Forensic Psychology For Dummies
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Social psychology uses the tools of science to understand why people behave as they do. Whether it’s why they are attracted to some people, but not others, why they are not convinced by an elegant political argument, but are persuaded by a celebrity endorsement, or where their prejudices come from, social psychology can help you to understand why people interact the way they do.

This Cheat Sheet will give you some pointers in answering some of the key questions.

Understanding attitudes in social psychology

An attitude is the value the person places on something, and Social Psychology researchers often refer to that ‘something’ as the attitude object. An attitude is an evaluation, at the simplest level, as to whether or not the attitude object is good or bad.

  • Understanding your ABC: Every attitude has three dimensions. These are Affect (attitudes embody feelings and emotions), Behaviour (attitudes connect to the way you actually behave) and Cognition (attitudes are expressed in thoughts and speech). It’s as easy as ABC.

  • Getting what attitudes do: Attitudes have four basic functions: The knowledge function (they help you make sense of the world); the utilitarian function (they can serve a practical purpose, and achieve goals); the ego defence function (they help you to have a positive view of yourself); the value-expressive function (they express values fundamental to who you are).

  • Realising that attitudes can be measured: By asking the right questions in the right way, you can establish a subject’s basic attitudes on any subject. Ask a lot of questions of a lot of subjects, and you can measure attitudes society-wide.

  • Understanding that attitudes can be influenced by asking questions in the right way: Even when people tell you their attitudes towards something, these stated attitudes don’t necessarily match up with how they’re going to behave in the future, or what they really think. Exactly how the researcher asks the question can strongly determine the answer.

Using social psychology to root out stereotypes

Not all stereotypes are bad: Social Psychology recognises that some can have value. However, when a stereotype leads to prejudice and discrimination, it’s time to expose its inaccuracy – and say why it’s inaccurate. The following are some key ways to expose and combat prejudicial stereotypes.

  • Track them back to their sources: People notice patterns in the social world around them, but although people are very good at noticing these patterns, they’re also adept at seeing things that aren’t there. They jump to conclusions, and ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

  • Discover the bias in social judgements: Many people are convinced that solid, physical differences exist between women’s and men’s brains, which explain and justify the different jobs and responsibilities that men and women tend to have. There’s no safe evidence for this, but it doesn’t stop researchers looking for and finding what they want to see.

  • Beware what you think you already know: People pay attention to information that supports their beliefs and ignore information that contradicts them. This confirmation bias feeds the habit of stereotyping people, and because your stereotype guides and labels your perception, you find confirmation of it everywhere.

  • Look out for illusory correlations: People and events that are unusual tend to attract your attention and stick in the memory. So say you see a Croatian football supporter starting a fight. You haven’t met many Croatians before and the event is unusual, and so you come to the conclusion that Croatian football supporters are very aggressive people. That’s an illusory correlation.

  • Don’t make all your predictions come true: When you have a certain belief, act in accordance with it and your belief is indeed confirmed, it’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is another bias in behaviour that helps to perpetuate stereotypes.

Learning the rules of attraction with social psychology

So what makes someone attractive? It’s a burning question, and while Social Psychology may not have the answer every time you hear a plaintive cry of ‘What does she see in HIM?’, it can offer some valuable pointers:

  • It’s all about evolution: According to evolutionary psychology, not only do you have to be the fittest and strongest in order to survive, but also you need to look like the fittest and strongest to potential mates.

  • Not (just) a pretty face: People think of beauty as unique and elusive, but the evidence is that one simple factor determines most peoples’ judgments about attractiveness: averageness. The most beautiful person in a group is the mathematical average of everyone present.

  • It’s reproduction, stupid: Heterosexual men are attracted to adult females but want them to look pre-pubescent. Through most of human history, younger females tended to be more fertile and have healthier babies. The claim is that men have evolved to be most attracted to sexually mature women who’re young enough to still have the facial characteristics of girls.

  • What women want: As well as symmetry, the features in men that are typically attractive to females are a wide, strong jaw and jutting forehead, features corresponding to high levels of testosterone. Men with higher testosterone are more likely to have more resources and more ability to defend their families.

  • You like people who are like you: People don’t choose friends and partners purely on their looks. Many nuanced and complex answers exist to the question of what else makes two people like each other, but one very simple answer is almost entirely true: people like people who are like them.

How social psychology explains why we conform

No matter how urgently someone insists that they’re an individual, with their own unique way of looking at and experiencing the world, Social Psychology tell us that at a fundamental level, people want to be like one another. Social psychologists explain this in several ways:

  • The basic urge to mimic: Part of the essence of social interaction for human beings is mimicry of each other, and so unsurprisingly habits and norms can spread between people like the common cold.

  • Getting information from others: Conforming to the behaviour of other people is very useful when you want to know something. If you don’t know how to behave, or if something about the situation is ambiguous, you follow others.

  • Needing to fit in: Your behaviour is shaped by the desire to be like those around you. Usually the goal is social approval or membership of the in-group that you admire.

  • Absorbing opinions: When people live in a community, they tend to share beliefs and opinions. Of course, not everyone agrees all the time, but there is a tendency for opinions to conform.

  • Aligning your perceptions with others’: In some situations people will believe that they see the same thing as other people: Not because it is the right thing to see, or because they have been explicitly persuaded, but because that’s simply what everyone else sees.

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