Principles of Social Psychology - 1st International H5P Edition

Principles of Social Psychology - 1st International H5P Edition

Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani and Dr. Hammond Tarry

Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani and Dr. Hammond Tarry


Victoria, B.C.



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About BCcampus Open Education

Principles of Social Psychology – 1st International H5P Edition by was funded by BCcampus Open Education.

BCcampus Open Education began in 2012 as the B.C. Open Textbook Project with the goal of making post-secondary education in British Columbia more accessible by reducing students’ costs through the use of open textbooks and other OER. BCcampus supports the post-secondary institutions of British Columbia as they adapt and evolve their teaching and learning practices to enable powerful learning opportunities for the students of B.C. BCcampus Open Education is funded by the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills and the Hewlett Foundation.

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For more information about open education in British Columbia, please visit the BCcampus Open Education website. If you are an instructor who is using this book for a course, please fill out our Adoption of an Open Textbook form.



From the Adapting Authors

First, we owe a great debt to the original author, Dr. Charles Stangor, for writing the textbook and making it available to all.  We both enjoyed adding to such a readable and engaging resource. We are also grateful to the entire Open Education team at BCcampus, including Mary Burgess and Clint Lalonde, but especially Amanda Coolidge, who shepherded this project from start to finish. Thanks also to our editors for spotting the formatting and referencing errors that escaped our attention, to Brad Payne for his incredible work on the Pressbooks platform that facilitated our work, and to Chris Montoya (Thompson Rivers University), Dawn-Louise McLeod (Thompson Rivers University—Open Learning), and Jennifer Walinga (Royal Roads University) for their useful and detailed reviews of the original edition.

Rajiv Jhangiani would also like to thank Surita Jhangiani (Capilano University & Justice Institute of British Columbia) for her helpful suggestions and constant support, as well as Kabir and Aahaan Jhangiani, for providing great inspiration and endless joy during the entire process.

Hammond Tarry would also like to thank his family for their love, support, and inspiration.

From the Original Author

This book is the result of many years of interacting with many students, and it would never have been written without them. So thanks, first, to my many excellent students. Also a particular thanks to Michael Boezi, Pam Hersperger, and Becky Knauer for their help and support.

I would also like to thank the following reviewers whose comprehensive feedback and suggestions for improving the material helped make this a better text:



Preface from Original Author

When I first started teaching social psychology, I had trouble figuring out how the various topics in this expansive field fit together. I felt like I was presenting a laundry list of ideas, research studies, and phenomena, rather than an integrated set of principles and knowledge. Of course, what was difficult for me was harder still for my students. How could they be expected to understand and remember all of the many topics that we social psychologists study? And how could they tell what was most important? Something was needed to structure and integrate their learning.

It took me some time, but eventually, I realized that the missing piece in my lectures was a consistent focus on the basic principles of social psychology. Once I started thinking and talking about principles, then it all fell into place. I knew that when I got to my lecture on altruism, most of my students already knew what I was about to tell them. They understood that, although there were always some tweaks to keep things interesting, altruism was going to be understood using the same ideas that conformity and person perception had been in earlier lectures—in terms of the underlying fundamentals—they were truly thinking like social psychologists!

I wrote this book to help students organize their thinking about social psychology at a conceptual level. Five or ten years from now, I do not expect my students to remember the details of a study published in 2011, or even to remember most of the definitions in this book. I do hope, however, that they will remember some basic ideas, for it is these principles that will allow them to critically analyze new situations and really put their knowledge to use.

My text is therefore based on a critical thinking approach—its aim is to get students thinking actively and conceptually—with more of a focus on the forest than on the trees. Although there are right and wrong answers, the answers are not the only thing. What is perhaps even more important is how we get to those answers—the thinking process itself. My efforts are successful when my students have that “aha” moment, in which they find new ideas fitting snugly into the basic concepts of social psychology.

To help students better grasp the big picture of social psychology and to provide you with a theme that you can use to organize your lectures, my text has a consistent pedagogy across the chapters. I organize my presentation around two underlying principles that are essential to social psychology:

  1. Person and situation (the classic treatment)
  2. The ABCs of social psychology (affect, behavior, and cognition)

I also frame much of my discussion around the two human motivations of self-concern and other-concern. I use these fundamental motivations to frame discussions on a variety of dimensions including altruism, aggression, prejudice, gender differences, and cultural differences. You can incorporate these dimensions into your teaching as you see fit.

My years of teaching have convinced me that these dimensions are fundamental, that they are extremely heuristic, and that they are what I hope my students will learn and remember. I think that you may find that this organization represents a more explicit representation of what you’re already doing in your lectures. Although my pedagogy is consistent, it is not constraining. You will use these dimensions more in some lectures than in others, and you will find them more useful for some topics than others. But they will always work for you when you are ready for them. Use them to reinforce your presentation as you see fit.

Perhaps most important, a focus on these dimensions helps us bridge the gap between the textbook, the real-life experiences of our students, and our class presentations. We can’t cover every phenomenon in our lectures—we naturally let the textbook fill in the details. The goal of my book is to allow you to rest assured that the text has provided your students with the foundations—the fundamental language of social psychology—from which you can build as you see fit. And when you turn to ask students to apply their learning to real life, you can know that they will be doing this as social psychologists do—using a basic underlying framework.


The text moves systematically from lower to higher levels of analysis—a method that I have found makes sense to students. On the other hand, the chapter order should not constrain you—choose a different order if you wish. Chapter 1 “Introducing Social Psychology” presents an introduction to social psychology and the research methods in social psychology, Chapter 2 “Social Cognition” presents the fundamental principles of social cognition. The remainder of the text is organized around three levels of analysis, moving systematically from the individual level (Chapter 3 “The Self” through Chapter 5 “Perceiving Others”), to the level of social interaction (Chapter 6 “Influencing and Conforming” through Chapter 9 “Aggression”), to the group and cultural level (Chapter 10 “Working Groups: Performance and Decision Making” through Chapter 12 “Competition and Cooperation in Our Social Worlds”).

Rather than relying on “modules” or “appendices” of applied materials, my text integrates applied concepts into the text itself. This approach is consistent with my underlying belief that if students learn to think like social psychologists they will easily and naturally apply that knowledge to any and all applications. The following applications are woven throughout the text:


Principles of Social Psychology contains a number of pedagogical features designed to help students develop an active, integrative understanding of the many topics of social psychology and to think like social psychologists.

Research Foci

Research is of course the heart of social psychology, and the research foci provide detailed information about a study or research program. I’ve chosen a mix of classic and contemporary research, with a focus on both what’s interesting and what’s pedagogical. The findings are part of the running text—simply highlighted with a heading and light shading.

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Social psychological findings interest students in large part because they relate so directly to everyday experience. The Social Psychology in the Public Interest Feature reinforces these links. Topics include Does High Self-Esteem Cause Happiness or Other Positive Outcomes? (Chapter 3 “Self”), Detecting Deception (Chapter 5 “Perceiving Others”), Terrorism as Instrumental Aggression (Chapter 9 “Aggression”), and Stereotype Threat in Schools (Chapter 11 “Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination”). The goal here is to include these applied topics within the relevant conceptual discussions to provide students with a richer understanding within the context of the presentation.

Thinking Like a Social Psychologist

Each chapter ends with a section that summarizes how the material presented in the chapter can help the student think about contemporary issues using social psychological principles. This section is designed to work with the chapter summary to allow a better integration of fundamental concepts.


Adapting Authors' Notes

Although the original edition of this textbook was favourably reviewed by B.C. faculty, the reviewers noted several areas and issues that needed to be addressed before it was ready for adoption. These included incorporating new research and theoretical developments, updating the chapter opening anecdotes and real world examples to make them more relevant for contemporary students, changing examples, references, and statistics to reflect a more international context, and merging the separate chapters on “Social Learning” and “Social Affect” to create a single “Social Cognition” chapter. Over the course of our adaptation we attempted to address all of these issues (with the exception of American spelling, which was retained in order to focus on more substantive issues), while making other changes and additions we thought necessary, such as writing overviews of some concepts, theories, and key studies not included in the original edition. Finally, we added a list of learning objectives at the start of each chapter and a glossary of key terms at the end of the textbook as a quick-reference for students.

We hope that our work enables more instructors to adopt this open textbook for their Social Psychology or related courses and we further invite you to build upon our work by modifying this textbook to suit your course and pedagogical goals.

Rajiv Jhangiani and Hammond Tarry

August 2014


Chapter 1. Introducing Social Psychology

Chapter Learning Objectives

1. Defining Social Psychology: History and Principles

  • Define social psychology.
  • Review the history of the field of social psychology and the topics that social psychologists study.
  • Summarize the principles of evolutionary psychology.
  • Describe and provide examples of the person-situation interaction.
  • Review the concepts of (a) social norms and (b) cultures.

2. Affect, Behavior, and Cognition

  • Define and differentiate affect, behavior, and cognition as considered by social psychologists.
  • Summarize the principles of social cognition.

3. Conducting Research in Social Psychology

  • Explain why social psychologists rely on empirical methods to study social behavior.
  • Provide examples of how social psychologists measure the variables they are interested in.
  • Review the three types of research designs, and evaluate the strengths and limitations of each type.
  • Consider the role of validity in research, and describe how research programs should be evaluated.

The Story of Raoul Wallenberg

Born into a prominent and wealthy family in Sweden, Raoul Wallenberg grew up especially close to his mother and grandfather (his father had earlier died from cancer). Early in life he demonstrated a flair for languages and became fluent in English, French, German, and Russian. Raoul pursued a college education in the United States, where he distinguished himself academically en route to completing a B.A. in architecture from the University of Michigan in 1935. Following a period during which he lived and worked in South Africa and then Palestine, he returned to his native Sweden, where he became increasingly concerned about the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany. His work in the import-export business took him to Budapest, Hungary, where by 1944 the Nazis were sending between 10,000 and 12,000 Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers every day. It was around this time that Wallenberg accepted a position with the Swedish embassy in Budapest.

Sculpture of Raoul Wallenberg
Figure 1.1 Raoul Wallenberg. Raoul Wallenberg sculpture, Great Cumberland Place, London


What took place over the next six months is an extraordinary and miraculous story of courage and caring. Deciding that he had to do everything in his power to help save the Jews of Hungary, Wallenberg began by establishing an office and “hired” 400 Jewish volunteers to run it so that they could receive diplomatic protection. Next, without his government’s authorization, he invented an official-looking Swedish passport, the “Schutzpass,” that he distributed to as many Jews as he could. This fake passport alone helped save the lives of approximately 20,000 Jews. He even set up 32 “safe houses” that became attached to the Swedish embassy and used them to protect 35,000 Jews. He worked long hours, sleeping barely four hours each night. He bribed, manipulated, confronted, and harassed officials in order to achieve his goal of saving the Jews of Hungary.

As the Soviet army invaded from the east, the Nazis began to escalate their annihilation of the Hungarian Jewish population. Wallenberg promptly threatened the Nazi commander, indicating that he would personally see the commander hanged for crimes against humanity. The commander backed down and called off the assault, thereby saving the lives of another 70,000 Jews.

Unfortunately, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets and never heard from again. Some reports indicate that he remained in a Soviet prison for years and eventually died there.

Raoul Wallenberg has been made an honorary citizen of Australia, Canada, Hungary, Israel, and the United States, and there are memorials and awards in his name around the world. In 1985, speaking on the 40th anniversary of his arrest, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said that Wallenberg “has become more than a man, more even than a hero. He symbolizes a central conflict of our age, which is the determination to remain human and caring and free in the face of tyranny. What Raoul Wallenberg represented in Budapest was nothing less than the conscience of the civilized world.”

Schreiber, P. (2014). The Story of Raoul Wallenberg. Retrieved from

Social psychology is the scientific study of how we feel about, think about, and behave toward the people around us and how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are influenced by those people. As this definition suggests, the subject matter of social psychology is very broad and can be found in just about everything that we do every day. Social psychologists study why we are often helpful to other people and why we may at other times be unfriendly or aggressive. Social psychologists study both the benefits of having good relationships with other people and the costs of being lonely. Social psychologists study what factors lead people to purchase one product rather than another, how men and women behave differently in social settings, how juries work together to make important group decisions, and what makes some people more likely to recycle and engage in other environmentally friendly behaviors than others. And social psychologists also study more unusual events, such as how someone might choose to risk their life to save that of a complete stranger.

The goal of this book is to help you learn to think about social behaviors in the same way that social psychologists do. We believe you will find this approach useful because it will allow you to think about human behavior more critically and more objectively and to gain insight into your own relationships with other people. Social psychologists study everyday behavior scientifically, and their research creates a useful body of knowledge about our everyday social interactions.

Media Attributions


1.1 Defining Social Psychology: History and Principles

Learning Objectives

  1. Define social psychology.
  2. Review the history of the field of social psychology and the topics that social psychologists study.
  3. Summarize the principles of evolutionary psychology.
  4. Describe and provide examples of the person-situation interaction.
  5. Review the concepts of (a) social norms and (b) cultures.

The field of social psychology is growing rapidly and is having an increasingly important influence on how we think about human behavior. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media frequently report the findings of social psychologists, and the results of social psychological research are influencing decisions in a wide variety of areas. Let’s begin with a short history of the field of social psychology and then turn to a review of the basic principles of the science of social psychology.

The History of Social Psychology

The science of social psychology began when scientists first started to systematically and formally measure the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of human beings (Kruglanski & Stroebe, 2011). The earliest social psychology experiments on group behavior were conducted before 1900 (Triplett, 1898), and the first social psychology textbooks were published in 1908 (McDougall, 1908/2003; Ross, 1908/1974). During the 1940s and 1950s, the social psychologists Kurt Lewin and Leon Festinger refined the experimental approach to studying behavior, creating social psychology as a rigorous scientific discipline. Lewin is sometimes known as “the father of social psychology” because he initially developed many of the important ideas of the discipline, including a focus on the dynamic interactions among people. In 1954, Festinger edited an influential book called Research Methods in the Behavioral Sciences, in which he and other social psychologists stressed the need to measure variables and to use laboratory experiments to systematically test research hypotheses about social behavior. He also noted that it might be necessary in these experiments to deceive the participants about the true nature of the research.

Social psychology was energized by researchers who attempted to understand how the German dictator Adolf Hitler could have produced such extreme obedience and horrendous behaviors in his followers during the World War II. The studies on conformity conducted by Muzafir Sherif (1936) and Solomon Asch (1952), as well as those on obedience by Stanley Milgram (1974), showed the importance of conformity pressures in social groups and how people in authority could create obedience, even to the extent of leading people to cause severe harm to others. Philip Zimbardo, in his well-known “prison study” (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973), found that the interactions of male college students who were recruited to play the roles of guards and prisoners in a simulated prison became so violent that the study had to be terminated early.

Social psychology quickly expanded to study other topics. John Darley and Bibb Latané (1968) developed a model that helped explain when people do and do not help others in need, and Leonard Berkowitz (1974) pioneered the study of human aggression. Meanwhile, other social psychologists, including Irving Janis (1972), focused on group behavior, studying why intelligent people sometimes made decisions that led to disastrous results when they worked together. Still other social psychologists, including Gordon Allport and Muzafir Sherif, focused on intergroup relations, with the goal of understanding and potentially reducing the occurrence of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Social psychologists gave their opinions in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case that helped end racial segregation in American public schools, and social psychologists still frequently serve as expert witnesses on these and other topics (Fiske, Bersoff, Borgida, Deaux, & Heilman, 1991). In recent years insights from social psychology have even been used to design anti-violence programs in societies that have experienced genocide (Staub, Pearlman, & Bilali, 2010).

The latter part of the 20th century saw an expansion of social psychology into the field of attitudes, with a particular emphasis on cognitive processes. During this time, social psychologists developed the first formal models of persuasion, with the goal of understanding how advertisers and other people could present their messages to make them most effective (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1963). These approaches to attitudes focused on the cognitive processes that people use when evaluating messages and on the relationship between attitudes and behavior. Leon Festinger’s important cognitive dissonance theory was developed during this time and became a model for later research (Festinger, 1957).

In the 1970s and 1980s, social psychology became even more cognitive in orientation as social psychologists used advances in cognitive psychology, which were themselves based largely on advances in computer technology, to inform the field (Fiske & Taylor, 2008). The focus of these researchers, including Alice Eagly, Susan Fiske, E. Tory Higgins, Richard Nisbett, Lee Ross, Shelley Taylor, and many others, was on social cognitionan understanding of how our knowledge about our social worlds develops through experience and the influence of these knowledge structures on memory, information processing, attitudes, and judgment. Furthermore, the extent to which humans’ decision making could be flawed due to both cognitive and motivational processes was documented (Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982).

In the 21st century, the field of social psychology has been expanding into still other areas. Examples that we consider in this book include an interest in how social situations influence our health and happiness, the important roles of evolutionary experiences and cultures on our behavior, and the field of social neurosciencethe study of how our social behavior both influences and is influenced by the activities of our brain (Lieberman, 2010). Social psychologists continue to seek new ways to measure and understand social behavior, and the field continues to evolve. We cannot predict where social psychology will be directed in the future, but we have no doubt that it will still be alive and vibrant.

The Person and the Social Situation

Social psychology is the study of the dynamic relationship between individuals and the people around them. Each of us is different, and our individual characteristics, including our personality traits, desires, motivations, and emotions, have an important impact on our social behavior. But our behavior is also profoundly influenced by the social situationthe people with whom we interact every day. These people include our friends and family, our classmates, our religious groups, the people we see on TV or read about or interact with online, as well as people we think about, remember, or even imagine.

Social psychologists believe that human behavior is determined by both a person’s characteristics and the social situation. They also believe that the social situation is frequently a stronger influence on behavior than are a person’s characteristics.

Social psychology is largely the study of the social situation. Our social situations create social influencethe process through which other people change our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and through which we change theirs. Maybe you can already see how social influence affected Raoul Wallenberg’s choices and how he in turn influenced others around him.

Kurt Lewin formalized the joint influence of person variables and situational variables, which is known as the person-situation interaction, in an important equation:

Behavior = f (person, social situation).

Lewin’s equation indicates that the behavior of a given person at any given time is a function of (depends on) both the characteristics of the person and the influence of the social situation.

Evolutionary Adaptation and Human Characteristics

In Lewin’s equation, person refers to the characteristics of the individual human being. People are born with skills that allow them to successfully interact with others in their social world. Newborns are able to recognize faces and to respond to human voices, young children learn language and develop friendships with other children, adolescents become interested in sex and are destined to fall in love, most adults marry and have children, and most people usually get along with others.

People have these particular characteristics because we have all been similarly shaped through human evolution. The genetic code that defines human beings has provided us with specialized social skills that are important to survival. Just as keen eyesight, physical strength, and resistance to disease helped our ancestors survive, so too did the tendency to engage in social behaviors. We quickly make judgments about other people, help other people who are in need, and enjoy working together in social groups because these behaviors helped our ancestors to adapt and were passed along on their genes to the next generation (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2008; Barrett & Kurzban, 2006; Pinker, 2002). Our extraordinary social skills are primarily due to our large brains and the social intelligence that they provide us with (Herrmann, Call, Hernández-Lloreda, Hare, & Tomasello, 2007).

The assumption that human nature, including much of our social behavior, is determined largely by our evolutionary past is known as evolutionary adaptation (Buss & Kenrick, 1998; Workman & Reader, 2008). In evolutionary theory, fitness refers to the extent to which having a given characteristic helps the individual organism to survive and to reproduce at a higher rate than do other members of the species who do not have the characteristic. Fitter organisms pass on their genes more successfully to later generations, making the characteristics that produce fitness more likely to become part of the organisms’ nature than are characteristics that do not produce fitness. For example, it has been argued that the emotion of jealousy has survived over time in men because men who experience jealousy are more fit than men who do not. According to this idea, the experience of jealousy leads men to protect their mates and guard against rivals, which increases their reproductive success (Buss, 2000).

Although our biological makeup prepares us to be human beings, it is important to remember that our genes do not really determine who we are. Rather, genes provide us with our human characteristics, and these characteristics give us the tendency to behave in a “human” way. And yet each human being is different from every other human being.

Evolutionary adaption has provided us with two fundamental motivations that guide us and help us lead productive and effective lives. One of these motivations relates to the self—the motivation to protect and enhance the self and the people who are psychologically close to us; the other relates to the social situation—the motivation to affiliate with, accept, and be accepted by others. We will refer to these two motivations as self-concern and other-concern, respectively.


The most basic tendency of all living organisms, and the focus of the first human motivation, is the desire to protect and enhance our own life and the lives of the people who are close to us. Humans are motivated to find food and water, to obtain adequate shelter, and to protect themselves from danger. Doing so is necessary because we can survive only if we are able to meet these fundamental goals.

The desire to maintain and enhance the self also leads us to do the same for our relatives—those people who are genetically related to us. Human beings, like other animals, exhibit kin selectionstrategies that favor the reproductive success of one’s relatives, sometimes even at a cost to the individual’s own survival. According to evolutionary principles, kin selection occurs because behaviors that enhance the fitness of relatives, even if they lower the fitness of the individual himself or herself, may nevertheless increase the survival of the group as a whole.

a family picture
Figure 1.2  The evolutionary principle of kin selection leads us to be particularly caring of and helpful to those who share our genes.

In addition to our kin, we desire to protect, improve, and enhance the well-being of our ingroup those we view as being similar and important to us and with whom we share close social connections, even if those people do not actually share our genes. Perhaps you remember a time when you helped friends move all their furniture into a new home, even though you would have preferred to be doing something more beneficial for yourself, such as studying or relaxing. You wouldn’t have helped strangers in this way, but you did it for your friends because you felt close to and cared about them. The tendency to help the people we feel close to, even if they are not related to us, is probably due in part to our evolutionary past: the people we were closest to were usually those we were related to.


Although we are primarily concerned with the survival of ourselves, our kin, and those who we feel are similar and important to us, we also desire to connect with and be accepted by other people more generally—the goal of other-concern. We live together in communities, we work together in work groups, we may worship together in religious groups, and we may play together on sports teams and through clubs. Affiliating with other people—even strangers—helps us meet a fundamental goal: that of finding a romantic partner with whom we can have children. Our connections with others also provide us with opportunities that we would not have on our own. We can go to the grocery store to buy milk or eggs, and we can hire a carpenter to build a house for us. And we ourselves do work that provides goods and services for others. This mutual cooperation is beneficial both for us and for the people around us. We also affiliate because we enjoy being with others, being part of social groups, and contributing to social discourse (Leary & Cox, 2008).

What the other-concern motive means is that we do not always put ourselves first. Being human also involves caring about, helping, and cooperating with other people. Although our genes are themselves “selfish” (Dawkins, 2006), this does not mean that individuals always are. The survival of our own genes may be improved by helping others, even those who are not related to us (Krebs, 2008; Park, Schaller, & Van Vugt, 2008). Just as birds and other animals may give out alarm calls to other animals to indicate that a predator is nearby, humans engage in altruistic behaviors in which they help others, sometimes at a potential cost to themselves.

In short, human beings behave morally toward others—they understand that it is wrong to harm other people without a strong reason for doing so, and they display compassion and even altruism toward others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010; Turiel, 1983). As a result, negative behaviors toward others, such as bullying, cheating, stealing, and aggression, are unusual, unexpected, and socially disapproved. Of course this does not mean that people are always friendly, helpful, and nice to each other—powerful social situations can and do create negative behaviors. But the fundamental human motivation of other-concern does mean that hostility and violence are the exception rather than the rule of human behavior.

Sometimes the goals of self-concern and other-concern go hand in hand. When we fall in love with another person, it is in part about a concern for connecting with someone else but is also about self-concern—falling in love makes us feel good about ourselves. And when we volunteer to help others who are in need, it is in part for their benefit but also for us. We feel good when we help others. At other times, however, the goals of self-concern and other-concern conflict. Imagine that you are walking across campus and you see a man with a knife threatening another person. Do you intervene, or do you turn away? In this case, your desire to help the other person (other-concern) is in direct conflict with your desire to protect yourself from the danger posed by the situation (self-concern), and you must decide which goal to put first. We will see many more examples of the motives of self-concern and other-concern, both working together and working against each other, throughout this book.

a collage of pictures of people and monkeys socializing with each other
Figure 1.3 Other-concern is a fundamental part of the behavior of humans and many animals.

The Social Situation Creates Powerful Social Influence

When people are asked to indicate the things they value the most, they usually mention their social situation—that is, their relationships with other people (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Fiske & Haslam, 1996). When we work together on a class project, volunteer at a homeless shelter, or serve on a jury in a courtroom trial, we count on others to work with us to get the job done. We develop social bonds with those people, and we expect that they will come through to help us meet our goals. The importance of others shows up in every aspect of our lives—other people teach us what we should and shouldn’t do, what we should and shouldn’t think, and even what we should and shouldn’t like and dislike.

In addition to the people with whom we are currently interacting, we are influenced by people who are not physically present but who are nevertheless part of our thoughts and feelings. Imagine that you are driving home on a deserted country road late at night. No cars are visible in any direction, and you can see for miles. You come to a stop sign. What do you do? Most likely, you stop at the sign, or at least slow down. You do so because the behavior has been internalized: even though no one is there to watch you, others are still influencing you—you’ve learned about the rules and laws of society, what’s right and what’s wrong, and you tend to obey them. We carry our own personal social situations—our experiences with our parents, teachers, leaders, authorities, and friends—around with us every day.

An important principle of social psychology, one that will be with us throughout this book, is that although individuals’ characteristics do matter, the social situation is often a stronger determinant of behavior than is personality. When social psychologists analyze an event such as the Holocaust, they are likely to focus more on the characteristics of the situation (e.g., the strong leader and the group pressure provided by the other group members) than on the characteristics of the perpetrators themselves. As an example, we will see that even ordinary people who are neither bad nor evil in any way can nevertheless be placed in situations in which an authority figure is able to lead them to engage in evil behaviors, such as applying potentially lethal levels of electrical shock (Milgram, 1974).

In addition to discovering the remarkable extent to which our behavior is influenced by our social situation, social psychologists have discovered that we often do not recognize how important the social situation is in determining behavior. We often wrongly think that we and others act entirely on our own accord, without any external influences. It is tempting to assume that the people who commit extreme acts, such as terrorists or members of suicide cults, are unusual or extreme people. And yet much research suggests that these behaviors are caused more by the social situation than they are by the characteristics of the individuals and that it is wrong to focus so strongly on explanations of individuals’ characteristics (Gilbert & Malone, 1995).

There is perhaps no clearer example of the powerful influence of the social situation than that found in research showing the enormous role that others play in our physical and mental health. ƒC (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Diener, Tamir, & Scollon, 2006).

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

How the Social Situation Influences Our Mental and Physical Health

In comparison with those who do not feel that they have a network of others they can rely on, people who feel that they have adequate social support report being happier and have also been found to have fewer psychological problems, including eating disorders and mental illness (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Diener, Tamir, & Scollon, 2006).

People with social support are less depressed overall, recover faster from negative events, and are less likely to commit suicide (Au, Lau, & Lee, 2009; Bertera, 2007; Compton, Thompson, & Kaslow, 2005; Skärsäter, Langius, Ågren, Häagström, & Dencker, 2005). Married people report being happier than unmarried people (Pew, 2006), and overall, a happy marriage is an excellent form of social support. One of the goals of effective psychotherapy is to help people generate better social support networks because such relationships have such a positive effect on mental health.

In addition to having better mental health, people who have adequate social support are more physically healthy. They have fewer diseases (such as tuberculosis, heart attacks, and cancer), live longer, have lower blood pressure, and have fewer deaths at all ages (Cohen & Wills, 1985; Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996). Sports psychologists have even found that individuals with higher levels of social support are less likely to be injured playing sports and recover more quickly from injuries they do receive (Hardy, Richman, & Rosenfeld, 1991). These differences appear to be due to the positive effects of social support on physiological functioning, including the immune system.

The opposite of social support is the feeling of being excluded or ostracized. Feeling that others are excluding us is painful, and the pain of rejection may linger even longer than physical pain. People who were asked to recall an event that caused them social pain (e.g., betrayal by a person very close to them) rated the pain as more intense than they rated their memories of intense physical pain (Chen, Williams, Fitness, & Newton, 2008). When people are threatened with social exclusion, they subsequently express greater interest in making new friends, increase their desire to work cooperatively with others, form more positive first impressions of new potential interaction partners, and even become more able to discriminate between real smiles and fake smiles (Bernstein, Young, Brown, Sacco, & Claypool, 2008; Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007).

Because connecting with others is such an important part of human experience, we may sometimes withhold affiliation from or ostracize other people in order to attempt to force them to conform to our wishes. When individuals of the Amish religion violate the rulings of an elder, they are placed under a Meidung. During this time, and until they make amends, they are not spoken to by community members. And people frequently use the “silent treatment” to express their disapproval of a friend’s or partner’s behavior. The pain of ostracism is particularly strong in adolescents (Sebastian, Viding, Williams, & Blakemore, 2010).

The use of ostracism has also been observed in parents and children, and even in Internet games and chat rooms (Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000).The silent treatment and other forms of ostracism are popular because they work. Withholding social communication and interaction is a powerful weapon for punishing individuals and forcing them to change their behaviors. Individuals who are ostracized report feeling alone, frustrated, sad, and unworthy and having lower self-esteem (Bastian & Haslam, 2010).

Taken together, then, social psychological research results suggest that one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to develop a stable support network. Reaching out to other people benefits those who become your friends (because you are in their support network) and has substantial benefits for you.

Social Influence Creates Social Norms

In some cases, social influence occurs rather passively, without any obvious intent of one person to influence another, such as when we learn about and adopt the beliefs and behaviors of the people around us, often without really being aware that we are doing so. Social influence occurs when a young child adopts the beliefs and values of his or her parents, or when someone starts to like jazz music, without really being aware of it, because a roommate plays a lot of it. In other cases, social influence is anything but subtle; it involves one or more individuals actively attempting to change the beliefs or behaviors of others, as is evident in the attempts of the members of a jury to get a dissenting member to change his or her opinion, the use of a popular sports figure to encourage children to buy certain products, or the messages that cult leaders give to their followers to encourage them to engage in the behaviors required of the group.

One outcome of social influence is the development of social normsthe ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving that are shared by group members and perceived by them as appropriate (Asch, 1955; Cialdini, 1993). Norms include customs, traditions, standards, and rules, as well as the general values of the group. Through norms, we learn what people actually do (“people in the United States are more likely to eat scrambled eggs in the morning and spaghetti in the evening, rather than vice versa”) and also what we should do (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and shouldn’t do (“do not make racist jokes”). There are norms about almost every possible social behavior, and these norms have a big influence on our actions.

Different Cultures Have Different Norms

The social norms that guide our everyday behaviors and that create social influence derive in large part from our culture. A culture represents a group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms, including religious and family values and moral beliefs (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Matsumoto, 2001).  The culture in which we live affects our thoughts, feelings, and behavior through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission (Mesoudi, 2009). It is not inappropriate to say that our culture defines our lives just as much as our evolutionary experience does.

Cultures differ in terms of the particular norms that they find important and that guide the behavior of the group members. Social psychologists have found that there is a fundamental difference in social norms between Western cultures (including the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) and East Asian cultures (including China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia). Norms in Western cultures are primarily oriented toward individualismcultural norms, common in Western societies, that focus primarily on self-enhancement and independence. Children in Western cultures are taught to develop and value a sense of their personal self and to see themselves as largely separate from the people around them. Children in Western cultures feel special about themselves—they enjoy getting gold stars on their projects and the best grade in the class (Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997). Adults in Western cultures are oriented toward promoting their own individual success, frequently in comparison with (or even at the expense of) others. When asked to describe themselves, individuals in Western cultures generally tend to indicate that they like to “do their own thing,” prefer to live their lives independently, and base their happiness and self-worth on their own personal achievements. In short, in Western cultures the emphasis is on self-concern.

Norms in the East Asian cultures, on the other hand, are more focused on other-concern. These norms indicate that people should be more fundamentally connected with others and thus are more oriented toward interdependence, or collectivism. In East Asian cultures, children are taught to focus on developing harmonious social relationships with others, and the predominant norms relate to group togetherness, connectedness, and duty and responsibility to their family. The members of East Asian cultures, when asked to describe themselves, indicate that they are particularly concerned about the interests of others, including their close friends and their colleagues. As one example of these cultural differences, research conducted by Shinobu Kitayama and his colleagues (Uchida, Norasakkunkit, & Kitayama, 2004) found that East Asians were more likely than Westerners to experience happiness as a result of their connections with other people, whereas Westerners were more likely to experience happiness as a result of their own personal accomplishments.

an Asian family playing Monopoly and a Caucasian female walking a dog by herself
Figure 1.4 People from Western cultures are, on average, more individualistic than people from Eastern cultures, who are, on average, more collectivistic.

Other researchers have studied other cultural differences, such as variations in orientations toward time. Some cultures are more concerned with arriving and departing according to a fixed schedule, whereas others consider time in a more flexible manner (Levine & Norenzayan, 1999). Levine and colleagues (1999) found that “the pace of life,” as assessed by average walking speed in downtown locations and the speed with which postal clerks completed a simple request, was fastest in Western countries (but also in Japan) and slowest in economically undeveloped countries. It has also been argued that there are differences in the extent to which people in different cultures are bound by social norms and customs, rather than being free to express their own individuality without regard to considering social norms (Gelfand et al., 1996). And there are also cultural differences regarding personal space, such as how close individuals stand to each other when talking, as well as differences in the communication styles individuals employ.

It is important to be aware of cultures and cultural differences, at least in part because people with different cultural backgrounds are increasingly coming into contact with each other as a result of increased travel and immigration, and the development of the Internet and other forms of communication. In Canada, for instance, there are many different ethnic groups, and the proportion of the population that comes from minority (non-White) groups is increasing from year to year. Minorities will account for a much larger proportion of the total new entries into the Canadian workforce over the next decades. Roughly 21% of the Canadian population is foreign-born, which is easily the highest among G8 countries. By 2031, visible minorities are projected to make up 63% of the population of Toronto and 59% of Vancouver (Statistics Canada, 2011). Although these changes create the potential for greater cultural understanding and productive interaction, they may also produce unwanted social conflict. Being aware of cultural differences and considering their influence on how we behave toward others is an important part of a basic understanding of social psychology and a topic that we will return to frequently in this book.

Key Takeaways

  • The history of social psychology includes the study of attitudes, group behavior, altruism and aggression, culture, prejudice, and many other topics.
  • Social psychologists study real-world problems using a scientific approach.
  • Thinking about your own interpersonal interactions from the point of view of social psychology can help you better understand and respond to them.
  • Social psychologists study the person-situation interaction: how characteristics of the person and characteristics of the social situation interact to determine behavior.
  • Many human social behaviors have been selected by evolutionary adaptation.
  • The social situation creates social norms—shared ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
  • Cultural differences—for instance, in individualistic versus collectivistic orientations—guide our everyday behavior.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Go to the website Social Psychology Network and click on two of the “psychology headlines from around the world” presented on the right-hand side of the page. Read through the two articles and write a short (120 words) summary of each.
  2. Consider a recent situation from your personal experience in which you focused on an individual and a cause of his or her behaviour. Could you reinterpret their behavior using a situational explanation?
  3. Go to the website Historic Figures in Social Psychology and choose one of the important figures in social psychology listed there. Prepare a brief (250 word) report about how this person contributed to the field of social psychology.


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Media Attributions


1.2 Affect, Behavior, and Cognition

Learning Objectives

  1. Define and differentiate affect, behavior, and cognition as considered by social psychologists.
  2. Summarize the principles of social cognition.

Social psychology is based on the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition. In order to effectively maintain and enhance our own lives through successful interaction with others, we rely on these three basic and interrelated human capacities:

  1. Affect (feelings)
  2. Behavior (interactions)
  3. Cognition (thought)
Figure 1.5 Human beings rely on the three capacities of affect, behavior, and cognition, which work together to help them create successful social interactions.

You can see that these three aspects directly reflect the idea in our definition of social psychology—the study of the feelings, behaviors, and thoughts of individuals in the social situation. Although we will frequently discuss each of the capacities separately, keep in mind that all three work together to produce human experience. Now let’s consider separately the roles of cognition, affect, and behavior.

Social Cognition: Thinking and Learning about Others

The human brain contains about 86 billion neurons, each of which can make contact with tens of thousands of other neurons. The distinguishing brain feature in mammals, including humans, is the more recently evolved cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that is involved in thinking. Humans are highly intelligent, and they use cognition in every part of their social lives. Psychologists refer to cognition as the mental activity of processing information and using that information in judgment. Social cognition is cognition that relates to social activities and that helps us understand and predict the behavior of ourselves and others.

Figure 1.6 The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that is involved in thinking. A big part of its job is social cognition—thinking about and understanding other people.

Over time, people develop a set of social knowledge that contains information about the self, other people, social relationships, and social groups. Two types of knowledge are particularly important in social psychology: schemas and attitudes. A schema is a knowledge representation that includes information about a person or group (e.g., our knowledge that Joe is a friendly guy or that Italians are romantic). An attitude is a knowledge representation that includes primarily our liking or disliking of a person, thing, or group (“I really like Julie”; “I dislike my new apartment”). Once we have formed them, both schemas and attitudes allow us to judge quickly and without much thought whether someone or something we encounter is good or bad, helpful or hurtful, to be sought out or avoided. Thus schemas and attitudes have an important influence on our social information processing and social behavior.

Social cognition involves the active interpretation of events. As a result, different people may draw different conclusions about the same events. When Indira smiles at Robert, he might think that she is romantically attracted to him, whereas she might think that she’s just being friendly. When Mike tells a joke about Polish people, he might think it’s funny, but Wanda might think he is being prejudiced. The 12 members of a jury who are deliberating about the outcome in a trial have all heard the same evidence, but each juror’s own schemas and attitudes may lead him or her to interpret the evidence differently. The fact that different people interpret the same events differently makes life interesting, but it can sometimes lead to disagreement and conflict. Social psychologists study how people interpret and understand their worlds and, particularly, how they make judgments about the causes of other people’s behavior.

Social Affect: Feelings about Ourselves and Others

Affect refers to the feelings we experience as part of our everyday lives. As our day progresses, we may find ourselves feeling happy or sad, jealous or grateful, proud or embarrassed. Although affect can be harmful if it is unregulated or unchecked, our affective experiences normally help us to function efficiently and in a way that increases our chances of survival. Affect signals us that things are going all right (e.g., because we are in a good mood or are experiencing joy or serenity) or that things are not going so well (we are in a bad mood, anxious, upset, or angry). Affect can also lead us to engage in behaviors that are appropriate to our perceptions of a given situation. When we are happy, we may seek out and socialize with others; when we are angry, we may attack; when we are fearful, we may run away.

We experience affect in the form of mood and emotions. Mood refers to the positive or negative feelings that are in the background of our everyday experiences. Most of the time, we are in a relatively good mood, and positive mood has some positive consequences—it encourages us to do what needs to be done and to make the most of the situations we are in (Isen, 2003). When we are in a good mood, our thought processes open up and we are more likely to approach others. We are more friendly and helpful to others when we are in a good mood than when we are in a bad mood, and we may think more creatively (De Dreu, Baas, & Nijstad, 2008). On the other hand, when we are in a bad mood, we are more likely to prefer to remain by ourselves rather than interact with others, and our creativity suffers.

Emotions are brief, but often intense, mental and physiological feeling states. In comparison with moods, emotions are shorter lived, stronger, and more specific forms of affect. Emotions are caused by specific events (things that make us, for instance, jealous or angry), and they are accompanied by high levels of arousal. Whereas we experience moods in normal, everyday situations, we experience emotions only when things are out of the ordinary or unusual. Emotions serve an adaptive role in helping us guide our social behaviors. Just as we run from a snake because the snake elicits fear, we may try to make amends with other people when we feel guilty.

Social Behavior: Interacting with Others

Because we interact with and influence each other every day, we have developed the ability to make these interactions proceed efficiently and effectively. We cooperate with other people to gain outcomes that we could not obtain on our own, and we exchange goods, services, and other benefits with other people. These behaviors are essential for survival in any society (Kameda, Takezawa, & Hastie, 2003; Kameda, Takezawa, Tindale, & Smith, 2002).

The sharing of goods, services, emotions, and other social outcomes is known as social exchange. Social rewards (the positive outcomes that we give and receive when we interact with others) include such benefits as attention, praise, affection, love, and financial support. Social costs (the negative outcomes that we give and receive when we interact with others), on the other hand, include, for instance, the frustrations that accrue when disagreements with others develop, the guilt that results if we perceive that we have acted inappropriately, and the effort involved in developing and maintaining harmonious interpersonal relationships.

Imagine a first-year student at college or university who is trying to decide whether or not to join a student club. Joining the club has costs, in terms of the dues that have to be paid, the need to make friends with each of the other club members and to attend club meetings, and so forth. On the other hand, there are the potential benefits of group membership, including having a group of friends with similar interests and a social network to help find activities to participate in. To determine whether or not to join, the student has to weigh both the social and the material costs and benefits before coming to a conclusion (Moreland & Levine, 2006).

People generally prefer to maximize their own outcomes by attempting to gain as many social rewards as possible and by attempting to minimize their social costs. Such behavior is consistent with the goal of protecting and enhancing the self. But although people do behave according to the goals of self-concern, these goals are tempered by other-concern: the goals of respecting, accepting, and cooperating with others. As a result, social exchange is generally fair and equitable, at least in the long run. Imagine, for example, that someone asks you to do a favor for them, and you do it. If they were only concerned about their own self-enhancement, they might simply accept the favor without any thought of paying you back. Yet both you and they would realize that you would most certainly expect them to be willing to do the same type of favor for you, should you ask them at some later time.

One of the outcomes of humans living together in small groups over thousands of years is that people have learned to cooperate by giving benefits to those who are in need, with the expectation of a return of benefits at a future time. This mutual, and generally equitable, exchange of benefits is known as reciprocal altruism. An individual who is temporarily sick or injured will benefit from the help that he or she might get from others during this time. And according to the principle of reciprocal altruism, other group members will be willing to give that help to the needy individual because they expect that similar help will be given to them should they need it. However, in order for reciprocal altruism to work, people have to keep track of how benefits are exchanged, to be sure that everyone plays by the rules. If one person starts to take benefits without paying them back, this violates the principle of reciprocity and should not be allowed to continue for very long. In fact, research has shown that people seem to be particularly good at detecting “cheaters”—those who do not live up to their obligations in reciprocal altruism—and that these individuals are judged extremely negatively (Mealey, Daood, & Krage, 1996; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992).

Key Takeaways

  • We use affect, behavior, and cognition to help us successfully interact with others.
  • Social cognition refers to our thoughts about and interpretations of ourselves and other people. Over time, we develop schemas and attitudes to help us better understand and more successfully interact with others.
  • Affect refers to the feelings that we experience as part of life and includes both moods and emotions.
  • Social behavior is influenced by principles of reciprocal altruism and social exchange.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Consider a time when you had an important social interaction or made an important decision. Analyze your responses to the situation in terms of affect, behaviour, and cognition.
  2. Think about when you last engaged in a case of reciprocal altruism and describe what took place.


De Dreu, C. K. W., Baas, M., & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). Hedonic tone and activation level in the mood-creativity link: Toward a dual pathway to creativity model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5), 739–756.

Isen, A. M. (2003). Positive affect as a source of human strength. In A psychology of human strengths: Fundamental questions and future directions for a positive psychology (pp. 179–195). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kameda, T., Takezawa, M., & Hastie, R. (2003). The logic of social sharing: An evolutionary game analysis of adaptive norm development. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 7(1), 2–19..

Kameda, T., Takezawa, M., Tindale, R. S., & Smith, C. M. (2002). Social sharing and risk reduction: Exploring a computational algorithm for the psychology of windfall gains. Evolution & Human Behavior, 23(1), 11–33.

Mealey, L., Daood, C., & Krage, M. (1996). Enhanced memory for faces of cheaters. Ethology & Sociobiology, 7(2), 119–128.

Moreland, R. L., & Levine, J. M. (Eds.). (2006). Socialization in organizations and work groups. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow & L. Cosmides (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (p. 666). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Media Attributions


1.3 Conducting Research in Social Psychology

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain why social psychologists rely on empirical methods to study social behavior.
  2. Provide examples of how social psychologists measure the variables they are interested in.
  3. Review the three types of research designs, and evaluate the strengths and limitations of each type.
  4. Consider the role of validity in research, and describe how research programs should be evaluated.

Social psychologists are not the only people interested in understanding and predicting social behavior or the only people who study it. Social behavior is also considered by religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, novelists, and others, and it is a common topic on TV shows. But the social psychological approach to understanding social behavior goes beyond the mere observation of human actions. Social psychologists believe that a true understanding of the causes of social behavior can only be obtained through a systematic scientific approach, and that is why they conduct scientific research. Social psychologists believe that the study of social behavior should be empirical—that is, based on the collection and systematic analysis of observable data.

The Importance of Scientific Research

Because social psychology concerns the relationships among people, and because we can frequently find answers to questions about human behavior by using our own common sense or intuition, many people think that it is not necessary to study it empirically (Lilienfeld, 2011). But although we do learn about people by observing others and therefore social psychology is in fact partly common sense, social psychology is not entirely common sense.

Is social psychology just common sense?

To test for yourself whether or not social psychology is just common sense, try doing this activity. Based on your past observations of people’s behavior, along with your own common sense, you will likely have answers to each of the questions on the activity. But how sure are you? Would you be willing to bet that all, or even most, of your answers have been shown to be correct by scientific research? If you are like most people, you will get at least some of these answers wrong.

Read through each finding, and decide if you think the research evidence shows that it is either mainly true or mainly false. When you have figured out the answers, think about why each finding is either mainly true or mainly false. You may also find some other ideas on this as you work your way through the textbook chapters!

  • Opposites attract.
  • An athlete who wins the bronze medal (third place) in an event is happier about his or her performance than the athlete who won the silver medal (second place).
  • Having good friends you can count on can keep you from catching colds.
  • Subliminal advertising (i.e., persuasive messages that are presented out of our awareness on TV or movie screens) is very effective in getting us to buy products.
  • The greater the reward promised for an activity, the more one will come to enjoy engaging in that activity.
  • Physically attractive people are seen as less intelligent than less attractive people.
  • Punching a pillow or screaming out loud is a good way to reduce frustration and aggressive tendencies.
  • People pull harder in a tug-of-war when they’re pulling alone than when pulling in a group.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Read through each finding, taken from Table 1.5 in the chapter summary, and decide if you think the research evidence shows that it is either mainly true or mainly false by dragging the correct word into each box. Pay attention to the number of “trues” and “falses” available! When you have figured out the answers, think about why each finding is either mainly true or mainly false. You may also find some other ideas on this as you work your way through the textbook chapters!

  • Opposites attract.
  • An athlete who wins the bronze medal (third place) in an event is happier about his or her performance than the athlete who wins the silver medal (second place).
  • Having good friends you can count on can keep you from catching colds.
  • Subliminal advertising (i.e., persuasive messages that are displayed out of our awareness on TV or movie screens) is very effective in getting us to buy products.
  • The greater the reward promised for an activity, the more one will come to enjoy engaging in that activity.
  • Physically attractive people are seen as less intelligent than less attractive people.
  • Punching a pillow or screaming out loud is a good way to reduce frustration and aggressive tendencies.
  • People pull harder in a tug-of-war when they’re pulling alone than when pulling in a group.

See Table 1.5 in the chapter summary for answers and explanations.

One of the reasons we might think that social psychology is common sense is that once we learn about the outcome of a given event (e.g., when we read about the results of a research project), we frequently believe that we would have been able to predict the outcome ahead of time. For instance, if half of a class of students is told that research concerning attraction between people has demonstrated that “opposites attract,” and if the other half is told that research has demonstrated that “birds of a feather flock together,” most of the students in both groups will report believing that the outcome is true and that they would have predicted the outcome before they had heard about it. Of course, both of these contradictory outcomes cannot be true. The problem is that just reading a description of research findings leads us to think of the many cases that we know that support the findings and thus makes them seem believable. The tendency to think that we could have predicted something that we probably would not have been able to predict is called the hindsight bias.

Our common sense also leads us to believe that we know why we engage in the behaviors that we engage in, when in fact we may not. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner and his colleagues have conducted a variety of studies showing that we do not always understand the causes of our own actions. When we think about a behavior before we engage in it, we believe that the thinking guided our behavior, even when it did not (Morewedge, Gray, & Wegner, 2010). People also report that they contribute more to solving a problem when they are led to believe that they have been working harder on it, even though the effort did not increase their contribution to the outcome (Preston & Wegner, 2007). These findings, and many others like them, demonstrate that our beliefs about the causes of social events, and even of our own actions, do not always match the true causes of those events.

Social psychologists conduct research because it often uncovers results that could not have been predicted ahead of time. Putting our hunches to the test exposes our ideas to scrutiny. The scientific approach brings a lot of surprises, but it also helps us test our explanations about behavior in a rigorous manner. It is important for you to understand the research methods used in psychology so that you can evaluate the validity of the research that you read about here, in other courses, and in your everyday life.

Social psychologists publish their research in scientific journals, and your instructor may require you to read some of these research articles. The most important social psychology journals are listed in “Social Psychology Journals.” If you are asked to do a literature search on research in social psychology, you should look for articles from these journals.

Social Psychology Journals:

  • Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
  • Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
  • Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
  • Social Psychology and Personality Science
  • Social Cognition
  • European Journal of Social Psychology
  • Social Psychology Quarterly
  • Basic and Applied Social Psychology
  • Journal of Applied Social Psychology

Note. The research articles in these journals are likely to be available in your college or university library.

We’ll discuss the empirical approach and review the findings of many research projects throughout this book, but for now let’s take a look at the basics of how scientists use research to draw overall conclusions about social behavior. Keep in mind as you read this book, however, that although social psychologists are pretty good at understanding the causes of behavior, our predictions are a long way from perfect. We are not able to control the minds or the behaviors of others or to predict exactly what they will do in any given situation. Human behavior is complicated because people are complicated and because the social situations that they find themselves in every day are also complex. It is this complexity—at least for me—that makes studying people so interesting and fun.

Measuring Affect, Behavior, and Cognition

One important aspect of using an empirical approach to understand social behavior is that the concepts of interest must be measured (Figure 1.7, “The Operational Definition”). If we are interested in learning how much Sarah likes Robert, then we need to have a measure of her liking for him. But how, exactly, should we measure the broad idea of “liking”? In scientific terms, the characteristics that we are trying to measure are known as conceptual variables, and the particular method that we use to measure a variable of interest is called an operational definition.

For anything that we might wish to measure, there are many different operational definitions, and which one we use depends on the goal of the research and the type of situation we are studying. To better understand this, let’s look at an example of how we might operationally define “Sarah likes Robert.”


Conceptual and measured variables
Figure 1.7 The Operational Definition. An idea or conceptual variable (such as “how much Sarah likes Robert”) is turned into a measure through an operational definition.

One approach to measurement involves directly asking people about their perceptions using self-report measures. Self-report measures are measures in which individuals are asked to respond to questions posed by an interviewer or on a questionnaire. Generally, because any one question might be misunderstood or answered incorrectly, in order to provide a better measure, more than one question is asked and the responses to the questions are averaged together. For example, an operational definition of Sarah’s liking for Robert might involve asking her to complete the following measure:

  1. I enjoy being around Robert.
    Strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 Strongly agree
  2. I get along well with Robert.
    Strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 Strongly agree
  3. I like Robert.
    Strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 Strongly agree

The operational definition would be the average of her responses across the three questions. Because each question assesses the attitude differently, and yet each question should nevertheless measure Sarah’s attitude toward Robert in some way, the average of the three questions will generally be a better measure than would any one question on its own.

Although it is easy to ask many questions on self-report measures, these measures have a potential disadvantage. As we have seen, people’s insights into their own opinions and their own behaviors may not be perfect, and they might also not want to tell the truth—perhaps Sarah really likes Robert, but she is unwilling or unable to tell us so. Therefore, an alternative to self-report that can sometimes provide a more valid measure is to measure behavior itself. Behavioral measures are measures designed to directly assess what people do. Instead of asking Sarah how much she likes Robert, we might instead measure her liking by assessing how much time she spends with Robert or by coding how much she smiles at him when she talks to him. Some examples of behavioral measures that have been used in social psychological research are shown in Table 1.3, “Examples of Operational Definitions of Conceptual Variables That Have Been Used in Social Psychological Research.”

Table 1.3 Examples of Operational Definitions of Conceptual Variables that have been used in Sociological Research.
Conceptual variable Operational definitions
  • Number of seconds taken to honk the horn at the car ahead after a stoplight turns green
  • Number of presses of a button that administers shock to another student
Interpersonal attraction
  • Number of millimeters of pupil dilation when one person looks at another
  • Number of times that a person looks at another person
  • Number of hours of volunteering per week that a person engages in
  • Number of pieces of paper a person helps another pick up
Group-decision making skills
  • Number of seconds in which a group correctly solves a problem
  • Number of groups able to correctly solve a group performance task
  • Number of groups able to correctly solve a group performance task
  • Number of negative words used in a creative story about another person

Social Neuroscience: Measuring Social Responses in the Brain

Still another approach to measuring thoughts and feelings is to measure brain activity, and recent advances in brain science have created a wide variety of new techniques for doing so. One approach, known as electroencephalography (EEG), is a technique that records the electrical activity produced by the brain’s neurons through the use of electrodes that are placed around the research participant’s head. An electroencephalogram (EEG) can show if a person is asleep, awake, or anesthetized because the brain wave patterns are known to differ during each state. An EEG can also track the waves that are produced when a person is reading, writing, and speaking with others. A particular advantage of the technique is that the participant can move around while the recordings are being taken, which is useful when measuring brain activity in children who often have difficulty keeping still. Furthermore, by following electrical impulses across the surface of the brain, researchers can observe changes over very fast time periods.

Man wearing an EEG Cap
Figure 1.8

Although EEGs can provide information about the general patterns of electrical activity within the brain, and although they allow the researcher to see these changes quickly as they occur in real time, the electrodes must be placed on the surface of the skull, and each electrode measures brain waves from large areas of the brain. As a result, EEGs do not provide a very clear picture of the structure of the brain.

But techniques exist to provide more specific brain images. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a neuroimaging technique that uses a magnetic field to create images of brain structure and function. In research studies that use the fMRI, the research participant lies on a bed within a large cylindrical structure containing a very strong magnet. Nerve cells in the brain that are active use more oxygen, and the need for oxygen increases blood flow to the area. The fMRI detects the amount of blood flow in each brain region and thus is an indicator of which parts of the brain are active.

Very clear and detailed pictures of brain structures (see Figure 1.9, “MRI BOLD activation in an emotional Stroop task”) can be produced via fMRI. Often, the images take the form of cross-sectional “slices” that are obtained as the magnetic field is passed across the brain. The images of these slices are taken repeatedly and are superimposed on images of the brain structure itself to show how activity changes in different brain structures over time. Normally, the research participant is asked to engage in tasks while in the scanner, for instance, to make judgments about pictures of people, to solve problems, or to make decisions about appropriate behaviors. The fMRI images show which parts of the brain are associated with which types of tasks. Another advantage of the fMRI is that is it noninvasive. The research participant simply enters the machine and the scans begin.

Figure 1.9 MRI BOLD activation in an emotional Stroop task [click to see image full size]

Although the scanners themselves are expensive, the advantages of fMRIs are substantial, and scanners are now available in many university and hospital settings. The fMRI is now the most commonly used method of learning about brain structure, and it has been employed by social psychologists to study social cognition, attitudes, morality, emotions, responses to being rejected by others, and racial prejudice, to name just a few topics (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley, & Cohen, 2001; Lieberman, Hariri, Jarcho, Eisenberger, & Bookheimer, 2005; Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrieli, 2002; Richeson et al., 2003).

Observational Research

Once we have decided how to measure our variables, we can begin the process of research itself. As you can see in Table 1.4, “Three Major Research Designs Used by Social Psychologists,” there are three major approaches to conducting research that are used by social psychologists—the observational approach, the correlational approach, and the experimental approach. Each approach has some advantages and disadvantages.

Table 1.4 Three Major Research Designs Used by Social Psychologists
Research Design Goal Advantages Disadvantages
Observational To create a snapshot of the current state of affairs Provides a relatively complete picture of what is occurring at a given time. Allows the development of questions for further study. Does not assess relationships between variables.
Correlational To assess the relationships between two or more variables Allows the testing of expected relationships between variables and the making of predictions. Can assess these relationships in everyday life events. Cannot be used to draw inferences about the causal relationships between the variables.
Experimental To assess the causal impact of one or more experimental manipulations on a dependent variable Allows the drawing of conclusions about the causal relationships among variables. Cannot experimentally manipulate many important variables. May be expensive and take much time to conduct.

The most basic research design, observational research, is research that involves making observations of behavior and recording those observations in an objective manner. Although it is possible in some cases to use observational data to draw conclusions about the relationships between variables (e.g., by comparing the behaviors of older versus younger children on a playground), in many cases the observational approach is used only to get a picture of what is happening to a given set of people at a given time and how they are responding to the social situation. In these cases, the observational approach involves creating a type of “snapshot” of the current state of affairs.

One advantage of observational research is that in many cases it is the only possible approach to collecting data about the topic of interest. A researcher who is interested in studying the impact of an earthquake on the residents of Tokyo, the reactions of Israelis to a terrorist attack, or the activities of the members of a religious cult cannot create such situations in a laboratory but must be ready to make observations in a systematic way when such events occur on their own. Thus observational research allows the study of unique situations that could not be created by the researcher. Another advantage of observational research is that the people whose behavior is being measured are doing the things they do every day, and in some cases they may not even know that their behavior is being recorded.

One early observational study that made an important contribution to understanding human behavior was reported in a book by Leon Festinger and his colleagues (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956). The book, called When Prophecy Fails, reported an observational study of the members of a “doomsday” cult. The cult members believed that they had received information, supposedly sent through “automatic writing” from a planet called “Clarion,” that the world was going to end. More specifically, the group members were convinced that Earth would be destroyed as the result of a gigantic flood sometime before dawn on December 21, 1954.

When Festinger learned about the cult, he thought that it would be an interesting way to study how individuals in groups communicate with each other to reinforce their extreme beliefs. He and his colleagues observed the members of the cult over a period of several months, beginning in July of the year in which the flood was expected. The researchers collected a variety of behavioral and self-report measures by observing the cult, recording the conversations among the group members, and conducting detailed interviews with them. Festinger and his colleagues also recorded the reactions of the cult members, beginning on December 21, when the world did not end as they had predicted. This observational research provided a wealth of information about the indoctrination patterns of cult members and their reactions to disconfirmed predictions. This research also helped Festinger develop his important theory of cognitive dissonance.

Despite their advantages, observational research designs also have some limitations. Most importantly, because the data that are collected in observational studies are only a description of the events that are occurring, they do not tell us anything about the relationship between different variables. However, it is exactly this question that correlational research and experimental research are designed to answer.

The Research Hypothesis

Because social psychologists are generally interested in looking at relationships among variables, they begin by stating their predictions in the form of a precise statement known as a research hypothesis. A research hypothesis is a specific prediction about the relationship between the variables of interest and about the specific direction of that relationship. For instance, the research hypothesis “People who are more similar to each other will be more attracted to each other” predicts that there is a relationship between a variable called similarity and another variable called attraction. In the research hypothesis “The attitudes of cult members become more extreme when their beliefs are challenged,” the variables that are expected to be related are extremity of beliefs and the degree to which the cult’s beliefs are challenged.

Because the research hypothesis states both that there is a relationship between the variables and the direction of that relationship, it is said to be falsifiable, which means that the outcome of the research can demonstrate empirically either that there is support for the hypothesis (i.e., the relationship between the variables was correctly specified) or that there is actually no relationship between the variables or that the actual relationship is not in the direction that was predicted. Thus the research hypothesis that “People will be more attracted to others who are similar to them” is falsifiable because the research could show either that there was no relationship between similarity and attraction or that people we see as similar to us are seen as less attractive than those who are dissimilar.

Correlational Research

Correlational researchis designed to search for and test hypotheses about the relationships between two or more variables. In the simplest case, the correlation is between only two variables, such as that between similarity and liking, or between gender (male versus female) and helping.

In a correlational design, the research hypothesis is that there is an association (i.e., a correlation) between the variables that are being measured. For instance, many researchers have tested the research hypothesis that a positive correlation exists between the use of violent video games and the incidence of aggressive behavior, such that people who play violent video games more frequently would also display more aggressive behavior.

Correlational design
Figure 1.10 Correlational Design. The research hypothesis that a positive correlation exists between the use of violent video games and the incidence of aggressive behavior

A statistic known as the Pearson correlation coefficient (symbolized by the letter r) is normally used to summarize the association, or correlation, between two variables. The Pearson correlation coefficient can range from −1 (indicating a very strong negative relationship between the variables) to +1 (indicating a very strong positive relationship between the variables). Recent research has found that there is a positive correlation between the use of violent video games and the incidence of aggressive behavior and that the size of the correlation is about r = .30 (Bushman & Huesmann, 2010).

One advantage of correlational research designs is that, like observational research (and in comparison with experimental research designs in which the researcher frequently creates relatively artificial situations in a laboratory setting), they are often used to study people doing the things that they do every day. Correlational research designs also have the advantage of allowing prediction. When two or more variables are correlated, we can use our knowledge of a person’s score on one of the variables to predict his or her likely score on another variable. Because high-school grades are correlated with university grades, if we know a person’s high-school grades, we can predict his or her likely university grades. Similarly, if we know how many violent video games a child plays, we can predict how aggressively he or she will behave. These predictions will not be perfect, but they will allow us to make a better guess than we would have been able to if we had not known the person’s score on the first variable ahead of time.

Despite their advantages, correlational designs have a very important limitation. This limitation is that they cannot be used to draw conclusions about the causal relationships among the variables that have been measured. An observed correlation between two variables does not necessarily indicate that either one of the variables caused the other. Although many studies have found a correlation between the number of violent video games that people play and the amount of aggressive behaviors they engage in, this does not mean that viewing the video games necessarily caused the aggression. Although one possibility is that playing violent games increases aggression,

Figure 1.11 Playing violent video games leads to aggressive behavior.

another possibility is that the causal direction is exactly opposite to what has been hypothesized. Perhaps increased aggressiveness causes more interest in, and thus increased viewing of, violent games. Although this causal relationship might not seem as logical, there is no way to rule out the possibility of such reverse causation on the basis of the observed correlation.

Figure 1.12 Increased aggressiveness causes more interest in, and thus increased viewing of, violent games.

Still another possible explanation for the observed correlation is that it has been produced by the presence of another variable that was not measured in the research. Common-causal variables (also known as third variables) are variables that are not part of the research hypothesis but that cause both the predictor and the outcome variable and thus produce the observed correlation between them (Figure 1.13, “Correlation and Causality”). It has been observed that students who sit in the front of a large class get better grades than those who sit in the back of the class. Although this could be because sitting in the front causes the student to take better notes or to understand the material better, the relationship could also be due to a common-causal variable, such as the interest or motivation of the students to do well in the class. Because a student’s interest in the class leads him or her to both get better grades and sit nearer to the teacher, seating position and class grade are correlated, even though neither one caused the other.

Correlation and causation
Figure 1.13 Correlation and Causality.  The correlation between where students sit in a large class and their grade in the class is likely caused by the influence of one or more common-causal variables.

The possibility of common-causal variables must always be taken into account when considering correlational research designs. For instance, in a study that finds a correlation between playing violent video games and aggression, it is possible that a common-causal variable is producing the relationship. Some possibilities include the family background, diet, and hormone levels of the children. Any or all of these potential common-causal variables might be creating the observed correlation between playing violent video games and aggression. Higher levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, for instance, may cause children to both watch more violent TV and behave more aggressively.

You may think of common-causal variables in correlational research designs as “mystery” variables, since their presence and identity is usually unknown to the researcher because they have not been measured. Because it is not possible to measure every variable that could possibly cause both variables, it is always possible that there is an unknown common-causal variable. For this reason, we are left with the basic limitation of correlational research: correlation does not imply causation.

Experimental Research

The goal of much research in social psychology is to understand the causal relationships among variables, and for this we use experiments. Experimental research designs are research designs that include the manipulation of a given situation or experience for two or more groups of individuals who are initially created to be equivalent, followed by a measurement of the effect of that experience.

In an experimental research design, the variables of interest are called the independent variables and the dependent variables. The independent variable refers to the situation that is created by the experimenter through the experimental manipulations, and the dependent variable refers to the variable that is measured after the manipulations have occurred. In an experimental research design, the research hypothesis is that the manipulated independent variable (or variables) causes changes in the measured dependent variable (or variables). We can diagram the prediction like this, using an arrow that points in one direction to demonstrate the expected direction of causality:

viewing violence (independent variable) → aggressive behavior (dependent variable)

Consider an experiment conducted by Anderson and Dill (2000), which was designed to directly test the hypothesis that viewing violent video games would cause increased aggressive behavior. In this research, male and female undergraduates from Iowa State University were given a chance to play either a violent video game (Wolfenstein 3D) or a nonviolent video game (Myst). During the experimental session, the participants played the video game that they had been given for 15 minutes. Then, after the play, they participated in a competitive task with another student in which they had a chance to deliver blasts of white noise through the earphones of their opponent. The operational definition of the dependent variable (aggressive behavior) was the level and duration of noise delivered to the opponent. The design and the results of the experiment are shown in Figure 1.14, “An Experimental Research Design (After Anderson & Dill, 2000).”


A/B Testing
Figure 1.14 An Experimental Research Design (After Anderson & Dill, 2000). Two advantages of the experimental research design are (a) an assurance that the independent variable (also known as the experimental manipulation) occurs prior to the measured dependent variable and (b) the creation of initial equivalence between the conditions of the experiment (in this case, by using random assignment to conditions).

Experimental designs have two very nice features. For one, they guarantee that the independent variable occurs prior to measuring the dependent variable. This eliminates the possibility of reverse causation. Second, the experimental manipulation allows ruling out the possibility of common-causal variables that cause both the independent variable and the dependent variable. In experimental designs, the influence of common-causal variables is controlled, and thus eliminated, by creating equivalence among the participants in each of the experimental conditions before the manipulation occurs.

The most common method of creating equivalence among the experimental conditions is through random assignment to conditionsbefore the experiment begins, which involves determining separately for each participant which condition he or she will experience through a random process, such as drawing numbers out of an envelope or using a website such as Anderson and Dill first randomly assigned about 100 participants to each of their two groups. Let’s call them Group A and Group B. Because they used random assignment to conditions, they could be confident that before the experimental manipulation occurred, the students in Group A were, on average, equivalent to the students in Group B on every possible variable, including variables that are likely to be related to aggression, such as family, peers, hormone levels, and diet—and, in fact, everything else.

Then, after they had created initial equivalence, Anderson and Dill created the experimental manipulation—they had the participants in Group A play the violent video game and the participants in Group B play the nonviolent video game. Then they compared the dependent variable (the white noise blasts) between the two groups and found that the students who had viewed the violent video game gave significantly longer noise blasts than did the students who had played the nonviolent game. When the researchers observed differences in the duration of white noise blasts between the two groups after the experimental manipulation, they could draw the conclusion that it was the independent variable (and not some other variable) that caused these differences because they had created initial equivalence between the groups. The idea is that the only thing that was different between the students in the two groups was which video game they had played.

When we create a situation in which the groups of participants are expected to be equivalent before the experiment begins, when we manipulate the independent variable before we measure the dependent variable, and when we change only the nature of independent variables between the conditions, then we can be confident that it is the independent variable that caused the differences in the dependent variable. Such experiments are said to have high internal validity, where internal validity is the extent to which changes in the dependent variable in an experiment can confidently be attributed to changes in the independent variable.

Despite the advantage of determining causation, experimental research designs do have limitations. One is that the experiments are usually conducted in laboratory situations rather than in the everyday lives of people. Therefore, we do not know whether results that we find in a laboratory setting will necessarily hold up in everyday life. To counter this, researchers sometimes conduct field experiments, which are experimental research studies that are conducted in a natural environment, such as a school or a factory. However, they are difficult to conduct because they require a means of creating random assignment to conditions, and this is frequently not possible in natural settings.

A second and perhaps more important limitation of experimental research designs is that some of the most interesting and important social variables cannot be experimentally manipulated. If we want to study the influence of the size of a mob on the destructiveness of its behavior, or to compare the personality characteristics of people who join suicide cults with those of people who do not join suicide cults, these relationships must be assessed using correlational designs because it is simply not possible to manipulate mob size or cult membership.

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Read through the following descriptions of experimental studies, and identify the independent and dependent variables in each scenario.

  1. A social psychologist wants to conduct a study to see if playing a violent versus a non-violent video game influences peoples’ aggressiveness.
    • Amount of aggression:
    • Type of video game:
  2. A researcher is investigating whether the speed of a helping response is affected by the size of a group of onlookers to an emergency situation.
    • Size of group of onlookers
    • Speed of helping response
  3. A social psychologist is interested in determining if people show greater attitude change after being exposed to a one-sided versus a two-sided argument.
    • Amount of attitude change
    • Type of message
  4. People are assigned to viewing either aggression-related or neutral words, and then their level of hostile intention bias is measured using a questionnaire.
    • Hostile intention bias score
    • Type of word
  5. A team of researchers assess whether people make more external attributions when they are asked to evaluate their own rather than someone else’s behaviour.
    • Target of attribution
    • Type of attribution

Factorial Research Designs

Social psychological experiments are frequently designed to simultaneously study the effects of more than one independent variable on a dependent variable. Factorial research designs are experimental designs that have two or more independent variables. By using a factorial design, the scientist can study the influence of each variable on the dependent variable (known as the main effects of the variables) as well as how the variables work together to influence the dependent variable (known as the interaction between the variables). Factorial designs sometimes demonstrate the person by situation interaction.

In one such study, Brian Meier and his colleagues (Meier, Robinson, & Wilkowski, 2006) tested the hypothesis that exposure to aggression-related words would increase aggressive responses toward others. Although they did not directly manipulate the social context, they used a technique common in social psychology in which they primed (i.e., activated) thoughts relating to social settings. In their research, half of their participants were randomly assigned to see words relating to aggression and the other half were assigned to view neutral words that did not relate to aggression. The participants in the study also completed a measure of individual differences in agreeableness—a personality variable that assesses the extent to which people see themselves as compassionate, cooperative, and high on other-concern.

Then the research participants completed a task in which they thought they were competing with another student. Participants were told that they should press the space bar on the computer keyboard as soon as they heard a tone over their headphones, and the person who pressed the space bar the fastest would be the winner of the trial. Before the first trial, participants set the intensity of a blast of white noise that would be delivered to the loser of the trial. The participants could choose an intensity ranging from 0 (no noise) to the most aggressive response (10, or 105 decibels). In essence, participants controlled a “weapon” that could be used to blast the opponent with aversive noise, and this setting became the dependent variable. At this point, the experiment ended.

Agreeableness comparison chart
Figure 1.15 A Person-Situation Interaction. In this experiment by Meier, Robinson, and Wilkowski (2006) the independent variables are a type of priming (aggression or neutral) and participant agreeableness (high or low). The dependent variable is the white noise level selected (a measure of aggression). The participants who were low in agreeableness became significantly more aggressive after seeing aggressive words, but those high in agreeableness did not.

As you can see in Figure 1.15, “A Person-Situation Interaction,” there was a person-by-situation interaction. Priming with aggression-related words (the situational variable) increased the noise levels selected by participants who were low on agreeableness, but priming did not increase aggression (in fact, it decreased it a bit) for students who were high on agreeableness. In this study, the social situation was important in creating aggression, but it had different effects for different people.

Deception in Social Psychology Experiments

You may have wondered whether the participants in the video game study that we just discussed were told about the research hypothesis ahead of time. In fact, these experiments both used a cover storya false statement of what the research was really about. The students in the video game study were not told that the study was about the effects of violent video games on aggression, but rather that it was an investigation of how people learn and develop skills at motor tasks like video games and how these skills affect other tasks, such as competitive games. The participants in the task performance study were not told that the research was about task performance. In some experiments, the researcher also makes use of an experimental confederatea person who is actually part of the experimental team but who pretends to be another participant in the study. The confederate helps create the right “feel” of the study, making the cover story seem more real.

In many cases, it is not possible in social psychology experiments to tell the research participants about the real hypotheses in the study, and so cover stories or other types of deception may be used. You can imagine, for instance, that if a researcher wanted to study racial prejudice, he or she could not simply tell the participants that this was the topic of the research because people may not want to admit that they are prejudiced, even if they really are. Although the participants are always told—through the process of informed consent—as much as is possible about the study before the study begins, they may nevertheless sometimes be deceived to some extent. At the end of every research project, however, participants should always receive a complete debriefing in which all relevant information is given, including the real hypothesis, the nature of any deception used, and how the data are going to be used.

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Now that you have reviewed the three main types of research design used in social psychology, read each brief summary of empirical findings below and identify which type of design the results were derived from – experimental, observational or correlational. Table 1.4 contains some helpful information here.

  1. There is a positive relationship between level of academic self-concept and self-esteem scores in university students.
  2. People are more persuaded if given a two-sided versus a one-sided message.
  3. People assigned to a group of four are more likely to conform to the dominant response in a perceptual task than people tasked with performing the task alone.
  4. People in individualistic cultures make predominantly internal attributions about the causes of social behavior.
  5. The more hours per month individuals spend doing voluntary work with people who are socially marginalized, the less they tend to believe in the just world hypothesis.
  6. 13 year-olds engage in more acts of relational aggression towards their peers than 8 year-olds.

Interpreting Research

No matter how carefully it is conducted or what type of design is used, all research has limitations. Any given research project is conducted in only one setting and assesses only one or a few dependent variables. And any one study uses only one set of research participants. Social psychology research is sometimes criticized because it frequently uses university students from Western cultures as participants (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). But relationships between variables are only really important if they can be expected to be found again when tested using other research designs, other operational definitions of the variables, other participants, and other experimenters, and in other times and settings.

External validity refers to the extent to which relationships can be expected to hold up when they are tested again in different ways and for different people. Science relies primarily upon replication—that is, the repeating of research—to study the external validity of research findings. Sometimes the original research is replicated exactly, but more often, replications involve using new operational definitions of the independent or dependent variables, or designs in which new conditions or variables are added to the original design. And to test whether a finding is limited to the particular participants used in a given research project, scientists may test the same hypotheses using people from different ages, backgrounds, or cultures. Replication allows scientists to test the external validity as well as the limitations of research findings.

In some cases, researchers may test their hypotheses, not by conducting their own study, but rather by looking at the results of many existing studies, using a meta-analysisa statistical procedure in which the results of existing studies are combined to determine what conclusions can be drawn on the basis of all the studies considered together. For instance, in one meta-analysis, Anderson and Bushman (2001) found that across all the studies they could locate that included both children and adults, college students and people who were not in college, and people from a variety of different cultures, there was a clear positive correlation (about r = .30) between playing violent video games and acting aggressively. The summary information gained through a meta-analysis allows researchers to draw even clearer conclusions about the external validity of a research finding.

Figure 1.16 Some Important Aspects of the Scientific Approach

Scientists generate research hypotheses, which are tested using an observational, correlational, or experimental research design.

The variables of interest are measured using self-report or behavioral measures.

Data is interpreted according to its validity (including internal validity and external validity).

The results of many studies may be combined and summarized using meta-analysis.

It is important to realize that the understanding of social behavior that we gain by conducting research is a slow, gradual, and cumulative process. The research findings of one scientist or one experiment do not stand alone—no one study proves a theory or a research hypothesis. Rather, research is designed to build on, add to, and expand the existing research that has been conducted by other scientists. That is why whenever a scientist decides to conduct research, he or she first reads journal articles and book chapters describing existing research in the domain and then designs his or her research on the basis of the prior findings. The result of this cumulative process is that over time, research findings are used to create a systematic set of knowledge about social psychology (Figure 1.16, “Some Important Aspects of the Scientific Approach”).

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H5P: Test your Learning: Chapter 1 True or False Quiz

Try these true/false questions, to see how well you have retained some key ideas from this chapter!

  1. Social psychology is a scientific discipline.
  2. Cultural differences are rarely studied nowadays in social psychology because it has been established that all of its important concepts are universal.
  3. In social psychology, the primary focus in on the behavior of groups, not individuals.
  4. Factorial designs are a type of correlational research.
  5. Nonrandom assignments of participants to conditions in experimental social psychological research ensures that everyone has an equal chance of being in any of the conditions.

Key Takeaways

  • Social psychologists study social behavior using an empirical approach. This allows them to discover results that could not have been reliably predicted ahead of time and that may violate our common sense and intuition.
  • The variables that form the research hypothesis, known as conceptual variables, are assessed by using measured variables such as self-report, behavioral, or neuroimaging measures.
  • Observational research is research that involves making observations of behavior and recording those observations in an objective manner. In some cases, it may be the only approach to studying behavior.
  • Correlational and experimental research designs are based on developing falsifiable research hypotheses.
  • Correlational research designs allow prediction but cannot be used to make statements about causality. Experimental research designs in which the independent variable is manipulated can be used to make statements about causality.
  • Social psychological experiments are frequently factorial research designs in which the effects of more than one independent variable on a dependent variable are studied.
  • All research has limitations, which is why scientists attempt to replicate their results using different measures, populations, and settings and to summarize those results using meta-analyses.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Using Google Scholar find journal articles that report observational, correlational, and experimental research designs. Specify the research design, the research hypothesis, and the conceptual and measured variables in each design.
  2. For each of the following variables, (a) propose a research hypothesis in which the variable serves as an independent variable and (b) propose a research hypothesis in which the variable serves as a dependent variable.
    • Helping
    • Aggression
    • Prejudice
    • Liking another person
    • Life satisfaction
  3. Visit the website Online Social Psychology Studies and take part in one of the online studies listed there.


Anderson, C. A., & Dill, K. E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 772–790.

Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2010). Aggression. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 833–863). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293(5537), 2105–2108.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61–83.

Lieberman, M. D., Hariri, A., Jarcho, J. M., Eisenberger, N. I., & Bookheimer, S. Y. (2005). An fMRI investigation of race-related amygdala activity in African-American and Caucasian-American individuals. Nature Neuroscience, 8(6), 720–722.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2011, June 13). Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American Psychologist. doi: 10.1037/a0023963

Meier, B. P., Robinson, M. D., & Wilkowski, B. M. (2006). Turning the other cheek: Agreeableness and the regulation of aggression-related crimes. Psychological Science, 17(2), 136–142.

Morewedge, C. K., Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Perish the forethought: Premeditation engenders misperceptions of personal control. In R. R. Hassin, K. N. Ochsner, & Y. Trope (Eds.), Self-control in society, mind, and brain (pp. 260–278). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2002). Rethinking feelings: An fMRI study of the cognitive regulation of emotion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(8), 1215–1229

Preston, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2007). The eureka error: Inadvertent plagiarism by misattributions of effort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(4), 575–584.

Richeson, J. A., Baird, A. A., Gordon, H. L., Heatherton, T. F., Wyland, C. L., Trawalter, S., Richeson, J. A., Baird, A. A., Gordon, H. L., Heatherton, T. F., Wyland, C. L., Trawalter, S., et al.#8230;Shelton, J. N. (2003). An fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function. Nature Neuroscience, 6(12), 1323–1328.

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1.4 Chapter Summary

The science of social psychology began when scientists first started to systematically and formally measure the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of human beings. Social psychology was energized by a number of researchers who sought to better understand how the Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust against the Jews of Europe. The 1950s and 1960s saw an expansion of social psychology into the field of attitudes and group processes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the discipline became more cognitive in orientation. Today, the field of social psychology is expanding into still other areas, such as evolutionary psychology, the study of culture, and social neuroscience.

Social psychology is the scientific study of how we think about, feel about, and behave toward the people in our lives and how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by those people. The goal of this book is to help you learn to think like a social psychologist to enable you to use social psychological principles to better understand social relationships.

Social psychology concerns the interplay between the individual person and the social situation. The social situation refers to the other people we interact with every day. The key aspect of the social situation is that the people around us produce social influence, or the processes through which other people change our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and through which we change theirs. Social influence operates largely through social norms.

The most basic tendency of all living organisms is the desire to protect and enhance their own life and the lives of important others—self-concern. People also desire to affiliate with others, a motive known as other-concern, and doing so is an important part of human behavior.

An important source of our common human experiences is our culture—a group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms. Norms in Western cultures are primarily oriented toward individualism and self-concern, whereas norms in East Asian cultures are more focused on collectivism and other-concern.

Three fundamental capacities of human beings are affect, behavior, and cognition—the ABCs of social psychology. Affect refers to the feelings we experience as part of our everyday lives. The basic component of affect is mood—the positive or negative feelings that are in the background of our everyday experiences. Emotions are mental states like moods, but they are shorter-lived, stronger, more intense, and more specific forms of affect.

Human beings exchange goods, services, and other benefits with other people in the process of social exchange. The mutual, and generally equitable, exchange of benefits is known as reciprocal altruism.

Social cognition relates to social activities and helps us understand and predict the behavior of ourselves and others. Two types of knowledge particularly important in social psychology are schemas and attitudes.

Although common sense is useful for getting ideas, and although our intuitions are sometimes correct, they are not perfect. Thus social psychologists conduct empirical research to test their ideas. The concepts of interest must be measured using operational definitions. Both self-report and behavioral measures can be used.

One approach to learning about social psychology involves using observational research to make observations of behavior. In some cases, this approach is the only way to learn about and study social events.

Because social psychologists are generally interested in looking at relationships between variables, they begin by stating their predictions in the form of a precise statement known as a research hypothesis.

The goal of correlational research is to search for and test hypotheses about the relationships between two or more variables. In these studies, a statistic known as the Pearson correlation coefficient is used to summarize the association, or correlation, between the variables.

Because scientists are interested in determining the causal relationships among variables, they frequently use experimental research designs. In experiments, the variables of interest are called the independent variable and the dependent variable. The most common method of creating equivalence among the experimental conditions, and thus increasing internal validity, is through random assignment to conditions.

External validity refers to the extent to which relationships can be expected to hold up when they are tested again in different ways and for different people. Meta-analyses can be used to assess the observed relationships among variables across many studies.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Now that you’ve reviewed the chapter, try this multiple-choice quiz to see what you know! You can check your answers as you go, or wait until after the last question for feedback. Good luck!

  1. Which field of psychology is most focused on the nature and causes of individual behavior and thought in social situations?
    1. social psychology
    2. organizational psychology
    3. developmental psychology
    4. personality psychology
  2. A researcher wants to know whether writing people are more persuaded by a one-sided or a two-sided message about a social issue. First, she randomly assigns participants to read either a one-sided or a two-sided message. She then administers a questionnaire measuring attitudes about that social issue. In this experiment, the independent variable (IV) is _____.
    1. the two-sided message
    2. the attitude score
    3. the one-sided message
    4. the type of message
  3. Why do social psychologists primarily study individuals?
    1. because our behavior is affected by the actions of other individuals
    2. because there are too many variables to study the behavior of groups in laboratory conditions
    3. because some individuals are more strongly affected by groups, whereas some are never affected by them
    4. because cultural differences only show up at the group, and not the individual level
  4. Researchers find a significant correlation between peoples’ self-esteem and their conformity to fashion norms. What does this mean?
    1. that changes in self-esteem cause changes in conformity to fashion norms
    2. that changes in conformity to fashion norms cause changes in self-esteem
    3. that changes in self-esteem have no effect on conformity to fashion norms
    4. that changes in self-esteem and conformity to fashion norms are related to each other
  5. The shifting patterns of behavior around mask-wearing during the COVID-19 best represent a change in which phenomenon?
    1. affiliation
    2. schemas
    3. social norms
    4. social cognition

Is social psychology just common sense? Answers and explanations

Table 1.5 Is social psychology just common sense? Answers and explanations
Statement Answer and Explanation
Opposites attract. False.The opposite is more the case. Similarity, particularly in values and beliefs, is an important determinant of liking.
An athlete who wins the bronze medal (third place) in an event is happier about his or her performance than the athlete who won the silver medal (second place). True. We frequently compare our actual outcomes with what “might have been.” This leads the silver medalist to compare the possibility of having won the gold, whereas the bronze medalist compares the possibility of having won no medal at all.
Having good friends you can count on can keep you from catching colds. True. Social support—the perception that we have people we can count on and talk to—provides many positive benefits to our mental and physical health.
Subliminal advertising (i.e., persuasive messages that are presented out of our awareness on TV or movie screens) is very effective in getting us to buy products. False. Although there is evidence that events that occur out of our awareness can influence our behavior, there is little evidence that subliminal advertising is effective.
The greater the reward promised for an activity, the more one will come to enjoy engaging in that activity. False. In fact, providing a reward for an activity that is already enjoyed (such as paying a child to get good grades) can undermine a person’s enjoyment of the activity.
Physically attractive people are seen as less intelligent than less attractive people. False. You of course know that this must be false. Why else would you look your very best when you go for a job interview?
Punching a pillow or screaming out loud is a good way to reduce frustration and aggressive tendencies. False. There is no evidence that engaging in violent behavior can ever reduce the desire to be aggressive. The opposite is much more common. Engaging in aggression leads to more aggression.
People pull harder in a tug-of-war when they’re pulling alone than when pulling in a group. True. Social loafing (reducing our effort because we think that others in the group will make up for us) is more likely


Chapter 2. Social Cognition

Chapter Learning Objectives

1. Sources of Social Knowledge

  • Review the principles of operant, associational, and observational learning, and explain the similarities and differences between them.
  • Explain how and when schemas and attitudes do and do not change as a result of the operation of accommodation and assimilation.
  • Outline the ways that schemas are likely to be maintained through processes that create assimilation.

2. How We Use Our Expectations

  • Provide examples of how salience and accessibility influence information processing.
  • Review, differentiate, and give examples of some important cognitive heuristics that influence social judgment.
  • Summarize and give examples of the importance of social cognition in everyday life.

3. Social Cognition and Affect

  • Describe important ways in which our affective states can influence our social cognition, both directly and indirectly, for example, through the operation of the affect heuristic.
  • Outline mechanisms through which our social cognition can alter our affective states, for instance, through the mechanism of misattribution of arousal.
  • Review the role that strategies, including cognitive reappraisal, can play in successful self-regulation.
  • Explore the relationship between positive cognition, affect, and behaviors.
  • Outline important findings in relation to our affective forecasting abilities.

In this chapter, our focus will be on social cognition—cognition that relates to social activities and that helps us understand and predict the behavior of ourselves and others (Fiske & Taylor, 2007; Macrae & Quadflieg, 2010). A fundamental part of social cognition involves learning, the relatively permanent change in knowledge that is acquired through experience. We will see that a good part of our learning and our judgment of other people operates out of our awareness—we are profoundly affected by things that we do not know are influencing us. However, we also consciously think about and analyze our lives and our relationships with others, seeking out the best ways to fulfill our goals and aspirations.

As we investigate the role of cognition in everyday life, we will consider the ways that people use their cognitive abilities to make good decisions and to inform their behavior in a useful and accurate way. We will also consider the potential for mistakes and biases in human judgment. We will see that although we are generally pretty good at sizing up other people and creating effective social interactions, we are not perfect. And we will further see that the errors we make frequently occur because of our reliance on our schemas and and a general tendency to take shortcuts through the use of cognitive heuristics, information-processing rules of thumb that enable us to think in ways that are quick and easy but that may sometimes lead to error. In short, although our cognitive abilities are often “good enough,” there is definitely room for improvement in our social cognition.

Huge Fall in Global Markets Causes Fear and Panic for Investors

September 16, 2008, as a result of the failure of over a dozen large banks in the United States, was the beginning of a global stock market crisis. On October 11, 2008, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that the world financial system was teetering on “the brink of systemic meltdown.” Over the next year, the crash erased $8.3 trillion in shareholder wealth.

Since these calamitous financial events, the repercussions of which are still being felt in many regions of the world, much ink has been spilled about the reasons for this global economic meltdown. How could so many highly educated, intelligent people in so many important positions make so many judgments that now seem, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, to have incurred such high risks? Why didn’t enough people in key positions see the collapse coming? The study of social cognition can perhaps provide some clues. Through studying the factors that affect our social judgments, social psychologists have helped to shed some important light on why we often have difficulty making sound decisions about an uncertain world.

Figure 2.1 Stock traders are expected to make rational decisions about their investments, but their emotions can influence their decisions.


Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (2007). Social cognition, from brains to culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Macrae, C. N., & Quadflieg, S. (2010). Perceiving people. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 428–463). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Wells, G. L., Memon, A., & Penrod, S. D. (2006). Eyewitness evidence: Improving its probative value. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(2), 45–75.

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2.1 Sources of Social Knowledge

Learning Objectives

  1. Review the principles of operant, associational, and observational learning, and explain the similarities and differences between them.
  2. Explain how and when schemas and attitudes do and do not change as a result of the operation of accommodation and assimilation.
  3. Outline the ways that schemas are likely to be maintained through processes that create assimilation.

Human beings have proportionately very large brains and highly developed cognitive capacities in comparison with other species. Thus it should come as no surprise that we meet the challenges of everyday life largely by thinking about them and then planning what to do. Over time, we develop a huge amount of knowledge about ourselves, other people, social relationships, and social groups. This knowledge guides our responses to the people we interact with every day. But where does this social knowledge come from?

Our Knowledge Accumulates as a Result of Learning

People have many memories about their experiences with other people, and they use this information to make predictions about what people will do in the future. This knowledge is gained through learning. The study of learning is closely associated with the behaviorist school of psychology, which includes the psychologists John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. For behaviorists, the fundamental aspect of learning is the process of conditioning, the ability to connect stimuli (things or events in the environment) with responses (behaviors or other actions). The behaviorists described two types of conditioning that are particularly important: operant conditioning (also known as instrumental conditioning) and classical conditioning (also known as respondent conditioning). When applied to human behavior, these two processes are frequently called, respectively, operant learning and associational learning.

Operant Learning

If a child touches a hot radiator, he or she quickly learns that the radiator is dangerous and is not likely to touch it again. Through stimulus generalizationthe child will also learn that radiators in general are not to be touched. If we have unpleasant experiences with people from a certain city, region, or country, or a positive relationship with a person who has blond hair or green eyes, we may develop negative or positive attitudes about people with these particular characteristics and attempt to reduce or increase our interactions with them. These changes in our understanding of our environments represent operant learning,  the principle that experiences that are followed by positive emotions (reinforcements or rewards) are likely to be repeated, whereas experiences that are followed by negative emotions (punishments) are less likely to be repeated. In operant learning, the person thus learns from the consequences of his or her own actions.

Although its principles are very simple, operant learning is probably the most important form of human learning. For example, operant learning occurs when a schoolroom bully threatens his classmates because doing so allows him to get his way, or when a child gets good grades because her parents threaten to punish her if she doesn’t, or when we begin to like someone who smiles at us frequently, and in hundreds of other cases every day. Operant learning can also be used to help explain how people learn complex behaviors, such as how to read, and to understand complex social behaviors, such as the development of social norms and culture.

The application of operant learning to social psychology can help us to explain how we know which behaviors are most appropriate in a social situation. We learn, in part, because we have been reinforced for engaging in the appropriate ones and punished for engaging in the inappropriate ones. It does not take us long to learn that Margette is more likely to give us the kiss we have been hoping for if we are nice to her or that our children are more likely to share their toys with others if we reward them for doing it. Operant learning has even been used to explain why some people choose to engage in antisocial and criminal behavior. According to this approach, criminal behavior is determined by the reinforcements and punishments that the individual experiences (e.g., with peers and with parents) as a result of his or her behavior (Akers, 1998).

Associational Learning

Associational learning occurs when an object or event comes to be associated with a natural response, such as an automatic behavior or a positive or negative emotion. If you have ever become hungry when you drive by one of your favorite pizza stores, it is probably because the sight of the pizzeria has become associated with your experiences of enjoying the pizzas. We may enjoy smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and eating not only because they give us pleasure themselves but also because they have been associated with pleasant social experiences in the past.

Associational learning also influences our knowledge and judgment about other people. For instance, research has shown that people more favorably view men and women who are seen alongside other people who are attractive, or who are said to have attractive girlfriends or boyfriends, than they do the same people who are seen alongside more average-looking others (Sigall & Landy, 1973). This liking is due to associational learning: we have positive feelings toward the people simply because those people are associated with the positive features of the attractive others.

Associational learning has long been, and continues to be, an effective tool in marketing and advertising (Hawkins, Best, & Coney, 1998). The general idea is to create an advertisement that has positive features so that it creates enjoyment in the person exposed to it. Because the product being advertised is mentioned in the ad, it becomes associated with the positive feelings that the ad creates. In the end, if everything has gone well, seeing the product online or in a store will then create a positive response in the buyer, leading him or her to be more likely to purchase the product.qrcode.video7.1

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

Video 2.1 Funny Commercials uploaded by kin100.

Can you determine how associational learning is being used in these ads?

A similar strategy is used by corporations that sponsor teams or events. For instance, if people enjoy watching a particular sports team, and if that team is sponsored by a product, such as Pepsi, then people may end up experiencing the positive feelings they have for their team when they view a can of Pepsi.

Advertisers use a variety of techniques to create positive advertisements, including enjoyable music, cute babies, attractive models, and funny spokespeople. In one study, Gorn (1982) showed research participants pictures of different colored writing pens, but paired one of the pens with pleasant music and another with unpleasant music. When given a choice as a free gift, more people chose the pen that had been associated with the pleasant music. In another study, Schemer, Matthes, Wirth, and Textor (2008) found that people were more interested in products that had been embedded in music videos of artists that they liked and less likely to be interested when the products were in videos featuring artists that they did not like.

Another type of ad that is based on principles of classical conditioning is one that associates fear with the use of a product or behavior, such as those that show pictures of deadly automobile accidents to encourage seatbelt use or images of lung cancer surgery to discourage smoking. Indeed, many governments around the world have recently created negative and graphic images to place on cigarette packs in order to increase an association between negative responses and cigarettes. The idea is that when we see a cigarette and the fear of dying is associated with it, we will be less likely to light up. These ads have also been found to be effective largely because of conditioning (Das, de Wit, & Stroebe, 2003; Perloff, 2003; Witte & Allen, 2000).

Figure 2.2 The goal of these images is to associate the fear of dying with cigarette smoking.

Taken together then, research studies provide ample evidence of the utility of associational learning in advertising. This does not mean, however, that we are always influenced by these ads. The likelihood that associational learning will be successful is greater when we do not know much about the products, where the differences between products are relatively minor, and when we do not think too carefully about the choices (Schemer, Matthes, Wirth, & Textor, 2008).

Associational learning has also been implicated in the development of unfair and unjustified racial prejudices. We may dislike people from certain racial or ethnic groups because we frequently see them portrayed in the media as associated with violence, drug use, or terrorism. And we may avoid people with certain physical characteristics simply because they remind us of other people we do not like. For example, Lewicki (1985) conducted an experiment where high school students first had a brief interaction with a female experimenter who had short hair and wore glasses. The study was set up so that the students had to ask the experimenter a question, and (according to random assignment) the experimenter responded in either a negative way or a neutral way toward the participants. Then the students were told to go into a second room in which two experimenters were present and to approach either one of them. The researchers arranged it so that one of the two experimenters looked a lot like the original experimenter and the other one did not (she had longer hair and did not wear glasses). The students were significantly more likely to avoid the experimenter who looked like the original experimenter when that experimenter had been negative to them than when she had treated them neutrally. As a result of associational learning, the negative behavior of the first experimenter unfairly “rubbed off” onto the second.

Figure 2.3 Are your beliefs about people from different social groups influenced by associational learning?

Donal Carlston and his colleagues discovered still another way that associational learning can occur: when we say good or bad things about another person in public, the people who hear us say these things associate those characteristics with us, such that they like people who say positive things and dislike people who say negative things (Mae & Carlston, 2005; Skowronski, Carlston, Mae, & Crawford, 1998). The moral is clear—associational learning is powerful, so be careful what you do and say.

Observational Learning

In addition to operant and associational learning, people learn by observing the behavior of others. This is known as observational learning. To demonstrate the importance of observational learning in children, Bandura and Walters (1959) made a film of a young woman beating up a bobo doll—an inflatable balloon with a weight in the bottom that makes it bob back up when you knock it down. The woman violently hit the doll, shouting “Sockeroo!” She also kicked it, sat on it, and hit it with a hammer.

Bandura showed his film to groups of nursery school children and then let them play in a room in which there were some really fun toys. To create some frustration in the children, Bandura let the children play with the fun toys for only a couple of minutes before taking them away. Then Bandura gave the children a chance to play with the bobo doll. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that many of the children imitated the young woman in the film. They punched the bobo doll, shouted “Sockeroo!” and hit the doll with a hammer.

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

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Video 2.2 Bandura Discussing Clips From His Modeling Studies uploaded by Heath Kaplan.

Take a moment to see how Albert Bandura explains his research into the modeling of aggression in children.

For some of the children, the female model was shown being rewarded for engaging in the behavior, and for other children, she was punished. In support of the principles of operant learning, Bandura’s study found that the children were more likely to be aggressive when the model had been rewarded for the behavior and were less likely to be so when the model had been punished. But even the children who did not see the model receive any reward nevertheless imitated the behavior to some extent. One of the major contributions of this study is the demonstration that children learned new types of aggressive behaviors simply by observing and imitating others. Bandura’s seminal research has inspired a generation of inquiry into the role of social learning in aggressive behavior, including studies of the relationship between exposure to violent media and violent conduct.

Observational learning is involved in much of our learning about our social worlds. For example, it teaches us that Ravi is friendly, that Joanna is selfish, and that Frankie has a crush on Malik. In other cases, our knowledge comes more indirectly, from what we read in books or see on TV, or from what our friends tell us, for instance.

Observational learning is useful because it allows people to learn without having to actually engage in what might be a risky behavior. As Bandura put it:

the prospects for [human] survival would be slim indeed if one could learn only by suffering the consequences of trial and error. For this reason, one does not teach children to swim, adolescents to drive automobiles, and novice medical students to perform surgery by having them discover the appropriate behavior through the consequences of their successes and failures. The more costly and hazardous the possible mistakes, the heavier is the reliance on observational learning from competent learners. (1977, p. 12).

Bandura considered observational learning to be a fundamental determinant of all social behavior, particularly when people pay attention to the behavior of models and are highly motivated to imitate them.

Schemas as Social Knowledge

The outcome of learning is knowledge, and this knowledge is stored in the form of schemas, which are knowledge representations that include information about a person, group, or situation. In the brain, our schemas reside primarily in the prefrontal cortex the part of the brain that lies in front of the motor areas of the cortex and that helps us remember the characteristics and actions of other people, plan complex social behaviors, and coordinate our behaviors with those of others (Mitchell, Mason, Macrae, & Banaji, 2006). The prefrontal cortex is the “social” part of the brain. It is also the newest part of the brain, evolutionarily speaking, and has enlarged as the social relationships among humans have become more frequent, important, and complex. Demonstrating its importance in social behaviors, people with damage to the prefrontal cortex are likely to experience changes in social behaviors, including memory, personality, planning, and morality (Koenigs et al., 2007).

Prefrontal Cortex
Figure 2.4 The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that stores information about people and our interactions with them.

How Schemas Develop: Accommodation and Assimilation

Because they represent our past experience, and because past experience is useful for prediction, our schemas influence our expectations about future events. For instance, if you have watched Italian movies or if you have visited Italy, you might have come to the conclusion that Italians frequently gesture a lot with their hands when they talk—that they are quite nonverbally expressive. If so, this knowledge will be contained in your group schema about Italians. Therefore, when you meet someone who is Italian, or even when you meet someone who reminds you of an Italian person, you may well expect that he or she will gesture when talking.

Having a database of social knowledge to draw on is obviously extremely useful. If we didn’t know or couldn’t remember anything about anyone or about anything that we had encountered in the past, our life would be very difficult because we would continually have to start our learning over again. Our schemas allow us to better understand people and help us make sense of information, particularly when the information is unclear or ambiguous. They also allow us to “fill in the blanks” by making guesses about what other people are probably like or probably going to do in cases where things are uncertain. Furthermore, the fact that different people have different past experiences—and thus that their schemas and attitudes are different—helps explain why different people draw different conclusions about the same events.

Once they have developed, schemas influence our subsequent learning, such that the new people and situations we encounter are interpreted and understood in terms of our existing knowledge (Piaget & Inhelder, 1962; Taylor & Crocker, 1981). Imagine, for instance, that you have a schema—and thus an expectation—that Italians are very expressive, and you now meet Bianca, who has arrived at your school directly from Rome. You immediately expect her to be outgoing and expressive. However, as you get to know Bianca, you discover that she is not at all expressive and does not “talk with her hands.” In fact, she is quite shy and reserved. How does existing information influence how you react to the new information you receive?

One possibility is that the new information simply updates existing expectations. You might decide, for instance, that there is more variation among Italians in terms of expressiveness than you had previously realized, and you might resolve that Italians can sometimes be very shy and thoughtful. Or perhaps you note that although Bianca is Italian, she is also a woman. This might lead you to change your schema to believe that although Italian men are expressive, Italian women are not.

When existing schemas change on the basis of new information, we call the process accommodation. In other cases, however, we engage in assimilation, a process in which our existing knowledge influences new conflicting information to better fit with our existing knowledge, thus reducing the likelihood of schema change. In the scenario above, if you used assimilation, instead of changing your expectations about Italians, you might try to reinterpret Bianca’s unexpected behavior to make it more consistent with your expectations. For instance, you might decide that Bianca’s behavior is actually more expressive than you thought it was at first, or that she is acting in a more shy and reserved manner because she is trying to impress you with her thoughtfulness or because she is not yet comfortable at the new school. Or you might assume that she is expressive at home with her family but not around you. In these cases, the process of assimilation has led you to process the new information about Bianca in a way that allows you to keep your existing expectations about Italians more generally intact.

How Schemas Maintain Themselves: The Power of Assimilation

As we have seen in our earlier discussion, accommodation (i.e., the changing of beliefs on the basis of new information) does occur; indeed it is the process of learning itself. For example, your belief about Italians may well change through your encounters with Bianca. However, there are many factors that lead us to assimilate information into our expectations rather than to accommodate our expectations to fit new information. In fact, we can say that in most cases, once a schema is developed, it will be difficult to change it because the expectation leads us to process new information in ways that serve to strengthen it rather than to weaken it.

The tendency toward assimilation is so strong that it has substantial effects on our everyday social cognition. One outcome of assimilation is the confirmation bias, the tendency for people to seek out and favor information that confirms their expectations and beliefs, which in turn can further help to explain the often self-fulfilling nature of our schemas. The confirmation bias has been shown to occur in many contexts and groups, although there is some evidence of cultural differences in its extent and prevalence. Kastenmuller and colleagues (2010), for instance, found that the bias was stronger among people with individualist versus collectivist cultural backgrounds, and argued that this partly stemmed from collectivist cultures putting greater importance in being self-critical, which is less compatible with seeking out confirming as opposed to disconfirming evidence.

Research Focus

The Confirmation Bias

Consider the results of a research study conducted by Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard (1975) that demonstrated the confirmation bias. In this research, high school students were asked to read a set of 25 pairs of cards, in which each pair supposedly contained one real and one fake suicide note. The students’ task was to examine both cards and to decide which of the two notes was written by an actual suicide victim. After the participants read each card and made their decision, the experimenter told them whether their decision was correct or incorrect. However, the feedback was not at all based on the participants’ responses. Rather, the experimenters arranged the feedback so that, on the basis of random assignment, different participants were told either that they were successful at the task (they got 24 out of 25 correct), average at the task (they got 17 out of 25 correct), or poor at the task (they got 10 out of 25 correct), regardless of their actual choices.

At this point, the experimenters stopped the experiment and explained to the participants what had happened, including how the feedback they had received was predetermined so that they would learn that they were either successful, average, or poor at the task. They were even shown the schedule that the experimenters had used to give them the feedback. Then the participants were asked, as a check on their reactions to the experiment, to indicate how many answers they thought they would get correct on a subsequent—and real—series of 25 card pairs.

As you can see in Figure 2.5, the results of this experiment showed a clear tendency for expectations to be maintained even in the face of information that should have discredited them. Students who had been told that they were successful at the task indicated that they thought they would get more responses correct in a real test of their ability than those who thought they were average at the task, and students who thought they were average thought they would do better than those told they were poor at the task. In short, once students had been convinced that they were either good or bad at the task, they really believed it. It then became very difficult to remove their beliefs, even by providing information that should have effectively done so.

Prediction of future success
Figure 2.5 In this demonstration of the power of assimilation, participants were given initial feedback that they were good, average, or poor at a task but then told that the feedback was entirely false. The feedback, which should have been discounted, nevertheless continued to influence participants’ estimates of how well they would do on a future task. Data are from Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard (1975).

Why do we tend to hold onto our beliefs rather than change them? One reason that our beliefs often outlive the evidence on which they are supposed to be based is that people come up with reasons to support their beliefs. People who learned that they were good at detecting real suicide notes probably thought of a lot of reasons why this might be the case—“I predicted that Suzy would break up with Billy,” or “I knew that my mother was going to be sad after I left for university”—whereas the people who learned that they were not good at the task probably thought of the opposite types of reasons—“I had no idea that Jean was going to drop out of high school.” You can see that these tendencies will produce assimilation—the interpretation of our experiences in ways that support our existing beliefs. Indeed, research has found that perhaps the only way to reduce our tendencies to assimilate information into our existing belief is to explicitly force people to think about exactly the opposite belief (Anderson & Sechler, 1986).

In some cases, our existing knowledge acts to direct our attention toward information that matches our expectations and prevents us from attempting to attend to or acknowledge conflicting information (Fiske & Neuberg, 1990). To return to our example of Bianca from Rome, when you first meet her, you may immediately begin to look for signs of expressiveness in her behavior and personality. Because we expect people to confirm our expectations, we frequently respond to new people as if we already know what they are going to be like. For example, Trope and Thompson (1997) found in their research that individuals addressed fewer questions to people about whom they already had strong expectations and that the questions they did ask were likely to confirm the expectations they already had. If you believe that Italians are expressive, you would expect to see that behavior in Bianca, you would preferentially attend to information that confirms those beliefs, and you would tend to ignore any disconfirming information. The outcome is that expectations resist change (Fazio, Ledbetter, & Towles-Schwen, 2000).

Not only do we often seek out evidence more readily if it fits our pre-existing beliefs, but we also tend to evaluate its credibility more favorably than we do evidence that runs against what we believe (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2013). These tendencies in turn help to explain the inertia that our beliefs often display, and their resistance to contradictory evidence, even when they are inaccurate or dysfuntional.

Applying these insights to the case study that opened this chapter, perhaps the financial meltdown of 2008 was caused in part by key decision-makers continuing with high-risk investment strategies, even in the face of growing evidence of the potential negative consequences. Seen through the lens of the confirmation bias, these judgments start to make sense. Confirmation bias can lead investors to be overconfident, ignoring evidence that their strategies will lose money (Kida, 2006). It seems, then, that too much effort was spent on finding evidence confirming the wisdom of the current strategies and not enough time was allocated to finding the counterevidence.

Our reliance on confirmatory thinking can also make it more difficult for us to “think outside the box.” Peter Wason (1960) asked college students to determine the rule that was used to generate the numbers 2-4-6 by asking them to generate possible sequences and then telling them if those numbers followed the rule. The first guess that students made was usually “consecutive ascending even numbers,” and they then asked questions designed to confirm their hypothesis (“Does 102-104-106 fit?” “What about 434-436-438?”). Upon receiving information that those guesses did fit the rule, the students stated that the rule was “consecutive ascending even numbers.” But the students’ use of the confirmation bias led them to ask only about instances that confirmed their hypothesis and not about those that would disconfirm it. They never bothered to ask whether 1-2-3 or 3-11-200 would fit; if they had, they would have learned that the rule was not “consecutive ascending even numbers” but simply “any three ascending numbers.” Again, you can see that once we have a schema (in this case, a hypothesis), we continually retrieve that schema from memory rather than other relevant ones, leading us to act in ways that tend to confirm our beliefs.

Because expectations influence what we attend to, they also influence what we remember. One frequent outcome is that information that confirms our expectations is more easily processed and understood, and thus has a bigger impact than does disconfirming information. There is substantial research evidence indicating that when processing information about social groups, individuals tend to remember information better that confirms their existing beliefs about those groups (Fyock & Stangor, 1994; Van Knippenberg & Dijksterhuis, 1996). If we have the (statistically erroneous) stereotype that women are bad drivers, we tend to remember the cases where we see a woman driving poorly but to forget the cases where we see a woman driving well. This of course strengthens and maintains our beliefs and produces even more assimilation. And our schemas may also be maintained because when people get together, they talk about other people in ways that tend to express and confirm existing beliefs, including stereotypes (Ruscher & Duval, 1998; Schaller & Conway, 1999).

Darley and Gross (1983) demonstrated how schemas about social class could influence memory. In their research, they gave participants a picture and some information about a girl in grade 4, named Hannah. To activate a schema about her social class, Hannah was pictured sitting in front of a nice suburban house for one half of the participants and in front of an impoverished house in an urban area for the other half. Then the participants watched a video that showed Hannah taking an intelligence test. As the test went on, Hannah got some of the questions right and some of them wrong, but the number of correct and incorrect answers was the same in both conditions. Then the participants were asked to remember how many questions Hannah got right and wrong. Demonstrating that stereotypes had influenced memory, the participants who thought that Hannah had come from an upper-class background judged that she had gotten more correct answers than those who thought she was from a lower-class background. It seems, then, that we have a reconstructive memory bias, as we often remember things that match our current beliefs better than those that don’t and reshape those memories to better align with our current beliefs (Hilsabeck, Gouvier, & Bolter, 1998).

This is not to say that we only remember information that matches our expectations. Sometimes we encounter information that is so extreme and so conflicting with our expectations that we cannot help but attend to and remember it (Srull & Wyer, 1989). Imagine that you have formed an impression of a good friend of yours as a very honest person. One day you discover, however, that he has taken some money from your wallet without getting your permission or even telling you. It is likely that this new information—because it is so personally involving and important—will have a dramatic effect on your perception of your friend and that you will remember it for a long time. In short, information that is either consistent with, or very inconsistent with, an existing schema or attitude is likely to be well remembered.

Still another way that our expectations tend to maintain themselves is by leading us to act toward others on the basis of our expectations, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a process that occurs when our expectations about others lead us to behave toward those others in ways that make our expectations come true. If I have a stereotype that Italians are friendly, then I may act toward Bianca in a friendly way. My friendly behavior may be reciprocated by Bianca, and if many other people also engage in the same positive behaviors with her, in the long run she may actually become a friendlier person, thus confirming my initial expectations. Of course, the opposite is also possible—if I believe that Italian people are boring, my behavior toward them may lead me to maintain those more negative, and probably inaccurate, beliefs as well (Figure 2.6).

Self-fulling prophecy
Figure 2.6 Self-fulfilling prophecy effects have been implicated in a wide variety of social domains, including client responses to psychotherapy (Tambling, 2012), negative perceptions of aging (Wurm, Zielgelmann, Wolff, & Schuz, 2013), and parents’ beliefs about their children’s marijuana use (Lamb & Crano, 2014).

We can now begin to see why an individual who initially makes a judgment that a person has engaged in a given behavior (e.g., an eyewitness who believes that he or she saw a given person commit a crime) will find it very difficult to change his or her mind about that decision later. Even if the individual is provided with evidence that suggests that he or she was wrong, that individual will likely assimilate that information to the existing belief. Assimilation is thus one of many factors that help account for the inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony.

Research Focus

Schemas as Energy Savers

If schemas serve in part to help us make sense of the world around us, then we should be particularly likely to use them in situations where there is a lot of information to learn about, or when we have few cognitive resources available to process information. Schemas function like energy savers, to help us keep track of things when information processing gets complicated.

Stangor and Duan (1991) tested the hypothesis that people would be more likely to develop schemas when they had a lot of information to learn about. In the research, participants were shown information describing the behaviors of people who supposedly belonged to different social groups, although the groups were actually fictitious and were labeled only as the “red group,” the “blue group,” the “yellow group,” and the “green group.” Each group engaged in behaviors that were primarily either honest, dishonest, intelligent, or unintelligent. Then, after they had read about the groups, the participants were asked to judge the groups and to recall as much information that they had read about them as they could.

Stangor and Duan found that participants remembered more stereotype-supporting information about the groups when they were required to learn about four different groups than when they only needed to learn about one or two groups. This result is consistent with the idea that we use our stereotypes more when “the going gets rough”—that is, when we need to rely on them to help us make sense of new information.

Judgment of guilt schema
Figure 2.7 Schemas are particularly powerful when we are tired. Participants were asked to judge the degree to which a defendant was guilty of a crime for which he was accused (however unfairly) and for which the crime fit the stereotype (e.g., that student athletes were likely to cheat on exams). Participants had previously indicated whether they were “morning people” or “night people” on a questionnaire and were tested in either the morning or the evening. Data from Bodenhausen (1990).

Bodenhausen (1990) presented research participants with information about court cases in jury trials. Furthermore, he had obtained self-reports from the participants about whether they considered themselves to be primarily “morning people” (those who feel better and are more alert in the morning) or “evening people” (those who are more alert in the evening). As shown in Figure 2.7, Bodenhausen found that participants were more likely to make use of their stereotypes when they were judging the guilt or innocence of the individuals on trial at the time of day when the participants acknowledged that they were normally more fatigued. People who reported being most alert in the morning stereotyped more at night, and vice versa. This experiment thus provides more support for the idea that schemas—in this case, those about social groups—serve, in part, to make our lives easier and that we rely on them when we need to rely on cognitive efficiency—for instance, when we are tired.

Key Takeaways

  • Human beings respond to the social challenges they face by relying on their substantial cognitive capacities.
  • Our knowledge about and our responses to social events are developed and influenced by operant learning, associational learning, and observational learning.
  • One outcome of our experiences is the development of mental representations about our environments—schemas and attitudes. Once they have developed, our schemas influence our subsequent learning, such that the new people and situations we encounter are interpreted and understood in terms of our existing knowledge.
  • Accommodation occurs when existing schemas change on the basis of new information. Assimilation occurs when our knowledge acts to influence new information in a way that makes the conflicting information fit with our existing schemas.
  • Because our expectations influence our attention and responses to, and our memory for, new information, often in a way that leads our expectations to be maintained, assimilation is generally more likely than accommodation.
  • Schemas serve as energy savers. We are particularly likely to use them when we are tired or when the situation that we must analyze is complex.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a time when you learned new social information or new behaviors through operant, associational, or observational learning.
  2. Think about a time when you made a snap judgment about another person. How did your expectations about people influence your judgment of this person? Looking back on this, to what extent do you think that the judgment fair or unfair?
  3. Consider some of your beliefs about the people you know. Were these beliefs formed through assimilation, accommodation, or a combination of both? To what degree do you think that your expectations now influence how you respond to these people?
  4. Describe a time when you had  a strong expectation about another person’s likely behavior. In what ways and to what extent did that expectation serve as an energy saver?


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Media Attributions


2.2 How We Use Our Expectations

Learning Objectives

  1. Provide examples of how salience and accessibility influence information processing.
  2. Review, differentiate, and give examples of some important cognitive heuristics that influence social judgment.
  3. Summarize and give examples of the importance of social cognition in everyday life.

Once we have developed a set of schemas and attitudes, we naturally use that information to help us evaluate and respond to others. Our expectations help us to think about, size up, and make sense of individuals, groups of people, and the relationships among people. If we have learned, for example, that someone is friendly and interested in us, we are likely to approach them; if we have learned that they are threatening or unlikable, we will be more likely to withdraw. And if we believe that a person has committed a crime, we may process new information in a manner that helps convince us that our judgment was correct. In this section, we will consider how we use our stored knowledge to come to accurate (and sometimes inaccurate) conclusions about our social worlds.

Automatic versus Controlled Cognition

A good part of both cognition and social cognition is spontaneous or automatic. Automatic cognition refers to thinking that occurs out of our awareness, quickly, and without taking much effort (Ferguson & Bargh, 2003; Ferguson, Hassin, & Bargh, 2008). The things that we do most frequently tend to become more automatic each time we do them, until they reach a level where they don’t really require us to think about them very much. Most of us can ride a bike and operate a television remote control in an automatic way. Even though it took some work to do these things when we were first learning them, it just doesn’t take much effort anymore. And because we spend a lot of time making judgments about others, many of these judgments, which are strongly influenced by our schemas, are made quickly and automatically (Willis & Todorov, 2006).

Because automatic thinking occurs outside of our conscious awareness, we frequently have no idea that it is occurring and influencing our judgments or behaviors. You might remember a time when you returned home, unlocked the door, and 30 seconds later couldn’t remember where you had put your keys! You know that you must have used the keys to get in, and you know you must have put them somewhere, but you simply don’t remember a thing about it. Because many of our everyday judgments and behaviors are performed automatically, we may not always be aware that they are occurring or influencing us.

It is of course a good thing that many things operate automatically because it would be extremely difficult to have to think about them all the time. If you couldn’t drive a car automatically, you wouldn’t be able to talk to the other people riding with you or listen to the radio at the same time—you’d have to be putting most of your attention into driving. On the other hand, relying on our snap judgments about Bianca—that she’s likely to be expressive, for instance—can be erroneous. Sometimes we need to—and should—go beyond automatic cognition and consider people more carefully. When we deliberately size up and think about something, for instance, another person, we call it controlled cognition. Although you might think that controlled cognition would be more common and that automatic thinking would be less likely, that is not always the case. The problem is that thinking takes effort and time, and we often don’t have too much of those things available.

In the following Research Focus, we consider an example of automatic cognition in a study that uses a common social cognitive procedure known as priminga technique in which information is temporarily brought into memory through exposure to situational events, which can then influence judgments entirely out of awareness.

Research Focus

Behavioral Effects of Priming

In one demonstration of how automatic cognition can influence our behaviors without us being aware of them, John Bargh and his colleagues (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996) conducted two studies, each with the exact same procedure. In the experiments, they showed college students sets of five scrambled words. The students were to unscramble the five words in each set to make a sentence. Furthermore, for half of the research participants, the words were related to the stereotype of elderly people. These participants saw words such as “in Florida retired live people” and “bingo man the forgetful plays.”

The other half of the research participants also made sentences but did so out of words that had nothing to do with the elderly stereotype. The purpose of this task was to prime (activate) the schema of elderly people in memory for some of the participants but not for others.

The experimenters then assessed whether the priming of elderly stereotypes would have any effect on the students’ behavior—and indeed it did. When each research participant had gathered all his or her belongings, thinking that the experiment was over, the experimenter thanked him or her for participating and gave directions to the closest elevator. Then, without the participant knowing it, the experimenters recorded the amount of time that the participant spent walking from the doorway of the experimental room toward the elevator. As you can see in Figure 2.8, “Automatic Priming and Behavior,” the same results were found in both experiments—the participants who had made sentences using words related to the elderly stereotype took on the behaviors of the elderly—they walked significantly more slowly (in fact, about 12% more slowly across the two studies) as they left the experimental room.

Automatic priming and behaviour
Figure 2.8 Automatic Priming and Behavior. In two separate experiments, Bargh, Chen, and Borroughs (1996) found that students who had been exposed to words related to the elderly stereotype walked more slowly than those who had been exposed to more neutral words.


To determine if these priming effects occurred out of the conscious awareness of the participants, Bargh and his colleagues asked a third group of students to complete the priming task and then to indicate whether they thought the words they had used to make the sentences had any relationship to each other or could possibly have influenced their behavior in any way. These students had no awareness of the possibility that the words might have been related to the elderly or could have influenced their behavior.

The point of these experiments, and many others like them, is clear—it is quite possible that our judgments and behaviors are influenced by our social situations, and this influence may be entirely outside of our conscious awareness. To return again to Bianca, it is even possible that we notice her nationality and that our beliefs about Italians influence our responses to her, even though we have no idea that they are doing so and really believe that they have not.

Salience and Accessibility Determine Which Expectations We Use

We each have a large number of schemas that we might bring to bear on any type of judgment we might make. When thinking about Bianca, for instance, we might focus on her nationality, her gender, her physical attractiveness, her intelligence, or any of many other possible features. And we will react to Bianca differently depending on which schemas we use. Schema activation is determined both by the salience of the characteristics of the person we are judging and by the current activation or cognitive accessibility of the schema.


Figure 2.9 Which of these people are more salient and therefore more likely to attract your attention?

One determinant of which schemas are likely to be used in social judgment is the extent to which we attend to particular features of the person or situation that we are responding to. We are more likely to judge people on the basis of characteristics of salience, which attract our attention when we see someone with them. For example, things that are unusual, negative, colorful, bright, and moving are more salient and thus more likely to be attended to than are things that do not have these characteristics (McArthur & Post, 1977; Taylor & Fiske, 1978).

We are more likely to initially judge people on the basis of their sex, race, age, and physical attractiveness, rather than on, say, their religious orientation or their political beliefs, in part because these features are so salient when we see them (Brewer, 1988). Another thing that makes something particularly salient is its infrequency or unusualness. If Bianca is from Italy and very few other people in our community are, that characteristic is something that we notice, it is salient, and we are therefore likely to attend to it. That she is also a woman is, at least in this context, is less salient.

The salience of the stimuli in our social worlds may sometimes lead us to make judgments on the basis of information that is actually less informative than is other less salient information. Imagine, for instance, that you wanted to buy a new smartphone for yourself. You’ve been trying to decide whether to get the iPhone or a rival product. You went online and checked out the reviews, and you found that although the phones differed on many dimensions, including price, battery life, and so forth, the rival product was nevertheless rated significantly higher by the owners than was the iPhone. As a result, you decide to go and purchase one the next day. That night, however, you go to a party, and a friend of yours shows you her iPhone. You check it out, and it seems really great. You tell her that you were thinking of buying a rival product, and she tells you that you are crazy. She says she knows someone who had one and had a lot of problems—it didn’t download music properly, the battery died right after the warranty was up, and so forth, and that she would never buy one. Would you still buy it, or would you switch your plans?  

If you think about this question logically, the information that you just got from your friend isn’t really all that important; you now know the opinions of one more person, but that can’t really change the overall consumer ratings of the two machines very much. On the other hand, the information your friend gives you and the chance to use her iPhone are highly salient. The information is right there in front of you, in your hand, whereas the statistical information from reviews is only in the form of a table that you saw on your computer. The outcome in cases such as this is that people frequently ignore the less salient, but more important, information, such as the likelihood that events occur across a large populationknown as base ratesin favor of the actually less important, but nevertheless more salient, information.

Another case in which we ignore base-rate information occurs when we use the representativeness heuristic, which occurs when we base our judgments on information that seems to represent, or match, what we expect will happen, while ignoring more informative base-rate information. Consider, for instance, the following puzzle. Let’s say that you went to a hospital this week, and you checked the records of the babies that were born on that day (Table 2.2, “Using the Representativeness Heuristic”). Which pattern of births do you think that you are most likely to find?

Table 2.2 Using the Representativeness Heuristic
List A List B
6:31 a.m. Girl Boy
8:15 a.m. Girl Girl
9:42 a.m. Girl Boy
1:13 p.m. Girl Girl
3:39 p.m. Boy Girl
5:12 p.m. Boy Boy
7:42 p.m. Boy Girl
11:44 p.m. Boy Boy

Most people think that List B is more likely, probably because it looks more random and thus matches (is “representative of”) our ideas about randomness. But statisticians know that any pattern of four girls and four boys is equally likely and thus that List B is no more likely than List A. The problem is that we have an image of what randomness should be, which doesn’t always match what is rationally the case. Similarly, people who see a coin that comes up heads five times in a row will frequently predict (and perhaps even bet!) that tails will be next—it just seems like it has to be. But mathematically, this erroneous expectation (known as the gambler’s fallacy) is simply not true: the base-rate likelihood of any single coin flip being tails is only 50%, regardless of how many times it has come up heads in the past.

To take one more example, consider the following information:

I have a friend who is analytical, argumentative, and is involved in community activism. Which of the following is she? (Choose one.)

—A lawyer

—A salesperson

Can you see how you might be led, potentially incorrectly, into thinking that my friend is a lawyer? Why? The description (“analytical, argumentative, and is involved in community activism”) just seems more representative or stereotypical of our expectations about lawyers than salespeople. But the base rates tell us something completely different, which should make us wary of that conclusion. Simply put, the number of salespeople greatly outweighs the number of lawyers in society, and thus statistically it is far more likely that she is a salesperson. Nevertheless, the representativeness heuristic will often cause us to overlook such important information. One unfortunate consequence of this is that it can contribute to the maintenance of stereotypes. If someone you meet seems, superficially at least, to represent the stereotypical characteristics of a social group, you may incorrectly classify that person as a member of that group, even when it is highly likely that he or she is not.

Cognitive Accessibility

Although the characteristics that we use to think about objects or people are determined in part by their salience, individual differences in the person who is doing the judging are also important. People vary in the type of schemas that they tend to use when judging others and when thinking about themselves. One way to consider this is in terms of the cognitive accessibility of the schema. Cognitive accessibility refers to the extent to which a schema is activated in memory and thus likely to be used in information processing. Simply put, the schemas we tend to typically use are often those that are most accessible to us.

You probably know people who are football nuts (or maybe tennis or some other sport nuts). All they can talk about is football. For them, we would say that football is a highly accessible construct. Because they love football, it is important to their self-concept; they set many of their goals in terms of the sport, and they tend to think about things and people in terms of it (“If he plays or watches football, he must be okay!”). Other people have highly accessible schemas about eating healthy food, exercising, environmental issues, or really good coffee, for instance. In short, when a schema is accessible, we are likely to use it to make judgments of ourselves and others.

Although accessibility can be considered a person variable (a given idea is more highly accessible for some people than for others), accessibility can also be influenced by situational factors. When we have recently or frequently thought about a given topic, that topic becomes more accessible and is likely to influence our judgments. This is in fact a potential explanation for the results of the priming study you read about earlier—people walked slower because the concept of elderly had been primed and thus was currently highly accessible for them.

Because we rely so heavily on our schemas and attitudes, and particularly on those that are salient and accessible, we can sometimes be overly influenced by them. Imagine, for instance, that I asked you to close your eyes and determine whether there are more words in the English language that begin with the letter R or that have the letter R as the third letter. You would probably try to solve this problem by thinking of words that have each of the characteristics. It turns out that most people think there are more words that begin with R, even though there are in fact more words that have R as the third letter.

You can see that this error can occur as a result of cognitive accessibility. To answer the question, we naturally try to think of all the words that we know that begin with R and that have R in the third position. The problem is that when we do that, it is much easier to retrieve the former than the latter, because we store words by their first, not by their third, letter. We may also think that our friends are nice people because we see them primarily when they are around us (their friends). And the traffic might seem worse in our own neighborhood than we think it is in other places, in part because nearby traffic jams are more accessible for us than are traffic jams that occur somewhere else. And do you think it is more likely that you will be killed in a plane crash or in a car crash? Many people fear the former, even though the latter is much more likely: statistically, your chances of being involved in an aircraft accident are far lower than being killed in an automobile accident. In this case, the problem is that plane crashes, which are highly salient, are more easily retrieved from our memory than are car crashes, which often receive far less media coverage.

The tendency to make judgments of the frequency of an event, or the likelihood that an event will occur, on the basis of the ease with which the event can be retrieved from memory is known as the availability heuristic (Schwarz & Vaughn, 2002; Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). The idea is that things that are highly accessible (in this case, the term availability is used) come to mind easily and thus may overly influence our judgments. Thus, despite the clear facts, it may be easier to think of plane crashes than of car crashes because the former are more accessible. If so, the availability heuristic can lead to errors in judgments.

For example, as people tend to overestimate the risk of rare but dramatic events, including plane crashes and terrorist attacks, their responses to these estimations may not always be proportionate to the true risks. For instance, it has been widely documented that fewer people chose to use air travel in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 (9/11), terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, particularly in the United States. Correspondingly, many individuals chose other methods of travel, often electing to drive rather than fly to their destination. Statistics across all regions of the world confirm that driving is far more dangerous than flying, and this prompted the cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer to estimate how many extra deaths that the increased road traffic following 9/11 might have caused. He arrived at an estimate of around an additional 1,500 road deaths in the United States alone in the year following those terrorist attacks, which was six times the number of people killed on the airplanes on September 11, 2001 (Gigerenzer, 2006).

Another way that the cognitive accessibility of constructs can influence information processing is through their effects on processing fluency. Processing fluency refers to the ease with which we can process information in our environments. When stimuli are highly accessible, they can be quickly attended to and processed, and they therefore have a large influence on our perceptions. This influence is due, in part, to the fact that we often react positively to information that we can process quickly, and we use this positive response as a basis of judgment (Reber, Winkielman, & Schwarz, 1998; Winkielman & Cacioppo, 2001).

In one study demonstrating this effect, Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues (Schwarz et al., 1991) asked one set of college students to list six occasions when they had acted either assertively or unassertively, and asked another set of college students to list 12 such examples. Schwarz determined that for most students, it was pretty easy to list six examples but pretty hard to list 12.

The researchers then asked the participants to indicate how assertive or unassertive they actually were. You can see from Figure 2.10, “Processing Fluency,” that the ease of processing influenced judgments. The participants who had an easy time listing examples of their behavior (because they only had to list six instances) judged that they did in fact have the characteristics they were asked about (either assertive or unassertive), in comparison with the participants who had a harder time doing the task (because they had to list 12 instances). Other research has found similar effects—people rate that they ride their bicycles more often after they have been asked to recall only a few rather than many instances of doing so (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 1999), and they hold an attitude with more confidence after being asked to generate few rather than many arguments that support it (Haddock, Rothman, Reber, & Schwarz, 1999). Sometimes less really is more!

Processing Fluency
Figure 2.10 Processing Fluency. When it was relatively easy to complete the questionnaire (only six examples were required), the student participants rated that they had more of the trait than when the task was more difficult (12 answers were required). Data are from Schwarz et al. (1991).

Echoing the findings mentioned earlier in relation to schemas, we are likely to use this type of quick and “intuitive” processing, based on our feelings about how easy it is to complete a task, when we don’t have much time or energy for more in-depth processing, such as when we are under time pressure, tired, or unwilling to process the stimulus in sufficient detail. Of course, it is very adaptive to respond to stimuli quickly (Sloman, 2002; Stanovich & West, 2002; Winkielman, Schwarz, & Nowak, 2002), and it is not impossible that in at least some cases, we are better off making decisions based on our initial responses than on a more thoughtful cognitive analysis (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001). For instance, Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren, and van Baaren (2006) found that when participants were given tasks requiring decisions that were very difficult to make on the basis of a cognitive analysis of the problem, they made better decisions when they didn’t try to analyze the details carefully but simply relied on their intuitions.

In sum, people are influenced not only by the information they get but on how they get it. We are more highly influenced by things that are salient and accessible and thus easily attended to, remembered, and processed. On the other hand, information that is harder to access from memory, is less likely to be attended to, or takes more effort to consider is less likely to be used in our judgments, even if this information is statistically more informative.

The False Consensus Bias Makes Us Think That Others Are More Like Us Than They Really Are

The tendency to base our judgments on the accessibility of social constructs can lead to still other errors in judgment. One such error is known as the false consensus bias, the tendency to overestimate the extent to which other people hold similar views to our own. As our own beliefs are highly accessible to us, we tend to rely on them too heavily when asked to predict those of others. For instance, if you are in favor of abortion rights and opposed to capital punishment, then you are likely to think that most other people share these beliefs (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). In one demonstration of the false consensus bias, Joachim Krueger and his colleagues (Krueger & Clement, 1994) gave their research participants, who were college students, a personality test. Then they asked the same participants to estimate the percentage of other students in their school who would have answered the questions the same way that they did. The students who agreed with the items often thought that others would agree with them too, whereas the students who disagreed typically believed that others would also disagree. A closely related bias to the false consensus effect is the projection bias, which is the tendency to assume that others share our cognitive and affective states (Hsee, Hastie, & Chen, 2008).

In regards to our chapter case study, the false consensus effect has also been implicated in the potential causes of the 2008 financial collapse. Considering investor behavior within its social context, an important part of sound decision making is the ability to predict other investors’ intentions and behaviors, as this will help to foresee potential market trends. In this context, Egan, Merkle, and Weber (in press) outline how the false consensus effect can lead investors to overestimate the extent to which other investors share their judgments about the likely trends, which can in turn lead them to make inaccurate predictions of their behavior, with dire economic consequences.

Although it is commonly observed, the false consensus bias does not occur on all dimensions. Specifically, the false consensus bias is not usually observed on judgments of positive personal traits that we highly value as important. People (falsely, of course) report that they have better personalities (e.g., a better sense of humor), that they engage in better behaviors (e.g., they are more likely to wear seatbelts), and that they have brighter futures than almost everyone else (Chambers, 2008). These results suggest that although in most cases we assume that we are similar to others, in cases of valued personal characteristics the goals of self-concern lead us to see ourselves more positively than we see the average person. There are some important cultural differences here, though, with members of collectivist cultures typically showing less of this type of self-enhancing bias, than those from individualistic cultures (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999).

Perceptions of What “Might Have Been” Lead to Counterfactual Thinking

In addition to influencing our judgments about ourselves and others, the salience and accessibility of information can have an important effect on our own emotions and self-esteem. Our emotional reactions to events are often colored not only by what did happen but also by what might have happened. If we can easily imagine an outcome that is better than what actually happened, then we may experience sadness and disappointment; on the other hand, if we can easily imagine that a result might have been worse that what actually happened, we may be more likely to experience happiness and satisfaction. The tendency to think about events according to what might have been is known as counterfactual thinking (Roese, 1997).

Imagine, for instance, that you were participating in an important contest, and you won the silver medal. How would you feel? Certainly you would be happy that you won, but wouldn’t you probably also be thinking a lot about what might have happened if you had been just a little bit better—you might have won the gold medal! On the other hand, how might you feel if you won the bronze medal (third place)? If you were thinking about the counterfactual (the “what might have been”), perhaps the idea of not getting any medal at all would have been highly accessible and so you’d be happy that you got the medal you did get.

Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995) investigated exactly this idea by videotaping the responses of athletes who won medals in the 1992 summer Olympic Games. They videotaped the athletes both as they learned that they had won a silver or a bronze medal and again as they were awarded the medal. Then they showed these videos, without any sound, to people who did not know which medal which athlete had won. The raters indicated how they thought the athlete was feeling, on a range from “agony” to “ecstasy.” The results showed that the bronze medalists did indeed seem to be, on average, happier than were the silver medalists. Then, in a follow-up study, raters watched interviews with many of these same athletes as they talked about their performance. The raters indicated what we would expect on the basis of counterfactual thinking. The silver medalists often talked about their disappointments in having finished second rather than first, whereas the bronze medalists tended to focus on how happy they were to have finished third rather than fourth.

Olympic Medalists
Figure 2.11 Does the bronze medalist look happier to you than the silver medalist? Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995) found that, on average, bronze medalists were happier than silver medalists.

Counterfactual thinking seems to be part of the human condition and has even been studied in numerous other social settings, including juries. For example, people who were asked to award monetary damages to others who had been in an accident offered them substantially more in compensation if they were almost not injured than they did if the accident seemed more inevitable (Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1988).

Again, the moral of the story regarding the importance of cognitive accessibility is clear—in the case of counterfactual thinking, the accessibility of the potential alternative outcome can lead to some seemingly paradoxical effects.

Anchoring and Adjustment Lead Us to Accept Ideas That We Should Revise

In some cases, we may be aware of the danger of acting on our expectations and attempt to adjust for them. Perhaps you have been in a situation where you are beginning a course with a new professor and you know that a good friend of yours does not like him. You may be thinking that you want to go beyond your negative expectation and prevent this knowledge from biasing your judgment. However, the accessibility of the initial information frequently prevents this adjustment from occurring—leading us to weight initial information too heavily and thereby insufficiently move our judgment away from it. This is called the problem of anchoring and adjustment. 

Tversky and Kahneman (1974) asked some of the student participants in one of their studies of anchoring and adjustment to solve this multiplication problem quickly and without using a calculator:

1 × 2 × 3 × 4 × 5 × 6 × 7 × 8

They asked other participants to solve this problem:

8 × 7 × 6 × 5 × 4 × 3 × 2 × 1

They found that students who saw the first problem gave an estimated answer of about 512, whereas the students who saw the second problem estimated about 2,250. Tversky and Kahneman argued that the students couldn’t solve the whole problem in their head, so they did the first few multiplications and then used the outcome of this preliminary calculation as their starting point, or anchor. Then the participants used their starting estimate to find an answer that sounded plausible. In both cases, the estimates were too low relative to the true value of the product (which is 40,320)—but the first set of guesses were even lower because they started from a lower anchor.

Interestingly, the tendency to anchor on initial information seems to be sufficiently strong that in some cases, people will do so even when the anchor is clearly irrelevant to the task at hand. For example, Ariely, Loewenstein, and Prelec (2003) asked students  to bid on items in an auction after having noted the last two digits of their social security numbers. They then asked the students to generate and write down a hypothetical price for each of the auction items, based on these numbers.  If the last two digits were 11, then the bottle of wine, for example, was priced at $11. If the two numbers were 88, the textbook was $88. After they wrote down this initial, arbitrary price, they then had to bid for the item. People with high numbers bid up to 346% more than those with low ones! Ariely, reflecting further on these findings, concluded that the “Social security numbers were the anchor in this experiment only because we requested them. We could have just as well asked for the current temperature or the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Any question, in fact, would have created the anchor. Does that seem rational? Of course not” (2008, p. 26). A rather startling conclusion from the effect of arbitrary, irrelevant anchors on our judgments is that we will often grab hold of any available information to guide our judgments, regardless of whether it is actually germane to the issue.

Of course, savvy marketers have long used the anchoring phenomenon to help them. You might not be surprised to hear that people are more likely to buy more products when they are listed as four for $1.00 than when they are listed as $0.25 each (leading people to anchor on the four and perhaps adjust only a bit away). And it is no accident that a car salesperson always starts negotiating with a high price and then works down. The salesperson is trying to get the consumer anchored on the high price, with the hope that it will have a big influence on the final sale value.


Still another potential judgmental bias, and one that has powerful and often negative effects on our judgments, is the overconfidence bias, a tendency to be overconfident in our own skills, abilities, and judgments. We often have little awareness of our own limitations, leading us to act as if we are more certain about things than we should be, particularly on tasks that are difficult. Adams and Adams (1960) found that for words that were difficult to spell, people were correct in spelling them only about 80% of the time, even though they indicated that they were “100% certain” that they were correct. David Dunning and his colleagues (Dunning, Griffin, Milojkovic, & Ross, 1990) asked college students to predict how another student would react in various situations. Some participants made predictions about a fellow student whom they had just met and interviewed, and others made predictions about their roommates. In both cases, participants reported their confidence in each prediction, and accuracy was determined by the responses of the target persons themselves. The results were clear: regardless of whether they judged a stranger or a roommate, the students consistently overestimated the accuracy of their own predictions (Figure 2.12).

Figure  2.12 Dunning and colleagues (1990) found that, regardless of whether they were judging strangers or their roommates, students were overconfident. The percentage confidence that they assigned to their own predictions was significantly higher than the actual percentage of their predictions that were correct.

Making matters even worse, Kruger and Dunning (1999) found that people who scored low rather than high on tests of spelling, logic, grammar, and humor appreciation were also most likely to show overconfidence by overestimating how well they would do. Apparently, poor performers are doubly cursed—they not only are unable to predict their own skills but also are the most unaware that they can’t do so (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003).

The tendency to be overconfident in our judgments can have some very negative effects. When eyewitnesses testify in courtrooms regarding their memories of a crime, they often are completely sure that they are identifying the right person. But their confidence doesn’t correlate much with their actual accuracy. This is, in part, why so many people have been wrongfully convicted on the basis of inaccurate eyewitness testimony given by overconfident witnesses (Wells & Olson, 2003). Overconfidence can also spill over into professional judgments, for example, in clinical psychology (Oskamp, 1965) and in market investment and trading (Chen, Kim, Nofsinger, & Rui, 2007). Indeed, in regards to our case study at the start of this chapter, the role of overconfidence bias in the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath has been well documented (Abbes, 2012).

This overconfidence also often seems to apply to social judgments about the future in general. A pervasive optimistic biashas been noted in members of many cultures (Sharot, 2011), which can be defined as a tendency to believe that positive outcomes are more likely to happen than negative ones, particularly in relation to ourselves versus others. Importantly, this optimism is often unwarranted. Most people, for example, underestimate their risk of experiencing negative events like divorce and illness, and overestimate the likelihood of positive ones, including gaining a promotion at work or living to a ripe old age (Schwarzer,  1994). There is some evidence of diversity in regards to optimism, however, across different groups. People in collectivist cultures tend not to show this bias to the same extent as those living in individualistic ones (Chang, Asakawa, & Sanna, 2001). Moreover, individuals who have clinical depression have been shown to evidence a phenomenon termed depressive realism, whereby their social judgments about the future are less positively skewed and often more accurate than those who do not have depression (Moore & Fresco, 2012).

The optimistic bias can also extend into the planning fallacy, defined as a tendency to overestimate the amount that we can accomplish over a particular time frame. This fallacy can also entail the underestimation of the resources and costs involved in completing a task or project, as anyone who has attempted to budget for home renovations can probably attest to. Everyday examples of the planning fallacy abound, in everything from the completion of course assignments to the construction of new buildings. On a grander scale, newsworthy items in any country hosting a major sporting event, for example, the Olympics or World Cup soccer always seem to include the spiralling budgets and overrunning timelines as the events approach.

Why is the planning fallacy so persistent? Several factors appear to be at work here. Buehler, Griffin and Peetz (2010) argue that when planning projects, individuals orient to the future and pay too little attention to their past relevant experiences. This can cause them to overlook previous occasions where they experienced difficulties and over-runs. They also tend to plan for what time and resources are likely to be needed, if things run as planned. That is, they do not spend enough time thinking about all the things that might go wrong, for example, all the unforeseen demands on their time and resources that may occur during the completion of the task. Worryingly, the planning fallacy seems to be even stronger for tasks where we are highly motivated and invested in timely completions. It appears that wishful thinking is often at work here (Buehler et al., 2010). For some further perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages of the optimism bias, see this engaging TED Talk by Tali Sharot.

If these biases related to overconfidence appear at least sometimes to lead us to inaccurate social judgments, a key question here is why are they so pervasive? What functions do they serve? One possibility is that they help to enhance people’s motivation and self-esteem levels. If we have a positive view of our abilities and judgments, and are confident that we can execute tasks to deadlines, we will be more likely to attempt challenging projects and to put ourselves forward for demanding opportunities. Moreover, there is consistent evidence that a mild degree of optimism can predict a range of positive outcomes, including success and even physical health (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012).

The Importance of Cognitive Biases in Everyday Life

In our review of some of the many cognitive biases that affect our social judgment, we have seen that the effects on us as individuals range from fairly trivial decisions; for example, which phone to buy (which perhaps doesn’t seem so trivial at the time) to potentially life and death decisions (about methods of travel, for instance).

However, when we consider that many of these errors will not only affect us but also everyone around us, then their consequences can really add up. Why would so many people continue to buy lottery tickets or to gamble their money in casinos when the likelihood of them ever winning is so low? One possibility, of course, is the representative heuristic—people ignore the low base rates of winning and focus their attention on the salient likelihood of winning a huge prize. And the belief in astrology, which all scientific evidence suggests is not accurate, is probably driven in part by the salience of the occasions when the predictions do occur—when a horoscope is correct (which it will of course sometimes be), the correct prediction is highly salient and may allow people to maintain the (overall false) belief as they recollect confirming evidence more readily.

People may also take more care to prepare for unlikely events than for more likely ones because the unlikely ones are more salient or accessible. For instance, people may think that they are more likely to die from a terrorist attack or as the result of a homicide than they are from diabetes, stroke, or tuberculosis. But the odds are much greater of dying from the health problems than from terrorism or homicide. Because people don’t accurately calibrate their behaviors to match the true potential risks, the individual and societal costs are quite large (Slovic, 2000).

As well as influencing our judgments relating to ourselves, salience and accessibility also color how we perceive our social worlds, which may have a big influence on our behavior. For instance, people who watch a lot of violent television shows also tend to view the world as more dangerous in comparison to those who watch less violent TV (Doob & Macdonald, 1979). This follows from the idea that our judgments are based on the accessibility of relevant constructs. We also overestimate our contribution to joint projects (Ross & Sicoly, 1979), perhaps in part because our own contributions are so obvious and salient, whereas the contributions of others are much less so. And the use of cognitive heuristics can even affect our views about global warming. Joireman, Barnes, Truelove, and Duell (2010) found that people were more likely to believe in the existence of global warming when they were asked about it on hotter rather than colder days and when they had first been primed with words relating to heat. Thus the principles of salience and accessibility, because they are such an important part of our social judgments, can create a series of biases that can make a difference on a truly global level.

As we have already seen specifically in relation to overconfidence, research has found that even people who should know better—and who need to know better—are subject to cognitive biases in general. Economists, stock traders, managers, lawyers, and even doctors have been found to make the same kinds of mistakes in their professional activities that people make in their everyday lives (Byrne & McEleney, 2000; Gilovich, Griffin, & Kahneman, 2002; Hilton, 2001). And the use of cognitive heuristics is increased when people are under time pressure (Kruglanski & Freund, 1983) or when they feel threatened (Kassam, Koslov, & Mendes, 2009), exactly the situations that often occur when professionals are required to make their decisions.

Biased About Our Biases: The Bias Blind Spot

So far, we have discussed some of the most important and heavily researched social cognitive biases that affect our appraisals of ourselves in relation to our social worlds and noted some of their key limitations. Recently, some social psychologists have become interested in how aware we are of how these biases and the ways in which they can affect our own and others’ thinking. The short answer to this is that we often underestimate the extent to which our social cognition is biased, and that we typically (incorrectly) believe that we are less biased than the average person. Researchers have named this tendency to believe that our own judgments are less susceptible to the influence of bias than those of others as the bias blind spot (Ehrlinger, Gilovich, & Ross, 2005). Interestingly, the level of bias blind spot that people demonstrate is unrelated to the actual amount of bias they show in their social judgments (West, Meserve, & Stanovich, 2012). Moreover, those scoring higher in cognitive ability actually tend to show a larger bias blind spot (West et al., 2012).

So, if our social cognition appears to be riddled with multiple biases, and we tend to show biases about these biases, what hope is there for us in reaching sound social judgments?  Before we arrive at such a pessimistic conclusion, however, it is important to redress the balance of evidence a little. Perhaps just learning more about these biases, as we have done in this chapter, can help us to recognize when they are likely to be useful to our social judgments, and to take steps to reduce their effects when they hinder our understanding of our social worlds. Maybe, although many of the biases discussed tend to persist even in the face of our awareness, at the very least, learning about them could be an important first step toward reducing their unhelpful effects on our social cognition. In order to get reliably better at policing our biases, though, we probably need to go further. One of the world’s foremost authorities on social cognitive biases, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, certainly thinks so. He argues that individual awareness of biases is an important precursor to the development of a common vocabulary about them, that will then make us better able as communities to discuss their effects on our social judgments (Kahneman, 2011). Kahneman also asserts that we may be more likely to recognize and challenge bias in each other’s thinking than in our own, an observation that certainly fits with the concept of the bias blind spot. Perhaps, even if we cannot effectively police our thinking on our own, we can help to police one another’s.

These arguments are consistent with some evidence that, although mere awareness is rarely enough to significantly attenuate the effects of bias, it can be helpful when accompanied by systematic cognitive retraining. Many social psychologists and other scientists are working to help people make better decisions. One possibility is to provide people with better feedback. Weather forecasters, for instance, are quite accurate in their decisions (at least in the short-term), in part because they are able to learn from the clear feedback that they get about the accuracy of their predictions. Other research has found that accessibility biases can be reduced by leading people to consider multiple alternatives rather than focusing only on the most obvious ones, and by encouraging people to think about exactly the opposite possible outcomes than the ones they are expecting (Hirt, Kardes, & Markman, 2004). And certain educational experiences can help people to make better decisions. For instance, Lehman, Lempert, and Nisbett (1988) found that graduate students in medicine, law, and chemistry, and particularly those in psychology, all showed significant improvement in their ability to reason correctly over the course of their graduate training.

Another source for some optimism about the accuracy of our social cognition is that these heuristics and biases can, despite their limitations, often lead us to a broadly accurate understanding of the situations we encounter. Although we do have limited cognitive abilities, information, and time when making social judgments, that does not mean we cannot and do not make enough sense of our social worlds in order to function effectively in our daily lives. Indeed, some researchers, including Cosmides and Tooby (2000) and Gigerenzer (2004) have argued that these biases and heuristics have been sculpted by evolutionary forces to offer fast and frugal ways of reaching sound judgments about our infinitely complex social worlds enough of the time to have adaptive value. If, for example, you were asked to say which Spanish city had a larger population, Madrid or Valencia, the chances are you would quickly answer that Madrid was bigger, even if you did not know the relevant population figures. Why? Perhaps the availability heuristic and cognitive accessibility had something to do with it—the chances are that most people have just heard more about Madrid in the global media over the years, and they can more readily bring these instances to mind. From there, it is a short leap to the general rule that larger cities tend to get more media coverage. So, although our journeys to our social judgments may not be always be pretty, at least we often arrive at the right destination. 

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


To check your learning of some key concepts so far, match each of the scenarios below to one of the following social cognitive biases or heuristics that we have covered in this chapter. Match the concept that you think is most clearly shown in each scenario into the correct box.

Concepts: overconfidence bias, availability heuristic, bias blind spot, false consensus bias, confirmation bias


  1. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., it has been estimated that more people were killed in road accidents when driving instead of flying to their destinations than were killed in those terrorist attacks themselves. Which bias or heuristic is most relevant to people’s overestimation of the risk of another airborne terrorist attack?
  2. The ship RMS Titanic was fitted with fewer than half the lifeboat capacity needed to save her passengers and crew. Part of the reason for this was that she had been designed to be practically unsinkable, and no-one could envisage an event which would cause her to founder. On April 14th, 1912, Titanic collided with an iceberg on her maiden voyage, and sank with the loss of more than 1500 lives. Which bias or heuristic is most relevant to this underestimation of the dangers?
  3. In a recent news item, a federal judge defended his ability to impartially preside over a case involving a close friend. Many others could see that his impartiality had been compromised. Which bias or heuristic is most relevant to the judge’s inability to see this?
  4. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have used search engines to find support for their beliefs around things like the effectiveness of mask wearing and social distancing. Which bias or heuristic is most relevant to these types of information searches?
  5. People who talk about political candidates they like are sometimes surprised when the others around them do not share their views, which can lead to some heated arguments! Which bias or heuristic is most relevant to people being surprised here?

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

The Validity of Eyewitness Testimony

One social situation in which the accuracy of our person-perception skills is vitally important is the area of eyewitness testimony (Charman & Wells, 2007; Toglia, Read, Ross, & Lindsay, 2007; Wells, Memon, & Penrod, 2006). Every year, thousands of individuals are charged with and often convicted of crimes based largely on eyewitness evidence. In fact, many people who were convicted prior to the existence of forensic DNA have now been exonerated by DNA tests, and more than 75% of these people were victims of mistaken eyewitness identification (Wells, Memon, & Penrod, 2006; Fisher, 2011).

The judgments of eyewitnesses are often incorrect, and there is only a small correlation between how accurate and how confident an eyewitness is. Witnesses are frequently overconfident, and a person who claims to be absolutely certain about his or her identification is not much more likely to be accurate than someone who appears much less sure, making it almost impossible to determine whether a particular witness is accurate or not (Wells & Olson, 2003).

To accurately remember a person or an event at a later time, we must be able to accurately see and store the information in the first place, keep it in memory over time, and then accurately retrieve it later. But the social situation can influence any of these processes, causing errors and biases.

In terms of initial encoding of the memory, crimes normally occur quickly, often in situations that are accompanied by a lot of stress, distraction, and arousal. Typically, the eyewitness gets only a brief glimpse of the person committing the crime, and this may be under poor lighting conditions and from far away. And the eyewitness may not always focus on the most important aspects of the scene. Weapons are highly salient, and if a weapon is present during the crime, the eyewitness may focus on the weapon, which would draw his or her attention away from the individual committing the crime (Steblay, 1997). In one relevant study, Loftus, Loftus, and Messo (1987) showed people slides of a customer walking up to a bank teller and pulling out either a pistol or a checkbook. By tracking eye movements, the researchers determined that people were more likely to look at the gun than at the checkbook and that this reduced their ability to accurately identify the criminal in a lineup that was given later.

People may be particularly inaccurate when they are asked to identify members of a race other than their own (Brigham, Bennett, Meissner, & Mitchell, 2007). In one field study, for example, Meissner and Brigham (2001) sent European-American, African-American, and Hispanic students into convenience stores in El Paso, Texas. Each of the students made a purchase, and the researchers came in later to ask the clerks to identify photos of the shoppers. Results showed that the clerks demonstrated the own-race bias: they were all more accurate at identifying customers belonging to their own racial or ethnic group, which may be more salient to them, than they were at identifying people from other groups. There seems to be some truth to the adage that “They all look alike”—at least if an individual is looking at someone who is not of his or her own race.

Figure 2.13 One source of error in eyewitness testimony is the relative difficulty of accurately identifying people who are not of one’s own race.

Even if information gets encoded properly, memories may become distorted over time. For one thing, people might discuss what they saw with other people, or they might read information relating to it from other bystanders or in the media. Such postevent information can distort the original memories such that the witnesses are no longer sure what the real information is and what was provided later. The problem is that the new, inaccurate information is highly cognitively accessible, whereas the older information is much less so. The reconstructive memory bias suggests that the memory may shift over time to fit the individual’s current beliefs about the crime. Even describing a face makes it more difficult to recognize the face later (Dodson, Johnson, & Schooler, 1997).

In an experiment by Loftus and Palmer (1974), participants viewed a film of a traffic accident and then, according to random assignment to experimental conditions, answered one of three questions:

  1. About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?
  2. About how fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?
  3. About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?

As you can see in in the Figure 2.14, “Reconstructive Memory,” although all the participants saw the same accident, their estimates of the speed of the cars varied by condition. People who had seen the “smashed” question estimated the highest average speed, and those who had seen the “contacted” question estimated the lowest.

Figure 2.14 Reconstructive Memory

Participants viewed a film of a traffic accident and then answered a question about the accident. According to random assignment, the blank was filled by either “hit,” “smashed,” or “contacted” each other. The wording of the question influenced the participants’ memory of the accident. Data are from Loftus and Palmer (1974).

The situation is particularly problematic when the eyewitnesses are children, because research has found that children are more likely to make incorrect identifications than are adults (Pozzulo & Lindsay, 1998) and are also subject to the own-race identification bias (Pezdek, Blandon-Gitlin, & Moore, 2003). In many cases, when sex abuse charges have been filed against babysitters, teachers, religious officials, and family members, the children are the only source of evidence. The possibility that children are not accurately remembering the events that have occurred to them creates substantial problems for the legal system.

Another setting in which eyewitnesses may be inaccurate is when they try to identify suspects from mug shots or lineups. A lineup generally includes the suspect and five to seven other innocent people (the fillers), and the eyewitness must pick out the true perpetrator. The problem is that eyewitnesses typically feel pressured to pick a suspect out of the lineup, which increases the likelihood that they will mistakenly pick someone (rather than no one) as the suspect.

Research has attempted to better understand how people remember and potentially misremember the scenes of and people involved in crimes and to attempt to improve how the legal system makes use of eyewitness testimony. In many states, efforts are being made to better inform judges, juries, and lawyers about how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be. Guidelines have also been proposed to help ensure that child witnesses are questioned in a nonbiasing way (Poole & Lamb, 1998). Steps can also be taken to ensure that lineups yield more accurate eyewitness identifications. Lineups are more fair when the fillers resemble the suspect, when the interviewer makes it clear that the suspect might or might not be present (Steblay, Dysart, Fulero, & Lindsay, 2001), and when the eyewitness has not been shown the same pictures in a mug-shot book prior to the lineup decision. And several recent studies have found that witnesses who make accurate identifications from a lineup reach their decision faster than do witnesses who make mistaken identifications, suggesting that authorities must take into consideration not only the response but how fast it is given (Dunning & Perretta, 2002).

In addition to distorting our memories for events that have actually occurred, misinformation may lead us to falsely remember information that never occurred. Loftus and her colleagues asked parents to provide them with descriptions of events that did happen (e.g., moving to a new house) and did not happen (e.g., being lost in a shopping mall) to their children. Then (without telling the children which events were real or made up) the researchers asked the children to imagine both types of events. The children were instructed to “think really hard” about whether the events had occurred (Ceci, Huffman, Smith, & Loftus, 1994). More than half of the children generated stories regarding at least one of the made-up events, and they remained insistent that the events did in fact occur even when told by the researcher that they could not possibly have occurred (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Even college students are susceptible to manipulations that make events that did not actually occur seem as if they did (Mazzoni, Loftus, & Kirsch, 2001).

The ease with which memories can be created or implanted is particularly problematic when the events to be recalled have important consequences. Therapists often argue that patients may repress memories of traumatic events they experienced as children, such as childhood sexual abuse, and then recover the events years later as the therapist leads them to recall the information—for instance, by using dream interpretation and hypnosis (Brown, Scheflin, & Hammond, 1998).

But other researchers argue that painful memories such as sexual abuse are usually very well remembered, that few memories are actually repressed, and that even if they are, it is virtually impossible for patients to accurately retrieve them years later (McNally, Bryant, & Ehlers, 2003; Pope, Poliakoff, Parker, Boynes, & Hudson, 2007). These researchers have argued that the procedures used by the therapists to “retrieve” the memories are more likely to actually implant false memories, leading the patients to erroneously recall events that did not actually occur. Because hundreds of people have been accused, and even imprisoned, on the basis of claims about “recovered memory” of child sexual abuse, the accuracy of these memories has important societal implications. Many psychologists now believe that most of these claims of recovered memories are due to implanted, rather than real, memories (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994).

Taken together, then, the problems of eyewitness testimony represent another example of how social cognition—including the processes that we use to size up and remember other people—may be influenced, sometimes in a way that creates inaccurate perceptions, by the operation of salience, cognitive accessibility, and other information-processing biases.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Use your understanding of some key social cognitive biases and heuristics to identify which one is most relevant to each part of the case study below. Please choose from the following alternatives, using each one only once, by typing it in the correct box: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.

  1. Cole and Kristin have been married ten years and have two school-age children. Like so many families around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have had many new stressors to cope with. One has been their different beliefs about COVID-19. In the early months of the pandemic, Cole thought that it didn’t seem to be much more serious than the flu and was skeptical about things like needing to wear a mask. Kristin, on the other hand, was more frightened of getting the virus and wore a mask indoors long before it was mandatory. The search histories on their laptops are very different around COVID issues, including mask wearing. Cole’s had search terms like: “why wearing masks doesn’t work”, whereas Kristin’s had things like: “why wearing a mask could save your life”. What concept is especially relevant to their different search histories here? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  2. There have been many arguments in their household about their different beliefs, which has sometimes put a strain on their relationship. In a particularly heated debate around mask wearing, Cole mentioned a recent headline where someone who’d worn a mask at work every day at work had nonetheless contracted COVID-19. Kristin said she did not remember that headline, but did note some media stories of indoor outbreaks linked to people not wearing masks. Their tendency to remember headlines that fitted their current beliefs is most linked to which concept? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  3. As mask wearing became mandatory in indoor public spaces, Cole reluctantly adopted this practice. However, he noticed that the third wave of cases in their local area happened months after this mandate was introduced. He mentioned this to Kristin, saying “How is it that even with all this mask wearing, here we are with the case numbers increasing so fast?” Kristin replied that this wasn’t a fair question, as the number of cases that would have occurred if mask wearing had not been mandatory could have been much higher. Cole responded by saying that there was no way of knowing that for sure. This conversation about how things might have been under different conditions is most relevant to which concept? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  4. They have also discussed these issues with family and friends, and Cole tends to be more outspoken than Kristin on these issues. Sometimes, though, he has found himself surprised while sharing his views about mask wearing that not many people have agreed with him. Which concept best explains his surprise here? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  5. Another issue they clashed on was around their children’s schooling in the Fall of 2020. In their local area, the government gave parents the option of either sending their children back to school full-time, or of enrolling in remote classes online. Kristin was leaning towards the latter option, as there had been a couple of cases at local schools when schools had reopened in the Summer of 2020. Cole pointed out that the number of cases linked to schools had been low overall, and they eventually decided to send their children back full-time. Although the number of outbreaks of schools remained low, Kristin continued to feel anxious, and assessed the risks as higher than they probably were. Which concept is most relevant here to her difficulty focusing on the low base rates of transmission in schools? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  6. Cole sometimes got frustrated at Kristin’s anxiety here, and told her that she wasn’t modifying her beliefs enough based on this more recent evidence. Which concept here was Kristin’s thinking most related to? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  7. Another common topic of conversation during the pandemic was about when it would be over. In the first few months, they were both hopeful that it would be under control some time in 2020. Like many people, they underestimated how long it and would take to control, and how many different resources would be needed. Which concept most clearly relates to this underestimation? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  8. Cole thought that life would return to some normalcy earlier than Kristin, reflecting his more positive outlook in general about what the future holds. Kristin has maintained that her more cautious view is more realistic, but Cole has countered that Kristin’s view is counterproductive. Which bias is most relevant here to their different dispositions here? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.
  9. A final contentious issue in their household was that of vaccination. Kristin was very keen to get a vaccination as soon as a vaccine became available, whereas Cole was more skeptical. When the vaccine was rolled out for their age group in their local area, they both got their first shot. Afterwards, Cole was saying that this would allow them to return to a more normal life, and start meeting up with more people. Kristin countered by saying that they would need to wait for their second shots, and probably beyond. They began arguing, with Cole saying that he was tired of Kristin living in fear, and her saying that he was being too reckless. In the end, they agreed to disagree on this point, but these tensions are likely to continue. Which concept best relates to Cole’s reaction to having his first shot here? Choose one from the following alternatives: overconfidence bias, optimistic bias, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias, false consensus bias, reconstructive memory bias, planning fallacy, anchoring and adjustment, availability heuristic.

Key Takeaways

  • We use our schemas and attitudes to help us judge and respond to others. In many cases, this is appropriate, but our expectations can also lead to biases in our judgments of ourselves and others.
  • A good part of our social cognition is spontaneous or automatic, operating without much thought or effort. On the other hand, when we have the time and the motivation to think about things carefully, we may engage in thoughtful, controlled cognition.
  • Which expectations we use to judge others is based on both the situational salience of the things we are judging and the cognitive accessibility of our own schemas and attitudes.
  • Variations in the accessibility of schemas lead to biases such as the availability heuristic, the representativeness heuristic, the false consensus bias, biases caused by counterfactual thinking, and those elated to overconfidence.
  • The potential biases that are the result of everyday social cognition can have important consequences, both for us in our everyday lives but even for people who make important decisions affecting many other people. Although biases are common, they are not impossible to control, and psychologists and other scientists are working to help people make better decisions.
  • The operation of cognitive biases, including the potential for new information to distort information already in memory, can help explain the tendency for eyewitnesses to be overconfident and frequently inaccurate in their recollections of what occurred at crime scenes.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Give an example of a time when you may have committed one of the cognitive heuristics and biases discussed in this chapter. What factors (e.g., availability; salience) caused the error, and what was the outcome of your use of the shortcut or heuristic? What do you see as the general advantages and disadvantages of using this bias in your everyday life? Describe one possible strategy you could use to reduce the potentially harmful effects of this bias in your life.
  2. Go to the website The Hot Hand in Sports, which analyzes the extent to which people accurately perceive “streakiness” in sports. Based on the information provided on this site, as well as that in this chapter, in what ways might our sports perceptions be influenced by our expectations and the use of cognitive heuristics and biases?
  3. Different cognitive heuristics and biases often operate together to influence our social cognition in particular situations. Describe a situation where you feel that two or more biases were affecting your judgment. How did they interact? What combined effects on your social cognition did they have? Which of the heuristics and biases outlined in this chapter do you think might be particularly likely to happen together in social situations and why?


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Media Attributions


2.3 Social Cognition and Affect

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe important ways in which our affective states can influence our social cognition, both directly and indirectly, for example, through the operation of the affect heuristic.
  2. Outline mechanisms through which our social cognition can alter our affective states, for instance, through the mechanism of misattribution of arousal.
  3. Review the role that strategies, including cognitive reappraisal, can play in successful self-regulation.
  4. Explore the relationship between positive cognition, affect, and behaviors.
  5. Outline important findings in relation to our affective forecasting abilities.

This chapter is about social cognition, and so it should not be surprising that we have been focusing, so far, on cognitive phenomena, including schemas and heuristics, that affect our social judgments. In reality, though, these cognitive influences do not operate in isolation from our feelings, or affect. Indeed, researchers have long been interested in the complex ways in which our thoughts are shaped by our feelings, and vice versa (Oatley, Parrott, Smith, & Watts, 2011).

Affect Influences Cognition

There is abundant evidence that our social cognition is strongly influenced by our affective states. For example, whatever current mood we are experiencing can influence our judgments of people we meet. Think back to a time when you were in a positive mood when you were introduced to someone new versus a time you were in a negative mood. The chances are that you made more positive evaluations than you did when you met a person when you were feeling bad (Clore, Schwarz, & Conway, 1993). Don’t new places also often seem better when you visit them in a good mood? The influences of mood on our social cognition even seem to extend to our judgments about ideas, with positive mood linked to more positive appraisals than neutral mood (Garcia-Marques, Mackie, Claypool & Garcia-Marques, 2004). Positive moods may even help to reduce negative feelings toward others. For example, Ito, Chiao, Devine, Lorig, and Cacioppo (2006) found that people who were smiling were also less prejudiced.

Mood states are also powerful determinants of our current judgments about our well-being. Norbert Schwarz and Gerald Clore (1983) called participants on the telephone, pretending that they were researchers from a different city conducting a survey. Furthermore, they varied the day on which they made the calls, such that some of the participants were interviewed on sunny days and some were interviewed on rainy days. During the course of the interview, the participants were asked to report on their current mood states and also on their general well-being. Schwarz and Clore found that the participants reported better moods and greater well-being on sunny days than they did on rainy days.

Schwarz and Clore wondered whether people were using their current mood (“I feel good today”) to determine how they felt about their life overall. To test this idea, they simply asked half of their respondents about the local weather conditions at the beginning of the interview. The idea was to subtly focus these participants on the fact that the weather might be influencing their mood states. They found that as soon as they did this, although mood states were still influenced by the weather, the weather no longer influenced perceptions of well-being (Figure 2.15, “Mood as Information”). When the participants were aware that their moods might have been influenced by the weather, they realized that the moods were not informative about their overall well-being, and so they no longer used this information. Similar effects have been found for mood that is induced by music or other sources (Keltner, Locke, & Audrain, 1993; Savitsky, Medvec, Charlton, & Gilovich, 1998).

Mood as Information
Figure 2.15 Mood as Information. The current weather influences people’s judgments of their well-being, but only when they are not aware that it might be doing so. After Schwarz and Clore (1983).

Even moods that are created very subtly can have effects on our social judgments. Fritz Strack and his colleagues (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988) had participants rate how funny cartoons were while holding a writing pen in their mouth such that it forced them either to use muscles that are associated with smiling or to use muscles that are associated with frowning (Figure 2.16, “Facial Expression and Mood”). They found that participants rated the cartoons as funnier when the pen created muscle contractions that are normally used for smiling rather than frowning. And Stepper and Strack (1993) found that people interpreted events more positively when they were sitting in an upright position rather than a slumped position. Even finding a coin in a pay phone or being offered some milk and cookies is enough to put people in a good mood and to make them rate their surroundings more positively (Clark & Isen, 1982; Isen & Levin, 1972; Isen, Shalker, Clark, & Karp, 1978).

Facial Expression and Mood
Figure 2.16 Facial Expression and Mood. The position of our mouth muscles can influence our mood states and our social judgments (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988).

We have seen many ways in which our current mood can help to shape our social cognition. There are many possible mechanisms that can help to explain this influence, but one concept seems particularly relevant here. The affect heuristic describes a tendency to rely on automatically occurring affective responses to stimuli to guide our judgments of them. For example, we judge a particular product to be the best option because we experience a very favorable affective response to its packaging, or we choose to hire a new staff member because we like her or him better than the other candidates. Empirically, the affect heuristic has been shown to influence a wide range of social judgments and behaviors (Kahneman, 2011; Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2002). Kahneman (2003) has gone so far as to say that “The idea of an affect heuristic…is probably the most important development in the study of…heuristics in the past few decades. There is compelling evidence for the proposition that every stimulus evokes an affective evaluation, which is not always conscious….”(p. 710)

Given the power of the affect heuristic to influence our judgments, it is useful to explore why it is so strong. As with other heuristics, Kahneman and Frederick (2002) proposed that the affect heuristic works by a process called attribute substitution, which happens without conscious awareness. According to this theory, when somebody makes a judgment about a target attribute that is very complex to calculate, for example, the overall suitability of a candidate for a job, that person tends to substitute these calculations for an easier heuristic attribute, for example, the likeability of a candidate. In effect, we deal with cognitively difficult social judgments by replacing them with easier ones, without being aware of this happening. To return to our choice of job applicant, rather than trying to reach a judgment based on the complex question of which candidate would be the best one to select, given their past experiences, future potential, the demands of the position, the organizational culture, and so on, we choose to base it on the much simpler question of which candidate do we like the most. In this way, people often do hire the candidates they like the best, and, not coincidentally, also those who tend to be more similar to themselves (Rivera, 2012). 

So far, we have seen some of the many ways that our affective states can directly influence our social judgments. There are other, more indirect means by which this can happen, too. As well as affecting the content of our social judgments, our moods can also affect the types of cognitive strategies that we use to make them. Our current mood, either positive or negative, can, for instance, influence our tendency to use more automatic versus controlled thinking about our social worlds. For example, there is some evidence that being in a happy, as opposed to a neutral, mood can actually make people more likely to rely on cognitive heuristics than on more effortful strategies (Ruder & Bless, 2003).  There are also indications that experiencing certain negative affective states, for example anger, can cause individuals to make more stereotypical judgments of others, compared with individuals who are in a neutral mood (Bodenhausen, Sheppard, & Kramer, 1994).  So, being in particular affective states may further increase the likelihood of us relying on heuristics, and these processes, as we have already seen, have big effects on our social judgments.

Affect may also influence our social judgments indirectly by influencing the type of information that we draw on. Our mood can, for example, affect both the type and intensity of our schemas that are active in particular situations. For instance, when in an angry mood, we may find that our schemas relating to that emotion are more active than those relating to other affective states, and these schemas will in turn influence our social judgments (Lomax & Lam, 2011). In addition to influencing our schemas, our mood can also cause us to retrieve particular types of memories that we then use to guide our social judgments. Mood-dependent memory describes a tendency to better remember information when our current mood matches the mood we were in when we encoded that information. For example, if we originally learned the information while experiencing positive affect, we will tend to find it easier to retrieve and then use if we are currently also in a good mood. Similarly, mood congruence effectsoccur when we are more able to retrieve memories that match our current mood. Have you ever noticed, for example, that when you are feeling sad, that sad memories seem to come more readily to mind than happy ones?

So, our affective states can influence our social cognition in multiple ways, but what about situations where our cognition influences our mood? Here, too, we find some interesting relationships.

Cognition Influences Affect

Just as they have helped to illuminate some of the routes through which our moods influence our cognition, so social cognitive researchers have also contributed to our knowledge of how our thoughts can change our moods. Indeed, some researchers have argued that affective experiences are only possible following cognitive appraisals. Although physiological arousal is necessary for emotion, many have argued that it is not sufficient (Lazarus, 1984). Under this view, arousal becomes emotion only when it is accompanied by a label or by an explanation for the arousal (Schachter & Singer, 1962). If this is correct, then emotions have two factors—an arousal factor and a cognitive factor (James, 1890; Schachter & Singer, 1962).

In some cases, it may be difficult for people who are experiencing a high level of arousal to accurately determine which emotion they are experiencing. That is, they may be certain that they are feeling arousal, but the meaning of the arousal (the cognitive factor) may be less clear. Some romantic relationships, for instance, are characterized by high levels of arousal, and the partners alternately experience extreme highs and lows in the relationship. One day they are madly in love with each other, and the next they are having a huge fight. In situations that are accompanied by high arousal, people may be unsure what emotion they are experiencing. In the high-arousal relationship, for instance, the partners may be uncertain whether the emotion they are feeling is love, hate, or both at the same time. Misattribution of arousal occurs when people incorrectly label the source of the arousal that they are experiencing.

Research Focus

Misattributing Arousal

If you think a bit about your own experiences of different emotions, and if you consider the equation that suggests that emotions are represented by both arousal and cognition, you might start to wonder how much was determined by each. That is, do we know what emotion we are experiencing by monitoring our feelings (arousal) or by monitoring our thoughts (cognition)?

Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer (1962) addressed this question in a well-known social psychological experiment. Schachter and Singer believed that the cognitive part of the emotion was critical—in fact, they believed that the arousal that we are experiencing could be interpreted as any emotion, provided we had the right label for it. Thus they hypothesized that if individuals are experiencing arousal for which they have no immediate explanation, they will “label” this state in terms of the cognitions that are most accessible in the environment. On the other hand, they argued that people who already have a clear label for their arousal would have no need to search for a relevant label and therefore should not experience an emotion.

In the research experiment, the male participants were told that they would be participating in a study on the effects of a new drug, called “suproxin,” on vision. On the basis of this cover story, the men were injected with a shot of epinephrine, a drug that produces physiological arousal. The idea was to give all the participants arousal; epinephrine normally creates feelings of tremors, flushing, and accelerated breathing in people.

Then, according to random assignment to conditions, the men were told that the drug would make them feel certain ways. The men in the epinephrine-informed condition were told the truth about the effects of the drug—they were told that other participants had experienced tremors and that their hands would start to shake, their hearts would start to pound, and their faces might get warm and flushed. The participants in the epinephrine-uninformed condition, however, were told something untrue—that their feet would feel numb, that they would have an itching sensation over parts of their body, and that they might get a slight headache. The idea was to make some of the men think that the arousal they were experiencing was caused by the drug (the informed condition), whereas others would be unsure where the arousal came from (the uninformed condition).

Then the men were left alone with a confederate who they thought had received the same injection. While they were waiting for the experiment (which was supposedly about vision) to begin, the confederate behaved in a wild and crazy (Schachter and Singer called it “euphoric”) manner. He wadded up spitballs, flew paper airplanes, and played with a hula hoop. He kept trying to get the participants to join in his games. Then right before the vision experiment was to begin, the participants were asked to indicate their current emotional states on a number of scales. One of the emotions they were asked about was euphoria.

If you are following the story here, you will realize what was expected—that the men who had a label for their arousal (the informed group) would not be experiencing much emotion—they had a label already available for their arousal. The men in the misinformed group, on the other hand, were expected to be unsure about the source of the arousal—they needed to find an explanation for their arousal, and the confederate provided one. Indeed, as you can see in Figure 2.17, “Misattributing Emotion,” this is just what the researchers found.

Then Schachter and Singer did another part of the study, using new participants. Everything was exactly the same except for the behavior of the confederate. Rather than being euphoric, he acted angry. He complained about having to complete the questionnaire he had been asked to do, indicating that the questions were stupid and too personal. He ended up tearing up the questionnaire that he was working on, yelling, “I don’t have to tell them that!” Then he grabbed his books and stormed out of the room.

What do you think happened in this condition? The answer, of course, is, exactly the same thing—the misinformed participants experienced more anger than did the informed participants. The idea is that because cognitions are such strong determinants of emotional states, the same state of physiological arousal could be labeled in many different ways, depending entirely on the label provided by the social situation. We will revisit the effects of misattribution of arousal when we consider sources of romantic attraction.


Misattributing Emotion
Figure 2.17 Misattributing Emotion. The results of an experiment by Schachter and Singer (1962) supported the two-factor theory of emotion. The participants who did not have a clear label for their arousal were more likely to take on the emotion of the confederate.

So, our attribution of the sources of our arousal will often strongly influence the emotional states we experience in social situations. How else might our cognition influence our affect? Another example is demonstrated in framing effects, which occur when people’s judgments about different options are affected by whether they are framed as resulting in gains or losses. In general, people feel more positive about options that are framed positively, as opposed to negatively. For example, individuals seeking to eat healthily tend to feel more positive about a product described as 95% fat free than one described as 5% fat, even though the information in the two messages is the same. In the same way, people tend to prefer treatment options that stress survival rates as opposed to death rates. Framing effects have been demonstrated in regards to numerous social issues, including judgments relating to charitable donations (Chang & Lee, 2010) and green environmental practices (Tu, Kao, & Tu, 2013). In reference to our chapter case study, they have also been implicated in decisions about risk in financial contexts and in the explanation of market behaviors (Kirchler, Maciejovsky, & Weber, 2010).

Social psychologists have also studied how we use our cognitive faculties to try to control our emotions in social situations, to prevent them from letting our behavior get out of control. The process of setting goals and using our cognitive and affective capacities to reach those goals is known as self-regulation, and a good part of self-regulation involves regulating our emotions. To be the best people that we possibly can, we have to work hard at it. Succeeding at school, at work, and at our relationships with others takes a lot of effort. When we are successful at self-regulation, we are able to move toward or meet the goals that we set for ourselves. When we fail at self-regulation, we are not able to meet those goals. People who are better able to regulate their behaviors and emotions are more successful in their personal and social encounters (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1992), and thus self-regulation is a skill we should seek to master.

A significant part of our skill in self-regulation comes from the deployment of cognitive strategies to try to harness positive emotions and to overcome more challenging ones. For example, to achieve our goals we often have to stay motivated and to be persistent in the face of setbacks. If, for example, an employee has already gone for a promotion at work and has been unsuccessful twice before, this could lead him or her to feel very negative about his or her competence and the possibility of trying for promotion again, should an opportunity arise. In these types of challenging situations, the strategy of cognitive reappraisal can be a very effective way of coping. Cognitive reappraisal involves altering an emotional state by reinterpreting the meaning of the triggering situation or stimulus. For example, if another promotion position does comes up, the employee could reappraise it as an opportunity to be successful and focus on how the lessons learned in previous attempts could strengthen his or her candidacy this time around. In this case, the employee would likely feel more positive towards the opportunity and choose to go after it.

Using strategies like cognitive reappraisal to self-regulate negative emotional states and to exert greater self-control in challenging situations has some important positive outcomes. Consider, for instance, research by Walter Mischel and his colleagues (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989). In their studies, they had four- and five-year-old children sit at a table in front of a yummy snack, such as a chocolate chip cookie or a marshmallow. The children were told that they could eat the snack right away if they wanted to. However, they were also told that if they could wait for just a couple of minutes, they’d be able to have two snacks—both the one in front of them and another just like it. However, if they ate the one that was in front of them before the time was up, they would not get a second.

Mischel found that some children were able to self-regulate—they were able to use their cognitive abilities to override the impulse to seek immediate gratification in order to obtain a greater reward at a later time. Other children, of course, were not—they just ate the first snack right away. Furthermore, the inability to delay gratification seemed to occur in a spontaneous and emotional manner, without much thought. The children who could not resist simply grabbed the cookie because it looked so yummy, without being able to cognitively stop themselves (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Strack & Deutsch, 2007).

The ability to self-regulate in childhood has important consequences later in life. When Mischel followed up on the children in his original study, he found that those who had been able to self-regulate as children grew up to have some highly positive characteristics—they got better SAT scores, were rated by their friends as more socially adept, and were found to cope with frustration and stress better than those children who could not resist the tempting first cookie at a young age. Effective self-regulation is therefore an important key to success in life (Ayduk et al., 2000; Eigsti et al., 2006; Mischel, Ayduk, & Mendoza-Denton, 2003).

Self-regulation is difficult, though, particularly when we are tired, depressed, or anxious, and it is under these conditions that we more easily lose our self-control and fail to live up to our goals (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). If you are tired and worried about an upcoming test, you may find yourself getting angry and taking it out on your friend, even though your friend really hasn’t done anything to deserve it and you don’t really want to be angry. It is no secret that we are more likely to fail at our diets when we are under a lot of stress or at night when we are tired. In these challenging situations, and when our resources are particularly drained, the ability to use cognitive strategies to successfully self-regulate becomes more even more important, and difficult.

Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister (1998) conducted a study to demonstrate that emotion regulation—that is, either increasing or decreasing our emotional responses—takes work. They speculated that self-control was like a muscle—it just gets tired when it is used too much. In their experiment, they asked their participants to watch a short movie about environmental disasters involving radioactive waste and their negative effects on wildlife. The scenes included sick and dying animals, which were very upsetting. According to random assignment to conditions, one group (the increase-emotional-response condition) was told to really get into the movie and to express emotions in response to it, a second group was to hold back and decrease emotional responses (the decrease-emotional-response condition), and a third (control) group received no instructions on emotion regulation.

Both before and after the movie, the experimenter asked the participants to engage in a measure of physical strength by squeezing as hard as they could on a hand-grip exerciser, a device used for building up hand muscles. The experimenter put a piece of paper in the grip and timed how long the participants could hold the grip together before the paper fell out. Table 2.2, “Self-Control Takes Effort,”  shows the results of this study. It seems that emotion regulation does indeed take effort because the participants who had been asked to control their emotions showed significantly less ability to squeeze the hand grip after the movie than before. Thus the effort to regulate emotional responses seems to have consumed resources, leaving the participants less capacity to make use of in performing the hand-grip task.

Table 2.2 Self-Control Takes Effort
Condition Handgrip strength before movie Handgrip strength after movie Change
Increase emotional response 78.73 54.63 –25.1
No emotional control 60.09 58.52 –1.57
Decrease emotional response 70.74 52.25 –18.49
Participants who had been required to either express or refrain from expressing their emotions had less strength to squeeze a hand grip after doing so. Data are from Muraven et al. (1998).

In other studies, people who had to resist the temptation to eat chocolates and cookies, who made important decisions, or who were forced to conform to others all performed more poorly on subsequent tasks that took energy in comparison to people who had not been emotionally taxed. After controlling their emotions, they gave up on subsequent tasks sooner and failed to resist new temptations (Vohs & Heatherton, 2000).

Can we improve our emotion regulation? It turns out that training in self-regulation—just like physical training—can help. Students who practiced doing difficult tasks, such as exercising, avoiding swearing, or maintaining good posture, were later found to perform better in laboratory tests of self-regulation (Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall, & Oaten, 2006; Baumeister, Schmeichel, & Vohs, 2007; Oaten & Cheng, 2006), such as maintaining a diet or completing a puzzle.

The Power of Positive Cognition

You have probably heard about “the power of positive thinking”—the idea that thinking positively helps people meet their goals and keeps them healthy, happy, and able to effectively cope with the negative events that they experience. It turns out that positive thinking really works. People who think positively about their future, who believe that they can control their outcomes, and who are willing to open up and share with others are happier, healthier people (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

The power of positive thinking comes in different forms, but they are all helpful. Notwithstanding the potential risks of wildly optimistic beliefs about the future, outlined earlier in this chapter, some researchers have studied the effects of having an optimistic explanatory style, a way of explaining current outcomes affecting the self in a way that leads to an expectation of positive future outcomes, and have found that optimists are happier and have less stress (Carver & Scheier, 2009). Others have focused on self-efficacy, the belief in our ability to carry out actions that produce desired outcomes. People with high self-efficacy feel more confident to respond to environmental and other threats in an active, constructive way—by getting information, talking to friends, and attempting to face and reduce the difficulties they are experiencing. These people, too, are better able to ward off their stresses in comparison with people with less self-efficacy (Thompson, 2009).

Self-efficacy helps in part because it leads us to perceive that we can control the potential stressors that may affect us. Workers who have control over their work environment (e.g., by being able to move furniture and control distractions) experience less stress, as do patients in nursing homes who are able to choose their everyday activities (Rodin, 1986). Glass, Reim, and Singer (1971) found in a study that participants who believed they could stop a loud noise experienced less stress than those who did not think they could, even though the people who had the option never actually used it. The ability to control our outcomes may help explain why animals and people who have higher social status live longer (Sapolsky, 2005). Importantly, it is possible to learn to think more positively, and doing so can be beneficial to our moods and behaviors. For example, Antoni et al. (2001) found that pessimistic cancer patients who were given training in optimism reported more optimistic outlooks after the training and were less fatigued after their treatments.

Cognition About Affect: The Case of Affective Forecasting

Another way in which our cognition intersects with our emotions occurs when we engage in affective forecasting, which describes our attempts to predict how future events will make us feel. For example, we may decide to apply for a promotion at work with a larger salary partly based on forecasting that the increased income will make us happier. While it is true that we do need money to afford food and adequate shelter for ourselves and our families, after this minimum level of wealth is reached, more money does not generally buy more happiness (Easterlin, 2005). For instance, citizens in many countries today have several times the buying power they had in previous decades, and yet overall reported happiness has not typically increased (Layard, 2005).

Psychologists have found that our affective forecasting is often not very accurate (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005). For one, we tend to overestimate our emotional reactions to events. Although we think that positive and negative events that we might experience will make a huge difference in our lives, and although these changes do make at least some difference in well-being, they tend to be less influential than we think they are going to be. Positive events tend to make us feel good, but their effects wear off pretty quickly, and the same is true for negative events. For instance, Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) interviewed people who had won more than $50,000 in a lottery and found that they were not happier than they had been in the past and were also not happier than a control group of similar people who had not won the lottery. On the other hand, the researchers found that individuals who were paralyzed as a result of accidents were not as unhappy as might be expected.

How can this possibly be? There are several reasons. For one, people are resilient; they bring their coping skills into play when negative events occur, and this makes them feel better. Second, most people do not continually experience very positive or very negative affect over a long period of time but, rather, adapt to their current circumstances. Just as we enjoy the second chocolate bar we eat less than we enjoy the first, as we experience more and more positive outcomes in our daily lives, we habituate to them and our well-being returns to a more moderate level (Small, Zatorre, Dagher, Evans, & Jones-Gotman, 2001). Another reason we may predict our happiness incorrectly is that our social comparisons change when our own status changes as a result of new events. People who are wealthy compare themselves with other wealthy people, people who are poor tend to compare themselves with other poor people, and people who are ill tend to compare themselves with other ill people. When our comparisons change, our happiness levels are correspondingly influenced. And when people are asked to predict their future emotions, they may focus only on the positive or negative event they are asked about and forget about all the other things that won’t change. Wilson, Wheatley, Meyers, Gilbert, and Axsom (2000) found that when people were asked to focus on all the more regular things that they will still be doing in the future (e.g., working, going to church, socializing with family and friends), their predictions about how something really good or bad would influence them were less extreme.

If pleasure is fleeting, at least misery shares some of the same quality. We might think we can’t be happy if something terrible were to happen to us, such as losing a partner, but after a period of adjustment, most people find that happiness levels return to prior levels (Bonanno et al., 2002). Health concerns tend to decrease subjective well-being, and those with a serious disability or illness show slightly lowered mood levels. But even when health is compromised, levels of misery are lower than most people expect (Lucas, 2007). For instance, although individuals with disabilities have more concern about health, safety, and acceptance in the community, they still experience overall positive happiness levels (Marinić & Brkljačić, 2008). It has been estimated that taken together, our wealth, health, and life circumstances account for only 15% to 20% of well-being scores (Argyle, 1999). Clearly, the main ingredient in happiness lies beyond, or perhaps beneath, external factors. For some further perspectives on our affective forecasting abilities, and their implications for the study of happiness, see Daniel Gilbert’s popular TED Talk.

Having reviewed some of the literature on the interplay between social cognition and affect, it is clear that we must be mindful of how our thoughts and moods shape one another, and, in turn, affect our evaluations of our social worlds.

Key Takeaways

  • Our current affective states profoundly shape our social cognition.
  • Our cognitive processes, in turn, influence our affective states.
  • Our ability to forecast our future emotional states is often less accurate than we think.
  • The better we understand these links between our cognition and affect, the better we can harness both to reach our social goals.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  • Describe a time when you feel that the affect heuristic played a big part in a social judgment or decision that you made. What impact did this heuristic have? Looking back, how sound was the judgment or decision that you made and why?
  • Outline a situation where you experienced either mood-dependent memory or the mood-congruence effect. What effects did this then have on your affect and social cognition?
  • Describe a situation where you feel that you may have misattributed the source of an emotional state you experienced. Who or what did you misattribute the arousal to and why? In hindsight, who or what do you think was the actual source of your arousal? With this knowledge, outline how the emotion you experienced at the time may have been different if you had made a correct source attribution.
  • Outline a situation that you interpreted in an optimistic way and describe how you feel that this then affected your future outcomes.
  • Describe an instance where you feel that your affective forecasting about how a future event would make you feel was particularly inaccurate. Try to identify the reasons why your predictions were so far off the mark.


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2.4 Thinking Like a Social Psychologist about Social Cognition

Consider your schemas and attitudes toward some of the many people you have met in your life—perhaps those you knew in school, the people in your family, or those in your wider social groups or other organizations. And also think about people you have only heard about rather than have met—maybe those from other countries or cultures. Did operant learning influence your opinions about them? Did you model your behavior after them? Or perhaps you had a single negative encounter with one person and disliked that person or his or her social group for a long time after.

Perhaps you can remember some times when you may have misinterpreted events or judged people incorrectly because your opinions were influenced by the operation of your existing expectations. Did you ever falsely assume that someone had a given characteristic and assimilate information into your existing expectations more than you might have? For instance, did you ever find yourself thinking that the referees in a sports game were favoring the other team rather than your own, or that the media was treating the political candidate that you oppose better than the one you prefer? Could this have occurred because your attitudes or beliefs influenced your interpretation of the information?

And perhaps you can remember times when you were influenced by salience, accessibility, or other information-processing biases. Did you ever feel bad when you got a 94 on your test when a 95 would have given you an A, or when you changed an answer on an exam rather than sticking with it? In these cases, you might have fallen victim to counterfactual thinking. Perhaps you erroneously judged someone on the basis of your beliefs about what they “should have been like” rather than on the basis of more accurate statistical information—the misuse of the representativeness heuristic.

Maybe you can now more fully reflect on all the ways in which your social cognition and affective states influence each other, and just how intertwined they are in understanding your social worlds.

Finally, think back once more on the story with which we opened this chapter. Can you see how important social cognitive biases can be in how we understand the world we live in, and how useful it is to understand the ways in which our thinking operates to produce accurate, and yet sometimes inaccurate, judgments? In many ways, our lives are influenced by our social cognition.

We hope that this chapter has provided you with some new and useful ideas about how you and others form impressions and has reminded you how others are forming (potentially erroneous) impressions of you. Most important, perhaps you have learned to be more modest about your judgments. Please remember to consider the possibility that your judgments and decisions, no matter how right and accurate they feel to you, may simply be wrong.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

H5P: TEST YOUR LEARNING: CHAPTER 2 TRUE OF FALSE QUIZTry this quick true-false quiz to see how well you have remembered some key concepts from this chapter. You can check your answers as you go, or wait for overall feedback at the end. Good luck!
  1. Social cognition is a topic that explores how we process and utilize information about our social worlds.
    1. True
    2. False
  2. Our schemas about our social worlds make it easier for us to notice information that confirms rather than disconfirms them.
    1. True
    2. False
  3. As heuristics are cognitive shortcuts, more often than not they cause us to make mistakes in our social cognition.
    1. True
    2. False
  4. When Hector underestimates the time and effort that a school project will take to complete, this is an example of the planning fallacy.
    1. True
    2. False
  5. The mood congruence effect occurs when we remember information that is inconsistent with our current moods, but disregard that information quickly.
    1. True
    2. False


2.5 Chapter Summary

This chapter has focused primarily on one central topic in social psychology: namely, the ways that we learn about and judge other people—our social cognition. The ability to make accurate judgments about our social situation is critical. For example, if we cannot understand others and predict how they will respond to us, our social interactions will be difficult indeed.

We have seen that social cognition is efficient, frequently operating quickly and even out of our awareness, and generally accurate. However, although we are often quite accurate at evaluating other people and in creating effective social interactions, we are not perfect. The errors we make frequently occur because of our reliance on our mental knowledge (our schemas and attitudes) as well our tendency to take shortcuts through the use of cognitive heuristics. We use schemas and heuristics as energy savers, because we are often overwhelmed by the amount of information we need to process.

Social knowledge is gained as the result of learning—the relatively permanent change in thoughts, feelings, or behavior that occurs as a result of experience. Some learning is based on the principles of operant learning—experiences that are followed by positive emotions (rewards) are more likely to be repeated, whereas experiences that are followed by negative emotions (punishments) are less likely to be repeated. Associational learning occurs when an object or event comes to be associated with a response, such as a behavior or a positive or negative emotion. We also learn through observational learning by modeling the behavior of others.

Accommodation occurs when our existing schemas or attitudes change on the basis of new information. Assimilation, on the other hand, occurs when our existing knowledge influences new information in a way that makes the conflicting information fit with our existing knowledge. Assimilation is often more powerful than is accommodation.

Much of our social cognition is automatic, meaning that it occurs quickly and without taking much effort. In other cases, when we have the time and motivation, we think about things more deliberately and carefully. In this case, we are engaging in more thoughtful, controlled cognition.

We pay particular attention to stimuli that are salient—things that are unique, negative, colorful, bright, and moving. In many cases, we base our judgments on information that seems to represent, or match, what we expect will happen. When we do so, we are using the representativeness heuristic.

Cognitive accessibility refers to the extent to which knowledge is activated in memory and thus likely to be used to guide our reactions to others. The tendency to overuse accessible social constructs can lead to errors in judgment, such as the availability heuristic and the false consensus bias. Counterfactual thinking about what might have happened and the tendency to anchor on an initial construct and not adjust sufficiently from it are also influenced by cognitive accessibility. We also have a tendency to be overconfident in our judgments of ourselves, others, and the future. We should also be mindful that we tend to have blind spots about our own biases and how much they affect our social cognition. Perhaps the best hope, then, for us going forward is that we become better at recognizing and challenging biases in each other’s thinking.

Ultimately, perhaps we can use our understanding of social cognition to understand more fully how we think accurately—but also sometimes inaccurately—about ourselves and others.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


To round out your review of social cognition, try this multiple-choice quiz. You can check your answers as you go, or wait until after the last question for feedback. Good luck!

  1. In the last week of the semester, Aman is convinced that he will be able to do all four major assignments for his classes. He is shocked when he barely finishes two. What has he fallen victim of here?
    1. the pessimistic bias
    2. the availability heuristic
    3. the planning fallacy
    4. the representativeness heuristic
  2. Events that are easier to recall specific examples of are assumed to be more frequently occurring and/or important. This is known as:
    1. the base rate heuristic
    2. the planning fallacy
    3. the availability heuristic
    4. automatic priming
  3. Ken has been experiencing more frequent low moods linked to social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has found that sad memories often come to mind when he is in these low moods. This is an example of:
    1. the affect heuristic
    2. the mood congruence effect
    3. affective state determined retrieval
    4. mood dependent memory
  4. Which heuristic would individuals likely use if they were asked the following question: “Which sequence of coin flips is more likely: H H H T T T or H T T H T H ?”
    1. representativeness heuristic
    2. fluency heuristic
    3. affect heuristic
    4. availability heuristic
  5. The tendency to recall events in ways that fit our current schemas is known as:
    1. the mood congruence effect
    2. the self-fulfilling prophecy
    3. mood dependent memory
    4. reconstructive memory bias


Chapter 3. The Self

Chapter Learning Objectives

1. The Cognitive Self: The Self-Concept

  • Define and describe the self-concept, its influence on information processing, and its diversity across social groups.
  • Describe the concepts of self-complexity and self-concept clarity, and explain how they influence social cognition and behavior.
  • Differentiate the various types of self-awareness and self-consciousness.
  • Describe self-awareness, self-discrepancy, and self-affirmation theories, and their interrelationships.
  • Explore how we sometimes overestimate the accuracy with which other people view us.

2. The Feeling Self: Self-Esteem

  • Define self-esteem and explain how it is measured by social psychologists.
  • Explore findings indicating diversity in self-esteem in relation to culture, gender, and age.
  • Provide examples of ways that people attempt to increase and maintain their self-esteem.
  • Outline the benefits of having high self-esteem.
  • Review the limits of self-esteem, with a focus on the negative aspects of narcissism.

3. The Social Self: The Role of the Social Situation

  • Describe the concept of the looking-glass self and how it affects our self-concept.
  • Explore the impact of the labeling bias, self-labeling, and internalized prejudice on people’s self-concepts, particularly in those from marginalized social groups.
  • Define social comparison, and summarize how people use it to define their self-concepts and self-esteem.
  • Give examples of the use of upward and downward social comparison and their influences on social cognition and affect.
  • Explain the concept of social identity and why it is important to human behavior.
  • Describe how self-evaluation maintenance theory helps to explain how we react when other people’s behaviors threaten our sense of self.
  • Describe the concept of self-presentation and the various strategies we use to portray ourselves to others.
  • Outline the concept of reputation management and how it relates to self-presentation.
  • Discuss the individual-difference variable of self-monitoring and how it relates to the ability and desire to self-present.

Social Media – Living Our Social Lives Online

Recent statistics suggest that there are around 2.5 billion global Internet users as of 2014 – roughly 35 percent of the world’s population. Some sources suggest the true figure to be closer to 3 billion people, and this number will likely continue to grow, particularly with the increasing availability of mobile technology.


Girl texting on cellphone
Figure 3.1. Girl on Cellphone.


As well as having increased access to the Internet, people across all regions of the globe are spending greater amounts of their time online. Many recent studies in a large number of countries indicate that people are spending several hours every day online, on their PCs, laptops, and mobiles. Of that time online, often more than 20 percent is spent on social networking sites. Facebook, QZone, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, and Tencent Weibo all had more than 200 million registered users by 2014. Facebook alone now has more than 1 billion users. These social networking users are also drawn from increasingly diverse demographic groups.

Social psychologists have become very interested in why and how so many of us are conducting increasing amounts of our social interactions online, and on social networking sites in particular. Like any social context in the offline world, sites like Facebook and Twitter provide an environment where a huge range of human social cognition, affect, and behavior can be displayed, with everything from posting selfies and status updates about wild nights out to communicating our views about social issues.

One area of social psychology that seems particularly relevant to these online activities is the study of the self—our thoughts and feelings about who we are and the social influences on them. In many ways, the online social behaviors outlined above both affect and are a result of people’s perceptions of and feelings about themselves, and their desire to project those selves out into the social worlds that they belong to. Often, these dynamics in our online lives mirror those that social psychologists have long been aware of as operating in our offline existences. We will thus explore the various aspects of the self in relation to both our offline and online social lives throughout this chapter.

Source: Social, Digital, and Mobile Worldwide in 2014.

At the foundation of all human behavior is the selfour sense of personal identity and of who we are as individuals. Because an understanding of the self is so important, it has been studied for many years by psychologists (James, 1890; Mead, 1934) and is still one of the most important and most researched topics in social psychology (Dweck & Grant, 2008; Taylor & Sherman, 2008). Social psychologists conceptualize the self using the basic principles of social psychology—that is, the relationship between individual persons and the people around them (the person-situation interaction) and the ABCs of social psychology—the affective, behavioral, and cognitive components of the self.

In this chapter, we will first consider the cognitive aspects of the self, including the self-concept (the thoughts that we hold about ourselves) and self-awareness (the extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept). Then we will move on to the role of affect, focusing on concepts including self-esteem (the positive or negative feelings that we have about ourselves) and the many ways that we try to gain positive self-esteem. Finally, we will consider the social aspects of the self, including how we present ourselves to others in order to portray a positive self-image, as well as the many ways that our thoughts and feelings about ourselves are determined by our relationships with others.


Dweck, C. S., & Grant, H. (2008). Self-theories, goals, and meaning. In J. Y. Shah, W. L. Gardner, J. Y. E. Shah, & W. L. E. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivation science (pp. 405–416). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York, NY: Dover. Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Taylor, S. E., & Sherman, D. K. (2008). Self-enhancement and self-affirmation: The consequences of positive self-thoughts for motivation and health. In J. Y. Shah, W. L. Gardner, J. Y. E. Shah, & W. L. E. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivation science (pp. 57–70). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Media Attributions


3.1 The Cognitive Self: The Self-Concept

Learning Objectives

  1. Define and describe the self-concept, its influence on information processing, and its diversity across social groups.
  2. Describe the concepts of self-complexity and self-concept clarity, and explain how they influence social cognition and behavior.
  3. Differentiate the various types of self-awareness and self-consciousness.
  4. Describe self-awareness, self-discrepancy, and self-affirmation theories, and their interrelationships.
  5. Explore how we sometimes overestimate the accuracy with which other people view us.

Some nonhuman animals, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and perhaps dolphins, have at least a primitive sense of self (Boysen & Himes, 1999). We know this because of some interesting experiments that have been done with animals. In one study (Gallup, 1970), researchers painted a red dot on the forehead of anesthetized chimpanzees and then placed the animals in a cage with a mirror. When the chimps woke up and looked in the mirror, they touched the dot on their faces, not the dot on the faces in the mirror. This action suggests that the chimps understood that they were looking at themselves and not at other animals, and thus we can assume that they are able to realize that they exist as individuals. Most other animals, including dogs, cats, and monkeys, never realize that it is themselves they see in a mirror.

Figure 3.2 A simple test of self-awareness is the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror. Humans and chimpanzees can pass the test; dogs never do.

Infants who have similar red dots painted on their foreheads recognize themselves in a mirror in the same way that chimps do, and they do this by about 18 months of age (Asendorpf, Warkentin, & Baudonnière, 1996; Povinelli, Landau, & Perilloux, 1996). The child’s knowledge about the self continues to develop as the child grows. By two years of age, the infant becomes aware of his or her gender as a boy or a girl. At age four, the child’s self-descriptions are likely to be based on physical features, such as hair color, and by about age six, the child is able to understand basic emotions and the concepts of traits, being able to make statements such as “I am a nice person” (Harter, 1998).

By the time children are in grade school, they have learned that they are unique individuals, and they can think about and analyze their own behavior. They also begin to show awareness of the social situation—they understand that other people are looking at and judging them the same way that they are looking at and judging others (Doherty, 2009).

Development and Characteristics of the Self-Concept

Part of what is developing in children as they grow is the fundamental cognitive part of the self, known as the self-concept. The self-concept is a knowledge representation that contains knowledge about us, including our beliefs about our personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles, as well as the knowledge that we exist as individuals. Throughout childhood and adolescence, the self-concept becomes more abstract and complex and is organized into a variety of different cognitive aspects of the self, known as self-schemas. Children have self-schemas about their progress in school, their appearance, their skills at sports and other activities, and many other aspects. In turn, these self-schemas direct and inform their processing of self-relevant information (Harter, 1999), much as we saw schemas in general affecting our social cognition.

These self-schemas can be studied using the methods that we would use to study any other schema. One approach is to use neuroimaging to directly study the self in the brain. As you can see in Figure 3.3, neuroimaging studies have shown that information about the self is stored in the prefrontal cortex, the same place that other information about people is stored (Barrios et al., 2008).

Areas of the brain the process information about the self
Figure 3.3 This figure shows the areas of the human brain that are known to be important in processing information about the self. They include primarily areas of the prefrontal cortex (areas 1, 2, 4, and 5). Data are from Lieberman (2010)

Another approach to studying the self is to investigate how we attend to and remember things that relate to the self. Indeed, because the self-concept is the most important of all our schemas, it has an extraordinary degree of influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Have you ever been at a party where there was a lot of noise and bustle, and yet you were surprised to discover that you could easily hear your own name being mentioned in the background? Because our own name is such an important part of our self-concept, and because we value it highly, it is highly accessible. We are very alert for, and react quickly to, the mention of our own name.

Other research has found that information related to the self-schema is better remembered than information that is unrelated to it, and that information related to the self can also be processed very quickly (Lieberman, Jarcho, & Satpute, 2004). In one classic study that demonstrated the importance of the self-schema, Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker (1977) conducted an experiment to assess how college students recalled information that they had learned under different processing conditions. All the participants were presented with the same list of 40 adjectives to process, but through the use of random assignment, the participants were given one of four different sets of instructions about how to process the adjectives.

Participants assigned to the structural task condition were asked to judge whether the word was printed in uppercase or lowercase letters. Participants in the phonemic task condition were asked whether the word rhymed with another given word. In the semantic task condition, the participants were asked if the word was a synonym of another word. And in the self-reference task condition, participants indicated whether the given adjective was or was not true of themselves. After completing the specified task, each participant was asked to recall as many adjectives as he or she could remember. Rogers and his colleagues hypothesized that different types of processing would have different effects on memory. As you can see in Figure 3.4, “The Self-Reference Effect,” the students in the self-reference task condition recalled significantly more adjectives than did students in any other condition.

experimental conditions in which words were recalled, from most to least: self-reference, semantic, phonemic, structural
Figure 3.4 The Self-Reference Effect

The chart shows the proportion of adjectives that students were able to recall under each of four learning conditions. The same words were recalled significantly better when they were processed in relation to the self than when they were processed in other ways. Data from Rogers et al. (1977).

The finding that information that is processed in relationship to the self is particularly well remembered, known as the self-reference effect, is powerful evidence that the self-concept helps us organize and remember information. The next time you are studying, you might try relating the material to your own experiences—the self-reference effect suggests that doing so will help you better remember the information.

The specific content of our self-concept powerfully affects the way that we process information relating to ourselves. But how can we measure that specific content? One way is by using self-report tests. One of these is a deceptively simple fill-in-the-blank measure that has been widely used by many scientists to get a picture of the self-concept (Rees & Nicholson, 1994). All of the 20 items in the measure are exactly the same, but the person is asked to fill in a different response for each statement. This self-report measure, known as the Twenty Statements Test (TST), can reveal a lot about a person because it is designed to measure the most accessible—and thus the most important—parts of a person’s self-concept. Try it for yourself, at least five times:

  • I am (please fill in the blank)                                                                      
  • I am (please fill in the blank)                                                                     
  • I am (please fill in the blank)                                                                     
  • I am (please fill in the blank)                                                                     
  • I am (please fill in the blank)                                                                     

Although each person has a unique self-concept, we can identify some characteristics that are common across the responses given by different people on the measure. Physical characteristics are an important component of the self-concept, and they are mentioned by many people when they describe themselves. If you’ve been concerned lately that you’ve been gaining weight, you might write, “I am overweight.” If you think you’re particularly good looking (“I am attractive”), or if you think you’re too short (“I am too short”), those things might have been reflected in your responses. Our physical characteristics are important to our self-concept because we realize that other people use them to judge us. People often list the physical characteristics that make them different from others in either positive or negative ways (“I am blond,” “I am short”), in part because they understand that these characteristics are salient and thus likely to be used by others when judging them (McGuire, McGuire, Child, & Fujioka, 1978).

A second aspect of the self-concept relating to personal characteristics is made up of personality traitsthe specific and stable personality characteristics that describe an individual (“I am friendly,” “I am shy,” “I am persistent”). These individual differences are important determinants of behavior, and this aspect of the self-concept varies among people.

The remainder of the self-concept reflects its more external, social components; for example, memberships in the social groups that we belong to and care about. Common responses for this component may include “I am an artist,” “I am Jewish,” and “I am a mother, sister, daughter.” As we will see later in this chapter, group memberships form an important part of the self-concept because they provide us with our social identitythe sense of our self that involves our memberships in social groups.

Although we all define ourselves in relation to these three broad categories of characteristics—physical, personality, and social – some interesting cultural differences in the relative importance of these categories have been shown in people’s responses to the TST. For example, Ip and Bond (1995) found that the responses from Asian participants included significantly more references to themselves as occupants of social roles (e.g., “I am Joyce’s friend”) or social groups (e.g., “I am a member of the Cheng family”) than those of American participants. Similarly, Markus and Kitayama (1991) reported that Asian participants were more than twice as likely to include references to other people in their self-concept than did their Western counterparts. This greater emphasis on either external and social aspects of the self-concept reflects the relative importance that collectivistic and individualistic cultures place on an interdependence versus independence (Nisbett, 2003).

Interestingly, bicultural individuals who report acculturation to both collectivist and individualist cultures show shifts in their self-concept depending on which culture they are primed to think about when completing the TST. For example, Ross, Xun, & Wilson (2002) found that students born in China but living in Canada reported more interdependent aspects of themselves on the TST when asked to write their responses in Chinese, as opposed to English. These culturally different responses to the TST are also related to a broader distinction in self-concept, with people from individualistic cultures often describing themselves using internal characteristics that emphasize their uniqueness, compared with those from collectivistic backgrounds who tend to stress shared social group memberships and roles. In turn, this distinction can lead to important differences in social behavior.

One simple yet powerful demonstration of cultural differences in self-concept affecting social behavior is shown in a study that was conducted by Kim and Markus (1999). In this study, participants were contacted in the waiting area of the San Francisco airport and asked to fill out a short questionnaire for the researcher. The participants were selected according to their cultural background: about one-half of them indicated they were European Americans whose parents were born in the United States, and the other half indicated they were Asian Americans whose parents were born in China and who spoke Chinese at home. After completing the questionnaires (which were not used in the data analysis except to determine the cultural backgrounds), participants were asked if they would like to take a pen with them as a token of appreciation. The experimenter extended his or her hand, which contained five pens. The pens offered to the participants were either three or four of one color and one or two of another color (the ink in the pens was always black). As shown in Figure 3.5, “Cultural Differences in Desire for Uniqueness,” and consistent with the hypothesized preference for uniqueness in Western, but not Eastern, cultures, the European Americans preferred to take a pen with the more unusual color, whereas the Asian American participants preferred one with the more common color.

Figure 3.5 Cultural Differences in Desire for Uniqueness

In this study, participants from European American and East Asian cultures were asked to choose a pen as a token of appreciation for completing a questionnaire. There were either four pens of one color and one of another color, or three pens of one color and two of another. European Americans were significantly more likely to choose the more uncommon pen color in both cases. Data are from Kim and Markus (1999, Experiment 3).

Cultural differences in self-concept have even been found in people’s self-descriptions on social networking sites. DeAndrea, Shaw, and Levine (2010) examined individuals’ free-text self-descriptions in the About Me section in their Facebook profiles. Consistent with the researchers’ hypotheses, and with previous research using the TST, African American participants had the most the most independently (internally) described self-concepts, and Asian Americans had the most interdependent (external) self-descriptions, with European Americans in the middle.

As well as indications of cultural diversity in the content of the self-concept, there is also evidence of parallel gender diversity between males and females from various cultures, with females, on average, giving more external and social responses to the TST than males (Kashima et al., 1995). Interestingly, these gender differences have been found to be more apparent in individualistic nations than in collectivistic nations (Watkins et al., 1998).

Self-Complexity and Self-Concept Clarity

As we have seen, the self-concept is a rich and complex social representation of who we are, encompassing both our internal characteristics and our social roles. In addition to our thoughts about who we are right now, the self-concept also includes thoughts about our past self—our experiences, accomplishments, and failures—and about our future self—our hopes, plans, goals, and possibilities (Oyserman, Bybee, Terry, & Hart-Johnson, 2004). The multidimensional nature of our self-concept means that we need to consider not just each component in isolation, but also their interactions with each other and their overall structure. Two particularly important structural aspects of our self-concept are complexity and clarity.

Although every human being has a complex self-concept, there are nevertheless individual differences in self-complexity, the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves (Linville, 1987; Roccas & Brewer, 2002). Some selves are more complex than others, and these individual differences can be important in determining psychological outcomes. Having a complex self means that we have a lot of different ways of thinking about ourselves. For example, imagine a woman whose self-concept contains the social identities of student, girlfriend, daughter, psychology student, and tennis player and who has encountered a wide variety of life experiences. Social psychologists would say that she has high self-complexity. On the other hand, a man who perceives himself primarily as either a student or as a member of the soccer team and who has had a relatively narrow range of life experiences would be said to have low self-complexity. For those with high self-complexity, the various aspects of the self are separate, as the positive and negative thoughts about a particular self-aspect do not spill over into thoughts about other aspects.

Research has found that compared with people low in self-complexity, those higher in self-complexity tend to experience more positive outcomes, including  higher levels of self-esteem (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002), lower levels of stress and illness (Kalthoff & Neimeyer, 1993), and a greater tolerance for frustration (Gramzow, Sedikides, Panter, & Insko, 2000).

The benefits of self-complexity occur because the various domains of the self help to buffer us against negative events and enjoy the positive events that we experience. For people low in self-complexity, negative outcomes in relation to one aspect of the self tend to have a big impact on their self-esteem. For example, if the only thing that Maria cares about is getting into medical school, she may be devastated if she fails to make it. On the other hand, Marty, who is also passionate about medical school but who has a more complex self-concept, may be better able to adjust to such a blow by turning to other interests.

Although having high self-complexity seems useful overall, it does not seem to help everyone equally in their response to all events (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002). People with high self-complexity seem to react more positively to the good things that happen to them but not necessarily less negatively to the bad things. And the positive effects of self-complexity are stronger for people who have other positive aspects of the self as well. This buffering effect is stronger for people with high self-esteem, whose self-complexity involves positive rather than negative characteristics (Koch & Shepperd, 2004), and for people who feel that they have control over their outcomes (McConnell et al., 2005).

Just as we may differ in the complexity of our self-concept, so we may also differ in its clarity. Self-concept clarityis the extent to which one’s self-concept is clearly and consistently defined (Campbell, 1990). Theoretically, the concepts of complexity and clarity are independent of each other—a person could have either a more or less complex self-concept that is either well defined and consistent, or ill defined and inconsistent. However, in reality, they each have similar relationships to many indices of well-being.

For example, as has been found with self-complexity, higher self-concept clarity is positively related to self-esteem (Campbell et al., 1996). Why might this be? Perhaps people with higher self-esteem tend to have a more well-defined and stable view of their positive qualities, whereas those with lower self-esteem show more inconsistency and instability in their self-concept, which is then more vulnerable to being negatively affected by challenging situations. Consistent with this assertion, self-concept clarity appears to mediate the relationship between stress and well-being (Ritchie et al., 2011).

Also, having a clear and stable view of ourselves can help us in our relationships. Lewandowski, Nardine, and Raines (2010) found a positive correlation between clarity and relationship satisfaction, as well as a significant increase in reported satisfaction following an experimental manipulation of participants’ self-concept clarity. Greater clarity may promote relationship satisfaction in a number of ways. As Lewandowski and colleagues (2010) argue, when we have a clear self-concept, we may be better able to consistently communicate who we are and what we want to our partner, which will promote greater understanding and satisfaction. Also, perhaps when we feel clearer about who we are, then we feel less of a threat to our self-concept and autonomy when we find ourselves having to make compromises in our close relationships.

Thinking back to the cultural differences we discussed earlier in this section in the context of people’s self-concepts, it could be that self-concept clarity is generally higher in individuals from individualistic cultures, as their self-concept is based more on internal characteristics that are held to be stable across situations, than on external social facets of the self that may be more changeable. This is indeed what the research suggests. Not only do members of more collectivistic cultures tend to have lower self-concept clarity, that clarity is also less strongly related to their self-esteem compared with those from more individualistic cultures (Campbell et al., 1996). As we shall see when our attention turns to perceiving others in Chapter 5, our cultural background not only affects the clarity and consistency of how we see ourselves, but also how consistently we view other people and their behavior.


Like any other schema, the self-concept can vary in its current cognitive accessibility. Self-awareness refers to the extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept. When our self-concept becomes highly accessible because of our concerns about being observed and potentially judged by others, we experience the publicly induced self-awareness known as self-consciousness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Rochat, 2009).

Perhaps you can remember times when your self-awareness was increased and you became self-conscious—for instance, when you were giving a presentation and you were perhaps painfully aware that everyone was looking at you, or when you did something in public that embarrassed you. Emotions such as anxiety and embarrassment occur in large part because the self-concept becomes highly accessible, and they serve as a signal to monitor and perhaps change our behavior.

Not all aspects of our self-concept are equally accessible at all times, and these long-term differences in the accessibility of the different self-schemas help create individual differences in terms of, for instance, our current concerns and interests. You may know some people for whom the physical appearance component of the self-concept is highly accessible. They check their hair every time they see a mirror, worry whether their clothes are making them look good, and do a lot of shopping—for themselves, of course. Other people are more focused on their social group memberships—they tend to think about things in terms of their role as Muslims or Christians, for example, or as members of the local tennis or soccer team.

In addition to variation in long-term accessibility, the self and its various components may also be made temporarily more accessible through priming. We become more self-aware when we are in front of a mirror, when a TV camera is focused on us, when we are speaking in front of an audience, or when we are listening to our own tape-recorded voice (Kernis & Grannemann, 1988). When the knowledge contained in the self-schema becomes more accessible, it also becomes more likely to be used in information processing and to influence our behavior.

Beaman, Klentz, Diener, and Svanum (1979) conducted a field experiment to see if self-awareness would influence children’s honesty. The researchers expected that most children viewed stealing as wrong but that they would be more likely to act on this belief when they were more self-aware. They conducted this experiment on Halloween in homes within the city of Seattle, Washington. At particular houses, children who were trick-or-treating were greeted by one of the experimenters, shown a large bowl of candy, and were told to take only one piece each. The researchers unobtrusively watched each child to see how many pieces he or she actually took. In some of the houses there was a large mirror behind the candy bowl; in other houses, there was no mirror. Out of the 363 children who were observed in the study, 19% disobeyed instructions and took more than one piece of candy. However, the children who were in front of a mirror were significantly less likely to steal (14.4%) than were those who did not see a mirror (28.5%).

These results suggest that the mirror activated the children’s self-awareness, which reminded them of their belief about the importance of being honest. Other research has shown that being self-aware has a powerful influence on other behaviors as well. For instance, people are more likely to stay on a diet, eat better food, and act more morally overall when they are self-aware (Baumeister, Zell, & Tice, 2007; Heatherton, Polivy, Herman, & Baumeister, 1993). What this means is that when you are trying to stick to a diet, study harder, or engage in other difficult behaviors, you should try to focus on yourself and the importance of the goals you have set.

Social psychologists are interested in studying self-awareness because it has such an important influence on behavior. People become more likely to violate acceptable, mainstream social norms when, for example, they put on a Halloween mask or engage in other behaviors that hide their identities. For example, the members of the militant White supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan wear white robes and hats when they meet and when they engage in their racist behavior. And when people are in large crowds, such as in a mass demonstration or a riot, they may become so much a part of the group that they experience deindividuationthe loss of individual self-awareness and individual accountability in groups (Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb, 1952; Zimbardo, 1969) and become more attuned to themselves as group members and to the specific social norms of the particular situation (Reicher & Stott, 2011).

Figure 3.6 Examples of situations that may create deindividuation include wearing uniforms that hide the self and alcohol intoxication.

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Deindividuation and Rioting

Rioting occurs when civilians engage in violent public disturbances. The targets of these disturbances can be people in authority, other civilians, or property. The triggers for riots are varied, including everything from the aftermath of sporting events, to the killing of a civilian by law enforcement officers, to commodity shortages, to political oppression. Both civilians and law enforcement personnel are frequently seriously injured or killed during riots, and the damage to public property can be considerable.

Social psychologists, like many other academics, have long been interested in the forces that shape rioting behavior. One of the earliest and most influential perspectives on rioting was offered by French sociologist, Gustav Le Bon (1841–1931). In his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Le Bon (1895) described the transformation of the individual in the crowd. According to Le Bon, the forces of anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion combine to change a collection of individuals into a “psychological crowd.” Under this view, the individuals then become submerged in the crowd, lose self-control, and engage in antisocial behaviors.

Some of the early social psychological accounts of rioting focused in particular on the concept of deindividuation as a way of trying to account for the forces that Le Bon described. Festinger et al. (1952), for instance, argued that members of large groups do not pay attention to other people as individuals and do not feel that their own behavior is being scrutinized. Under this view, being unidentified and thereby unaccountable has the psychological consequence of reducing inner restraints and increasing behavior that is usually repressed, such as that often seen in riots.

Extending these ideas, Zimbardo (1969) argued that deindividuation involved feelings of reduced self-observation, which then bring about antinormative and disinhibited behavior. In support of this position, he found that participants engaged in more antisocial behavior when their identity was made anonymous by wearing Ku Klux Klan uniforms. However, in the context of rioting, these perspectives, which focus on behaviors that are antinormative (e.g., aggressive behavior is typically antinormative), neglect the possibility that they might actually be normative in the particular situation. For example, during some riots, antisocial behavior can be viewed as a normative response to injustice or oppression. Consistent with this assertion, Johnson and Downing (1979) found that when participants were able to mask their identities by wearing nurses uniforms, their deindividuated state actually led them to show more prosocial behavior than when their identities were visible to others. In other words, if the group situation is associated with more prosocial norms, deindividuation can actually increase these behaviors, and therefore does not inevitably lead to antisocial conduct.

Building on these findings, researchers have developed more contemporary accounts of deindividuation and rioting. One particularly important approach has been the social identity model of deindividuation effects (or SIDE model), developed by Reicher, Spears, and Postmes (1995). This perspective argues that being in a deindividuated state can actually reinforce group salience and conformity to specific group norms in the current situation. According to this model, deindividuation does not, then, lead to a loss of identity per se. Instead, people take on a more collective identity. Seen in this way, rioting behavior is more about the conscious adoption of behaviors reflecting collective identity than the abdication of personal identity and responsibility outlined in the earlier perspectives on deindividuation.

In support of the SIDE model, although crowd behavior during riots might seem mindless, antinormative, and disinhibited to the outside observer, to those taking part it is often perceived as rational, normative, and subject to well-defined limits (Reicher, 1987). For instance, when law enforcement officers are the target of rioters, then any targeting of other civilians by rioters is often condemned and policed by the group members themselves (Reicher & Stott, 2011). Indeed, as Fogelson (1971) concluded in his analysis of rioting in the United States in the 1960s, restraint and selectivity, as opposed to mindless and indiscriminate violence, were among the most crucial features of the riots.

Seeing rioting in this way, as a rational, normative response, Reicher and Stott (2011) describe it as being caused by a number of interlocking factors, including a sense of illegitimacy or grievance, a lack of alternatives to confrontation, the formation of a shared identity, and a sense of confidence in collective power. Viewing deindividuation as a force that causes people to increase their sense of collective identity and then to express that identity in meaningful ways leads to some important recommendations for controlling rioting more effectively, including that:

  • Labeling rioters as “mindless,” “thugs,” and so on will not address the underlying causes of riots.
  • Indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force by police will often lead to an escalation of rioting behavior.
  • Law enforcement personnel should allow legitimate and legal protest behaviors to occur during riots, and only illegal and inappropriate behaviors should be targeted.
  • Police officers should communicate their intentions to crowds before using force.
Tellingly, in analyses of the policing of high-risk rioting situations, when police follow these guidelines, riots are often prevented altogether, or at least de-escalated relatively quickly (Reicher & Stott, 2011). Thus, the social psychological research on deindividuation has not only helped us to refine our understanding of this concept, but has also led us to better understand the social dynamics of rioting behavior. Ultimately, this increased understanding has helped to put more effective strategies in place for reducing the risks to people and property that riots bring.

Two aspects of individual differences in self-awareness have been found to be important, and they relate to self-concern and other-concern, respectively (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975; Lalwani, Shrum, & Chiu, 2009).  Private self-consciousness refers to the tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings. People who are high in private self-consciousness tend to think about themselves a lot and agree with statements such as “I’m always trying to figure myself out” and “I am generally attentive to my inner feelings.” People who are high on private self-consciousness are likely to base their behavior on their own inner beliefs and values—they let their inner thoughts and feelings guide their actions—and they may be particularly likely to strive to succeed on dimensions that allow them to demonstrate their own personal accomplishments (Lalwani et al., 2009).

Public self-consciousness, in contrast, refers to the tendency to focus on our outer public image and to be particularly aware of the extent to which we are meeting the standards set by others. Those high in public self-consciousness agree with statements such as “I’m concerned about what other people think of me,” “Before I leave my house, I check how I look,” and “I care a lot about how I present myself to others.” These are the people who check their hair in a mirror they pass and spend a lot of time getting ready in the morning; they are more likely to let the opinions of others (rather than their own opinions) guide their behaviors and are particularly concerned with making good impressions on others.

Research has found cultural differences in public self-consciousness, with people from East Asian, collectivistic cultures having higher public self-consciousness than people from Western, individualistic cultures. Steve Heine and colleagues (2008) found that when college students from Canada (a Western culture) completed questionnaires in front of a large mirror, they subsequently became more self-critical and were less likely to cheat (much like the trick-or-treaters discussed earlier) than were Canadian students who were not in front of a mirror. However, the presence of the mirror had no effect on college students from Japan. This person-situation interaction is consistent with the idea that people from East Asian cultures are normally already high in public self-consciousness compared with people from Western cultures, and thus manipulations designed to increase public self-consciousness influence them less.

So we see that there are clearly individual and cultural differences in the degree to and manner in which we tend to be aware of ourselves. In general, though, we all experience heightened moments of self-awareness from time to time. According to self-awareness theory(Duval & Wicklund, 1972), when we focus our attention on ourselves, we tend to compare our current behavior against our internal standards. Sometimes when we make these comparisons, we realize that we are not currently measuring up. In these cases, self-discrepancy theory states that when we perceive a discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves, this is distressing to us (Higgins, Klein, & Strauman, 1987). In contrast, on the occasions when self-awareness leads us to comparisons where we feel that we are being congruent with our standards, then self-awareness can produce positive affect (Greenberg & Musham, 1981). Tying these ideas from the two theories together, Philips and Silvia (2005) found that people felt significantly more distressed when exposed to self-discrepancies while sitting in front of a mirror. In contrast, those not sitting in front of a mirror, and presumably experiencing lower self-awareness, were not significantly emotionally affected by perceived self-discrepancies. Simply put, the more self-aware we are in a given situation, the more pain we feel when we are not living up to our ideals.

In part, the stress arising from perceived self-discrepancy relates to a sense of cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort that occurs when we respond in ways that we see as inconsistent. In these cases, we may realign our current state to be closer to our ideals, or shift our ideals to be closer to our current state, both of which will help reduce our sense of dissonance. Another potential response to feelings of self-discrepancy is to try to reduce the state of self-awareness that gave rise to these feelings by focusing on other things. For example, Moskalenko and Heine (2002) found that people who are given false negative feedback about their performance on an intelligence test, which presumably lead them to feel discrepant from their internal performance standards about such tasks, subsequently focused significantly more on a video playing in a room than those given positive feedback.

There are certain situations, however, where these common dissonance-reduction strategies may not be realistic options to pursue. For example, if someone who has generally negative attitudes toward drug use nevertheless becomes addicted to a particular substance, it will often not be easy to quit the habit, to reframe the evidence regarding the drug’s negative effects, or to reduce self-awareness. In such cases, self-affirmation theorysuggests that people will try to reduce the threat to their self-concept posed by feelings of self-discrepancy by focusing on and affirming their worth in another domain, unrelated to the issue at hand. For instance, the person who has become addicted to an illegal substance may choose to focus on healthy eating and exercise regimes instead as a way of reducing the dissonance created by the drug use.

Although self-affirmation can often help people feel more comfortable by reducing their sense of dissonance, it can also have have some negative effects. For example, Munro and Stansbury (2009) tested people’s social cognitive responses to hypotheses that were either threatening or non-threatening to their self-concepts, following exposure to either a self-affirming or non-affirming activity. The key findings were that those who had engaged in the self-affirmation condition and were then exposed to a threatening hypothesis showed greater tendencies than those in the non-affirming group to seek out evidence confirming their own views, and to detect illusory correlations in support of these positions. One possible interpretation of these results is that self-affirmation elevates people’s mood and they then become more likely to engage in heuristic processing, as discussed in Chapter 2.

Still another option to pursue when we feel that our current self is not matching up to our ideal self is to seek out opportunities to get closer to our ideal selves. One method of doing this can be in online environments. Massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming, for instance, offers people the chance to interact with others in a virtual world, using graphical alter egos, or avatars, to represent themselves. The role of the self-concept in influencing people’s choice of avatars is only just beginning to be researched, but some evidence suggests that gamers design avatars that are closer to their ideal than their actual selves. For example, a study of avatars used in one popular MMO role-play game indicated that players rated their avatars as having more favorable attributes than their own self-ratings, particularly if they had lower self-esteem (Bessiere, Seay, & Keisler, 2007). They also rated their avatars as more similar to their ideal selves than they themselves were. The authors of this study concluded that these online environments allow players to explore their ideal selves, freed from the constraints of the physical world.

There are also emerging findings exploring the role of self-awareness and self-affirmation in relation to behaviors on social networking sites. Gonzales and Hancock (2011) conducted an experiment showing that individuals became more self-aware after viewing and updating their Facebook profiles, and in turn reported higher self-esteem than participants assigned to an offline, control condition. The increased self-awareness that can come from Facebook activity may not always have beneficial effects, however. Chiou and Lee (2013) conducted two experiments indicating that when individuals put personal photos and wall postings onto their Facebook accounts, they show increased self-awareness, but subsequently decreased ability to take other people’s perspectives. Perhaps sometimes we can have too much self-awareness and focus to the detriment of our abilities to understand others. Toma and Hancock (2013) investigated the role of self-affirmation in Facebook usage and found that users viewed their profiles in self-affirming ways, which enhanced their self-worth. They were also more likely to look at their Facebook profiles after receiving threats to their self-concept, doing so in an attempt to use self-affirmation to restore their self-esteem. It seems, then, that the dynamics of self-awareness and affirmation are quite similar in our online and offline behaviors.

Having reviewed some important theories and findings in relation to self-discrepancy and affirmation, we should now turn our attention to diversity. Once again, as with many other aspects of the self-concept, we find that there are important cultural differences. For instance, Heine and Lehman (1997) tested participants from a more individualistic nation (Canada) and a more collectivistic one (Japan) in a situation where they took a personality test and then received bogus positive or negative feedback. They were then asked to rate the desirability of 10 music CDs. Subsequently, they were offered the choice of taking home either their fifth- or sixth-ranked CD, and then required to re-rate the 10 CDs. The critical finding was that the Canadians overall rated their chosen CD higher and their unchosen one lower the second time around, mirroring classic findings on dissonance reduction, whereas the Japanese participants did not. Crucially, though, the Canadian participants who had been given positive feedback about their personalities (in other words, had been given self-affirming evidence in an unrelated domain) did not feel the need to pursue this dissonance reduction strategy. In contrast, the Japanese did not significantly adjust their ratings in response to either positive or negative feedback from the personality test.

Once more, these findings make sense if we consider that the pressure to avoid self-discrepant feelings will tend to be higher in individualistic cultures, where people are expected to be more cross-situationally consistent in their behaviors. Those from collectivistic cultures, however, are more accustomed to shifting their behaviors to fit the needs of the ingroup and the situation, and so are less troubled by such seeming inconsistencies.

Overestimating How Closely and Accurately Others View Us

Although the self-concept is the most important of all our schemas, and although people (particularly those high in self-consciousness) are aware of their self and how they are seen by others, this does not mean that people are always thinking about themselves. In fact, people do not generally focus on their self-concept any more than they focus on the other things and other people in their environments (Csikszentmihalyi & Figurski, 1982).

On the other hand, self-awareness is more powerful for the person experiencing it than it is for others who are looking on, and the fact that self-concept is so highly accessible frequently leads people to overestimate the extent to which other people are focusing on them (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999). Although you may be highly self-conscious about something you’ve done in a particular situation, that does not mean that others are necessarily paying all that much attention to you. Research by Thomas Gilovich and colleagues (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000) found that people who were interacting with others thought that other people were paying much more attention to them than those other people reported actually doing. This may be welcome news, for example, when we find ourselves wincing over an embarrassing comment we made during a group conversation. It may well be that no one else paid nearly as much attention to it as we did!

There is also some diversity in relation to age. Teenagers are particularly likely to be highly self-conscious, often believing that others are watching them (Goossens, Beyers, Emmen, & van Aken, 2002). Because teens think so much about themselves, they are particularly likely to believe that others must be thinking about them, too (Rycek, Stuhr, McDermott, Benker, & Swartz, 1998). Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that teens can become embarrassed so easily by their parents’ behaviour in public, or by their own physical appearance, for example.

People also often mistakenly believe that their internal states show to others more than they really do. Gilovich, Savitsky, and Medvec (1998) asked groups of five students to work together on a “lie detection” task. One at a time, each student stood up in front of the others and answered a question that the researcher had written on a card (e.g., “I have met David Letterman”). On each round, one person’s card indicated that they were to give a false answer, whereas the other four were told to tell the truth.

After each round, the students who had not been asked to lie indicated which of the students they thought had actually lied in that round, and the liar was asked to estimate the number of other students who would correctly guess who had been the liar. As you can see in Figure 3.7, “The Illusion of Transparency,” the liars overestimated the detectability of their lies: on average, they predicted that over 44% of their fellow players had known that they were the liar, but in fact only about 25% were able to accurately identify them. Gilovich and colleagues called this effect the “illusion of transparency.” This illusion brings home an important final learning point about our self-concepts: although we may feel that our view of ourselves is obvious to others, it may not always be!

Figure 3.7 The Illusion of Transparency

Key Takeaways

  • The self-concept is a schema that contains knowledge about us. It is primarily made up of physical characteristics, group memberships, and traits.
  • Because the self-concept is so complex, it has extraordinary influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and we can remember information that is related to it well.
  • Self-complexity, the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves, helps people respond more positively to events that they experience.
  • Self-concept clarity, the extent to which individuals have self-concepts that are clearly defined and stable over time, can also help people to respond more positively to challenging situations.
  • Self-awareness refers to the extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept. Differences in the accessibility of different self-schemas help create individual differences: for instance, in terms of our current concerns and interests.
  • People who are experiencing high self-awareness may notice self-discrepancies between their actual and ideal selves. This can, in turn, lead them to engage in self-affirmation as a way of resolving these discrepancies.
  • When people lose their self-awareness, they experience deindividuation.
  • Private self-consciousness refers to the tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings; public self-consciousness refers to the tendency to focus on our outer public image and the standards set by others.
  • There are cultural differences in self-consciousness: public self-consciousness may be higher in Eastern than in Western cultures.
  • People frequently overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to them and accurately understand their true intentions in public situations.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. What are the most important aspects of your self-concept, and how do they influence your self-esteem and social behavior?
  2. Consider people you know who vary in terms of their self-complexity and self-concept clarity. What effects do these differences seem to have on their self-esteem and behavior?
  3. Describe a situation where you experienced a feeling of self-discrepancy between your actual and ideal selves. How well does self-affirmation theory help to explain how you responded to these feelings of discrepancy?
  4. Try to identify some situations where you have been influenced by your private and public self-consciousness. What did this lead you to do? What have you learned about yourself from these experiences?
  5. Describe some situations where you overestimated the extent to which people were paying attention to you in public. Why do you think that you did this and what were the consequences?


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Media Attributions


3.2 The Feeling Self: Self-Esteem

Learning Objectives

  1. Define self-esteem and explain how it is measured by social psychologists.
  2. Explore findings indicating diversity in self-esteem in relation to culture, gender, and age.
  3. Provide examples of ways that people attempt to increase and maintain their self-esteem.
  4. Outline the benefits of having high self-esteem.
  5. Review the limits of self-esteem, with a focus on the negative aspects of narcissism.

As we have noted in our discussions of the self-concept, our sense of self is partly determined by our cognition. However, our view of ourselves is also the product of our affect, in other words how we feel about ourselves. Just as we explored in Chapter 2, cognition and affect are inextricably linked. For example, self-discrepancy theory highlights how we feel distress when we perceive a gap between our actual and ideal selves. We will now examine this feeling self, starting with perhaps its most heavily researched aspect, self-esteem.


Self-esteem refers to the positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) feelings that we have about ourselves. We experience the positive feelings of high self-esteem when we believe that we are good and worthy and that others view us positively. We experience the negative feelings of low self-esteem when we believe that we are inadequate and less worthy than others.

Our self-esteem is determined by many factors, including how well we view our own performance and appearance, and how satisfied we are with our relationships with other people (Tafarodi & Swann, 1995). Self-esteem is in part a trait that is stable over time, with some people having relatively high self-esteem and others having lower self-esteem. But self-esteem is also a state that varies day to day and even hour to hour. When we have succeeded at an important task, when we have done something that we think is useful or important, or when we feel that we are accepted and valued by others, our self-concept will contain many positive thoughts and we will therefore have high self-esteem. When we have failed, done something harmful, or feel that we have been ignored or criticized, the negative aspects of the self-concept are more accessible and we experience low self-esteem.

Self-esteem can be measured using both explicit and implicit measures, and both approaches find that most people tend to view themselves positively. One common explicit self-report measure of self-esteem is the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Figure 3.8). Higher scores on the scale indicate higher self-esteem.

Figure 3.8 The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale

Please rate yourself on the following items by writing a number in the blank before each statement, where you

1 = Strongly Disagree 2 = Disagree 3 = Agree 4 = Strongly Agree

  1. _____I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on any equal base with others.
  2. _____I feel that I have a number of good qualities.
  3. _____All in all, I am inclined to think that I am a failure (R).
  4. _____I am able to do things as well as other people.
  5. _____I feel I do not have much to be proud of. (R)
  6. _____I take a positive attitude towards myself.
  7. _____On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
  8. _____I wish I could have more respect for myself. (R)
  9. _____I certainly feel useless at times. (R)
  10. _____At times I think I am no good at all. (R)

Note. (R) denotes an item that should be reverse scored. Subtract your response on these items from 5 before calculating the total. Data are from Rosenberg (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Numerous studies have used the Rosenberg scale to assess people’s self-esteem in many areas of the world. An interesting finding in many samples from the Western world, particularly in North America, is that the average score is often significantly higher than the mid-point. Heine and Lehman (1999), for example, reported meta-analytic data indicating that less than 7% of participants scored below the mid-point! One interesting implication of this is that participants in such samples classified as having low self-esteem on the basis of a median split will typically actually have at least moderate self-esteem.

If so many people, particularly in individualistic cultures, report having relatively high self-esteem, an interesting question is why this might be. Perhaps some cultures place more importance on developing high self-esteem than others, and people correspondingly feel more pressure to report feeling good about themselves (Held, 2002). A problem with measures such as the Rosenberg scale is that they can be influenced by the desire to portray the self positively. The observed scores on the Rosenberg scale may be somewhat inflated because people naturally try to make themselves look as if they have very high self-esteem—maybe they lie a bit to the experimenters to make themselves look better than they really are and perhaps to make themselves feel better. If this the case, then we might expect to find average levels of reported self-esteem to be lower in cultures where having high self-worth is less of a priority. This is indeed what has generally been found. Heine and Lehman (1999) reported that Japanese participants living in Japan showed, on average, moderate levels of self-esteem, normally distributed around the scale mid-point. Many other studies have shown that people in Eastern, collectivistic cultures report significantly lower self-esteem than those from more Western, individualistic ones (Campbell et al., 1996). Do, then, such differences reflect these different cultural priorities and pressures, or could it be that they reflect genuine differences in actual self-esteem levels? There are no easy answers here, of course, but there are some findings from studies, using different methods of measuring self-esteem, that may shed some light on this issue.

Indirect measures of self-esteem have been created—measures that may provide a more accurate picture of the self-concept because they are less influenced by the desire to make a positive impression. Anthony Greenwald and Shelly Farnham (2000) used the Implicit Association Test to study the self-concept indirectly. Participants worked at a computer and were presented with a series of words, each of which they were to categorize in one of two ways. One categorization decision involved whether the words were related to the self (e.g., me, myself, mine) or to another person (e.g., other, them, their). A second categorization decision involved determining whether words were pleasant (e.g., joy, smile, pleasant) or unpleasant (e.g., pain, death, tragedy). On some trials, the self words were paired with the pleasant items, and the other words with the unpleasant items. On other trials, the self words were paired with the unpleasant items, and the other words with the pleasant items. Greenwald and Farnham found that on average, participants were significantly faster at categorizing positive words that were presented with self words than they were at categorizing negative words that were presented with self words, suggesting, again, that people did have positive self-esteem. Furthermore, there were also meaningful differences among people in the speed of responding, suggesting that the measure captured some individual variation in implicit self-esteem.

A number of studies have since explored cross-cultural differences in implicit self-esteem and have not found the same differences observed on explicit measures like the Rosenberg scale (Yamaguchi et al., 2007). Does this mean that we can conclude that the lower scores on self-report measures observed in members of collectivistic cultures are more apparent than real? Maybe not just yet, especially given that the correlations between explicit and implicit measures of self-esteem are often quite small (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999). Nevertheless, values such as modesty may be less prioritized in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic ones, which may in turn reflect differences in reported self-esteem levels. Indeed, Cai and colleagues (2007) found that differences in explicit self-esteem between Chinese and American participants were explained by cultural differences in modesty.

Another interesting aspect of diversity and self-esteem is the average difference observed between men and women. Across many countries, women have been found to report lower self-esteem than men (Sprecher, Brooks, & Avogo, 2013). However, these differences have generally been found to be small, particularly in nations where gender equality in law and opportunity is higher (Kling, Hyde, Showers, & Buswell, 1999). These findings are consistent with Mead’s (1934) suggestion that self-esteem in part relates to the view that others have of our importance in the wider world. As women’s opportunities to participate in careers outside of the home have increased in many nations, so the differences between their self-esteem and that of men have decreased.

There are also some interesting age differences in self-esteem that have been uncovered. In a large Internet survey, Robins, Trzesniewski, Tracy, Gosling, & Potter (2002) found that self-esteem tends to decrease from childhood to early adolescence, and then rises steadily from adolescence into adulthood, usually until people are well into their sixties, after which point it begins to decline. One interesting implication of this is that we often will have higher self-esteem later in life than in our early adulthood years, which would appear to run against ageist stereotypes that older adults have lower self-worth. What factors might help to explain these age-related increases in self-esteem? One possibility relates back to our discussion of self-discrepancy theory in the previous section on the cognitive self. Recall that this theory states that when our perceived self-discrepancy between our current and ideal selves is small, we tend to feel more positive about ourselves than when we see the gap as being large. Could it be that older adults have a current view of self that is closer to their ideal than younger adults, and that this is why their self-esteem is often higher? Evidence from Ryff (1991) suggests that this may well be the case. In this study, elderly adults rated their current and ideal selves as more similar than either  middle-aged or young adults. In part, older adults are able to more closely align these two selves because they are better able to realistically adjust their ideal standards as they age (Rothermund & Brandstadter, 2003) and because they engage in more favorable and age-appropriate social comparisons than do younger adults (Helgeson & Mickelson, 2000).

Maintaining and Enhancing Self-Esteem

As we saw in our earlier discussion of cultural differences in self-esteem, in at least some cultures, individuals appear motivated to report high self-esteem. As we shall now see, they also often actively seek out higher self-worth. The extent to which this is a universal cultural pursuit continues to be debated, with some researchers arguing that it is found everywhere (Brown, 2010), while others question whether the need for positive self-regard is equally valued in all cultures (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999).

For those of us who are actively seeking higher self-esteem, one way is to be successful at what we do. When we get a good grade on a test, perform well in a sports match, or get a date with someone we really like, our self-esteem naturally rises. One reason that many of us have positive self-esteem is because we are generally successful at creating positive lives. When we fail in one domain, we tend to move on until we find something that we are good at. We don’t always expect to get the best grade on every test or to be the best player on the team. Therefore, we are often not surprised or hurt when those things don’t happen. In short, we feel good about ourselves because we do a pretty good job at creating decent lives.

Another way we can boost our self-esteem is through building connections with others. Forming and maintaining satisfying relationships helps us to feel good about ourselves. A common way of doing this for many people around the world is through social networking sites. There are a growing number of studies exploring how we do this online and the effects that it has on our self-worth. One common way on Facebook is to share status updates, which we hope that our friends will then “like” or comment on. When our friends do not respond to our updates, however, this can negatively impact how we feel about ourselves. One study found that when regular Facebook users were assigned to an experimental condition where they were banned from sharing information on Facebook for 48 hours, they reported significantly lower levels of belonging and meaningful existence. In a second experiment, participants were allowed to post material to Facebook, but half of the participants’ profiles were set up by the researchers not to receive any responses, whether “likes” or comments, to their status updates. In line with predictions, that group reported lower self-esteem, level of belonging, level of control, and meaningful existence than the control group who did receive feedback (Tobin, Vanman, Verreynne, & Saeri, 2014). Whether online or offline, then, feeling ignored by our friends can dent our self-worth. We will explore other social influences on our self-esteem later in this chapter.

Research Focus

Processing Information to Enhance the Self

Although we can all be quite good at creating positive self-esteem by doing positive things, it turns out that we often do not stop there. The desire to see ourselves positively is sometimes strong enough that it leads us to seek out, process, and remember information in a way that allows us to see ourselves even more positively.

Sanitioso, Kunda, and Fong (1990) had students read about a study that they were told had been conducted by psychologists at Stanford University (the study was actually fictitious). The students were randomly assigned to two groups: one group read that the results of the research had showed that extroverts did better than introverts in academic or professional settings after graduating from college; the other group read that introverts did better than extroverts on the same dimensions. The students then wrote explanations for why this might be true.

The experimenter then thanked the participants and led them to another room, where a second study was to be conducted (you will have guessed already that although the participants did not think so, the two experiments were really part of the same experiment). In the second experiment, participants were given a questionnaire that supposedly was investigating what different personality dimensions meant to people in terms of their own experience and behavior. The students were asked to list behaviors that they had performed in the past that related to the dimension of “shy” versus “outgoing”—a dimension that is very close in meaning to the introversion-extroversion dimension that they had read about in the first experiment.

Figure 3.9, “Enhancing the Self,” shows the number of students in each condition who listed an extroverted behavior first, and the number who listed an introverted behavior first. You can see that the first memory listed by participants in both conditions tended to reflect the dimension that they had read was related to success according to the research presented in the first experiment. In fact, 62% of the students who had just learned that extroversion was related to success listed a memory about an extroverted behavior first, whereas only 38% of the students who had just learned that introversion was related to success listed an extroverted behavior first.

Enhancing the Self
Figure 3.9 Enhancing the Self


Sanitioso, Kunda, and Fong (1990) found that students who had learned that extroverts did better than introverts after graduating from college tended to list extroverted memories about themselves, whereas those who learned that introverts did better than extroverts tended to list introverted memories.

It appears that the participants drew from their memories those instances of their own behavior that reflected the trait that had the most positive implications for their self-esteem—either introversion or extroversion, depending on experimental condition. The desire for positive self-esteem made events that were consistent with a positive self-perception more accessible, and thus they were listed first on the questionnaire.

Other research has confirmed this general principle—people often attempt to create positive self-esteem whenever possible, even it if involves distorting reality. We tend to take credit for our successes, and to blame our failures on others. We remember more of our positive experiences and fewer of our negative ones. As we saw in the discussion of the optimistic bias in the previous chapter about social cognition, we judge our likelihood of success and happiness as greater than our likelihood of failure and unhappiness. We think that our sense of humor and our honesty are above average, and that we are better drivers and less prejudiced than others. We also distort (in a positive way, of course) our memories of our grades, our performances on exams, and our romantic experiences. And we believe that we can control the events that we will experience to a greater extent than we really can (Crocker & Park, 2004).

Once again, though, there are some important cultural differences to note with people in individualistic cultures pursuing these self-enhancing strategies more vigorously and more often than those from more collectivistic backgrounds. Indeed, in a large-scale review of studies on self-enhancement, Heine (2004) concluded that these tactics are not typically used in cultures that value interdependence over dependence. In cultures where high self-esteem is not as socially valued, people presumably do not feel the same need to distort their social realities to serve their self-worth.

There is also considerable personal diversity in the tendency to use self-enhancement. Stable differences between individuals have been uncovered in many studies across a range of self-enhancing strategies (Hepper, Gramzow, & Sedikides, 2010; John & Robins, 1994; Kwan, John, Kenny, Bond, & Robins, 2004).

Narcissism and the Limits of Self-Enhancement

Our discussion to this point suggests that many people will generally try to view themselves in a positive light. We emphasize our positive characteristics, and we may even in some cases distort information—all to help us maintain positive self-esteem. There can be negative aspects to having too much self-esteem, however, particularly if that esteem is unrealistic and undeserved. Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by overly high self-esteem, self-admiration, and self-centeredness. Narcissists tend to agree with statements such as the following:

  • “I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling me so.”
  • “I can usually talk my way out of anything.”
  • “I like to be the center of attention.”
  • “I have a natural talent for influencing people.”

Narcissists can be perceived as charming at first, but often alienate others in the long run (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). They can also make bad romantic partners as they often behave selfishly and are always ready to look for someone else who they think will be a better mate, and they are more likely to be unfaithful than non-narcissists (Campbell & Foster, 2002; Campbell, Rudich, & Sedikides, 2002). Narcissists are also more likely to bully others, and they may respond very negatively to criticism (Baumeister et al., 2003). People who have narcissistic tendencies more often pursue self-serving behaviors, to the detriment of the people and communities surrounding them (Campbell, Bush, Brunell, & Shelton, 2005). Perhaps surprisingly, narcissists seem to understand these things about themselves, although they engage in the behaviors anyway (Carlson, Vazire, & Oltmanns, 2011).

Interestingly, scores on measures of narcissistic personality traits have been creeping steadily upward in recent decades in some cultures (Twenge, Konrath,  Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008). Given the social costs of these traits, this is troubling news. What reasons might there be for these trends? Twenge and Campbell (2009) argue that several interlocking factors are at work here, namely increasingly child-centered parenting styles, the cult of celebrity, the role of social media in promoting self-enhancement, and the wider availability of easy credit, which, they argue, has lead to more people being able to acquire status-related goods, in turn further fueling a sense of entitlement. As narcissism is partly about having an excess of self-esteem, it should by now come as no surprise that narcissistic traits are higher, on average, in people from individualistic versus collectivistic cultures (Twenge et al., 2008).

The negative outcomes of narcissism raise the interesting possibility that high self-esteem in general may not always be advantageous to us or to the people around us. One complication to the issue is that explicit self-report measures of self-esteem, like the Rosenberg scale, are not able to distinguish between people whose high self-esteem is realistic and appropriate and those whose self-esteem may be more inflated, even narcissistic (Baumeister et al., 2003). Implicit measures also do not provide a clear picture, but indications are that more narcissistic people score higher on implicit self-esteem in relation to some traits, including those relating to social status, and lower on others relating to relationships (Campbell, Bosson, Goheen, Lakey, & Kernis, 2007). A key point is that it can be difficult to disentangle what the effects of realistic versus unrealistic high self-esteem may be. Nevertheless, it is to this thorny issue that we will now turn.

 Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Does High Self-Esteem Cause Happiness or Other Positive Outcomes?

Teachers, parents, school counselors, and people in many cultures frequently assume that high self-esteem causes many positive outcomes for people who have it and therefore that we should try to increase it in ourselves and others. Perhaps you agree with the idea that if you could increase your self-esteem, you would feel better about yourself and therefore be able to work at a higher level, or attract a more desirable mate. If you do believe that, you would not be alone. Baumeister and colleagues (2003) describe the origins and momentum of what they call the self-esteem movement, which has grown in influence in various countries since the 1970s. For example, in 1986, the state of California funded a task force under the premise that raising self-esteem would help solve many of the state’s problems, including crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, school underachievement, and pollution.

Baumeister and colleagues (2003) conducted an extensive review of the research literature to determine whether having high self-esteem was as helpful as many people seem to think it is. They began by assessing which variables were correlated with high self-esteem and then considered the extent to which high self-esteem caused these outcomes. They found that high self-esteem does correlate with many positive outcomes. People with high self-esteem get better grades, are less depressed, feel less stress, and may even live longer than those who view themselves more negatively. The researchers also found that high self-esteem is correlated with greater initiative and activity; people with high self-esteem just do more things. They are also more more likely to defend victims against bullies compared with people with low self-esteem, and they are more likely to initiate relationships and to speak up in groups. High self-esteem people also work harder in response to initial failure and are more willing to switch to a new line of endeavor if the present one seems unpromising. Thus, having high self-esteem seems to be a valuable resource—people with high self-esteem are happier, more active, and in many ways better able to deal with their environment.

On the other hand, Baumeister and his colleagues also found that people with high self-esteem sometimes delude themselves. They tend to believe that they are more likable and attractive, have better relationships, and make better impressions on others than people with low self-esteem. But objective measures show that these beliefs are often distortions rather than facts. Furthermore, people with overly high self-esteem, particularly when it is accompanied by narcissism, defensiveness, conceit, and the unwillingness to critically assess one’s potential negative qualities, have been found to engage in a variety of negative behaviors (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). For example, people with high self-esteem are more likely to be bullies (despite also being more likely to defend victims)  and to experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex.

Todd Heatherton and Kathleen Vohs (2000) found that when people with extremely high self-esteem were forced to fail on a difficult task in front of a partner, they responded by acting more unfriendly, rudely, and arrogantly than did those with lower self-esteem. And research has found that children who inflate their social self-worth—those who think that they are more popular than they really are and who thus have unrealistically high self-esteem—are also more aggressive than children who do not show such narcissistic tendencies (Sandstrom & Herlan, 2007; Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge, & Olthof, 2008). Such findings raise the interesting possibility that programs that increase the self-esteem of children who bully and are aggressive, based on the notion that these behaviors stem from low self-esteem, may do more harm than good (Emler, 2001). If you are thinking like a social psychologist, these findings may not surprise you—narcissists tend to focus on their self-concerns, with little concern for others, and we have seen many times that other-concern is a necessity for satisfactory social relations.

Furthermore, despite the many positive variables that relate to high self-esteem, when Baumeister and his colleagues looked at the causal role of self-esteem they found little evidence that high self-esteem caused these positive outcomes. For instance, although high self-esteem is correlated with academic achievement, it is more the result than the cause of this achievement. Programs designed to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance, and laboratory studies have generally failed to find that manipulations of self-esteem cause better task performance.

Baumeister and his colleagues concluded that programs designed to boost self-esteem should be used only in a limited way and should not be the only approach taken. Raising self-esteem will not make young people do better in school, obey the law, stay out of trouble, get along better with other people, or respect the rights of others. And these programs may even backfire if the increased self-esteem creates narcissism or conceit. Baumeister and his colleagues suggested that attempts to boost self-esteem should only be carried out as a reward for good behavior and worthy achievements, and not simply to try to make children feel better about themselves.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


After reviewing the above summary of the findings reported by Baumeister et al., (2003), try this true/false quiz. Drag true into the boxes if you think that there is strong evidence that having high self-esteem can cause each outcome, and false if you think there is not.

  1. Higher academic achievement
  2. Greater persistence following failure
  3. Higher relationship quality
  4. Reduced ingroup favoritism
  5. Increased happiness
  6. Reduced involvement in risk-taking behaviors
  7. Reduced involvement in cheating behavior
  8. Reduced involvement in bullying behavior

Although we naturally desire to have social status and high self-esteem, we cannot always promote ourselves without any regard to the accuracy of our self-characterizations. If we consistently distort our capabilities, and particularly if we do this over a long period of time, we will just end up fooling ourselves and perhaps engaging in behaviors that are not actually beneficial to us. Most of us probably know someone who is convinced that he or she has a particular talent at a professional level, but we, and others, can see that this person is deluded (but perhaps we are too kind to say this). Some individuals who audition on television talent shows spring to mind. Such self-delusion can become problematic because although this high self-esteem might propel people to work harder, and although they may enjoy thinking positively about themselves, they may be setting themselves up for long-term disappointment and failure. Their pursuit of unrealistic goals may also take valuable time away from finding areas they have more chance to succeed in.

When we self-enhance too much, although we may feel good about it in the short term, in the longer term the outcomes for the self may not be positive. The goal of creating and maintaining positive self-esteem (an affective goal) must be tempered by the cognitive goal of having an accurate self-view (Kirkpatrick & Ellis, 2001; Swann, Chang-Schneider, & Angulo, 2007). In some cases, the cognitive goal of obtaining an accurate picture of ourselves and our social world and the affective goal of gaining positive self-esteem work hand in hand. Getting the best grade in an important exam produces accurate knowledge about our skills in the domain as well as giving us some positive self-esteem. In other cases, the two goals are incompatible. Doing more poorly on an exam than we had hoped produces conflicting, contradictory outcomes. The poor score provides accurate information about the self—namely, that we have not mastered the subject—but at the same time makes us feel bad. Self-verification theory states that people often seek confirmation of their self-concept, whether it is positive or negative (Swann, 1983). This sets up a fascinating clash between our need to self-enhance against our need to be realistic in our views of ourselves. Delusion versus truth: which one wins out? The answer, of course, as with pretty much everything to do with human social behavior, is that it depends. But on what does it depend?

One factor is who the source is of the feedback about us: when we are seeking out close relationships, we more often form them with others who verify our self-views. We also tend to feel more satisfied with interactions with self-verifying partners than those who are always positive toward us (Swann, De La Ronde, & Hixon, 1994; Swann & Pelham, 2002). Self-verification seems to be less important to us in more distant relationships, as in those cases we often tend to prefer self-enhancing feedback.

Another related factor is the part of our self-concept we are seeking feedback about, coupled with who is providing this evaluation. Let’s say you are in a romantic relationship and you ask your partner and your close friend about how physically attractive they think you are. Who would you want to give you self-enhancing feedback? Who would you want more honesty from? The evidence suggests that most of us would prefer self-enhancing feedback from our partner, and accuracy from our friend (Swann, Bosson, & Pelham, 2002), as perceived physical attractiveness is more central to romance than friendship.

Under certain conditions, verification prevails over enhancement. However, we should not underestimate the power of self-enhancement to often cloud our ability to be more realistic about ourselves. For example, self-verification of negative aspects of our self-concept is more likely in situations where we are pretty sure of our faults (Swann & Pelham, 1988). If there is room for doubt, then enhancement tends to rule. Also, if we are confident that the consequences of getting innaccurate, self-enhancing feedback about negative aspects ourselves are minimal, then we tend to welcome self-enhancement with open arms (Aronson, 1992).

Therefore, in those situations where the needs to enhance and to verify are in conflict, we must learn to reconcile our self-concept with our self-esteem. We must be able to accept our negative aspects and to work to overcome them. The ability to balance the cognitive and the affective features of the self helps us create realistic views of ourselves and to translate these into more efficient and effective behaviors.

There is one final cautionary note about focusing too much on self-enhancement, to the detriment of self-verification, and other-concern. Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park (2004) have identified another cost of our attempts to inflate our self-esteem: we may spend so much time trying to enhance our self-esteem in the eyes of others—by focusing on the clothes we are wearing, impressing others, and so forth—that we have little time left to really improve ourselves in more meaningful ways. In some extreme cases, people experience such strong needs to improve their self-esteem and social status that they act in assertive or dominant ways in order to gain it. As in many other domains, then, having positive self-esteem is a good thing, but we must be careful to temper it with a healthy realism and a concern for others. The real irony here is that those people who do show more other- than self-concern, those who engage in more prosocial behavior at personal costs to themselves, for example, often tend to have higher self-esteem anyway (Leak & Leak, 2003).

Key Takeaways

  • Self-esteem refers to the positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) feelings that we have about ourselves.
  • Self-esteem is determined both by our own achievements and accomplishments and by how we think others are judging us.
  • Self-esteem can be measured using both direct and indirect measures, and both approaches find that people tend to view themselves positively.
  • Self-esteem shows important variations across different cultural, gender, and age groups.
  • Because it is so important to have self-esteem, we may seek out, process, and remember information in a way that allows us to see ourselves even more positively.
  • High self-esteem is correlated with, but does not cause, a variety of positive outcomes.
  • Although high self-esteem does correlate with many positive outcomes in life, overly high self-esteem creates narcissism, which can lead to unfriendly, rude, and ultimately dysfunctional behaviors.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. In what ways do you attempt to boost your own self-esteem? Which strategies do you feel have been particularly effective and ineffective and why?
  2. Do you know people who have appropriately high self-esteem? What about people who are narcissists? How do these individual differences influence their social behavior in positive and negative ways?
  3. “It is relatively easy to succeed in life with low self-esteem, but very difficult to succeed without self-control, self-discipline, or emotional resilience in the face of setbacks” (Twenge & Campbell, 2009, p. 295). To what extent do you agree with this quote and why?


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3.3 The Social Self: The Role of the Social Situation

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the concept of the looking-glass self and how it affects our self-concept.
  2. Explore the impact of the labeling bias, self-labeling, and internalized prejudice on people’s self-concepts, particularly in those from marginalized social groups.
  3. Define social comparison, and summarize how people use it to define their self-concepts and self-esteem.
  4. Give examples of the use of upward and downward social comparison and their influences on social cognition and affect.
  5. Explain the concept of social identity and why it is important to human behavior.
  6. Describe how self-evaluation maintenance theory helps to explain how we react when other people’s behaviors threaten our sense of self.
  7. Describe the concept of self-presentation and the various strategies we use to portray ourselves to others.
  8. Outline the concept of reputation management and how it relates to self-presentation.
  9. Discuss the individual-difference variable of self-monitoring and how it relates to the ability and desire to self-present.

To this point, we have seen, among other things, that human beings have complex and well-developed self-concepts and that they generally attempt to view themselves positively. These more cognitive and affective aspects of ourselves do not, of course, occur in a vacuum. They are heavily influenced by the social forces that surround us. We have alluded to some of these forces already; for example, in our review of self-verification theory, we saw how feedback from others can affect our self-concept and esteem. We also looked at ways that our sociocultural backgrounds can affect the content of our self-concept.

In this section, we will consider in more detail these and other social aspects of the self by exploring the many ways that the social situation influences our self-concept and esteem. The self is not created in isolation; we are not born with perceptions of ourselves as shy, interested in jazz, or charitable to others, for example. Rather, such beliefs are determined by our observations of and interactions with others. Are you rich or poor? Beautiful or ugly? Smart or not? Good or bad at playing video games? And how do you know? These questions can be answered only by looking at those around us. The self has meaning only within the social context, and it is not wrong to say that the social situation defines our self-concept and our self-esteem. We rely on others to provide a “social reality”—to help us determine what to think, feel, and do (Hardin & Higgins, 1996). But what forms do these social influences take? It is to this question that we will now turn.

The Looking-Glass Self: Our Sense of Self is Influenced by Others’ Views of Us

The concept of the looking-glass self states that part of how we see ourselves comes from our perception of how others see us (Cooley, 1902). We might feel that we have a great sense of humor, for example, because others have told us, and often laugh (apparently sincerely) at our jokes. Many studies have supported a basic prediction derived from the notion of the looking-glass self, namely that our self-concepts are often quite similar to the views that others have of us (Beer, Watson, & McDade-Montez, 2013). This may be particularly so with people from our own families and culture. Perkins, Wiley, and Deaux (2014), for example, found that, in the United States, how members of ethnic minority groups believed other members of the same culture perceived them significantly correlated with their self-esteem scores. In contrast, their perceived appraisal of European Americans toward them was only weakly related to their self-esteem.

This evidence is merely correlational, though, so we cannot be sure which way the influence is working. Maybe we develop our self-concept quite independently of others, and they then base their views of us on how we see ourselves. The work of Mark Baldwin and colleagues has been particularly important in demonstrating that how we think we are being perceived by others really can affect how we see ourselves.

For example, Baldwin and Holmes (1987) conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that our self-concepts derive partly from the way we imagine that we would be perceived by significant others. In the first study, 40 women were instructed to visualize the faces of either two acquaintances or two older members of their own family. Later they were asked to rate their perceived enjoyableness of a piece of fiction with sexual content, and they typically responded in keeping with the responses they perceived the people they had visualized would have had. This effect was more pronounced when they sat in front of a mirror (remember the earlier discussion of self-awareness theory). In the second study, 60 men were exposed to a situation involving failure, and their self-evaluations to this setback were then measured. As with the women’s study, the men’s self-evaluations matched those they perceived that the people they were asked to visualize would have made, particularly when they were more self-aware. At least some of the time, then, we end up evaluating ourselves as we imagine others would. Of course, it can work both ways, too. Over time, the people around us may come to accept the self-concept that we present to others (Yeung & Martin, 2003).

Sometimes, the influence of other people’s appraisals of ourselves on our self-concept may be so strong that we end up internalizing them. For example, we are often labeled in particular ways by others, perhaps informally in terms of our ethnic background, or more formally in terms of a physical or psychological diagnosis. The labeling bias occurs when we are labeled, and others’ views and expectations of us are affected by that labeling (Fox & Stinnett, 1996). For example, if a teacher knows that a child has been diagnosed with a particular psychological disorder, that teacher may have different expectations and explanations of the child’s behavior than he or she would if not aware of that label. Where things get really interesting for our present discussion is when those expectations start to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and our self-concept and even our behavior start to align with them. For example, when children are labeled in special education contexts, these labels can then impact their self-esteem (Taylor, Hume, & Welsh, 2010).

If we are repeatedly labeled and evaluated by others, then self-labeling may occur, which happens when we adopt others’ labels explicitly into our self-concept. The effects of this self-labeling on our self-esteem appear to depend very much on the nature of the labels. Labels used in relation to diagnosis of psychological disorders can be detrimental to people whom then internalize them. For example, Moses (2009) found that adolescents who self-labeled according to diagnoses they had received were found to have higher levels of self-stigma in their self-concepts compared with those who described their challenges in non-pathological terms. In these types of situation, those who self-label may come to experience internalized prejudice, which occurs when individuals turn prejudice directed toward them by others onto themselves. Internalized prejudice has been found to predict more negative self-concept and poorer psychological adjustment in members of various groups, including sexual minorities (Carter, 2012) and racial minorities (Szymanski & Obiri, 2011).

In other cases, labels used by wider society to describe people negatively can be positively reclaimed by those being labeled. Galinsky and colleagues (2013) explored this use of self-labeling by members of oppressed groups to reclaim derogatory terms, including “queer” and “bitch,” used by dominant groups. After self-labeling, minority group members evaluated these terms less negatively, reported feeling more powerful, and were also perceived by observers as more powerful. Overall, these results indicate that individuals who incorporate a formerly negative label into their self-concept in order to reclaim it can sometimes undermine the stigma attached to the label.

Social Comparison Theory: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by Comparisons with Others

Self-concept and self-esteem are also heavily influenced by the process of social comparison (Buunk & Gibbons, 2007; Van Lange, 2008). Social comparison occurs when we learn about our abilities and skills, about the appropriateness and validity of our opinions, and about our relative social status by comparing our own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of others. These comparisons can be with people who we know and interact with, with those whom we read about or see on TV, or with anyone else we view as important. However, the most meaningful comparisons we make tend to be with those we see as similar to ourselves (Festinger, 1954).

Social comparison occurs primarily on dimensions on which there are no correct answers or objective benchmarks and thus on which we can rely only on the beliefs of others for information. Answers to questions such as “What should I wear to the interview?” or “What kind of music should I have at my wedding?” are frequently determined at least in part by using the behavior of others as a basis of comparison. We also use social comparison to help us determine our skills or abilities—how good we are at performing a task or doing a job, for example. When students ask their teacher for the class average on an exam, they are also seeking to use social comparison to evaluate their performance.

Research Focus

Affiliation and Social Comparison

The extent to which individuals use social comparison to determine their evaluations of events was demonstrated in a set of classic research studies conducted by Stanley Schachter (1959). Schachter’s experiments tested the hypothesis that people who were feeling anxious would prefer to affiliate with others rather than be alone because having others around would reduce their anxiety. Female college students at the University of Minnesota volunteered to participate in one of his experiments for extra credit in their introductory psychology class. They arrived at the experimental room to find a scientist dressed in a white lab coat, standing in front of a large array of electrical machinery. The scientist introduced himself as Dr. Zilstein of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, and he told the women that they would be serving as participants in an experiment concerning the effects of electrical shock. Dr. Zilstein stressed how important it was to learn about the effects of shocks, since electroshock therapy was being used more and more commonly and because the number of accidents due to electricity was also increasing!

At this point, the experimental manipulation occurred. One half of the participants (those in the high-anxiety condition) were told that the shocks would be “painful” and “intense,” although they were assured that they could do no permanent damage. The other half of the participants (those in the low-anxiety condition) were also told that they would be receiving shocks but that they would in no way be painful—rather, the shocks were said to be mild and to resemble a “tickle” or a “tingle.” Of course, the respondents were randomly assigned to conditions to assure that the women in the two conditions were, on average, equivalent except for the experimental manipulation.

Each of the women was then told that before the experiment could continue the experimenter would have to prepare the equipment and that they would have to wait until he was finished. He asked them if they would prefer to wait alone or with others. The outcome of Schachter’s research was clear: while only 33% of the women who were expecting mild shocks preferred to wait with others, 63% of the women expecting to get painful shocks wanted to wait with others. This was a statistically significant difference, and Schachter concluded that the women chose to affiliate with each other in order to reduce their anxiety about the upcoming shocks.

In further studies, Schachter found that the research participants who were under stress did not want to wait with just any other people. They preferred to wait with other people who were expecting to undergo the same severe shocks that they were rather than with people who were supposedly just waiting to see their professor. Schachter concluded that this was not just because being around other people might reduce our anxiety but because we also use others who are in the same situation as we are to help us determine how to feel about things. As Schachter (1959) put it, “Misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company” (p. 24). In this case, the participants were expecting to determine from the other participants how afraid they should be of the upcoming shocks.

In short, and as predicted by the idea of social comparison, the women in Schachter’s studies relied on each other to help them understand what was happening to them and to find out how they should feel and respond to their social situations. Again, the power of the social situation—in this case, in determining our beliefs and attitudes—is apparent.

Although Schachter’s studies were conducted in relatively artificial lab settings, similar effects have been found in field studies in more naturally occurring settings. For instance, Kulik, Mahler, and Moore (1996) found that hospital patients who were awaiting surgery preferred to talk to other individuals who were expecting to have similar procedures rather than to patients who were having different procedures, so that they could share information about what they might expect to experience. Furthermore, Kulik and his colleagues found that sharing information was helpful: people who were able to share more information had shorter hospital stays.

Upward and Downward Comparisons Influence Our Self-Esteem

Although we use social comparison in part to develop our self-concept—that is, to form accurate conclusions about our attitudes, abilities, and opinions—social comparison has perhaps an even bigger impact on our self-esteem. When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others, we feel good about ourselves, but when the outcome of comparison suggests that others are better or better off than we are, then our self-esteem is likely to suffer. This is one reason why good students who attend high schools in which the other students are only average may suddenly find their self-esteem threatened when they move on to colleges and universities in which they are no longer better than the other students (Marsh, Kong, & Hau, 2000). Perhaps you’ve had the experience yourself of the changes in self-esteem that occur when you have moved into a new year in school, got a new job, or changed your circle of friends. In these cases, you may have felt much better about yourself or much worse, depending on the nature of the change. You can see that in these cases the actual characteristics of the individual person have not changed at all; only the social situation and the comparison with others have changed.

Because many people naturally want to have positive self-esteem, they frequently attempt to compare themselves positively with others. Downward social comparison occurs when we attempt to create a positive image of ourselves through favorable comparisons with others who are worse off than we are. In one study Morse and Gergen (1970) had students apply for a job, and they also presented the students with another individual who was supposedly applying for the same job. When the other candidate was made to appear to be less qualified for the job, the downward comparison with the less-qualified applicant made the students feel better about their own qualifications. As a result, the students reported higher self-esteem than they did when the other applicant was seen as a highly competent job candidate. Research has also found that people who are suffering from serious diseases prefer to compare their condition with other individuals whose current condition and likely prognosis is worse than their own (Buunk, Gibbons, & Visser, 2002). These comparisons make them feel more hopeful about their own possible outcomes. More frequent use of downward than upward social comparison with similar others has been been shown to be a commonly used coping strategy for preserving self-esteem in the face of a wide variety of challenging life situations, including experiences of physical decline, rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS, occupational burnout, eating disorders, unemployment, educational difficulties, and intellectual disabilities (Buunk, Gibbons, & Buunk, 1997).

Although downward comparison provides us with positive feelings, upward social comparison, which occurs when we compare ourselves with others who are better off than we are, is also common (Blanton, Buunk, Gibbons, & Kuyper, 1999; Vrugt & Koenis, 2002). Upward comparison may lower our self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as well off as others. The power of upward social comparison to decrease self-esteem has been documented in many domains (Buunk, Gibbons, & Buunk, 1997). Thinking back to our case study at the beginning of this chapter, this power can sometimes be strongly felt when looking at social networking sites. Imagine someone who has had a bad day, or is generally unhappy with how life is going, then logs onto Facebook to see that most of his or her friends have posted very positive status updates about how happy they are, how well they are doing, or the wonderful vacations they are having. What would your prediction be about how that person would feel? Would that person take pleasure from knowing that the friends were happy, or would the friends’ happiness make the person feel worse? The research on upward social comparisons to similar others would suggest the latter, and this has been demonstrated empirically. Feinstein and colleagues (2013) investigated whether a tendency to make upward social comparisons on Facebook led to increased symptoms of depression over a three-week period. Sure enough, making more upward comparisons predicted increased rumination, which in turn was linked to increased depressive symptoms. 

Despite these negative effects of upward comparisons, they can sometimes be useful because they provide information that can help us do better, help us imagine ourselves as part of the group of successful people that we want to be like (Collins, 2000), and give us hope (Snyder, Cheavens, & Sympson, 1997). The power of upward social comparison can also be harnessed for social good. When people are made aware that others are already engaging in particular prosocial behaviors, they often follow suit, partly because an upward social comparison is triggered. This has been shown in relation to sustainable environmental practices, for example, with upward social comparisons helping to facilitate energy-saving behaviors in factory workers (Siero, Bakker, Dekker, & van den Berg, 1996) and hotel guests (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008).  As with downward comparisons, the effects of looking upward on our self-esteem tend to be more pronounced when we are comparing ourselves to similar others. If, for example, you have ever performed badly at a sport, the chances are that your esteem was more threatened when you compared yourselves to your teammates as opposed to the top professional athletes in that sport.

The outcomes of upward and downward social comparisons can have a substantial impact on our feelings, on our attempts to do better, and even on whether or not we want to continue performing an activity. When we compare positively with others and we feel that we are meeting our goals and living up to the expectations set by ourselves and others, we feel good about ourselves, enjoy the activity, and work harder at it. When we compare negatively with others, however, we are more likely to feel poorly about ourselves and enjoy the activity less, and we may even stop performing it entirely. When social comparisons come up poorly for us, we may experience depression or anxiety, and these discrepancies are important determinants of our self-esteem (Higgins, Loeb, & Moretti, 1995; Strauman & Higgins, 1988).

Although everyone makes social comparisons, both upward and downward, there are some sources of differences in how often we do so and which type we tend to favor. As downward social comparisons generally increase and upward ones generally decrease self-esteem, and the pursuit of high self-esteem, as we have seen, is more prominent in Western as opposed to Eastern cultures, then it should come as no surprise that there are cultural differences here. White and Lehman (2005), for example, found that Asian Canadians made more upward social comparisons than did European Canadians, particularly following failures and when the opportunity to self-improve was made salient. These findings, the authors suggest, indicate that the Asian Canadians were using social comparisons more as a vehicle for self-improvement than self-enhancement.

There are also some age-related trends in social comparison. In general, older adults tend to make more downward comparisons than do younger adults, which is part of the reason why their self-esteem is typically higher (Helgeson & Mickelson, 2000). Older adults also use more downward social comparisons to cope with feelings of regret than do younger adults, and these comparisons are often more effective for them (Bauer, Wrosch, & Jobin, 2008). In addition to these cultural and age differences in social comparison processes, there are also individual differences. People who score higher on a measure of social comparison orientation have been found to experience more positive affect following downward social comparisons and more negative affect following upward ones (Buunk, Zurriaga, Peiró, Nauta, & Gosalvez, 2005).

Social Identity Theory: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by the Groups We Belong To

In our discussion of social comparisons, we have seen that who we compare ourselves to can affect how we feel about ourselves, for better or worse. Another social influence on our self-esteem is through our group memberships. For example, we can gain self-esteem by perceiving ourselves as members of important and valued groups that make us feel good about ourselves. Social identity theory asserts that we draw part of our sense of identity and self-esteem from the social groups that we belong to (Hogg, 2003; Oakes, Haslam, & Turner, 1994; Tajfel, 1981).

Normally, group memberships result in positive feelings, which occur because we perceive our own groups and thus ourselves in a positive light. If you are an Arsenal F.C. fan, or if you are an Australian, or if you are a Muslim, for example, then your membership in the group becomes part of what you are, and the membership often makes you feel good about yourself. The list that follows presents a measure of the strength of social identity with a group of university students. If you complete the measure for your own school, university, or college, the research evidence would suggest that you would agree mostly with the statements that indicate that you identify with the group.

Figure 3.10 A Measure of Social Identity

This 10-item scale is used to measure identification with students at the University of Maryland, but it could be modified to assess identification with any group. The items marked with an R are reversed (so that low numbers become high numbers and vice versa) before the average of the scale is computed. The scale was originally reported by Luhtanen and Crocker (1992).

For each of the following items, please indicate your response on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) by writing a number in the blank next to the question.

  1. ___ I identify with the group of University of Maryland students.
  2. ___ I am glad to belong to the group of University of Maryland students.
  3. ___ I make excuses for belonging to the group of University of Maryland students.
  4. ___ I consider the group of University of Maryland students to be important.
  5. ___ I feel held back by the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  6. ___ I criticize the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  7. ___ I see myself as belonging to the group of University of Maryland students.
  8. ___ I try to hide belonging to the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  9. ___ I feel strong ties with the group of University of Maryland students.
  10. ___ I am annoyed to say that I am a member of the group of University of Maryland students. (R)

Kay Deaux and her colleagues (Deaux, Reid, Mizrahi, & Ethier, 1995) asked U.S. college students to list the groups that they identified with. As you can see in Table 3.1 ,”Varieties of Social Identities,” the students reported belonging to a wide variety of groups and claimed that many of these groups provided them with social identities. The categories that they listed included ethnic and religious groups (e.g., Asian, Jewish), political affiliations (e.g., conservative, Democrat), occupations and hobbies (e.g., gardener, tennis player), personal relationships (e.g., husband, girlfriend), and marginalized groups (e.g., gay, homeless). You can see that these identities were likely to provide a lot of positive feelings for the individuals.

Table 3.1 Varieties of Social Identities
Relationships Vocation/avocation Political affiliation Stigma Ethnicity/religion
  • Widow
  • Divorced person
  • Woman
  • Man
  • Lover
  • Friend
  • Girlfriend
  • Boyfriend
  • Homemaker
  • Head of household
  • Teenager
  • Child
  • Wife
  • Husband
  • Son
  • Daughter
  • Sister
  • Brother
  • Grandmother
  • Grandfather
  • Uncle
  • Aunt
  • Mother/Father
  • Intellectual
  • Bookworm
  • Military veteran
  • Student
  • Collector
  • Musician
  • Gardener
  • Teacher
  • Supervisor
  • Secretary
  • Scientist
  • Psychologist
  • Salesperson
  • Business person
  • Athlete
  • Feminist
  • Political independent
  • Democrat
  • Republican
  • Old person
  • Fat person
  • Deaf person
  • Person with AIDS
  • Lesbian
  • Gay
  • Smoker
  • Alcoholic
  • Welfare recipient
  • Unemployed person
  • Homeless person
  • Retired person
  • New Yorker
  • American
  • Hispanic
  • Asian American
  • African American
  • Jewish
  • Christian
  • Catholic
  • Southerner
This table represents some of the many social identities reported by a sample of college students. Data are from Deaux and colleagues (1995).

Which of our many identities is most accessible for us will vary from day to day as a function of the particular situation we are in (Yakushko, Davidson, & Williams, 2009). Seeing our national flag outside a government office may remind of us our national identity, whereas walking past our local soccer stadium may remind us of our identification with our team. Identity can also be heightened when it is threatened by conflict with another group—such as during an important sports game with a rival team. We each have multiple social identities, and which of our identities we draw our self-esteem from at a given time will depend on the situation we are in, as well as the social goals we have.

Football game crowd
Figure 3.11 Social identity refers to the positive emotions we experience as a member of an important social group.

In particular, we use occasions when our social groups are successful in meeting their goals to fuel our self-worth. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues (Cialdini et al., 1976) studied the idea that we can sometimes enhance our self-esteem by basking in the reflected gloryof our ingroups, which occurs when we use and advertise our ingroups’ positive achievements to boost our self-esteem. To test this idea, they observed the clothes and clothing accessories that students at different U.S. universities wore to classes on Mondays. They found that when the university’s football team had won its game on Saturday, students were likely to emphasize their university membership by wearing clothing, such as sweatshirts and hats with the symbols of the university on them. However, they were significantly less likely to wear university clothing on the Mondays that followed a football loss. Furthermore, in a study in which students from a university were asked to describe a victory by their university team, they frequently used the term “we,” whereas when asked to describe a game in which their school lost, they used the term “we” significantly less frequently. Emphasizing that “we’re a good school” and “we beat them” evidently provided a social identity for these students, allowing them to feel good about themselves.

When people in our ingroups perform well, social identity theory suggests that we tend to make intergroup social comparisons, and by seeing our group as doing better than other groups, we come to feel better about ourselves. However, this is not generally what happens when we make intragroup comparisons—those between ourselves and other ingroup members. In this case it is often not advantageous to bask in the glory of others in our ingroups, because in some cases the other person’s successes may create an upward comparison and thus more negative emotions. Self-evaluation maintenance theory (Tesser, 1988) asserts that our self-esteem can be threatened when someone else outperforms us, particularly if that person is close to us and the performance domain is central to our self-concept. This theory leads to the interesting implication that these threats will often occur in the context of our family relationships, and they have been shown to be an integral part of both family functioning in general (Tesser, 1980) and marital relationships in particular (Beach et al., 1996).

When threats occur, the theory states that we will typically try to rebuild our self-esteem using one of three main strategies. The first is distancing, where we redefine ourselves as less close to the person in question. For example, if a close friend keeps beating you at tennis, you may, over time, seek out another playing partner to protect your bruised ego. Interestingly, people who are more narcissistic are more likely to use this tactic than people who are lower in these characteristics (Nicholls & Stukas, 2011). The second option is to redefine how important the trait or skill really is to your self-concept. For instance, you may decide that tennis ability just isn’t that important a part of who you are, and choose to take up another hobby instead. The third strategy is try to improve on the ability in question. In the current example, this would mean practicing more often or hiring a coach to improve your tennis game. Notice the clear parallels between these strategies that occur in response to threats to our self-esteem posed by the behavior of others, and those that are triggered by feelings of self-discrepancy, discussed earlier in this chapter. In both cases, we seek to rebuild our self-esteem by redefining the aspect of ourself that has been diminished.

Self-Presentation: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by the Audiences We Have

It is interesting to note that each of the social influences on our sense of self that we have discussed can be harnessed as a way of protecting our self-esteem. The final influence we will explore can also be used strategically to elevate not only our own esteem, but the esteem we have in the eyes of others. Positive self-esteem occurs not only when we do well in our own eyes but also when we feel that we are positively perceived by the other people we care about.

Figure 3.12 Being seen positively by others helps us to feel positive about ourselves.

Because it is so important to be seen as competent and productive members of society, people naturally attempt to present themselves to others in a positive light. We attempt to convince others that we are good and worthy people by appearing attractive, strong, intelligent, and likable and by saying positive things to others (Jones & Pittman, 1982; Schlenker, 2003). The tendency to present a positive self-image to others, with the goal of increasing our social status, is known as self-presentation, and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life.

A big question in relation to self-presentation is the extent to which it is an honest versus more strategic, potentially dishonest enterprise. The sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) developed an influential theory of self-presentation and described it as a mainly honest process, where people need to present the parts of themselves required by the social role that they are playing in a given situation. If everyone plays their part according to accepted social scripts and conventions, then the social situation will run smoothly and the participants will avoid embarrassment. Seen in this way, self-presentation is a transparent process, where we are trying to play the part required of us, and we trust that others are doing the same. Other theorists, though, have viewed self-presentation as a more strategic endeavor, which may involve not always portraying ourselves in genuine ways (e.g., Jones & Pittman, 1982). As is often the case with two seemingly opposing perspectives, it is quite likely that both are true in certain situations, depending on the social goals of the actors.

Different self-presentation strategies may be used to create different emotions in other people, and the use of these strategies may be evolutionarily selected because they are successful (Toma, Hancock, & Ellison, 2008). Edward Jones and Thane Pittman (1982) described five self-presentation strategies, each of which is expected to create a resulting emotion in the other person:

  1. The goal of ingratiation is to create liking by using flattery or charm.
  2. The goal of intimidation is to create fear by showing that you can be aggressive.
  3. The goal of exemplification is to create guilt by showing that you are a better person than the other.
  4. The goal of supplication is to create pity by indicating to others that you are helpless and needy.
  5. The goal of self-promotion is to create respect by persuading others that you are competent.
Figure 3.13 Attempts to impress and intimidate others to gain status are not unique to humans.

No matter who is using it, self-presentation can easily be overdone, and when it is, it backfires. People who overuse the ingratiation technique and who are seen as obviously and strategically trying to get others to like them are often disliked because of this. Have you ever had a slick salesperson obviously try to ingratiate him- or herself with you just so you will buy a particular product, and you end up not liking the person and making a hasty retreat from the premises? People who overuse the exemplification or self-promotion strategies by boasting or bragging, particularly if that boasting does not appear to reflect their true characteristics, may end up being perceived as arrogant and even self-deluded (Wosinska, Dabul, Whetstone-Dion, & Cialdini, 1996). Using intimidation can also often backfire; acting more modestly may be more effective. Again, the point is clear: we may want to self-promote with the goal of getting others to like us, but we must also be careful to consider the point of view of the other person. Being aware of these strategies is not only useful for better understanding how to use them responsibly ourselves, it can also help us to understand that other people’s behaviors may often reflect their self-presentational concerns. This can, in turn, facilitate better empathy for others, particularly when they are exhibiting challenging behaviors (Friedlander & Schwartz, 1985). For instance, perhaps someone’s verbally aggressive behavior toward you is more about that person being afraid rather than about his or her desire to do you harm.

—Now that we have explored some of the commonly used self-presentation tactics, let’s look at how they manifest in specific social behaviors. One concrete way to self-promote is to display our positive physical characteristics. A reason that many of us spend money on improving our physical appearance is the desire to look good to others so that they will like us. We can also earn status by collecting expensive possessions such as fancy cars and big houses and by trying to associate with high-status others. Additionally, we may attempt to dominate or intimidate others in social interactions. People who talk more and louder and those who initiate more social interactions are afforded higher status. A businessman who greets others with a strong handshake and a smile, and people who speak out strongly for their opinions in group discussions may be attempting to do so as well. In some cases, people may even resort to aggressive behavior, such as bullying, in attempts to improve their status (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996).

Self-promotion can also be pursued in our online social behaviors. For example, a study in Taiwan conducted by Wang and Stefanone (2013) used survey methodology to investigate the relationship between personality traits, self-presentation and the use of check-ins on Facebook. Interestingly, narcissism was found to predict scores on a measure of exhibitionistic, self-promoting use of Facebook check-ins, which included items like “I check in so people know that I am with friends,” and “I expect friends to like or leave comments on my check-in status on Facebook.”

Other studies have also found associations between narcissistic traits and self-promotional activity on Facebook. Mehdizadeh (2010), for example, found that narcissistic personality scores were positively correlated with the amount of daily logins on Facebook and the duration of each login. Furthermore, narcissistic traits were related to increased use of self-promotional material in the main photo, view photos, status updates, and notes sections of people’s Facebook pages.

Analysis of the content and language used in Facebook postings has also revealed that they are sometimes used by individuals to self-promote. Bazarova, Taft, Choi, and Cosley (2013) explored self-presentation through language styles used in status updates, wall posts, and private messages from 79 participants. The use of positive emotion words was correlated with self-reported self-presentation concern in status updates. This is consistent with the idea that people share positive experiences with Facebook friends partly as a self-enhancement strategy.

Online self-presentation doesn’t seem to be limited to Facebook usage. There is also evidence that self-promotional concerns are often a part of blogging behaviors, too. Mazur and Kozarian (2010), for example, analyzed the content of adolescents’ blog entries and concluded that a careful concern for self-presentation was more central to their blogging behavior than direct interaction with others. This often seems to apply to micro-blogging sites like Twitter. Marwick and Boyd (2011) found that self-presentational strategies were a consistent part of celebrity tweeting, often deployed by celebrities to maintain their popularity and image.

You might not be surprised to hear that men and women use different approaches to self-presentation. Men are more likely to present themselves in an assertive way, by speaking and interrupting others, by visually focusing on the other person when they are speaking, and by leaning their bodies into the conversation. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be modest; they tend to create status by laughing and smiling, and by reacting more positively to the statements of others (Dovidio, Brown, Heltman, Ellyson, & Keation, 1988).

These gender differences are probably in large part socially determined as a result of the different reinforcements that men and women receive for using particular self-presentational strategies. For example, self-promoting by speaking out and acting assertively can be more effective for men than it is for women, in part because cross-culturally consistent stereotypes tend to depict assertiveness as more desirable in men than in women. These stereotypes can have very important consequences in the real world. For instance, one of the reasons for the “glass ceiling” existing in some occupations (where women experience discrimination in reaching top positions in organizations) may be attributable to the more negative reactions that their assertive behaviors, necessary for career advancement, receive than those of their male colleagues  (Eagly & Carli, 2007).

There are also some cultural differences in the extent to which people use self-presentation strategies in social contexts. For instance, when considering job interviews, Konig, Haftseinsson, Jansen, & Stadelmann (2011) found that individuals from Iceland and Switzerland used less self-presentational behavior than people from the United States. Differences in self-presentation have also been found in job interviews involving individuals from Ghana, Turkey, Norway, and Germany, with the former two groups showing higher impression management scores than the latter two (Bye et al., 2011).

So far we have been talking about self-presentation as it operates in particular situations in the short-term. However, we also engage in longer-term self-presentational projects, where we seek to build particular reputations with particular audiences. —Emler & Reicher (1995) describe the unique capacity humans have to know one another by repute and argue that, accordingly, we are often engaged in a process of reputation management, which is a form of long-term self-presentation, where individuals seek to build and sustain specific reputations with important audiences. According to this perspective, our behaviors in current social situations may not only be to serve our self-presentational goals in that moment, but also be based on a consideration of their longer-term repercussions for our reputations. As many politicians, for example, know only too well, a poor decision from their past can come back to haunt them when their reputation is being assessed during a campaign.

The concept of reputation management can be used to help explain a wide variety of social and antisocial behaviors, including corporate branding (Smith, Smith, & Wang, 2010), sociomoral debate (Emler, Tarry, & St. James, 2007), and teenage criminal activity (Lopez-Romero & Romero, 2011). In the last example, it is argued that a lot of teenage antisocial behavior results from a desire to build a reputation for toughness and rebelliousness with like-minded peer audiences (Emler & Reicher, 1995). Similarly, antisocial and self-destructive online actions, like people posting to Facebook their involvement in illegal acts during riots, or individuals engaging in life-threatening activities in Internet crazes like Neknominate, may make more sense if they are considered partly as stemming from a desire to project a particular reputation to specific audiences. Perhaps the perceived social kudos from doing these things outweighs the obvious personal risks in the individuals’ minds at the time.

People often project distinct reputations to different social audiences. For example, adolescents who engage in antisocial activity to build reputations for rebelliousness among their peers will often seek to construct very different reputations when their parents are the audience (Emler & Reicher, 1995). The desire to compartmentalize our reputations and audiences can even spill over into our online behaviors. Wiederhold (2012) found that, with some adolescents’ Facebook friends numbering in the hundreds or thousands, increasing numbers are moving to Twitter in order to reach a more selective audience. One critical trigger for this has been that their parents are now often friends with them on Facebook, creating a need for young people to find a new space where they can build reputations that may not always be parent-friendly (Wiederhold, 2012).

Although the desire to present the self favorably is a natural part of everyday life, both person and situation factors influence the extent to which we do it. For one, we are more likely to self-present in some situations than in others. When we are applying for a job or meeting with others whom we need to impress, we naturally become more attuned to the social aspects of the self, and our self-presentation increases.

There are also individual differences. Some people are naturally better at self-presentation—they enjoy doing it and are good at it—whereas others find self-presentation less desirable or more difficult. An important individual-difference variable known as self-monitoring has been shown in many studies to have a major impact on self-presentation. Self-monitoring refers to the tendency to be both motivated and capable of regulating our behavior to meet the demands of social situations (Gangestad & Snyder, 2000). High self-monitors are particularly good at reading the emotions of others and therefore are better at fitting into social situations—they agree with statements such as “In different situations and with different people, I often act like very different persons,” and “I guess I put on a show to impress or entertain people.” Low self-monitors, on the other hand, generally act on their own attitudes, even when the social situation suggests that they should behave otherwise. Low self-monitors are more likely to agree with statements such as “At parties and social gatherings, I do not attempt to do or say things that others will like,” and “I can only argue for ideas that I already believe.” In short, high self-monitors use self-presentation to try to get other people to like them by behaving in ways that the others find desirable, whereas low self-monitors tend to follow their internal convictions more than the demands of the social situation.

In one experiment that showed the importance of self-monitoring, Cheng and Chartrand (2003) had college students interact individually with another student (actually an experimental confederate) whom they thought they would be working with on an upcoming task. While they were interacting, the confederate subtly touched her own face several times, and the researchers recorded the extent to which the student participant mimicked the confederate by also touching his or her own face.

The situational variable was the status of the confederate. Before the meeting began, and according to random assignment to conditions, the students were told either that they would be the leader and that the other person would be the worker on the upcoming task, or vice versa. The person variable was self-monitoring, and each participant was classified as either high or low on self-monitoring on the basis of his or her responses to the self-monitoring scale.

As you can see in Figure 3.14, “Self-Monitoring and Behavioral Mimicry,” Cheng and Chartrand found an interaction effect: the students who had been classified as high self-monitors were more likely to mimic the behavior of the confederate when she was described as being the leader than when she was described as being the worker, indicating that they were “tuned in” to the social situation and modified their behavior to appear more positively. Although the low self-monitors did mimic the other person, they did not mimic her more when the other was high, versus low, status. This finding is consistent with the idea that the high self-monitors were particularly aware of the other person’s status and attempted to self-present more positively to the high-status leader. The low self-monitors, on the other hand—because they feel less need to impress overall—did not pay much attention to the other person’s status.

Figure 3.14: Self-Monitoring and Behavioral Mimicry

High self-monitors imitated more when the person they were interacting with was of higher (versus lower) status. Low self-monitors were not sensitive to the status of the other. Data are from Cheng and Chartrand (2003).

This differential sensitivity to social dynamics between high and low self-monitors suggests that their self-esteem will be affected by different factors. For people who are high in self-monitoring, their self-esteem may be positively impacted when they perceive that their behavior matches the social demands of the situation, and negatively affected when they feel that it does not. In contrast, low self-monitors may experience self-esteem boosts when they see themselves behaving consistently with their internal standards, and feel less self-worth when they feel they are not living up to them (Ickes, Holloway, Stinson, & Hoodenpyle, 2006).

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Social psychologists often use concepts from the study of the self to make sense of important social issues For example, many are interested in understanding sustainable behaviors in relation to climate change. To test your learning of some key concepts from this chapter, read through each of the following sustainability-related scenarios. For each one, select the most relevant concept from chapter 3 by matching it with the correct scenarios.

Concepts: self-affirmation, deindividuation, self-monitoring, basking in reflected glory, cognitive dissonance, social comparison, self-complexity, social identity theory, self-consciousness, self-presentation.


  1. Some politicians may change how much they publicly endorse sustainability initiatives that may clash with economic concerns, depending on which groups of people they are meeting with.
  2. Many people feel a sense of inconsistency because they think that tackling climate change is an important issue, but do not always practice sustainable behaviors.
  3. Some activists for climate change see their activist identity as a large part of their self-concept, and may have relatively few other important identities.
  4. People may feel more judged on whether they practice sustainability in public, as opposed to more private settings.
  5. Individuals may feel that their own commitments to sustainable behavior are inadequate if they see peers who are doing more.
  6. Some people involved in climate change activism find that they draw self-esteem from the positive achievements of the relevant groups they belong to.
  7. Some individuals may claim to practice more sustainable behaviors than is accurate, in order to appear in a positive light in front of particular audiences.
  8. A student at a school that receives an institutional award for their sustainable practices may feel good about this and talk about their membership of the school more regularly in the aftermath.
  9. When someone is criticized for not pursuing sustainable behaviors, for example not regularly recycling, they may respond with a counter claim in a related area, such as by noting that they drive a hybrid vehicle.
  10. When people are in a large crowd, they may sometimes feel less personally accountable and practice less sustainable behaviors because of this. For instance when attendees at a music festival leave large amounts of litter behind.

Key Takeaways

  • Our self-concepts are affected by others’ appraisals, as demonstrated by concepts including the looking-glass self and self-labeling.
  • The self-concept and self-esteem are also often strongly influenced by social comparison. For example, we use social comparison to determine the accuracy and appropriateness of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
  • When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others through downward social comparison, we feel good about ourselves. Upward social comparison with others who are better off than we are leads to negative emotions.
  • Social identity refers to the positive emotions that we experience as a member of an important social group.
  • Normally, our group memberships result in positive feelings, which occur because we perceive our own groups, and thus ourselves, in a positive light.
  • Which of our many category identities is most accessible for us will vary from day to day as a function of the particular situation we are in.
  • In the face of others’ behaviors, we may enhance our self-esteem by “basking in the reflected glory” of our ingroups or of other people we know.
  • If other people’s actions threaten our sense of self according to self-evaluation maintenance theory, we may engage in a variety of strategies aimed at redefining our self-concept and rebuilding our self-esteem.
  • The tendency to present a positive self-image to others, with the goal of increasing our social status, is known as self-presentation, and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life. Different self-presentation strategies may be used to create different emotions in other people.
  • We often use self-presentation in the longer term, seeking to build and sustain particular reputations with specific social audiences.
  • The individual-difference variable of self-monitoring relates to the ability and desire to self-present.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe some aspects of your self-concept that have been created through social comparison.
  2. Describe times when you have engaged in downward and upward social comparison and the effects these comparisons have had on your self-esteem. To what extent do your experiences fit with the research evidence here?
  3. What are your most salient social identities? How do they create positive feelings for you?
  4. Outline a situation where someone else’s behavior has threatened your self-concept. Which of the strategies outlined in relation to self-evaluation maintenance theory did you engage in to rebuild your self-concept?
  5. Identify a situation where you basked in the reflected glory of your ingroup’s behavior or peformance. What effect did this have on your self-esteem and why?
  6. Describe some situations where people you know have used each of the self-presentation strategies that were listed in this section. Which strategies seem to be more and less effective in helping them to achieve their social goals, and why?
  7. Consider your own level of self-monitoring. Do you think that you are more of a high or a low self-monitor, and why? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages for you of the level of self-monitoring that you have?


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Media Attributions


3.4 Thinking Like a Social Psychologist about the Self

Social psychologists think about the self in the same way that they think about any other social phenomenon—in terms of affect, behavior, and cognition, and in terms of the person-situation interaction. Our focus in this chapter has been on the cognitive, affective, and social aspects of the self and on the remarkable extent to which the self is created by the social situation in which we find ourselves.

Take a moment and use this new knowledge about how social psychologists think about the self to consider your own self. Think carefully (and as fairly as you can) about how you think and feel about yourself. What constructs did you list when you tried the Twenty Statements Test in section 10, “The Cognitive Self: The Self-Concept”? Which of your physical characteristics were most accessible for you? And what about your social identities and your traits? Do you now have a better insight into the characteristics that are most important to you?

Now consider the complexity and consistency of your self-concept. Do you think it would be better if it was more complex or consistent? Do you think you should seek out more dimensions to round it out? Or perhaps you feel that you already have a healthy and complex self-concept. In any case, you might want to keep this concept in mind as you think about yourself in the future.

Self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of the self. Do you feel that you have relatively high or low self-esteem? What about other people you know? Does their level of self-esteem influence how you relate to them? And how do the aspects of your own self help (or potentially harm) your relations with others?

And what about your relations with the social groups you belong to? Do you derive a lot of your self-esteem from your group memberships? Which groups provide you with social identities, and are there group memberships that may potentially not provide you with high social identity? When and how do you use self-presentation and reputation management in your daily life?

Finally, take a moment and consider your online behavior. How do you think it both reflects, and influences how you see yourself?

In sum, the self is the fundamental part of human psychology and will form the basis of all our analyses of social behavior. We have already seen this in previous topics, and will continue to see it going forward.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

H5P: Test your Learning: Chapter 3 True or False Quiz

How well do you now understand the topic of the self? One way to find out is to take this brief true or false quiz. Good luck!

  1. Priya’s self-complexity is high, so when she fails in one area, it is less likely to affect her overall self-esteem.
  2. Different aspects of our identities can become more salient in different social situations.
  3. Sierra often compares her performance on exams to other students who have done worse than she has, This is an example of upward social comparison.
  4. The self-presentational strategy where we try to make others like us is called self-promotion.
  5. Having higher rather than lower levels of self-esteem causes more positive outcomes.


3.5 Chapter Summary

The many and varied thoughts that we have about ourselves are stored in the variety of self-schemas that make up the cognitive part of the self—the self-concept. The self-concept is the most complex of all our schemas because it includes all of the images, desires, beliefs, feelings, and hopes that we have for and about ourselves.

The self-concept can be measured by simply asking people to list the things that come to mind when they think about themselves or by using other techniques such as asking people to remember information related to the self. Research has found that some people have more complex and consistent selves than others do, and that having a variety of self-schemas is useful because the various aspects of the self help to improve our responses to the events that we experience.

The self-concept can vary in its current accessibility. When the self-concept is highly accessible and therefore becomes the focus of our attention, the outcome is known as self-awareness or self-consciousness. Private self-consciousness occurs when we are introspective about our inner thoughts and feelings, whereas public self-consciousness occurs when we focus on our public image. It is important to be aware of variation in the accessibility of the aspects of the self-concept because the changes in our thoughts about the self have an important influence on our behavior. Increased self-awareness, for instance, can lead to increased perceptions of self-discrepancy, which occurs when we see our current self as not matching our ideal self.

Self-esteem refers to the positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) evaluations that we make of ourselves. When we feel that we are viewed positively and held in esteem by others, we say that we have high social status. Having high social status creates positive self-esteem.

The desire to see ourselves positively leads us to seek out, process, and remember information in a way that allows us to see ourselves even more positively. However, although the desire to self-enhance is a powerful motive, it is not the same in all cultures, and increases in self-esteem do not necessarily make us better or more effective people. An effective life involves an appropriate balance between the feeling and the cognitive parts of the self: we must always consider not only the positivity of our self-views but also the accuracy of our self-characterizations and the strength of our relationships with others.

Although we learn about ourselves in part by examining our own behaviors, the self-concept and self-esteem are also determined through our interactions with others. The looking-glass self reflects how others’ views of us feed into the way we see ourselves. Social comparison occurs when we learn about our abilities and skills, about the appropriateness and validity of our opinions, and about our relative social status by comparing our own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of others.

We use downward social comparison to create a positive image of ourselves through favorable comparisons with others who are worse off than we are. Through upward social comparison, we compare ourselves with others who are better off than we are. In some cases, we can bask in the reflected glory of others that we care about, but in other cases, upward comparison makes us feel inadequate. An important aspect of the self-concept that is derived from our social experiences is our social identity, which is turn is derived from our membership in social groups and our attachments to those groups.

The tendency to attempt to present a positive image to others and thereby attempt to increase our social status is known as self-presentation, and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life. In the longer term, our concern to present ourselves in particular ways can become a more ongoing reputation management project, and we may end up building different reputations with different audiences. Some people are high self-monitors, more able and willing to self-present than are other people, and will shift their behavior across situations and audiences more often than low self-monitors, who try to act more consistently with their internal values.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

H5P: Test your Learning: Chapter 3 Multiple-Choice Quiz

As you have reached the end of this chapter, consider taking this multiple-choice quiz to review what you have learned about some key concepts. As always, you can check the correct answers as you go, or wait for overall feedback at the end.

  1. Javier has an interdependent self-concept, which means that he most likely _____.
    1. focuses on the welfare of himself more than that of others
    2. defines individuals as embedded in their ingroups
    3. defines individuals as being fully autonomous
    4. emphasizes outgroup loyalty
  2. Aima is a professional chef, and sees this as the central part of her self-concept. She rarely thinks of herself in other ways. Which concept is she showing here?
    1. low self-complexity
    2. high self-complexity
    3. high self-concept clarity
    4. low self-concept clarity
  3. Sharan is someone who is often willing and able to regulate her behavior in response to the demands of the social situation. Which concept does this tendency best fit with?
    1. self-monitoring
    2. self-esteem
    3. self-ingratiation
    4. self-efficacy
  4. Grace is having a conversation with her grandmother about her school, friends, and various activities and interests. Grace also says, “Grandma, I think that I’m a good person. I like making other people feel happy!” Grace’s feeling that she is worthy and good reflects her _____.
    1. self-schema
    2. self-concept
    3. self-esteem
    4. self-monitoring
  5. Damon has dreamed of playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team for many years. He gets close when he joins one of their youth teams, but he realizes that he is not quite as good as many of the players around him. Here, he is making a(n) _____ social comparison that will likely _____ his self-esteem.
    1. upward; increase
    2. downward; decrease
    3. upward; decrease
    4. downward; not affect


Chapter 4. Attitudes, Behavior, and Persuasion

Chapter Learning Objectives

1. Exploring Attitudes

  • Define the concept of an attitude and explain why it is of such interest to social psychologists.
  • Review the variables that determine attitude strength.
  • Outline the factors that affect the strength of the attitude-behavior relationship.

2. Changing Attitudes through Persuasion

  • Outline how persuasion is determined by the choice of effective communicators and effective messages.
  • Review the conditions under which attitudes are best changed using spontaneous versus thoughtful strategies.
  • Summarize the variables that make us more or less resistant to persuasive appeals.

3. Changing Attitudes by Changing Behavior

  • Outline the principles of self-perception and explain how they can account for the influences of behavior on attitude.
  • Outline the principles of cognitive dissonance and explain how they can account for the influences of behavior on attitude.

The Effective Use of Persuasion by Apple to Drive Sales

On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs, the enigmatic co-founder and CEO of Apple, Inc., introduced the first iPhone to the world. The device quickly revolutionized the smartphone industry and changed what consumers came to expect from their phones. In the years since, smartphones have changed from being regarded as status symbols (Apple sold close to 1.4 million iPhones during their first year on the market) to fairly commonplace and essential tools. One out of every five people in the world now owns a smartphone, there are more smartphones in use in the world than PCs, and it is difficult for many young people to imagine how anyone ever managed to function without them. If you consider the relatively high cost of these devices, this transformation has been truly remarkable.

Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone 4
Figure 4.1  Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone 4

Much of this shift in attitude can be credited to the impressive use of tactics of persuasion employed by smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung. The typical marketing campaign for a new model of an iPhone delivers a carefully crafted message that cleverly weaves together stories, visuals, and music to create an emotional experience for the viewing public. These messages are often designed to showcase the range of uses of the device and to evoke a sense of need. Apple also strives to form relationships with its customers, something that is illustrated by the fact that 86 percent of those who purchased the iPhone 5S were upgrading from a previous model. This strategy has benefited Apple tremendously as it has sold over 400 million iPhones since 2007, making it one of the wealthiest companies in the world.

Sources: Borchers, T. A. (2013). Persuasion in the media age (3rd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Global Apple iPhone sales in the fiscal years 2007 to 2013 (in million units). (2014). In Statista. Retrieved from

Heggestuen, J. (2013). One in every 5 people in the world own a smartphone, one in every 17 own a tablet. Business insider. Retrieved from

iPhone 5S sales statistics. (2013). In Statistic brain. Retrieved from

One of the most central concepts in social psychology is that of attitudes (Banaji & Heiphetz, 2010). In this chapter, we will focus on attitude formation, attitude change, and the influence of attitudes on behavior. We will see that attitudes are an essential component of our lives because they play a vital role in helping us effectively interact with our environment. Our attitudes allow us to make judgments about events (e.g., “I don’t mind waiting in a queue for these concert tickets”), individuals (e.g., “I really admire the Dalai Lama”), social groups (e.g., “I love my university”), and many other things.

We will begin our discussion by looking at how attitudes are defined by the ABCs of social psychology—affect, behavior, and cognition—noting that some attitudes are more affective in nature, some more cognitive in nature, and some more behavioral in nature. We will see that attitudes vary in terms of their strength such that some attitudes are stronger and some are weaker. And we will see that the strength of our attitudes is one of the determinants of when our attitudes successfully predict our behaviors.

Then we will explore how attitudes can be created and changed—the basic stuff of persuasion, advertising, and marketing. We will look at which types of communicators can deliver the most effective messages to which types of message recipients. And we will see that the same message can be more effective for different people in different social situations. We will see that persuasive messages may be processed either automatically (i.e., in a rather cursory or superficial way) or thoughtfully (with a greater focus on the argument presented) and that the amount and persistence of persuasion will vary on the processing route that we use. Most generally, we will see that persuasion is effective when the communication resonates with the message recipient’s motivations, desires, and goals (Kruglanski & Stroebe, 2005).

Because the ABCs of social psychology tend to be consistent, persuasive appeals that change our thoughts and feelings will be effective in changing our behavior as well. This attitude consistency means that if a company can make you think and feel more positively about its product, then you will be more likely to buy it.

But attitude consistency works in the other direction too, such that when our behaviors change, our thoughts and beliefs about the attitude object may also change. Once we buy a product, we will find even more things to like about it, and our attitudes toward the company behind the product will become even more positive. Although this possibility is less intuitive and therefore may seem more surprising, it also follows from the basic consistencies among affect, cognition, and behavior. We will discuss two theories—self-perception theory and cognitive dissonance theory—each of which makes this prediction but for different reasons.


Banaji, M. R., & Heiphetz, L. (2010). Attitudes. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 353–393). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Kruglanski, A. W., & Stroebe, W. (2005). The influence of beliefs and goals on attitudes: Issues of structure, function, and dynamics. In D. Albarracín, B. T. Johnson, & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), The handbook of attitudes (pp. 323–368). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


4.1 Exploring Attitudes

Learning Objectives

  1. Define the concept of an attitude and explain why it is of such interest to social psychologists.
  2. Review the variables that determine attitude strength.
  3. Outline the factors that affect the strength of the attitude-behavior relationship.

Although we might use the term in a different way in our everyday life (e.g., “Hey, he’s really got an attitude!”), social psychologists reserve the term attitude to refer to our relatively enduring evaluation of something, where the something is called the attitude object. The attitude object might be a person, a product, or a social group (Albarracín, Johnson, & Zanna, 2005; Wood, 2000). In this section, we will consider the nature and strength of attitudes and the conditions under which attitudes best predict our behaviors.

Attitudes Are Evaluations

When we say that attitudes are evaluations, we mean that they involve a preference for or against the attitude object, as commonly expressed in terms such as prefer, like, dislike, hate, and love. When we express our attitudes—for instance, when we say, “I like swimming,” “I hate snakes,” or “I love my parents” —we are expressing the relationship (either positive or negative) between the self and an attitude object. Statements such as these make it clear that attitudes are an important part of the self-concept.

Every human being holds thousands of attitudes, including those about family and friends, political figures, abortion rights, terrorism, preferences for music, and much more. Each of our attitudes has its own unique characteristics, and no two attitudes come to us or influence us in quite the same way. Research has found that some of our attitudes are inherited, at least in part, via genetic transmission from our parents (Olson, Vernon, Harris, & Jang, 2001). Other attitudes are learned mostly through direct and indirect experiences with the attitude objects (De Houwer, Thomas, & Baeyens, 2001). We may like to ride roller coasters in part because our genetic code has given us a thrill-loving personality and in part because we’ve had some really great times on roller coasters in the past. Still other attitudes are learned via the media (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003; Levina, Waldo, & Fitzgerald, 2000) or through our interactions with friends (Poteat, 2007). Some of our attitudes are shared by others (most of us like sugar, fear snakes, and are disgusted by cockroaches), whereas other attitudes—such as our preferences for different styles of music or art—are more individualized.

Table 4.1, “Heritability of Some Attitudes,” shows some of the attitudes that have been found to be the most highly heritable (i.e., most strongly determined by genetic variation among people). These attitudes form earlier and are stronger and more resistant to change than others (Bourgeois, 2002), although it is not yet known why some attitudes are more genetically determined than are others.

Table 4.1 Heritability of Some Attitudes
Attitude Heritability
Abortion on demand 0.54
Roller coaster rides 0.52
Death penalty for murder 0.5
Organized religion 0.45
Doing athletic activities 0.44
Voluntary euthanasia 0.44
Capitalism 0.39
Playing chess 0.38
Reading books 0.37
Exercising 0.36
Education 0.32
Big parties 0.32
Smoking 0.31
Being the center of attention 0.28
Getting along well with other people 0.28
Wearing clothes that draw attention 0.24
Sweets 0.22
Public speaking 0.2
Castration as punishment for sex crimes 0.17
Loud music 0.11
Looking my best at all times 0.1
Doing crossword puzzles 0.02
Separate roles for men and women 0
Making racial discrimination illegal 0
Playing organized sports 0
Easy access to birth control 0
Being the leader of groups 0
Being assertive 0
Ranked from most heritable to least heritable. Data are from Olson, Vernon, Harris, and Jang (2001). Olson, J. M., Vernon, P. A., Harris, J. A., Harris, J.A., & Jang, K. L. (2001). The heritability of attitudes: A study of twins. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(6), 845–860.

Our attitudes are made up of cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Consider an environmentalist’s attitude toward recycling, which is probably very positive:

  • In terms of affect: They feel happy when they recycle.
  • In terms of behavior: They regularly recycle their bottles and cans.
  • In terms of cognition: They believe recycling is the responsible thing to do.

Although most attitudes are determined by affect, behavior, and cognition, there is nevertheless variability in this regard across people and across attitudes. Some attitudes are more likely to be based on feelings, some are more likely to be based on behaviors, and some are more likely to be based on beliefs. For example, your attitude toward chocolate ice cream is probably determined in large part by affect—although you can describe its taste, mostly you may just like it. Your attitude toward your toothbrush, on the other hand, is probably more cognitive (you understand the importance of its function). Still other of your attitudes may be based more on behavior. For example, your attitude toward note-taking during lectures probably depends, at least in part, on whether or not you regularly take notes.

Different people may hold attitudes toward the same attitude object for different reasons. For example, some people vote for politicians because they like their policies, whereas others vote for (or against) politicians because they just like (or dislike) their public persona. Although you might think that cognition would be more important in this regard, political scientists have shown that many voting decisions are made primarily on the basis of affect. Indeed, it is fair to say that the affective component of attitudes is generally the strongest and most important (Abelson, Kinder, Peters, & Fiske, 1981; Stangor, Sullivan, & Ford, 1991).

Human beings hold attitudes because they are useful. Particularly, our attitudes enable us to determine, often very quickly and effortlessly, which behaviors to engage in, which people to approach or avoid, and even which products to buy (Duckworth, Bargh, Garcia, & Chaiken, 2002; Maio & Olson, 2000). You can imagine that making quick decisions about what to avoid or approach has had substantial value in our evolutionary experience. For example:

  • Snake = bad ⟶ run away
  • Blueberries = good ⟶ eat

Because attitudes are evaluations, they can be assessed using any of the normal measuring techniques used by social psychologists (Banaji & Heiphetz, 2010). Attitudes are frequently assessed using self-report measures, but they can also be assessed more indirectly using measures of arousal and facial expressions (Mendes, 2008) as well as implicit measures of cognition, such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Attitudes can also be seen in the brain by using neuroimaging techniques. This research has found that our attitudes, like most of our social knowledge, are stored primarily in the prefrontal cortex but that the amygdala is important in emotional attitudes, particularly those associated with fear (Cunningham, Raye, & Johnson, 2004; Cunningham & Zelazo, 2007; van den Bos, McClure, Harris, Fiske, & Cohen, 2007). Attitudes can be activated extremely quickly—often within one-fifth of a second after we see an attitude object (Handy, Smilek, Geiger, Liu, & Schooler, 2010).

Some Attitudes Are Stronger Than Others

Some attitudes are more important than others because they are more useful to us and thus have more impact on our daily lives. The importance of an attitude, as assessed by how quickly it comes to mind, is known as attitude strength (Fazio, 1990; Fazio, 1995; Krosnick & Petty, 1995). Some of our attitudes are strong attitudes, in the sense that we find them important, hold them with confidence, do not change them very much, and use them frequently to guide our actions. These strong attitudes may guide our actions completely out of our awareness (Ferguson, Bargh, & Nayak, 2005).

Other attitudes are weaker and have little influence on our actions. For instance, John Bargh and his colleagues (Bargh, Chaiken, Raymond, & Hymes, 1996) found that people could express attitudes toward nonsense words such as juvalamu (which people liked) and chakaka (which they did not like). The researchers also found that these attitudes were very weak.

Strong attitudes are more cognitively accessible—they come to mind quickly, regularly, and easily. We can easily measure attitude strength by assessing how quickly our attitudes are activated when we are exposed to the attitude object. If we can state our attitude quickly, without much thought, then it is a strong one. If we are unsure about our attitude and need to think about it for a while before stating our opinion, the attitude is weak.

Attitudes become stronger when we have direct positive or negative experiences with the attitude object, and particularly if those experiences have been in strong positive or negative contexts. Russell Fazio and his colleagues (Fazio, Powell, & Herr, 1983) had people either work on some puzzles or watch other people work on the same puzzles. Although the people who watched ended up either liking or disliking the puzzles as much as the people who actually worked on them, Fazio found that attitudes, as assessed by reaction time measures, were stronger (in the sense of being expressed quickly) for the people who had directly experienced the puzzles.

Because attitude strength is determined by cognitive accessibility, it is possible to make attitudes stronger by increasing the accessibility of the attitude. This can be done directly by having people think about, express, or discuss their attitudes with others. After people think about their attitudes, talk about them, or just say them out loud, the attitudes they have expressed become stronger (Downing, Judd, & Brauer, 1992; Tesser, Martin, & Mendolia, 1995). Because attitudes are linked to the self-concept, they also become stronger when they are activated along with the self-concept. When we are looking into a mirror or sitting in front of a TV camera, our attitudes are activated and we are then more likely to act on them (Beaman, Klentz, Diener, & Svanum, 1979).

Attitudes are also stronger when the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition all align. As an example, many people’s attitude toward their own nation is universally positive. They have strong positive feelings about their country, many positive thoughts about it, and tend to engage in behaviors that support it. Other attitudes are less strong because the affective, cognitive, and behavioral components are each somewhat different (Thompson, Zanna, & Griffin, 1995). Your cognitions toward physical exercise may be positive—you believe that regular physical activity is good for your health. On the other hand, your affect may be negative—you may resist exercising because you prefer to engage in tasks that provide more immediate rewards. Consequently, you may not exercise as often as you believe you ought to. These inconsistencies among the components of your attitude make it less strong than it would be if all the components lined up together.

When Do Our Attitudes Guide Our Behavior?

Social psychologists (as well as advertisers, marketers, and politicians) are particularly interested in the behavioral aspect of attitudes. Because it is normal that the ABCs of our attitudes are at least somewhat consistent, our behavior tends to follow from our affect and cognition. If I determine that you have more positive cognitions about and more positive affect toward waffles than French toast, then I will naturally predict (and probably be correct when I do so) that you’ll be more likely to order waffles than French toast when you eat breakfast at a restaurant. Furthermore, if I can do something to make your thoughts or feelings toward French toast more positive, then your likelihood of ordering it for breakfast will also increase.

The principle of attitude consistency (that for any given attitude object, the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition are normally in line with each other) thus predicts that our attitudes (for instance, as measured via a self-report measure) are likely to guide behavior. Supporting this idea, meta-analyses have found that there is a significant and substantial positive correlation among the different components of attitudes, and that attitudes expressed on self-report measures do predict behavior (Glasman & Albarracín, 2006).

However, our attitudes are not the only factor that influence our decision to act. The theory of planned behavior, developed by Martin Fishbein and Izek Ajzen (Ajzen, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), outlines three key variables that affect the attitude-behavior relationship: (a) the attitude toward the behaviour (the stronger the better), (b) subjective norms (the support of those we value), and (c) perceived behavioral control (the extent to which we believe we can actually perform the behavior). These three factors jointly predict our intention to perform the behavior, which in turn predicts our actual behavior (Figure 4.2, “Theory of Planned Behavior”).

To illustrate, imagine for a moment that your friend Sharina is trying to decide whether to recycle her used laptop batteries or just throw them away. We know that her attitude toward recycling is positive—she thinks she should do it—but we also know that recycling takes work. It’s much easier to just throw the batteries away. But if Sharina feels strongly about the importance of recycling, if her family and friends are also in favor of recycling, and if she has easy access to a battery recycling facility, then she will develop a strong intention to perform the behavior and likely follow through on it.

Since it was first proposed, the theory of planned behavior has grown to become an extremely influential model for predicting human social behavior. However, although it has been used to study virtually every kind of planned behavior, a recent meta-analysis of 206 articles found that this model was especially effective at predicting physical activity and dietary behaviors (McEachan, Conner, Taylor, & Lawton, 2011).

image description linked in caption
Figure 4.2 Theory of Planned Behavior [Image description]

More generally, research has also discovered that attitudes predict behaviors well only under certain conditions and for some people. These include:

  • When the attitude and the behavior both occur in similar social situations
  • When the same components of the attitude (either affect or cognition) are accessible when the attitude is assessed and when the behavior is performed
  • When the attitudes are measured at a specific, rather than a general, level
  • For low self-monitors (rather than for high self-monitors)

The extent of the match between the social situations in which the attitudes are expressed and the behaviors are engaged in is important; there is a greater attitude-behavior correlation when the social situations match. Imagine for a minute the case of Magritte, a 16-year-old high school student. Magritte tells her parents that she hates the idea of smoking cigarettes. Magritte’s negative attitude toward smoking seems to be a strong one because she’s thought a lot about it—she believes that cigarettes are dirty, expensive, and unhealthy. But how sure are you that Magritte’s attitude will predict her behavior? Would you be willing to bet that she’d never try smoking when she’s out with her friends?

You can see that the problem here is that Magritte’s attitude is being expressed in one social situation (when she is with her parents), whereas the behavior (trying a cigarette) is going to occur in a very different social situation (when she is out with her friends). The relevant social norms are of course much different in the two situations. Magritte’s friends might be able to convince her to try smoking, despite her initial negative attitude, when they entice her with peer pressure. Behaviors are more likely to be consistent with attitudes when the social situation in which the behavior occurs is similar to the situation in which the attitude is expressed (Ajzen, 1991; LaPiere, 1936).

Research Focus

Attitude-Behavior Consistency

Another variable that has an important influence on attitude-behavior consistency is the current cognitive accessibility of the underlying affective and cognitive components of the attitude. For example, if we assess the attitude in a situation in which people are thinking primarily about the attitude object in cognitive terms, and yet the behavior is performed in a situation in which the affective components of the attitude are more accessible, then the attitude-behavior relationship will be weak. Wilson and Schooler (1991) showed a similar type of effect by first choosing attitudes that they expected would be primarily determined by affect—attitudes toward five different types of strawberry jam. They asked a sample of college students to taste each of the jams. While they were tasting, one-half of the participants were instructed to think about the cognitive aspects of their attitudes to these jams—that is, to focus on the reasons they held their attitudes—whereas the other half of the participants were not given these instructions. Then all the students completed measures of their attitudes toward each of the jams.

Wilson and his colleagues then assessed the extent to which the attitudes expressed by the students correlated with taste ratings of the five jams as indicated by experts at Consumer Reports. They found that the attitudes expressed by the students correlated significantly higher with the expert ratings for the participants who had not listed their cognitions first. Wilson and his colleagues argued that this occurred because our liking of jams is primarily affectively determined—we either like them or we don’t. And the students who simply rated the jams used their feelings to make their judgments. On the other hand, the students who were asked to list their thoughts about the jams had some extra information to use in making their judgments, but it was information that was not actually useful. Therefore, when these students used their thoughts about the jam to make the judgments, their judgments were less valid.

MacDonald, Zanna, and Fong (1996) showed male college students a video of two other college students, Mike and Rebecca, who were out on a date. According to random assignment to conditions, half of the men were shown the video while sober and the other half viewed the video after they had had several alcoholic drinks. In the video, Mike and Rebecca go to the campus bar and drink and dance. They then go to Rebecca’s room, where they end up kissing passionately. Mike says that he doesn’t have any condoms, but Rebecca says that she is on the pill.

At this point the film clip ends, and the male participants are asked about their likely behaviors if they had been Mike. Although all men indicated that having unprotected sex in this situation was foolish and irresponsible, the men who had been drinking alcohol were more likely to indicate that they would engage in sexual intercourse with Rebecca even without a condom. One interpretation of this study is that sexual behavior is determined by both cognitive factors (e.g., “I know that it is important to practice safe sex and so I should use a condom”) and affective factors (e.g., “Sex is enjoyable, I don’t want to wait”). When the students were intoxicated at the time the behavior was to be performed, it seems likely the affective component of the attitude was a more important determinant of behavior than was the cognitive component.

One other type of match that has an important influence on the attitude-behavior relationship concerns how we measure the attitude and behavior. Attitudes predict behavior better when the attitude is measured at a level that is similar to the behavior to be predicted. Normally, the behavior is specific, so it is better to measure the attitude at a specific level too. For instance, if we measure cognitions at a very general level (e.g., “Do you think it is important to use condoms?”; “Are you a religious person?”) we will not be as successful at predicting actual behaviors as we will be if we ask the question more specifically, at the level of behavior we are interested in predicting (e.g., “Do you think you will use a condom the next time you have sex?”; “How frequently do you expect to attend church in the next month?”). In general, more specific questions are better predictors of specific behaviors, and thus if we wish to accurately predict behaviors, we should remember to attempt to measure specific attitudes. One example of this principle is shown in Figure 4.3, “Predicting Behavior from Specific and Nonspecific Attitude Measures.” Davidson and Jaccard (1979) found that they were much better able to predict whether women actually used birth control when they assessed the attitude at a more specific level.

image description linked in caption
Figure 4.3 Predicting Behavior from Specific and Nonspecific Attitude Measures. Attitudes that are measured using more specific questions are more highly correlated with behavior than are attitudes measured using less specific questions. [Image descriptions]

Attitudes also predict behavior better for some people than for others. As we saw in Chapter 3, self-monitoring refers to individual differences in the tendency to attend to social cues and to adjust one’s behavior to one’s social environment. To return to our example of Magritte, you might wonder whether she is the type of person who is likely to be persuaded by peer pressure because she is particularly concerned with being liked by others. If she is, then she’s probably more likely to want to fit in with whatever her friends are doing, and she might try a cigarette if her friends offer her one. On the other hand, if Magritte is not particularly concerned about following the social norms of her friends, then she’ll more likely be able to resist the persuasion. High self-monitors are those who tend to attempt to blend into the social situation in order to be liked; low self-monitors are those who are less likely to do so. You can see that, because they allow the social situation to influence their behaviors, the relationship between attitudes and behavior will be weaker for high self-monitors than it is for low self-monitors (Kraus, 1995).

Key Takeaways

  • The term attitude refers to our relatively enduring evaluation of an attitude object.
  • Our attitudes are inherited and also learned through direct and indirect experiences with the attitude objects.
  • Some attitudes are more likely to be based on beliefs, some are more likely to be based on feelings, and some are more likely to be based on behaviors.
  • Strong attitudes are important in the sense that we hold them with confidence, we do not change them very much, and we use them frequently to guide our actions.
  • Although there is a general consistency between attitudes and behavior, the relationship is stronger in some situations than in others, for some measurements than for others, and for some people than for others.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe an example of a behavior that you engaged in that might be explained by the theory of planned behavior. Include each of the components of the theory in your analysis.
  2. Consider a time when you acted on your own attitudes and a time when you did not act on your own attitudes. What factors do you think determined the difference?


Abelson, R. P., Kinder, D. R., Peters, M. D., & Fiske, S. T. (1981). Affective and semantic components in political person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 619–630.

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179–211.

Albarracín, D., Johnson, B. T., & Zanna, M. P. (Eds.). (2005). The handbook of attitudes (pp. 223–271). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Banaji, M. R., & Heiphetz, L. (2010). Attitudes. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 353–393). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Bargh, J. A., Chaiken, S., Raymond, P., & Hymes, C. (1996). The automatic evaluation effect: Unconditional automatic attitude activation with a pronunciation task. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32(1), 104–128.

Beaman, A. L., Klentz, B., Diener, E., & Svanum, S. (1979). Self-awareness and transgression in children: Two field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(10), 1835–1846.

Bourgeois, M. J. (2002). Heritability of attitudes constrains dynamic social impact. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(8), 1063–1072.

Cunningham, W. A., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Attitudes and evaluations: A social cognitive neuroscience perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(3), 97–104;

Cunningham, W. A., Raye, C. L., & Johnson, M. K. (2004). Implicit and explicit evaluation: fMRI correlates of valence, emotional intensity, and control in the processing of attitudes. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16(10), 1717–1729;

Davidson, A. R., & Jaccard, J. J. (1979). Variables that moderate the attitude-behavior relation: Results of a longitudinal survey. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(8), 1364–1376.

De Houwer, J., Thomas, S., & Baeyens, F. (2001). Association learning of likes and dislikes: A review of 25 years of research on human evaluative conditioning. Psychological Bulletin, 127(6), 853-869.

Downing, J. W., Judd, C. M., & Brauer, M. (1992). Effects of repeated expressions on attitude extremity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(1), 17–29; Tesser, A., Martin, L., & Mendolia, M. (Eds.). (1995). The impact of thought on attitude extremity and attitude-behavior consistency. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Duckworth, K. L., Bargh, J. A., Garcia, M., & Chaiken, S. (2002). The automatic evaluation of novel stimuli. Psychological Science, 13(6), 513–519.

Fazio, R. H. (1990). The MODE model as an integrative framework. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology23, 75–109.

Fazio, R. H. (1995). Attitudes as object-evaluation associations: Determinants, consequences, and correlates of attitude accessibility. In Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences (pp. 247–282). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum;

Fazio, R. H., Powell, M. C., & Herr, P. M. (1983). Toward a process model of the attitude-behavior relation: Accessing one’s attitude upon mere observation of the attitude object. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(4), 723–735.

Ferguson, M. J., Bargh, J. A., & Nayak, D. A. (2005). After-affects: How automatic evaluations influence the interpretation of subsequent, unrelated stimuli. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(2), 182–191. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2004.05.008

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention and behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Glasman, L. R., & Albarracín, D. (2006). Forming attitudes that predict future behavior: A meta-analysis of the attitude-behavior relation. Psychological Bulletin, 132(5), 778–822.

Handy, T. C., Smilek, D., Geiger, L., Liu, C., & Schooler, J. W. (2010). ERP evidence for rapid hedonic evaluation of logos. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(1), 124–138. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2008.21180

Hargreaves, D. A., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Female “thin ideal” media images and boys’ attitudes toward girls. Sex Roles, 49(9–10), 539–544.

Kraus, S. J. (1995). Attitudes and the prediction of behavior: A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(1), 58–75.

Krosnick, J. A., & Petty, R. E. (1995). Attitude strength: An overview. In Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences (pp. 1–24). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

LaPiere, R. T. (1936). Type rationalization of group antipathy. Social Forces, 15, 232–237.

Levina, M., Waldo, C. R., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (2000). We’re here, we’re queer, we’re on TV: The effects of visual media on heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30(4), 738–758.

MacDonald, T. K., Zanna, M. P., & Fong, G. T. (1996). Why common sense goes out the window: Effects of alcohol on intentions to use condoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(8), 763–775.

Maio, G. R., & Olson, J. M. (Eds.). (2000). Why we evaluate: Functions of attitudes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. doi:10.1080/17437199.2010.521684

McEachan, R. R. C., Conner, M., Taylor, N. J., & Lawton, R. J. (2011) Prospective prediction of health-related behaviours with the theory of planned behaviour: A meta-analysis, Health Psychology Review, 5(2), 97-144.

Mendes, W. B. (2008). Assessing autonomic nervous system reactivity. In E. Harmon-Jones & J. Beer (Eds.), Methods in the neurobiology of social and personality psychology (pp. 118–147). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Olson, J. M., Vernon, P. A., Harris, J. A., & Jang, K. L. (2001). The heritability of attitudes: A study of twins. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(6), 845–860.

Poteat, V. P. (2007). Peer group socialization of homophobic attitudes and behavior during adolescence. Child Development, 78(6), 1830–1842.

Stangor, C., Sullivan, L. A., & Ford, T. E. (1991). Affective and cognitive determinants of prejudice. Social Cognition, 9(4), 359–380.

Tesser, A., Martin, L., & Mendolia, M. (1995). The impact of thought on attitude extremity and attitude-behavior consistency.  In R. E. Petty & J. A. Krosnick (Eds.), Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences. Ohio State University series on attitudes and persuasion (4th ed., pp. 73-92). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Thompson, M. M., Zanna, M. P., & Griffin, D. W. (1995). Let’s not be indifferent about (attitudinal) ambivalence. In Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences (pp. 361–386). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

van den Bos, W., McClure, S. M., Harris, L. T., Fiske, S. T., & Cohen, J. D. (2007). Dissociating affective evaluation and social cognitive processes in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(4), 337–346.

Wilson, T. D., & Schooler, J. W. (1991). Thinking too much: Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 181–192.

Wood, W. (2000). Attitude change: Persuasion and social influence. Annual Review of Psychology, 539–570.

Image Descriptions

Figure 4.2 Theory of Planned Behavior

A flow chart explaining the theory of planned behavior. It starts with 3 types of beliefs that are connected by arrows:

  • Behavioural beliefs – attitude towards the behaviour
  • Normative beliefs – subjective norm
  • Control beliefs – perceived behavioural control

The beliefs leads to intention, along with the actual behavioural control that is derived from the perceived behavioural control, then leads to behaviour.

[Return to Figure 4.2]

Figure 4.3 Predicting Behavior from Specific and Nonspecific Attitude Measures

A a bar graph with correlation on the y-axis, and attitude question on the x-axis. The attitude questions with the lowest to high correlation are: attitude toward birth control, attitude toward birth control pills, attitude toward using birth control pills, attitude toward using birth control pills during the next 2 years.

[Return to Figure 4.3]

Media Attributions

  • “Theory of Planned Behavior” is adapted by Hilda Aggregani and licensed under a CC BY 4.0 licence.
  • “Predicting Behavior from Specific and Nonspecific Attitude Measures” is based on data from Davidson and Jaccard (1979).Davidson, A. R., & Jaccard, J. J. (1979). Variables that moderate the attitude-behavior relation: Results of a longitudinal survey. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(8), 1364–1376.


4.2 Changing Attitudes through Persuasion

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline how persuasion is determined by the choice of effective communicators and effective messages.
  2. Review the conditions under which attitudes are best changed using spontaneous versus thoughtful strategies.
  3. Summarize the variables that make us more or less resistant to persuasive appeals.

Every day we are bombarded by advertisements of every sort. The goal of these ads is to sell us cars, computers, video games, clothes, and even political candidates. The ads appear on billboards, website popup ads, buses, TV infomercials, and…well, you name it! It’s been estimated that over $500 billion is spent annually on advertising worldwide (Johnson, 2013).

There is substantial evidence that advertising is effective in changing attitudes. After the R. J. Reynolds Company started airing its Joe Camel ads for cigarettes on TV in the 1980s, Camel’s share of cigarette sales to children increased dramatically. But persuasion can also have more positive outcomes. For instance, a review of the research literature indicates that mass-media anti-smoking campaigns are associated with reduced smoking rates among both adults and youth (Friend & Levy, 2001). Persuasion is also used to encourage people to donate to charitable causes, to volunteer to give blood, and to engage in healthy behaviors.

If you think that advertisers and marketers have too much influence, then this section will help you understand how to resist such attempts at persuasion. Following the approach used by some of the earliest social psychologists and that still forms the basis of thinking about the power of communication, we will consider which communicators can deliver the most effective messages to which types of message recipients (Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield (1949).

Choosing Effective Communicators

In order to be effective persuaders, we must first get people’s attention, then send an effective message to them, and then ensure that they process the message in the way we would like them to. Furthermore, to accomplish these goals, persuaders must consider the cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects of their methods. Persuaders also must understand how the communication they are presenting relates to the message recipient—his or her motivations, desires, and goals.

Research has demonstrated that the same message will be more effective if is delivered by a more persuasive communicator. In general, we can say that communicators are more effective when they help their recipients feel good about themselves—that is, by appealing to self-concern. For instance, attractive communicators are frequently more effective persuaders than are unattractive communicators. Attractive communicators create a positive association with the product they are trying to sell and put us in a good mood, which makes us more likely to accept their messages. And as the many marketers who include free gifts, such as mailing labels or small toys, in their requests for charitable donations well know, we are more likely to respond to communicators who offer us something personally beneficial.

We’re also more persuaded by people who are similar to us in terms of opinions and values than by those whom we perceive as being different. This is of course why advertisements targeted at teenagers frequently use teenagers to present the message, and why advertisements targeted at the elderly use older communicators.

When communicators are perceived as attractive and similar to us, we tend to like them. And we also tend to trust the people that we like. The success of Tupperware parties, in which friends get together to buy products from other friends, may be due more to the fact that people like the “salesperson” than to the nature of the product. People such as the media mogul Oprah Winfrey, tennis star Roger Federer, and the musician Bono have been used as communicators for products in part because we see them as trustworthy and thus likely to present an unbiased message. Trustworthy communicators are effective because they allow us to feel good about ourselves when we accept their message, often without critically evaluating its content (Priester & Petty, 2003).

Figure 4.4

Expert communicators may sometimes be perceived as trustworthy because they know a lot about the product they are selling. When a doctor recommends that we take a particular drug, we are likely to be influenced because we know that he or she has expertise about the effectiveness of drugs. It is no surprise that advertisers use race car drivers to sell cars and basketball players to sell athletic shoes.

Although expertise comes in part from having knowledge, it can also be communicated by how one presents a message. Communicators who speak confidently, quickly, and in a straightforward way are seen as more expert than those who speak in a more hesitating and slower manner. Taking regular speech and speeding it up by deleting very small segments of it, so that it sounds the same but actually goes faster, makes the same communication more persuasive (MacLachlan & Siegel, 1980; Moore, Hausknecht, & Thamodaran, 1986). This is probably in part because faster speech makes the communicator seem more like an expert but also because faster speech reduces the listener’s ability to come up with counterarguments as he or she listens to the message (Megehee, Dobie, & Grant, 2003). Effective speakers frequently use this technique, and some of the best persuaders are those who speak quickly.

Expert communicators are expected to know a lot about the product they are endorsing, but they may not be seen as trustworthy if their statements seem to be influenced by external causes. People who are seen to be arguing in their own self-interest (e.g., an expert witness who is paid by the lawyers in a case; a celebrity who is paid to endorse a product) may be ineffective because we may discount their communications (Eagly, Wood, & Chaiken, 1978; Wood & Eagly, 1981). On the other hand, when a person presents a message that goes against external causes, for instance, by arguing in favor of an opinion to a person who is known to disagree with it, we see the internal states (that the individual really believes in the message he or she is expressing) as even more powerful.

Communicators also may be seen as biased if they present only one side of an issue while completely ignoring the potential problems or counterarguments to the message. In these cases, people who are informed about both sides of the topic may see the communicator as attempting to unfairly influence them.

Although we are generally very aware of the potential that communicators may deliver messages that are inaccurate or designed to influence us, and we are able to discount messages that come from sources that we do not view as trustworthy, there is one interesting situation in which we may be fooled by communicators. This occurs when a message is presented by someone whom we perceive as untrustworthy. When we first hear that person’s communication, we appropriately discount it, and it therefore has little influence on our opinions. However, over time there is a tendency to remember the content of a communication to a greater extent than we remember the source of the communication. As a result, we may forget over time to discount the remembered message. This attitude change that occurs over time is known as the sleeper effect (Kumkale & Albarracín, 2004).

Figure 4.5 The Sleeper Effect. The sleeper effect occurs when we initially discount the message given by an untrustworthy or nonexpert communicator but, over time, we remember the content of the message and forget its source. The result is an attitude change in the direction of the initially discounted message.

Perhaps you’ve experienced the sleeper effect. During high-profile election campaigns, candidates sometimes produce advertisements that attack their opponents. These kinds of communications occasionally stretch the truth in order to win public favor, which is why many people listen to them with a grain of salt. The trouble occurs, however, when people remember the claims made but forget the source of the communication. The sleeper effect is diagrammed in Figure 4.5, “The Sleeper Effect.”

Creating Effective Communications

Once we have chosen a communicator, the next step is to determine what type of message we should have him or her deliver. Neither social psychologists nor advertisers are so naïve as to think that simply presenting a strong message is sufficient. No matter how good the message is, it will not be effective unless people pay attention to it, understand it, accept it, and incorporate it into their self-concept. This is why we attempt to choose good communicators to present our ads in the first place, and why we tailor our communications to get people to process them the way we want them to.

Figure 4.6 Spontaneous attitude change occurs as a direct or affective response to the message, whereas thoughtful attitude change is based on our cognitive elaboration of the message.

The messages that we deliver may be processed either spontaneously (other terms for this include peripherally or heuristically—Chen & Chaiken, 1999; Petty & Wegener, 1999) or thoughtfully (other terms for this include centrally or systematically). Spontaneous processing is direct, quick, and often involves affective responses to the message. Thoughtful processing, on the other hand, is more controlled and involves a more careful cognitive elaboration of the meaning of the message (Figure 4.6). The route that we take when we process a communication is important in determining whether or not a particular message changes attitudes.

Spontaneous Message Processing

Because we are bombarded with so many persuasive messages—and because we do not have the time, resources, or interest to process every message fully—we frequently process messages spontaneously. In these cases, if we are influenced by the communication at all, it is likely that it is the relatively unimportant characteristics of the advertisement, such as the likeability or attractiveness of the communicator or the music playing in the ad, that will influence us.

If we find the communicator cute, if the music in the ad puts us in a good mood, or if it appears that other people around us like the ad, then we may simply accept the message without thinking about it very much (Giner-Sorolla & Chaiken, 1997). In these cases, we engage in spontaneous message processing, in which we accept a persuasion attempt because we focus on whatever is most obvious or enjoyable, without much attention to the message itself. Shelley Chaiken (1980) found that students who were not highly involved in a topic because it did not affect them personally, were more persuaded by a likeable communicator than by an unlikeable one, regardless of whether the communicator presented a good argument for the topic or a poor one. On the other hand, students who were more involved in the decision were more persuaded by the better message than by the poorer one, regardless of whether the communicator was likeable or not—they were not fooled by the likeability of the communicator.

You might be able to think of some advertisements that are likely to be successful because they create spontaneous processing of the message by basing their persuasive attempts around creating emotional responses in the listeners. In these cases, the advertisers use associational learning to associate the positive features of the ad with the product. Television commercials are often humorous, and automobile ads frequently feature beautiful people having fun driving beautiful cars. The slogans “I’m lovin’ it,” “Life tastes good,” and “Good to the last drop” are good ads in part because they successfully create positive affect in the listener.

In some cases emotional ads may be effective because they lead us to watch or listen to the ad rather than simply change the channel or do something else. The clever and funny TV ads that are broadcast during the Super Bowl every year are likely to be effective because we watch them, remember them, and talk about them with others. In this case, the positive affect makes the ads more salient, causing them to grab our attention. But emotional ads also take advantage of the role of affect in information processing. We tend to like things more when we are in a good mood, and—because positive affect indicates that things are okay—we process information less carefully when we are in a good mood. Thus the spontaneous approach to persuasion is particularly effective when people are happy (Sinclair, Mark, & Clore, 1994), and advertisers try to take advantage of this fact.

Another type of ad that is based on emotional response is one that uses fear appeals, such as ads that show pictures of deadly automobile accidents to encourage seatbelt use or images of lung cancer surgery to decrease smoking. By and large, fearful messages are persuasive (Das, de Wit, & Stroebe, 2003; Perloff, 2003; Witte & Allen, 2000). Again, this is due in part to the fact that the emotional aspects of the ads make them salient and lead us to attend to and remember them. And fearful ads may also be framed in a way that leads us to focus on the salient negative outcomes that have occurred for one particular individual. When we see an image of a person who is jailed for drug use, we may be able to empathize with that person and imagine how we would feel if it happened to us. Thus this ad may be more effective than more “statistical” ads stating the base rates of the number of people who are jailed for drug use every year.

Fearful ads also focus on self-concern, and advertisements that are framed in a way that suggests that a behavior will harm the self are more effective than those framed more positively. Banks, Salovey, Greener, and Rothman (1995) found that a message that emphasized the negative aspects of not getting a breast cancer screening mammogram (e.g., “Not getting a mammogram can cost you your life”) was more effective than a similar message that emphasized the positive aspects of having a mammogram (e.g., “Getting a mammogram can save your life”) in convincing women to have a mammogram over the next year. These findings are consistent with the general idea that the brain responds more strongly to negative affect than it does to positive affect (Ito, Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo, 1998).

Although laboratory studies generally find that fearful messages are effective in persuasion, they may be less useful in real-world advertising campaigns (Hastings, Stead, & Webb, 2004). Fearful messages may create a lot of anxiety and therefore turn people off to the message (Shehryar & Hunt, 2005). For instance, people who know that smoking cigarettes is dangerous but who cannot seem to quit may experience particular anxiety about their smoking behaviors. Fear messages are more effective when people feel that they know how to rectify the problem, have the ability to actually do so, and take responsibility for the change. Without some feelings of self-efficacy, people do not know how to respond to the fear (Aspinwall, Kemeny, Taylor, & Schneider, 1991). Thus if you want to scare people into changing their behavior, it may be helpful if you also give them some ideas about how to do so, so that they feel like they have the ability to take action to make the changes (Passyn & Sujan, 2006).

An infographics from Brazilian Health Ministry associates the fear of dying with cigarette smoking.
Figure 4.7

Thoughtful Message Processing

When we process messages only spontaneously, our feelings are more likely to be important, but when we process messages thoughtfully, cognition prevails. When we care about the topic, find it relevant, and have plenty of time to think about the communication, we are likely to process the message more deliberatively, carefully, and thoughtfully (Petty & Briñol, 2008). In this case we elaborate on the communication by considering the pros and cons of the message and questioning the validity of the communicator and the message. Thoughtful message processing occurs when we think about how the message relates to our own beliefs and goals and involves our careful consideration of whether the persuasion attempt is valid or invalid.

When an advertiser presents a message that he or she hopes will be processed thoughtfully, the goal is to create positive cognitions about the attitude object in the listener. The communicator mentions positive features and characteristics of the product and at the same time attempts to downplay the negative characteristics. When people are asked to list their thoughts about a product while they are listening to, or right after they hear, a message, those who list more positive thoughts also express more positive attitudes toward the product than do those who list more negative thoughts (Petty & Briñol, 2008). Because the thoughtful processing of the message bolsters the attitude, thoughtful processing helps us develop strong attitudes, which are therefore resistant to counterpersuasion (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981).

Which Route Do We Take: Thoughtful or Spontaneous?

Both thoughtful and spontaneous messages can be effective, but it is important to know which is likely to be better in which situation and for which people. When we can motivate people to process our message carefully and thoughtfully, then we are going to be able to present our strong and persuasive arguments with the expectation that our audience will attend to them. If we can get the listener to process these strong arguments thoughtfully, then the attitude change will likely be strong and long lasting. On the other hand, when we expect our listeners to process only spontaneously—for instance, if they don’t care too much about our message or if they are busy doing other things—then we do not need to worry so much about the content of the message itself; even a weak (but interesting) message can be effective in this case. Successful advertisers tailor their messages to fit the expected characteristics of their audiences.

In addition to being motivated to process the message, we must also have the ability to do so. If the message is too complex to understand, we may rely on spontaneous cues, such as the perceived trustworthiness or expertise of the communicator (Hafer, Reynolds, & Obertynski, 1996), and ignore the content of the message. When experts are used to attempt to persuade people—for instance, in complex jury trials—the messages that these experts give may be very difficult to understand. In these cases, the jury members may rely on the perceived expertise of the communicator rather than his or her message, being persuaded in a relatively spontaneous way. In other cases, we may not be able to process the information thoughtfully because we are distracted or tired—in these cases even weak messages can be effective, again because we process them spontaneously (Petty, Wells & Brock, 1976).

Petty, Cacioppo, and Goldman (1981) showed how different motivations may lead to either spontaneous or thoughtful processing. In their research, college students heard a message suggesting that the administration at their college was proposing to institute a new comprehensive exam that all students would need to pass in order to graduate, and then rated the degree to which they were favorable toward the idea. The researchers manipulated three independent variables:

  • Message strength. The message contained either strong arguments (persuasive data and statistics about the positive effects of the exams at other universities) or weak arguments (relying only on individual quotations and personal opinions).
  • Source expertise. The message was supposedly prepared either by an expert source (the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, which was chaired by a professor of education at Princeton University) or by a nonexpert source (a class at a local high school).
  • Personal relevance. The students were told either that the new exam would begin before they graduated (high personal relevance) or that it would not begin until after they had already graduated (low personal relevance).

As you can see in Figure 4.8, Petty and his colleagues found two interaction effects. The top panel of the figure shows that the students in the high personal relevance condition (left side) were not particularly influenced by the expertise of the source, whereas the students in the low personal relevance condition (right side) were. On the other hand, as you can see in the bottom panel, the students who were in the high personal relevance condition (left side) were strongly influenced by the quality of the argument, but the low personal involvement students (right side) were not.

These findings fit with the idea that when the issue was important, the students engaged in thoughtful processing of the message itself. When the message was largely irrelevant, they simply used the expertise of the source without bothering to think about the message.

Argument-Based Persuasion
Figure 4.8 Personal involvement as a determinant of argument-based persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(5), 847–855. Petty, Cacioppo, and Goldman (1981) found that students for whom an argument was not personally relevant based their judgments on the expertise of the source (spontaneous processing), whereas students for whom the decision was more relevant were more influenced by the quality of the message (thoughtful processing).

Because both thoughtful and spontaneous approaches can be successful, advertising campaigns, such as those used by Apple, carefully make use of both spontaneous and thoughtful messages. For example, the ad may showcase the new and useful features of a device like the iPad amid scenes of happy, creative, or productive people and an inspiring soundtrack.

Preventing Persuasion

To this point, we have focused on techniques designed to change attitudes. But it is also useful to develop techniques that prevent attitude change. If you are hoping that Magritte will never puff that first cigarette, then you might be interested in knowing what her parents might be able to do to prevent that from happening.

One approach to improving an individual’s ability to resist persuasion is to help the person create a strong attitude. Strong attitudes are more difficult to change than are weak attitudes, and we are more likely to act on our strong attitudes. This suggests that Magritte’s parents might want help Magritte consider all the reasons that she should not smoke and develop strong negative affect about smoking. As Magritte’s negative thoughts and feelings about smoking become more well defined and more integrated into the self-concept, they should have a greater influence on her behavior.

One method of increasing attitude strength involves forewarning: giving people a chance to develop a resistance to persuasion by reminding them that they might someday receive a persuasive message, and allowing them to practice how they will respond to influence attempts (Sagarin & Wood, 2007). Magritte’s parents might want to try the forewarning approach. After the forewarning, when Magritte hears the smoking message from her peers, she may be less influenced by it because she was aware ahead of time that the persuasion would likely occur and had already considered how to resist it.

Forewarning seems to be particularly effective when the message that is expected to follow attacks an attitude that we care a lot about. In these cases, the forewarning prepares us for action—we bring up our defenses to maintain our existing beliefs. When we don’t care much about the topic, on the other hand, we may simply change our belief before the appeal actually comes (Wood & Quinn, 2003).

Forewarning can be effective in helping people respond to persuasive messages that they will receive later.

A similar approach is to help build up the cognitive component of the attitude by presenting a weak attack on the existing attitude with the goal of helping the person create counterarguments about a persuasion attempt that is expected to come in the future. Just as an inoculation against the flu gives us a small dose of the influenza virus that helps prevent a bigger attack later, giving Magritte a weak argument to persuade her to smoke cigarettes can help her develop ways to resist the real attempts when they come in the future. This procedure—known as inoculationinvolves building up defenses against persuasion by mildly attacking the attitude position (Compton & Pfau, 2005; McGuire, 1961). We would begin by telling Magritte the reasons that her friends might think that she should smoke (for instance, because everyone is doing it and it makes people look “cool”), therefore allowing her to create some new defenses against persuasion. Thinking about the potential arguments that she might receive and preparing the corresponding counterarguments will make the attitude stronger and more resistant to subsequent change attempts.

One difficulty with forewarning and inoculation attempts is that they may boomerang. If we feel that another person—for instance, a person who holds power over us—is attempting to take away our freedom to make our own decisions, we may respond with strong emotion, completely ignore the persuasion attempt, and perhaps even engage in the opposite behavior. Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt like your parents or someone else who had some power over you put too much pressure on you, and you rebelled against them.

The strong emotional response that we experience when we feel that our freedom of choice is being taken away when we expect that we should have choice is known as psychological reactance (Brehm, 1966; Miron & Brehm, 2006). If Magritte’s parents are too directive in their admonitions about not smoking, she may feel that they do not trust her to make her own decisions and are attempting to make them for her. In this case, she may experience reactance and become more likely to start smoking. Erceg-Hurn and Steed (2011) found that the graphic warning images that are placed on cigarette packs could create reactance in people who viewed them, potentially reducing the warnings’ effectiveness in convincing people to stop smoking.

Given the extent to which our judgments and behaviors are frequently determined by processes that occur outside of our conscious awareness, you might wonder whether it is possible to persuade people to change their attitudes or to get people to buy products or engage in other behaviors using subliminal advertising. Subliminal advertising occurs when a message, such as an advertisement or another image of a brand, is presented to the consumer without the person being aware that a message has been presented—for instance, by flashing messages quickly in a TV show, an advertisement, or a movie (Theus, 1994).

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Does Subliminal Advertising Work?

If it were effective, subliminal advertising would have some major advantages for advertisers because it would allow them to promote their product without directly interrupting the consumer’s activity and without the consumer knowing that he or she is being persuaded (Trappey, 1996). People cannot counterargue with, or attempt to avoid being influenced by, messages that they do not know they have received and this may make subliminal advertising particularly effective. Due to fears that people may be influenced to buy products out of their awareness, subliminal advertising has been legally banned in many countries, including Australia, Great Britain, and the United States.

Some research has suggested that subliminal advertising may be effective. Karremans, Stroebe, and Claus (2006) had Dutch college students view a series of computer trials in which a string of letters such as BBBBBBBBB or BBBbBBBBB was presented on the screen and the students were asked to pay attention to whether or not the strings contained a small b. However, immediately before each of the letter strings, the researchers presented either the name of a drink that is popular in Holland (“Lipton Ice”) or a control string containing the same letters as Lipton Ice (“Npeic Tol”). The priming words were presented so quickly (for only about 1/50th of a second) that the participants could not see them.

Then the students were asked to indicate their intention to drink Lipton Ice by answering questions such as “If you would sit on a terrace now, how likely is it that you would order Lipton Ice?” and also to indicate how thirsty they were at this moment. The researchers found that the students who had been exposed to the Lipton Ice primes were significantly more likely to say that they would drink Lipton Ice than were those who had been exposed to the control words, but that this was only true for the participants who said that they were currently thirsty.

On the other hand, other research has not supported the effectiveness of subliminal advertising. Charles Trappey (1996) conducted a meta-analysis in which he combined 23 research studies that had tested the influence of subliminal advertising on consumer choice. The results showed that subliminal advertising had a negligible effect on consumer choice. Saegert (1987) concluded that “marketing should quit giving subliminal advertising the benefit of the doubt” (p. 107), arguing that the influences of subliminal stimuli are usually so weak that they are normally overshadowed by the person’s own decision making about the behavior.

Even if a subliminal or subtle advertisement is perceived, previous experience with the product or similar products—or even unrelated, more salient stimuli at the moment—may easily overshadow any effect the subliminal message would have had (Moore, 1988). That is, even if we do perceive the “hidden” message, our prior attitudes or our current situation will likely have a stronger influence on our choices, potentially nullifying any effect the subliminal message would have had.

Taken together, the evidence for the effectiveness of subliminal advertising is weak and its effects may be limited to only some people and only some conditions. You probably don’t have to worry too much about being subliminally persuaded in your everyday life even if subliminal ads are allowed in your country. Of course, although subliminal advertising is not that effective, there are plenty of other indirect advertising techniques that are. Many ads for automobiles and alcoholic beverages have sexual connotations, which indirectly (even if not subliminally) associate these positive features with their products. And there are the ever more frequent “product placement” techniques, where images of brands (cars, sodas, electronics, and so forth) are placed on websites and in popular TV shows and movies.

Key Takeaways

  • Advertising is effective in changing attitudes, and principles of social psychology can help us understand when and how advertising works.
  • Social psychologists study which communicators can deliver the most effective messages to which types of message recipients.
  • Communicators are more effective when they help their recipients feel good about themselves. Attractive, similar, trustworthy, and expert communicators are examples of effective communicators.
  • Attitude change that occurs over time, particularly when we no longer discount the impact of a low-credibility communicator, is known as the sleeper effect.
  • The messages that we deliver may be processed either spontaneously or thoughtfully. When we are processing messages only spontaneously, our feelings are more likely to be important, but when we process the message thoughtfully, cognition prevails.
  • Both thoughtful and spontaneous messages can be effective, in different situations and for different people.
  • One approach to improving an individual’s ability to resist persuasion is to help the person create a strong attitude. Procedures such as forewarning and inoculation can help increase attitude strength and thus reduce subsequent persuasion.
  • Taken together, the evidence for the effectiveness of subliminal advertising is weak, and its effects may be limited to only some people and only some conditions.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Reconsider the effectiveness of Apple’s marketing campaign for the latest iPhone in terms of the principles of persuasion that we have discussed.
  2. Find and discuss examples of web or TV ads that make use of the principles discussed in this section.
  3. Visit the Joe Chemo site, designed to highlight and counterargue the negative effects of the Joe Camel cigarette ads. Create a presentation that summarizes the influence of cigarette ads on children.
  4. Based on our discussion of resistance to persuasion, what techniques would you use to help a child resist the pressure to start smoking or start using recreational drugs?


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Media Attributions


4.3 Changing Attitudes by Changing Behavior

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline the principles of self-perception and explain how they can account for the influences of behavior on attitude.
  2. Outline the principles of cognitive dissonance and explain how they can account for the influences of behavior on attitude.

Although it might not have surprised you to hear that we can often predict people’s behaviors if we know their thoughts and their feelings about the attitude object, you might be surprised to find that our actions also have an influence on our thoughts and feelings. It makes sense that if I like strawberry jam, I’ll buy it, because my thoughts and feelings about a product influence my behavior. But will my attitudes toward orange marmalade become more positive if I decide—for whatever reason—to buy it instead of jam?

It turns out that if we engage in a behavior, and particularly one that we had not expected that we would have, our thoughts and feelings toward that behavior are likely to change. This might not seem intuitive, but it represents another example of how the principles of social psychology—in this case, the principle of attitude consistency—lead us to make predictions that wouldn’t otherwise be that obvious.

Imagine that one Tuesday evening in the middle of the semester you see your friend Joachim. He’s just finished his dinner and tells you that he’s planning to head home to study and work on a term paper. When you see him the next day, however, he seems a bit shaken. It turns out that instead of going home to study, Joachim spent the entire evening listening to music at a rock club in town. He says that he had a great time, stayed up late to watch the last set, and didn’t get home until the crack of dawn. And he woke up so late this morning that he missed his first two classes.

You might imagine that Joachim might be feeling some uncertainty and perhaps some regret about his unexpected behavior the night before. Although he knows that it is important to study and to get to his classes on time, he nevertheless realizes that, at least in this case, he neglected his schoolwork in favor of another activity. Joachim seems to be wondering why he, who knows how important school is, engaged in this behavior after he promised himself that he was going home to study. Let’s see if we can use the principles of attitude consistency to help us understand how Joachim might respond to his unexpected behavior and how his attitudes toward listening to music and studying might follow from it.

Self-Perception Involves Inferring Our Beliefs from Our Behaviors

People have an avid interest in understanding the causes of behavior, both theirs and others, and doing so helps us meet the important goals of other-concern and self-concern. If we can better understand how and why the other people around us act the way they do, then we will have a better chance of avoiding harm from others and a better chance of getting those other people to cooperate with and like us. And if we have a better idea of understanding the causes of our own behavior, we can better work to keep that behavior in line with our preferred plans and goals.

In some cases, people may be unsure about their attitudes toward different attitude objects. For instance, perhaps Joachim is a bit unsure about his attitude toward schoolwork versus listening to music (and this uncertainty certainly seems to be increasing in light of his recent behavior). Might Joachim look at his own behavior to help him determine his thoughts and feelings, just as he might look at the behavior of others to understand why they act the way that they do? Self-perception occurs when we use our own behavior as a guide to help us determine our own thoughts and feelings (Bem, 1972; Olson & Stone, 2005).

Research Focus

Looking at Our Own Behavior to Determine Our Attitudes

Eliot Aronson and J. Merrill Carlsmith (1963) conducted an experiment to determine whether young children might look at their own behavior to help determine their attitudes toward toys. In their research, they first had the children rate the attractiveness of several toys. They then chose a toy that a child had just indicated he or she really wanted to play with and—this was rather mean—told that child he or she could not play with that toy. Furthermore, and according to random assignment to conditions, half of the children were threatened with mild punishment if they disobeyed and the other half were threatened with severe punishment. In the mild threat condition the experimenter said, “I don’t want you to play with the toy. If you play with it, I would be annoyed,” whereas in the harsh threat condition the experimenter said, “I don’t want you to play with the toy. If you play with it, I would be very angry. I would have to take all of my toys and go home and never come back again.” The experimenter then left the room for a few minutes to give the children the time and opportunity to play with the other toys and to resist the temptation of playing with the forbidden toy, while watching the children through a one-way mirror.

It turned out that both the harsh and the mild threat were sufficient to prevent the children from playing with the forbidden toy—none of the children actually did so. Nevertheless, when the experimenter returned to the room and asked each child to again rate how much he or she liked the forbidden toy, the children who had received the harsh threat rated the toy significantly more positively than the children who had received the mild threat. Furthermore, the children who had only received the mild threat actually rated the forbidden toy less positively than they had at the beginning of the experiment. And this change was long lasting. Even when tested several weeks later, children still showed these changes (Freedman, 1965).

The results of this study indicate that the children’s self-perceptions of their behaviors influenced their attitudes toward the toys. Assume for a moment that the children were a bit unsure about how much they liked the toy that they did not play with and that they needed some information to determine their beliefs. The children in the harsh threat condition had a strong external reason for not having played with the toy—they were going to get into really big trouble if they did. Because these children likely saw the social situation as the cause of their behavior, they found it easy to believe that they still liked the toy a lot. For the children in the mild threat condition, however, the external reasons for their behavior were not so apparent—they had only been asked not to play with the toy. These children were more likely to conclude that their behavior was caused by internal, personal factors—that they did not play with the toy simply because they did not like it that much.

We can use the principles of self-perception to help understand how Joachim is interpreting his behavior of staying out all night at the club rather than studying. When Joachim looks at this behavior, he may start to wonder why he engaged in it. One answer is that the social situation caused the behavior; that is, he might decide that the band he heard last night was so fantastic that he simply had to go hear them and could not possibly have left the club early. Blaming the situation for the behavior allows him to avoid blaming himself for it and to avoid facing the fact that he found listening to music more important than his schoolwork. But the fact that Joachim is a bit worried about his unusual behavior suggests that he, at least in part, might be starting to wonder about his own motivations.

Perhaps you have experienced the effects of self-perception. Have you ever found yourself becoming more convinced about an argument you were making as you heard yourself making it? Or did you ever realize how thirsty you must have been as you quickly drank a big glass of water? Research has shown that self-perception occurs regularly and in many different domains. For instance, Gary Wells and Richard Petty (1980) found that people who were asked to shake their heads up and down rather than sideways while reading arguments favoring or opposing tuition increases at their school ended up agreeing with the arguments more, and Daryl Bem (1965) found that when people were told by the experimenter to say that certain cartoons were funny, they ended up actually finding those cartoons funnier. It appears in these cases that people looked at their own behavior: if they moved their head up and down or said that the cartoons were funny, they figured that they must agree with the arguments and like the cartoon.

Creating Insufficient Justification and Overjustification

You may recall that one common finding in social psychology is that people frequently do not realize the extent to which behavior is influenced by the social situation. Although this is particularly true for the behavior of others, in some cases it may apply to understanding our own behavior as well. This means that, at least in some cases, we may believe that we have chosen to engage in a behavior for personal reasons, even though external, situational factors have actually led us to it. Consider again the children who did not play with the forbidden toy in the Aronson and Carlsmith study, even though they were given only a mild reason for not doing so. Although these children were actually led to avoid the toy by the power of the situation (they certainly would have played with it if the experimenter hadn’t told them not to), they frequently concluded that the decision was a personal choice and ended up believing that the toy was not that fun after all. When the social situation actually causes our behavior, but we do not realize that the social situation was the cause, we call the phenomenon insufficient justification. Insufficient justification occurs when the threat or reward is actually sufficient to get the person to engage in or to avoid a behavior, but the threat or reward is insufficient to allow the person to conclude that the situation caused the behavior.

Although insufficient justification may lead people to like something less because they (incorrectly) infer that the reason they did not engage in a behavior was due to internal reasons, it is also possible that the opposite may occur. People may in some cases come to like a task less when they perceive that they did engage in it for external reasons. Overjustification occurs when we view our behavior as caused by the situation, leading us to discount the extent to which our behavior was actually caused by our own interest in it (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999; Lepper & Greene, 1978).

Mark Lepper and his colleagues (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973) studied the overjustification phenomenon by leading some children to think that they engaged in an activity for a reward rather than because they simply enjoyed it. First, they placed some fun felt-tipped markers into the classroom of the children they were studying. The children loved the markers and played with them right away. Then, the markers were taken out of the classroom and the children were given a chance to play with the markers individually at an experimental session with the researcher. At the research session, the children were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups. One group of children (the expected reward condition) was told that if they played with the markers they would receive a good-drawing award. A second group (the unexpected reward condition) also played with the markers and got the award—but they were not told ahead of time that they would be receiving the award (it came as a surprise after the session). The third group (the no reward condition) played with the markers too but got no award.

Then, the researchers placed the markers back in the classroom and observed how much the children in each of the three groups played with them. The results are shown in Figure 4.9, “Undermining Initial Interest in an Activity.” The fascinating result was that the children who had been led to expect a reward for playing with the markers during the experimental session played with the markers less at the second session than they had at the first session. Expecting to receive the award at the session had undermined their initial interest in the markers.

Undermining Initial Interest in an Activity
Figure 4.9 Undermining Initial Interest in an Activity. Children who had been expecting to receive a reward when they played with the fun markers played less with them in their free play period than did children who received no reward or an unexpected reward—their initial interest had been undermined by the expected reward.

Although this might not seem logical at first, it is exactly what is expected on the basis of the principle of overjustification. When the children had to choose whether to play with the markers when the markers reappeared in the classroom, they based their decision on their own prior behavior. The children in the no reward condition group and the children in the unexpected reward condition group realized that they played with the markers because they liked them. Children in the expected award condition group, however, remembered that they were promised a reward for the activity before they played with the markers the last time. These children were more likely to infer that they play with the markers mostly for the external reward, and because they did not expect to get any reward for playing with the markers in the classroom, they discounted the possibility that they enjoyed playing the markers because they liked them. As a result, they played less frequently with the markers compared with the children in the other groups.

This research suggests that, although giving rewards may in many cases lead us to perform an activity more frequently or with more effort, reward may not always increase our liking for the activity. In some cases, reward may actually make us like an activity less than we did before we were rewarded for it. And this outcome is particularly likely when the reward is perceived as an obvious attempt on the part of others to get us to do something. When children are given money by their parents to get good grades in school, they may improve their school performance to gain the reward. But at the same time their liking for school may decrease. On the other hand, rewards that are seen as more internal to the activity, such as rewards that praise us, remind us of our achievements in the domain, and make us feel good about ourselves as a result of our accomplishments, are more likely to be effective in increasing not only the performance of, but also the liking of, the activity (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Hulleman, Durik, Schweigert, & Harackiewicz, 2008).

In short, when we use harsh punishments we may prevent a behavior from occurring. However, because the person sees that it is the punishment that is controlling the behavior, the person’s attitudes may not change. Parents who wish to encourage their children to share their toys or to practice the piano therefore would be wise to provide “just enough” external incentive. Perhaps a consistent reminder of the appropriateness of the activity would be enough to engage the activity, making a stronger reprimand or other punishment unnecessary. Similarly, when we use extremely positive rewards, we may increase the behavior but at the same time undermine the person’s interest in the activity.

The problem, of course, is finding the right balance between reinforcement and overreinforcement. If we want our child to avoid playing in the street, and if we provide harsh punishment for disobeying, we may prevent the behavior but not change the attitude. The child may not play in the street while we are watching but may do so when we leave. Providing less punishment is more likely to lead the child to actually change his or her beliefs about the appropriateness of the behavior, but the punishment must be enough to prevent the undesired behavior in the first place. The moral is clear: if we want someone to develop a strong attitude, we should use the smallest reward or punishment that is effective in producing the desired behavior.

The Experience of Cognitive Dissonance Can Create Attitude Change

Let’s return once more to our friend Joachim and imagine that we now discover that over the next two weeks he has spent virtually every night at clubs listening to music rather than studying. And these behaviors are starting to have some severe consequences: he just found out that he’s failed his biology midterm. How will he ever explain that to his parents? What were at first relatively small discrepancies between self-concept and behavior are starting to snowball, and they are starting to have more affective consequences. Joachim is realizing that he’s in big trouble—the inconsistencies between his prior attitudes about the importance of schoolwork and his behavior are creating some significant threats to his positive self-esteem. As we saw in our discussion of self-awareness theory, this discomfort that occurs when we behave in ways that we see as inconsistent, such as when we fail to live up to our own expectations, is called cognitive dissonance (Cooper, 2007; Festinger, 1957; Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). The discomfort of cognitive dissonance is experienced as pain, showing up in a part of the brain that is particularly sensitive to pain—the anterior cingulate cortex (van Veen, Krug, Schooler, & Carter, 2009).

Leon Festinger and J. Merrill Carlsmith (1959) conducted an important study designed to demonstrate the extent to which behaviors that are discrepant from our initial beliefs can create cognitive dissonance and can influence attitudes. College students participated in an experiment in which they were asked to work on a task that was incredibly boring (such as turning pegs on a peg board) and lasted for a full hour. After they had finished the task, the experimenter explained that the assistant who normally helped convince people to participate in the study was unavailable and that he could use some help persuading the next person that the task was going to be interesting and enjoyable. The experimenter explained that it would be much more convincing if a fellow student rather than the experimenter delivered this message and asked the participant if he would be willing do to it. Thus with his request the experimenter induced the participants to lie about the task to another student, and all the participants agreed to do so.

The experimental manipulation involved the amount of money the students were paid to tell the lie. Half of the students were offered a large payment ($20) for telling the lie, whereas the other half were offered only a small payment ($1) for telling the lie. After the participants had told the lie, an interviewer asked each of them how much they had enjoyed the task they had performed earlier in the experiment. As you can see in Figure 4.10, “Employment of Task,” Festinger and Carlsmith found that the students who had been paid $20 for saying the tasks had been enjoyable rated the task as very boring, which indeed it was. In contrast, the students who were paid only $1 for telling the lie changed their attitude toward the task and rated it as significantly more interesting.

Festinger explained the results of this study in terms of consistency and inconsistency among cognitions. He hypothesized that some thoughts might be dissonant, in the sense that they made us feel uncomfortable, while other thoughts were more consonant, in the sense that they made us feel good. He argued that people may feel an uncomfortable state (which he called cognitive dissonance) when they have many dissonant thoughts—for instance, between the idea that (a) they are smart and decent people and (b) they nevertheless told a lie to another student for only a small payment.

Festinger argued that the people in his experiment who had been induced to lie for only $1 experienced more cognitive dissonance than the people who were paid $20 because the latter group had a strong external justification for having done it whereas the former did not. The people in the $1 condition, Festinger argued, needed to convince themselves that that the task was actually interesting to reduce the dissonance they were experiencing.

Festinger and Carlsmith
Figure 4.10 Festinger and Carlsmith. Participants who had engaged in a boring task and then told another student it was interesting experienced cognitive dissonance, leading them to rate the task more positively in comparison to those who were paid $20 to do the same.

Although originally considered in terms of the inconsistency among different cognitions, Festinger’s theory has also been applied to the negative feelings that we experience when there is inconsistency between our attitudes and our behavior, and particularly when the behavior threatens our perceptions of ourselves as good people (Aronson, 1969). Thus Joachim is likely feeling cognitive dissonance because he has acted against his better judgment and these behaviors are having some real consequences for him. The dissonant thoughts involve (a) his perception of himself as a hardworking student, compared with (b) his recent behaviors that do not support that idea. Our expectation is that Joachim will not enjoy these negative feelings and will attempt to get rid of them.

We Reduce Dissonance by Decreasing Dissonant or by Increasing Consonant Cognitions

Because Joachim’s perception of himself as a hardworking student is now in jeopardy, he is feeling cognitive dissonance and will naturally try to reduce these negative emotions. He can do so in a number of ways. One possibility is that Joachim could simply change his behavior by starting to study more and go out less. If he is successful in doing this, his dissonance will clearly be reduced and he can again feel good about himself. But it seems that he has not been very successful in this regard—over the past weeks he has continually put off studying for listening to music. A second option is to attempt to reduce his dissonant cognitions—those that threaten his self-esteem. Perhaps he might try to convince himself that he has failed only one test and that he didn’t expect to do very well in biology anyway. If he can make the negative behaviors seem less important, dissonance will be reduced.

But Joachim has a third option: even if he cannot change his behavior and even if he knows that what he’s doing has negative consequences, he can create new consonant cognitions to counteract the dissonant cognitions. For instance, Joachim might try to convince himself that he is going to become an important record producer some day and that it is therefore essential that he attend many concerts. When Joachim takes this route he changes his beliefs to be more in line with his behavior, and the outcome is that he has now restored attitude consistency. His behaviors no longer seem as discrepant from his attitudes as they were before, and when consistency is restored, dissonance is reduced. What the principles of cognitive dissonance suggest, then, is that we may frequently spend more energy convincing ourselves that we are good people than we do thinking of ourselves accurately. Of course we do this because viewing ourselves negatively is painful.

Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

Cognitive dissonance is an important social psychological principle that can explain how attitudes follow behavior in many domains of our everyday life. For instance, people who try but fail to quit smoking cigarettes naturally suffer lowered self-esteem (Gibbons, Eggleston, & Benthin, 1997). But rather than accepting this negative feeling, they frequently attempt to engage in behaviors that reduce dissonance. They may try to convince themselves that smoking is not that bad: “My grandmother smoked but lived to be 93 years old!” “I’m going to quit next year!” Or they may try to add new consonant cognitions: “Smoking is fun; it relaxes me.” You can see that these processes, although making us feel better about ourselves at least in the short run, may nevertheless have some long-term negative outcomes.

Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills (1959) studied whether the cognitive dissonance created by an initiation process could explain how much commitment students felt to a group they were part of. In their experiment, female college students volunteered to join a group that would be meeting regularly to discuss various aspects of the psychology of sex. According to random assignment, some of the women were told that they would be required to perform an embarrassing procedure before they could join the group (they were asked to read some obscene words and some sexually oriented passages from a novel in public), whereas other women did not have to go through this initiation. Then all the women got a chance to listen to the group’s conversation, which turned out to be very boring.

Aronson and Mills found that the women who had gone through the embarrassing experience subsequently reported more liking for the group than those who had not, and Gerard and Matthewson (1966) found that having to take some electrical shocks as part of an initiation process had the same effect. Aronson and Mills argued that the more effort an individual expends to become a member of the group (e.g., a severe initiation), the more he or she will become committed to the group in order to justify the effort put in during the initiation. The idea is that the effort creates dissonant cognitions (e.g., “I did all this work to join the group”), which are then justified by creating more consonant ones (e.g., “Okay, this group is really pretty fun”). The women who spent little effort to get into the group were able to see the group as the dull and boring conversation that it was. The women who went through the more severe initiation, however, succeeded in convincing themselves that the same discussion was a worthwhile experience. When we put in effort for something—an initiation, a big purchase price, or even some of our precious time—we will likely end up liking the activity more than we would have if the effort had been less. Even the effort of having to fill out a purchase agreement for a product, rather than having the salesperson do it for you, creates commitment to the purchase and a greater likelihood of staying in the deal (Cialdini, 2001).

Another time you may have experienced the negative affective state of cognitive dissonance is after you have made an important and irrevocable decision. Imagine that you are about to buy a new car and you have narrowed your search to a small new car and a larger (but much cheaper) used car. The problem is that you can see advantages and disadvantages to each. For instance, the smaller car would get better gas mileage, but the larger car—because it is used—is cheaper. Imagine, however, that you finally decide to buy the larger car because you feel that you really don’t have enough money for the new car.

That night, you’re lying in bed and wondering about your decision. Although you’ve enjoyed driving the big car that you have just purchased, you’re worried about rising gas costs, the negative impact of the big car on the environment, and the possibility that the car might need a lot of repairs. Have you made the right decision? This “buyer’s remorse” can be interpreted in terms of postdecisional dissonancethe feeling of regret that may occur after we make an important decision (Brehm, 1956). However, the principles of dissonance predict that once you make the decision—and regardless of which car you choose—you will convince yourself that you made the right choice. Since you have chosen the larger car, you will likely begin to think more about the positive aspects of the choice that you have made (what you are going to be able to do with the money you saved, rather than how much more it is going to cost to fill up the gas tank), and at the same time you will likely downplay the values of the smaller car.

Jack Brehm (1956) posed as a representative of a consumer testing service and asked women to rate the attractiveness and desirability of several kinds of appliances, such as toasters and electric coffee makers. Each woman was told that as a reward for having participated in the survey, she could have one of the appliances as a gift. She was given a choice between two of the products she had rated as being about equally attractive. After she made her decision, her appliance was wrapped up and given to her. Then, 20 minutes later, each woman was asked to re-rate all the products. As you can see in Figure 4.11, “Postdecisional Dissonance,” Brehm found that the women rated the appliance that they had chosen and been given as a gift higher than they had the first time. And the women also lowered their rating of the appliance they might have chosen but decided to reject. These results are of course consistent with the principles of cognitive dissonance—postdecisional dissonance is reduced by focusing on the positive aspects of the chosen product and the negative aspects of the rejected product.

Postdecisional Dissonance.
Figure 4.11 Postdecisional Dissonance. As predicted by the desire to reduce postdecisional dissonance, participants increased the perceived desirability of a product they had chosen and decreased the perceived desirability of a product they did not choose.

What research on cognitive dissonance suggests, then, is that people who are experiencing dissonance will generally try to reduce it. If we fail to lose the weight we wanted to lose, we decide that we look good anyway. If we cheat on an exam, we decide that cheating is okay or common. If we hurt other people’s feelings, we may even decide that they are bad people who deserve our negative behavior. To escape from feeling poorly about themselves, people will engage in quite extraordinary rationalizing. No wonder that most of us believe the statement, “If I had it all to do over again, I would not change anything important.”

Of course, the tendency to justify our past behavior has positive outcomes for our affect. If we are able to convince ourselves that we can do no wrong, we will be happier—at least for today. But the desire to create positive self-esteem can lead to a succession of self-justifications that ultimately result in a chain of irrational actions. The irony is that to avoid thinking of ourselves as bad or immoral, we may set ourselves up for more immoral acts. Once Joachim has convinced himself that his schoolwork is not important, it may be hard to pick it up again. Once a smoker has decided it is okay to smoke, she may just keep smoking. If we spend too much time thinking positively about ourselves we will not learn from our mistakes; nor will we grow or change. In order to learn from our behavior, it would be helpful to learn to tolerate dissonance long enough to examine the situation critically and dispassionately. We then stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action followed by justification, followed by more action.

There is still another potential negative outcome of dissonance: when we have to make choices we may feel that we have made poor ones. Barry Schwartz (2004) has argued that having too many choices can create dissonance and thus the opportunity for regret. When we go to the store and have to pick only one out of 30 different types of chocolates, we have more opportunities for postdecisional dissonance. Although it seems like being allowed to choose would be a good thing, people report being happier when they are given a free gift than when they are given a choice between two similar gifts and have to reject one of them (Hsee & Hastie, 2006).

Positive Self-Esteem Reduces Dissonance

We have seen that the experience of cognitive dissonance can influence our thoughts and feelings about an attitude object by making us feel uncomfortable about our own behaviors. The discrepant behavior causes our sense of self-worth to be lowered, which then causes us to change our attitudes to feel better about ourselves.

  • Discrepant behavior ⟶ lowered self-worth ⟶ changes in thoughts and feelings

Imagine that immediately after you did something dishonest, but before you had a chance to try to reduce the dissonance you were experiencing, you were able to remind yourself of the fact that you had recently done something else very positive—perhaps you had recently spent some time volunteering at a homeless shelter or gotten a really high score on an important exam. Would the possibility of boosting your self-esteem in this other, but unrelated, domain make it unnecessary for you to engage in dissonance reduction? Could you say, “Well, it’s true that I cheated, but I’m really a fine, intelligent, and generous person.” Research has demonstrated that this is the case. If we can affirm our self-worth, even on dimensions that are not related to the source of the original dissonance, the negative feelings we experience are reduced and so is the tendency to justify our attitudes (Steele, 1988).

Just as finding ways to affirm our self-esteem should reduce cognitive dissonance, threats to our self-esteem should increase it. Because cognitive dissonance poses a threat to one’s self-esteem, people who are more motivated by self-concern should show bigger changes in their thoughts and feelings after they engage in a discrepant behavior than should those who are less motivated by self-concern.

Following the research of Brehm (1956), Heine and Lehman (1997) conducted an experiment to determine if threats to self-esteem would increase the magnitude of the dissonance-reduction effect, and if dissonance reduction would also occur for Japanese students as they had previously been found in students from Western samples. They expected that there would be less need for dissonance reduction in the Japanese than in Western students because the Japanese (and other Easterners) were less motivated overall to maintain a positive self-image.

In their study, 71 Canadian and 71 Japanese participants were first asked to take a personality test. According to random assignment to conditions, one-third of the sample in each country were led to believe that they had scored much higher on the test than did the other participants and thus that they had “positive” personalities (the positive feedback condition). Another third of the sample (the negative feedback condition) were led to believe that they had scored more poorly on the test than average, and the final third (the control condition) were not given any feedback on their personality test scores.

Then all participants rated the desirability of 10 compact discs (which were known to be popular in both Canada and Japan) and were asked to choose between their fifth- and sixth-rated CDs as compensation for their participation. Finally, after choosing one of the CDs, the participants were asked to again rate their liking for the CDs. The change in the ratings from before choice to after choice, which would have occurred if the participants increased their liking of the CD they had chosen or decreased their liking of the CD they had rejected, was the dependent measure in the study.

As you can see in Figure 4.12, “Spread of Alternatives by Culture and Feedback Condition,” the researchers found a significant interaction between culture and personality feedback. The pattern of means showed that the feedback mattered for the Canadian participants—the difference in the ratings of the chosen versus the rejected CD (the “spread of alternatives”) increased from the positive to the control to the negative feedback conditions. However, there was no significant simple effect of feedback for the Japanese students, nor did they show a significant spread of alternatives in any feedback condition.

Spread of Alternatives by Culture
Figure 4.12 Spread of Alternatives by Culture and Feedback Condition. The Canadian participants showed a greater spread of alternatives when their self-esteem was threatened, but Japanese participants did not.

However, other researchers have found that individuals from collectivistic cultures do show dissonance effects when they are focused on their relationships with others. For instance, Kitayama, Snibbe, Markus, and Suzuki (2004) found that East Asian participants experienced dissonance particularly when they were asked to think about a close friend who had made a dissonance-creating decision. Such a result would be expected because behaviors that involve more other-oriented, collectivistic outcomes should be more important for these people. Indeed, research has found that advertisements that are framed in terms of personal benefits (e.g., “Use this breath mint!”) are more persuasive in individualistic cultures, whereas ads that emphasize family or ingroup benefits (e.g., “Share this breath mint with your friends!”) are more persuasive in collectivistic cultures (Han & Shavitt, 1994).

Although dissonance is most likely when our behavior violates our positive self-concept, attitude change can occur whenever our thoughts and behaviors are inconsistent, even if the self-concept is not involved. For instance, Harmon-Jones and his colleagues (Harmon-Jones, Brehm, Greenberg, Simon, & Nelson, 1996) had people drink an unpleasant-tasting beverage (Kool-Aid made with vinegar instead of sugar) and then write down on a small slip of paper, which they then immediately crumpled up and threw away, a statement saying that they really liked the drink. Harmon-Jones and his colleagues found that even though the lie could not possibly harm anyone, the act of lying nevertheless made the participants express more positive attitudes toward the drink. It appears that even lying to oneself about something relatively unimportant can produce dissonance and change attitudes (Prislin & Pool, 1996; Stone, 1999).

Salespeople make use of psychological principles, including self-perception and cognitive dissonance, to encourage people to buy their products, often in ways that seem less than completely open and ethical. Informed consumers are aware of such techniques, including the foot-in-the-door technique, the low-ball technique, and the bait-and-switch technique. Let’s consider in the next section how these strategies might work.

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

How Salespeople Use Principles of Persuasion

The research that we have discussed in this chapter reveals some of the many ways that we can persuade people to buy our products, to vote for our candidates, and to engage in other behaviors that we would like them to engage in. We have seen that we will be more successful if we use the right communicators and if we present the right messages under the right conditions. But it must also be kept in mind that a full understanding of the techniques used by persuaders may also be useful to help us avoid being persuaded by others.

Salespeople sometimes make use of the Behavior ⟶ Attitude relationship to attempt to persuade others. Regardless of whether the change is due to the cognitive principles of self-perception or the more affective principles of dissonance reduction, the attitude change that follows behavior can be strong and long lasting. This fact creates some very interesting opportunities for changing attitudes.

One approach based on this idea is to get people to move slowly in the desired direction, such that they commit to a smaller act first. The idea is that it will be relatively easy to get people to engage in a small behavior after which their perceptions of this initial behavior will change their attitudes, making it more likely for them to engage in a more costly behavior later. The foot-in-the-door technique refers to a persuasion attempt in which we first get the target to accept a rather minor request, and then we ask for a larger request. Freedman and Fraser (1966) asked homeowners if they would be willing to place a small sticker in the window of their house that said “Be a safe driver.” Many of the homeowners agreed to this small request. Then several weeks later, the researchers came back and asked these same homeowners to put a big, ugly “DRIVE CAREFULLY” sign on their lawns. Almost 80% of the homeowners who had agreed to put the sticker in their window later agreed to put the sign up, in comparison to only about 20% who agreed when they were asked about the sign without having been asked about the sticker first. In a more recent study, Nicolas Guéguen (2002) found that students in a computer discussion group were more likely to volunteer to complete a 40-question survey on their food habits (which required 15 to 20 minutes of their time) if they had already, a few minutes earlier, agreed to help the same requestor with a simple computer-related question (about how to convert a file type) than if they had not first been given the smaller opportunity to help.

You can see that the foot-in-the-door technique is a classic case of self-perception and commitment—once people label themselves as the kind of person who conforms to the requests of others in the relevant domain (e.g., “I volunteer to help safe driving campaigns,” “I help people in my discussion group”), it is easier to get them to conform later. Similarly, imagine a restaurant owner who has problems with people who make table reservations but then don’t call to cancel when they can’t come at the appointed time. The restaurant owner could try to reduce the problem by first getting a small commitment. Instead of having the people who take the reservations say, “Please call if you change your plans,” they could instead ask, “Will you call us if you change your plans?” and then wait for the person to say yes. The act of saying yes to a simple request creates commitment to the behavior, and not following through on the promise would be likely to create cognitive dissonance. Since people don’t want to feel that they have violated their commitment, this should reduce the no-show rate.

Another approach based on the attitudes-follow-behavior idea, and which can be used by unscrupulous salespeople, is known as the low-ball technique. In this case, the salesperson promises the customer something desirable, such as a low price on a car, with the intention of getting the person to imagine himself or herself engaging in the desired behavior (in this case, purchasing the car). After the customer has committed to purchasing the car at a low price, the salesperson then indicates that he or she cannot actually sell the car at that price. In this case, people are more likely to buy the car at the higher price than they would have been if the car had first been offered at the higher price. Backing out on a commitment seems wrong and may threaten self-esteem, even if the commitment was obtained in an unethical way.

In testing the low-ball effect, Guéguen, Pascual, and Dagot (2002) asked people to watch a dog for them while they visited someone in the hospital. Some participants were told that they would need to watch the dog for 30 minutes. Other participants were first asked simply to commit to watching the dog, and then only later informed that they would have to watch it for 30 minutes. The latter group had been low-balled, and they complied more often with the request.

A close alternative to low-balling is known as the bait-and-switch technique, which occurs when someone advertises a product at a very low price. When you visit the store to buy the product, however, you learn that the product you wanted at the low price has been sold out. An example is a car dealership that advertises a low-priced car in a newspaper ad but doesn’t have that car available when you visit the dealership to purchase it. Again, people are more likely to buy an alternative higher-priced product after they have committed themselves to the purchase than they would have been without the original information. Once you imagine yourself owning the car, your attitude toward the car becomes more positive, making the idea of giving it up more costly and also making it more likely that you will buy it.

Finally, although the foot-in-the-door, low-balling, and bait-and-switch tactics take advantage of the principles of commitment and consistency, it is important to be aware that there are several other paths to persuasion (see Table 4.2, “Potential Paths to Persuasion”). One such path is to rely on the norm of reciprocity—that is, the general expectation that people should return a favor. The door-in-the-face technique begins by making an unreasonably large request; for example, asking a fellow student if he or she would be willing to take notes on your behalf for the entire semester. Assuming the student declines, you might then suggest a compromise by requesting that the student only shares his or her notes from the most recent class. In this case, your fellow student is likely to consent to the second request largely because the student feels that he or she should mirror the concession you have offered.

The pre-giving technique also relies on the norm of reciprocity. In this case, a charitable organization might mail you a small, unsolicited gift, followed by a request for a monetary donation. Having received the gift, many people feel a sense of obligation to support the organization in return, which is, of course, what they are counting on!

Table 4.2 Potential Paths to Persuasion
Commitment and Consistency We are more likely to honor a commitment if we commit to it orally, in writing, or in public.
Reciprocity We feel obligated to return a favor.
Social Proof We tend to follow what others are doing.
Authority We tend to obey authority figures.
Liking We are more easily persuaded by people that we like.
Scarcity Opportunities are more valuable to us when they are less available.
Source: Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Key Takeaways

  • As predicted by the principle of attitude consistency, if we engage in an unexpected or unusual behavior, our thoughts and feelings toward that behavior are likely to change.
  • Self-perception occurs when we use our own behavior as a guide to help us determine our thoughts and feelings.
  • Self-perception can lead to either insufficient justification—the perception that there was not enough external threat to avoid engaging in a behavior—or overjustification—the perception that our behavior was caused primarily by external factors.
  • Principles of self-perception suggest that to create true attitude change we should avoid using too much punishment or too much reward.
  • Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort that occurs when we behave in ways that we see as inappropriate, such as when we fail to live up to our own expectations.
  • Dissonance is reduced by changing behavior, by reducing dissonant cognitions, or by creating new consonant cognitions to counteract the dissonant cognitions.
  • Dissonance is observed in many everyday experiences, including initiation and the experience of postdecisional dissonance.
  • Engaging in dissonance reduction has many positive outcomes for our affect but may lead to harmful self-justifications and irrational actions.
  • Because dissonance involves self-concern, it is stronger when we do not feel very positively about ourselves and may be stronger in Western than in Eastern cultures.
  • Marketers use the principles of dissonance in their attempts at persuasion. Examples are the foot-in-the-door technique, low-balling, and the bait-and-switch technique.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a time when your attitudes changed on the basis of your observation of your behaviors.
  2. Describe a time when you behaved in a way that was inconsistent with your self-concept and which led you to experience cognitive dissonance. How did you reduce the dissonance?
  3. Did you ever buy a product or engage in an activity as the result of the foot-in-the-door technique, door-in-the-face, low-balling, or the bait-and-switch technique? If so, describe your experience.


Aronson, E. (1969). The theory of cognitive dissonance: A current perspective. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 1–34). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1963). Effect of the severity of threat on the devaluation of forbidden behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(6), 584–588.

Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 171–181.

Bem, D. J. (1965). An experimental analysis of self-persuasion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1(3), 199–218;

Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 6, 1-62.

Brehm, J. W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389.

Cialdini, R. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Cooper, J. M. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classical theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage;

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Self-determination research: Reflections and future directions. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 431–441). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627–668.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson;

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203–210.

Freedman, J. L. (1965). Long-term behavioral effects of cognitive dissonance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1(2), 145–155.

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(2), 195–202.

Gerard, H. B., & Matthewson, G. C. (1966). The effects of severity of initiation on liking for a group: A replication. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 278–287.

Gibbons, F. X., Eggleston, T. J., & Benthin, A. C. (1997). Cognitive reactions to smoking relapse: The reciprocal relation between dissonance and self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1), 184–195.

Guéguen, N. (2002). Foot-in-the-door technique and computer-mediated communication. Computers in Human Behavior, 18(1), 11–15. doi: 10.1016/s0747-5632(01)00033-4

Guéguen, N., Pascual, A., & Dagot, L. (2002). Low-ball and compliance to a request: An application in a field setting. Psychological Reports, 91(1), 81–84. doi: 10.2466/pr0.91.5.81-84

Han, S., & Shavitt, S. (1994). Persuasion and culture: Advertising appeals in individualistic and collectivistic societies. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 30(4), 326–350.

Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (1999). Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Harmon-Jones, E., Brehm, J. W., Greenberg, J., Simon, L., & Nelson, D. E. (1996). Evidence that the production of aversive consequences is not necessary to create cognitive dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 5–16.

Heine, S. J., & Lehman, D. R. (1997). Culture, dissonance, and self-affirmation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 389-400. doi:10.1177/0146167297234005.

Hsee, C. K., & Hastie, R. (2006). Decision and experience: Why don’t we choose what makes us happy? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(1), 31–37.

Hulleman, C. S., Durik, A. M., Schweigert, S. B., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2008). Task values, achievement goals, and interest: An integrative analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(2), 398–416. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.100.2.398

Kitayama, S., Snibbe, A. C., Markus, H. R., & Suzuki, T. (2004). Is there any “free” choice?: Self and dissonance in two cultures. Psychological Science, 15(8), 527–535.

Lepper, M. R., & Greene, D. (1978). The hidden costs of reward: New perspectives on the psychology of human motivation. Oxford, England: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129–137.

Olson, J. M., & Stone, J. (2005). The influence of behavior on attitudes. In D. Albarracín, B. T. Johnson, & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), The handbook of attitudes (pp. 223–271). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Prislin, R., & Pool, G. J. (1996). Behavior, consequences, and the self: Is all well that ends well? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(9), 933–948;

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 21, 261–302.

Stone, J. (Ed.). (1999). What exactly have I done? The role of self-attribute accessibility in dissonance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

van Veen, V., Krug, M. K., Schooler, J. W., & Carter, C. S. (2009). Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance. Nature Neuroscience, 12(11), 1469–1474.

Wells, G. L., & Petty, R. E. (1980). The effects of overt head movements on persuasion: Compatibility and incompatibility of responses. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1(3), 219–230.

Media Attributions

  • “Figure 4.9 Undermining Initial Interest in an Activity” is based on data from Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973). Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129–137.
  • “Figure 4.10 Festinger and Carlsmith” is based on data from Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203–210.
  • “Figure 4.11 Postdecisional Dissonance” is based on data from Brehm (1956). Brehm, J. W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389.
  • “Figure 4.12 Spread of Alternatives by Culture and Feedback Condition” is based on data from Heine and Lehman (1997). Heine, S. J., & Lehman, D. R. (1997). Culture, dissonance, and self-affirmation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 389-400. doi:10.1177/0146167297234005.


4.4 Thinking Like a Social Psychologist about Attitudes, Behavior, and Persuasion

Now that we have discussed the concept of attitudes more fully, we hope you can better understand how they fit into the bigger picture of social psychology. Attitudes are central because they provide an organizing principle that helps us understand when and how our beliefs, feelings, and behaviors work together. We hope you can now see some of the many ways that your attitudes toward people, social groups, products, and many other objects help you make sense of your environment and react quickly to it.

Hopefully this chapter has also given you more insight into the many techniques that advertisers use to persuade people, and perhaps given you ideas about how to prevent that persuasion from occurring. You may now have a better understanding of the remarkable success of Apple’s iPhone as well as the techniques used in other advertising campaigns. Can you see how the features of the iPhone (e-mail and calendar management, social media integration, music storage, etc.) have had such an impact on consumers? Can you see that the iPhone’s marketing campaign messages created very strong attitudes on the part of technologically savvy consumers, which made them likely to act on these attitudes? Perhaps you might see how the processes of self-perception and cognitive dissonance were important in making and keeping the momentum of the iPhone sales. Perhaps, once people bought and started to use their iPhones their perceptions of their own behavior drove their attitudes to be even more positive.

Think about some of the other ads that you have seen recently and consider the principles of persuasion that they used. Were the ads effective in matching the communicator, the message, and the message recipient?

You may also want to consider the principles of self-perception and cognitive dissonance as you analyze your own behavior. Can you remember times when your behavior influenced your attitudes? Were the attitudes changed as a result of self-perception or cognitive dissonance? Do you remember feeling the negative emotions associated with dissonance? Perhaps you realize that the rationalizations that you make to relieve your dissonance might not always have such positive outcomes in the long term.


4.5 Chapter Summary

Attitudes are our positive or negative evaluations of an attitude object. Our attitudes are based on the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition. Some attitudes are more important than others because they are more useful to us and thus have more impact on our daily lives. The importance of an attitude, as assessed by how quickly it comes to mind, is known as attitude strength.

The affective, behavioral, and cognitive components of attitudes normally line up or match—this is the idea of attitude consistency. Because of this consistency, our attitudes (as assessed on self-report measures) normally predict our behavior.

We may be able to change attitudes by using persuasive communicators who deliver persuasive messages to message recipients. In general, persuasion will be greater when the communicator appeals to our self-interest. Thus attractive, trustworthy, and expert communicators, who present their messages confidently and fairly and who do not appear to be influenced by situational forces, are most effective.

Persuasive messages may be processed either spontaneously or thoughtfully. In some cases, the spontaneous and emotional processing of messages may be effective because the positive or negative affect makes the message more salient, causing it to grab our attention. We are more willing and able to process information thoughtfully when the information allows us to meet underlying goals—for instance, when the message is personally relevant to us. We also process more thoughtfully when we have the ability and motivation to do so.

We may be able to help people develop a resistance to persuasion by reminding them that a persuasive message will be coming and having them practice how they will respond to influence attempts. These techniques are called forewarning and inoculation, respectively. Persuasion attempts may sometimes create reactance and thus be ineffective.

Self-perception occurs when individuals use their own behavior to help them determine their attitudes toward an attitude object. That is, we may use our own behavior as a guide to help us determine our own thoughts and feelings, based on the assumption that our thoughts and feelings should be consistent with our behaviors.

When the social situation actually causes a behavior but the individual does not realize that the social situation was the cause, we call the phenomenon insufficient justification. Overjustification occurs when we view our behavior as caused by the situation, leading us to discount the extent to which our behavior was actually caused by our own interest in it.

The discomfort that occurs when we behave in ways that we see as inappropriate, such as when we fail to live up to our own expectations, is called cognitive dissonance. Dissonance can be reduced by changing behavior, by convincing ourselves that the behavior was not so negative, or by creating new consonant cognitions.

Persuaders may use principles of attitude-behavior consistency to create attitude change, for instance, through techniques such as the foot-in-the-door technique, the low-ball technique, and the bait-and-switch technique.


Chapter 5. Perceiving Others

Chapter Learning Objectives

1. Initial Impression Formation

  • Describe how people use behaviors and traits to form perceptions of others.
  • Explore research about forming impressions from thin slices of information.
  • Summarize the role of nonverbal behaviors in person perception.
  • Review research about detecting deception.

2. Inferring Dispositions Using Causal Attribution

  • Review the fundamental principles of causal attribution.
  • Explore the tendency to make personal attributions for unusual events.
  • Review the main components of the covariation principle.
  • Outline Weiner’s model of success and failure.

3. Biases in Attribution

  • Review a variety of common attibutional biases, outlining cultural diversity in these biases where indicated.
  • Explore the related concepts of the fundamental attribution error and correspondence bias.
  • Describe the actor-observer bias.
  • Outline self-serving attributional biases.
  • Explore group-serving biases in attribution.
  • Describe victim-blaming attributional biases.

4. Individual Differences in Person Perception

  • Outline some important individual differences factors that influence people’s causal attributions.
  • Explain the ways that attributions can influence mental health and the ways that mental health can affect attributions.
  • Explore how and why people engage in self-handicapping attributions and behaviors.

Trying to explain murders: Do people from different cultures see things the same way?

In 1991, Gang Lu was a 28-year-old Chinese former graduate physics student at the University of Iowa, in the United States. He had recently lost a competition for an academic award. He then unsuccessfully appealed the decision, and afterward he was unable to find an academic job. On November 1, he entered the University of Iowa Physics Department and shot his advisor, the person who handled his appeal, several fellow students and bystanders, and then himself. In all, Gang Lu killed five other people besides himself that day: four faculty members and one student—and he seriously injured another student.

Figure 5.1 University of Iowa, Van Allen Building.

These tragic events prompted a lot of people in the communities affected and in the press to discuss the reasons for the killings. Michael Morris, at the time a graduate student at the University of Michigan, became interested in these discussions. He noticed that the reports on the English-language campus newspapers focused mainly on Gang Lu’s perceived internal characteristics, making claims about him having had a bad temper and a disturbed personality, for example.

Morris then consulted with a fellow graduate student who was Chinese, Kaiping Peng, to see how Chinese newspapers were covering the same event. Peng said that in contrast to the English-language campus papers Morris had read, the explanations in the Chinese papers often centered on the social circumstances in the killer’s life; for instance, that he did not get along with his supervisor and on the relatively easy availability of guns in the United States.

Peng and Morris were curious about whether the differences they had observed reflected a wider trend in how Gang Lu’s crimes had been explained. In an attempt to answer that question, they conducted an analysis of the content of the reports about the killings in the New York Times and the Chinese-language newspaper, the World Journal. Sure enough, they found that the differences in the types of explanations offered for the murders were very different. Whereas the New York Times described them mainly in reference to Lu’s internal characteristics, noting things like a “sinister edge to Mr. Lu’s character well before the shootings,” the World Journal reporters tended to focus mainly on social factors leading up to the crimes, for example, arguing that the “tragedy reflects the lack of religion in Chinese culture.”

Why did these two newspapers report on the same events in such different ways? There are many possible reasons. One particularly relevant topic to social psychologists is that of person perception, which is the study of how we perceive and explain other people’s behavior. Could it be that the different focus of each newspaper was in part due to the contrasting ways that people from the different cultures tend to try to explain human behavior? It is to these and other related topics that we will now turn, coming back to try to shed light on this tragic case study along the way.


Morris, M. W., & Peng, K. (1994). Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical events. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology67(6), 949-971.

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Although mass killings like these are mercifully rare events, how we try to explain them illustrates many of the processes that we go through in trying to figure out the causes of more everyday behaviors, too. Why did my boss shout at me today? Why is my partner so quiet tonight? Why is that couple arguing in the street? Why did I agree to go to that party? Whenever we are curious about why people, including ourselves, behave in the ways that they do, we engage in an activity that social psychologists call attribution, which is the process of assigning causes to behaviors.  As we will see later on in this chapter, the very different reasons that the English and Chinese language newspapers used to explain the killings reflect important cultural differences in attribution.

So, we are often in the business of trying to make sense out people and their behavior. In that sense, we are all amateur social psychologists. In some situations, we may need to figure people out quite quickly. Some of these people are not particularly significant to us—the unknown pedestrians we pass on the sidewalk or the checkout clerk at the grocery, for instance. In these cases, our interactions might be on a fairly superficial level—we might just engage in a quick transaction, nod our head in passing, exchange pleasantries, or accomplish some relatively limited tasks with the person before we move on. In other cases, our initial impressions of others might be more important. For example, if someone approaches you in a deserted alleyway, do you need to beat a hasty retreat, or is it safe for you to continue on your way?

In this chapter, we will consider how we make sense of other people, including the initial and often intuitive impressions that we rely on so heavily, and our later, more considered judgments. Then we will turn to the process of causal attribution, with the goal of understanding how we infer what other people are really like by observing their behaviors. Finally, we will consider how accurate we are in making our determinations about others and will examine differences among us in our person perception styles. When we are finished, you will have a better idea of how we make judgments about other people, and this insight may enable you to perceive others more accurately.

Media Attributions


5.1 Initial Impression Formation

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe how people use behaviors and traits to form initial perceptions of others.
  2. Explore research about forming impressions from thin slices of information.
  3. Summarize the role of nonverbal behaviors in person perception.
  4. Review research about detecting deception.

People are often very skilled at person perceptionthe process of learning about other people—and our brains are designed to help us judge others efficiently (Haselton & Funder, 2006; Macrae & Quadflieg, 2010). Infants prefer to look at faces of people more than they do other visual patterns, and children quickly learn to identify people and their emotional expressions (Turati, Cassia, Simion, & Leo, 2006). As adults, we are able to identify and remember a potentially unlimited number of people as we navigate our social environments (Haxby, Hoffman, & Gobbini, 2000), and we form impressions of those others quickly and without much effort (Carlston & Skowronski, 2005; Fletcher-Watson, Findlay, Leekam, & Benson, 2008). Furthermore, our first impressions are, at least in some cases, remarkably accurate (Ambady, Bernieri, & Richeson, 2000).

Recent research is beginning to uncover the areas in our brain where person perception occurs. In one relevant study, Mason and Macrae (2004) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to test whether people stored information about other people in a different location in the brain than where they stored information about animals, and they found that this was the case. Specific areas of the prefrontal cortex were found to be more active when people made judgments about people rather than dogs (Figure 5.2).

Figure 5.2 Recent advances in neuroimaging techniques have provided information about the brain structures that are involved in person perception. The prefrontal cortex shows strong activation when we are thinking about another person. Data are from Mason, Banfield, and Macrae (2004). Mason, M. F., & Macrae, C. N. (2004). Categorizing and individuating others: The neural substrates of person perception. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16(10), 1785–1795. doi: 10.1162/0898929042947801
Figure 5.2 Recent advances in neuroimaging techniques have provided information about the brain structures that are involved in person perception. The prefrontal cortex shows strong activation when we are thinking about another person.

Learning about people is a lot like learning about any other object in our environment, with one major exception. With an object, there is no interaction: we learn about the characteristics of a car or a cell phone, for example, without any concern that the car or the phone is learning about us. It is a one-way process. With people, in contrast, there is a two-way social process: just as we are learning about another person, that person is learning about us, or potentially attempting to keep us from accurately perceiving him or her. For instance, research has found that when other people are looking directly at us, we process their features more fully and faster, and we remember them better than when the same people are not looking at us (Hood & Macrae, 2007).

In the social dynamic with others, then, we have two goals: first, we need to learn about them, and second, we want them to learn about us (and, we hope, like and respect us). Our focus here is on the former process—how we make sense of other people. But remember that just as you are judging them, they are judging you.

We have seen in “Chapter 4. Attitudes, Behavior, and Persuasion“, that when people are asked to describe themselves, they generally do so in terms of their physical features (“I am really tall”), social category memberships (“I am a woman”), and traits (“I am friendly”). These characteristics well reflect the dimensions we use when we try to form impressions of others. In this section, we will review how we initially use the physical features and social category memberships of others (e.g., male or female, race, and ethnicity) to form judgments and then will focus on the role of personality traits in person perception.

Figure 5.3 One of the important tasks of everyday life is to form judgments about other people.

Research Focus

Forming Impressions from Thin Slices

Although it might seem surprising, social psychological research has demonstrated that at least in some limited situations, people can draw remarkably accurate conclusions about others on the basis of very little data, and that they can do this very quickly (Rule & Ambady, 2010; Rule, Ambady, Adams, & Macrae, 2008; Rule, Ambady, & Hallett, 2009).

Ambady and Rosenthal (1993) made videotapes of six female and seven male graduate students while they were teaching an undergraduate course. The courses covered diverse areas of the college curriculum, including humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. For each instructor, three 10-second video clips were taken—10 seconds from the first 10 minutes of the class, 10 seconds from the middle of the class, and 10 seconds from the last 10 minutes of the class.

Nine female undergraduates were asked to rate the 39 clips of the instructors individually on 15 dimensions, such as “optimistic,” “confident,” “active,” and so on, as well as give an overall, global rating. Ambady and her colleagues then compared the ratings of the instructors made by the participants who had seen the instructors for only 30 seconds with the ratings of the same instructors that had been made by actual students who had spent a whole semester with the instructors and who had rated them at the end of the semester on dimensions such as “the quality of the course section” and “the section leader’s performance.” The researchers used the Pearson correlation coefficient to make the comparison (remember that correlations nearer +1.0 or –1.0 are stronger). As you can see in the following table, the ratings of the participants and the ratings of the students were highly positively correlated.

Table 5.1 Forming Accurate Impressions in Only 30 Seconds
Correlations of Molar Nonverbal Behaviors with College Teacher Effectiveness Ratings (Student Ratings)
Variable r
Accepting .50
Active .77**
Attentive .48
Competent .56*
Confident .82***
Dominant .79**
Empathic .45
Enthusiastic .76**
Honest .32
Likable .73**
(Not) Anxious .26
Optimistic .84***
Professional .53
Supportive .55*
Warm .67*
 Global Variable .76**
*p<.05. **p<.01. ***p<.001. Data are from Ambady and Rosenthal (1993). Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431–441.

If the finding that we can make accurate judgments about other people in only 30 seconds surprises you, then perhaps you will be even more surprised to learn that we do not even need that much time. Willis and Todorov (2006) found that even a tenth of a second was enough to make judgments that correlated highly with the same judgments made by other people who were given several minutes to make the judgments. Other research has found that we can make accurate judgments in seconds or even milliseconds about, for instance, the personalities of salespersons (Ambady, Krabbenhoft, & Hogan, 2006) and even whether or not a person is prejudiced (Richeson & Shelton, 2005).

Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, and Hall (2005) reported a demonstration of just how important such initial impressions can be. These researchers showed to participants pairs of political candidates who had run against each other in previous elections for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Participants saw only the faces of the candidates, and they saw them in some cases for only one second. Their task was to judge which person in of each pair was the most competent. Todorov and colleagues (2005) found that these judgments predicted the actual result of the election; in fact, 68% of the time the person judged to have the most competent face won.

Rule and Ambady (2010) showed that perceivers were also able to accurately distinguish whether people were Democrats or Republicans based only on photos of their faces. Republicans were perceived as more powerful than Democrats, and Democrats were perceived as warmer than Republicans. Further, Rule, Ambady, Adams, and Macrae (2008) found that people could accurately determine the sexual orientation of faces presented in photos (gay or straight) based on their judgments of what they thought “most people” would say. These findings have since been replicated across different cultures varying in their average acceptance of homosexuality (Rule, Ishii, Ambady, Rosen, & Hallett, 2011).

Taken together, these data confirm that we can form a wide variety of initial impressions of others quickly and, at least in some cases, quite accurately. Of course, in these situations, the people who were being observed were not trying to hide their personalities from the observers. As we saw in Chapter 3, people often use strategic self-presentation quite skillfully, which further complicates the person perception process.

Nonverbal Behavior

One way that the participants in the studies described above may have been able to form such accurate impressions of instructors on the basis of such little information was by viewing their nonverbal behavior. Nonverbal behavior is any type of communication that does not involve speaking, including facial expressions, body language, touching, voice patterns, and interpersonal distance. Nonverbal behaviors are used to reinforce spoken words (Hostetter, 2011) but also include such things as interpersonal distance (how far away from you the other person stands), tone of voice, eye gaze, and hand gestures and body positions (DePaulo et al., 2003).

The ability to decode nonverbal behavior is learned early, even before the development of language (Walker-Andrews, 2008). We tend to like people who have a pleasant tone of voice and open posture, who stand an appropriate distance away from us, and who look at and touch us for the “right” amount of time—not too much or too little. And, of course, behavior matters; people who walk faster are perceived as happier and more powerful than those who walk more slowly (Montepare & Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988). (For more insight into the relationship between nonverbal communication and success, see social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s fascinating TED Talk.

The importance of body movement has been demonstrated in studies in which people are viewed in point-light displays in dark rooms with only small lights at their joints. Research has found that observers are able to accurately recognize the behavior of others from these minimal displays (Clarke, Bradshaw, Field, Hampson, & Rose, 2005; Johnson, Gill, Reichman, & Tassinary, 2007; Heberlein, Adolphs, Tranel, & Damasio, 2004; Figure 5.4 “Point-Light Displays”). People can also determine personality by tone of voice provided by degraded and incomprehensible speech (Ambady, Krabbenhoft, & Hogan, 2006).

Figure 5.4 Point-Light Displays
Figure 5.4 Point-Light Displays

People can accurately detect behaviors, emotions, and traits from point-light displays.

Although they may be pretty good at it in some cases, people are often not aware of their ability to make accurate judgments. Rule, Ambady, Adams, and Macrae (2008) found that even though the participants in their research were quite accurate in their perceptions, they could not articulate how they made their judgments. They claimed that they were “just guessing” and could hardly believe that they were getting the judgments right. These results suggest that they were made without any conscious awareness on the part of the judgers. Furthermore, the participants’ judgments of their own accuracy were not generally correlated with their actual accurate judgments.

Figure 5.5 Nonverbal behaviors are an important form of communication—and they are particularly important in expressing our liking of, and caring for, others. 

The particular nonverbal behaviors that we use, as well as their meanings, are determined by social norms, and these norms may vary across cultures. For example, people who live in warm climates nearer the equator use more nonverbal communication (e.g., talking with their hands or showing strong facial expressions) and are more likely to touch each other during conversations than people who live in colder climates nearer Earth’s poles (Manstead, 1991; Pennebaker, Rime, & Blankenship, 1996). And the appropriate amount of personal space to keep between ourselves and others also varies across cultures. In some cultures—for instance, those of South American countries—it is appropriate to stand very close to another person while talking to him or her; in other cultures—for example, in the United States and Western Europe—more interpersonal space is the norm (Knapp & Hall, 2006). The appropriate amount of eye contact with others is also determined by culture. In Latin America, it is appropriate to lock eyes with another person, whereas in Japan, people more often try to avoid eye contact.

Although nonverbal behaviors can be informative during the initial stages of person perception, they are limited in what they can convey. In general, they communicate our own status or dominance (self-concern) as well as our interest in or liking of another (other-concern). If we notice that someone is smiling and making eye contact with us while leaning toward us in conversation, we can be pretty sure that he or she likes us. On the other hand, if someone frowns at us, touches us inappropriately, or moves away when we get close, we may naturally conclude that he or she does not like us.

We may also use nonverbal behaviors to try out new situations: If we move a little closer and look at someone a bit longer, we communicate our interest. If these responses are reciprocated by the other person, that can indicate that he or she likes us, and we can move on to share other types of information. If the initial nonverbal behaviors are not reciprocated, then we may conclude that the relationship may not work out and we can withdraw before we go “too far.”

Nonverbal behavior provides different information than verbal behavior because people frequently say one thing and do another. Perhaps you remember being really angry at someone but not wanting to let on that you were mad, so you tried to hide your emotions by not saying anything. But perhaps your nonverbal behavior eventually gave you away to the other person: although you were trying as hard as you could not to, you just looked angry. We frequently rely more on nonverbal than on verbal behavior when messages are contradictory. One reason for this is that we know that it is relatively easy to monitor our verbal behavior but harder to control the nonverbal. However, we expect that people who need to deceive others—for instance, good poker players—are able to monitor their nonverbal behavior better than most people, making it difficult to get a good read on them.

Because we use nonverbal behaviors so frequently in our social interactions, we are fluent readers of them. We also realize that we can better communicate with others when we use them. Indeed, it is difficult to communicate accurately when we cannot express ourselves nonverbally (Krauss, Chen, & Chawla, 1996). You probably have noticed this yourself. If you e-mail or text a message to your friend, for instance, you need to be careful about using sarcasm because he or she might misinterpret your meaning. Because nonverbal information is so important, we quickly learned to incorporate it, in the form of emoticons, in our text messages (Figure 5.6 ).

Figure 5.6 Emoticons are a type of nonverbal behavior for electronic messages.

Detecting Danger by Focusing on Negative Information

You may have noticed when you first looked at the images presented earlier in this chapter that you tended to like some of the people and to dislike others. It is not surprising that you had these emotions—these initial affective reactions are an essential and highly adaptive part of person perception. One of the things that we need to determine when we first perceive someone is whether that person poses any threat to our well-being. We may dislike or experience negative emotions about people because we feel that they are likely to harm us, just as we may like and feel positively about them if we feel that they can help us (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). Research has found that the threat and the trustworthiness of others are particularly quickly perceived, at least by people who are not trying to hide their intentions (Bar, Neta, & Linz, 2006; Todorov, Said, Engel, & Oosterhof, 2008).

Most people with whom we interact are not dangerous, nor do they create problems for us. In fact, when we are asked to rate how much we like complete strangers, we generally rate them positively (Sears, 1986). Because we generally expect people to be positive, people who are negative or threatening are salient, likely to create strong emotional responses, and relatively easy to spot.

Compared with positive information, negative information about a person tends to elicit more physiological arousal, draw greater attention, and exert greater impact on our judgments and impressions of the person. Hansen and Hansen (1988) had undergraduate students complete a series of trials in which they were shown, for very brief time periods, “crowds” of nine faces (Figure 5.7, “Faces”). On some of the trials, all the faces were happy or all the faces were angry. On other trials, the “crowd” was made up of eight happy faces and one angry face, or eight angry faces and one happy face. For each trial, the participants were instructed to say, as quickly as possible, whether the crowd contained a discrepant face or not. Hansen and Hansen found that the students were significantly faster at identifying the single angry face among the eight happy ones than they were at identifying the single happy face among the eight angry ones. They also made significantly fewer errors doing so. The researchers’ conclusion was that angry, and thus threatening, faces quickly popped out from the crowd. Similarly, Ackerman and colleagues (2006) found that people were better at recognizing the faces of other people when those faces had angry, rather than neutral, expressions, and Dijksterhuis and Aarts (2003) found that people could more quickly and more accurately recognize negative, rather than positive, words.

the left image has 8 happy faces and 1 angry face, the right image has 8 angry faces and 1 happy face
Figure 5.7 Faces.

Because negative faces are more salient and therefore more likely to grab our attention than are positive faces, people are faster at locating a single negative face in a display of positive faces than they are to locate a single positive face in a display of negative faces.

Our brains seem to be hardwired to detect negative behaviors (Adams, Gordon, Baird, Ambady, & Kleck, 2003), and at an evolutionary level this makes sense. It is important to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” and to try to avoid interacting with the latter. In one study, Tiffany Ito and her colleagues (Ito, Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo, 1998) showed college students a series of positive, negative, and neutral images while their event-related brain potentials were collected. The researchers found that different parts of the brain reacted to positive and negative images and that the response to negative images was greater overall. They concluded that “negative information weighs more heavily on the brain” (p. 887). In sum, the results of research in person perception are clear: when we are perceiving people, negative information is simply more influential than positive information (Pratto & John, 1991).

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Detecting Deception

One important person perception task that we must all engage in sometimes is to try to determine whether other people are lying to us. We might wonder whether our poker opponent is bluffing, whether our partner is being honest when she tells us she loves us, or whether our boss is really planning to give us the promotion he has promised. This task is particularly important for members of courtroom juries, who are asked determine the truth or falsehood of the testimony given by witnesses. And detecting deception is perhaps even more important for those whose job is to provide public security. How good are professionals, such as airport security officers and police detectives at determining whether or not someone is telling the truth?

It turns out that the average person is only moderately good at detecting deception and that experts do not seem to be much better. In a recent meta-analysis, researchers looked at over 200 studies that had tested the ability of almost 25,000 people to detect deception (Bond & DePaulo, 2006). The researchers found that people were better than chance at doing so but were not really that great. The participants in the studies were able to correctly identify lies and truths about 54% of the time (chance performance is 50%). This is not a big advantage, but it is one that could have at least some practical consequences and that suggests that we can at least detect some deception. However, the meta-analysis also found that experts—including police officers, detectives, judges, interrogators, criminals, customs officials, mental health professionals, polygraph examiners, job interviewers, federal agents, and auditors—were not significantly better at detecting deception than were nonexperts.

Why is it so difficult for us to detect liars? One reason is that people do not expect to be lied to. Most people are good and honest folk, and we expect them to tell the truth, and we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt (Buller, Stiff, & Burgoon, 1996; Gilbert, Krull, & Malone, 1990). In fact, people are more likely to expect deception when they view someone on a videotape than when they are having an interpersonal interaction with the person. It’s as if we expect the people who are right around us to be truthful (Bond & DePaulo, 2006).

A second reason is that most people are pretty good liars. The cues that liars give off are quite faint, particularly when the lies that they are telling are not all that important. Bella DePaulo and her colleagues (DePaulo et al., 2003) found that in most cases it was very difficult to tell if someone was lying, although it was easier when the liar was trying to cover up something important (e.g., a sexual transgression) than when he or she was lying about something less important. De Paulo and colleagues did find, however, that there were some reliable cues to deception.

Compared with truth tellers, liars:

  • Made more negative statements overall
  • Appeared more tense
  • Provided fewer details in their stories
  • Gave accounts that were more indirect and less personal
  • Took longer to respond to questions and exhibited more silent pauses when they were not able to prepare their responses
  • Gave responses that were briefer and spoken in a higher pitch

A third reason it is difficult for us to detect liars is that we tend to think we are better at catching lies than we actually are. This overconfidence may prevent us from working as hard as we should to try to uncover the truth.

Finally, most of us do not really have a very good idea of how to detect deception; we tend to pay attention to the wrong things. Many people think that a person who is lying will avert his or her gaze or will not smile or that perhaps he or she will smile too much. But it turns out that faces are not that revealing. The problem is that liars can more easily control their facial expressions than they can control other parts of their bodies. In fact, Ekman and Friesen (1974) found that people were better able to detect other people’s true emotions when they could see their bodies but not their faces than when they could see their faces but not their bodies. Although we may think that deceivers do not smile when they are lying, it is actually common for them to mask their statements with false smiles—smiles that look very similar to the more natural smile that we make when we are really happy (Ekman & Davidson, 1993; Frank & Ekman, 1993).

Recently, advances in technology have begun to provide new ways to assess deception. Some software analyzes the language of truth tellers, other software analyzes facial microexpressions that are linked with lying (Newman, Pennebaker, Berry, & Richards, 2003), and still other software uses neuroimaging techniques to try to catch liars (Langleben et al., 2005). Whether these techniques will be successful, however, remains to be seen.

Judging People by Their Traits

Although we can learn some things about others by observing their physical characteristics and their nonverbal behaviors, to really understand them we will eventually need to know their personality traits. Traits are important because they are the basic language by which we understand and communicate about people. When we talk about other people, we describe their traits. Our friends are “fun,” “creative,” and “crazy in a good way,” or “quiet,” “serious,” and “controlling.” The language of traits is a powerful one—indeed, there are over 18,000 trait terms in the English language.

Combining Traits: Information Integration

Let’s consider for a moment how people might use trait terms to form an overall evaluation of another person. Imagine that you have to describe two friends of yours, Amir and Connor, to another person, Rianna, who might be interested in dating one of them. You’ll probably describe the two men in terms of their physical features first, but then you’ll want to say something about their personalities. Let’s say that you want to make both Amir and Connor sound as good as possible to Rianna, but you also want to be honest and not influence her one way or the other. How would you do that? You would probably start by mentioning their positive traits: Amir is “intelligent” and “serious”; Connor is “fun” and “exciting.” But to be fair, you would also need to mention their negative traits: Amir sometimes seems “depressed,” and Connor can be “inconsiderate.”

You might figure that Rianna will just combine whatever information you give her, perhaps in a mathematical way. For instance, she might listen to all the traits that you mention, decide how positive or negative each one is, and then add the traits together or average them. Research has found that people do exactly that, both for strangers and for people whom they know very well (Anderson, 1974; Falconi & Mullet, 2003). Consider what might happen if you gave Rianna the following information:

  • Amir is smart, serious, kind, and sad.
  • Connor is fun, happy, selfish, and inconsiderate.

Rianna might decide to score each trait on a scale of +5 (very positive) to –5 (very negative). Once she has these numbers, she could then either add them together or average them to get an overall judgment.

Table 5.2a: Combining Traits – Amir
Trait Value
Smart +5
Serious +1
Kind +4
Sad –4
Sum +6.0
Average +1.5
Table 5.2b: Combining Traits – Connor
Trait Value
Fun +3
Happy +2
Selfish –4
Inconsiderate –5
Sum –4.0
Average –1.0

Based on this scoring, Rianna would probably decide that she likes Amir more than Connor. Of course, different people might weight the traits in somewhat different ways, and this would lead different people to draw different impressions about Amir and Connor. But there is pretty good agreement among most people about the meaning of traits, at least in terms of the overall positivity or negativity of each trait, and thus most people would be likely to draw similar conclusions.

Now imagine that you later thought of some other new, moderately positive characteristics about Amir—that he was also “careful” and “helpful.” Whether you told Rianna about them might depend on how you thought they would affect her overall impression of Amir. Perhaps these new traits would make Rianna like Amir more (after all, they do add new positive information about him). But perhaps they might make her like him less (if the new, moderately positive information diluted the existing positive impression she has already formed about him).

One way to think about this is to consider whether Rianna might be adding the traits together or averaging them. In our first example, it didn’t matter because the outcome was the same. But now it might—if she’s adding the traits together, then Rianna will probably like Amir more after she hears the new information, because new positive traits have been added to the existing sum score. If she is averaging the traits together, however, then Rianna will probably like him less than she did before, because the new, more moderate information tends to dilute the initial impressions.

It turns out that in most cases, our judgments are better predicted by mental averaging than by mental adding (Mills, 2007). What this means is that when you are telling someone about another person and you are trying to get him or her to like the person, you should say the most positive things that you know but leave out the more moderate (although also positive) information. The moderate information is more likely to dilute, rather than enhance, the more extreme information.

The Importance of the Central Traits Warm and Cold

Although the averaging model is quite good at predicting final impressions, it is not perfect. This is because some traits are simply weighted more heavily than others. For one, negative information is more heavily weighted than is positive information (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). In addition to the heavy weight that we give to negative traits, we give a particular emphasis to the traits “warm” and “cold.” Imagine two men, Brad and Phil, who were described with these two sets of characteristics:

  • Brad is industrious, critical, warm, practical, and determined.
  • Phil is industrious, critical, cold, practical, and determined.

As you can see, the descriptions are identical except for the presence of “warm” and “cold.” In a classic study, Solomon Asch (1946) found that people described with these two sets of traits were perceived very differently—the “warm” person very positively and the “cold” person very negatively.

To test whether or not these differences would influence real behavior, Harold Kelley (1950) had students read about a professor who was described either as “rather cold” or as “very warm.” Then the professor came into the classroom and led a 20-minute discussion group with the students. Although the professor behaved in the same way for both groups, the students nevertheless reacted very differently to him. The students who were expecting the “warm” instructor were more likely to participate in the discussion, in comparison with those who were expecting him to be “cold.” And at the end of the discussion, the students also rated the professor who had been described as “warm” as being significantly more humorous, sociable, popular, and better natured than the “cold” professor. Moreover, the effects of warmth and coolness seem to be wired into our bodily responses. Research has found that even holding a cup of hot versus iced coffee, or making judgments in warm versus cold rooms leads people to judge others more positively (Ijzerman & Semin, 2009; Williams & Bargh, 2008).

In short, the particular dimension warm versus cold makes a big difference in how we perceive people—much bigger than do other traits. As a result, the traits of warm and cold are known as central traits, which are characteristics that have a very strong influence on our impressions of others (Asch, 1946). The powerful influence of central traits is due to two things. One, they lead us to make inferences about other traits that might not have been mentioned. The students who heard that the professor was “warm” might also have assumed that he had other positive traits (maybe “nice” and “funny”), in comparison with those who heard that he was “cold.” Two, the important central traits also color our perceptions of the other traits that surround them. When a person is described as “warm” and “intelligent,” the meaning of “intelligent” seems a lot better than does the term “intelligent” in the context of a person who is also “cold.” Overall, the message is clear: if you want to get someone to like you, try to act in a warm manner toward them. Be friendly, nice, and interested in what they say. This attention you pay to the other will be more powerful than any other characteristics that you might try to display to them. The importance of perceptions of warmth-coldness has been confirmed in many other contexts. For example, in the field of psychotherapy, many studies have indicated that therapists’ warmth, empathy, and genuineness are the three most important traits in establishing a strong and trusting relationship with clients, which in turn leads to positive change (Shapiro, 1969).

First Impressions Matter: The Primacy Effect

It has frequently been said that “first impressions matter.” Social psychological research supports this idea. The primacy effect describes the tendency for information that we learn first to be weighted more heavily than is information that we learn later. One demonstration of the primacy effect was conducted by Solomon Asch (1946). In his research, participants learned some traits about a person and then made judgments about him. One half of the participants saw this list of traits:

  • Intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious

The other half of the participants saw this list:

  • Envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent

You may have noticed something interesting about these two lists—they contain exactly the same traits but in reverse order.

Asch discovered something interesting in his study: because the traits were the same, we might have expected that both groups would form the same impression of the person, but this was not at all the case. Rather, Asch found that the participants who heard the first list, in which the positive traits came first, formed much more favorable impressions than did those who heard the second list, in which the negative traits came first. Similar findings were found by Edward Jones (1968), who had participants watch one of two videotapes of a woman taking an intelligence test. In each video, the woman correctly answered the same number of questions and got the same number wrong. However, when the woman got most of her correct answers in the beginning of the test but got more wrong near the end, she was seen as more intelligent than when she got the same number correct but got more correct at the end of the test.

Primacy effects also show up in other domains, even in those that seem really important. For instance, Koppell and Steen (2004) found that in elections in New York City, the candidate who was listed first on the ballot was elected more than 70% of the time, and Miller and Krosnick (1998) found similar effects for candidate preferences in laboratory studies.

This is not to say that it is always good to be first. In some cases, the information that comes last can be most influential. Recency effects, in which information that comes later is given more weight, although much less common than primacy effects, may sometimes occur. For example, de Bruin (2005) found that in competitions such as the Eurovision Song Contest and ice skating, higher marks were given to competitors who performed last.

Considering the primacy effect in terms of the cognitive processes central to human information processing leads us to understand why it can be so powerful. One reason is that humans are cognitive misers. Because we desire to conserve our energy, we are more likely to pay more attention to the information that comes first and less likely to attend to information that comes later. In fact, when people read a series of statements about a person, the amount of time they spend reading the items declines with each new piece of information (Belmore & Hubbard, 1987). Not surprisingly, then, we are more likely to show the primacy effect when we are tired than when we are wide awake and when we are distracted than when we are paying attention (Webster, Richter, & Kruglanski, 1996).

Another reason for the primacy effect is that the early traits lead us to form an initial expectancy about the person, and once that expectancy is formed, we tend to process information in ways that keep that expectancy intact. Thinking back to Chapter 2 and the discussion of social cognition, we can see that this of course is a classic case of assimilation—once we have developed a schema, it becomes difficult to change it. If we learn that a person is “intelligent” and “industrious,” those traits become cognitively accessible, which leads us to develop a positive expectancy about the person. When the information about the negative features comes later, these negatives will be assimilated into the existing knowledge more than the existing knowledge is accommodated to fit the new information. Once we have formed a positive impression, the new negative information just doesn’t seem as bad as it might have been had we learned it first. This is an important factor in explaining the halo effect, which is the influence of a global positive evaluation of a person on perceptions of their specific traits. Put simply, if we get an initially positive general impression of someone, we often see their specific traits more positively. The halo effect has been demonstrated in many social contexts, including a classic investigation by Bingham and Moore (1931) on job interviewing and a far more recent study of students’ evaluations of their professors (Keeley, English, Irons, & Hensley, 2013).

You can be sure that it would be good to take advantage of the primacy and halo effects if you are trying to get someone you just met to like you. Begin with your positive characteristics, and only bring the negatives up later. This will create a much better outcome than beginning with the negatives.

Key Takeaways

  • Every day we must size up the people we interact with. The process of doing this is known as person perception.
  • We can form a wide variety of initial impressions of others quickly and often quite accurately.
  • Nonverbal behavior is communication that does not involve speaking, including facial expressions, body language, touching, voice patterns, and interpersonal distance. We rely on nonverbal behavior in our initial judgments of others.
  • The particular nonverbal behaviors that we use, as well as their meanings, are determined by social norms, and these may vary across cultures.
  • In comparison with positive information about people, negative information tends to elicit more physiological arousal, draw greater attention, and exert greater impact on our judgments and impressions of people.
  • People are only moderately good at detecting deception, and experts are not usually much better than the average person.
  • We integrate traits to form judgments of people primarily by averaging them.
  • Negative and central traits have a large effect on our impressions of others.
  • The primacy effect occurs because we pay more attention to information that comes first and also because initial information colors how we perceive information that comes later.
  • These processes also help to explain how the halo effect occurs.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Consider a case where you formed an impression of someone quickly and on only a little information. How accurate do you think your judgment was and why? What information did you take into account? What information might you have missed?
  2. Consider some of the nonverbal behaviors that you and your friends use when you communicate. What information are you usually trying to communicate by using them? When do you find yourself using more vigorous gesturing and why?
  3. Give an example of a situation in which you have noticed the effects of central traits on your perception of someone. Why do you think that this happened?
  4. Describe a situation where you were influenced by either the primacy or the halo effect in your initial perceptions of someone. How accurate did those initial perceptions turn out to be and why?


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Media Attributions


5.2 Inferring Dispositions Using Causal Attribution

Learning Objectives

  1. Review the fundamental principles of causal attribution.
  2. Explore the tendency to make personal attributions for unusual events.
  3. Review the main components of the covariation principle.
  4. Outline Weiner’s model of success and failure.

We have seen that we use personality traits to help us understand and communicate about the people we know. But how do we know what traits people have? People don’t walk around with labels saying “I am generous” or “I am aggressive” on their foreheads. In some cases, thinking back to our discussions of reputation in Chapter 3, we may learn about a person indirectly, for instance, through the comments that other people make about that person. We also use the techniques of person perception to help us learn about people and their traits by observing them and interpreting their behaviors. If Zoe hits Joe, we might conclude that Zoe is aggressive. If Cejay leaves a big tip for the waitress, we might conclude that he is generous. It seems natural and reasonable to make such inferences because we can assume (often, but not always, correctly) that behavior is caused by personality. It is Zoe’s aggressiveness that causes her to hit, and it is Cejay’s generosity that led to his big tip.

Although we can sometimes infer personality by observing behavior, this is not always the case. Remember that behavior is influenced by both our personal characteristics and the social context in which we find ourselves. What this means is that the behavior we observe other people engaging in might not always be reflective of their personality; instead, the behavior might have been caused more by the situation rather than by underlying person characteristics. Perhaps Zoe hit Joe not because she is really an aggressive person but because Joe insulted or provoked her first. And perhaps Cejay left a big tip in order to impress his friends rather than because he is truly generous.

Because behavior can be influenced by both the person and the situation, we must attempt to determine which of these two causes actually more strongly determined the behavior. The process of trying to determine the causes of people’s behavior is known as causal attribution (Heider, 1958). Because we cannot see personality, we must work to infer it. When a couple we know breaks up, despite what seemed to be a match made in heaven, we are naturally curious. What could have caused the breakup? Was it something one of them said or did? Or perhaps stress from financial hardship was the culprit?

Making a causal attribution can be a bit like conducting a social psychology experiment. We carefully observe the people we are interested in, and we note how they behave in different social situations. After we have made our observations, we draw our conclusions. We make a personal (or internal or dispositional) attribution when we decide that the behavior was caused primarily by the person. A personal attribution might be something like “I think they broke up because Sarah was not committed to the relationship.” At other times, we may determine that the behavior was caused primarily by the situation—we call this making a situational (or external) attribution. A situational attribution might be something like, “I think they broke up because they were under such financial stress.” At yet other times, we may decide that the behavior was caused by both the person and the situation; “I think they broke up because Sarah’s lack of commitment really became an issue once they had financial troubles.”

Making Inferences about Personality

It is easier to make personal attributions in some cases than in others. When a behavior is unusual or unexpected in the particular situation it occurs in, we can more easily make a personal attribution for it. Imagine that you go to a party and you are introduced to Tess. Tess shakes your hand and says, “Nice to meet you!” Can you readily conclude, on the basis of this behavior, that Tess is a friendly person? Probably not. Because the social context demands that people act in a friendly way (by shaking your hand and saying “Nice to meet you”), it is difficult to know whether Tess acted friendly because of the situation or because she is really friendly. Imagine, however, that instead of shaking your hand, Tess ignores you and walks away. In such cases, it is easier in this case to infer that Tess is unfriendly because her behavior is so contrary to what one would expect.

To test this idea, Edward Jones and his colleagues (Jones, Davis, & Gergen, 1961) conducted a classic experiment in which participants viewed one of four different videotapes of a man who was applying for a job. For half the participants, the video indicated that the man was interviewing for a job as a submariner, a position that required close contact with many people over a long period of time. It was clear to the man being interviewed, as well as to the research participants, that to be a good submariner you should be extroverted (i.e., you should enjoy being around others). The other half of the participants saw a video in which the man was interviewing for a job as an astronaut, which involved (remember, this study was conducted in 1961) being in a small capsule, alone, for days on end. In this case, it was clear to everyone that in order to be good astronaut, you should have an introverted personality.

During the videotape of the interview, a second variable was also manipulated. One half of the participants saw the man indicate that he was actually an introvert (he said things such as “I like to work on my own,” “I don’t go out much”), and the other half saw the man say that he was actually an extrovert (he said things such as “I would like to be a salesman,” “I always get ideas from others”). After viewing one of the four videotapes, participants were asked to indicate how introverted or extroverted they thought the applicant really was.

As you can see in Table 5.2, “Attributions to Expected and Unexpected Behaviors,” when the applicant gave responses that better matched what was required by the job (i.e., for the submariner job, the applicant said he was an extrovert, and for the astronaut job, he said he was an introvert), the participants did not think his statements were as indicative of his underlying personality as they did when the applicant said the opposite of what was expected by the job (i.e., when the job required that he be extroverted but he said he was introverted, or vice versa).

Table 5.2 Attributions to Expected and Unexpected Behaviors
The Job Applied For Extraverted Introverted
Astronaut 91 71
Submariner 71 45
We are more likely to draw personal attributions when a behavior is unexpected. The numbers represent the percentage of extraverted responses that participants believed the job applicant would actually endorse if he were telling the complete truth. Participants were more likely to believe that the applicant was more extraverted (91%) and more introverted (45%) when he said that he did not have the personality traits required by the job than when he said that he did have the personality traits required by the job. Data are from Jones, Davis, and Gergen (1961). Jones, E. E., Davis, K. E., & Gergen, K. J. (1961). Role playing variations and their informational value for person perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(2), 302–310.

The idea here is that the statements that were unusual or unexpected (on the basis of the job requirements) just seemed like they could not possibly have been caused by the situation, so the participants really thought that the interviewee was telling the truth. On the other hand, when the interviewee made statements that were consistent with what was required by the situation, it was more difficult to be sure that he was telling the truth (perhaps, thinking back to the discussion of strategic self-presentation in Chapter 3, he was just saying these things because he wanted to get the job), and the participants made weaker personal attributions for his behavior.

We can also make personal attributions more easily when we know that the person had a choice in the behavior. If a man chooses to be friendly, even in situations in which he might not be, this probably means that he is friendly. But if we can determine that he’s been forced to be friendly, it’s more difficult to know. If, for example, you saw a man pointing a gun at another person, and then you saw that person give his watch and wallet to the gunman, you would probably not infer that the person was generous!

Jones and Harris (1967) had student participants in a study read essays that had been written by other students. Half of the participants thought the students had chosen the essay topics, whereas the other half thought the students had been assigned the topics by their professor. The participants were more likely to make a personal attribution that the students really believed in the essay they were writing when they had chosen the topics rather than been assigned topics.

Sometimes a person may try to lead others to make personal attributions for their behavior to make themselves seem more believable. For example, when a politician makes statements supporting a cause in front of an audience that does not agree with her position, she will be seen as more committed to her beliefs and may be more persuasive than if she gave the same argument in front of an audience known to support her views. Again, the idea is based on principles of attribution: if there is an obvious situational reason for making a statement (the audience supports the politician’s views), then the personal attribution (that the politician really believes what she is saying) is harder to make.

Detecting the Covariation between Personality and Behavior

So far, we have considered how we make personal attributions when we have only limited information; that is, behavior observed at only a single point in time—a man leaving a big tip at a restaurant, a man answering questions at a job interview, or a politician giving a speech. But the process of making attributions also occurs when we are able to observe a person’s behavior in more than one situation. Certainly, we can learn more about Cejay’s generosity if he gives a big tip in many different restaurants with many different people, and we can learn more about a politician’s beliefs by observing the kinds of speeches she gives to different audiences over time.

When people have multiple sources of information about the behavior of a person, they can make attributions by assessing the relationship between a person’s behavior and the social context in which it occurs. One way of doing so is to use the covariation principle,which states that a given behavior is more likely to have been caused by the situation if that behavior covaries (or changes) across situations. Our job, then, is to study the patterns of a person’s behavior across different situations in order to help us to draw inferences about the causes of that behavior (Jones et al., 1987; Kelley, 1967).

Research has found that people focus on three kinds of covariation information when they are observing the behavior of others (Cheng & Novick, 1990).

  • Consistency information. A situation seems to be the cause of a behavior if the situation always produces the behavior in the target. For instance, if I always start to cry at weddings, then it seems as if the wedding is the cause of my crying.
  • Distinctiveness information. A situation seems to be the cause of a behavior if the behavior occurs when the situation is present but not when it is not present. For instance, if I only cry at weddings but not at any other time, then it seems as if the wedding is the cause of my crying.
  • Consensus information. A situation seems to be the cause of a behavior if the situation creates the same behavior in most people. For instance, if many people cry at weddings, then it seems as if the wedding is the cause of my (and the other people’s) crying.

Imagine that your friend Jane likes to go out with a lot of different men, and you have observed her behavior with each of these men over time. One night she goes to a party with Ravi, where you observe something unusual. Although Jane has come to the party with Ravi, she completely ignores him all night. She dances with some other men, and in the end she leaves the party with someone else. This is the kind of situation that might make you wonder about the cause of Jane’s behavior (is she a rude person, or is this behavior caused more by Ravi?) and for which you might use the covariation principle to attempt to draw some conclusions.

According to the covariation principle, you should be able to determine the cause of Jane’s behavior by considering the three types of covariation information: consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus. One question you might ask is whether Jane always treats Ravi this way when she goes out with him. If the answer is yes, then you have some consistency information: the perception that a situation always produces the same behavior in a person. If you have noticed that Jane ignores Ravi more than she ignores the other men she dates, then you also have distinctiveness information: the perception that a behavior occurs when the situation is present but not when it is not present. Finally, you might look for consensus information: the perception that a situation is creating the same response in most people—do other people tend to treat Ravi in the same way?

Consider one more example. Imagine that a friend of yours tells you that he has just seen a new movie and that it is the greatest movie he’s ever seen. As you wonder whether you should make an attribution to the situation (the movie), you will naturally ask about consensus; do other people like the movie too? If they do, then you have positive consensus information about how good the movie is. But you probably also have some information about your friend’s experiences with movies over time. If you are like most people, you probably have friends who love every movie they see. If this is the case for this friend, you probably won’t yet be that convinced that it’s a great movie—in this case, your friend’s reactions would not be distinctive. On the other hand, if your friend does not like most movies he sees but loves this one, then distinctiveness is strong (the behavior is occurring only in this particular situation). If this is the case, then you can be more certain it’s something about the movie that has caused your friend’s enthusiasm. Your next thought may be, “I’m going to see that movie tonight.” You can see still another example of the use of covariation information in Table 5.3, “Using Covariation Information.”

Table 5.3 Using Covariation Information
Attribution Consensus Distinctiveness Consistency
An external attribution (to the situation, in this case the TV show) is more likely if… All my friends laugh at this TV show. Bill laughs more at this TV show. Bill always laughs at this TV show.
An internal attribution (to the person, in this case Bill) is more likely if… Very few of my friends laugh at this TV show. Bill laughs at this TV show as much as he laughs at other TV shows. Bill always laughs at this TV show.
According to the covariation principle, we use three sources of information to help us determine whether we should make an attribution to the situation or to the person. In this example, the attribution is either personal (to my friend Bill) or situational (to a TV show we are watching).

In summary, covariation models predict that we will most likely make external attributions when consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency are all high. In contrast, when consensus and disctinctiveness are both low and this is accompanied by high consistency, then we are most likely to arrive at an internal attribution (Kelley, 1967). In other situations, where the pattern of consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness does not fall into one of these two options, it is predicted that we will tend to make attributions to both the person and the situation.

These predictions have generally been supported in studies of attribution, typically asking people to make attributions about a stranger’s behaviors in vignettes (Kassin, 1979). In studies in more naturalistic contexts, for example those we make about ourselves and others who we know well, many other factors will also affect the types of attributions that we make. These include our relationship to the person and our prior beliefs. For instance, our attributions toward our friends are often more favorable than those we make toward strangers (Campbell, Sedikides, Reeder, & Elliot, 2000). Also, in line with our discussions of schemas and social cogniton in Chapter 2, they are often consistent with the content of the schemas that are salient to us at the time (Lyon, Startup, & Bentall, 1999).

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Use your understanding of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency information to determine the type of attribution you would most likely make in the situation below. Fill in each blank with the correct word (low or high for the three types of information; internal or external for the type of attribution).

You are a psychotherapist with many clients. One day, your last client is twenty minutes late for a one hour appointment. He is regularly late for your appointments. Most of your other clients are typically late arriving. He has disclosed to you that, in general, he is quite a punctual person. In this situation, your client’s lateness for his current appointment shows              consensus,              distinctiveness, and              consistency. Given this, it is most likely that you would make an              attribution about his behavior.

Attributions for Success and Failure

Causal attribution is involved in many important situations in our lives; for example, when we attempt to determine why we or others have succeeded or failed at a task. Think back for a moment to a test that you took, or another task that you performed, and consider why you did either well or poorly on it. Then see if your thoughts reflect what Bernard Weiner (1985) considered to be the important factors in this regard.

Weiner was interested in how we determine the causes of success or failure because he felt that this information was particularly important for us: accurately determining why we have succeeded or failed will help us see which tasks we are good at already and which we need to work on in order to improve. Weiner proposed that we make these determinations by engaging in causal attribution and that the outcomes of our decision-making process were attributions made either to the person (“I succeeded/failed because of my own personal characteristics”) or to the situation (“I succeeded/failed because of something about the situation”).

Weiner’s analysis is shown in Figure 5.8, “Attributions for Success and Failure.” According to Weiner, success or failure can be seen as coming from personal causes (e.g., ability, motivation) or from situational causes (e.g., luck, task difficulty). However, he also argued that those personal and situational causes could be either stable (less likely to change over time) or unstable (more likely to change over time).

image description linked in caption
Figure 5.8 Attributions for Success and Failure [Image description]

This figure shows the potential attributions that we can make for our, or for other people’s, success or failure. Locus considers whether the attributions are to the per

son or to the situation, and stability considers whether or not the situation is likely to remain the same over time.

If you did well on a test because you are really smart, then this is a personal and stable attribution of ability. It’s clearly something that is caused by you personally, and it is also quite a stable cause—you are smart today, and you’ll probably be smart in the future. However, if you succeeded more because you studied hard, then this is a success due to motivation. It is again personal (you studied), but it is also potentially unstable (although you studied really hard for this test, you might not work so hard for the next one). Weiner considered task difficulty to be a situational cause: you may have succeeded on the test because it was easy, and he assumed that the next test would probably be easy for you too (i.e., that the task, whatever it is, is always either hard or easy). Finally, Weiner considered success due to luck (you just guessed a lot of the answers correctly) to be a situational cause, but one that was more unstable than task difficulty. It turns out that although Weiner’s attributions do not always fit perfectly (e.g., task difficulty may sometimes change over time and thus be at least somewhat unstable), the four types of information pretty well capture the types of attributions that people make for success and failure.

We have reviewed some of the important theory and research into how we make attributions. Another important question, that we will now turn to, is how accurately we attribute the causes of behavior. It is one thing to believe that that someone shouted at us because he or she has an aggressive personality, but quite another to prove that the situation, including our own behavior, was not the more important cause!

Key Takeaways

  • Causal attribution is the process of trying to determine the causes of people’s behavior.
  • Attributions are made to personal or situational causes.
  • It is easier to make personal attributions when a behavior is unusual or unexpected and when people are perceived to have chosen to engage in it.
  • The covariation principle proposes that we use consistency information, distinctiveness information, and consensus information to draw inferences about the causes of behaviors.
  • According to Bernard Weiner, success or failure can be seen as coming from either personal causes (ability and motivation) or situational causes (luck and task difficulty).

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a time when you used causal attribution to make an inference about another person’s personality. What was the outcome of the attributional process? To what extent do you think that the attribution was accurate? Why?
  2. Outline a situation where you used consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness information to make an attribution about someone’s behavior. How well does the covariation principle explain the type of attribution (internal or external) that you made?
  3. Consider a time when you made an attribution about your own success or failure. How did your analysis of the situation relate to Weiner’s ideas about these processes? How did you feel about yourself after making this attribution and why?


Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M. (1985b). The group attribution errorJournal of Experimental Social Psychology, 21(6), 563-579.

Campbell, W. K., Sedikides, C., Reeder, G. D., & Elliot, A. J. (2000). Among friends: An examination of friendship and the self-serving bias. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 229-239.

Cheng, P. W., & Novick, L. R. (1990). A probabilistic contrast model of causal induction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(4), 545–567.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), 1–24.

Jones, E. E., Davis, K. E., & Gergen, K. J. (1961). Role playing variations and their informational value for person perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(2), 302–310.

Jones, E. E., Kanouse, D. E., Kelley, H. H., Nisbett, R. E., Valins, S., & Weiner, B. (Eds.). (1987). Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kassin, S. M. (1979). Consensus information, prediction, and causal attribution: A review of the literature and issues. Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, 37, 1966-1981.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (Vol. 15, pp. 192–240). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Lyon, H. M., & Startup, M., & Bentall, R. P. (1999). Social cognition and the manic defense: Attributions, selective attention, and self-schema in Bipolar Affective Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108(2), 273-282.Frubin

Uleman, J. S., Blader, S. L., & Todorov, A. (Eds.). (2005). Implicit impressions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Weiner, B. (1985). Attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 548–573.

Image Description

Figure 5.8 Attributions for Success and Failure

The potential attributions we make for our, or for other people’s, success or failure based on the locus and the stability of the situation

  • Ability: internal locus, stable
  • Task difficulty: external locus, stable
  • Motivation: internal locus, unstable
  • Luck: external locus, unstable

[Return to Figure 5.8]


5.3 Biases in Attribution

Learning Objectives

  1. Review a variety of common attibutional biases, outlining cultural diversity in these biases where indicated.
  2. Explore the related concepts of the fundamental attribution error and correspondence bias.
  3. Describe the actor-observer bias.
  4. Outline self-serving attributional biases.
  5. Explore group-serving biases in attribution.
  6. Describe victim-blaming attributional biases.

Are Our Attributions Accurate?

We have seen that person perception is useful in helping us successfully interact with others. In relation to our preceding discussion of attributions for success and failure, if we can determine why we did poorly on a test, we can try to prepare differently so we do better on the next one. Because successful navigation of the social world is based on being accurate, we can expect that our attributional skills will be pretty good. However, although people are often reasonably accurate in their attributions—we could say, perhaps, that they are “good enough” (Fiske, 2003)—they are far from perfect. In fact, causal attributions, including those relating to success and failure, are subject to the same types of biases that any other types of social judgments are. Let’s consider some of the ways that our attributions may go awry.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

One way that our attributions may be biased is that we are often too quick to attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them rather than to something about their situation. This is a classic example of the general human tendency of underestimating how important the social situation really is in determining behavior. This bias occurs in two ways. First, we are too likely to make strong personal attributions to account for the behavior that we observe others engaging in. That is, we are more likely to say “Cejay left a big tip, so he must be generous” than “Cejay left a big tip, but perhaps that was because he was trying to impress his friends.” Second, we also tend to make more personal attributions about the behavior of others (we tend to say, “Cejay is a generous person”) than we do for ourselves (we tend to say, “I am generous in some situations but not in others”).

When we tend to overestimate the role of person factors and overlook the impact of situations, we are making a mistake that social psychologists have termed the fundamental attribution error. This error is very closely related to another attributional tendency, the correspondence bias, which occurs when we attribute behaviors to people’s internal characteristics, even in heavily constrained situations. In one demonstration of the fundamental attribution error, Linda Skitka and her colleagues (Skitka, Mullen, Griffin, Hutchinson, & Chamberlin, 2002) had participants read a brief story about a professor who had selected two student volunteers to come up in front of a class to participate in a trivia game. The students were described as having been randomly assigned to the role of either quizmaster or contestant by drawing straws. The quizmaster was asked to generate five questions from his idiosyncratic knowledge, with the stipulation that he knew the correct answer to all five questions.

Joe (the quizmaster) subsequently posed his questions to the other student (Stan, the contestant). For example, Joe asked, “What cowboy movie actor’s sidekick is Smiley Burnette?” Stan looked puzzled and finally replied, “I really don’t know. The only movie cowboy that pops to mind for me is John Wayne.” Joe asked four additional questions, and Stan was described as answering only one of the five questions correctly. After reading the story, the students were asked to indicate their impression of both Stan’s and Joe’s intelligence.

If you think about the setup here, you’ll notice that the professor has created a situation that can have a big influence on the outcomes. Joe, the quizmaster, has a huge advantage because he got to choose the questions. As a result, the questions are hard for the contestant to answer. But did the participants realize that the situation was the cause of the outcomes? They did not. Rather, the students rated Joe as significantly more intelligent than Stan. You can imagine that Joe just seemed to be really smart to the students; after all, he knew all the answers, whereas Stan knew only one of the five. But of course this is a mistake. The difference was not at all due to person factors but completely to the situation: Joe got to use his own personal store of esoteric knowledge to create the most difficult questions he could think of. The observers committed the fundamental attribution error and did not sufficiently take the quizmaster’s situational advantage into account.

As we have explored in many places in this book, the culture that we live in has a significant impact on the way we think about and perceive our social worlds. Thus, it is not surprising that people in different cultures would tend to think about people at least somewhat differently. One difference is between people from  many Western cultures (e.g., the United States, Canada, Australia) and people from many Asian cultures (e.g., Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, India). For instance, as we reviewed in Chapter 2 in our discussion of research about the self-concept, people from Western cultures tend to be primarily oriented toward individualism. This leads to them having an independent self-concept where they view themselves, and others, as autonomous beings who are somewhat separate from their social groups and environments. In contrast, people in many East Asian cultures take a more interdependent view of themselves and others, one that emphasizes not so much the individual but rather the relationship between individuals and the other people and things that surround them. In relation to our current discussion of attribution, an outcome of these differences is that, on average, people from individualistic cultures tend to focus their attributions more on the individual person, whereas, people from collectivistic cultures tend to focus more on the situation (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000; Lewis, Goto, & Kong, 2008; Maddux & Yuki, 2006).

In one study demonstrating this difference, Miller (1984) asked children and adults in both India (a collectivistic culture) and the United States (an individualist culture) to indicate the causes of negative actions by other people. Although the younger children (ages 8 and 11) did not differ, the older children (age 15) and the adults did—Americans made more personal attributions, whereas Indians made more situational attributions for the same behavior.

Masuda and Nisbett (2001) asked American and Japanese students to describe what they saw in images like the one shown in Figure 5.9, “Cultural Differences in Perception.” They found that while both groups talked about the most salient objects (the fish, which were brightly colored and swimming around), the Japanese students also tended to talk and remember more about the images in the background (they remembered the frog and the plants as well as the fish).

Figure 5.9 Cultural Differences in Perception

Michael Morris and his colleagues (Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet-Martínez, 2000) investigated the role of culture on person perception in a different way, by focusing on people who are bicultural (i.e., who have knowledge about two different cultures). In their research, they used high school students living in Hong Kong. Although traditional Chinese values are emphasized in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong was a British-administered territory for more than a century, the students there are also somewhat acculturated with Western social beliefs and values.

Morris and his colleagues first randomly assigned the students to one of three priming conditions. Participants in the American culture priming condition saw pictures of American icons (such as the U.S. Capitol building and the American flag) and then wrote 10 sentences about American culture. Participants in the Chinese culture priming condition saw eight Chinese icons (such as a Chinese dragon and the Great Wall of China) and then wrote 10 sentences about Chinese culture. Finally, participants in the control condition saw pictures of natural landscapes and wrote 10 sentences about the landscapes.

Then participants in all conditions read a story about an overweight boy who was advised by a physician not to eat food with high sugar content. One day, he and his friends went to a buffet dinner where a delicious-looking cake was offered. Despite its high sugar content, he ate it. After reading the story, the participants were asked to indicate the extent to which the boy’s weight problem was caused by his personality (personal attribution) or by the situation (situational attribution). The students who had been primed with symbols about American culture gave relatively less weight to situational (rather than personal) factors in comparison with students who had been primed with symbols of Chinese culture.

Returning to the case study at the start of this chapter, the very different explanations given in the English and Chinese language newspapers about the killings perpetrated by Gang Lu at the University of Iowa reflect these differing cultural tendencies toward internal versus external attributions. A focus on internal explanations led to an analysis of the crime primarily in terms of the individual characteristics of the perpetrator in the American newspaper, whereas there were more external attributions in the Chinese newspaper, focusing on the social conditions that led up to the tragedy. Morris and Peng (1994), in addition to their analyses of the news reports, extended their research by asking Chinese and American graduate students to weight the importance of the potential causes outlined in the newspaper coverage. In line with predictions, the Chinese participants rated the social conditions as more important causes of the murders than the Americans, particularly stressing the role of corrupting influences and disruptive social changes. In contrast, the Americans rated internal characteristics of the perpetrator as more critical issues, particularly chronic psychological problems. Morris and Peng also found that, when asked to imagine factors that could have prevented the killings, the Chinese students focused more on the social conditions that could have been changed, whereas the Americans identified more changes in terms of the internal traits of the perpetrator.

Given these consistent differences in the weight put on internal versus external attributions, it should come as no surprise that people in collectivistic cultures tend to show the fundamental attribution error and correspondence bias less often than those from individualistic cultures, particularly when the situational causes of behavior are made salient (Choi, Nisbett, & Norenzayan, 1999). Being more aware of these cross-cultural differences in attribution has been argued to be a critical issue facing us all on a global level, particularly in the future in a world where increased power and resource equality between Western and Eastern cultures seems likely (Nisbett, 2003). Human history is littered with tragic examples of the fatal consequences of cross-cultural misunderstandings, which can be fueled by a failure to understand these differing approaches to attribution. Maybe as the two worldviews increasingly interact on a world stage, a fusion of their two stances on attribution may become more possible, where sufficient weight is given to both the internal and external forces that drive human behavior (Nisbett, 2003).

The Actor-Observer Bias

The fundamental attribution error involves a bias in how easily and frequently we make personal versus situational attributions about others. Another, similar way that we overemphasize the power of the person is that we tend to make more personal attributions for the behavior of others than we do for ourselves and to make more situational attributions for our own behavior than for the behavior of others. This is known as the actor-observer bias or difference(Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, & Marecek, 1973; Pronin, Lin, & Ross, 2002). When we are asked about the behavior of other people, we tend to quickly make trait attributions (“Oh, Sarah, she’s really shy”). On the other hand, when we think of ourselves, we are more likely to take the situation into account—we tend to say, “Well, I’m shy in my team at work, but with my close friends I’m not at all shy.” When a friend behaves in a helpful way, we naturally believe that he or she is a friendly person; when we behave in the same way, on the other hand, we realize that there may be a lot of other reasons why we did what we did.

You might be able to get a feel for the actor-observer difference by taking the following short quiz. First, think about a person you know, but not particularly well —a distant relation, a colleague at work. Then, for each row, circle which of the three choices best describes his or her personality (for instance, is the person’s personality more energetic, relaxed, or does it depend on the situation?). Then answer the questions again, but this time about yourself.

Table 5.4: The Actor-Observer Bias
1. Energetic Relaxed Depends on the situation
2. Skeptical Trusting Depends on the situation
3. Quiet Talkative Depends on the situation
4. Intense Calm Depends on the situation

Richard Nisbett and his colleagues (Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, & Marecek, 1973) had college students complete a very similar task, which they did for themselves, for their best friend, for their father, and for a well-known TV newscaster at the time, Walter Cronkite. As you can see in Table 5.4, “The Actor-Observer Difference,” the participants checked one of the two trait terms more often for other people than they did for themselves, and checked off “depends on the situation” more frequently for themselves than they did for the other person; this is the actor-observer difference.

Table 5.4 The Actor-Observer Difference
Trait Term / Depends on the Situation
Self 11.92 / 8.08
Best Friend 14.21 / 5.79
Father 13.42 / 6.58
Walter Cronkite 15.08 / 4.92
This table shows the average number of times (out of 20) that participants checked off a trait term (such as “energetic” or “talkative”) rather than “depends on the situation” when asked to describe the personalities of themselves and various other people. You can see the actor-observer difference. Participants were significantly more likely to check off “depends on the situation” for themselves than for others. Data are from Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, and Marecek (1973). Nisbett, R. E., Caputo, C., Legant, P., & Marecek, J. (1973). Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(2), 154–164.

Like the fundamental attribution error, the actor-observer difference reflects our tendency to overweight the personal explanations of the behavior of other people. However, a recent meta-analysis (Malle, 2006) has suggested that the actor-observer difference might not be as common and strong as the fundamental attribution error and may only be likely to occur under certain conditions.

The tendency to overemphasize personal attributions in others versus ourselves seems to occur for several reasons. One is simply because other people are so salient in our social environments. When you look at someone’s behavior, you tend to focus on that person and are likely to make personal attributions about him or her. It’s just easy because you are looking right at the person. When you look at Cejay giving that big tip, you see him—and so you decide that he caused the action. In fact, research has shown that we tend to make more personal attributions for the people we are directly observing in our environments than for other people who are part of the situation but who we are not directly watching (Taylor & Fiske, 1975). When you think of your own behavior, however, you do not see yourself but are instead more focused on the situation. You also tend to have more memory for your own past situations than for others’. You come to realize that it is not only you but also the different situations that you are in that determine your behavior. Maybe you can remember the other times where you did not give a big tip, and so you conclude that your behavior is caused more by the situation than by your underlying personality.

This greater access to evidence about our own past behaviors can lead us to realize that our conduct varies quite a lot across situations, whereas because we have more limited memory of the behavior of others, we may see them as less changeable. This in turn leads to another, related attributional tendency, namely the trait ascription bias, which defines a tendency for people to view their own personality, beliefs, and behaviors as more variable than those of others (Kammer, 1982). We are thus more likely to caricature the behaviors of others as just reflecting the type of people we think they are, whereas we tend to depict our own conduct as more nuanced, and socially flexible.

A second reason for the tendency to make so many personal attributions is that they are simply easier to make than situational attributions. In fact, personal attributions seem to be made spontaneously, without any effort on our part, and even on the basis of only very limited behavior (Newman & Uleman, 1989; Uleman, Blader, & Todorov, 2005). Personal attributions just pop into mind before situational attributions do. One reason for this is that is cognitively demanding to try to process all the relevant factors in someone else’s situation and to consider how all these forces may be affecting that person’s conduct. It is much more straightforward to label a behavior in terms of a personality trait.

Third, personal attributions also dominate because we need to make them in order to understand a situation. That is, we cannot make either a personal attribution (e.g., “Cejay is generous”) or a situational attribution (“Cejay is trying to impress his friends”) until we have first identified the behavior as being a generous behavior (“Leaving that big tip was a generous thing to do”). So we end up starting with the personal attribution (“generous”) and only later try to correct or adjust our judgment (“Oh,” we think, “perhaps it really was the situation that caused him to do that”).

Adjusting our judgments generally takes more effort than does making the original judgment, and the adjustment is frequently not sufficient. We are more likely to commit attributional errors—for example quickly jumping to the conclusion that behavior is caused by underlying personality—when we are tired, distracted, or busy doing other things (Geeraert, Yzerbyt, Corneille, & Wigboldus, 2004; Gilbert, 1989; Trope & Alfieri, 1997).

There is a very important general message about perceiving others that applies here: we should not be too quick to judge other people! It is cognitively easy to think that poor people are lazy, that people who harm someone else are mean, and that people who say something harsh are rude or unfriendly. But these attributions may frequently overemphasize the role of the person. This can sometimes result in overly harsh evaluations of people who don’t really deserve them; we tend to blame the victim, even for events that they can’t really control (Lerner, 1980). Sometimes people are lazy, mean, or rude, but they may also be the victims of situations. When you find yourself making strong personal attribution for the behaviors of others, your knowledge of attribution research can help you to stop and think more carefully: Would you want other people to make personal attributions for your behavior in the same situation, or would you prefer that they more fully consider the situation surrounding your behavior? Are you perhaps making the fundamental attribution error? Ultimately, to paraphrase a well-known saying, we need to be try to be generous to others in our attributions, as everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about.

Self-Serving Biases

You may recall that the process of making causal attributions is supposed to proceed in a careful, rational, and even scientific manner. But this assumption turns out to be, at least in part, untrue. Our attributions are sometimes biased by affect—particularly the desire to enhance the self that we talked about in Chapter 3. Although we would like to think that we are always rational and accurate in our attributions, we often tend to distort them to make us feel better. Self-serving attributions are attributions that help us meet our desire to see ourselves positively (Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde, & Hankin, 2004). A particularly common example is the self-serving bias, which is the tendency to attribute our successes to ourselves, and our failures to others and the situation.

We all make self-enhancing attributions from time to time. If a teacher’s students do well on an exam, he may make a personal attribution for their successes (“I am, after all, a great teacher!”). On the other hand, when they do poorly on an exam, the teacher may tend to make a situational attribution and blame them for their failure (“Why didn’t you all study harder?”). You can see that this process is clearly not the type of scientific, rational, and careful process that attribution theory suggests the teacher should be following. It’s unfair, although it does make him feel better about himself. If he were really acting like a scientist, however, he would determine ahead of time what causes good or poor exam scores and make the appropriate attribution, regardless of the outcome.

You might have noticed yourself making self-serving attributions too. Perhaps you have blamed another driver for an accident that you were in or blamed your partner rather than yourself for a breakup. Or perhaps you have taken credit (internal) for your successes but blamed your failures on external causes. If these judgments were somewhat less than accurate, but they did benefit you, then they were indeed self-serving.

Interestingly, we do not as often show this bias when making attributions about the successes and setbacks of others. This tendency to make more charitable attributions about ourselves than others about positive and negative outcomes often links to the actor-observer difference that we mentioned earlier in this section. It appears that the tendency to make external attributions about our own behavior and internal attributions about the conduct of others is particularly strong in situations where the behavior involves undesirable outcomes. This was dramatically illustrated in some fascinating research by Baumeister, Stillwell, and Wotman (1990). In this study, the researchers analyzed the accounts people gave of an experience they identified where they angered someone else (i.e., when they were the perpetrator of a behavior leading to an unpleasant outcome) and another one where someone else angered them (i.e., they were the victim).

The differences in attributions made in these two situations were considerable. When accounting for themselves as perpetrators, people tended to emphasize situational factors to describe their behavior as an isolated incident that was a meaningful, understandable response to the situation, and to assert that the action caused no lasting harm. When they were the victims, on the other hand, they explained the perpetrator’s behavior by focusing on the presumed character defects of the person and by describing  the behavior as an arbitrary and senseless action, taking place in an ongoing context of abusive behavior that caused lasting harm to them as victims. These sobering findings have some profound implications for many important social issues, including reconciliation between individuals and groups who have been in conflict. In a more everyday way, they perhaps remind us of the need to try to extend the same understanding we give to ourselves in making sense of our behaviors to the people around us in our communities. Too many times in human history we have failed to understand and even demonized other people because of these types of attributional biases.

Why are these self-serving attributional biases so common? One answer, that we have already alluded to, is that they can help to maintain and enhance self-esteem. Consistent with this idea is that there are some cross-cultural differences, reflecting the different amounts of self-enhancement that were discussed in Chapter 3. Specifically, self-serving bias is less apparent in members of collectivistic than individualistic cultures (Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde, & Hankin, 2004).

Another important reason is that when we make attributions, we are not only interested in causality, we are often interested in responsibility. Fincham and Jaspers (1980) argued that, as well as acting like lay scientists, hunting for the causes of behavior, we are also often akin to lay lawyers, seeking to assign responsibility. We want to know not just why something happened, but also who is to blame. Indeed, it is hard to make an attribution of cause without also making a claim about responsibility. When we attribute someone’s angry outburst to an internal factor, like an aggressive personality, as opposed to an external cause, such as a stressful situation, we are, implicitly or otherwise, also placing more blame on that person in the former case than in the latter. Seeing attribution as also being about responsibility sheds some interesting further light on the self-serving bias. Perhaps we make external attributions for failure partly because it is easier to blame others or the situation than it is ourselves. In the victim-perpetrator accounts outlined by Baumeister, Stillwell, and Wotman (1990), maybe they were partly about either absolving or assigning responsibility, respectively. Indeed, there are a number of other attributional biases that are also relevant to considerations of responsibility. It is to these that we will now turn.

Group-Serving Biases

A self-serving pattern of attribution can also spill over into our attributions about the groups that we belong to. The group-serving bias, sometimes referred to as the ultimate attribution error, describes a tendency to make internal attributions about our ingroups’ successes, and external attributions about their setbacks, and to make the opposite pattern of attributions about our outgroups (Taylor & Doria, 1981). When members of our favorite sports team make illegal challenges on the field, or rink, or court, we often attribute it to their being provoked. What about when it is someone from the opposition? Their illegal conduct regularly leads us to make an internal attribution about their moral character! On a more serious note, when individuals are in a violent confrontation, the same actions on both sides are typically attributed to different causes, depending on who is making the attribution, so that reaching a common understanding can become impossible (Pinker, 2011).

Returning to the case study at the start of this chapter, could the group-serving bias be at least part of the reason for the different attributions made by the Chinese and American participants about the mass killing? How might this bias have played out in this situation? Remember that the perpetrator, Gang Lu, was Chinese. Might the American participants’ tendency to make internal attributions have reflected their desire to blame him solely, as an outgroup member, whereas the Chinese participants’ more external attributions might have related to their wish to try to mitigate some of what their fellow ingroup member had done, by invoking the social conditions that preceded the crime?

Morris and Peng (1994) sought to test out this possibility by exploring cross-cultural reactions to another, parallel tragedy, that occurred just two weeks after Gang Lu’s crimes. Thomas Mcllvane, an Irish American postal worker who had recently lost his job, unsuccessfully appealed the decision with his union. He had in the meantime failed to find a new full-time job. On November 14, he entered the Royal Oak, Michigan, post office and shot his supervisor, the person who handled his appeal, several fellow workers and bystanders, and then himself. In all, like Gang Lu, Thomas McIllvane killed himself and five other people that day. If the group-serving bias could explain much of the cross-cultural differences in attributions, then, in this case, when the perpetrator was American, the Chinese should have been more likely to make internal, blaming attributions against an outgroup member, and the Americans to make more external, mitigating ones about their ingroup member. This is not what was found. Although the Americans did make more situational attributions about McIlvane than they did about Lu, the Chinese participants were equally likely to use situational explanations for both sets of killings. As Morris and Peng (1994) point out, this finding indicated that whereas the American participants tended to show the group-serving bias, the Chinese participants did not. This has been replicated in other studies indicating a lower likelihood of this bias in people from collectivistic versus individualistic cultures (Heine & Lehman, 1997).

At first glance, this might seem like a counterintuitive finding. If people from collectivist cultures tend to see themselves and others as more embedded in their ingroups, then wouldn’t they be more likely to make group-serving attributions? A key explanation as to why they are less likely relates back to the discussion in Chapter 3 of cultural differences in self-enhancement. Like the self-serving bias, group-serving attributions can have a self-enhancing function, leading people to feel better about themselves by generating favorable explanations about their ingroups’ behaviors. Therefore, as self-enhancement is less of a priority for people in collectivistic cultures, we would indeed expect them to show less group-serving bias.

There are other, related biases that people also use to favor their ingroups over their outgroups. —The group attribution error describes a tendency to make attributional generalizations about entire outgroups based on a very small number of observations of individual members. This error tends to takes one of  two distinct, but related forms. The first was illustrated in an experiment by Hamill, Wilson, and Nisbett (1980), college students were shown vignettes about someone from one of two outgroups, welfare recipients and prison guards. They were then asked to make inferences about members of these two groups as a whole, after being provided with varying information about how typical the person they read about was of each group. A key finding was that even when they were told the person was not typical of the group, they still made generalizations about group members that were based on the characteristics of the individual they had read about. This bias may thus cause us to see a person from a particular outgroup behave in an undesirable way and then come to attribute these tendencies to most or all members of their group. This is one of the many ways that inaccurate stereotypes can be created, a topic we will explore in more depth in Chapter 11.

The second form of group attribution bias closely relates to the fundamental attribution error, in that individuals come to attribute groups’ behaviors and attitudes to each of the individuals within those groups, irrespective of the level of disagreement in the group or how the decisions were made. In a series of experiments, Allison & Messick (1985) investigated people’s attributions about group members as a function of the decisions that the groups reached in various social contexts. In their first experiment, participants assumed that members of a community making decisions about water conservation laws held attitudes reflecting the group decision, regardless of how it was reached. In two follow-up experiments, subjects attributed a greater similarity between outgroup decisions and attitudes than between ingroup decisions and attitudes. A further experiment showed that participants based their attributions of jury members’ attitudes more on their final group decision than on their individual views. This bias can present us with numerous challenges in the real world. Let’s say, for example, that a political party passes a policy that goes against our deep-seated beliefs about an important social issue, like abortion or same-sex marriage. This type of group attribution bias would then make it all too easy for us to caricature all members of and voters for that party as opposed to us, when in fact there may be a considerable range of opinions among them. This false assumption may then cause us to shut down meaningful dialogue about the issue and fail to recognize the potential for finding common ground or for building important allegiances.

Victim-Blaming Biases

We saw earlier how the fundamental attribution error, by causing us to place too much weight on the person and not enough on the situation, can lead to us to make attributions of blame toward others, even victims, for their behaviors. Another bias that increases the likelihood of victim-blaming is termed the just world hypothesis,which is a tendency to make attributions based on the belief that the world is fundamentally just. In other words, that the outcomes people experience are fair.

Lerner (1965), in a classic experimental study of these beliefs, instructed participants to watch two people working together on an anagrams task. They were informed that one of the workers was selected by chance to be paid a large amount of money, whereas the other was to get nothing. Participants also learned that both workers, though ignorant of their fate, had agreed to do their best. In addition, the attractiveness of the two workers was set up so that participants would perceive one as more attractive. Consistent with the idea of the just world hypothesis, once the outcome was known to the observers, they persuaded themselves that the person who had been awarded the money by chance had really earned it after all. Also, when the less attractive worker was selected for payment, the performance of the entire group was devalued.

As with many of the attributional biases that have been identified, there are some positive aspects to these beliefs when they are applied to ourselves. Fox, Elder, Gater, & Johnson (2010), for instance, found that stronger endorsement of just world beliefs in relation to the self was related to higher self-esteem. Intuitively this makes sense: if we believe that the world is fair, and will give us back what we put in, this can be uplifting. On the other hand, though, as in the Lerner (1965) study above, there can be a downside, too. If we believe that the world is fair, this can also lead to a belief that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In other words, people get what they deserve. When people are in difficult positions, the just world hypothesis can cause others to make internal attributions about the causes of these difficulties and to end up blaming them for their problems (Rubin & Peplau, 1973). Consistent with this, Fox and colleagues  found that greater agreement with just world beliefs about others was linked to harsher social attitudes and greater victim derogation.

The just world hypothesis is often at work when people react to news of a particular crime by blaming the victim, or when they apportion responsibility to members of marginalized groups, for instance, to those who are homeless, for the predicaments they face. Degree of endorsement of just world attributions also relates to more stigmatizing attitudes toward people who have mental illnesses (Rüsch, Todd, Bodenhausen, & Corrigan, 2010). These views, in turn, can act as a barrier to empathy and to an understanding of the social conditions that can create these challenges. Belief in a just world has also been shown to correlate with meritocratic attitudes, which assert that people achieve their social positions on the basis of merit alone. For example, people who endorse just world statements are also more likely to rate high-status individuals as more competent than low-status individuals. Such beliefs are in turn used by some individuals to justify and sustain inequality and oppression (Oldmeadow & Fiske, 2007). Here, then, we see important links between attributional biases held by individuals and the wider social inequities in their communities that these biases help to sustain.

Attributions that blame victims don’t only have the potential to help to reinforce people’s general sense that the world is a fair place, they also help them to feel more safe from being victimized themselves. If, according to the logic of the just world hypothesis, victims are bad people who get what they deserve, then those who see themselves as good people do not have to confront the threatening possibility that they, too, could be the victims of similar misfortunes. Accordingly, defensive attribution (e.g., Shaver, 1970) occurs when we make attributions which defend ourselves from the notion that we could be the victim of an unfortunate outcome, and often also that we could be held responsible as the victim. Put another way, people’s attributions about the victims are motivated by both harm avoidance (this is unlikely to happen to me) and blame avoidance (if it did happen to me, I would not be to blame). If we see ourselves as more similar to the victim, therefore, we are less likely to attribute the blame to them. If, on the other hand, we identify more with the perpetrator, then our attributions of responsibility to the victim will increase (Burger, 1981).

This pattern of attribution clearly has significant repercussions in legal contexts. For example, attributions about the victims of  rape are related to the amount that people identify with the victim versus the perpetrator, which could have some interesting implications for jury selection procedures (Grubb & Harrower, 2009). Furthermore, men are less likely to make defensive attributions about the victims of sexual harassment than women, regardless of the gender of the victim and perpetrator (e.g., Smirles, 2004). Defensive attributions can also shape industrial disputes, for example, damages claims for work-related injuries. The victims of serious occupational accidents tend to attribute the accidents to external factors. In contrast, their coworkers and supervisors are more likely to attribute the accidents to internal factors in the victim (Salminen, 1992). Again, the role of responsibility attributions are clear here. It is in the victims’ interests to not be held accountable, just as it may well be for the colleagues or managers who might instead be in the firing line.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Match up the following attributions with the appropriate error or bias (Just world hypothesis, Actor-observer difference, Fundamental attribution error, Self-serving bias, Group-serving bias). Which error or bias do you think is most clearly shown in each situation?

  1. A man says about his relationship partner “I can’t believe he never asks me about my day, he’s so selfish”. The real reasons are more to do with the high levels of stress his partner is experiencing.
  2. A co-worker says this about a colleague she is not getting along with “I can be aggressive when I am under too much pressure, but she is just an aggressive person”.
  3. A therapist thinks the following to make himself feel better about a client who is not responding well to him: “My client is too resistant to the process to make any meaningful changes. I have tried everything I can and he won’t meet my half way”.
  4. Two teenagers are discussing another student in the schoolyard, trying to explain why she is often excluded by her peers. One says: “She kind of deserves it. She alienates everyone she meets, that’s why she’s left out of things”.
  5. A sports fan excuses the rowdy behaviour of his fellow supporters by saying “We’re only rowdy when the other team’s fans provoke us”.

Key Takeaways

  • Our attributional skills are often “good enough” but not perfect. We often show biases and make errors in our attributions, although in general these biases are less evident in people from collectivistic versus individualistic cultures.
  • Sometimes, we put too much weight on internal factors, and not enough on situational factors, in explaining the behavior of others.
  • When we are the attributing causes to our own behaviors, we are more likely to use external attributions than when we are when explaining others’ behaviors, particularly if the behavior is undesirable.
  • We tend to make self-serving attributions that help to protect our self-esteem; for example, by making internal attributions when we succeed and external ones when we fail.
  • We also often show group-serving biases where we make more favorable attributions about our ingroups than our outgroups.
  • We sometimes show victim-blaming biases due to beliefs in a just world and a tendency to make defensive attributions.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a situation where you or someone you know engaged in the fundamental attribution error. What internal causes did you attribute the other person’s behavior to? In hindsight, what external, situation causes were probably at work here?
  2. Outline a time that someone made the fundamental attribution error about one of your behaviors. How did you feel when they put your actions down to your personality, as opposed to the situation, and why?
  3. Think of an example when you attributed your own behavior to external factors, whereas you explained the same behavior in someone else as being due to their internal qualities? What were the reasons for you showing the actor-observer bias here?
  4. Identify some examples of self-serving and group-serving attributions that you have seen in the media recently. What sorts of behaviors were involved and why do you think the individuals involved made those attributions?
  5. Which groups in the communities that you live in do you think most often have victim-blaming attributions made about their behaviors and outcomes? What consequences do you think that these attributions have for those groups? How do you think the individual group members feel when others blame them for the challenges they are facing?


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Fincham, F. D., & Jaspers, J. M. (1980). Attribution of responsibility: From man the scientist to man the lawyer. In L. K. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 81-138.

Fiske, S. T. (2003). Social beings. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Fox, C. L., Elder, T., Gater, J., Johnson, E. (2010). The association between adolescents’ beliefs in a just world and their attitudes to victims of bullying. British Journal of Educational Psychology,  80(2), 183-198. doi: 10.1348/000709909X479105

Geeraert, N., Yzerbyt, V. Y., Corneille, O., & Wigboldus, D. (2004). The return of dispositionalism: On the linguistic consequences of dispositional suppression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(2), 264–272;

Gilbert, D. T. (Ed.). (1989). Thinking lightly about others: Automatic components of the social inference process. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Grubb, A., & Harrower, J. (2009). Understanding attribution of blame in cases of rape: An analysis of participant gender, type of rape and perceived similarity to the victim. Journal Of Sexual Aggression15(1), 63-81. doi:10.1080/13552600802641649

Hamill, R., Wilson, T. D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1980). Insensitivity to sample bias: Generalizing from atypical cases. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology39(4), 578-589. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.39.4.578

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Ji, L., Peng, K., & Nisbett, R. E. (2000). Culture, control, and perception of relationships in the environment. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology78(5), 943-955. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.78.5.943

Kammer, D. (1982). Differences in trait ascriptions to self and friend: Unconfounding intensity from variability. Psychological Reports, 51(1), 99-102. doi:10.2466/pr0.1982.51.1.99

Lerner, M. J. (1965). Evaluation of performance as a function of performer’s reward and attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 355-360.

Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York, NY: Plenum.

Lewis, R. S., Goto, S. G., & Kong, L. L. (2008). Culture and context: East Asian American and European American differences in P3 event-related potentials and self-construal. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin34(5), 623-634. doi:10.1177/0146167207313731

Maddux, W. W., & Yuki, M. (2006). The ‘Ripple Effect’: Cultural Differences in Perceptions of the Consequences of Events.Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin32(5), 669-683. doi:10.1177/0146167205283840

Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 895–919.

Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), 922–934.

Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711–747.

Miller, J. G. (1984). Culture and the development of everyday social explanation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(5), 961–978.

Morris, M. W., & Peng, K. (1994). Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical events. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology67(6), 949-971. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.67.6.949

Newman, L. S., & Uleman, J. S. (1989). Spontaneous trait inference. In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended thought (pp. 155–188). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Nisbett, R. E., Caputo, C., Legant, P., & Marecek, J. (1973). Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(2), 154–164;

Oldmeadow, J., & Fiske, S. T. (2007). System-justifying ideologies moderate status = competence stereotypes: Roles for belief in a just world and social dominance orientation. European Journal Of Social Psychology37(6), 1135-1148. doi:10.1002/ejsp.428

Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York, NY, US: Viking.

Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3), 369–381.

Rubin Z., & Peplau LA (1973). Belief in a just world and reactions to another’s lot: A study of participants in the national draft lottery. Journal of Social Issues, 29, 73–93.

Rüsch, N., Todd, A. R., Bodenhausen, G. V., & Corrigan, P. W. (2010). Do people with mental illness deserve what they get? Links between meritocratic worldviews and implicit versus explicit stigma. European Archives Of Psychiatry And Clinical Neuroscience,260(8), 617-625. doi:10.1007/s00406-010-0111-4

Salminen, S. (1992). Defensive attribution hypothesis and serious occupational accidents. Psychological Reports70(3, Pt 2), 1195-1199. doi:10.2466/PR0.70.4.1195-1199

Shaver, K. G. (1970). Defensive attribution: Effects of severity and relevance on the responsibility assigned for an accident. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 14(2), 101–113. doi: 10.1037/h00028777

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Smirles, K. (2004). Attributions of Responsibility in Cases of Sexual Harassment: The Person and the Situation. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology34(2), 342-365. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2004.tb02551.x

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Uleman, J. S., Blader, S. L., & Todorov, A. (Eds.). (2005). Implicit impressions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Media Attributions

  • “Figure 5.9 Cultural Differences in Perception” is based on Nisbett, Richard & Masuda, Takahiko. (2003). Culture and point of view. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 100. 11163-70. 10.1073/pnas.1934527100.


5.4 Individual Differences in Person Perception

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline some important individual differences factors that influence people’s causal attributions.
  2. Explain the ways that attributions can influence mental health and the ways that mental health can affect attributions.
  3. Explore how and why people engage in self-handicapping attributions and behaviors.

To this point, we have focused on how the appearance, behaviors, and traits of the people we encounter influence our understanding of them. It makes sense that this would be our focus because of the emphasis within social psychology on the social situation—in this case, the people we are judging. But the person is also important, so let’s consider some of the person variables that influence how we judge other people.

Perceiver Characteristics

So far, we have assumed that different perceivers will all form pretty much the same impression of the same person. For instance, if two people are both thinking about their mutual friend Janetta, or describing her to someone else, they should each think about or describe her in pretty much the same way. After all, Janetta is Janetta, and she should have a personality that they can both see. But this is not always the case; they may form different impressions of Janetta for a variety of reasons. For one, the two people’s experiences with Janetta may be somewhat different. If one sees her in different places and talks to her about different things than the other, then they will each have a different sample of behavior on which to base their impressions.

But they might even form different impressions of Janetta if they see her performing exactly the same behavior. To every experience, each of us brings our own schemas, attitudes, and expectations. In fact, the process of interpretation guarantees that we will not all form exactly the same impression of the people that we see. This, of course, reflects a basic principle that we have discussed throughout this book—our prior experiences color our current perceptions.

One factor that influences how we perceive others is the current cognitive accessibility of a given person characteristic—that is, the extent to which a person characteristic quickly and easily comes to mind for the perceiver. Differences in accessibility will lead different people to attend to different aspects of the other person. Some people first notice how attractive someone is because they care a lot about physical appearance—for them, appearance is a highly accessible characteristic. Others pay more attention to a person’s race or religion, and still others attend to a person’s height or weight. If you are interested in style and fashion, you would probably first notice a person’s clothes, whereas another person might be more likely to notice a person’s athletic skills.

You can see that these differences in accessibility will influence the kinds of impressions that we form about others because they influence what we focus on and how we think about them. In fact, when people are asked to describe others, there is often more overlap in the descriptions provided by the same perceiver about different people than there is in those provided by different perceivers about the same target person (Dornbusch, Hastorf, Richardson, Muzzy, & Vreeland, 1965; Park, 1986). If someone cares a lot about fashion, that person will describe friends on that dimension, whereas if someone else cares about athletic skills, he or she will tend to describe friends on the basis of those qualities. These differences reflect the emphasis that we as observers place on the characteristics of others rather than the real differences between those people. Our view of others may sometimes be more informative about us than it is about them.

People also differ in terms of how carefully they process information about others. Some people have a strong need to think about and understand others. I’m sure you know people like this—they want to know why something went wrong or right, or just to know more about anyone with whom they interact. Need for cognition refers to the tendency to think carefully and fully about our experiences, including the social situations we encounter (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982). People with a strong need for cognition tend to process information more thoughtfully and therefore may make more causal attributions overall. In contrast, people without a strong need for cognition tend to be more impulsive and impatient and may make attributions more quickly and spontaneously (Sargent, 2004). In terms of attributional differences, there is some evidence that people higher in need for cognition may take more situational factors into account when considering the behaviors of others. Consequently, they tend to make more tolerant rather than punitive attributions about people in stigmatized groups (Van Hiel, Pandelaere, & Duriez, 2004).

Although the need for cognition refers to a tendency to think carefully and fully about any topic, there are also individual differences in the tendency to be interested in people more specifically. For instance, Fletcher, Danilovics, Fernandez, Peterson, and Reeder (1986) found that psychology majors were more curious about people than were natural science majors. In turn, the types of attributions they tend to make about behavior may be different.

Individual differences exist not only in the depth of our attributions but also in the types of attributions we tend to make about both ourselves and others (Plaks, Levy, & Dweck, 2009). Some people are entity theorists who tend to believe that people’s traits are fundamentally stable and incapable of change. Entity theorists tend to focus on the traits of other people and tend to make a lot of personal attributions. On the other hand, incremental theorists are those who believe that personalities change a lot over time and who therefore are more likely to make situational attributions for events. Incremental theorists are more focused on the dynamic psychological processes that arise from individuals’ changing mental states in different situations.

In one relevant study, Molden, Plaks, and Dweck (2006) found that when forced to make judgments quickly, people who had been classified as entity theorists were nevertheless still able to make personal attributions about others but were not able to easily encode the situational causes of a behavior. On the other hand, when forced to make judgments quickly, the people who were classified as incremental theorists were better able to make use of the situational aspects of the scene than the personalities of the actors.

Individual differences in attributional styles can also influence our own behavior. Entity theorists are more likely to have difficulty when they move on to new tasks because they don’t think that they will be able to adapt to the new challenges. Incremental theorists, on the other hand, are more optimistic and do better in such challenging environments because they believe that their personality can adapt to the new situation. You can see that these differences in how people make attributions can help us understand both how we think about ourselves and others and how we respond to our own social contexts (Malle, Knobe, O’Laughlin, Pearce, & Nelson, 2000).

Research Focus

How Our Attributions Can Influence Our School Performance

Carol Dweck and her colleagues (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) tested whether the type of attributions students make about their own characteristics might influence their school performance. They assessed the attributional tendencies and the math performance of 373 junior high school students at a public school in New York City. When they first entered seventh grade, the students all completed a measure of attributional styles. Those who tended to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it” were classified as entity theorists, whereas those who agreed more with statements such as “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” were classified as incremental theorists. Then the researchers measured the students’ math grades at the end of the fall and spring terms in seventh and eighth grades.

As you can see in the following figure, the researchers found that the students who were classified as incremental theorists improved their math scores signifi