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Social psychology is a very broad field that takes in the many varieties of group dynamics, perceptions and interactions. Its origins date back to the late-19th Century, but it really became a major field during and after the Second World War, in order to explain phenomena like aggression, obedience, stereotypes, mass propaganda, conformity, and attribution of positive or negative characteristics to other groups. Among the most famous social psychological studies are the obedience experiments of Stanley Milgram and the groupthink research of Irving Janus (Feenstra Chapter 1). Authority figures are very important in influencing the behavior and attitudes of groups, as advertising pioneers like Edward Bernays and Nazi propagandists like Josef Goebbels realized early in the 20th Century. Human beings naturally categorize others into groups, and attribute values, attitudes and stereotypes to them, while they also tend to favor members of their own group (Feenstra Chapter 2). Social psychologists have long known that groups are also capable of committing violent and destructive acts that individuals would never consider doing on their own (Feenstra Chapter 15). Attribution of negative characteristics to a group, constantly repeated in mass media images and slogans, can have decidedly lethal effects (Feenstra Chapter 4). Social control theorists have also demonstrated that most people are programmed from an early age to the rules, attitudes and expectations of society and the community, with the exception of deviates and delinquents who lack strong bonds to society or expectations of succeeding within it. Many of the common attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes may not even be held consciously even though they still affect behavior, while others are quite conscious, such as law enforcement use of racial profiling.
Discovering the Self -- How do we perceive ourselves and our interactions with others?
Social Control theorists maintain that most people obey the laws, rules and regulations of mainstream society because they have been trained and socialized to do so, and have also developed an internal moral sense. If they break the law, they fear that the consequences will hurt their families, result in the loss of status, employment and job opportunities, and damage their standing in the community. Their behavior is controlled by "attachment and commitment to conventional institutions," while those who lack this will not be deterred from deviance by threats of punishment because "they have little to lose" (Siegel 244). In his classic work Causes of Delinquency (1969), Travis Hirshi expanded on these ideas, arguing that considerations of morality were important for some people, but not for others. Like all social control theorists, he assumed that criminal behavior was amoral or immoral rather than culturally determined, and that criminals are cut off from society and communities. People with strong social and community ties were less likely to be criminals, who were amoral and purely self-interested. Crime and delinquency occurred "when an individuals' bond to society is weak or broken" (Hirschi 15-16). Sociopaths and psychopaths have exceptionally weak links to family, friends, neighbors and society, while those who build up these attachments they would be less likely to be involved in any behavior that would endanger their social position. Numerous studies of juvenile delinquents over the last forty years have confirmed Hirschi's insight that such youths do feel detached from society and conventional morality, and have a weak attachment to family, friends and school. Research also shows that youths with strong religious attachments are less likely to use drugs or become involved in criminal behavior, as are those with a commitment to "future success and achievement" (Siegel 247).
Influencing Others: Obedience and Conformity -- What factors lead us to conform and become obedient?
Social psychology expanded greatly in the 1950s and 1960s, influenced especially by the events of the Second World War, and various classic studies examined obedience, groupthink, cognitive dissonance, aggression and conformity. Perhaps the most disturbing of all was Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment, in which the 'learner' was actually an actor while the 'teacher' was the real subject and would ask the 'learner' questions to see how well they remembered word pairs. If the 'learner' got the question wrong, he/she would be shocked with volts anywhere from 15 to the highest level of 450 volts -- with two levels beyond this simply marked XXX on the machine. The 'teacher' did not know that the 'learners' were just actors pretending that they were being injured by the electric shocks when really nothing happened at all. The reaction of the teacher would show the experimenter whether or not it they would be willing to keep shocking the learner or if they would just go obey orders and not worry about the pain of the victim even to the point of inflicting a lethal dosage. As the experiment went on, and the voltages got higher, the learner would scream out in pain, complaining of a heart condition and pleading for the experiment to stop. As the voltage increased, the end result would leave the learner speechless and not responding to the teacher or experimenter. In most of the experiments the 'teachers' were under tremendous stress and would tell Milgram that they were incapable of finishing the experiment. They did not want to inflict pain on the victims for the most part, but as long as an authority figure in a white coat was present to give them orders, 60-85% continued until they had good reason to believe that the 'learner' was dead, or at least severely injured.
Stanley Milgram's experiment took place immediately after Adolf Eichmann was tried and sentenced to death in Jerusalem for his part in deporting millions of Jews to the Nazi death camps. As a middle management type, a clerk or bureaucrat who committed most of his crimes while sitting behind a desk, Eichmann appeared to be a 'banal' character to Hannah Arendt. He probably never killed anyone personally, and as Milgram pointed out, he was "sickened" by what he saw of the gas chambers and death camps in Poland and the mass shootings in Russia (Milgram 11). Eichmann was no obviously violent, bloodthirsty or sadistic, and did not come across as a Nazi ideologue or fanatic. His entire defense centered on the belief that "he did his duty, as he told the police and court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law" (Arendt 135). These duties were personally repugnant to him, and had never been his personal preference, for as he told the court his plan was to deport the Jews to Madagascar or some other foreign destination. He had attempted to get a transfer to other duties but been ordered to stay in this job, and he was well aware that mass murder was a violation of fundamental moral laws. Eichmann even cited the ethics of Immanuel Kant as an example of the universal code which he and his fellow Nazis were no longer following, but in this case the state and its leaders were the real criminals. Hitler, Himmler and the other Nazi bosses bore the full responsibility for "crimes legalized by the state," while ordinary men like him could only obey (Arendt 136). Therefore, he carried out his duties thoroughly and efficiently, and his conscience only bothered him when he made occasional exception to the 'law' that all Jews had to be put to death. From 1941-45, then, "that Eichmann had at all times done his best to make the Final Solution final was…not in dispute" (Arendt 146).
Influencing Others: Persuasion -- How do we use the power of Persuasion?
In the 20th Century world, the mass proliferation of images through advertising and propaganda in magazines, newspapers, films and television have led to the image becoming a substitute for reality rather than merely a representation of it. Edward Bernays invented most of the methods of mass advertising and public relations in the 20th Century that were used to manipulate the masses through images and slogans designed to appeal to the emotions. He first tested these out on the American public during the First World War, in order to increase support for the war effort and stifle open dissent and opposition as treasonous and unpatriotic. Political leaders were very quick to pick up on these mass propaganda techniques, especially Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany. One of the favorite slogans of Bernays was that "we don't deal with images, we deal in reality" although in fact he dealt with the control and manipulation of both in the service of governments and large corporations (Ewen 8). One of the techniques he invented was the use of experts and authority figures to endorse and sell products, such as a friendly family physician recommending a certain brand of cigarettes, and then inventing bogus figures and statistics concerning the number of such experts who agreed. He also invented the method of associating products with the images of youth, vigor, happiness, sexiness, status and power that are used every day in advertising, like the smiling, pretty young woman selling cigarettes. Indeed, in…[continue]
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