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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Being Human. Chapter 8: Persuasion

Nearly all human interactions involve some form of persuasion. Parents urge their children to study hard, children will ask parents for favors. Medical doctors recommend life styles that prolong life and your dentist tells you that brushing your teeth may prevent tooth decay. Turn on your television and you are bombarded with persuasive messages from a variety of companies that want you to buy their products. Everywhere we are pestered with persuasive messages trying to convince us of the value of the product and company. You see ads in the newspapers, hear them on television and the radio, and see posters in a variety of locations. Some companies operate in more subtle ways by sponsoring educational television, or having their logo displayed at sporting events.

Sometimes there are public service announcements urging people to stop smoking to avoid cancer. Other efforts at persuasion seek to stop the use of illegal drugs among the young. Some of these public persuasion efforts in the United States have achieved measured success and produced a considerable reduction in numbers of college students who use marijuana (from 50% to 21 %). Other education efforts helped reduce smoking in the US, which plunged dramatically since 1954 from 45 percent to 28 percent (Gallup, 1989). In recent years moreover we have been made aware of the destruction of our environment as a consequence of global warming and many are personally motivated to improve energy efficiency.

In the evening news, government officials make appearances and try to convince citizens that they are pursuing wise policies. During elections people are persuaded to vote certain ways, often in brief messages that extol the virtues of the candidate. In the US, political communications also denigrate the opponent in stereotypical ways by associating the candidate with negative images.

If we examine history we can also observe the persuasive efforts of political and social movements. Hitler thought persuasion important enough to have a cabinet post for a minister of propaganda. The Nazi’s had little respect for the average person’s ability to utilize factual evidence, and therefore made emotional appeals in a variety of ways. Goebbels, the propaganda minister, controlled all the media and produced vivid persuasive displays of national and party solidarity that depicted marches and other pageantry. Movies produced in the Nazi era extolled the German people and denigrated those considered subhumans. Many other propagandists were at work persuading the German people about the correctness of Nazi ideology, and judging from the historical events, these efforts were successful. When the outcome sought involves the manipulation of people in pursuit of one-sided and bigoted political goals, we describe these efforts as propaganda.

We live in a world of constant persuasion, no wonder that social psychologists undertook systematic studies of persuasion early in the historical development of our discipline. Persuasion may be either positive or negative depending on whether it is aimed at empowering and educating people, or is being used to manipulate for bigoted and destructive goals. The so-called Yale School of Communication completed the first systematic social psychological study on persuasion (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). These researchers conducted many experiments that sought to understand what conditions were most likely to produce persuasion. The researchers in the Yale school sought to study communication in a paradigm where the influence examined is exerted by someone (who) that is communicating a message (what) to a target audience (whom). Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 9: Hostile Inter-Group Behavior: Prejudice, Stereotypes, And Discrimination

Prejudice is a common attitude in all cultures and societies. We only have to look at the headlines of a daily newspaper to see the dimensions of destructive behavior as a consequence of prejudice. Recent history has seen the liquidation of millions of people as these victims were dehumanized by prejudice allowing for their annihilation. In Europe we thought that after the massacre of the Second World War people would have learned the sad and terrible lessons of prejudice. However, since then we have seen the destructions of thousands of people in former Yugoslavia where Christians killed Muslims and vice versa.

Some group differences may be important, but most stereotypes underlying these killings are based on myths of no real consequence in truth. Religion rather than being the great unifier has provided the ideology for killing regardless of culture and society. In India and Pakistan, Hindus are pitted against Muslims. In Palestine those who identify with Jewish ancestral myths are pitted against those who believe in Muhammad. In Rwanda the ethnic Hutu’s are against the Tutsi’s. The list goes on and on, encompassing all societies.

The Vietnamese have reservations about the Chinese, the Chinese think ill of the Japanese. Can you think of any society which does not display negative feelings toward other ethnic or national groups? Do you remember the conflicts in East Timor, the continued struggle in Kashmir (Hindus versus Muslims), in Sri Lanka (Muslims versus Buddhist), the struggle in Northern Ireland within a single religion (Protestants versus Catholics), and Iraq (Shia versus Sunni)? All these examples demonstrate intergroup enmity as a prominent and decisive element of the human condition.

Within society, there is also prejudice. Many, if not most societies, display gender prejudice against females. Under China’s one child policy, more boys are born than girls. One result is the presence of many lonely men when the sexes grow into adulthood. In India parents seek to know the sex of a prospective child, and female fetuses are often aborted. Unequal salaries between the two genders continue for equal work in many societies. In the western world we also observe prejudice toward those who do not fit ideal body images. Fat people are viewed negatively, and unhealthy thin body forms are promoted as we have seen in chapter 3.

All minorities are subject to some prejudice. The US has is a long and distressing history of prejudice toward ethnic nationalities and minorities. The prejudice toward the native (Indian) population initially led to attempts to use them as slaves. When they proved unsuitable for that, native societies were largely destroyed and survivors placed in controlled reservations. The long and painful history of slavery in the US is known to all. This ended only with the civil war in 1865. The legislation which followed ensured that black people were kept segregated in inferior status and allowed for their continued exploitation. Only in the 1960s did the civil rights movement put an end to the worst visible forms of discrimination in our society. However, even today Black people continue to bear the consequences of a prejudicial society. Poverty, poor housing, disease, and crime continue to afflict those who live in America’s racial ghettos. Similar results of prejudice can be found in other nations which also have produced divided and segregated communities.

The presence of prejudice can also be observed in the many derogatory terms used against nationalities in the US. Hispanics are called spics, greasers, or wetbacks; Asians are described with words like slants, slopes, chinks, or japs; Blacks are called niggers, coons, jigaboos, or jungle bunnies; Germans are stereotyped as krauts, and Italians, as wops or dagoes. During the war on Vietnam, the Vietnamese were called gooks by the American soldiers. These terms are all pejorative words used to denigrate the human value of these national groups. Together these words serve the cause of prejudice by increasing social distance between groups and thereby allowing for the brutalities. Every society can find similar prejudice toward their ethnic and social minority groups.

Not only minority groups are targeted, the dominant groups are also subject to prejudicial distortion. Prejudice is indeed a two way street, where any group can be subject to common ignorance. Today the US is still dominant in the world. However, Americans are also subject to prejudice (Campbell, 1967). Americans are seen by the British to be pushy and excessively patriotic. Some of these stereotypic views are very resistant to change, as certain views have been present for several centuries (Schama, 2003). The prevalence of prejudice suggests that it is part of the human condition. Is that true? If true, we could do little to change the conditions of hostility in the world. As we shall see, prejudice is complex, but is largely learned and can therefore be unlearned.

With the complexity of human behavior, we are not likely to find any one theory or set of principles that can explain all causes of prejudice. Why is it present in every society? What can be done to ameliorate the effects of intergroup hostility? These are questions that will be addressed in this chapter. As we noted, prejudice is an attitude. Elsewhere we have noted that attitudes have affective, cognitive, and behavioral components. Larsen (1971a) demonstrated the importance of both the affective and cognitive components in making social judgments. These three components are also found in prejudicial attitudes. We call the affective component prejudice, the cognitive component which sustains the attitude is a stereotype, and the behavioral component is discrimination manifested toward the target group. Often the three components are just referred to in the social psychological literature by the inclusive term “prejudice”. Read more

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