Conforming Like a Contortionist: Social Psychology - Me, You, and Everything in Between

Psychology For Dummies - Adam Cash 2013

Conforming Like a Contortionist: Social Psychology
Me, You, and Everything in Between

In This Chapter

Image Meeting expectations

Image Going with the flow

Image Being a groupie

Image Persuading with power

Image Acting hostile

Image Helping others

Image Discovering how people are alike

I’ll never forget the time I saw news video of two groups of Buddhist monks fist-fighting for control over a monastery. I was shocked to see people whom I stereotypically perceived as peaceful acting so violently — toward each other! The image was disturbing, but it was also a potent demonstration of how a situation, or the influence of a group, can fuel individual behavior. These typically peaceful individuals seemingly were overcome by a situation that triggered them to engage in behavior that they themselves probably could not explain if asked.

It may be true that an individual is pushed and pulled by the dynamics of his personality and acts instinctively based on genetic makeup. Behavior also seems to vary as a function of thinking. However, psychology would be incomplete without considering the social influences on behavior and mental processes.

Image Social psychology is the study of the social causes of and influences on behavior.

Social psychologists have long suggested that many of the answers to questions about human behavior lie in understanding social influences such as group norms, conformity, and group pressure. This chapter explores these and other social influences on behavior and highlights the powerful impact of being around other people. The influence of social forces on individual behavior cannot be underestimated.

The study of social influences completes the biopsychosocial model of human behavior. (See Chapter 2 for more on the biopsychosocial model.)

Playing Your Part

Unless you’re a hermit and you live by yourself in a shack in the middle of the desert, you exist within a social matrix — a multilayered configuration of social relationships that range from the parent-child bond to your co-worker—co-worker interactions. Picture yourself in the middle of a huge multi-ringed circle with each ring representing a level of social organization.

Image Each of these circles carries a set of expected behaviors — rules that dictate what each individual is supposed to do. Each social group’s rules or behavioral expectations are called norms. Cultures have norms, families have norms, and even subcultures have norms.

A subculture may consist of a small social group, often organized around a recreational activity. A gang may be considered a subgroup within its own subculture. Gangs have their own language, clothing styles, and rituals that delineate clear rules for the behavior of each individual member. That social structure is what I’m talking about when I use the term norm.

Americans typically like to see themselves as rugged individualists, wincing at the idea of blindly following norms. But norms are not all that bad. They simplify complex social situations, allowing people to think about things other than how to act and what to say in a particular situation. Norms serve as “mental shortcuts,” and social situations operate more smoothly when norms are clear.

Some norms seem to be universal. Psychologist Roger Brown in 1965 found that people almost universally speak more respectfully to others of higher status and more casually to those of lower status. This manner of addressing others is built into the very structure of some languages, including Spanish and French. The appropriate way to conjugate a verb depends on how well you know the person you’re speaking to.

Certainly, universal norms exist, but some variations exist as well. If you’re a Palestinian Christian, it is customary and normative to firmly resist any food offered to you while visiting someone’s home and only to accept after much counter-insistence by the host. Americans on the other hand may even ask for something to eat or drink when visiting someone’s home without thinking twice. Another common variation in cultural norms relates to waiting in line. Some cultures don’t seem to appreciate the orderliness of waiting in a single-file line when ordering food at a fast-food establishment, but others do. The norm of personal space (the physical space or area around us) too can vary by culture. Some cultures seem to value personal space more than others.

Getting carried away

Role definitions are a powerful determinant of behavior, and the definitions sometimes overpower individual personalities and preferences. In 1972, Phil Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, conducted a famous experiment known as the Stanford prison experiment that illustrated the power of roles. College students were recruited to participate in a mock-prison situation in which they were randomly assigned to be either guards or inmates. The experiment took place in a makeshift prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University.

The experiment revealed that people seem to naturally know what the roles of both inmate and guard entail, and Zimbardo had to discontinue the experiment within a week because of what he saw happening. The otherwise normal and healthy college students began to take their roles far too seriously. The guards treated the inmates inhumanely and with harsh disdain, and the inmates began to truly hate the guards and focus only on the circumvention of the “prison” system and survival.

In other words, the students got caught up in their roles and forgot about the reality of the situation.

Image A role is a specific type of norm that defines how a person should act in a specific situation. Each individual has certain roles to play (student, employee, brother, sister, parent, and so on) that dictate different behaviors for different situations. Typically, individuals have clear roles to play in specific situations.

Ganging Up in a Group

In a classic episode of the Twilight Zone, everyone gets plastic surgery when they reach adolescence, and everyone picks the same transformation so that everyone looks the same — a sort of Ken Doll for the men and a Barbie face for the women. In the episode, one girl decides to keep her natural-born look and is subsequently tormented and ridiculed for wanting to do so. She was under enormous pressure to conform, to give into group pressure, and to go along.

This dynamic is a very real part of everyday life in a community. Groups exert all kinds of pressure on their individual members. Sometimes groups have very clear and explicit rules that keep people in line; in other cases, the rules or pressures are more subtle.

In this section, I point out the group and social influences and determinants of an individual’s behavior. This includes a discussion of how individuals conform and react to group pressure and influence an effort on tasks, as well as how people treat each other and “police” each other’s thinking.


Conformity is a change in behavior that results from real or perceived group pressure. Most people are surprised to realize how much individuals conform. I mean, how many purple houses are on your block? Not many I bet.

In a study from 1937, Muzafer Sherif, one of the founders of social psychology, looked at how people would change their judgments based on knowing how other people answered certain questions. Subjects were asked to estimate how far a light moved across a dark room. Sherif found that when other people were present and offered a different estimate, the subject would change his or her answer to be more in-line with what the others’ answers were. Knowledge of the other people’s answers influenced the subjects’ answers.

In 1955, Solomon Asch, another pioneer in social psychology, found the same thing when he put people in a group and asked them to estimate the lengths of lines. Subjects changed their answers to go along with the group consensus. Both of these experiments are good examples of how an individual may conform under group pressure, even if the pressure is subtle.

Shocking, no?

Harvard University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1965 conducted an obedience experiment that bordered on the extreme. In fact, it was so extreme that the same experiment would not be allowed today, because it would not pass the required ethics review. Subjects were seated at a control panel with a switch for delivering electrical shocks to a “subject” on the other side of a partition. The subjects were actually experimenters pretending to be participating as real subjects.

The premise: The subject is to be shocked each time that he or she gets a question wrong. With each subsequent wrong answer, the shock gets stronger and stronger. The shocks start at 75 volts and go up to 450 volts.

At some point, the subject is yelling and pleading with the real subject to stop administering the shock. An experimenter stands next to the real subject with a clipboard and a white lab-coat insisting that the real subject continue with the experiment and continue to administer shocks, despite the pretend subject’s protests and obvious pain.

In reality, the fake subjects did not receive any shock at all; they only pretended to get shocked. But ask yourself, “When would I have stopped giving the shocks?” Maybe you think that you would have stopped the second the subject started yelling and asking you to stop. I’m sure the subjects in Milgram’s study thought the same thing.

However, the shocking outcome (sorry about that one; couldn’t resist) was that 63 percent of the real subjects went all the way to 450 volts in compliance (or obedience) with the experimenter! That’s enough voltage to potentially cause death.

Obedience is an extreme form of conformity and often involves going against one’s better judgment or truest intentions. When I think of obedience, visions of dog-obedience school pop into my head — me standing there with a collar and leash around my neck, jumping up to get my treat for performing the requested trick. Sounds extreme, doesn’t it?

Image I would like to think that I’d walk out of an experiment in which I had to torture someone with electric shocks, but the majority of subjects in one famous study followed orders and didn’t stop applying shocks (see the nearby “Shocking, no?” sidebar). Why?

There are eight factors that seem to increase conformity and obedience:

Image Emotional distance: The more personal contact someone has with an individual, the less likely he is to act without compassion against that person. It’s harder to be cruel to another person when the victim has a face.

Image Proximity and legitimacy of authority: When an authority figure is close by, obedience is more likely. The authority’s legitimacy also matters. You are more likely to be obedient to an individual that you think has genuine authority than someone you perceive to be a poseur.

Image Institutional authority: When an authority figure is part of an accepted institution, obedience is more likely. In other words, I’m more likely to comply with the suggestions of a court-appointed judge than some guy sitting next to me at the bus stop (assuming he’s not a judge). Recognized institutional authority has a powerful effect on obedience.

Image Group size: Groups of three to five people have a maximum effect on conformity pressure; groups containing fewer than three and more than five people have a less powerful effect.

Image Unanimity: When groups are in complete agreement, it’s more difficult for a single individual to resist conforming.

Image Cohesiveness: The more a group feels that it is bound together and tightly organized, the more power the group has over its members. As an example, I used to play softball on a team without uniforms, and it just didn’t feel right. We needed uniforms to be a real team. Uniforms are one way to increase cohesiveness because looking the same as others in a group strengthens a sense of unity.

Image Status: People with a higher status than you tend to have more influence over your obedience/compliance.

Image Public response: People conform more when their behaviors are made public. It’s easier to disagree privately or anonymously.

Although conformity and obedience are not necessarily bad things, learning how to resist both may be important — just in case. One needs only to think of Nazi Germany, perhaps the most horrific example of the dangers of conformity, to understand why maintaining a certain degree of individual diversity is important in any social group.

The best way to prevent conformity may be to maintain a sense of and respect for human uniqueness. Freedom of speech and religious tolerance are also good protections against conformity. As long as people feel comfortable being themselves and can freely speak their minds, conformity is a little more difficult (see the Birds of a Feather . . . Or Not section later in this chapter for more on prejudice and stereotypes).

Doing better with help

“There’s no I in TEAM!” A lot of coaches use this line in their pep talks, trying to convey the idea that the better a team plays together, the better their results will be. And social psychologists have found that this idea is true to a certain extent. When we’re in the presence of others, people are more physiologically aroused and energized, and dominant behaviors are strengthened. This phenomenon is called social facilitation.

Robert Zajonc, professor emeritus at Stanford University, found that when a person does something relatively simple and routine, being in the presence of others improves her performance. But when a task is complex, having others around can hinder performance. So it may be a good idea to conduct that calculus contest somewhere other than Madison Square Garden. Although, folding laundry in the Garden is probably okay.

Kicking back

When I was in junior high school, teachers often asked me to participate in group projects. It usually went something like this: Four less-motivated students would pair up with the “smart” kid and let the “smart” kid do all the work. The motivationally challenged pupils would then ascribe their names to the project in order to get the credit.

Image This is an example of social loafing — the tendency for people to exert less energy and effort when engaged in a group task that ignores individual accountability.

In 1979, psychologists Latane, Kipling, Williams, and Harkins found, for example, that when people were put in groups of six and instructed to clap as loudly as they possibly could, the amount of noise produced was less than that of one person clapping alone. People loaf when engaged in activities as groups. Loafers are free riders, people who rest on the efforts of other people in the group, like those kids who just mouth the words in the school choir.

Hey, if nobody can tell if I’m singing or not, then why should I exert myself? I’m not getting credit for my individual effort anyway.

Remaining anonymous

Ever wonder why groups of people who do really awful things often wear uniforms? Take the Ku Klux Klan, for example. What’s with the pointy hats? Researchers have found that diminishing individual identity and diffusing individual responsibility reduces people’s inhibitions. Uniforms reduce the individual member’s uniqueness as well as inhibitions. This dynamic can result in people doing things that they may not do if they were alone or more easily identifiable. When this happens, people become deindividuated.

A certain amount of freedom seems to accompany blending into a crowd or being anonymous. Maybe people are less afraid of getting caught doing something bad in this situation. Children, for example, have been found to steal more when they are deindividuated.

It seems that anonymity and a lack of unique identification can facilitate antisocial behavior — something to think about when you consider how anonymous American society can be. Some people don't even know their next-door neighbors. Then again, with social media and the Internet becoming ever more pervasive, living anonymously is getting harder and harder. (For more about the impact of the Internet on behavior and mental processes, check out the free online article "Ten Ways Psychology and the Internet are Intersecting" at

Thinking as one

Groups can have both positive and negative effects on individual behavior. You may perform some tasks better when working within a group and get lazier while performing others.

In 1971, Irving L. Janis, a research psychologist at Yale University and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, introduced a concept related to a potentially adverse effect of group participation: a phenomenon known as groupthink. When groups work to suppress disagreement and dissent in order to maintain group harmony, they are engaged in groupthink.

Dissent can sometimes threaten the cohesiveness of a group. When people start expressing ideas that are contrary to the group’s views, the group sometimes reacts negatively. Galileo was one of the most famous victims of groupthink in history. He discovered evidence related to the solar system that challenged the prevailing thought of the day. Did he receive high praise and honors? Hardly! He was locked away in prison for being a heretic, a dissenter.

Groups work hard, both consciously and unconsciously, to prevent dissent. Janis identified eight symptoms of groupthink that can exist in a group:

Image Illusion of invulnerability: When groups think they are untouchable, they’re more likely to squash dissent.

Image Belief in the group’s moral superiority: When a group thinks it is ultimately moral, it ignores its own immorality.

Image Rationalization: A group becomes more closed-minded as it collectively justifies its actions.

Image Stereotypes regarding the opposition: When an opponent is viewed in biased or prejudiced terms, his statements that contradict the group’s views are easier to ignore.

Image Conformity pressure: Strong pressure on individuals to go along with the group’s will and to not disagree minimizes dissent; non-conformers are cast out.

Image Self-censorship: Group members keep their dissenting opinions to themselves rather than rock the boat in some cases.

Image Illusion of unanimity: Internal dissent can sometimes be kept out of sight and away from the full group’s view; therefore, dissent appears not to exist.

Image Mindguards: Some group members take an active role in protecting the group from dissent or contrary information. They’re like the “thought police” in George Orwell’s book 1984.

Groupthink can cause a lot of problems. Alternatives to the status quo may go unexamined, thus preventing a complete survey of any problem that the group faces. Risks may be ignored. And ultimately, the group makes decisions that can be compromised.

Image Here are some ways to avoid groupthink:

Image Encourage everyone in a group to express his own opinions and viewpoints.

Image Invite external people into the group to provide alternative viewpoints.

Image Ask individual group members to play the devil’s advocate role to work through conflicting ideas.


I often wish I had a bit more power of persuasion. The greatest example of this power comes from the movie franchise, Star Wars. Jedi warriors have the ability to influence the thoughts of others by using “The Force” for what’s called the “Jedi mind trick.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that the guy who sold me my last car used the Jedi mind trick on me — the dark side of The Force, I think. But I digress.

Persuasion is a powerful force in all social interactions and arrangements. People don’t just use it to sell products. There are two paths to persuasion:

Image Central route: The central route occurs when the “persuadee” actively processes the potentially persuasive information. In 1991, Bas Verplanken, a professor of social psychology at the University of Bath, found that when people think deeply about something, any associated change in attitude or opinion is more likely to stay changed.

Image Peripheral route: This approach involves getting someone to associate an intended message with certain images, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. It relies on the mind’s natural ability to associate things. Remember classical conditioning? (If not, check out Chapter 8.) Examples of persuasion via the peripheral route include using showing hard-bodied models to sell gym memberships.

Image Psychologists Petty and Cacioppo warn that if you’re going to try to persuade people, don’t warn them that it’s coming. Distracting the people you hope to persuade helps because they won’t be able to mount a strong counterargument to your claims.

In addition, four key components make up any persuasive argument:

Image Credibility of communicator: A message is more likely to be persuasive if someone perceived as credible delivers it.

• Expertise is often a powerful indicator of credibility. People listen to experts. One thing to keep in mind, though: Just because someone says that she’s an expert doesn’t mean she necessarily is. When in doubt, always check credentials, including education, training, and experience.

• People are more likely to be persuaded by someone seen as trustworthy. Such as an actor in a white doctor’s coat pitching an herbal supplement for example.

• Attractive people’s messages are more persuasive. The term attractive can relate to a person’s physical appeal or personality and charisma.

• Similarity plays a role. The more someone is like you, the easier it is for her to persuade you.

Image Delivery approach: Should a persuader appeal to someone’s emotion or to reason and critical thinking? Here’s a breakdown of these and other message-delivery options:

Reasoned approach: In 1983, John Cacioppo and others found that when trying to persuade highly educated or analytical people, a reasoned approach is best. These individuals seem to like to think things over, analyzing information before making a decision. They’re not necessarily smarter, but they are typically more aware of recent information.

Emotional approach: Those who don’t have the time or inclination to read every consumer review when going to buy a new car are more likely to trust other people and get swayed by emotional appeals. The thought process is “My sister said she loved her new car. I think I’ll get one.”

Fear factor: A lot of persuasive messages use fear to scare people away from harmful or unhealthy behaviors (find examples in Chapter 18). These messages work. Fear-evoking ads are all around — telling you to stop smoking, to avoid abusing drugs, to vote for so-and-so and definitely not the other option, for example. There’s only one catch. If you’re going to scare people in order to persuade them, you need to provide concrete information on how to deal with or change their behavior; otherwise, the audience may freeze up or fail to act at all in the face of the fear.

Two-sided argument: A two-sided argument is one that acknowledges the other position, giving the impression of fairness and objectivity. Advertisers have been using this technique for years, conducting “taste tests” and other comparative challenges with their rivals. You know what they’re up to!

Image Audience engagement: The best way to present persuasive information is to get your audience to play an active part in processing your argument. Active engagement captures the other person’s attention and carries an expectation that he will comprehend the message, remember it, and then take action. As the amount of energy that a person invests in mentally processing a message increases, so does the likelihood that it will stick. Passive reception of a message, like listening to a lecture, is less likely to have an impact.

Easy as pie

There’s a great rock video out by a band named Cake that demonstrates the influence of persuadee participation perfectly. In the video, a man walks around a beach, asking real people to put headphones on and listen to the new song. They’re encouraged to comment on the song. This is a much more powerful advertising technique than if the man just walked up with a sign that read, “Check out Cake’s new song. In stores now!” The persuadees are participating in their own manipulation. It’s beautiful. I don’t know whether the video makers were thinking this way, but if they were, they hit on a great persuasion technique!

Image Age of audience: Research has found that older people are less likely to change their attitudes and opinions than people who are younger. The early twenties are years in which people are particularly vulnerable to persuasion. This is a time in many people’s lives when choices abound and information is exchanged at a rapid rate. Many people in their early twenties are in college, entering the work force, and expanding their social networks. They’re exposed to a whole new world of information, and this can make resisting persuasion more difficult.

Image Want to know how to resist persuasion? With the daily barrage of persuasive messaging that you may encounter, it helps to know how to stay committed to your own beliefs and attitudes. Psychologist William McGuire proposed that a good way to resist persuasion is through the process of attitude inoculation, which involves exposing yourself to weak, or weaker, arguments against your position in order to inoculate, or firm up, your resistance to counter-arguments. This process gives you practice and confidence in refutation. It’s like warming up before a big game. And if you need to inoculate someone else’s attitude or position on an issue, try presenting him with weak opposing arguments.

Being Mean

Most people probably think of themselves as civilized, but it’s hard to ignore all the violence and rage that seems so prevalent in today’s world. Some of the most horrific acts of human brutality have been committed in recent years — not in some savage society of the remote past. And, unfortunately, most people have experienced some form of violence and aggression. Mass atrocities affecting whole nations as well as smaller-scale heinous acts among individuals indicate that aggression and violence are unfortunate facts of human life.

Why do people act in a way that harms other people? What triggers a person’s violence? Psychologists have searched for answers to these questions by studying aggression, a form of violence. Aggression can be defined as any behavior that is directed at and intended to hurt another person or persons.

Two types of aggression exist:

Image Hostile aggression is driven by anger and is an end in itself.

Image Instrumental aggression is used to serve some other purpose, such as intimidation or extortion.

Most of the theories about aggression focus on determining why hostile aggression is committed.

Acting naturally

One idea is that some people are born with a violent instinct and a genetic predisposition to act aggressively. It does seem that some children are naturally more aggressive than others, and research supports the natural-born killer theory:

Image Freud proposed that people are born with aggressive instincts, and genetic studies show that identical twins are more likely to be more equally aggressive than fraternal twins (Rushton and others, 1986).

Image Some research also shows higher levels of the hormone testosterone in both men and women who’ve been convicted of violent crimes when compared to those convicted on nonviolent crimes (Dabbs, 1988).

The brain may have something to do with it as well. Specific centers in the brain seem to be implicated in producing and inhibiting aggressive behaviors. Individuals with severe damage to the frontal lobes of the brain have long been observed as having more difficulty controlling their aggressive impulses than people without this damage because this inhibition is seen as one of the functions of the frontal lobe. This difficulty with controlling aggression is a disinhibition process.

Being frustrated

Or maybe violent and aggressive people are just frustrated. I’m one of those drivers who gets angry when I’m stuck in traffic and other drivers are rude. Now, I don’t curse out my window at people or get into fistfights, but I sure do get frustrated.

In 1989, social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz, known for his research on human aggression, found that sometimes frustration leads to aggression, and sometimes it doesn’t. When someone does get frustrated, she can get angry, and when a person feels angry, she’s predisposed to act aggressively. It’s like the body and the mind are poised, on alert, to act with aggression. This trigger comes from a cognitive evaluation of a situation and usually a conclusion that the person who is ticking you off did so on purpose. This scenario is likely to produce an aggressive response. So if you step on someone’s toes, you’d better hope she realizes it was an accident.

Doing what’s learned

Maybe the violence comes down to people being a product of their environment. An aggressive person may have learned to act aggressively by watching other people do it.

Albert Bandura, professor emeritus at Stanford University, would agree. Social learning theory holds that aggressive behavior is learned by observing others and by seeing aggressive people rewarded for such behavior. Little boys are often rewarded for being “tough.” Boxers and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighters are paid big money to beat people up. Some may say that aggressive acts are rewarded on a regular basis in our society, too. What child wouldn’t see the benefits of aggression in such an environment?

Violence on television and in video games has come under fire in recent years because of its perceived connection to the dramatic increase in youth violence. Americans watch a lot of TV. American kids, in particular, spend a ton of time in front of different kinds of screens.

Even as far back as 1972, Gallup polls reported that Americans were watching an average of seven hours of TV a day. In 2012, that number was about the same, 6—7 hours per day. Regardless of your opinion on the connection between violence and television, the fact is that there’s a lot of violence on the tube.

In 1990, George Gerbner found that seven out of ten programs contain violent scenes, with primetime programming containing five violent acts per hour. No doubt about it, TV doles out a heavy dose of violent images. A United States Senate Committee in 2006 found that an average American child sees 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18.

Blaming media

I’ve watched violent television all my life, and I don’t consider myself a violent person. Most research concludes that there is a modest positive correlation between exposure to violence in the media (film, television, music, Internet, and video games). That is, the more violent a child’s media viewing is, the higher chance a child will engage in aggressive behavior.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed” in children.

My question is, why is there so much violence in our media anyway? Does it offer viewers something valuable? Is it an emotionally arousing persuasion technique used by corporations to sell their goods? I don’t know, but it may be worthwhile to examine the reasons behind the inclusion of so much violence in the entertainment industry.

Lending a Helping Hand

I’ve always marveled at people like Mother Teresa who devote their entire lives to helping others. Mother Teresa’s sacrifice was unquestionable. What drives people to help in this way? It certainly wasn’t money for the saint. I never saw Mother Teresa driving around in a Rolls-Royce.

A favorite topic among social psychologists is altruism, having concern for and helping other people without asking for anything in return. Maybe these psychologists study altruism with such zeal because it’s an integral part of everyday life. People are constantly presented with situations in which someone needs help, even if it’s a sad, late-night commercials showing starving children in other nations.

I think most people like to see themselves as helpful people. Or, if not particularly helpful, then at least willing to help in certain situations or when the need is severe.

The comedian Louis C. K. has a routine about sitting in first-class on a flight and seeing a war veteran and soldier sitting in coach. He thinks about giving his seat to the soldier but doesn’t actually give up his seat. He feels really good about himself for thinking about it, though. In Mr. C. K.’s fantasy, he was a very helpful person. He was proud about being willing to help, even if he did nothing in reality. A great deal of research by social psychologists investigates why, when, and who people actually help. Some of the findings are surprising, even shocking.

In New York City in 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered outside of her apartment by a man with a knife. She struggled with the attacker and screamed for help for nearly 35 minutes. No one came to her aid. Later reports by 38 of her neighbors stated that they had witnessed the crime and heard her screams, but they did nothing to help her.

What happened here? Why didn’t anyone help? As you’re reading this, you may be telling yourself that you would have helped. When I first heard this story, I thought, “What was wrong with those people?” Think about it, though. It’s not likely that all 38 people were cold, callous individuals who didn’t care about a woman being murdered within earshot. Instead, they were influenced by social psychological principle in which social situations have a powerful influence on individual behavior. The Kitty Genovese story illustrates the main point of social psychology — the power of a situation is a major factor in determining an individual’s behavior.

Why help?

Before I introduce you to some of the main theories of why people perform altruistic acts, I want to conduct a little test.

Image The next time you’re in a public place, try one of these experiments:

Image Experiment #1: Drop five coins on the floor near a group of people and act like you don’t notice. Time how long it takes for someone to help you. Try to remember as much about them as you can.

Image Experiment #2: Pretend to trip and fall in the public place. Make the same observations. (This may make an interesting YouTube video, but it is not recommended for safety reasons).

If you performed these experiments, what happened? Who helped you? How long did it take to receive help? Do you know why a person decided to help you? I know — it was probably because of your stunning good looks! Actually, believe it or not, attractiveness does make a difference. I cover this later in the chapter.

Theories about why people actually help others are all over the map. Here are some of the popular ones:

Image Social exchange theory: Helping is a type of trading process.

Image Selfishness theory: Helping someone may lead to rewards.

Image Genetic theory: Helping is a genetic impulse.

Exchanging social goods

Researchers E. B. Foa and U. G. Foa introduced social-exchange theory, the idea that helping is part of a reciprocal process of giving and receiving social “goods” such as love, support, and services. Individuals try to minimize personal costs and maximize benefits, just like any good businessperson does. In helping situations, if the benefit of helping is higher than the cost of not helping, a person is more likely to help. This kind of makes sense if you consider that sometimes helping people involves putting ourselves at physical risk or serious inconvenience.

Also supporting this theory is A. W. Gouldner’s reciprocity norm, which holds that a cultural norm tells people they should return help to those who help them. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. In turn, people don’t hurt those who help them out. Never bite the hand that feeds you! There’s only one catch to this theory: Sometimes, people can get offended if you offer them help. If they can’t return the favor, they may feel demeaned by the offer. Reciprocity works best when it’s between equals.

Looking out for number one

In the 1950s, Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, a famous philosophical novel that promoted the “virtue of selfishness.” If each person looks out for “numero uno,” all will be well, the theory goes.

Rand was not alone in thinking that selfishness isn’t all that bad. Similar to social-exchange theory, the selfishness theory argues that helping behavior is driven by a person’s own best interests. Do you give in order to receive? Some rewards are external, like praise and notoriety, and others are internal, like reducing negative feelings such as guilt.

Motivated by the love inside

In 1991, social psychologist Daniel Batson came to the rescue of humanity’s sense of goodness with his theory that people help others because individuals have a natural empathy for other people, especially those they are attached to.

Empathizing about sympathy

Some people get confused between empathy and sympathy. Empathy involves a personal understanding of someone’s suffering, and sympathy is distant and impersonal concern about another person’s suffering. Imagining being in someone else’s shoes is a type of empathy, and feeling sorry for a person who’s actually wearing uncomfortable shoes is the gig with sympathy.

Psychologist and professor emeritus at New York University Martin Hoffman found that even infants seem to possess a natural ability to “feel for” others. They cry when they hear another baby cry. Are they just crying because the sound of the other baby’s crying is hurting their ears? Probably not; it’s more likely that they cry because they are in touch with the other baby’s pain. People can relate to feeling upset at the sight of another person’s misfortune. This natural empathy may encourage helping behavior.

How often do you help those people who stand on the side of the street holding the “Will work for food” signs? Do you feel a responsibility to help them? They’re hoping you do. The norm of social responsibility holds that people should help others who need it. Bernard Weiner at UCLA in 1980, however, found that people typically apply this norm only in situations in which we perceive the person needing help as not having caused the situation due to her own negligence or fault. If I think that the person only needs help because she “did it to herself,” I am less likely to adhere to the norm of social responsibility.

Do you think that the guy standing with the sign on the side of the street made some bad choices or somehow screwed up? Ask him; you never know until you ask. You may be eschewing your social responsibility if you don’t offer some help.

Richard Dawkins also supports the genetic theory in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), in which he proposed that people are altruistic because their genes compel them to be. The idea of kin protection states that genes promote altruistic behavior toward kin or family in order to ensure the survival of the group’s genetic makeup. Following this line of reasoning, I’m much less likely to help someone I don’t know. Why would I? They don’t share my genes.

Image The more genetic material I share with someone, the more likely I am to help him or her. That’s it. Nothing fancy.

When to help?

One of the most remarkable findings in altruism research is the idea that people are less likely to help when they’re in the presence of others than when they’re alone. This sounds strange, doesn’t it? I may think that the fear of appearing cold and uncaring in front of others may encourage people to help more.

But research shows otherwise. When someone is in a crowd, he is actually less likely to notice that other people need help. In New York City, for example, people are always surrounded by other people. It’s a crowded place, and most people can’t take the time to notice everything and everyone around them simply because of the sheer volume of information; it’s easier to fade into a crowd.

Strangely enough, when others are around, people are also less likely to interpret someone’s behavior as indicative of needing help. Bystanders look to others for a sign as to how they should respond in a situation. If the other people don’t act alarmed, then an individual typically won’t be alarmed (or react) either. If the situation is ambiguous, not a clear-cut helping situation, a person’s interpretation of the event in the presence of others is likely to be that intervention is not required. This is especially true if the other people are strangers.

A final problem with helping in the presence of others is called diffusion of responsibility. People usually just assume someone else will take care of whatever needs doing. If no one else is around, then I’m the only one left; I’ve got to help. But if others are around, it’s easy to assume they’ll do it. What happens when everyone assumes that everyone else is going to offer assistance? Help doesn’t happen.

That’s exactly what two researchers, psychologists Latane and Darley, found in a 1968 study in which experiment subjects were witness to a victim of a feigned seizure. Persons who were led to believe they were alone reported the emergency to authorities more quickly than those who believed they were just one among other witnesses.

It’s not all bad news when it comes to groups, though. Research has found that when someone in a group takes action, others are more likely to jump in. Helpful people in this scenario serve as prosocial models and are a strong influence on altruistic behavior. The problem is getting someone to make the first move. Until someone does, the negative forces of the bystander effect are active. The bystander effect or bystander apathy is the dynamic of not getting involved in a situation when there are too many people standing around; you’re likely to just stand there, too. So go ahead and be a hero. Make the first move — someone has to.

Who gives and receives help?

In my personal life sometimes I feel like helping people and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I would rather watch television than help my friend move that new couch. Still others seem to always have help available when they need it (unlike my couch-purchasing friend). Are certain people more helpful or “help-able” than others?

What about how helping affects feelings? I’ve always wondered about the origins of the tradition of buying cigars for friends when a baby is born. I still don’t know where it comes from, but altruism research shows that happy people tend to be more helpful or giving (happy dad, cigar as gift). Does that mean that sad people aren’t helpful at all? It actually depends on how rewarding helping others is to the person experiencing sadness. If sad people aren’t too self-absorbed and self-focused, altruistic acts can be very rewarding for them. Feeling good, doing good! Feeling bad, doing good! Sounds good, especially if I’m feeling bad.

Pious people are often viewed as helpful. Many nonprofit organizations are operated by religious denominations. But are religious people really more helpful than their non-religious neighbors? Here’s what research shows: When people indicate that religion is very important in their lives, they have been found to give 2.5 times as much money to charity as those who indicate that religion is not very important. The verdict — religious individuals are definitely generous, and, in some research findings, they’re more generous than non-religious individuals.

Researchers Eagly and Crowley in 1986 found that women get helped more often than men, and attractive women get helped more often than unattractive women. I guess the ugly men out there are out of luck. Luckily for them, similarity to the helper seems to be a factor. The more someone looks like or dresses like me (or you), the more likely I am to help them out. So, you better cross your fingers and hope that the next time you’re in of need help, someone thinks you’re looking good.

Birds of a Feather . . . or Not

Airports, particularly international airports, are amazing places, I think. The diversity in these places is amazing. People of all colors, shapes, sizes, cultures, and nationalities all under one roof. But this diversity provides fertile soil for discrimination. Whenever people with differences are together, there is the potential for prejudice.

In this section, I introduce you to prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination and describe how you can respond to these social dynamics.

Finding out about isms

Prejudice is a negative and disrespectful attitude, thought, or belief about a person based on his membership in a particular group. Some law enforcement agencies have been accused of using a prejudicial and controversial practice that’s known as racial profiling in which officers can assume that certain individuals are potentially involved in criminal activity simply because they belong to a particular “race” or ethnic group.

A well-known example of potential racial profiling has been in play at airport security checkpoints following the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. As a result of that attack, airport security may be more inclined to stop and more thoroughly and intensely question individuals of perceived Middle Eastern descent. If that’s indeed happening, then airport security is guilty of racial profiling.

Psychologist Lynne Jackson proposes that prejudice is, in part, based on stereotypes, beliefs that most members of a group possess the same characteristics, traits, and behavioral tendencies. White men can’t jump or dance. Arabs are terrorists. Asians can’t drive. These blanket statements are offensive, right? That’s the point of prejudice based on stereotypes; these conclusions about individuals based on their affiliation to a certain group are disrespectful.

Moreover, people often see what they expect to see. So if a person in the target group happens to perform the behavior our stereotype predicts — boom! Stereotype strengthened. The other people in that same group who don’t behave according to our stereotype are often not noticed.

Some common forms of prejudice include the following:

Image Racism centers on a person’s perceived “race” or ethnicity.

Image Sexism is based on a person’s gender.

Image Ageism focuses on a person’s age.

Image Ableism is based on a person’s disability.

Image Nationalism centers on a person’s national origin.

Image Sanism/Mentalism relates to a person’s mental abilities or mental illness.

Religious intolerance (negative attitudes about a person based on his spiritual beliefs) and homophobia (fear of people with a homosexual orientation) are also common forms of prejudice.

What about psycholigistophobia? That irrational fear of a person’s occupation being a psychologist and the belief that all psychologists are crazy, have a beard (if they’re male), and love to offer free advice at cocktail parties. Okay, I made this one up and I shaved my beard. But psychologists have a rep!

Stereotypes can be conscious or unconscious. I can be aware of my stereotyped beliefs or not. But where do stereotypes and subsequent prejudice come from? From a social learning theory perspective, prejudices may be learned. People can certainly be taught specific beliefs by parents, the community, peer groups, and culture.

Some theorists propose that prejudice is a consequence of human evolution, that the mental process is an inherent part of the human mind that evolved to help humans identify who’s part of “their” group and who’s not, who poses a danger or is a potential competitor for resources.

Yet many psychologists propose that, ultimately, prejudice is a cognitive evaluation process that’s essentially a consequence of the mind’s tendency to “chunk” information together for the purpose of making vast amounts of information more manageable. Prejudice is a mental shortcut. Research shows that in situations in which people are distracted, tired, or unmotivated, they are more vulnerable to prejudicial and stereotypical thinking. Lynne Jackson likens this dynamic to a sort of “lazy process” that emerges when people lack the resources to carefully process social information.

Understanding discrimination

The human mind may have a tendency to group people in the form of prejudice, and this is often not an innocuous process. Prejudice can lead to discrimination — differential treatment of a person or group based on prejudicial attitudes and beliefs. Prejudice, although perhaps seemingly natural, is often deployed by advantaged groups and individuals against groups and individuals who enjoy lower levels of social advantage.

Here are two common forms of discrimination:

Image Interpersonal: Individual acts of discrimination such as not picking the short-statured kid for the basketball team (He may be quite good!)

Image Institutional: Policies, procedures, rules, laws — voter ID laws that prohibit the poor or elderly from voting because they don’t have proper identification, for example — or a culture within an organization that systematically disadvantages one group in comparison with others

Making contact

The seemingly automatic bias in human thinking, fortunately, can be addressed through an approach known as contact, which was formally studied by the psychologist Gordon Allport. Contact holds that when a group of diverse people get together to collaborate on reaching a common goal or project, positive attitudes toward each other increase and negative attitudes decrease. This does not mean that you can just throw a block party and invite all your diverse and prejudiced friends, and they’ll learn to get along. To work, contact encounters must be structured to support equality, cooperation, and safety.

Psychologists Pettigrew and Tropp analyzed hundreds of studies and proposed the following key ingredients of a successful “contact” encounter:

Image Reduction in anxiety occurs through exposure to others without threat or harm.

Image Increased empathy is a result of learning from and about others.

Image Increased knowledge about others decreases stereotypes.

A person can also reduce his stereotypic and prejudicial attitudes simply by having friends and associates who are friends with or associated with people of the other group. This is a vicarious contact situation and works to reduce prejudice and stereotypes because a person you already trust is showing trust in another person, which means you can in turn trust that person as well.

For example, if your best childhood buddy befriends a colleague who belongs to a group you have a prejudice against, you’re more likely to become less biased toward that person and group after learning your trusted friend enjoys their company.

Research also suggests that clear, well-communicated cultural and group norms against prejudice can have a big impact. Often, prejudice in individuals is the result of group pressure to conform and adopt prejudicial attitudes. Flipping that around, the same pressure to conform can be a powerful influence as well.