What is Social Psychology?

For years I taught and did research in experimental social psychology. In my day, the field emphasized the situational determinants of behavior, perhaps best exemplified by the studies of Stanley Milgram on obedience and disobedience to authority and Philip Zimbardo on behavior within simulated prisons.

There has been a marked change in the field since than, one that focuses less on the situation and more on the way a person views it. An example: It isn’t so much what you say, but what is heard.

I continue to believe the field is important as long as one is ever mindful of the extraordinary variability of behavior and the limits this places on its theories. How widely does the generalization apply--under all conditions and if not, which ones? Does it hold for me and how does this vary over the course of my lifetime?

Timothy Wilson, the author of Strangers to Ourselves, (“the most influential book I’ve ever read,” Malcolm Gladwell) and one of the most highly regarded social psychologists, recently gave an overview of the discipline on the Edge. As Wilson sees it, there are six very general ideas that guide the field today.

• It is not the objective environment that influences people but how they interpret it and the story they construct to account for why they acted the way they did.

• Recognizing the importance of unconscious processes on thought and behavior after a long period in which the field had ignored it.

• Individuals are often unaware of the true causes of their behavior. When they try to explain why they did what they did, they usually fall back on ad hoc theories or make one up.

• Individuals are poor predictors of how they will respond to future events. We usually overestimate the degree to which they will make us feel better or worse.

• One of the most effective ways to change dysfunctional behavior is to “edit” the stories individuals use to explain their behavior or “redirect” them in a more adaptive direction.

By way of illustration Wilson describes an intervention with students who were having a difficult time during their first year in college. The grades of students whose stories focused on their own failings improved “dramatically” when it was suggested their problems were normal for first year students, that it was the academic situation, rather than their own abilities that was responsible for their poor grades.

• Experimental tests of programs that address social problems can be fruitfully applied in determining if they work. Wilson cites two examples of an often-observed outcome of programs designed to reduce anti-social behavior.

When D.A.R.E., an anti-drug program that kids went through when they were in school, was tested with appropriate control groups, the findings revealed it not only didn’t work but it actually increased alcohol and smoking. Similarly a Scared Straight program designed to scare at-risk kids from a life of crime, increased the likelihood they would commit them.

In all such examples the results are formulated on the basis of a large sample of individuals. With evidence of this sort, one must ask is the effect a strong or weak one? What percent of the sample conforms to the general trend and is there any way to account for these differences? How confident can one be that any particular individual in the sample acted in accordance with the main outcome?

For me, the difficulties in answering these questions, difficulties that are inherent in the statistical methods used to analyze the results, are at the core of my disenchantment with social psychology and why it I am no longer very active in the field.