13 Social Psychology
STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
Social cognition refers to the way people gather, use, and interpret information about the social aspects of the world around them. Theorists believe that everyone tries to figure out why people act the way that they do. Attribution theory accounts for why people behave the way they do. You probably credit either internal characteristics such as personality and intelligence (dispositional attributions) or environmental factors (situational attributions) to explain why you or another person acted in a particular way.
When evaluating our own behavior, we tend to show a self-serving bias, which means we attribute our achievements and successes to personal stable causes (dispositional attributes) and our failures to situational factors. If our group gets a good grade on a project, we are inclined to overestimate our contributions to the project. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to be as generous when evaluating the behavior of others. The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to underestimate the impact of situational factors and overestimate the impact of dispositional (personal) factors when assessing why other people acted the way they did. We are more likely to believe another student is lazy or stupid when he or she gets a low grade on a test than to look for situational causes, like the recent death of a pet, to explain the grade. When judging others, we tend to make more personal stable attributions, but when judging ourselves, we tend to look at situational constraints, particularly when dealing with our foolish or negative actions. The actor-observer bias is the tendency to attribute our own behavior to situational causes and the behavior of others to personal causes. This can lead us to believe that people get what they deserve—the just-world phenomenon. As an extension of this concept, we tend to blame the victim of a crime such as rape.
Our attitudes toward others can also have a dramatic impact upon their behavior. Self-fulfilling prophecy is a tendency to let our preconceived expectations of others influence how we treat them and, thus, bring about the very behavior we expected. In the famous Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen “bloomer study,” teachers told to expect certain students to get smart during the year actually treated those kids differently, and as a result, the expectation became the reality. Kids who were expected to do well did but largely because they were treated differently by their teachers. The ethical dilemma in this experiment, however, concerns those students not expected to “bloom.” Many point to the differences in minority achievement in our school systems as a result of lowered expectations for these students. The lowered expectations of teachers for minority students leads to perhaps unintentional differential treatment, which then results in poorer performance. Poorer grades fulfill the expectations that they were less capable in the first place.