I. Definition: How people are influenced by the actual , imagined , or implied    presence of others.

Two implications of this definition:

#1 Your behavior always of interest to social psychologists because people are hyper-social animals. Even when we are physically alone, we are not truly alone because we are being influenced by the implied (if you see a coat on a chair, you assume the seat is taken even if nobody is there) or imagined (For example, we may ask, "What would my partner, friends, or parents think if I did that?") presence of others.

    * Just as a goldfish may not realize the importance of water and children may not appreciate the importance of air, people underestimate the social environment's influence.

#2 Social psychologists study almost everything. See the main topics
The main topics fall into 3 general areas: 

  1. Thinking about others and thinking about ourselves (e.g., attitudes, the self. prejudice, attraction, persuasion)
  2. Being influenced by others
  3. (i.e., conformity)
  4. Interacting with (helping, loving, hating, liking, and hurting) others.

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 traits, character, or personality. That is, they look at external, outside, situational factors rather than internal, inside, personality factors. Rather than asking "What inside you made you do that?", social psychologists ask "What outside you  made you do that?" (As the famous social psychologist Marilyn Brewer said, "It's what's on the outside that counts"). That is, whereas most people ignore the situation, social psychologists focus on the power of the situation.

To think about social psychology's unique viewpoint, look at the figure below. Imagine that most people focus on the dark part and see individuals (the people's faces) whereas social psychologists focus on the light parts and see the background situation (the vase). That is,  while others focus on personality and put the situation in the background, social psychologists focus on the situation and relegate personality to the background.

Cup or faces paradox  

Figure by Bryan Derksen, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons  

To get a sense of the power of situation, you might watch an episode of "What Would You Do?" or imagine how you would behave if you were put in some of the tense situation that the Borat movies have put people in. For a more in-depth understanding of the social psychological view,  you may want to watch this  28-minute "Power of the Situation" video.

4 Examples of the power of the situation

  1. Milgram's shocking examples of the situation being more powerful than personality differences.
  2. The Zimbardo Prison Experiment (well-adjusted college students became sadistic when assigned the role of prison guard).
  3. Video of interview of Dr. Zimbardo, discussing relationship of the Prison experiment to American atrocities in Iraq (the Abu-Ghirab scandal).
  4. Two-minute video reenactment of the Asch experiment (the line experiment)
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. We blame or credit others when we should be blaming or crediting the situation.

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

Our willingness to believe commercials starring celebrities: We think the celebrity is endorsing the product because the celebrity believes in the product rather than because the celebrity was paid to do it.

Our legal system: We assume people who do bad things are bad people and must be put in prison, even though that is not always the case. In some cases, we even pay police to encourage people to break the law and then punish those people for breaking the law. Not surprisingly then, there are some very good people in prison.

Some people think Donald Trump was a successful businessman when his "success" (tax records indicate that in a 10-year period, he lost more money than anyone in the U.S.) seems to be due to being given a fortune by his father. He "earned" his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it.

Many drivers don't seem to learn that the roads are slippery from seeing other drivers slide of the road.

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

A. Maybe people are fooled.

How could people see others as constant and consistent when others are really changing from situation to situation?

  1. People see often only see others in a certain situation and role. (They see Sam in the same old situation and role, and assume that Sam's personality, rather than Sam's situation, that is causing Sam to act the same every time they see Sam.) For example, a student may only see a professor in the classroom.
  2. People like to see constancy because that means they think they know how others will act. So, by thinking Sam has a certain personality, they feel they can predict Sam's behavior (even though they may occasionally complain about "seeing the same old Sam.")
  3. People are so eager to believe in personality that they tend to believe phony personality descriptions. To see one way in which people are suckers for personality, try the following website which  illustrates  the Barnum effect. (Try that page's computerized "personality" test).

B. People are (partially) correct: Personality matters, but not as much as people think. To use an analogy, when we see someone riding a bike, we may view their speed as being due entirely to them. Although their speed does depend on them, their speed also depends on the wind, whether they are going uphill or downhill, their bike, and many other factors that we tend to ignore. Similarly, a person's actions are affected by both their personality and their situation. Some people--high self-monitors--are social chameleons who seem to be more influenced by the situation than low self-monitors. You can see where you are in terms of self-monitoring by taking a self-monitoring test at one of these two sites:

V. Conclusions: 7 principles that may change how you see the worldd-- if you avoid the "not me!" idea that social psychological principles apply to other people but not to you.

  1. Do not assume that a person did something because of their personality. Instead, consider that they may be doing it because of their role or because of the situation. For example,  People do things because of factors inside them (e.g., their beliefs) and factors outside of them (e.g, the situation). If you ignore the impact of outside influences on people and decide that someone did something because "that's the way they are," you may be making the fundamental attribution error.. By asking whether something besides their personality caused the behavior, you can fight the fundamental attribution error. By recognizing the power of the situation on people's behavior (perhaps by "putting yourself in their shoes"), you may understand others better. 
  2. Do not assume that your behavior is due to your personality: If you want to change, change  your situation.
  3. Do not assume that your finding evidence that you are right is proof that you are right. Instead, realize that you may just be displaying the confirmation bias. That is, if you ask "Am I right or am I right?", you tend to find out that you are right. The confirmation bias causes us to hold on to our first impressions and some of our biases, prejudices, and other incorrect beliefs. To fight the confirmation bias, ask how you might be wrong. Otherwise, you may end up being like some of the people who deny that COVID exists--as they lie dying from COVID! For some, their last words are "This can't be happening, this isn't real."
  4. Do not assume that your thinking you are rational means that you are rational: You could just be rationalizing. Because knowing that you are being inconsistent makes you feel an uncomfortable feeling called cognitive dissonance,  you will want to rationalize your inconsistencies. The result is that, by trying to convince yourself that you are being consistent, you may actually be foolish (To quote Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"). To their credit, many people who voted for Trump in 2016 admitted that they were wrong and changed their vote in 2020. The following very short video is a spoof about what happened when several people suffered hypothermia after a Trump rally. However, note how the video captures the essence of how cognitive dissonance affects some Trump supporters
    More information about dissonance
  5. Conformity is common and complex.
  6. Awareness of a problem, "education," or knowing what should be done may not have any effect on what people do.  Among the reasons for the disconnect between knowledge and action are conformity and feeling that there is little that the individual can do about the problem. If you want to change other people's behavior, consider
  7. Our desire to to be right and to want to know the truth is sometimes in conflict with wanting to feel good and wanting to look good to others. President Trump has resolved this conflict by not being that concerned with the truth: He denies science and comforts himself by watching Fox News, holding rallies in front of his adoring fans, and surrounding himself by people who are afraid to disagree with him.

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