I. Definition:

Two implications of definition:

#1 When is your behavior not of interest to social psychologists?

#2 What topics interest social psychologists?

II. Social psychologists get less respect than they deserve because they have an unpopular perspective: They look at the power of the situation, rather than the power of individuality. That is, they look at external, situational factors rather than internal, personality factors.

A look at two different perspectives.

Examples of the situation being more powerful than personality differences.

1. LaPiere.

2. Nazi Germany.

3. Mai Lai.

4. Milgram's shocking experiment.

Results of the basic study:



Results of situational modifications of the study:

Five ethical points about the Milgram studies:






(More information about Milgram)

Video of a recent recreation of Milgram's experiment

5. Nurses.

6. Asch.

7. Moriarty and the "silent murders."

Study 1

Study 2

8. The Zimbardo Prison Experiment.

            Video of interview of Dr. Zimbardo, discussing relationship of the Prison experiment to Abu-Ghirab

III. People's ignorance of situational influences.

A. On themselves.


B. On judging others--the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to overestimate the role of internal, dispositional causes (personality) and underestimate the role of external causes (the situation) in explaining the behavior of other people.

Examples of this error (people's ignorance of the situation):

Cuba experiment

Game-show experiment & sexism

Our willingness to believe commercials

Our legal system?


IV. People are ignorant of the impact of the situation even when they are the situation: Hypothesis-Confirming: a form of self-fulfilling prophecy where your expectations about somebody cause them to behave the way you expect them to behave.

Three examples of this (subtle) effect.




Two practical implications:



V. If situations matter, why do people talk about personality?

A. People are fooled.

Why are they fooled?

1. People like to see constancy.

2. People see others in same situation, same role.

3. People are fools--the Barnum effect.

B. People are (partially) correct: Personality matters, but only because it affects how people perceive the situation.

Situation does not directly-----> behavior


How people perceive situation----> behavior


Personality-----> How people perceive situation

VI. Conclusions

By now, you should be able to:

  1. Describe how the social psychologist's perspective differs from that of the ordinary person.

  2. Cite some evidence showing that the social psychologist's perspective may be correct.

  3. Explain the difference between internal (dispositional) factors and external factors.

  4. Define the fundamental attribution error.

  5. Explain how the fundamental attribution error may contribute to sexism, lack of empathy, and accidents.

  6. Explain how social psychology could be considered a field devoted to fighting the fundamental attribution error.

  7. Explain the significance of the Milgram studies.

  8. Explain how it could be argued that the Milgram studies were the most ethical studies ever done.

  9. Explain what the Milgram, Asch, and Moriarty studies would suggest regarding the effectiveness of a "Just say no" approach to protecting yourself from influence attempts.

  10. Explain why people are poor at predicting their own behavior.

  11. Explain how our "blindness" to the power of the situation may cause us to underestimate our own influence.

  12. Distinguish between hypothesis testing and hypothesis confirming.

  13. Give at least two examples of how hypothesis confirming causes us to persist in believing things that aren't true.

  14. Define the Barnum effect.

  15. Give at least four explanations for why people may continue to believe in the power of personality, despite evidence suggesting that the situation is very powerful.

Back to Lecture Notes Menu