Social Psychology Studies: Explaining Irrational Individual Behavior by Understanding Group Dynamics
Social psychology is, as its name suggests, a science that blends the fields of psychology, which is the study of the individual, and sociology, which is the study of groups. Social psychology examines how the individual is influenced by the group. It looks at the influence of group or cultural norms on individual behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. However, because group norms are believed to change behavior, social psychology can be very difficult to document; the presence of the observer is believed to change behavior. As a result, social psychologists have developed a number of different studies aimed at investigating the interaction between group expectations and individual behavior. These studies offer insight into human social behavior, particularly into those social behaviors that seem to defy expectations and well-established social norms.
While there have been numerous social psychology studies since the field developed, not all of them have offered the same level of insight into the interaction of the group and the individual. However, ten studies have offered such insight and been so consistent that they have come to be known as classical social psychology studies. These include: The Halo Effect; Cognitive Dissonance; Sherif's Robber's Cave Experiment; The Stanford Prison Experiment; Stanley Milgram's Obedience Experiment; The False Consensus Bias; Social Identity Theory; Bargaining; Bystander Apathy; and Conformity. Though these ten experiments ostensibly examine different aspects of human behavior, when one examines them more closely, one sees that each of them offers insight into one of the most puzzling elements of human behavior: why rational people do seemingly irrational things. Therefore, this paper will examine each of the studies to see how they help explain irrational behavior by the individual by contextualizing it within the group.
The Halo Effect
The Halo Effect refers to the idea that global evaluations about a person impact the judgments about the person's specific traits. A person who looks good is believed to be good, while a person who appears bad is believed to be bad. There is actually a description of three major world leaders during World War II that points out the impact of the Halo Effect; three men are described according to specific characteristics that are seen as either positive or negative such as having mistresses, using drugs or alcohol, and liking dogs. People are always surprised that the candidate with the best specific traits is Hitler, who was a dog-loving, non-drinking, non-smoking vegetarian who did not have any extra-marital affairs, which the two seemingly bad characters are Roosevelt and Churchill. This is due to the Halo Effect, because the global evaluation of Hitler is a negative one, one does not associate him with negative characteristics. Likewise, because Roosevelt and Churchill are generally seen in a positive aspect, one is surprised to find the negative characteristics associated with them. What the Halo Effect means that likability impacts opinions about specific characteristics, and, when researchers have investigated the Halo Effect, people were not even consciously aware that the likeability of a person impacted their judgments about that person.
The Halo Effect can also impact how one interprets characteristics found in a person. For example, "the global evaluation may alter the interpretation of the meaning or evaluation of ambiguous attributes. Thus, if one is told that a warm and friendly person is impetuous, a quite different set of behaviors come to mind from those that occur when one is told that the impetuous person is angry and hostile" (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, p. 250, para.1). However, judgments about ambiguous stimuli are relatively unimportant when compared to another impact of the Halo Effect, which is the alteration of judgments about unambiguous stimuli, with the person making the judgment unaware of the influence. In many situations, these judgments are harmless. For example, nice people may be seen as more attractive than mean people (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, p.250, para. 2). This changed perception hardly seems critical. However, when one looks at the backwards global assumption, which is that attractive people are somehow better (nicer, smarter, kinder, more competent) than less attractive people, one can see how the Halo Effect can lead one to make irrational decisions.
Cognitive dissonance refers to when two thoughts contradict one another. This is troubling for people, so they close the gap between the two conflicting thoughts. The classic study of cognitive dissonance occurred in the 1950s, when students were asked to describe a boring task as interesting in exchange for a small amount of money, and, then report on their own perception of the task. Those students rated the task as more interesting than students who were paid a greater amount of money to say the task was interesting (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959, p.208, para.2). However, cognitive dissonance does not only refer to situations where a person is aware of conflicting information; it also helps explain why some people seem to be unaware of conflicts between a previously held and a newly held position.
The idea that cognitive dissonance creates movement in one's internal beliefs has a long history of support. As early as the early 1950s, researchers had already determined that, "at least under some conditions, the private opinion changes so as to bring it into closer correspondence with the overt behavior the person was forced to perform. Specifically, they showed that if a person is forced to improvise a speech supporting a point-of-view with which he disagrees, his private opinion moves toward the position advocated in the speech" (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959, p.203, para.1).
What is fascinating about cognitive dissonance, as a theory, is that it underwent so many substantial changes in the 20 years following its introduction that the theory began to focus on things other than dissonance. Instead, the movement to new opinions was believed to be linked to self-esteem and other factors that had nothing to do with conflict in a person's though processes and cognitions. However, Greenwald and Ronis, looking at this history, questioned whether the movement away from the original theory was appropriate. "The continuing process of adjusting a theoretical statement to maintain its currency with empirical data is scientifically questionable. Revision, as opposed to rejection, of a theory is acceptable only so long as basic characteristics of the theory remain intact. In the case of dissonance theory, the emerging centrality of the notion of personal responsibility for undesired consequences does appear to have changed the basic character of the theory" (Greenwald & Ronis, 1978, p.55, para.3). Moreover, they seem to believe that these changes have made cognitive dissonance theory more about ego and self-esteem than about cognitive processes (Greenwald & Ronis, 1978, p.55, para. 3). However, despite changes in the presentation of theory, Greenwald and Ronis make it clear that they do not believe that the original dissonance theory has ever been proven wrong, suggesting support for the old theory, and not the theory which evolved over time.
Sherif's Robber's Cave Experiment
Sherif's Robber's Cave Experiment looks at inter-group conflict and the role of power in those conflicts. In the third of a series of three experiments, two groups of boys were taken to a camp, where the experimenters orchestrated conflict between the boys, and then attempted to see if two groups in conflict could work to find peace. The result of the experiment was that working together to solve a problem helped encourage peace. However, the first two experiments had the boys working together to solve a problem, but then they did so by identifying a common enemy and by ganging up on the experimenters, themselves. Therefore, not only did the experiment reveal information about peace-building, but it also revealed the role that power and the perception of power could play in conflict.
The innovative part of the Robber's Cave experiments was not the finding that groups would develop conflicts. On the contrary, by that time it was already well-understood that even arbitrarily-divided groups would create conflict if the opportunity arose. Instead, the innovative part of the study was that it revealed ways to build consensus and overcome hostility. In fact, "the question- for both theory and policy- is how to overcome this intergroup hostility. Sherif believed that the egocentric orientation of group members could be overcome if the rival groups were involved in achieving superordinate goals- goals that neither group by itself had the resources to achieve" (Fine, 2004, p.664, para. 2). It was not enough that the group achieve a goal together, because, if the goal could have been accomplished without cooperation between the two parties, the accomplishment would not necessarily be linked to one of the groups. Instead, it was important for the goal to be linked to the cooperation, so that the cooperation was essential for success. "The idea that groups sometimes require others for the desired ends is surely accurate and behaviors may alter as a consequence" (Fine, 2004, p.664, para.2). In other words, the groups may still dislike one another, but can still cooperate to achieve…