects in six years, while no whites were killed in similar circumstances. It seems reasonable to assume that prejudice played a role in these life or death situations in the United States. In other words, faulty decision-making is often a result of rapid response requirements based on often false social stereotypes. We have more to say about stereotypes or cognitive schemas later in this chapter.

On the more positive side, automatic thinking can also save lives. One of the authors recently had an accident, which caused 5 broken ribs, a punctured lung, and the loss of his spleen. He can recall every detail of what happened during the accident, and the efforts made to save his life. The emergency crew went on automatic thinking as soon as they saw his injuries, belting his body in several places, providing oxygen, and after questions about any allergies they started pain medication. In the emergency room there were similar very crisp questions as the surgeon ruled out other problems and directed attention to the needed surgery. This surgeon had a well-established memory of similar injuries and proceeded rapidly to address the injuries, and stabilized patient’s vital signs. As time was of the essence, these professionals were on automatic pilot, as they took steps to administer needed medical services. Automatic decision is rapid and carried to conclusion without a great deal of extended thought and reflection. In this type of social cognition people act as if without thinking, responding to internalized memory and experiences (Bargh & Ferguson, 2000; Sloman, 1996).

There are other occasions when the situation demands a longer and more deliberate evaluation process. How to choose a life partner, what occupation to adopt, what philosophy or ideology to believe in, are best decided on thorough and very careful evaluation. By thinking through all the issues, evaluating potential consequences of our decisions, we can make better decisions, resulting in more contentment over the long run. Although automatic thinking seems to dominate so much of social behavior, we do have the capacity to override the process, and analyze the situation slowly and deliberately.

However, neither type of thinking is error free as important information is often missing. Even powerful nations like the US make basic errors despite heavy investments in intelligence. We can observe that it is not information alone that determines inferences, but also ideology. Ideology allows the individual or group to incorporate and accept information. What comes to mind is the obvious fiasco of going to war in Iraq based on the assumption that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence services provided accurate information, that there were no weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq. However, since the decision to go to war had already been made, this inconvenient information was not incorporated in the decision-making. At other times, of course, the information we have is not only inconvenient, but also incomplete, ambiguous or contradictory. How we make decisions given the incompleteness of information is the basic question addressed in social cognition. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 5: Attitude Formation And Behavior

There are many social issues that provoke public debate and engage people attitudes. Around these issues we can observe three components (beliefs, emotion, and behavior) of attitudes are activated. Global warming is an issue with profound implications for our survival and indeed the survival of all species and the planet. Recently former presidential candidate Al Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing the world’s attention to the dire prospects of our future unless we take decisive action. More and more public opinion (beliefs) is coming around and people are beginning to take serious the warning of the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists. The beliefs of many common citizens are being modified to recognizing that things cannot go on as they have in the past, and that we must change. Some people have fully engaged their emotions as can be seen in letters to the editors of many newspapers and journals. These citizens feel the warnings at a very personal level and are not just willing to write letters, but also go on marches (behavior) in protest. Environmental beliefs are integrated for many people resulting in changed behavior where they take greater efforts to recycle, install energy saving devices in their homes, and drive more energy efficient cars. The world is changing, but is the rate of change sufficient to avoid future disasters. Only history will tell.

In the above vignette we can see various elements of attitudes and their effect on subsequent behavior, the important topics of this chapter. How did people form attitudes which brought them to the opposing sides of the global warming issue? Were their positions just fleeting opinions? Does the behavior of environmentalists who dissented from the indifference of politicians express more deeply held attitudes reflecting central values in their lives? Do those who express indifference toward environmental disaster hold more conformist attitudes that change with shifting popularity of viewpoints?

For people whose attitudes do not reflect deeply held values, attitude change can indeed occur rapidly. The popularity of president Bush has risen or fallen with dizzying speed. In the time before September 11, 2001, about 50 percent of the American people approved of his administration and leadership. This rose to 82 percent immediately following the attacks. However, by September of 2003 as the war continued to bring causalities, Bush’s popularity dropped back down again to 52 percent. As we write now in 2007, Bush’s popularity has fallen to an all time low. Obviously many who liked Bush in the past were “fair weather” supporters who have changed their views as the causalities and destruction have mounted in the months following the initial attack.

This vignette shows the importance of understanding the formation and structure of attitudes, and how attitudes may be changed. Attitude research is a central topic in social psychology from both the perspective of being salient to our concerns, and a topic we social psychologists started working on early in our history.

1. The structure and components
There is a common agreement among most social psychologists about the presence of three components in attitudes. The affective or emotional component we saw exhibited in the aforementioned vignette by manifestations of anger and contempt for the opposing sides. The second component, the cognitive factor refers to the beliefs that accompany the emotions, for example the newly discovered beliefs about the fragility of the environment. The third component, the behavioral, refers to the behaviors elicited by the affective and cognitive components. In our example attitudes may produce demonstrations for or against environmental policies, but may also be manifested in other behaviors such as participating in election campaigns, or in signing petitions.

Any attitude is composed of these three elements, and is always oriented positively or negatively toward some attitude object. Practically anything you can imagine might be an attitude object. You can have attitudes toward persons, ideas, or things. For example you may be positive or negative toward the leader of your country, a person, toward his policies (ideas), or toward inanimate objects (like posters or flags which symbolize viewpoints). In fact you can have an attitude toward the classroom in which you study. Look around and see if that is not true (Eagly & Chaiken, 1998; Fazio, 2000; McGuire, 1985)!

In general the three components are consistent with each other. A person, who has a positive attitude toward the environment, is also likely to have a set of beliefs that sustain this position, and may behave in a consistent manner. At election time the supporter may vote for environmental candidates, write letters to newspaper editors, or donate money to a favored candidate. Affect, cognition and behavior tend to move in the same direction toward the attitude object.

People may hold complex beliefs with respect to the attitude object, but the overall evaluation tends to be simple. One consequence of this apparent contradiction is that people may easily change certain beliefs, while still maintaining their basic evaluations. Many attitudes are like that, cognitively complex, but simple in terms of overall evaluations. These overall evaluations (positive or negative feelings) are more difficult to change than aspects of the supporting belief system. In the functional psychological economy of the individual, attitudes serve as primers. They make decision making more rapid by allowing for more or less automatic responses. Rapid decision-making is possible because the salient information is held in memory storage and is easily accessible to the person (Judd, Drake, Downing, & Krosnick, 1991; Sanbonmatsu & Fazio, 1990). Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 6: The Influences Of Group Membership

Social psychology is about the influence of others on our behavior. There are many influences on our behavior as represented by the varying chapters of this book, but group membership is central to social psychology. What is a group? A group consists of two people or more who interact directly. People in groups are to some degree interdependent because their needs and goals in life cause them to have influence on one another (Cartwright & Zander, 1968; Lewin, 1948). Groups are so central to our lives that we rarely give a thought as to why we join. Clearly groups have many benefits, some related to our very survival, which helps define why we join. Some researchers would even say group memberships reflect innate needs tied to survival and derived from our evolutionary past (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Life with others allows for many benefits that include (in our early history) protection from predators of either the animal or human variety. Other benefits may include assistance in child rearing, or hunting and gathering, or in collaborative agriculture that eventually freed human society from ever present hunger. In fact in all cultures people are motivated to seek memberships in a variety of groups, and often to maintain their affiliation at all costs There may be even an innate need for social contact people isolated long enough will as a consequence often display symptoms of mental disease or otherwise “lose” their minds (Gardner, Pickett & Brewer, 2000).

1. What are groups?
Researchers have observed that group structure is created almost immediately after a group is formed. For example Merei (1949) noted that after only a few meetings children began to differentiate roles and establish informal rules as to who would sit where in the room and who would play with certain toys. This differentiation of expected behavior is referred to as group structure (Levine & Moreland, 1998). Social norms are the behaviors and rules that are considered standard and appropriate for the group. In one study young teenage girls decided what boys were considered eligible, and one accepted rule among the girls was to not pursue boys who were already attached to someone else (Simon, Eder, & Evans, 1992).

Groups also define the roles of group members; i.e., the division of labor specifying required behavior by each member. Role specification would define the responsibilities of the head of an organization, and the expected behaviors required by other members of the group? Also, the group determines the status of each member. What prestige does the individual have within the group, and therefore what potential or actual leadership position or authority is vested in each member. Even in groups where there is some formal equality, research indicates that some individuals emerge as more powerful than others. In the jury system, even though initially there is no difference in the selection of members, when deliberation begins some members quickly become more influential and one is voted to become the jury foreman or leader. Generally groups are formed to achieve certain goals, and those who are perceived to be effective toward that end are given high status. This is also called expectation theory (Berger, Webster, Ridgeway, & Rosenholtz, 1986).

A community wide organization is not a group. For example being a member of a university is not a group since one does not interact with all members of the student body. Being a member of the military or a church does not suggest group membership since again they offer no opportunity for all members to interact. Likewise being on an airplane with other passengers does not form a group since again people have few opportunities to interact. That of course could change if the plane underwent some emergency requiring passengers to interact to save their lives. Generally groups consist of two or three members to several dozen participants. To be a group the situation must allow for mutual interaction and interdependence.

Groups emerged out of our evolutionary past since they performed many important functions for the individual and society. Groups assist us in forming our identity, who are we and what are our values. This is easy to see among students who often wear clothes, e.g., t-shirts with some slogan identifying group membership such as being fans of musical groups, although a fan group like a group of university students as such is not to be considered a “group” automatically because interaction might not define large numbers of students. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 7: Processes Of Social Influence: Conformity, Compliance And Obedience

Now imagine the following graduation exercises at a typical North American university. They were designed to create a memorable occasion with the aid of majestic music, ritual words of graduation, and students being uniformed in their academic regalia. It is also, to the social psychologist, an opportunity to observe the forces of social influence up close. Somehow, some 4,500 students from the Oregon state University in Corvallis, Oregon, manage to have their individual degrees delivered with an almost factory like efficiency that perhaps represents best U.S. society. At the same time, the faculty are dressed in their medieval academic regalia, and are without doubt authority figures to many. Students obey directions, even standing up to two hours in line. The students line up in a particular order and conform to the requests, which determines the sequence in which they receive their prized document. Then they follow in majestic formation the Scottish band that precedes the parade through the university campus. When all are seated in the university stadium, with the president, deans, and honored guests on the podium, the ceremonies begins. There are places for the audience to participate. Standing up for the national anthem produces universal conformity. The students and faculty also know that women may keep their hats on, while men, with one exception, bare their heads. There is also time to graduate military officers with a holy oath to defend the country from all enemies, foreign or domestic. This is followed by a roaring display of approval from the tens of thousands of family and friends. The applause from students and faculty is nearly universal. However, the individual who does not bare his head during the anthem evidently does not approve of the military and may be observed sitting with his hands folded. Several of his neighbors now apparently feel the same way, as they also refrain from clapping. A minority of one seems to have influenced the behavior of those who can observe his nonconformist behavior. Then the alma mater is sung where the audience pretends to be in love with a non-personal entity, the university. Here the president and deans outdo themselves in demonstrating their fidelity to the institution even though many are relatively new to the university and must quickly have adopted these new feelings.
Could you imagine such a ceremony in for example a random Norwegian or Dutch university?

The above-sketched picture illustrates some of the processes of social influence, the subject of this chapter. In described situation we can observe people comply with the requests of authority figures, being persuaded by the audience to stand at various times, take their hats on and off, yell their approval of the military. The experience reflected informational conformity, for example responding to the need to know where to stand in the line. It also reflected normative conformity as in the universal rising for the anthem. Not one person refused to do that so the national anthem must have exerted a great deal of social pressure. The graduation ceremony also demonstrated obedience to authority, reinforced by the status of those leading the events, and academic gowns with symbols of status, authority, and expertise.

None were hurt by the conformity on display. Everyone obtained his/her degree in an efficient manner. Of course they all would anyway whether they participated or not, since they had completed the requirements for graduation before the ceremony. Still, other than the mindlessness it promoted, there was no real harm done. Some might even have benefited in participating. To have public recognition of achievement is experienced as very rewarding by many.

Not all conformity has such beneficial results, as we shall see. Were those who participated in the massacre at My Lai (Vietnam) only following orders? Or were the war criminals at Nuremberg excused by their obedience, in particular Adolf Eichman? The past century has been marked as a time of cruel and repeated genocides. We saw this cruel obedience in Cambodia, we saw it in Bosnia, and we saw it again in Rwanda. And now the same cruelty is being played out in the Darfur region of Sudan in Africa, and countless other places. Are people really that cruel? Is it in human nature to behave in such manifest barbaric ways?

In the US they say, “you have to go along to get along” indicating that conformity is essential to successful social functioning. Often conformity is of the type manifested at the graduation ceremony where people are told in indirect or more or less subtle ways as to what is appropriate behavior. At other times people are commanded to obey by those who have the appearance of legitimate authority. In fact all genocides appeal to and are sanctioned by the authority and ideology of the prevailing society. Usually there is preparatory indoctrination that allows the participant to feel that the genocide is justified and the right thing to do.

In this chapter we shall examine the whole range of social influence, from that which is an expression of social solidarity to those behaviors that reflect destructive ideology and obedience to evil demands. Are people who participate in evil just evil people? Or is it within the capacity of most people to behave in cruel ways? Is obedience to inhuman demands a consequence of unleashing the evil in all of us, a consequence of being human and therefore normal? To what extent does the power of the situation define whether we follow or not the slippery slope to participation. Social psychology has some answers. Read more

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