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Social Thinking and Behavior

Attributions are judgments about the causes of behavior. One distinction we make is between personal and situational attributions. When we make a personal attribution, we believe the cause of someone's behavior is a personal characteristic of theirs. Situational attributions are made to environmental causes. A number of biases, including the fundamental attribution error (the tendency to overestimate personal causes of behavior), affect our judgments. Forming and maintaining impressions is another aspect of social thinking and perception. The initial information we learn about a person greatly influences our perceptions of them (primacy effect). Stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies can bias the way that we perceive individuals.

Attitudes are positive or negative evaluative reactions toward stimuli. Attitudes are most predictive of behavior when situational factors are weak, when subjective norms support our attitudes, and when we believe behaviors are under our control, according to the theory of planned behavior. Additionally, attitudes best predict behavior when we are aware of them, and general attitudes best predict general classes of behavior, while specific attitudes best predict specific behaviors. Other theories such as cognitive dissonance theory and self-perception theory focus on how our behavior influences our attitudes. Specifically, they predict that we mold our attitudes to be consistent with how we have already behaved.

Studies of persuasion suggest three major components in the persuasive process: the communicator, the message, and the audience. Communicator credibility, largely determined by perceived expertise and trustworthiness, is a key to persuasion. Two-sided communications, which present both sides of an issue, have been found to be more persuasive than one-sided messages in many situations. Audience factors play a role in whether the central or the peripheral route to persuasion is a better technique for persuasion. When people are motivated to examine arguments critically, the central route is the better technique.

A major topic of social psychology is the study of how other people influence our behavior, which is called social influence. Studies of social facilitation suggest that both animals and humans have an increased tendency to perform their dominant response in the presence of others. When performing easy tasks or complex tasks that we have mastered, our dominant response usually is correct, so the presence of others enhances performance. At unlearned complex tasks, our dominant response usually is to make errors, so the presence of others impairs performance. We are also affected by both social norms and social roles, both of which prescribe how we should behave.

Conformity and obedience are two major topics in the area of social influence. We conform because of both informational social influence (i.e., conforming because we believe others are right) and because of normative social influence (i.e., conforming because we want others to accept us). Group size affects conformity to a certain point, and the presence of a dissenter can reduce conformity. Milgram's classic studies on obedience point to a number of situational factors that influence obedience, including remoteness of victims, closeness and legitimacy of an authority figure, and being a "cog in a wheel." Personal characteristics do not seem to explain obedience as well as such situational factors. Marketers use several compliance techniques to induce people to say yes when their inclination is to say no, including the norm of reciprocity, the door-in-the-face technique, the foot-in-the-door technique, and lowballing.

In groups, people may engage in social loafing, which is the tendency to expend less effort when working in a group than when working alone; or groupthink, which is the tendency for group members to suspend critical thinking to create a sense of group unanimity. Deindividuation, resulting from the increased anonymity that sometimes accompanies being in a crowd, can fuel destructive behavior.

Attraction, liking, and loving are an important part of our social interactions. Proximity, mere exposure, similarity of attitudes, and physical attractiveness typically enhance our attraction toward someone. Relationships deepen as partners self-disclose and exchanges between them become more intimate and broader. Social exchange theory analyzes relationships in terms of the rewards and costs experienced by each partner. The qualities that people find most attractive in a mate vary somewhat across cultures. Evolutionary theorists propose that gender difference in mate preferences reflect inherited biological tendencies, whereas sociocultural theorists believe that these differences result from socialization and gender inequities in economic opportunities. The triangular theory of love identifies passion, intimacy, and commitment as the components of various kinds of love. Partners are more likely to remain happily married when they understand each other and deal with conflicts by de-escalating their emotions and providing mutual support.

Prejudice, which is defined attitudinally; and discrimination, which is defined behaviorally; remain major problems in American society. Categorization into ingroups and outgroups and the use of the outgroup homogeneity bias (the belief that the members of our outgroups are all very similar to one another) are major cognitive sources of prejudice and discrimination. Realistic conflict theory explains the motivational source of prejudice and discrimination as due to competition between groups for limited resources, while social identity theory explains prejudice and discrimination as due to a need to enhance our self-esteem (by making sure that our ingroup does well and that our outgroup does poorly). Stereotype threat is the fear of being seen by others as "living up" to the stereotype they hold about one's group. An effective strategy for reducing prejudice is equal status contact.

Prosocial behavior is affected by biological predispositions, learning, and by personality characteristics such as empathy. According to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, empathy produces altruism. Other factors that influence helping include simply noticing a problem, social comparison, feeling a sense of responsibility to help, and a sense of self-efficacy in dealing with the situation. The bystander effect tends to reduce prosocial behavior by diffusing responsibility.

Aggressive behavior is influenced by biological, environmental, and psychological factors. The hypothalamus, amygdala, and other subcortical structures seem to affect the likelihood of engaging in aggression. Recent studies have also implicated the role of the frontal lobes (site of reasoning, forethought, and impulse control) in aggressive behavior. Low levels of serotonin and high levels of testosterone have also been found to correlated with aggression. Environmental stimuli that cause frustration or pain can increase aggression, as can other environmental factors such as provocation and exposure to aggressive models. Attributions of intentionality for someone's negative behavior toward us, a lack of empathy, and the inability to regulate emotions are important psychological factors in affecting aggressive behavior. Studies of media violence point to a link between media and violent behavior in children, adolescents, and adults. Several avenues of influence have been identified, including these: Viewers learn new aggressive behaviors through modeling, viewers believe that aggression is rewarded, and viewers become desensitized to violence and suffering.


These objectives are expanded from the Focus Questions found in the margins of your textbook. When you have mastered the material in this chapter, you will be able to:
  1. Differentiate between personal and situational attributions and explain how consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus affect the attributions people make.
  2. Describe and provide examples of the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias and explain how they are affected by culture.
  3. Describe factors involved in forming impressions, including the primacy effect, stereotypes, and the self-fulfilling prophecy.
  4. Define "attitude" and describe three factors that explain the variability of observed relations between attitudes and behaviors.
  5. Explain the causes of cognitive dissonance and how it produces attitude change.
  6. Citing research evidence, compare and contrast self-perception theory and dissonance theory in explaining why counterattitudinal behavior leads to attitude change.
  7. Identify communicator, message, and audience characteristics that increase persuasiveness and explain how they influence persuasion through central and peripheral routes.
  8. Describe conditions when the presence of others facilitates performance.
  9. Explain how norms and roles guide behavior, differentiating between informational and normative social influences.
  10. Describe Asch's study of conformity and identify some factors that influence degree of conformity.
  11. Describe the purpose, methods, and results of Milgram's classic study on obedience (1974) and outline factors that affect obedience.
  12. Explain how the norm of reciprocity, door-in-the-face and foot-in-the-door techniques, and lowballing are used to manipulate behavior.
  13. Describe the conditions under which social loafing is most likely to occur.
  14. Identify the causes of group polarization and groupthink.
  15. Describe deindividuation, its main cause, and how conditions in the Stanford Prison Study may have fostered it.
  16. Outline the factors involved in initial attraction, including proximity, mere exposure, similarity, and beauty.
  17. Describe social penetration theory and social exchange theory and how they influence close relationships both in the Western world and other cultures.
  18. Describe the various types of love that comprise the triangular theory of love.
  19. Contrast the communication behaviors of happily married couples with those likely to end in divorce.
  20. Describe research on how attitudes of prejudice are formed, including the so-called unconscious prejudice, cognitive factors that foster prejudice, the role of stereotypes, and motivational theories of prejudice.
  21. Explain how self-fulfilling prophecies and stereotype threat perpetuate prejudice and how equal status contact reduces prejudice.
  22. Describe evolutionary and social learning theories regarding helping (altruistic) behavior.
  23. Identify the stages that explain the occurrence of the "bystander effect" and describe who people are most likely to help in an emergency.
  24. Describe biological, environmental, and psychological factors that contribute to aggression.
  25. Cite research findings pertaining to the effect of media violence on aggression.







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