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Defining Social Psychology, Research Methods, The Self, and Perceiving Others

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Defining Social Psychology

Social Psychology is the scientific study of how individuals think, feel, and behave in a social context.

How does social psychology differ from other ideas and fields?

  • Common Sense
    • “Knew it all along” phenomena
    • Determining fact from myth
    • Social Psychology relies on the scientific method
    • Forming hypotheses – testable predictions
    • Organizing ideas and findings into theories and principles
  • History/Philosophy
  • Sociology
    • Focus is on the person, rather than the group
  • Other Types of Psychology (Abnormal, Cognitive, etc..)

  • Social Psychology relies on the scientific method

Proximal Influences: immediate and/or situational influences.

Distal Influences: Not immediately affecting behavior. Ex. Cultural background

Overjustification Effect: Adding a reward to an enjoyable task will cause the person to be unhappy when performing the task without the reward.

Research Methods

There are 4 stages of social psychological research.

  1. Develop an Idea
  2. Refine the Idea
  3. Test the Idea
  4. Interpret the Results

For number 1. we want to:

  • Ask questions
  • Search through literature
  • Shape the idea into a hypothesis

Hypothesis: A testable prediction

Theory: An organized set of principles used to define phenomena which is simple, generative, comprehensive, and falsifiable.

Conceptual Variables vs Operational Definitions

  • A Conceptual Variable is some abstract general construct.
  • An Operational Definition is a measurable definition for a conceptual variable in research.

Construct Validity: The extent to which the experiment measures and manipulates variables in the study actually measure or manipulate what they are meant to.

Interrator Reliability: The degree to which multiple observers agree in observation

Correlational Designs: Examines relationships between multiple variables.

Experimental Designs: The cornerstone of psychological research. It is used to examine cause and effect relationships. All experiments have two essential characteristics

  • Researchers have control over the experimental procedure
  • There should be random assignment to experimental conditions

Random Sampling Vs Random Assignment:

  • Random sampling is when the participants in an experiment are chosen from the population.
  • Random Assignment is what we call randomly putting participants into different experimental groups (control, etc.)

Statistical Significance: if the probability of something happening by chance is less than 5% (.05) we usually say a result is statistically significant

Ethics in Social Psychology: All studies must adhere to rules.

  • We generally don’t want to deceive participants
  • It must be passed by the IRB
  • Participants must have informed consent
  • The study must debrief participants

The Self

Public self: How others see us. This is heavily influenced by social factors

The ABC’s of the Self

  • Cognition: Self-Concept - know thyself, self-concept, identity
  • Affect: Self-Esteem - The emotional aspects
  • Behavior: Self-Presentation - Regulation & Presentation

Self Concept: The sum total beliefs that one has about him/herself. It is made up of Self-schemas

Self-Schemas: How we perceive ourselves and evaluate others. We like to accept information that is in line with our schemas.


  • Babies don’t recognize themselves until 18-24 months old.
  • Animals that don’t recognize themselves will tend to reach for their reflection.
  • Apes will recognize themselves

Sources of the Self Concept

1. Introspection:

  • Our inner thoughts and feelings
  • Not always accurate, we can impair our own knowledge - overthinking
  • Poor predictor of future behavior
  • We usually overestimate emotional impact of a situation
    • We usually just focus on something and forget about it
    • Affective forecasting

2. Know ourselves by viewing our own behavior

  • Self-Perception Theory: Internal cues are difficult to interpret. People gain insight into their own behavior.
  • Facial Feedback Hypothesis: The changes in facial expressions change emotions

3. Influences of Others

  • People describe themselves in traits that set themselves apart from others
  • Social Comparison Theory: We compare our performance to others (when the uncertain about our own).

4. Autobiographical Memory

  • Essential for a coherent self-concept.
    • Recall events from our recent past
  • Good memories of adolescence are usually the most memorable
  • Flashbulb Memory: Prominent events that we tend to remember. Not always the most accurate but they feel special
  • Autobiographical memories are vital, but also shape our identities

5. Cultural Identity and Influence

  • Individualism vs Collectivism
  • Individualist: Strive for personal achievement
  • Collectivist: Want to advance the group

Self Esteem The Affective Components of the Self

  • Belonging = Self Esteem
  • Terror Management Theory: Terrified by morality
    • Higher self-esteem protects against a fear of death
  • Higher self-esteem tends to make people more happy/healthy/productive
    • Not guaranteed success - low social sensitivity usually comes with a high self-esteem
  • Self-Discrepancy Theory: The self-esteem reflects matches and mismatches between how we se ourselves and how we want to see ourselves
    • Discrepancy between the ought-self tends to lead to feelings of shame or guilt

Self Awareness

  • People tend to like to be self-aware - mirrors
  • Some people are more self-focused than others.
  • Private vs Public Self-Conscious
    • Private: Tendency to introspect
    • Public: Tendency to focus on the outer image

Self-Regulation: The process by which we seek to control or alter our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and urges

Ironic Mental Processes: The harder someone tries to inhibit a thought or behavior the less likely we are to succeed in blocking such thoughts or behaviors

Implicit Egotism: Positive traits that are more quickly recognized about ourselves

Mechanisms of Self-Enhancement

  • Self-Handicapping: Excuses for poor behavior - we sabotoge our own performance
  • BIRG: Basking In Reflected Glory - Associate ourselves with success, distance ourselves from our failures.
  • Downward Social Comparison: We don’t always want objective information. We like to compare ourselves to less successful people sometimes.
    • Depressed people tend to have more realistic views

Perceiving Others

Social Perception: The process by which we understand one another.

  • Observation, Attribution, Integration


  • Subtly influenced by appearance
  • We sometimes pre-judge on facial features
  • Baby-facedness: large eyes relative to the size of the head/person
    • Genetically programmed
    • Positive associations with babies
    • Physical appearance

Distorted Perceptions: Sometimes if we expect to see something our brain will actually fill in the gaps.

  • We like to infer information from non-verbal behaviors.
  • Primary thing we use is facial expressions
  • Also: tone of voice
  • Gestures
  • Body positions/movement
  • Use of touch
  • Eye Gaze

  • It is easiest for us to detect happiness in people using facial expressions

Attribution Theories

  • Kelley’s Covariation Theory: Has 3 components which require multiple observations of a person
    • Consensus: How do others react?
    • Consistency: Are their actions consistent over time?
    • Distinctiveness: Is the reaction the same for different types of stimuli?
  • Jones’s Correspondent inference theory: inferring from actions, a person’s personality traits. Whether behavior is:
    • Chosen
    • Expected
    • Person knows effects or consequences

Attributional Biases: Do we analyze behavior rationally or logically?

  • Availability Heuristic: Tendency to estimate that an event will occur by how available a memory is.
  • False consensus effect: We overestimate the extent to which others share beliefs and opinions
  • Counterfactual thinking: The tendency to imagine alternative events or outcomes that might have occurred but did not
  • Fundamental attribution error: The tendency to focus on the role of personal causes and underestimate the impact of situations on people’s behavior

Information Integration Theory: The theory that impressions are based on (1) the perceiver dispositions and (2) a weighted average of a target person’s traits

  • Priming: The tendency for recently used or perceived words or ideas to come to mind easily and influence the interpretation of new information
  • and Embodiment
  • Central Traits: Traits that exert a powerful influence on overall impressions
  • Trait Negativity Bias: The tendency for negative information to weigh more heavily on our impressions than positive information

Primacy Effect: The tendency for information presented early in a sequence to have more impact on impressions than information presented later.

Confirmation Bias: The tendency to seek interpret, and create information that verifies existing beliefs

  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The process by which one’s expectations about a person eventually lead that person to behave in ways that confirm those expectations