Saturday, April 07, 2007

Social Psychology

Of all branches of academia, I suspect that social psychology gives its practitioners the most opportunities to have fun. Some of the classic studies might as well be Candid Camera stunts. Indeed, Philip Zimbardo (of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment) collaborated with Allen Funt to put together a video entitled, "Candid Camera classics for teaching social psychology. And in an interview, Zimbardo has said, "There's an interesting parallel between some of my research and Allen Funt's 'Candid Camera' show, where he put ordinary people in unusual situations to see how they would improvise. I've always thought of Allen Funt as a brilliant, intuitive social psychologist." (See also this article for another comparison by Zimbardo.)

Some examples:
J. Richard Eiser, "Cooperation and Competition Between Individuals," in Introducing Social Psychology, edited by Henri Tajfel and Colin Fraser (1978), at p. 170:

They also cite a study by Allen, in which travellers on the New York subway heard a confederate give obviously false directions to another travellers (also a confederate). They were less likely to correct the misinformer if the request for directions had not been directed to them specifically, or if the misinformer had already created the impression of being a dangerous character by looking up from a magazine on muscle-building and shouting threats of physical assault at a fourth traveller (yet another confederate) who tripped over his feet.
I'll bet.

From another article:
Martin T. Orne, "On the Social Psychology of the Psychological Experiment," American Psychologist 17 (Nov. 1962): 776-783.

[T]he subject agrees to tolerate a considerable degree of discomfort, boredom, or actual pain, if required to do so by the experimenter. Just about any request which could conceivably be asked of the subject by a reputable investigator is legitimized by the quasi-magical phrase, "This is an experiment" . . . .

A number of casual acquaintances were asked whether they would do the experimenter a favor; on their acquiescence, they were asked to perform five-push-ups. Their response tended to be amazement, incredulity and the question "Why?" Another similar group of individuals were asked whether they would take part in an experiment of brief duration. When they agreed to do so, they too were asked to perform five push-ups. Their typical response was "Where?"

. . .

In order to test this question, we tried to develop a set of tasks which waking subjects would refuse to do, or would do only for a short period of time. The tasks were intended to be psychologically noxious, meaningless, or boring . . . .

For example, one task was to perform serial additions of each adjacent two numbers ons heets filled with rows of random digits. In order to complete just one sheet, the subject would be required to perform 224 additions! A stack of some 2,000 sheets was presented to each subject -- clearly an impossible task to complete. After the instructions were givin, the subject was deprived of his watch and told, "Continue to work; I will return eventually." Five and one-half hours later, the experimenter gave up! . . . Since we were trying to find a task which would be discontinued spontaneously within a brief period, we tried to create a more frustrating situation as follows:

Subjects were asked to perform the same task described above but were also told that when [they] finished the additions on each sheet, they should pick up a card from a large pile, which would instruct them on what to do next. However, every card in the pile read,
You are to tear up the sheet of paper which you have just completed into a minimum of thirty-two pieces and go on to the next sheet of paper and continue working as you did before; when you have completed this piece of paper, pick up the next card which will instruct you further. Work as accurately and as rapidly as you can.
Our expectation was that subjects would discontinue the task as soon as they realized that the cards were worded identically, that each finished piece of work had to be destroyed, and that, in short, the task was completely meaningless.

Somewhat to our amazement, subjects tended to persist in the task for several hours with relatively little sign of overt hostility. . . . The postexperimental inquiry helped to explain the subjects' behavior. When asked about the tasks, subjects would invariably attribute considerable meaning to their performance, viewing it as an endurance test or the like.
Another experiment was designed to see how people react to potentially dangerous situations when alone, or when part of a group.
Bibb Latane and John M. Darley, "Social Determinants of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies," in Altruism and Helping Behavior, ed. by J. Macaulay and L. Berkowitz (1970): pp. 13-27.

In this experiment we presented an emergency to individuals either alone or in groups of three. It was our expectation that the constraints on behavior in public combined with social influence processes would lessen the likelihood that members of three-person groups would act to cope with the emergency.

College students were invited to an interview to discuss 'some of the problems involved in life at an urban university.' As they sat in a small room waiting to be called for the interview . . ., they faced an ambiguous but potentially dangerous situation. A stream of smoke began to puff into the room through a wall vent. . . . The 'smoke,' copied from the famous Camel cigarette sign in Times Square, formed a moderately fine-textured but clearly visible stream of whitish smoke. It continued to jet into the room in irregular puffs, and by the end of the experimental period, it obscured vision. . . .

The typical subject, when tested alone, behaved very reasonably. Usually, shortly after the smoke appeared, he would glance up from his questionnaire, notice the smoke, show a slight but distinct startle reaction, and then undergo a brief period of indecision . . Soon, most subjects would get up from their chairs, walk over to the vent and investigate it closely, sniffing the smoke, waving their hands in it, feeling its temperature, etc. The usual Alone subject would hesitate again, but finally would walk out of the room, look around outside, and finding somebody there, calmly report the presence of the smoke. . . . The median subject in the Alone condition had reported the smoke within 2 minutes of first noticing it.

. . .

Subjects in the three-person-group condition were markedly inhibited from reporting the smoke. Since 75% of the Alone subjects reported the smoke, we would expect over 98% of the three-person groups to include at least one reporter. In fact, in only 38% of the eight groups in this condition did even one person report (p < .01). . . .

Subjects who had reported the smoke were relatively consistent in later describing their reactions to it. They thought the smoke looked somewhat 'strange.' They were not sure exactly what it was or whether it was dangerous, but they felt it was unusual enough to justify some examination. 'I wasn't sure whether it was a fire, but it looked like something was wrong.' 'I thought it might be steam, but it seemed like a good idea to check it out.'

Subjects who had not reported the smoke were also unsure about exactly what it was, but they uniformly said that they had rejected the idea that it was a fire. Instead, they hit upon an astonishing variety of alternative explanations . . . . Many thought the smoke was either steam or airconditioning vapors, several thought it was smog purposely introduced to simulate an urban environment, and two actually suggested that the smoke was a "truth gas" filtered into the room to induce them to answer the questionnaire accurately! Predictably, some decided that "it must be some sort of experiment" and stoically endured the discomfort of the room rather than overreact.


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