109 What is Social Psychology?

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define social psychology
  • Describe situational versus dispositional influences on behaviour
  • Describe the fundamental attribution error
  • Explain actor-observer bias
  • Describe self-serving bias
  • Explain the just-world hypothesis

Social psychology examines how people affect one another, and it looks at the power of the situation. According to the American Psychological Association (n.d.), social psychologists “are interested in all aspects of personality and social interaction, exploring the influence of interpersonal and group relationships on human behaviour.” Throughout this chapter, we will examine how the presence of other individuals and groups of people impacts a person’s behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. Essentially, people will change their behaviour to align with the social situation at hand. If we are in a new situation or are unsure how to behave, we will take our cues from other individuals.

The field of social psychology studies topics at both the intra- and interpersonal levels. Intrapersonal topics (those that pertain to the individual) include emotions and attitudes, the self, and social cognition (the ways in which we think about ourselves and others). Interpersonal topics (those that pertain to dyads and groups) include helping behaviour (Figure SP.2), aggression, prejudice and discrimination, attraction and close relationships, and group processes and intergroup relationships.


A photograph shows several people pushing a car up an incline.
Figure SP.2 Social psychology deals with all kinds of interactions between people, spanning a wide range of how we connect: from moments of confrontation to moments of working together and helping others, as shown here. (credit: Sgt. Derec Pierson, U.S. Army)
Social psychologists focus on how people conceptualize and interpret situations and how these interpretations influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (Ross & Nisbett, 1991). Thus, social psychology studies individuals in a social context and how situational variables interact to influence behaviour. In this chapter, we discuss the intrapersonal processes of self-presentation, cognitive dissonance and attitude change, and the interpersonal processes of conformity and obedience, aggression and altruism, and, finally, love and attraction.

Situational and Dispositional Influences on Behaviour

Behaviour is a product of both the situation (e.g., cultural influences, social roles, and the presence of bystanders) and of the person (e.g., personality characteristics). Subfields of psychology tend to focus on one influence or behaviour over others. Situationism is the view that our behaviour and actions are determined by our immediate environment and surroundings. In contrast, dispositionism holds that our behaviour is determined by internal factors (Heider, 1958). An internal factor is an attribute of a person and includes personality traits and temperament. Social psychologists have tended to take the situationist perspective, whereas personality psychologists have promoted the dispositionist perspective. Modern approaches to social psychology, however, take both the situation and the individual into account when studying human behaviour (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010). In fact, the field of social-personality psychology has emerged to study the complex interaction of internal and situational factors that affect human behaviour (Mischel, 1977; Richard, Bond, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).

Fundamental Attribution Error

In the United States, the predominant culture tends to favour a dispositional approach in explaining human behaviour. Why do you think this is? We tend to think that people are in control of their own behaviours, and, therefore, any behaviour change must be due to something internal, such as their personality, habits, or temperament. According to some social psychologists, people tend to overemphasize internal factors as explanations—or attributions—for the behaviour of other people. They tend to assume that the behaviour of another person is a trait of that person, and to underestimate the power of the situation on the behaviour of others. They tend to fail to recognize when the behaviour of another is due to situational variables, and thus to the person’s state. This erroneous assumption is called the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977; Riggio & Garcia, 2009). To better understand, imagine this scenario: Jamie returns home from work, and opens the front door to a happy greeting from their spouse Morgan who inquires how the day has been. Instead of returning their spouse’s kind greeting, Jamie yells, “Leave me alone!” Why did Jamie yell? How would someone committing the fundamental attribution error explain Jamie’s behaviour? The most common response is that Jamie is a mean, angry, or unfriendly person (traits). This is an internal or dispositional explanation. However, imagine that Jamie was just laid off from work due to company downsizing. Would your explanation for Jamie’s behaviour change? Your revised explanation might be that Jamie was frustrated and disappointed about being laid off and was therefore in a bad mood (state). This is now an external or situational explanation for Jamie’s behaviour.

The fundamental attribution error is so powerful that people often overlook obvious situational influences on behaviour. A classic example was demonstrated in a series of experiments known as the quizmaster study (Ross, Amabile, & Steinmetz, 1977). Student participants were randomly assigned to play the role of a questioner (the quizmaster) or a contestant in a quiz game. Questioners developed difficult questions to which they knew the answers, and they presented these questions to the contestants. The contestants answered the questions correctly only 4 out of 10 times. After the task, the questioners and contestants were asked to rate their own general knowledge compared to the average student. Questioners did not rate their general knowledge higher than the contestants, but the contestants rated the questioners’ intelligence higher than their own. In a second study, observers of the interaction also rated the questioner as having more general knowledge than the contestant. The obvious influence on performance is the situation. The questioners wrote the questions, so of course they had an advantage. Both the contestants and observers made an internal attribution for the performance. They concluded that the questioners must be more intelligent than the contestants.

As demonstrated in the examples above, the fundamental attribution error is considered a powerful influence in how we explain the behaviours of others. However, it should be noted that some researchers have suggested that the fundamental attribution error may not be as powerful as it is often portrayed. In fact, a recent review of more than 173 published studies suggests that several factors (e.g., high levels of idiosyncrasy of the character and how well hypothetical events are explained) play a role in determining just how influential the fundamental attribution error is (Malle, 2006).

Is the Fundamental Attribution Error a Universal Phenomenon?

You may be able to think of examples of the fundamental attribution error in your life. Do people in all cultures commit the fundamental attribution error? Research suggests that they do not. People from an individualistic culture, that is, a culture that focuses on individual achievement and autonomy, have the greatest tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error. Individualistic cultures, which tend to be found in western countries (such as North America and the United Kingdom), promote a focus on the individual. Therefore, a person’s disposition is thought to be the primary explanation for her behaviour. In contrast, people from a collectivistic culture (such as countries located in Asia), that is, a culture that focuses on communal relationships with others, such as family, friends, and community (Figure SP.3), are less likely to commit the fundamental attribution error (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 2001).


Three photographs show three groups of people: a family preparing a meal, a group of men sitting on a porch, and a group of women playing mahjong.
Figure SP.3 People from collectivistic cultures, such as some Asian cultures, are more likely to emphasize relationships with others than to focus primarily on the individual. Activities such as (a) preparing a meal, (b) hanging out, and (c) playing a game engage people in a group. (credit a: modification of work by Arian Zwegers; credit b: modification of work by “conbon33″/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Anja Disseldorp)
Why do you think this is the case? Collectivistic cultures, which tend to be found in east Asian countries and in Latin American and African countries, focus on the group more than on the individual (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001). This focus on others provides a broader perspective that takes into account both situational and cultural influences on behaviour; thus, a more nuanced explanation of the causes of others’ behaviour becomes more likely. Table SP.1 summarizes compares individualistic and collectivist cultures.
Table SP.1 Characteristics of Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures
Individualistic Culture Collectivistic Culture
Achievement oriented Relationship oriented
Focus on autonomy Focus on group harmony
Dispositional perspective Situational perspective
Independent Interdependent
Analytic thinking style Holistic thinking style
Masuda and Nisbett (2001) demonstrated that the kinds of information that people attend to when viewing visual stimuli (e.g., an aquarium scene) can differ significantly depending on whether the observer comes from a collectivistic versus an individualistic culture. Japanese participants were much more likely to recognize objects that were presented when they occurred in the same context in which they were originally viewed. Manipulating the context in which object recall occurred had no such impact on American participants. Other researchers have shown similar differences across cultures. For example, Zhang, Fung, Stanley, Isaacowitz, and Zhang (2014) demonstrated differences in the ways that holistic thinking might develop between Chinese and American participants, and Ramesh and Gelfand (2010) demonstrated that job turnover rates are more related to the fit between a person and the organization in which they work in an Indian sample, but the fit between the person and their specific job was more predictive of turnover in an American sample.

Actor-Observer Bias

Returning to our earlier example, Jamie was laid off, but an observer would not know. So a naïve observer would tend to attribute Jamie’s hostile behaviour to Jamie’s disposition rather than to the true, situational cause. Why do you think we underestimate the influence of the situation on the behaviours of others? One reason is that we often don’t have all the information we need to make a situational explanation for another person’s behaviour. The only information we might have is what is observable. Due to this lack of information we have a tendency to assume the behaviour is due to a dispositional, or internal, factor. When it comes to explaining our own behaviours, however, we have much more information available to us. If you came home from school or work angry and yelled at your dog or a loved one, what would your explanation be? You might say you were very tired or feeling unwell and needed quiet time—a situational explanation. The actor-observer bias is the phenomenon of attributing other people’s behaviour to internal factors (fundamental attribution error) while attributing our own behaviour to situational forces (Jones & Nisbett, 1971; Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, & Marecek, 1973; Choi & Nisbett, 1998). As actors of behaviour, we have more information available to explain our own behaviour. However as observers, we have less information available; therefore, we tend to default to a dispositionist perspective.

One study on the actor-observer bias investigated reasons male participants gave for why they liked their girlfriend (Nisbett et al., 1973). When asked why participants liked their own girlfriend, participants focused on internal, dispositional qualities of their girlfriends (for example, her pleasant personality). The participants’ explanations rarely included causes internal to themselves, such as dispositional traits (for example, “I need companionship.”). In contrast, when speculating why a male friend likes his girlfriend, participants were equally likely to give dispositional and external explanations. This supports the idea that actors tend to provide few internal explanations but many situational explanations for their own behaviour. In contrast, observers tend to provide more dispositional explanations for a friend’s behaviour (Figure SP.4).

A bar graph compares “own reasons for liking girlfriend” to “friend’s reasons for liking girlfriend.” In the former, situational traits are about twice as high as dispositional traits, while in the latter, situational and dispositional traits are nearly equal.
Figure SP.4 Actor-observer bias is evident when subjects explain their own reasons for liking a girlfriend versus their impressions of others’ reasons for liking a girlfriend.

Self-Serving Bias

We can understand self-serving bias by digging more deeply into attribution, a belief about the cause of a result. One model of attribution proposes three main dimensions: locus of control (internal versus external), stability (stable versus unstable), and controllability (controllable versus uncontrollable). In this context, stability refers the extent to which the circumstances that result in a given outcome are changeable. The circumstances are considered stable if they are unlikely to change. Controllability refers to the extent to which the circumstances that are associated with a given outcome can be controlled. Obviously, those things that we have the power to control would be labeled controllable (Weiner, 1979).

Following an outcome, self-serving biases are those attributions that enable us to see ourselves in a favourable light (for example, making internal attributions for success and external attributions for failures). When you do well at a task, for example acing an exam, it is in your best interest to make a dispositional attribution for your behaviour (“I’m smart,”) instead of a situational one (“The exam was easy,”). The tendency of an individual to take credit by making dispositional or internal attributions for positive outcomes (Miller & Ross, 1975). Self-serving bias is the tendency to explain our successes as due to dispositional (internal) characteristics, but to explain our failures as due to situational (external) factors. Again, this is culture dependent. This bias serves to protect self-esteem. You can imagine that if people always made situational attributions for their behaviour, they would never be able to take credit and feel good about their accomplishments.

Consider the example of how we explain our favourite sports team’s wins. Research shows that we make internal, stable, and controllable attributions for our team’s victory (Figure SP.5) (Grove, Hanrahan, & McInman, 1991). For example, we might tell ourselves that our team is talented (internal), consistently works hard (stable), and uses effective strategies (controllable). In contrast, we are more likely to make external, unstable, and uncontrollable attributions when our favourite team loses. For example, we might tell ourselves that the other team has more experienced players or that the referees were unfair (external), the other team played at home (unstable), and the cold weather affected our team’s performance (uncontrollable).


A photograph showing Zach Hyman of the Toronto Maple Leafs, with arms raised in celebration after scoring his first goal in a game against NHL team Buffalo Sabres.
Figure SP.5 We tend to believe that our team wins because it’s better, but loses for reasons it cannot control. (credit: Wikimedia Commons, user: Tom Szczerbowski)

Just-World Hypothesis

One consequence of westerners’ tendency to provide dispositional explanations for behaviour is victim blame (Jost & Major, 2001). When people experience bad fortune, others tend to assume that they somehow are responsible for their own fate. A common ideology, or worldview, in the United States is the just-world hypothesis. The just-world hypothesis is the belief that people get the outcomes they deserve (Lerner & Miller, 1978). In order to maintain the belief that the world is a fair place, people tend to think that good people experience positive outcomes, and bad people experience negative outcomes (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004; Jost & Major, 2001). The ability to think of the world as a fair place, where people get what they deserve, allows us to feel that the world is predictable and that we have some control over our life outcomes (Jost et al., 2004; Jost & Major, 2001). For example, if you want to experience positive outcomes, you just need to work hard to get ahead in life.

Can you think of a negative consequence of the just-world hypothesis? One negative consequence is people’s tendency to blame poor individuals for their plight. What common explanations are given for why people live in poverty? Have you heard statements such as, “The poor are lazy and just don’t want to work” or “Poor people just want to live off the government”? What types of explanations are these, dispositional or situational? These dispositional explanations are clear examples of the fundamental attribution error. Blaming poor people for their poverty ignores situational factors that impact them, such as high unemployment rates, recession, poor educational opportunities, and the familial cycle of poverty (Figure SP.6). Other research shows that people who hold just-world beliefs have negative attitudes toward people who are unemployed and people living with AIDS (Sutton & Douglas, 2005). In the United States and other countries, victims of sexual assault may find themselves blamed for their abuse. Victim advocacy groups, such as Domestic Violence Ended (DOVE), attend court in support of victims to ensure that blame is directed at the perpetrators of sexual violence, not the victims.

A photograph shows a homeless person and a dog sitting on a sidewalk with a sign reading, “homeless, broke, and hungry.”
Figure SP.6 People who hold just-world beliefs tend to blame the people in poverty for their circumstances, ignoring situational and cultural causes of poverty. (credit: Adrian Miles)


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Introduction to Psychology & Neuroscience (2nd Edition) Copyright © 2020 by Edited by Leanne Stevens, Jennifer Stamp, & Kevin LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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