Social Psychology

Introduction to Psychological Science: Integrating Behavioral, Neuroscience and Evolutionary Perspectives - William J. Ray 2021

Social Psychology


✵ 12.1 Define what it means to be social and how we evaluate our social relationships.

✵ 12.2 Discuss the role that social cognition plays in understanding how we form opinions and make decisions about ourselves and others.

✵ 12.3 Discuss the role that social emotion plays in prosocial and helping behaviors.

✵ 12.4 Explain how social influences affect behavior.

✵ 12.5 Describe our understanding of the distinctive characteristics of a moral judgment.

The story begins on March 13, 1964. It was about 3 a.m. when a woman named Kitty Genovese arrived home. She parked her car in a parking lot across from her home. She then walked across the street from the parking lot in the direction of her home. She became uneasy, as she was walking since someone was walking toward her and she didn’t like the way he looked. She became extremely uneasy and turned around and started to walk toward a police telephone. She never reached the police call box. He overtook her and stabbed her. She screamed, “OH MY GOD, I HAVE BEEN STABBED. PLEASE HELP ME! PLEASE HELP ME!” With that scream, windows were opened, people’s heads came out, and lights came on. The people shouted. With that, the man got scared and left. A bus then came by and people got out of the bus. People in the houses then closed their windows and went back to sleep. She apparently was not helped by anybody. She managed to crawl to another building and the man came back and overtook her and stabbed again. Again, she screamed. She shrieked, “I’m DYING!” Again, windows opened and lights came on. The people shouted and the man again ran off and got into his car. The third time, he came back again, and this time he killed her. The entire event took more than half an hour. It was not until 3:50 a.m. that the police received the first call.

Based on Martin Greenberg The New York Times article March 27, 1964 and Latané and Darley (1969).

Social Psychology

As humans, we are social creatures. There has never been a time in our history where we humans have lived alone. From the earliest times as hunter-gatherers, we have lived in social groups with strong social bonds. It is these groups that have shaped our social skills and abilities. For example, we need to know who our friends are as opposed to who might want to hurt us. We also need to be able to select mates. Further, we need to understand the dynamics of our larger group. These abilities have been passed down over evolutionary time and are part of our human social interactions today.

As part of our interest in social interactions, we seek information about others. It has been estimated that more than half of our conversations with others are about social topics (Dunbar, Marriott, & Duncan, 1997). In social situations, we are quick to make judgments concerning other individuals (Zebrowitz, 2017). Shortly after meeting someone, we make a judgment about them, including whether we like them or not, as well as our overall impression of them.

More than 70 years ago, the social psychologist Solomon Asch noted that not only do we develop quick impressions of others, but that it is also involuntary (Asch, 1946). All of this takes place out of our awareness through a complex set of determinations in our brain (see Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015 for an overview). Not only does our brain influence social interactions, but our social relations influence how our brain develops (Falk & Bassett, 2017).

Given the long history of humans interacting with other humans, it is not surprising that there is great complexity in the manner in which we interact with one another. We treat relatives differently than others. We treat those who look like us differently than those who do not. We would choose to save a child in a burning building as opposed to an older adult. Overall, what this means is that there is no simple way of describing our social relationships with one another. However, we can view this complexity within larger categories of behavior and experience.

This chapter emphasizes social relationships, especially those such as cooperation and competition, and the rules that underlie our social relationships. Not only do we make social evaluations, but we also make decisions concerning when not to act or share information with others. This requires a type of inhibition on our part. Further, in the chapter you will learn about what factors lead us to do what others tell us as well as how we evaluate others in potential social roles. This is one hallmark of social psychology. That is, social psychology has traditionally focused on the situation and the way in which changing the situation influences how we form attitudes and interact with others.

It is clear that a variety of abilities and developmental processes of humans support a high level of social interaction for an extended period of time. We remember relationships we grew up with and this influences our adult relationships. We tend to use attachment styles similar to those we experienced as children. Additionally, humans have the ability to use language with ease, which fosters social interactions even at long distances. We are particularly sensitive to emotional cues that deepen social interactions such as emotional faces. We even include emotional symbols in our text messages to one another (J).

As you can imagine, the human brain has evolved to reflect the complexity of our social interactions. We interact with others individually, in groups, and in larger society and cultural functions. In fact, the activation of certain parts of our brain is related to how complex our social relationships are (Dziura & Thompson, 2014).

What it means to be social and how we evaluate our social relationships will be important questions to consider in this chapter. Many things we do as humans are done in the service of social interactions. As infants, we not only pay attention to others but we are eager to connect with them. This continues throughout our lives. We can note the manner in which humans have taken modern technology, such as the cell phone or the Internet, and placed the technology in the service of social interactions. Text messaging is one clear example of using technology to keep connected socially.

Social processes may have also influenced the evolution of our higher-level cognitive abilities, including mathematics. The pressures of living in close social groups are seen by some psychologists to have not only driven the increasing complexity of social facilitation but also an increase in our cognitive abilities (Dunbar, 2003; Adolphs, 2003). In fact, across non-human primate species, brain size is related to the size of the social group each individual interacts with in these species (Dunbar, 2014). In a complex fashion, this increase in cognitive abilities and social facilitation in humans also lies at the base of our development of culture.

As humans, we often want to conserve our energy. You might ask a teacher whether certain information will be on the test. If the answer is no, most people typically do not put in the effort to learn that information. The same is true with social relationships. As humans, we have developed strategies to make social decisions with minimal effort. We have also developed strategies that allow for more cohesion in social relationships. As you watch yourself interact with others during the day, you can notice the ways you both reduce effort and support positive relationships.

The report of Kitty Genovese at the beginning of this chapter raises a number of important questions concerning how humans interact with one another. We all tend to think we would have helped. However, what we say we would do in a particular situation is often not what social psychology research has shown that we actually do. Part of our social interactions relate to different conditions. Think of situations in which you would have helped and those in which you would not.

Previously, heuristics were described in terms of cognitive decisions. We also use heuristics in our social relationships. Most of our social decisions are made in real time, which does not allow for lengthy considerations. Since we are unable to rationally determine our social interactions, we use heuristics—the rules or strategies by which we make decisions and actions, although these rules are often not in awareness. These heuristics also influence how we make attributions—that is, how we make inferences about the behavior of others.

Social Cognition

Social cognition refers to the manner in which we understand others. Social cognition is a broad term, which can include our attributions about others, how we stereotype others, as well as our prejudice of others. One example of social cognition is the fundamental attribution error, as was introduced earlier in the book.

Here is the situation in which it takes place. What would happen if you were walking to class and almost got hit by a car? What would you say? If you are like most people, you would say the driver is “stupid” or some other similar term. However, if you are driving and almost hit someone, what would you say then? Typically, most people say something like “the sun was in my eyes” or “he ran in front of me” or another situational explanation.

Humans tend to attribute trait characteristics such as being stupid to others while using situational explanations such as having the sun in our eyes for ourselves. In essence, trait characteristics are internal characteristics, whereas situational ones happen outside of the person. To explain others in terms of internal characteristics and ourselves in terms of external characteristics is referred to as the fundamental attribution error or person bias and will be discussed in this section. It is also another example of how humans conserve cognitive effort by ignoring situational information when making sense of others’ actions.


As humans, we are always trying to explain to ourselves why people do what they do or why events happen in a certain way. This tendency has been studied by social psychologists as attribution theory. One of the early researchers to examine attribution was Fritz Heider (1958). Heider suggested that humans are motivated by two primary needs. The first is the need to form a coherent view of the world. That is, we want our world to make sense. And the second need is the desire to gain control over our environment. Attributions are one way we create a world view that makes sense to us. Technically, an attribution is how we explain events in the world. In this way, we create causal explanations for what we experience and do.

Heider discussed two types of attributions. The first is internal or dispositional attribution. This is the situation in which observed behaviors are attributed to the internal state of the person. Saying someone is lazy when they do not get a job would be an example of internal attributions. The second type of attribution is external or situational attribution. As the name implies, this is the case where a person’s behavior is attributed to external factors. If you said your grade on a test was low because you were not given enough time, you would be attributing your behavior to an external or situational factor.

If you know the person well, you might use your previous experiences with this person to make these inferences. You might know that the person looks a certain way when they are tired. What if you don’t know the person well? It turns out that we make guesses or predictions about what is going on. It also turns out that the manner in which we make these predictions follows a set of psychological rules that can be studied and described.

Humans make inferences in terms of the person, the situation, and the behavior observed. What has been discovered is that humans are consistent in the way we use observations of the person, the situation, and behaviors. These consistencies have been referred to as bias, error, or heuristic. Not only are heuristics used to solve cognitive problems, but they are also important in determining social relationships. As such, social attributions reflect our psychological tendencies to perform person perception in similar ways.

As research in social psychology progressed, it was suggested that individuals tend to see the behavior of others as internally directed even when there might be evidence for external influences. In fact, one of the earlier studies in this area showed that individuals still saw behaviors as internally directed even if they were told the experimenters had instructed the person to act a certain way (Napolitan & Goethals, 1979). As noted, this was referred to as the fundamental attribution error. It is also known as correspondence bias since there is a tendency for individuals to see that how another person acts reflects their internal thoughts and feelings. Movie stars, for example, will tell you that people come up to them and expect them to behave as they have in their movies. Lab research suggests that people become associated with positions they take even if the position such as having liberal or conservative ideas was randomly assigned to them.

It was initially suggested that the fundamental attribution error or actor—observer hypothesis, as it was also called, was a general principle (Jones & Nisbett, 1971). This suggested that people tend to explain their own behavior with situational causes and other people’s behavior with internal or personality causes. Later research has shown that there is an outcome dimension to this distinction. That is, humans tend to present themselves in ways that are most favorable to themselves (Malle, 2006). When events are negative, we are more likely to attribute our behavior to situational events. If, on the other hand, the events are positive, we are more likely to see the outcome as an expression of who we are and our abilities. We do well in a job because we are really smart and have a number of skills. If something did not work out, it is because of the people we had to work with or the limitations of the situation. This tendency to see positive events as our making and negative events as situational is referred to as the self-serving bias.

The fundamental attribution error was referred to as fundamental, as it was assumed to be a common process in all cultures. However, this has not been shown to be the case (Ma-Kellams, 2020). Non-Western especially Asian cultures do not show the attribution bias in all situations. It is suggested that even in simple perceptual tasks, Western and non-Western groups attend to different cues in the environment. In general, Western individuals attend less to contextual stimuli. Contextual stimuli can be the sound of the voice rather than specific words or background information rather than the focus of the image (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001). Overall, the emphasis of conceptual cues would reduce the attribution error. Further, the attribution error is seen less in collective versus individualistic cultures. Collective cultures emphasize the manner in which each person is related to the group. China and some South American countries emphasize the collective aspects of their culture. Individual cultures, on the other hand, place more emphasis on the individual and his or her achievements. The United States, Australia, and part of Western Europe emphasize individualism.

Brain Functioning in Attribution

With the development of brain-imaging techniques, it became possible to better understand brain processes involved in attribution. Using fMRI studies, it has been shown that thinking about people tends to activate the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) (see Harris, Todorov, & Fiske, 2005, for an overview). Further, research tasks that emphasize internal attribution show activation in the superior temporal sulcus. This suggests that different networks of our brain are involved in just thinking about social processes as opposed to making an internal attribution.

Brain differences have also been shown when cognitive conflict is present, a condition referred to as dissonance (Kitayama, Chua, Tompson, & Han, 2013). Cognitive dissonance was initially studied by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. According to Festinger, cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant state that occurs when a person realizes that attitudes, actions, or beliefs are inconsistent (Festinger, 1957). For example, what do people do when asked to do or say something that was contrary to their opinion?

One classic study asked individuals to simply turn knobs in one direction and then in another (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). As you can imagine this was one boring task to do for a length of time. After a time, the experimenter said that additional participants were needed. The current participant was offered money to tell others that the task was fun. One group was given $1 to do this, whereas another group was given $20 to make this statement. All participants agreed to do this and did indeed make the statement that the task was fun to another person. At the end of the session, the participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of the knob-turning session. It turns out that those who were paid the $1 rated the enjoyment of the dull task higher than those who were paid $20. Why is this? According to cognitive dissonance theory, those paid $1 to say the experience was fun experienced more dissonance and thus needed to change their perspective to match the lie that they told than those paid $20.

The overall theory that has been supported in numerous studies around the world shows that we will change our attitudes and memories of events to be consistent and this is reflected in the brain. Although it has been assumed that cognitive dissonance requires conscious awareness, this may not be the case. One study examined individuals who had experienced brain damage and could not form new memories. These people could not remember they had performed a boring task. However, they showed the same attitude changes to dissonance tasks as was shown with individuals without this memory disorder (Liberman, 2007). Thus, cognitive dissonance may reflect a basic human characteristic.

Categorization and Stereotyping

A large number of social psychology studies have shown that there is a consistent tendency for individuals to view themselves, their worlds, their friends, and other aspects of themselves in an overly positive manner. Not only do we categorize whether another individual is like us (our in-group), we also determine who is not like us (our out-group). If someone is seen to be in our out-group, we tend to see them in more negative terms, as less deserving, and as more responsible for any negative event in their life. If indeed they were able to accomplish something positive, we would call it luck. However, if you happen to be in our in-group, then the opposite attributions are made. It is you who are responsible for your successes and situations that are responsible for your failures.

Traditional categories of person perception include age, gender, and race. Person perception is simply how we categorize others. These categories are processed spontaneously and effortlessly (see Devos, 2014; Liberman, Woodward, & Kinzler, 2017 for overviews). Categorization is also a type of heuristic. We use categories to simplify our social relations. Just by seeing someone, we have ideas about who they are. These categories have also been referred to as schemas. We make inferences about individuals who ride motorcycles, are obese, have tattoos, and other such features, although the processing for groups of such individuals requires more cognitive effort. When we make inferences about a group of individuals that share similar characteristics, it is referred to as stereotyping.

In the 1990s there was a film named White Men Can’t Jump, which reflected the stereotype that white men were not able to play basketball as well as African American men. Older films may also reflect the stereotype that women are bad drivers. Rich people are often portrayed as uncaring. Asian students are at times seen to be good at math. Various stereotypes go with perceptions of age, gender, and race as to whether the person is lazy, dangerous, smart, a good automobile driver, outgoing, and so forth. Often comics in the newspaper play on these stereotypes.

Many corporations have sought to reduce stereotyping through employee training as well as their interaction with the public. In 2015 Airbnb permanently banned a host after she canceled a guest’s reservation minutes before her arrival because the guest was Asian. In 2017, a conservative activist was banned from both ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft after she said that she didn’t want a Muslim driver. Media has also sought to bring stereotyping to their readers’ attention. In 2020, The New York Times (March 29) reported that Asian Americans were yelled at, attacked, and blamed for the COVID-19 epidemic even though they were second-or third-generation Americans who had lived in no other country than the US.

Research suggests that these stereotypes are acquired in early childhood and are difficult to change. One study looked at 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adult white Americans (Baron & Banaji, 2006). These individuals were asked to complete a measure that reflects automatic associations. The basic idea is that if you view the person of one race in a negative manner, then you should be able to react faster if you are asked to identify that person’s face with a negative word. Your reaction time would be slower if the opposite was the case. Using this measure, it was shown that implicit race attitudes are acquired early in life and remain relatively stable into adulthood. What does change is one’s explicit attitudes. Explicit attitudes are what you tell yourself and others about your views of race and other aspects you believe are critical to your identity (Howe & Krosnick, 2017). A number of studies show that familiarity with a person of a different race or ethnic group will lead to less stereotyping.

Social psychology research has sought to describe the mechanisms that support social stereotyping. In the study of stereotyping, three aspects have been identified (Macrae & Quadflieg, 2010).

1. The first is social categorizing. We may say that the person is female, or Latina, or an older adult. That is, we place the person in a certain group.

2. The second aspect is stereotype activation. That is, once we have stereotyped another person, then a series of opinions about the person come into our mind. Numerous studies have shown that we can quickly create a series of adjectives concerning any social category.

3. The third aspect is stereotype application. That is, we use the information to understand the situation we have observed or what to expect in an interaction. If we saw an older person not understand someone, we might say he or she is getting senile.

It is not necessary that all three steps happen. If the person is doing a number of other tasks at the time, he or she may not make it to the stage of stereotype application (see Devos, 2014 for an overview).

Brain Aspects of Stereotyping and Prejudice

Stereotyping refers to perceptions, beliefs, and expectations we have about a group of individuals. Stereotyping is seen as a cognitive assessment of a particular group typically defined by society or culture. These cognitive assessments can be either positive or negative. They can be either accurate or inaccurate. Stereotyping reduces cognitive effort. If we assume that all members of a certain class of individuals share the same characteristics, then we do not need to consider the complex situation we see in front of us.

When a person makes a negative assessment of another person on the basis of group membership such as race, age, or gender, it involves brain areas related to cognition and memory. These areas would include the medial prefrontal areas of the brain and the temporal areas related to memory (Amodio, 2014).

Whereas stereotyping involves more of a cognitive assessment, prejudice, on the other hand, reflects a more emotional evaluation (Amodio, 2014). Prejudice is considered to precede cognitive evaluations. One common example is to see one’s own group as more favorable than those who are not part of one’s own group. Prejudice represents the emotional reaction, often negative, to those who are not like ourselves on what we see as critical aspects.

Prejudice is considered to involve those brain areas related to emotion and motivation (Amodio & Cikara, 2021). These areas include the amygdala, insula, striatum, prefrontal cortex, and orbital frontal cortex. As noted previously, the amygdala responds quickly to threat, including perceived social threat, which includes responses to those who are not part of our cultural group. What is interesting is that if the person sees a different face quickly, then amygdala activation is seen. However, if the face is seen for a longer period, prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate will inhibit the amygdala (Kutson, Mah, Manly, & Grafman, 2007; Richeson et al., 2003).

The insula is related to internal feeling states, which gives us a sense of self (Namkung, Kim, & Sawa, 2017). Insula activity has also been seen to be active in terms of racial bias. The striatum is part of the basal ganglia and is involved in goal-directed responses as well as habits. This area is also active in terms of same-race responses (Amodio, 2014). Overall, research has shown the prefrontal cortex to be related to the processing of social information. As with many emotional and cognitive processes, there is a close connection between prejudice and stereotyping. Additional brain areas, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, are involved in both prejudice and stereotyping. We cannot avoid stereotyping and prejudice, as described in the box: Myths and Misconceptions—You Can Be Bias Free.

Myths and Misconceptions—You Can Be Bias Free

As humans, we often see ourselves as bias free. That is, we can take a perspective and understand people as individuals. However, most of our perception of others does not happen with careful thought. We make quick decisions, particularly at times when we are tired or busy. Research suggests that this is the very time that bias can happen. In this case, bias is the process of having a set of attributes associated with a category of objects or people.

Early research showed that people could sort pairs of words more quickly when they followed the person’s existing categories. In this study, participants responded more quickly when pairing flower names, such as rose or tulip, with good words such as peach, glory, or laughter and when pairing insect names, such as fly, wasp, or beetle, with negative words such as war, failure, or sadness (Greenwald et al., 1998). It took longer to pair the flower names with the negative words and the insect names with the positive words. The basic idea is that you have a set of attitudes or associations with different categories of people or objects.

At this point, more than 500 studies have used this basic idea to study implicit attitudes. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you do not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science. A recent study showed that hiring managers whose scores on the IAT indicated gender bias tended to favor men over women in their hiring decisions (see Sleek, 2018 and Vianello & Bar-Anan, 2020 for overviews).

One meta-analysis of the IAT incorporated more than 100 research studies with more than 14,000 participants (Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, & Banaji, 2009). This research compared what a person would say they believed or would do as opposed to their responses on the IAT. The self-report predictions were worst for sensitive topics, such as those that involved inter-racial behaviors and best for those that involved close relationships, political preferences, or use of alcohol and drugs. The IAT predictions were best for sensitive topics such as intergroup relationships. Thus, in those areas that involve sensitive topics, people are not aware of their own biases.

You can take this test online ( There is also an NPR Invisibilia show about several types of bias including the IAT (

Thought Question: Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) for yourself at the link above. Are you surprised at the results? What specific steps can you take to examine and reduce bias in your daily life?


1. This chapter begins with a long list of the ways in which we humans are social creatures. Which are most central to understanding our human psychology?

2. What are the definitions and interrelationships among the following concepts related to attribution:

a. Fundamental attribution error?

b. Internal or dispositional attribution?

c. External or situational attribution?

d. Self-serving bias?

3. Identify and describe the three rules by which we make internal or external attributions.

a. How do the three rules combine to form the condition for an internal attribution?

b. How do the three rules combine to form the condition for an external attribution?

4. What are the three categories traditionally included as part of person perception? What is the relationship between stereotyping and person perception?

5. Identify and describe the three stages that support the process of stereotyping.

6. What is the difference between stereotyping and prejudice? What evidence does the brain provide in describing their differences?

Looking at Others and the Face

In Macbeth, Shakespeare described the face “as a book where men may read strange matters” (Act 1, Scene 5). Faces are extremely important social stimuli. Looking at someone’s face tells us whether we recognize them. They also tell us about a person’s identity such as gender, age, and ethnicity. In our interactions with others, the face gives us clues to the other person’s mood. The gaze of the eyes also tells us about how the person is interacting with us. Even infants would rather look at a face than other stimuli. Given that the face plays such an important role in our social interactions, it is not surprising that we have cognitive and neural mechanisms associated with face processing (see Adolphs & Tusche, 2017; Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006 for overviews).

Across a number of species, infants evoke a special type of social interaction. Babies receive more gentle and loving care than older children. Humans will often smile and begin a type of “baby talk” whenever they see an infant. Baby talk generally includes a higher pitched voice with very simple language structure. We also like cartoon characters or stuffed animals that have baby face characteristics.

Interestingly, social psychology research has also shown that humans treat other humans with baby-like faces in a more positive way (Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2008). Judges actually give lighter sentences to those convicted of a crime whose faces have more baby-like face characteristics. On the other hand, those without a baby face were judged to be better at demanding occupations that involve less social interaction.

As a social appraisal characteristic, we tend to overgeneralize from someone’s facial features to other characteristics of the person. People with attractive faces are seen to be more outgoing, socially competent, sexually responsive, intelligent, and healthy (see Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2008 for an overview). Popular magazines, websites, and videos feature people with attractive faces. Further, not only do we judge those with attractive traits to have more positive traits, we also treat them in a more positive way. Attractive people are more likely to be hired. The opposite is also true in that those with less attractive faces are viewed and dealt with in a more negative manner. These positive and negative tendencies are not limited to American culture but are seen across the world. Whereas different cultures may evaluate body size or skin color in different ways, facial attractiveness is evaluated in a more universal manner (Little, Jones, & DeBruine, 2011).

Historically, in most cultures it has been assumed that the human face can reveal a person’s true nature and intentions (see Jack & Schyns, 2017; Todorov, Olivola, Dotsch, & Mende-Siedlecki, 2015 for a review). Research has also shown that facial appearance predicts social outcomes in areas such as politics, law, business, and the military.

In one study (Willis & Todorov, 2006), college students were asked to look at photos of unfamiliar faces for as little as a one-tenth of a second. Their judgments concerning such characteristics as attractiveness, competency, trustworthiness, likeability, and aggression were similar to other students who could view the faces for a long period of time. Everyone was able to make judgments in a tenth of a second. However, with a longer viewing time, individuals became more confident in their judgments. Overall, individuals can create impressions of others effortlessly in a quick glance.

We not only make appraisals of appearance but also of intention. We are able to make quick estimates of someone’s intentions and prepare to respond appropriately. From an evolutionary standpoint, we can begin to understand what types of tasks were required from our earliest history. One important task is decrypting information from another’s face. As we have seen, we can identify emotions in someone’s face without problem—unless, of course, it is upside down, as we saw earlier in this book!

We have come to understand that certain types of processing are given priority over other types. Things that represent a danger are processed faster and receive a high priority of action. What we pay attention to is clearly part of evolutionary history. An important part of this history is what aspects of our culture we incorporate into our world view. Like children’s ability to efficiently absorb the language around them, we humans absorb the social norms of our culture and the ability to use this effectively puts one at an advantage (Simon, 1990). The inability to understand and respond in terms of social norms is often seen at the heart of disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (Happé, Cook, & Bird, 2017).

Also, as discussed in terms of developmental processes, humans can infer intentions and behaviors of others from limited information. Human infants, children, and adolescents remain dependent in a variety of ways that encourage social interactions. Not only do we enjoy and seek social contact, but the denial of this contact leads to pain. Historically, we felt isolation when away from our group. Today, with modern technology social networking can take place at great distances. Being part of a group is typically associated with well-being. However, it is also possible to feel left out with digital social networking. This has led some individuals to constantly check their social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to remain in contact. When not connected, some individuals experience the fear of missing out (FOMO). That is, they are concerned that an event is happening without being a part of it. This fear has been seen in adolescents and young adults around the world (Alt, 2015; Buglass, Binder, Betts, & Underwood, 2017; Oberst, Wegmann, Stodt, Brand, & Chamarro, 2017).

In terms of feeling left out, our brain uses similar pathways that are active during physical pain. That is, when people experience social pain such as being socially excluded, the same areas are active as during physical pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; Eisenberger & Muscatell, 2014; Eisenberger, 2015). Further, EEG differences are also seen in those with a high fear of missing out (Lai, Altavilla, Ronconi, & Aceto, 2016).

Figure 12-1 Pain and pleasure system.

Figure 12-1 Pain and pleasure system.

Source: Lieberman and Eisenberger (2009).

Figure 12-1 shows the brain areas involved in social and physical pain, which are activated by such social experiences as feeling excluded, bereavement, being treated unfairly, and negative social comparisons as well as positive experiences. On the right side of the figure, you can see the reward network that responds to a variety of physical and social pleasures. Some of these social experiences include having a good reputation, being treated fairly, cooperating, and giving to charity. This reward network activates the same brain areas as seen in the rewarding effects of drugs and sex (Volkow et al., 2012). One critical part of this network is the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is involved in the positive experience during social contact. In particular, it has been shown that the hormone oxytocin influences the VTA and is involved in prosocial behaviors such as making connections with others (Hung et al., 2017; Preston, 2017). This suggests that our brain is motivated for human interactions in the same way we want sex, drugs, and even chocolate.

Face Processing and the Brain

Two areas of the brain that play important roles in face processing are known as the occipital face area (OFA) and the fusiform face area (FFA), which are located relatively close to each other. As you learned in the chapter discussing vision, information from the retina goes to the occipital lobe for low-level processing. Information then goes to a variety of areas for specific types of processing, such as color, motion, and line features. One area in the occipital lobe is the occipital face area. Given that the OFA shows activity to both inverted and upright faces, it is assumed that facial feature analysis takes place there (see Macrae & Quadflieg, 2010 for an overview).

Research suggests that the FFA is involved in more total face recognition rather than low-level feature detection (Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006). The FFA is sensitive to how the face is presented (upright or inverted), which suggests a more holistic level of analysis. The FFA has also been found to play a role in analyzing features related to determining the gender and racial characteristics of the face. This suggests that these facial features can be evaluated quickly in an interaction with another person.

Pictures of faces are processed in the brain differently than pictures of houses. As shown in Figure 12-2, attention to faces enhances cortical activity in the FFA, whereas attention to houses increases activity in the parahippocampal place area (PPA) (Baldauf & Desimone, 2014). Further, MEG activity and synchrony were seen between the inferior frontal junction (IFJ) and the FFA when looking at faces. When looking at houses, greater MEG synchrony was seen between the IFJ and PPA. What information we derive from seeing a face can also influence our actions, as described in the box: The World Is Your Laboratory—Are Police More Likely to Shoot Black Suspects?

Figure 12-2 Attention to faces involves different areas of the brain.

Figure 12-2 Attention to faces involves different areas of the brain.

From Baldauf & Desimone, 2014 Science 344, p. 426

The World Is Your Laboratory—Are Police More Likely to Shoot Black Suspects?

In the early hours of February 4, 1999, in a notorious neighborhood in the South Bronx, four white plain clothes police officers spotted Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old Black man, in front of his apartment. The officers approached, Diallo turned to enter his building, and the officers pursued. In the vestibule, they ordered Diallo to show his hands and freeze (Flynn, 1999; Fritsch, 2000). Diallo reportedly reached into his pocket. One of the officers identified the object Diallo pulled out as a gun and yelled that he had a gun (Fritsch, 2000). The officers opened fire, ultimately discharging 41 rounds and fatally wounding Diallo. A wallet — not a gun — was found at the scene.

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward, Jr., was shot and killed by an officer while playing with a toy gun in the stairwell of his apartment building. In 2003, Orlando Barlow was shot while surrendering on his knees. The officer stated that he feared Barlow was feigning surrender and was going to reach for a gun. In 2010, Aaron Campbell was walking backward toward police with his hands behind his head (presumably to surrender) and was shot by an officer who believed he was going to reach for a gun. In 2014, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO. In 2018, Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s yard because they believed he was holding a gun.

Although each of these cases involves different circumstances, in each case, the suspect was a Black man, and in each case, officers stated that they believed their lives were in immediate danger because the suspect was reaching for, or had, a gun.

What does research suggest? Overall, research suggests that race is a socially constructed construct that can be changed (Richeson & Sommers, 2016). That is, we come to view race through a cultural lens of who is like us and who is not. As shown in the media, contact across racial lines is disquieting and difficult for some people. Stereotype application and activation may lead us to predict we could experience a difficult situation.

One group of individuals who are often forced to make a quick decision about risk is the police. Using a video game format, participants were asked to “shoot” armed individuals and “not shoot” unarmed individuals who appeared quickly on the screen (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002). White college students were quicker to shoot an armed individual if he was Black than if he was White. Likewise, they were quicker to not-shoot an unarmed person if he was White. In terms of making an error, participants erroneously shot unarmed Black individuals more often than unarmed Whites. These same results were found when the participants were from the local community.

Is this also true for the police who receive extensive training including similar video game shooter/non-shooter experiences? Using a large city police force in a video game situation, differences were found from results with college students and community groups (see Correll, Hudson, Guillermo, & Ma, 2014, for an overview). First, the police were more often correct. They were better able to pick out who had a gun and who did not. Second, the police made the correct decision faster. Third, the police did not show racial bias when they shot an unarmed person. If they made a mistake, it was just as likely to be a White as a Black person. However, they did show bias in their reaction times. That is, police officers were faster to shoot individuals with guns if they were Black and faster to not shoot unarmed individuals if they were White. Overall, this suggests that police, as well as other individuals through practice, can learn that race is not an important characteristic for determining whether a gun is present. However, when they are tired, overworked, or lack energy for other reasons, then stereotypical reactions may be more frequent.

Research also suggests that interracial interactions require more energy to conduct and may actually impair cognitive functioning (Richeson & Trawalter, 2005). These authors note that direct interpersonal contact with a member of a racial minority group may encourage the person to actively suppress any stereotypical feelings. In a series of studies, these researchers varied the effort needed to interact with another person of either the same race or a different race.

Following the interaction, the participant performed the Stroop Color Interference Task, as shown in Figure 12-3. The traditional Stroop test has color names in ink of a different color. For example, the word green would be shown in red ink. When asked to name the color of the ink, individuals are slower when the name and color do not match as compared with when the ink and color name are the same.

Figure 12-3 Read out loud the color of the ink used. This is the Stroop effect; individuals are slower when asked to name the color of the ink.

Figure 12-3 Read out loud the color of the ink used. This is the Stroop effect; individuals are slower when asked to name the color of the ink.

In low-effort conditions or with a member of the same racial group, there was better performance on the Stroop than in interracial interactions. That is, individuals could read the color of the ink faster with members of their same race. With members of different races, the suggestion is that there is also unconscious processing related to race. This, in turn, would interfere with the Stroop task. The researchers suggest that effortful interracial interactions can actually limit executive functioning. Given that executive functions are associated with the inhibition of actions, these findings help us understand how some interracial interactions turn negative as if the person was not thinking or considering what was happening.

Data from the Department of Justice (DOJ, 2001) indicate that, per capita, police are roughly five times more likely to shoot a Black person than a White person (Correll, Hudson, Guillermo, & Ma, 2014).

Thought Question: You are a psychologist hired by a big city police department to develop a training program to reduce the impact of racial bias in day-to-day policing. From what you have read, what are three major components of the training program you would recommend?

The Social Brain Hypothesis

The social brain hypothesis developed in the 1980s suggests that humans and other primates differed from non-primates principally in the size of their brain as compared to their body size. The basic idea is that complexity of social skills requires a large brain. In our social reactions, we need to be able to interact with a number of individuals. With some of these people we have close relationships, and with others we need to pay attention to what they want or expect of us. All of this requires cognitive and emotional effort.

Prior to the social brain hypothesis, it was generally assumed that human intellectual abilities were the result of the skills required for hunting and other tool use. It is now known that the brain size of areas involved in social processing does correlate with social skills in humans (see Dunbar, 2011, 2014, for an overview).

In reviewing the literature, Dunbar (2003, 2014) points out that at least five separate measures of social complexity have been shown to correlate with neocortex volume in primates (see Figure 12-4). These five measures are:

1. social group size

2. grooming clique size

3. extent to which social skills are used in male mating strategies

4. frequency of tactical deception

5. frequency of social play

Figure 12-4 There is a relationship between the group size of a species and brain volume.

Figure 12-4 There is a relationship between the group size of a species and brain volume.

Source: Dunbar (2014).

Are there any particular areas of the brain that show higher correlations to social group size? Yes, it is the frontal lobes and the part of the amygdala that has direct neural connections to the frontal lobe as well as the area of the temporal lobe. As you remember, the frontal lobes are concerned with planning and executive function and the amygdala is involved in emotional processing. The temporal lobe is involved in sensory processing including face recognition.

As you can see from the graph (Figure 12-4), the social group size of humans is shown to be 150. This number is seen by scientists as the number of individuals that humans have lived with throughout our evolutionary history. This is roughly the number of people that you have a personal connection with or the number of people you could ask a favor and expect it to be granted. There are, of course, more people than this that you interact with in various ways, such as the person who sells you coffee in the morning. You can probably recognize and name at least 1,000 individuals and some individuals have even more “friends” on Facebook.

Brain Systems Involved in Social Relations

Our present-day emotionality has largely evolved within a social context. In terms of brain structure, many of the structures involved in the processing of emotion are also important for social behavior. Brain structures involved in social interactions can be organized in terms of three processes (Brothers, 1990; Adolphs, 2003). The first process involves higher-level neocortical regions in the processing of sensory information. This is how we know who we experience through vision, hearing, touch, and other sensory processes. Research suggests when looking at a face, we process broad categorizations related to gender and to the emotion expressed before we complete the detailed construction of the entire face and determine who we are seeing.

Second, our sensory system also helps us predict what people will do socially, based on their physical movements. As we experience a social interaction, what happens on the level of the brain? What happens first involves the amygdala, striatum, and orbitofrontal cortex. The amygdala is involved in processing the emotional significance of an event. This includes both positive emotions such as a person you care about smiling at you, as well as negative emotions such as seeing someone angry or fearful. Activation also takes place if a person looks untrustworthy. This determination occurs independent of gender, race, eye gaze, or emotionality expressed. Through its connections to other areas, the amygdala also can influence memory, attention, and decision-making. Overall, these areas help us know the emotional context of our perceptions and what we need to do about them.

The third process involves the higher cortical regions of the neocortex including the prefrontal cortex, as shown previously in this chapter. These are the regions that let us construct an inner model of our social world. Included in this model would be some social understanding of others, their relationship with us, and the meaning of our actions for the social group. It is these areas that are most likely associated with theory of mind, our ability to attribute mental states to other people. Indeed, damage to the orbitofrontal cortex does reduce our ability to detect a faux pas in a given situation.

The prefrontal cortex has also been shown to be activated during humor, social-norm transgressions resulting in embarrassment, and so-called moral emotions. With damage to this area, individuals have difficulty knowing that another person is being deceptive. Although there is limited research to date directed at the topic, it may turn out that we have not only evolved systems for determining the basic emotions, such as fear, joy, or anger, but also for the more socially related ones, such as guilt, shame, embarrassment, jealousy, and pride.

The prefrontal cortex also appears to be involved in various aspects of social relationships, social cooperation, moral behavior, and social aggression. Using fMRI research, brain processes involved in the variety of tasks required for social interactions have been identified (see Burnett, Sebastian, Kadosh, & Blakemore, 2011; Frith & Frith, 2010; Nelson et al., 2005 for overviews). As can be seen in Figure 12-5, the social brain can be seen as composed of areas involved in the detection of social processes including face recognition (the fusiform face area—FFA) including emotional recognition (the amygdala, insula, and the anterior cingulate cortex—ACC), and regulating cognitive processes involving the frontal areas of the brain.

Figure 12-5 The social brain can be seen as composed of areas involved in the detection of social processes including face recognition (the fusiform face area—FFA) and emotional recognition (the amygdala, insula, and the anterior cingulate cortex—ACC), and regulating cognitive processes involving the frontal areas of the brain.

Figure 12-5 The social brain can be seen as composed of areas involved in the detection of social processes including face recognition (the fusiform face area—FFA) and emotional recognition (the amygdala, insula, and the anterior cingulate cortex—ACC), and regulating cognitive processes involving the frontal areas of the brain.

Source: Nelson, Leibenluft, McClure, and Pine (2005).

Preference for human faces begins shortly after birth in humans. As the child matures, cortical areas such as the fusiform face area in the temporal lobe show greater differentiation. Through its connections comes the ability to recognize and remember faces—an ability that continues into adulthood. This includes increased differentiation of emotional facial expression, which involves the amygdala. Interestingly enough, adolescents show greater reactivity to emotional faces than do adults.

One area of the brain that is gaining interest from researchers is the bottom part of the frontal lobe, referred to as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) (see Roy, Shohamy, & Wager, 2012, for an overview). The vmPFC appears to be important when affective responses are influenced by conceptual information about specific outcomes. In this way, it serves as a hub that links this affective-conceptual information with the brainstem that is involved in emotional responses of the entire organism through autonomic and endocrine regulation. This includes emotion, emotion regulation, fear conditioning and extinction, episodic and semantic memory, prospection, economic valuation, self-directed cognition, and understanding the feelings and intentions of others. As such, it is an evolutionarily important structure that coordinates information important for survival. The disruption of this system is associated with PTSD, depression, and chronic stress and pain.

Brain Activity in Playing Games

You may think that playing games is not part of the real world, but our brain doesn’t know this (van Dijk & De Dreu, 2021). Recent research has begun to examine how our brains respond when we are playing the prisoners’ dilemma or ultimatum game. In the ultimatum game, two players are given the opportunity to split a sum of money. One player makes an offer as to how the money should be split between the two of them. The other player can either accept or reject the offer. If the offer is accepted, the money is split as suggested. However, if the offer is rejected, neither receives any money. What would you do? If you were trying to maximize your gain, you would offer as little as possible. Likewise, if given a choice, you might assume that the other person would take whatever was offered because, otherwise, he or she would receive nothing. This is what economists claim is the rational thing to do.

What do you think people really do? It turns out when you look across a wide variety of studies in various countries that the most frequent offer made is about 50% of the money. If the offer is much lower than this, say approximately 20% of the total, it has about a 50% chance of being rejected. Why are such offers rejected? Because the offer is believed to be unfair. It is suggested that this is an emotional response in which the person feels angry and seeks to punish the other person because of the low offer.

In one brain-imaging study, fair (split 50% of the money) and unfair offers (split 10% or 20% of the money) showed differential brain activation (Sanfey et al., 2003). Unfair offers in comparison to fair offers showed greater activation of the bilateral anterior insula, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex. As you remember, these are brain areas involved in the processing of emotional information. Further, that these findings were the result of a human social reaction was demonstrated by the fact that the insula showed greater activation when the participants thought they were playing against real people as opposed to a computer. Overall, these data suggest that emotionality lies at the basis of our social interactions.


1. “The face is a critical part of social appraisal across all ages.” Describe three situations that provide evidence of the importance of the face in humans’ relations with others.

2. How is face processing represented in the structures and processes of the brain?

3. Describe the social brain hypothesis including the following aspects identified by Dunbar:

a. What are the five measures of social complexity that are related to neo-cortex volume in primates?

b. Which particular areas of the brain are related to group size?

4. Three processes are considered to be involved in social interactions:

a. Describe these three processes.

b. Where in the brain do these processes occur, and specifically what does each brain structure contribute to our experience of social interactions?

c. According to the results in the ultimatum game study, what lies at the basis of our social interactions? How is this reflected in the brain?

Social Emotions

As researchers studied social and emotional processes, it became clear that there was an additional type of emotional processing. These emotions generally appeared within the context of social interactions. What happens if you say something stupid, or call your current boyfriend by the name of your previous boyfriend? You feel embarrassed. Just like basic emotions, your body reacts with physiological responses, such as your face turning red and your body moving in a characteristic way, such as averting your eyes and touching your face. It feels like a basic emotion. However, it is different in that it requires the presence, or the imagined presence, of another person. In this sense, embarrassment is a social emotion. Social emotions are those emotions that involve our interactions with other people in a social context. Examples of these emotions are embarrassment, shame, guilt, jealousy, envy, and pride.

From an evolutionary perspective, this allows us to think about emotions such as fear that satisfy a self-preservation function and emotions such as embarrassment, guilt, or shame that serve a more social function. Since these social emotions also require a more developed sense of self, we would also predict that they appeared later in our evolutionary development. Let us look at these social emotions.

Embarrassment is a social emotion easily understood by people, and it has been observed in a variety of cultures (see Keltner & Buswell, 1997 for an overview). In terms of understanding the situational nature of embarrassment, Iranian and Japanese children classified the causes of embarrassment in similar ways. Embarrassment is commonly reported in response to physical mishaps such as spilling something on someone, cognitive mistakes such as forgetting someone’s name, loss of body control such as belching, or finding oneself the center of undesired attention as with teasing.

Surprisingly, embarrassment has been less well-studied by researchers interested in basic emotions, although Darwin did describe blushing in relation to a violation of etiquette, which he saw as a type of shame (Darwin, 1872). However, patterns of embarrassment satisfy the nine requirements of a basic emotion as suggested by Paul Ekman in the chapter on emotions. These include being automatic, of quick onset, with a specific physiology, and found across cultures. Another of these requirements was that the emotion be seen in non-human species. Where embarrassment-like body movements, including gaze aversion, smiling, head movement, self-touching, and grooming are seen in nonhuman primates, they are in appeasement displays in which one individual seeks to pacify the other and keep the social bond intact. Thus, embarrassment may have had its origins in terms of appeasement.

Besides embarrassment, which is usually short-lived with minor consequences, other social emotions may be more long lasting. Guilt and shame are two examples. Although similar, social psychologists see these as two separate emotions (Eisenberg, 2000). Guilt is described as an emotional state associated with other people objecting to your actions, inactions, or intentions and may be preceded by lying, cheating, stealing, infidelity, and neglecting duties (Keltner & Buswell, 1997; McCullough et al., 2001). Shame also involves the opinion of others to a greater extent. Overall, shame appears to involve our entire concept of ourselves, whereas guilt is more distinct from the self. Guilt involves feelings of tension, remorse, and regret without involving our core identity. One distinction that has been made is that shame is associated with the desire to undo aspects of the self, whereas guilt involves the desire to undo aspects of behavior. Research suggests that individuals’ shame experiences are more painful and intense than guilt experiences (Eisenberg, 2000). Since guilt and shame involve transgression against the conventions of the group, these have been called moral emotions. Feelings of sympathy and guilt have been seen to motivate cooperative behavior and altruism (Trivers, 1971). Additionally, guilt appears to help individuals keep commitments and thus maintain relationships.

Besides social emotions that we experience ourselves, we also experience social emotions when we see events happening to other people. One of these is envy when we observe positive events happening to another person. Another situation is when something negative happens to someone who we envy, and he or she falls from grace. When negative things happen to such a person, we may find ourselves feeling positive about the events. Delight in the misfortune of others is referred to by the German word schadenfreude. Brain-imaging studies show that when we experience envy, pain-related neural networks, as described previously (Figure 12-1), are activated. On the other hand, schadenfreude or the delight in someone else’s misfortune activates the reward network (Takahashi et al., 2009).

Prosocial Behavior and Helping

What would you have done if you were in the apartment building and saw what was happening to Kitty Genovese in the story that begins this chapter? Most of us believe we would have helped. Yet, none of the individuals there did. Why not? One person who was the first to call the police said, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Actually, he first called a friend to ask what to do and then had another neighbor make the call to the police. Other neighbors said they were tired and just wanted to go back to bed. Others, when asked why they did not call the police, just said, “I do not know.”

The Kitty Genovese story was portrayed in the popular press as showing the indifference, moral callousness, and loss of concern on the part of humans (Latané & Darley, 1969). Two social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, viewed the media reaction to the Kitty Genovese event as missing the complexity of human psychology and ignoring the situational conditions involved. For example, Latané and Darley noted that the people who watched the Kitty Genovese event did not just ignore it. Rather, the people continued to stare out their window. They were tentative about what was happening in the street below them. As suggested by Latané and Darley, the people watching could be seen as unwilling to act but unable to turn away.

In this sense, it was neither helpful nor heroic. However, these individuals were not indifferent, as suggested by the popular press. It should also be noted that the documentary The Witness released in 2016 by Kitty Genovese’s brother, Bill Genovese, suggested that The New York Times may have gotten some of its facts wrong in the initial story. However, the original report did motivate social psychologists to better understand helping behavior.

It is a characteristic of people to help one another. If you are walking across campus and someone asks for help moving a box, you will probably say yes. If your neighbor needs to borrow some food, you generally say yes. We collect money for others who are in need. We give blood for use by those we don’t know. We give our own labor to help a friend move or offer a ride to someone. None of these situations would be considered an emergency or perhaps put us at risk of harm as did the Kitty Genovese situation.

An emergency has different characteristics. It is a relatively rare event that we don’t encounter every day. An emergency is also an event that can put us in harm’s way. These two events tend to lead us into not being able to accurately estimate the potential harm that can occur and to distort our view of the situation. Not only is there confusion concerning the nature of the situation but also concerning our responsibility to become involved. Understanding the factors involved in helping led to a series of studies examining bystander intervention. Bystander intervention research predicts the likelihood that someone will actively address a situation they view as problematic. In general, it has focus on the situational factors that influence whether a person will intervene or not.

Bibb Latané and John Darley decided to examine emergency situations in the laboratory (Latané & Darley, 1969). The first question they asked was whether the number of people involved matters. They asked college students in New York to discuss some of the problems encountered in a big city university. Initially, each participant was asked to fill out a questionnaire in a small room. In one condition, a student filled out the questionnaire alone. In a second condition, there were three individuals in the room each filling out a questionnaire. In the final condition, there were also three individuals but two of them were part of the experiment. That is, the two who were part of the experiment were confederates who had been instructed to remain passive.

At some point, smoke began to come into the room through a wall vent. The volume of smoke was such that, after six minutes, vision would be obscured. If the participant was the only one in the room, the participant would investigate the smoke and then go out of the room to find someone to tell. Three-quarters of the participants reported the smoke within 6 minutes, although the average participant did it within 2 minutes. In the condition with two confederates who were instructed to do nothing, the participant largely did not report the smoke. In fact, only 10% reported the smoke compared with the 75% in the alone condition who reported the smoke. When all three individuals were naïve to the experiment, there was a greater number of reports (38%) than in the confederate condition, but less than in the individual-alone condition. This research suggests that having others around us who are not reacting to the situation leads us also to not react.

Social psychologists understand social inhibition in which a person does not act to be a general phenomenon that can be observed across a number of situations even outside the laboratory. In October 2011, a 2-year-old girl was run over in Beijing and left lying on the street ignored by bystanders. At least 18 people passed by the bleeding toddler alone in the road without offering to help. Some even had to steer their motorcycles around the toddler. Finally, a 58-year-old person who was scavenging for garbage pulled the toddler to the side of the road and sought help. Sadly, the toddler died in a hospital a week later. Similarly, in 2014 a man on a subway in Shanghai fainted. Surveillance video shows that within 10 seconds all of the people on the train had left and he was lying on the floor of the car. In terms of helping, safety in numbers does not apply.

Even if a person is alone, the context of the situation can play a role. What would you do if you saw a man and a woman fighting with each other? Would it be different if the woman said to the man, “Get away from me; I don’t know you,” than if she said, “I don’t know why I ever married you.” Lance Shotland and Margaret Straw demonstrated that 65% of the time people would help the woman if they thought she did not know the man, but only 19% of the time if they were thought to be married (Shotland & Straw, 1976).


1. What is a social emotion? Describe some examples of social emotions.

2. What is a moral emotion? Describe some examples of moral emotions.

3. This section states, “Besides social emotions which we experience ourselves, we also experience social emotions when we see events happening to other people.” Describe two examples of this.

4. How does the research of social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley give us a more comprehensive understanding of the context of helping behavior? Give two specific conditions they reported in determining who would help and when.

Human Origins Perspectives on Helping Others and Altruism

As humans, we ask one another for help often. We may be walking across campus and someone says can you help me move this box. We probably say yes, even though we will never see that person again and they will never be able to help us in times of need. Although moving a box is a simple task that does not cost us anything, humans also help one another when risks are high. For example, in the COVID-19 virus epidemic that began in 2020, a number of health care workers volunteered in other cities, which literally put their lives at risk. Helping others is referred to as altruism.

Altruism is defined as helping another person when it does not directly benefit ourselves. If someone stops you on campus and asks you to help them do something, what do you do? “Depends upon what I am asked to do,” is probably your first answer. If it really does not cost you anything, then you will most likely say yes. This is what Donald Campbell (1983) called weak altruism. Weak altruism refers to helping others without any sacrifice on your part. If it costs you something, then he referred to it as strong altruism. For example, a honeybee worker will sting an intruder to save the group even if this results in death for the bee. How do we figure out whether helping is going to cost us something or not? One answer is whether it benefits our family. If the person who asks you is related to you, then we are more likely to help, even if it costs us something.

The theory of kin selection or inclusive fitness was developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s. The basic theory suggests that we help relatives because it increases the chances that genes similar to our own will be passed on. The outcome of the theory is that the more related we are genetically, the more we will help. As noted, altruistic behavior is seen across all species. The existence of altruism was a problem for Darwin’s theory of evolution, which Hamilton helped to solve. Darwin was concerned that altruistic behavior could not be explained by natural selection since altruism did not appear to aid a given organism’s fitness. That is, helping someone you will never see again doesn’t increase your offspring in any way.

Hamilton realized that altruism could evolve if it aided the organism’s genetic kin to pass on their genes. Included in these genes would be the mechanism for altruism among kin. By acting altruistically, Hamilton suggests that the organism ensures that genetic material more similar to its own is passed on. That is to say, if a behavior helps to ensure the passing on of genes similar to one’s own, then this behavior would be favored. Inclusive fitness as a property can be measured by considering the reproductive success of the individual plus the effects of an individual’s actions on the reproductive success of one’s relatives.

How about unrelated individuals? Do we help them? We help unrelated individuals if we can reasonably expect them to help us in turn. This is the theory of reciprocal altruism, which was developed by Robert Trivers in the 1970s. The basic idea is that our own fitness in an evolutionary sense can be increased if we can expect others to help us sometime in the future. Trivers saw this tendency growing out of the evolutionary past when humans lived in small groups and it was possible to note who helped whom or not. Those who helped were helped in return and thus had a greater chance of surviving and passing on the genes related to these processes. Since one condition of this theory is that the individual is able to recognize and remember who had helped in the past, then reciprocal altruism should be limited to species with these abilities. Primates, including humans, would fit this qualification for weak altruism. Strong altruism or kin selection relationships on the other hand can be found across a wide variety of species.

Understanding cooperation, which is helping others even when it does not help ourselves, was initially a daunting task for evolutionary psychology (Henrich & Muthukrishna, 2021). If we just pay attention to natural selection and sexual selection, where does cooperation fit in? One answer to this question was found in the 20th century as scientists began to examine a variety of species. In this examination, it became clear that a number of species displayed clear examples of cooperation. This was seen in bees that collect pollen for the whole hive, or mole rats that build elaborate tunnels for the whole community, or meerkats that risk their lives to guard a common nest, or vampire bats that feed other bats when there is need. There are even cases of altruism in which whales and dolphins have been seen to help members of another species (Trivers, 1985). Young children have also been shown to be naturally cooperative and helpful in many situations (Tomasello, 2014). With the extensive research on bees, ants, and humans, it became clear that, in addition to self-preservation and sexuality, there were also instinctual programs for social processes related to cooperation. The task was then to understand the details of these programs.

Using Games to Study Cooperation

How can we study our tendencies to cooperate with another person in a more experimental manner? One answer to this question is through games. One of the best studied games is known as the prisoners’ dilemma. Imagine the situation in which two individuals are imprisoned and accused of performing some crime together. The police hold the two suspects in separate cells. In their dealings with the prisoners, the police attempt to have one individual give evidence about the other’s involvement in the crime. The police say, “If you implicate the other person, you can not only go free but also receive a reward.” In this case, the other individual would go to jail. If both individuals implicated each other, then both would go to jail, but the sentence would not be as great as if one had refused to testify. However, if neither person implicated the other, both would go free.

What would you do if you were one of these individuals? Of course, if you could talk to your acquaintance, then you both would agree to cooperate with each other and not talk to the police. In that way, both of you would go free. However, you are not allowed to have this conversation. What to do? If you just said, “I will take care of myself,” you would implicate the other and perhaps you would receive a reward and go free. Traditionally, some economists said that is the rational thing to do since it potentially maximizes gain for a given individual. However, reciprocal altruism, in which you both cooperate with each other, would allow you both to gain. The game can be diagramed as shown in Table 12-1.

Table 12-1 Diagram of the prisoners' dilemma (after Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981).

The Other Person


Implicate the Other



It was neither of us Reward for mutual cooperation (3 points)

It was her Sucker’s payoff (0 points)


Temptation (reward for turning the other person in) (5 points)

Punishment for mutual defection (1 point)

If you were to play the game only once, then it would be difficult to know what to do. However, in real life, our dealings are usually not just about one-time encounters, but repeated interactions with people we know on at least some level. On a cultural level, countries around the world interact in terms of trade and diplomacy. Over evolutionary time in which we lived in groups, it is assumed that the social dealings we had with one another were with those we knew by acquaintance. Thus, the most realistic way of playing the game would be to repeat it a number of times. We assume that playing the game a large number of times in the laboratory would model the solution that humans evolved. That is to say, there would have been a variety of situations in which we needed to know whether to cooperate with one another or not. The prisoners’ dilemma models these situations.

Using the prisoners’ dilemma game, Axelrod and Hamilton (1981) looked at the evolution of cooperation. That is, how did cooperation evolve over evolutionary time. They suggested that the evolution of cooperation can be conceptualized in terms of three separate questions. These questions are related to robustness, stability, and initial viability. The first question of robustness asks what type of cooperative strategy can best survive given the wide variety of alternative strategies. The second question of stability asks under what conditions can such a strategy, after it has been established, resist invasion by mutant strategies. And finally, the question of initial viability asks how can cooperative strategies come to play a role in environments that are predominantly non-cooperative?

What is the best strategy for playing the prisoners’ dilemma game? To help answer this question, in 1980 various academics from around the world were asked to submit procedures for playing the game, which could be computer-tested against one another. Although many of these were very complicated, in the end a simple procedure worked best. The answer is what has been called tit-for-tat and was submitted by a Canadian named Anatol Rapoport (see Kopelman, 2020).

Tit-for-tat has only two rules. The first rule is that on your first move you should cooperate. The second rule is that on every move after that, do what the other person did on the last trial. Embedded in this second rule is a flexibility that ensures that if the other person changes from being retaliatory to being cooperative, then you would also. In terms of Axelrod and Travis’s other questions, it was found that tit-for-tat is an extremely stable strategy once it is established, and that it is possible for it to be started even in non-cooperative environments. Trivers (1985) has restated the rules to read—first do unto others as you wish them to do unto you, but then do unto them as they have just done unto you.

Does tit-for-tat work in the real world? One answer to this question can come from places we would not expect cooperation to be expected: war. Axelrod (1984) has argued that in the trench warfare of World War I, the soldiers on each side acted as if they were playing the prisoners’ dilemma game. The soldiers, who could literally see one another across the battle lines, adopted a “live and let live” strategy, which is another way of saying “tit-for-tat.” It was reported that soldiers shot at the other side but purposely missed. If soldiers on one side were killed, then an equal number on the other side would be killed. In actuality the strategy was broken only when the officers ordered raids behind enemy lines.

Another place we might not expect cooperation is with birds. Using blue jays, Stephens, McLinn, and Stevens (2002) created a simplified version of the prisoners’ dilemma game. Two blue jays were placed side by side in two separate parts of a V-shaped apparatus. They created a series of levers and chutes such that a blue jay could either put a small piece of food in its own dish or a larger piece in the other’s dish. If performed as a single-trial event, blue jays, like humans, are more likely to take the immediate reward. To make it more than a single-trial event, the food was dispensed into a transparent tray so that the bird could see food accumulate. In this study, the bird could eat the food after playing the game four times.

To gain experimental control, one of the blue jays responded freely while the other’s response was programmed to be either all cooperative (put food in the other’s dish) or all defecting (put food in its own dish). Experimentally, this was an experimental design in which the bird could eat the food immediately or had to wait four trials and experienced either all cooperation or all defecting. What did they find? When the other bird always defected, cooperation declined toward zero. It did not matter if the food could be eaten on each trial or if it accumulated. When the other bird always cooperated, the experimental bird showed high levels of cooperation also. However, in this situation, the cooperation was highest when the food was allowed to accumulate, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. This suggests that the timing of when one receives benefits makes a crucial difference as to the level of cooperation, at least with birds. Further, these researchers noted that these birds were extremely forgiving and would continue cooperating at rates near 50% even after they had been “suckered.”

Would you help someone you would never see again? If so, why would you? To help us understand why one person helps another, we can look at another game. This game is called the trust game. In this game, one of two anonymous players is given a sum of money. The player with the money has the choice. He or she can give the other player nothing or any percentage they wish. The other player then receives twice the amount suggested by the first player and has the opportunity to return some of the money. How much would you return given that you will never see this person again? It turns out that more than half of the people involved returned some of the money. In order to understand the motivations to give some of the money back, researchers modified the game so that the players are no longer anonymous or, in other cases, play a series of these games. With these modifications, the number of individuals who will give some money back increases. This has led some researchers to suggest that reputation, that is, to be known as a charitable person—someone who will help—is a key motivation for cooperation (Nowak & Sigmund, 1998; Milinski, 2016).

One model based on reputation is indirect reciprocity (Alexander, 1987). Indirect reciprocity is a form of reciprocity where help is given to individuals based on their reputation. The advantage of this model is that it helps to account for helping behavior even in situations in which individuals may not see one another again. Underlying the model is still the desire to increase one’s own fitness. That is, if I act in such a way as to be seen as charitable, another person will at some time in the future be more likely to help me out and thus increase my evolutionary fitness. If this is the case, then what these experimental games do is help us see a link between action as a means of increasing fitness and manipulating our image of ourselves. We will return to images and attitudes later. Now, let’s turn to look at the dark side of cooperation—non-cooperation in the social milieu.


Humans do not always help one another. There are situations in which we seek to punish others, compete with others, and even hurt others. This section will describe some of the social psychology research related to social punishing, intergroup conflict and cooperation, and aggression.

Social Punishing

What if someone offers to paint your neighbor’s house for a low price, which, of course, would be to your neighbor’s benefit. However, while they are painting they are also stealing items from inside the house. What do you do? Let’s go back to playing games for an answer. We know that people will give others money just to be known as cooperative, will they also spend some of their money to punish those who cheat? The answer is yes. This came to be called altruistic punishment. Altruistic punishment is when an individual forgoes a personal gain to punish another.

In one study, Fehr and Gächter (2002) tested this using a public goods game. They created groups with four individuals in each. Each member of the group received 20 money units of which they could contribute from nothing to 20 to a group project. Whatever a given individual did not contribute, they could keep. Thus, if you gave nothing, you would have 20 money units for yourself. However, if you contributed one money unit, then you and everyone else in the group would receive four money units. As part of the game, each person could earn more than they began with since each money unit was multiplied by four. Let’s consider for a moment what would happen if no one gave anything. Then, everyone would keep their 20 money units. However, if everyone gave everything (20 money units), then each person could earn more than they began with. In the game, everyone is free to give what they wish and everyone must make their decision at the same time. What this sets up is the possibility that someone who gave nothing could receive money from those who did contribute. In one condition of the game, once the individuals knew what the others in their group had contributed, they had the opportunity to punish them by taking away some of their money. However, in order to take away three money units from the other person, you would also have to give up one money unit of your own. Thus, it costs you to punish another. What would you do?

Of the 240 individuals who played the game six different times, more than 84% punished at least once, and 34.3% punished more than five times in the six games. There was also a clear pattern in the way punishment was carried out. It was generally enacted by those who had contributed more than the average amount of the money units on those who had contributed less than the average. Also, the less someone gave, the more they were punished.

Another study asked what factors influence who you punish, and how. Helen Bernhard and her colleagues studied two small groups who lived in the Western Highlands of Papua, New Guinea (Bernhard, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2006). These two distinct small groups lack traditional police forces and thus use social norms to regulate their social life. Playing similar punishment games, this study showed that individuals tend to protect those who are part of their own social group and give more punishment to those who belong to a different tribal group. Thus, your relationship to others influences how you protect, as well as punish, others.

Although we don’t usually think of cheating as being pervasive, Robert Trivers (1985) suggests that deception is a wide-spread feature of communication within many social species. Deception in this case is to make things seem as they not. Trivers further suggests that since being deceived has real consequences for the victim, there is evolutionary pressure to develop better means of detecting deception. He further suggests that over evolutionary time, selection to spot deception may also have improved cognitive capacity including simple abilities to count. Clearly, we pay closer attention to someone if we are not sure of the transaction that is taking place. We also assume that deceiving another requires a greater amount of effort than just engaging in normal social interaction. For this reason, deception may evoke changes in the voice, facial expressions, and body movements in the person trying to deceive another.

Some of the changes associated with deception are intentional. For example, a salesperson may smile at you and touch you to portray a social connection with you. However, in social interactions, people often show cues that are not intentional (see Puce, 2014, for an overview). Some of these cues, such as changes in facial expressions, may be very quick. Humans also will mask their true feelings by trying to keep a neutral facial expression. Likewise, changes in one’s voice and forced laughter can be used to mask real emotions. Interestingly, brain-imaging studies have shown that different types of laughter are processed in different areas of the brain.

Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation

A very clever classic study of group process was conducted in the 1950s by Muzafer Sherif, Carolyn Sherif, and their colleagues (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961). The initial hypothesis was that normal, healthy people would develop all of the earmarks of prejudice when (1) they found themselves in situations of strong group identification, and (2) their group was placed in circumstances such that it had to destroy the aspirations of another group in order to reach its most cherished goals. To test such a hypothesis, it was necessary to set up a situation involving groups in which only one group could win. Many alternatives might come to mind, such as a college sports event or a business competition between companies. In order to have experimental control, these researchers chose a summer camp. To better understand what naturally happens in a summer camp, one of the researchers, Muzafer Sherif, spent the summer of 1948 visiting camps and watching daily activities. Unlike other group environments such as businesses or universities, a summer camp at that time offered the potential for few outside influences except letters from home or visits from parents and thus extended to the researchers the possibility of a high degree of control in a naturalistic setting.

Once a camp was chosen for the experiment, the staff of the camp was trained in observational techniques so that they could note the interactions without being noticed by the boys involved. To allow for access and observation, some of the researchers became part of the staff. For example, one became a handyman and thus was able to wander around camp without being noticed. The counselors recorded observations twice a day. For ethical purposes, the parents were told of the experiment before they chose that particular camp, which was held at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. Jesse James was said to have hidden out there and thus the name.

In the camp experiments that have come to be called the Robbers Cave Experiment (Sherif et al., 1961), the researchers observed the formation of group leadership structures. As the researchers had postulated, a group culture formed even when participants had no idea of the existence of another group. After about a week, each group learned of another group of campers who were in a separate part of the camp. They also wanted to compete with them. The staff arranged a sports competition between the two groups, which lasted for a few days. What the researchers were most interested in was whether prejudice would develop between the groups and, if so, how it would develop.

Carolyn Sherif reported that the boys initially were competitive in a friendly way but that this started to evaporate very quickly (Ray, 2022). The extent of the rivalry began to appear very quickly with one group saying the other was not playing fair, and so forth. When those things would happen, the boys would then start to behave more aggressively toward the other group. These sorts of aggressive actions, in turn, would increase the negative images each group had of the other. In a short period, rather clear-cut stereotypical views of the other group developed. The other group are cheats and stinkers, whereas our group is brave, honorable, and true. After the tournament, each group said they would just as soon never see those other guys again.

The question then arose for the researchers as to how to reduce the intergroup conflict. Their initial hypothesis was that in order to reduce intergroup conflict and prejudice once it was generated, it would be necessary to have conditions in which there were goals strongly desired by members of both groups, but absolutely not obtainable without the resources and efforts of both groups together. That is, if they could get the two groups to work together, then conflict would decrease. Those were called superordinate goals.

In one study, the researchers used a sporting event with another camp to bring the two groups together. That is, the two groups would need to work together to compete with the other camp. In another study, they used a water shortage for the same purpose. The two groups were told that there was something wrong with the camp’s water system but no one knew what the problem was. This required that the two groups work together to find a leak in the water system for the camp. The problem could either be at the water tank or with the pipes leading from the tank to the camp. Both groups worked together and were happy when the problem was found to be the faucet on the tank.

Overall, this series of studies showed that boys from similar backgrounds would form in-groups and compete with those in an out-group. Once established, their attitudes remained stable. However, with the presence of a common source of distress, the competitiveness toward the other group was reduced and the boys worked together. In this manner super-ordinate goals were able to alter the significance of other influences. An audio description of the Robbers Cave study is online (

Inter-Personal and Inter-Group Violence and Aggression

As we look over recorded human history, there appears not to be a time when wars or conflict were not taking place somewhere on earth. Even limiting our observations to the last 100 years, we still find a world in which war is common—not a unique event. Initially, it was assumed that war was somehow unique to humans and perhaps resulted from the development of weapons or to density of the population. However, with the observation that chimpanzees also engage in lethal attacks on one another, this view changed. The question then arises as to how to understand warfare from both a comparative standpoint and an evolutionary one (see Wilson & Wrangham, 2003; Jones, 2008, for overviews).

Since the 1960s, some 11 different communities of chimps and bonobos have been studied by Wilson and Wrangham (2003). As noted previously, chimps live in communities of about 150 individuals following a fission-fusion pattern in which smaller subgroups are constructed and then disbanded. Chimps will show hostility when they detect other chimps who are not part of their community. Initially, this hostility is of a vocal nature, which may lead to more physical encounters. The level of hostility appears to be different between females and males of the same community. Females, especially if they have infants, tend to avoid encounters with neighboring groups. Other females have been seen to be more aggressive. Males, however, are the most aggressive. They typically show hostility to stranger males, but will retreat if they are outnumbered. If the males from each community are evenly matched, the attacks tend to be more vocal with some charging. These situations typically end with less than severe injuries. If, however, a group of males finds a lone male from the other community, this results in severe injuries, including death. If males encounter other females, they will often attack them and may kill their infants. Male chimps generally do not attack females who show signs that they are in estrous such as sexual swelling, but rather attempt to mate with them.

Wilson and Wrangham (2003) complete their review of chimpanzee aggression by asking how this might relate to humans. In terms of humans, it should be noted that aggression between present-day hunter-gatherer groups has existed within a fairly stable pattern. The most common pattern was for a party of men from one group to launch a surprise attack on the other group. These attacks were typically set up in a manner such that the attackers were less likely to be harmed. In comparing hunter-gatherers to chimps, Wilson and Wrangham suggest that both share three tendencies.

✵ First, they both show a tendency to respond aggressively in encounters with members of other social groups.

✵ Second, they both avoid intensive aggressive confrontation by retreating.

✵ Third, they both take advantage of imbalances of power for males to kill members of neighboring groups. Interestingly, bonobos do not appear to conduct any type of lethal violence although they defend their territories.

Today, there is continuing debate as to whether humans evolved an inclination to kill. However, even if this were true, there is also evidence to suggest that humans have evolved an ability to live without killing given certain circumstances (Jones, 2008). It has been suggested by a variety of researchers that the availability of resources is one set of circumstances that reduces the killing of one human by another. Correlational research suggests that over time, as opportunities become more available for acquiring necessary resources within a population, killing is decreased. For example, from the Middle Ages (characterized by greater inequality) until today where there is more availability of resources, the murder rate in Europe has dropped. It has gone from 32 killings per 100,000 people in the 1200s to 1.4 killings per 100,000 in the 20th century (Eisner, 2001).

Using a life-span perspective with humans, aggression has been studied from infancy to adulthood. Aggression is composed of hostile behavior or attitudes toward another. This includes the aggressive biting seen in children to the aggressive behaviors seen in adults (Tremblay, Vitaro, & Côté, 2018). Physical aggression is often seen during the first year of life and then increases until 3 or 4 years of age. Beginning at about 3 or 4 years of age, physical aggression begins to decline. Longitudinal studies in North Carolina and in Canada have also shown an overall decrease in physical aggression from the beginning of elementary school to adolescence. Studies from around the world have shown that those who do display physical aggression in adolescence also displayed physical aggression as a child. There are few studies that have examined aggression from adolescence to old age, but court records show a decline in arrests for violent crimes from young adulthood to old age.

A common finding is that human males are more aggressive than human females. Human males have been shown to engage in aggression more often than human females from about age 2 onward. Such data as police records from across a variety of cultures universally show males to be more aggressive than females. Not only are males more aggressive, but they commit more serious crimes, including almost 90% of the murders reported in the United States. When asked to describe their own sexuality, males are more likely than females to include a dimension involving aggression, power, and dominance (Andersen, Cyrnaowski, & Espndle, 1999). However, where males tend to display physical aggression, females more often display social or psychological forms of aggression. One example of social aggression is having others dislike a person rather than physically attacking that person.

Since aggression follows developmental patterns and appears at an early age, researchers have sought to understand the relationship between genes and the environment in terms of physical aggression. At this point, twin studies involving elementary school age children, adolescents, and adults suggest that there is a relatively strong genetic component to the use of physical aggression (Tremblay, Vitaro, & Côté, 2018). Another study followed twins in terms of two characteristics, that of physical aggression and that of expressive vocabulary (Dionne, Tremblay, Boivin, Laplante, & Pérusse, 2003). Data were reported at 20, 36, and 50 months. At 20 months, the strength of the genetic influences on individual differences was higher for physical aggression (58%) than for expressive vocabulary (39%), whereas the strength of the shared environmental influence was high for expressive vocabulary (51%) but zero (0%) for physical aggression. Environmental influences on epigenetic mechanisms are also showing a link to physical aggression, especially in terms of brain development (Tremblay, Vitaro, & Côté, 2018).


1. There are a number of terms presented in this section concerning different aspects of altruism, including weak altruism, strong altruism, reciprocal altruism, and altruistic punishment. What does each of these terms mean, and how are they related?

2. Several games have been used in research for examining the nature of cooperation—and non-cooperation. Describe each of the following games and what the research results contribute to our understanding of who cooperates, or doesn’t, and under what conditions:

a. Prisoners’ dilemma

b. Tit-for-tat

c. Trust game

d. Public goods game

3. This section states, “[T]here is evolutionary pressure to develop better means of detecting deception.” What cues has research shown to be available for detecting deception?

4. How did the camp experiments, known as the Robbers Cave Experiment, help us understand about the development, maintenance, and reduction of prejudice and conflict in intergroup situations?

5. This section states, “[T]here is continuing debate as to whether humans evolved an inclination to kill.” What evidence is presented to support the opposite point of view?

Social Influences on Behavior

We all have ideas of what to expect in different relationships. If you are going out on a first date, you would expect a different sequence of events than if you were going out with someone for the 50th time. Likewise, when you first meet someone, the types of conversations you have are typically different than if it is a close friend. When the person who delivers the mail or packages asks, “How are you doing?” most of us will respond, “Fine.” In social interactions, there are scripts for what we say to one another.

These scripts have both a cultural and a universal level. In some countries, it is rude not to eat all the food on your plate when you are invited to dinner, while in others you should never eat everything presented (Axtell, 1993). Likewise, it is important to remove one’s shoes when entering a home in some cultures, but not others. In some Asian cultures, you bow when you meet someone of higher rank in the company you work for. Nonverbal gestures also vary greatly. The same gesture can mean “OK” or something vulgar depending on where you are in the world. How men and women initially great each other can vary greatly in terms of culture. Overall, cultures have developed rules for allowing individuals to be part of the culture with minimal effort and conflict.

There are also some more universal ways of interacting depending on the type of relationship involved. These are related to the domains of social living (Fiske, 1992). Alan Fiske begins with the assumption that humans are fundamentally sociable and that societies throughout the world can be understood in terms of how people organize their relations with other people. That is to say, as humans we seek to relate to others in some basic and fundamental ways. These fundamental ways of relating have basic rules in the same way that language has a grammar to guide its construction. Based on a variety of research studies, Fiske suggests that everyday life can be seen as involving four basic social-cognitive processes. These processes are:

1. communal sharing

2. authority ranking

3. equality matching

4. market pricing

Communal sharing is the type of relationship in which a community treats material objects as something that belongs to all. This type of relationship is seen with family members who share holiday meals or religious groups where everyone is seen as equal. In these relationships, people take what they need and contribute as they can. As with a party punch bowl or a shared meal, there are no predefined allotted shares and no one monitors who takes what. Decisions in these types of groups are often made by consensus with collective discussions but no vote on the matter at hand.

Historically, this type of relationship has been seen with people genetically related either in terms of family or culture. Those outside of the kin are seen as the other or “they,” and collectively viewed as different from “we.” This type of relationship is often seen at sporting events where everyone for our team is viewed as “one of us” and everyone for the other team is viewed as “not one of us” or “the enemy.”

Authority ranking is the type of relationship where people are ranked according to some linear hierarchy. The military presents the prototypical example of this type of relationship. Everyone has a rank and thus a place in the hierarchy. Typically, in authority ranking relationships, individuals higher in the rankings have more prestige, prerogatives, and privileges than those lower down the hierarchy.

In describing the hierarchy, spatial metaphors are often used with individuals being described as “higher up” or “lower down.” As in the case of tribal leaders or kings and queens, those in charge are seen to make decisions or rules that influence those lower in the hierarchy. However, in many cultures those higher up are also expected to take care of, and look out for, others lower down. Psychologically, Sackeim and Gur (1979) reported that humans expand their view of themselves when they are succeeding and shrink their view of themselves when they are failing. Further, brain-imaging studies conducted on individuals in stable social hierarchy relationships showed activity in the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex when viewing other individuals of different status (Zink, Tong, Chen, Bassett, Stein, & Meyer-Linderberg, 2012).

Equality matching can be thought of as “tit-for-tat” relationships. That is, you do something for me and I do something for you. The basic idea is that each person is entitled to an equal amount in the relationship. “If you invite me to your house, then I should invite you to mine” would be one common manifestation of this type of relationship. Part of the consideration of this type of relationship is determining what is equal to what. “If you give me a ride to school every day, then I should buy you gas” could be one typical outcome. Competitive sports display this type of relationship in that each team has a turn to score, equal opportunity in terms of equal team size, and other structures that place neither team at a disadvantage. Thus, the structure of equality matching relationships is balancing.

Market pricing attempts to determine through ratios and rates the value of some aspect of the relationship. For example, if I own 75% of a business, then I would expect to receive 75% of the profits. The most common examples of market pricing relationships involve money and typically require some detailed analysis of the situation. This type of relationship is often referred to as cost—benefit analysis. For example, if you decide to buy a car with payments of $540 a month, then you determine that you cannot go to Europe for a vacation based on your current salary. As we saw previously, a new field has developed called behavioral economics, which studies the manner in which humans calculate market pricing relationships. Market pricing relationships have not been reported in other species.

Although these four types of relationships have been discussed in terms of scripts, they can also be understood in terms of competition and dominance. That is, what type of social environments bring forth different brain functions and hormone reactions. This has allowed for a broader neuroscience perspective that is just beginning to be developed (Qu, Ligneul, Van der Henst, & Dreher, 2017).

How We Act in Groups

Often as part of college or companies, you may have been placed in a group to perform a task. You may have noticed that some individuals do less work than others. This phenomenon has been referred to as social loafing (Latané, Williams, & Harkins, 1979). Some of the early studies had blindfolded individuals do a tug-of-war task. What was seen was that individuals would pull harder if they thought they were the only one pulling on the rope than if they thought there were others helping. Thus, people tended to let others do the work in a group.

When in a group we can also work harder if we think others are watching us. This is referred to as social facilitation. Social facilitation is defined as an improvement in performance when working with or being accompanied by others as opposed to being alone. A number of studies have shown that there is a home team advantage in a number of sports (Jamieson, 2010). That is, there are more wins in front of a home audience than those from the other team. Good performers such as actors know that a full house is associated with a better performance. However, if you are not experienced at a task, having others watch you can lead to mistakes and a poor performance.

Social Influences on the Level of the Self

One critical part of our social interactions involves our sense of self. The study of the self has a long history in psychology. For thousands of years, there have been invocations that you should “know thyself.” Today, most people think that they do know themselves and can accurately predict how they would act in a given situation using their self-scripts. However, research in social psychology suggests that that may not be the case. There is clearly some information that is available to us that we refer to as explicit. However, as you have seen, there are other attitudes and stereotypes that are formed outside of awareness, which are referred to as implicit.

In terms of the self, a number of distinctions have been made. William James (1890/1983) made a distinction between the self that knows things, which he referred to as “I,” and the self that is known about, which James referred to as “me.” In this sense it is “I” who thinks, feels, and acts in the world. What I know about myself is “me.” The self is what gives us a sense of continuity in that we remember our lives as an unbroken history of experiences. However, James recognized the complexity of the self by suggesting that we have many different selves depending on who we are with and the topic under discussion.

One traditional view of the self in social psychology is that it is made up of schemas or beliefs about oneself (Markus, 1977). These schemas help us define who we are and how we see ourselves. These schemas differ for different people. As you saw in the chapter on eating behaviors, males and females differ in the schemas they use to define themselves as over-or under-weight. Individuals can also have schemas for skills they are particularly good at or find difficult.

As noted in the chapter on memory, we treat memories related to ourselves different from factual knowledge. In the brain, memory about myself, in comparison to memory about others, shows heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and the precuneus (see Gilboa & Marlatte, 2017; Moran, Kelley, & Heatherton, 2014, for overviews). As we develop, we develop this type of memory and come to understand that as an individual we are separate from others. That is to say, your memories and my memories are different. We further come to compare ourselves to others and understand how we are different and how we are similar.

Our self-concept is also influenced by cultural factors. As noted previously, some cultures, such as the United States, emphasize individualism. That leads you to define yourself in terms of your individual abilities. Other cultures, such as China and some South American countries, emphasize collectivism—the idea that individuals are part of a group. In these cultures, the self is defined as it relates to a larger group.

As humans, we have the ability to reflect on our internal processes (see Bauer & Baumeister, 2011, for an overview). At times, this allows individuals to self-regulate their behaviors or to have their behavior remain consistent with an external set of values. Research has also shown that humans are better at accurately describing their thoughts and feelings, but less accurate in their ability to name the conditions that led to these underlying thoughts and emotions. However, we will always make sense of our world and create a reason why we think or feel in certain ways.

Social Influence and Compliance

How would you go about getting another person to support a cause you thought was important or vote for a political candidate you wanted to win? If you know them well, you might use your personal relationship to influence them. However, if you did not know the person, what techniques might you use to bring about compliance? Social psychologists have examined a number of the techniques and the factors that lead to compliance.

One common technique used by salespeople and others wishing for you to agree to their requests is the foot-in-the-door technique. This technique is based on the fact that if you can get someone to agree to a small request, then that person is more likely to agree to a larger request. The name came from the early days of door-to-door salespeople, who learned that any request that would allow them to “get their foot in the door” would lead to a longer conversation and possibly a sale. A car salesperson may ask you what color car you would like and request you sit in a car of that color before discussing the price. Likewise, a salesperson in a store may ask how a piece of clothing feels to you and hold it in front on you.

One of the early studies of the foot-in-the-door technique asked the experimental participants to either put a small sign in the window of their house promoting safe driving or sign a petition in terms of safe driving (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). About two weeks later, the experimenters returned to the homes and asked the participants to place a much larger sign in their yards. The control group was only asked to place the larger sign in their yards. Whereas fewer than 20% of the control group agreed to put a large sign on their lawn, more than 55% of the experimental group did. Thus, a simple small request followed by a larger request is more likely to be agreed to than a large request alone.

Another technique that has been studied in terms of compliance is just the opposite of the foot-in-the-door technique. This technique involves making a large request that tends to be rejected, and then followed by a smaller one that tends to be accepted. This is referred to as door-in-the-face technique. It is also called reciprocal concessions. Imagine a Boy Scout or Girl Scout coming to your house and asking if you would give $100 to their troop. When you say no, as most people would, they then ask if you buy the $1 candy bar they are selling for the troop. After saying no to the $100, you are more likely to say yes to the $1. An early study in this area asked college students if they would support the “County Youth Counseling Program” and be part of a group taking juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo (Cialdini et al., 1975). As you can imagine, 17% of the college students said yes. However, another group of college students were initially asked if they would counsel juvenile delinquents two hours a week for the next two years. Although all of the students declined to counsel the youth, 50% said they would take them to the zoo. Thus, a small request is more likely to be accepted if it follows a larger one that has been rejected.

A common technique that you will often see on television or in mailings from organizations is the free-gift technique. This is a situation in which you are given a small gift from an organization, such as a calendar, address labels, or even a dollar in the solicitation, requesting that you give money to the organization. Salespeople on TV often say, “But wait, there is more. Buy this and you will get this for free.” Research has also shown that if you do an unexpected favor for someone, they are more likely to comply with your requests.

Social Influence and Conformity

Our desire to be part of the group is strong. We conform with the group even when we believe that our response is actually not correct. At times, people may think they would appear foolish if they gave a different answer. Other times, people may think that the other members of the group would be angry with them for being different. Clearly being part of a group is an important aspect of our human nature. Further, we process information differently in our brain when we conform to peer pressure than when we do not.

As you look at Figure 12-6, what do you see? Clearly, all three people are looking at something. However, the person in the middle is working harder to understand what he is seeing. The people in this room were part of a social psychology experiment performed in the 1950s (Asch, 1956). Psychologist Solomon Asch (1956) performed a famous series of experiments illustrating the power of social influence.

Figure 12-6 What do you see?

Figure 12-6 What do you see?

In the study, the participants were simply asked to pick which of three comparison lines matched the standard line (see Figure 12-6). You are person number six in the room and on the first few trials everyone picks the line you would pick, number two in Figure 12-6. However, after a few trials with similar comparisons, the first person chooses a line that does not appear to match. Then, the second person chooses the same line. By the time it is your turn everyone before you has chosen a different line than you thought was the correct answer. Which line would you choose now? When confronted with six people who gave a wrong answer, three-fourths of the individuals conformed to the other individuals at least once during the experimental session.

All of the individuals in the Asch experiment except one were confederates and answered as instructed. The task is not a difficult one since when there is only one person doing the task he gets it correct 99% of the time. Overall, more than one-third of the naïve participants conformed to the answers given by the others. However, when the naïve participant was allowed to write down his response rather than say it aloud after hearing the others verbally respond, the rate of conformity was reduced.

What goes on in our brain when we are experiencing the pressure to conform, even if it is internal pressure? It took more than 50 years from the time Asch performed his experiments to be able to answer this question with brain imaging. Gregory Berns and his colleagues asked individuals to perform a mental rotation task in an fMRI (Berns, Chappelow, Zink, Pagnoni, Martin-Skurski, & Richards, 2005). The mental rotation task has been studied intensively by cognitive psychologists and was originally developed by Shepard and Metzler (1971). This task is shown in Figure 12-7. In the fMRI experiment, participants were asked if the object shown when rotated was the same as the original object.

Figure 12-7 Mental rotation task.

Figure 12-7 Mental rotation task.

As with the original Asch task, the subject was led to believe that the other four people in the experiment were giving their own answers. However, the other people were all confederates who gave the incorrect answer half of the time. Initially, practice responses were given in a group setting via computer without feedback. This allowed the experimenter to know that the person could perform the visual rotation task since it is more difficult than Asch’s task of comparing lines. Following this, the person was placed in the fMRI and the responses of the others were presented via a computer display. The participant saw the other responses before they made their own response.

On trials when the confederates responded with the correct response, the subjects showed the same level of error rates as they did in the initial group session with no group feedback. However, when the confederates gave the incorrect response, the participants were more likely to also give the incorrect response. Thus, as in the Asch experiment, group influence led to conformity. In the baseline condition there was about a 14% error rate. However, when the confederates gave the incorrect answer, the participant’s error rate went up to 41%.

Since mental rotation is a spatial task, it is not surprising that the brain activity seen when there was no peer pressure was consistent with performing spatial tasks. That is, greater cortical activity was seen in the occipital areas, which are associated with vision; the parietal areas, which are associated with spatial activity; and the frontal lobes associated with executive functioning. When the researchers examined those trials where the person gave incorrect answers related to group pressure versus gave the correct answer in spite of group pressure, there was a difference. When there was conformity, there was greater activity in those areas such as the occipital and parietal areas related to spatial processing. However, when the person went against the group, areas related to emotional processing and social processing were activated. Nonconformity was associated with greater activation in the amygdala and the right caudate nucleus. These areas have been associated with understanding the meaning of emotional and social information.

Figure 12-8 Social influence is related to number of other individuals presenting the incorrect answer.

Figure 12-8 Social influence is related to number of other individuals presenting the incorrect answer.

Follow-up studies suggest two important factors in social conformity. The first is the size of the group. As shown in Figure 12-8, once the size of the group reaches three or four individuals you are more likely to conform than when there are fewer than three people in the group. The second factor is whether there is unanimous agreement or not. If only one person disagrees with the group, even if it is the wrong answer, a participant is more willing to express a nonconforming view.

Social Influence and Persuasion

In the Asch line-judging experiment, conformity was induced by being with other people you thought were similar to you. What do you think would happen if the relationship is a more hierarchical one? That is, the experimenter is instructing you what to do. This was the question asked by Stanley Milgram in his set of obedience experiments. These experiments are classics in the history of psychology, although some have questioned whether this research was ethical.

Milgram begins his discussion of obedience with noting how important it is as well as how it can lead to crimes against humanity (Milgram, 1963). When you go to concerts or sporting events, it is important for everyone to follow directions. Likewise in an emergency situation, obedience is critical to preventing undue harm. However, during World War II, millions of innocent people were killed by Nazi soldiers who said they were just following orders. Questions were asked as to whether some cultures produced individuals who were more independent and thus less likely to follow orders than others. Studies examined French and Norwegian students in an Asch-like experiment (Milgram, 1961). In these studies, the French showed themselves to be more resistant to group pressure. However, group pressure to make a response is different than actually harming another person.

In World War II, a great number of people were harmed and killed in concentration camps. Some suggested that, because of their culture, Germans would be more likely to obey authority than would Americans. The basic idea was that Americans were taught to be independent, whereas the Germans were taught to follow authority. Also, during the 1960s there were war crimes trials in Israel of Adolf Eichmann and others who carried out the Holocaust. Although many saw Eichmann as evil, the question arose as to why so many others went along with his orders. Some even suggested that Eichmann was just a bureaucrat doing his job (Arendt, 1958). With this as a background, Stanley Milgram began a simple experiment to study obedience.

Milgram created an experimental procedure that required that a naïve subject would administer electrical shocks to another person (Milgram, 1963, 1974). The shock generator was clearly marked with voltage levels that ranged from 15 to 450 volts. Approximately every four levels were labeled with descriptions such as slight shock, very strong shock, danger: severe shock, and, at the 435 and 450 volts levels, XXX.

The purpose of the initial experiment was just to collect baseline data. When mental health professionals were asked what percentage of individuals would significantly shock another person, most professionals responded that they expected only 1% or 2% of the people would do so. College students at Yale also estimated that less than 2% of the participants would administer high shock levels. Thus, Milgram began his research expecting that he was only collecting baseline data that could be used in future research. However, what he found was not what he expected.

Before looking at the results, let’s examine the basic procedures of the study. An ad was placed in the local paper where Yale University is located. People of all ages and occupations responded to the ad. When they arrived at the laboratory, they were told that this was an experiment concerning learning. There was also a middle-aged likable man who also appeared to be a participant in the experiment. A drawing was held to determine who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner.” In fact, the drawing was rigged and the naïve participant would always be the teacher. The teacher was given a list of word pairs (for example, clean—air) to be taught to the learner. The learner was actually a confederate. The experimenter and the naïve subject took the learner into another room and attached shock electrodes and a strap to hold his arm in place. The experimenter was a 31-year-old high-school teacher of biology who portrayed an impassive and stern manner throughout the experiment.

Before the experiment began each “teacher” was given a shock at the 45-volt level so he would have the experience of receiving a shock. He was also told that the shocks would be painful but not cause permanent damage. When the experiment began the teacher was instructed to move up one level of shock with each wrong answer. He was also instructed to announce the shock level aloud before he administered the shock. The number and sequence of incorrect answers by the learner were predetermined.

After this, the teacher was taken to another room with the shock generator. It was the teacher’s job to administer a shock every time the learner made a mistake in repeating a series of words he was to learn. With each mistake, the shock level was increased. Of course, no shock was actually delivered to the learner in the other room. In the initial version of the study reported in 1963, the teacher did not hear the learner as he responded by a keypad.

At the 300-volt level, the teacher heard the learner pound on the walls. After this, the teacher saw no answers from the learner. At this point, the participant tended to look to the experimenter for guidance. The experimenter told the teacher to consider the lack of an answer as a wrong answer and continue with the shocks. At this point, some of the participants looked to the experimenter with concern.

If the subject showed an unwillingness to go on, the experimenter responded with the first of the following statements and then continued with the next until the subject continued or withdrew from the experiment. In this way, the experimenter prodded the subject to continue.

✵ Prod 1: Please continue, or Please go on.

✵ Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue.

✵ Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

✵ Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go on.

Milgram kept careful notes of the reactions of the subjects as they progressed through the experiment. Many of the subjects showed distress and discomfort at their task. They would sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. About a quarter of the subjects displayed nervous laughter and smiling. Even those who went to the highest shock level showed signs of relief when the experiment was over.

What would you expect in terms of level of shocks administered? The actual results were unexpected and surprising. No subject stopped before the 300-volt level, which was when the learner pounded on the wall. A total of 5 of 40 subjects refused to go beyond this point. Four more subjects administered the next level of shock and then refused to go on. Five more subjects stopped at various levels beyond the 300 volt level. Overall, this meant that 14 subjects stopped at some point in the experiment, and 26 subjects went to the final level of shock (450 volts).

In a second study with similar procedures, the teacher could hear the learner protest from the other room earlier in the procedure. This resulted in some eight participants withdrawing from the experiment at an earlier point than in the first experiment. However, 25 participants in the second experiment, as compared to 26 in the first experiment, went to the highest level of shock administration.

Once the study was completed, the participant (teacher) was reunited with the learner. It was explained to the participant that the learner had not been shocked and was not upset with the subject. As a further part of the debriefing, every attempt was made so that the participant would leave the experiment in a state of well-being.

Following this study in which about 65% of the participants continued to administer shocks until the highest level was reached, other factors were considered. Since Yale was a well-known institution, the experiment was moved to a nondescript building in the downtown. This reduced obedience to under 50%. If the teacher was in the same room as the learner, the obedience declined to about 40%. If the teacher was required to hold the learner’s hand on the shock plate, then obedience declined to 30%. Likewise, giving the orders to shock the learner by phone or having an ordinary person not wearing a lab coat be the experimenter also reduced the level of obedience. These different conditions are shown in Figure 12-9.

Figure 12-9 Follow-up studies and the level of obedience by condition.

Figure 12-9 Follow-up studies and the level of obedience by condition.

To return to one of the original questions as to whether the nature of a society can influence obedience, Stanley Milgram suggested the following:

The results are… disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or—more specifically—the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.

(Milgram, 1965, p. 75)

Since the Milgram study was conducted more than 50 years ago, there has been some criticism of the manner in which the Milgram study was conducted and the manner in which the results were reported (Griggs, 2017). These criticisms have also been extended to the film Obedience that Milgram produced to summarize his experiments. One interpretation of the Milgram results based on an examination of the original Milgram notes in the Yale University archives suggests that the results were based on the participants’ desire to be part of scientific research rather than obedience to authority per se (Haslam, Reicher, & Birney, 2016). That is, participants wanted to be part of an in-group even if an out-group was harmed.

Would similar results be found if Milgram’s study was replicated today? To answer that question, Jerry Burger performed a similar study taking into account today’s ethical standards (Burger, 2009). What he found was that rates of delivering shocks were only slightly lower than those seen in the Milgram study 45 years earlier. Despite the exact mechanism, people can be put into situations in which they will deliver harm to others. Outside of research, every few years a media story reminds us of our disposition to follow orders that lead to negative consequences, even for ourselves. For example, in the Vietnam War, American solders followed orders at My Lai and killed innocent unarmed civilians. In 1978, 900 people who were followers of a cult leader, Jim Jones, followed his orders and committed mass suicide.

About ten years after the Milgram studies, another study looked at the willingness of ordinary people to assume roles that would oppress others. The Stanford Prison Study, which was conducted in 1971, had male undergraduates at Stanford University play the role of either prisoners or guards (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). The basic claim of the study is that individuals are strongly influenced by the situation they find themselves in, which can include taking power over others. This study is included in this book since it is well known in the popular press and even a movie is based on the study. However, it should be recognized that scholars in both psychology and criminology suggest that the findings of the study should be carefully evaluated and not accepted without consideration (Griggs, 2014; Kulig, Pratt, & Cullen, 2016).

The leader of the study was Stanford faculty member, Philip Zimbardo. Before the study began, the students were given a series of tests and determined to be psychologically stable. Information given to the participants suggested that the purpose of the experiment was to see how individuals react in novel situations and take on the role they are given.

The students were randomly assigned to being a “prisoner” or a “guard.” The guards were given uniforms and told not to hurt the prisoners. The prisoners were picked up at their homes, taken to the local police station, and then “booked” and fingerprinted. They were then taken to the prison, which was in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University. Nothing out of the ordinary happened on the first day. However, a day or two later the prisoners revolted, and the guards reacted.

According to Zimbardo, at a time the prisoners were to be taken to the toilet, “The prisoners come out, and the guards put bags over their heads, chain their feet together and make them put their hands on each other’s shoulders, like a chain gang. They’re yelling and cursing at them” ( Although the study was designed to last for two weeks, it was stopped after only six days when some prisoners showed psychological distress and some guards were abusive.

Why did normal college students assume the roles they were given, even being sadistic? Although people do accept roles they are given, careful analysis of the study suggests that the participants were led to behave in certain ways. Zimbardo, himself, rather than being an outside observer, assumed the role of prison warden, which influenced the participants’ behaviors. One of the consultants to the study, himself an ex-convict, reported that he had told the experimenters about abusive and humiliating behaviors that guards could express (Griggs, 2014). Thus, rather than show what individuals do in novel situations, the participants in the experiment responded to demand characteristics unique to this experiment (Banuazizi & Movahedi, 1975). Knowing you are in an experiment does influence your behavior. Further, a similar study performed in the United Kingdom known as the BBC prison study found very different results (Reicher & Haslam, 2006).

If you are interested in what it was like to be a part of this study, you can read interviews with Zimbardo and participants in the study some 40 years later in the Stanford Magazine ( and Stanford Library Special Collections (

Making Moral Judgments

How we perform in relation to others is often studied in terms of moral decisions (Malle, 2021). How do you make a moral judgment? That is to say, how do you decide if something you observe is wrong? If you watch someone hurt a helpless animal, how do you respond? Likewise, if you see someone help someone who is helpless, what is the difference in your response? Where does this response come from? Is it like a preference? That is, do we have some sort of code in our heads that says helping is good and when we see someone help, we say that is good? Or perhaps do we have an internal feeling such as the feeling that makes us feel satisfied? The origin of moral judgment has been a topic that has recently become of interest to evolutionary psychologists as well as those interested in the underlying brain states (Decety & Yoder, 2016).

How do you make a moral judgment? Moral judgments are judgments that involve values related to human functioning such as life and death. A variety of studies suggest that moral judgments happen quickly (see Miller, 2008, for an overview). It is more of an emotional or gut reaction to the situation. If asked why you made that decision, most individuals will either say, “I don’t know,” or “It just felt right,” or try to create a cognitive reason to justify the decision. There is also research to suggest that creating a feeling of disgust in a person will increase the sense of moral outrage or immorality.

Steven Pinker (2014) suggests that the nature of moral judgments is different from other types of thinking. Think of a food you dislike. Do you care if someone else eats that food? No! We may like chocolate ice cream, but would not be upset if someone else had strawberry. However, you don’t say it is fine with me if you want to hurt someone. Thus, moral judgments are not like preferences. Pinker also suggests moral judgments are not like what is in fashion. You may think that bell-bottoms are out of style but we don’t consider doing harm to another to go in and out of style. Pinker also makes a distinction between moral judgments and what is imprudent. We tell others not to scratch mosquito bites, but this is different from saying you should not randomly kill others.

Pinker further suggests that there are two important hallmarks of moral judgments. The first is that these judgments are felt to be universal. Someone who thinks that rape or killing is wrong does not think that this only applies to their hometown, but to the entire world. In this sense, moral judgments are experienced differently from cultural ones. The second hallmark is the belief that committing immoral acts should be followed by punishment. People often say it is wrong to let someone “get away with it.” Thus, according to Pinker, humans not only make moral judgments, but also believe that immoral behavior should be punished.

There are a variety of ways to study moral judgment in the lab. Most use hypothetical scenarios such as if you could only save one person from a burning building, who would you save—a young child or an old man? Almost everyone would say the young child without a second thought. Another scenario is referred to as the trolley problem (see Figure 12-10). In this case, you are a trolley driver. You lose your brakes and are headed for five workers on the tracks in front of you. The only way to save the lives of these workers would be for you to hit a switch on the control panel that would send the trolley down another set of tracks. If you did this you would kill a single worker on these tracks. What would you do? Again, most individuals would say it was OK to kill the one person if that meant five people would be saved. This type of scenario is generally classified as low conflict since most individuals agree with the moral decision.

Figure 12-10 The Trolley Problem.

Figure 12-10 The Trolley Problem.

Source: Miller (2008). ©Peter Hoey.

Now let’s consider a high conflict situation (see Figure 12-11). What if you were on a bridge above the trolley and you saw the runaway trolley coming. The only way you could stop the trolley was to push a large person off the bridge and stop the trolley. What would you do in this case? This scenario produces much less agreement that it is OK to push the man off the bridge, even though the result is the same as in the previous scenario—that is, saving the lives of five people. The act of hurting another for the greater good is experienced by most people as more morally ambiguous than throwing a switch.

Figure 12-11 What would you do in this case?

Figure 12-11 What would you do in this case?

Source: Miller (2008). ©Peter Hoey.

To understand how high and low conflict situations involve emotional circuits in the brain, Michael Koenigs and his colleagues presented these problems to individuals who had damage to an area of the brain involved in emotional action (Koenigs et al., 2008). This area is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC)—an area in the front of the brain involved in encoding the emotional value of sensory information as well as emotional components of human actions. These researchers found that individuals with damage to these frontal areas of the brain were less likely to show differences between high and low conflict scenarios. That is to say, they made their decision on the utilitarian premise that, in each case, five individuals would be saved. Overall, this suggests that moral judgments rely on emotional processing in the brain. In other research, the vmPFC has also been shown to be activated when someone chooses to give money to charity or views pictures of hungry children.

A variety of studies have asked whether children below the age of six differentiate between a moral judgment and a conventional one. An event that requires a moral judgment would involve aggression, such as hitting or biting another; stealing, such as taking another child’s possession; or psychological harm, such as teasing. Events related to conventional judgments would include not being neat or making a mess and breaking school rules, such as playing in an area off-limits. In a classic study, preschool children were asked to evaluate naturally occurring and hypothetical events involving moral and conventional transgressions (Smetana, Schlagman, & Adams, 1993). These researchers found that preschool children did make a distinction between the moral events and the conventional ones. The moral events were seen as more serious, wrong, and more deserving of punishment than the conventional events. Evolutionary psychologists view these types of results as suggesting that cultural and moral judgments rely on different systems of judgment and that moral transgressions are seen as more serious an offense than cultural ones. With development of self-driving vehicles, rules for moral judgments must be developed, as described in the box: Applying Psychological Science: Letting Self-Driving Cars Make Decisions for You.

Applying Psychological Science: Letting Self-Driving Cars Make Decisions for You

With the advances in the electronics and computing capacity available, there has been a desire to develop cars that drive themselves. Those who support this suggest that a self-driving car can benefit society as the population ages. These cars can be better aware of the surrounding environment and thus reduce traffic accidents. However, not all traffic accidents can be prevented. There could be situations in which the car must make a decision as to the type of accident it allows to happen.

This has raised critical questions. What if the car has to choose between hitting a pedestrian or another car? Or, what if the car needs to sacrifice its own passenger to save hitting two or more pedestrians? For self-driving cars to be accepted, it is important that their decision rules be acceptable to the people who use them.

In order to determine what decision rules should be used, researchers presented a number of scenarios to people (Bonnefon, Shariff, & Rahwan, 2016). Over a series of studies, participants strongly agreed that it would be more moral for self-driving cars to sacrifice their own passenger when this sacrifice would save a greater number of lives. In one of these studies, 76% of participants thought that it would be more moral for the car to sacrifice one passenger rather than kill ten pedestrians. In another study in which the number of pedestrians saved ranged from 1 to 100, more saved lives was the most acceptable outcome, even if the passenger was killed. If the event involved only one pedestrian, then people were not willing to sacrifice the life of the passenger. People were also less willing to sacrifice the life of the passenger if they imagined the person to be a family member of theirs.

The researchers then asked participants if they would rather buy the car that minimizes death in general or one that minimizes their own death or that of their family members. Although people valued the global saving of life, they were less likely to buy such a car for themselves. This leaves society in an ethical dilemma. Should we have self-driving cars that are programmed in a number of different ways? Should the government be able to set which way the self-driving car is programmed? This could result in different countries having different rules depending on the cultural values of that society. The authors of these studies see the ethics concerning self-driving cars as a difficult issue. They further suggest the value of research into humans’ moral values as a way to help inform the manner in which self-driving cars are programmed. A Radiolab podcast concerning these types of situations is available (

Thought Question: You knew that self-driving cars were programmed to operate, but is it a new idea to you that they make moral judgments? What about other technology or apps that you use? What are some examples of moral judgments or other decisions they make that you’re not aware of?


1. Identify and describe the four basic social-cognitive processes that Fiske proposes as the “grammar” of social relationships. Give an example of each from your own experience.

2. What is a script? How does its nature change as you change your focus from the universal level, to the cultural level, to the interpersonal level, and to the individual level?

3. Briefly describe the two experiments (Asch; Berns and colleagues) studying the impact of social influence. Why do individuals conform—even when they know the answer is wrong? What factors are suggested by follow-up studies to reduce the level of conformity?

4. Briefly describe Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment. What was the larger cultural question Milgram was trying to answer when he undertook this study? In what ways was he surprised at the results? Were you shocked? How could this question be studied experimentally today?

5. What unique contributions did the following researchers add to our understanding of the distinctive characteristics of a moral judgment:

a. Stephen Pinker?

b. Michael Koenigs and his colleagues?

c. Smetana, Schlagman, and Adams?


Learning Objective 1: Define what it means to be social.

As humans, we are social creatures. There has never been a time in our history where we humans have lived alone. From the earliest times as hunter-gatherers, we have lived in social groups with strong social bonds. It is these groups that have shaped our social skills and abilities. For example, we need to know who our friends are as opposed to who might want to hurt us. We also need to be able to select mates. Further, we need to understand the dynamics of our larger group. These abilities have been passed down over evolutionary time and are part of our human social interactions today.

Learning Objective 2: Discuss the role that social cognition plays in understanding how we form opinions and make decisions.

Social cognition refers to the manner in which we understand others. Social cognition is a broad term that can include our attributions about others, how we stereotype others, as well as our prejudice of others. Humans tend to attribute trait characteristics, such as being stupid, to others while using situational explanations, such as having the sun in our eyes, for ourselves. This is referred to as the fundamental attribution error or person bias. It is also another example of how humans conserve cognitive effort by ignoring situational information when making sense of others’ actions.

Humans are motivated by two primary needs: (1) to form a coherent view of the world and (2) to gain control over our environment. Attributions are one way we create a world view that makes sense to us. There are two types of attributions. The first is internal or dispositional attribution. This is the situation in which observed behaviors are attributed to the internal state of the person. Saying someone is lazy when they do not get a job would be an example of internal attributions. The second type of attribution is external or situational attribution. As the name implies, this is the case where a person’s behavior is attributed to external factors. If you said your grade on a test was low because you were not given enough time, you would be attributing your behavior to an external or situational factor.

We make internal or external attributions based on three types of information: consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness.

There is a tendency for individuals to view themselves, their worlds, their friends, and other aspects of themselves in an overly positive manner. Not only do we categorize whether another individual is like us (our in-group), we also determine who is not like us (our out-group). If someone is seen to be in our out-group we tend to see them in more negative terms, as less deserving, and as more responsible for any negative event in their life. Traditional categories of person perception include age, gender, and race. When we make inferences about a group of individuals that share similar characteristics, it is referred to as stereotyping.

Three aspects describe the mechanisms that support social stereotyping: social categorizing, stereotype activation, stereotype application. Whereas stereotyping involves more of a cognitive assessment, prejudice, on the other hand, reflects a more emotional evaluation.

Learning Objective 3: Discuss the role that social emotion plays in prosocial and helping behaviors.

Social emotions are those emotions that involve our interactions with other people in a social context. Examples of these emotions are embarrassment, jealousy, envy, and pride.

Since guilt and shame involve transgression against the conventions of the group, these have been called moral emotions. Research suggests that individuals’ shame experiences are more painful and intense than guilt experiences. Feelings of sympathy and guilt have been seen to motivate cooperative behavior and altruism. Additionally, guilt appears to help individuals keep commitments and thus maintain relationships.

Altruism is defined as helping another person when it does not directly benefit ourselves.

Learning Objective 4: Explain how social influences affect behavior.

We all have ideas of what to expect in different relationships. If you are going out on a first date, you would expect a different sequence of events than if you were going out with someone for the 50th time. Likewise, when you first meet someone, the types of conversations you have are typically different than if it is a close friend. In social interactions, there are scripts for what we say to one another. These scripts have both a cultural and a universal level. Overall, cultures have developed rules for allowing individuals to be part of the culture with minimal effort and conflict.

One traditional view of the self in social psychology is that it is made up of schemas or beliefs about oneself. These schemas help us define who we are and how we see ourselves. These schemas differ for different people. As humans, we have the ability to reflect on our internal processes. This allows individuals to self-regulate their behaviors or to have their behavior remain consistent with an external set of values. Our self-concept is also influenced by cultural factors. As noted previously, some cultures, such as the United States, emphasize individualism. That leads you to define yourself in terms of your individual abilities.

Our desire to be part of the group is a strong one. We conform even when we believe that our response is actually not correct. At times, people may think they would appear foolish if they gave a different answer. Other times, people may think that the other members of the group would be angry with them for being different. Clearly being part of a group is an important aspect of our human nature. Further, we process information differently in our brain when we conform to peer pressure than when we do not.

Learning Objective 5: Describe our understanding of the distinctive characteristics of moral judgment.

Steven Pinker suggests that there are two important hallmarks of moral judgments. The first is that these judgments are felt to be universal. Someone who thinks that rape or killing is wrong does not think that this only applies to their hometown, but to the entire world. In this sense, moral judgments are experienced differently from cultural ones. The second hallmark is the belief that committing immoral acts should be followed by punishment. People often say it is wrong to let someone “get away with it.” Thus, according to Pinker, humans not only make moral judgments, but also believe that immoral behavior should be punished

Study Resources

Review Questions

1. The beginning of this chapter focuses on concepts that are under the heading of social cognition, while the end focuses on concepts that are under the heading of social groups. But clearly, concepts in each of the two sections are closely related to concepts in the other. So…

a. Review the section on social cognition to identify how specific concepts of social groups impact the social cognition concepts of attribution, categorization, stereotyping, and prejudice.

b. Review the section on social groups to identify how specific aspects of social cognition impact the social groups concepts of social emotions, cooperation, conflict, scripts, influence and persuasion, conformity, and moral judgments.

2. This chapter states, “The existence of altruism was a problem for Darwin’s theory of evolution.” What was the problem? What unique contributions were made by the following researchers in resolving the problem:

a. William Hamilton?

b. Robert Trivers?

c. Axelrod and Travis?

d. Anatol Rapoport?

e. Stephens, McLinn, and Stevens?

f. Martin Nowak and Karl Sigmund; Manfred Milinski et al; Alexander?

g. Ernst Fehr and his colleagues?

3. What do the following perspectives contribute to our understanding of the concept of the self:

a. Explicit versus implicit knowledge?

b. William James’s distinction between “I” and “me”?

c. Markus’s concept of self-schema?

d. Memory?

e. Social and cultural influences?

4. Smetana, Schlagman, and Adams developed a study to determine whether children below the age of 6 differentiate between a moral judgment and a conventional one (yes, they do). Design a research study to look at each of the following two concepts: (1) the impact of social influence on young children; and (2) the impact of social persuasion on young children. Answer the following questions:

a. What is your research hypothesis?

b. What is your independent variable (IV)? What is your dependent variable (DV)?

c. Who will your participants be? Will you have a control group?

d. How will you perform the study? What methods will you use?

e. What do you expect the results to be?

5. A wide variety of research techniques have been featured in this chapter in studying concepts within social psychology.

a. Make a list of the research techniques that were mentioned and a study in which each was used. For example, brain imaging (fMRI) was used in a study that showed that brain areas activated when experiencing physical pain are also activated when experiencing social pain.

b. Given the pervasiveness of social media use today, particularly among young people, select one of the studies from the list above—or come up with one of your own—and redesign it to use some aspect of social media as a research technique.

For Further Reading

✵ Cacioppo, J., & Berntson, G. (2005). Social Neuroscience. New York: Psychology Press.

✵ Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin.

✵ Trivers, R. (2011). The Folly of Fools. New York: Basic Books.

✵ Ware, J. (2012). The Student’s Guide to Social Neuroscience. New York: Psychology Press.

Web Resources

✵ IAT Test—

✵ IAT—

✵ Robbers Cave— and

✵ Ethics of self-driving cars—

Key Terms and Concepts



altruistic punishment


bystander intervention

cognitive dissonance


correspondence bias


door-in-the-face technique

evolution of cooperation

external or situational attribution

fear of missing out

foot-in-the-door technique

free-gift technique

fundamental attribution error or person bias

Implicit Association Test (IAT)

indirect reciprocity

internal or dispositional attribution

kin selection or inclusive fitness

moral emotions

moral judgments


person perception

reciprocal altruism




self-serving bias

social brain hypothesis

social categorizing

social emotion

social facilitation

social inhibition

social loafing

stereotype activation

stereotype application


strong altruism

superordinate goals

theory of mind

weak altruism