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20160227 The Person and The Situation



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The main idea is to review history and achievements of social psychology and confirm its applicability to decision making in various areas of live, especially political measures to improve society. The core of it is the notion that humans act not according to some genetically preset traits, but rather according to situation in conjunction with perception of objective facts translated via cultural influence and previous experience into such understanding of reality that causes a specific set of actions to be used to achieve individual’s objectives. The main inference is that humans are malleable and could be relatively easy directed in some “beneficial” direction.



The Lessons and Challenges of Social Psychology: The Weakness of Individual Differences; The Power of Situations; The Subtlety of Situations; The Predictability of Human Behavior; The Conflict Between the Lessons of Social Psychology and the Experience of Everyday Life;

Students who go through systematic studies of experimental social psychology experience drastic changes in their understanding of human behavior and learn to recognize deficiencies of pop psychology that all of us learn from childhood. These deficiencies demonstrate themselves in regular overestimate of individual differences as causes of actions and results, grave underestimate of role of situation that one is acting within, and, very important, greatly overestimate influence of earlier events and interferences on actual outcome of human lives. The most interesting discovery is fundamental unpredictability of human social behavior.

The Tripod on Which Social Psychology Rests: The Principle of Situationism; The Principle of Construal; The Concept of Tension Systems;

  • Principle of Situationism: Social context creates potent forces producing or constraining behavior
  • The Principle of Construal: The impact of “objective” situation depends on subjective meaning that actor assign to this situation, which in turn is product of complex construal process shaped by actor’s personality and previous experiences.
  • The Concept of Tension Systems: individuals and collectives must be understood as systems in the state of tension between multiple coexisting facts, that present dynamic equilibrium when state of every part depends on state of any other part. This causes overall system unpredictability when small variation in stimuli could lead to massive change in the state of the system if its internal tension put it on the brink.

Predictability and Indeterminacy: Prediction by Social Scientists; Prediction by Laypeople;

Based on the tripod model authors assert that scientific prediction of behavior is as impossible as precise prediction of location/momentum in physics. In short they basically state that principle of uncertainty applies to human behavior as well as to quantum mechanics. At the same time lay people’s prediction of behavior often confirmed by events just because of continuity and tendency to be consistent in action.

The Problem of Effect Size: Statistical Criteria of Size; Pragmatic Criteria of Size; Expectation Criteria of Size

Here author discuss criteria of size of effect with specific stress on relative character of all psychological effects.


Social Influence and Group Processes

Uniformity Pressures in the Laboratory: Sherif’s “Autokinetic” Studies and the Asch Paradigm; The Bennington Studies; Sherif’s Studies of Intergroup Competition and Conflict; Inhibition of Bystander Intervention; Why Is Social Influence So Powerful?

The power of situation expressed by significant variation of behavior in-group versus individual behavior. Sherif experimentally demonstrated impact of group norm on individual that he called Autokinetic: individual’s estimate of an event changes when in-group to adjust to prevailing opinion. Ash paradigm demonstrated limits of such accommodation, which was heavily dependent on absence of rebels. Individual is much more comfortable to be in small minority of opinion than completely alone. Bennington studies are about such small group that provide sort of isolation, allowing individual to maintain illusion of being as everybody else even if outside the small group vast majority of people has different believes. This was analyzed based on political attitudes that students acquire in colleges, where they undergoing strong liberal brain washing through group influence. Finally author discusses studies of intergroup conflict and competition and how easy and nearly automatically people create groups and develop strong attachment to them. This attachment forces individuals when encountering cognitive dissonance between their views and group norms make one of 3 choices: influence group, change one’s views, or leave group. All this creates social tensions most often leading to uncritical acceptance of prevailing views of the group.

Channel Factors: On Selling War Bonds; Time to Be a Good Samaritan; Effects of Minimal Compliance; Putting It All Together: Stanley Milgram and the Banality of Evil;

Here author discusses channel factors that is ability of situation define specific behavior. Examples discussed are: war bonds, “Good Samaritan” experiment, and Milgram prison experiment. Also reviewed is “foot in the door” manipulation technic.



Subjectivist Considerations in Objective Behaviorism: Relativity in Judgment and Motivation Phenomena; Some Nonobvious Motivational Consequences of Reward

It starts with discussion of behaviorism and its attempt to understand people by using only observable activities. This attempt clearly failed, defeated by relativity of judgment in relation to previous experience, which pointed to human ability to adapt. This led to discussion of framing effects and issues of relative prosperity and/or depravity when the same objective input causes drastically different output.

The Construal Quest/on/n Social Psychology: Solomon Asch and the “Object of Judgment”; Partisanship and Perception; The Tools of Construal

Here it goes into discussion of construals or impressions and personal attributes, which in turns has significant impact on interpretation of newly received information. It is nicely demonstrated by popular and extensively researched instances of political partisanship and its influence on perception and behavior. Finally it looks at tools of construal such as labeling, categorization, construction of knowledge structures, and dynamic modeling of social environment.

The Attribution Process: Normative and Descriptive Principles of Causal Attribution Attributions Regarding the Self

Here authors describe the attribution process when people assign causal relationships in process of their attempts to understand social situations, and behavior. They reference work of Harold Kelley who proposed normative and descriptive principles that guide people in process of attribution. This approach also applied to self-perception and self-attribution, leading consequently to “attribution” theory of emotions and attitudes. Interestingly enough these processes remain hidden from self because we do not really have conscious access to our own cognitive processes.

Failure to Allow for the Uncertainties of Construal: The False Consensus Effect; Overconfident Social and Personal Predictions; Situational Construal and the Fundamental Attribution Error;

This one is about failure of attribution due to uncertainty of construal and typical overstatement commonality of own attitudes and perceptions. Obviously it routinely causes overconfidence in predictions and eventually fundamental attribution error when people assign causes to actions and behavior of other people that have nothing to do with real causes of their behavior and everything to do with observers perception of modeling of these people.


An Overview of Conventional Theories of Personality; The Scientific Findings and the Debate: The Challenge of 1968; Empirical Studies of Cross-Situational Consistency; Implications of the Empirical Challenge;

This chapter is about attempts to find consistency in human behavior that would go beyond combination of objective situation and subjective construals. It looks at various theories of personalities that claim to find consistency in behavior and empirical evidence that fail to find such consistency. In 1968 Walter Mischel and Donald Peterson found that correlation between objective behavioral measures to be very low and challenged supporters of stable personality to explain this. Authors review such attempts in relation to consistency of extraversion, honesty, and dependency. Somewhat interesting link found between bias and consistency of behavior because biases tend to shape perceptions, therefore by changing biases one change behavior despite the fact that person remains the same.

Professional Responses to the Challenge of 1968

Bem’s Revival of the Nomothetic-Idiographic Distinction; Methodological Objections and Alternative Empirical Approaches; Epstein’s Claims for the Power of Aggregation

This is a brief review of empirical research conducted in response to the challenge of 1968.

Making Sense of “Consistency” Correlations: Predictions Based on Single Observations; Predictions Based on Multiple Observations; The Relative Likelihood of Extreme Behaviors;

This is somewhat technical analysis of methodology of making behavioral predictions.


This chapter looks at conscious and more often unconscious use of phycology by regular people in their attempts to understand and predict behavior of others.

Qualitative Aspects of Lay Personality Theory; Quantitative Aspects of Lay Personality Theory

Here authors look at several empirical experiments demonstrating that lay people mainly use dispositional constructs of trait type. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches reviewed.

Lay Dispositionism and the Fundamental Attribution Error: Inferring

Dispositions from Situationally Produced Behavior; Slighting the Situation and Context in Favor of Dispositions; Overconfidence in Predictions Based on Dispositions; Dispositionism and the Interview Illusion; When Are Dispositional Data Useful?

This is a brief description of empirical support for all types Attribution error listed above.

The Sources of Lay Dispositionism: Perception and the Dispositionist Bias;

Differing Causal Attributions for Actors and Observers; Construal and the Dispositionist Bias; Statistics and the Dispositionist Bias; How Could We Be So Wrong?

Here authors look at all these errors of lay psychology, which nevertheless produces a good enough ability to predict behavior of strangers consequently generating at least some evolutionary benefits. Interestingly they draw a clear border separating psychology of prediction for intimates in persons live, which work according to different rules than for strangers.


Scientific Disentangling versus Real-World Confounding: Scientific Disentangling of Person and Situation; Real-World Confounding of Person and Situation; Audience-Induced Consistency and Predictability.

This is a more detailed look at seemingly inconsistent real live experience of predicting behavior based on traits and scientific empirical studies that show high dependency on situation and low levels of consistency. Authors seems to see reasons for this in scientific methodology that carefully separates person and situation, while in real live it is just plain impossible. One interesting point is that because other people expect consistency, individuals behave according to usual patterns even if they would prefer to do otherwise.

When People Create Their Own Environments: Choosing and Altering Situations; Responsiveness to Others’ Needs for Predictability

This is about people driving situation into direction they expect it to move. Experimental results demonstrate that typically cooperative or non-cooperative behavior causes counterpart reply in kind, leading to confirmation of expectations. Another point is made that people often commit upfront to some kind of behavior and then follow through whether they want it or not in order to maintain relationships.

Continuity of Behavior over the Lifespan

Here authors are dealing with seemingly contradictory to person / situation supremacy fact that individual behavior usually quite consistent over lifespan of individual. The explanation they come up with is combination of need to maintain specific image of self for external consumption and general stability of situation, which makes individual to apply consistently the patterns of behavior that were successful in the past.

Situations, Construals, and Personality: The Utility of Lay Personology Reconsidered; The Search for More Powerful Conceptions of Personality

Here authors present their view on limited usefulness of lay psychology, insufficiency of traditional trait psychology, and need to move beyond in direction of more scientifically provable psychological approaches in 5 different areas such as:

  1. Goals and Preferences
  2. Competencies and capacities
  3. Subjective representation of situations
  4. Attributional styles and perceptions of personal efficacy
  5. Conceptions of self


Situational Determinants of Culture: Effects of Ecology, Economy, and Technology; The Situation of the “Middleman” Minority

This chapter is about external factors that to large extent define behavior not only individuals, but also development of culture that individuals born into and raised that in turn define rule of behavior, expectations, and reactions to behavior of other people. Authors look at three well described in details specific cultures: American Plain Indians culture, American general culture as described by Tocqueville, and generic culture of “middleman minority” such as Jews in Europe or Chinese in Malaysia.

Culture, Ideology, and Construal: The Protestant Vision and the Growth of Capitalism; Associationism and Economic Development; Collectivism versus Individualism; Social Context and Attribution in East and West; Social Class and Locus of Control; Regional Differences in the United States as Cultural Differences; Enforcement of Cultural Norms

Here authors look at role of culture on construal – the second leg of social psychology tripod. This is look at how different cultures foster individualistic versus collectivistic approach to the world. As usual it is based on West vs. East cultural differences, Protestant ethic as related to capitalism, and such. It also somewhat unusually discusses regional cultural differences in America and ways and methods used to enforce cultural norms.

Cultures as Tension Systems: Cultural Change in America; Blacks and Whites in the American South; Traditional Japanese Culture and Capitalism;

This is discussion of how tension within culture impact people and how need to resolve these tensions lead to change and transformation of culture. The cases selected for review are Irish and Blacks in America, and story of Japanese accommodating their culture to capitalism.

Traits, Ethnicities, and the Coordinates of Individual Differences: Can Ethnicities Substitute for Traits? Why Is Ethnicity an Increasingly Important Factor in Modern Life?

This is about persistence of cultural traits in minds and behavior of individual even long after external circumstances that caused formation of these traits in culture long gone. It in turn leads to appreciation of ethnicity as an important factor of contemporary live. Authors seem to be disturbed by recent history of simultaneous convergence of economic and political system around more or less democratic market based environment and increased divisions between ethnicities within countries and between countries.


Methodological Lessons for Research Practitioners and Consumers: The Value of “True Experiments”; The Hawthorne Saga

This is somewhat more technical review of methodology of psychological research, its successes and multiple shortcomings.

When “Big.” Interventions Fail: Situationism, Liberalism, and the Politics of Intervention; A Case History: The Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study

Here is a few cautioning tales about attempts to use psychology as tool in political meddling in lives of people. It retells a couple of stories of failed large-scale interventions.

When “Small” Interventions, Succeed: Lewinian Discussion Groups and Democratic Procedures; “Modeling” Effects on Prosocial Behavior; Interventions that Encourage Minority-Student Success; Distal versus Proximal Interventions

Correspondingly here author provides review of “successful” interventions on the small scale.

Labeling and Attribution Effects in the Classroom: Social Labels and Self-Fulfilling Expectations; Labeling versus Exhortation to Achieve Behavior Change; Motivational Consequences of Superfluous Inducements; Attributions for Classroom Success and Failure;

This is a very interesting and important part on influence of self-perception and framing and overall psychological conditioning on human actions and, most important, results. The exciting part is derived from experiment with random assignment of “talented versus less than talented” frame to children with consequent results of higher levels of success for “talented”. The malleability of human achievement by level of expectation opens an interesting path for improvement.

Subjective Perceptions and Objective Health Consequences: Placebo Effects and Reverse Placebo Effects; The Beneficial Effect of Forewarning and Coping Information; The Health Consequences of Perceived Efficacy and Control

Here author discusses an impact of psychology of perception on results using placebo effects, demonstrating its significance, correspondingly expanding notion of practical value of this discipline.

Everyday Application of Social Psychology

The final part is somewhat philosophical, discussing constrained vs. unconstrained notions of human nature and moving quite decisively to the side of unconstrained view as much more consistent with knowledge obtained from empirical psychological research.


As much as I like psychological research and find it enchanting to look at results of experiments in these areas, I find it disturbing and even unacceptable that effective psychological manipulation developed based on this science is becoming tool in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. For me the freedom of individual to live any way this individual desires is the highest possible value in itself and should not be infringed by external interference. Certainly it is inevitable while human being is formed during childhood and maturation, but it is unacceptable when it is used to direct actions of mature adults. It is always good to remember that previous generations of engineers of human soul burned human bodies on the stake because they sincerely believed that they saving souls of these bodies. That’s why I do not accept normality of the attitude when somebody else, either bureaucrat or politician would use tools developed from psychological research to manipulate people to act the way they want.

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