Positive Social Influence: Social Proof and Group Therapy

I’ve already discussed how social influence can potentially have a negative backlash due to the employment of concepts that may have negative consequences for relationships. However, there is an area through which social influence can have a very good benefit: group therapy. In group therapy, the group members have the potential to influence each other to invest in the therapy, to participate in the group activities that are meant to help them, and to receive benefits from the therapy.

The social influence principle that presumably could be driving benefits in group therapy is social proof. Social proof essentially is the idea “monkey see, monkey do,” holding that we cue our behavior off of others, especially when we see others’ behavior as correct. We see others’ behavior as correct when we are unsure of ourselves and the situation is ambiguous. The classic empirical support of this concept came from Asch in 1955, where he demonstrated that subjects would conform to clearly wrong answers to a task given by other members of group as long as the other members were unanimous in their wrong answers. In this situation, the subject is unsure of his own (right) opinion because everyone else is disagreeing with him.

So how would social proof lead to positive group therapy? Theoretically, in group therapy, the group members could take cues from each other about how to behave in group. From a structural standpoint, if the therapist can establish support of the group therapy process in most of the members, then the group would be self-regulating in that with the majority of people “buying into” the group therapy process, they would be able to keep the rest of the group “bought-in” to the group therapy through social proof. So if the therapist can make sure they can engage most of the group in the process, those who might be on the fence whether they want to commit to also being engaged in the therapy process would be influenced to do so through social proof.

So how does the existing evidence back this up? Decidedly mixed, with results depending on what purpose the group is serving, who the group is serving, and other factors. Thomas Dishion, among others, have found that negative social influence called peer contagion exists. In this peer contagion, the negative behaviors of adolescents spread from adolescent to adolescent by this process called deviancy training, where adolescents learn from other adolescents’ deviant behaviors and take them on. Specifically in group therapy, this has negative effects, as deviancy training occurs in group therapies of adolescents, especially those who have externalizing behavior problems.

So does this sink the ship of social proof, at least for group therapies? I wouldn’t discount the potential positive influence of social proof just yet. Studies have found that adolescents rely on parents and peers as influences to abstain from antisocial behavior. Also, deviancy training has been found to not occur with internalizing problems, as peers can’t  observe internalizing problems by definition, therefore they cannot learn from them to engage in more internalizing problems. Additionally, I have been involved in some research investigating a group therapy for PTSD in adolescents, looking for any specific benefits that the group nature of the therapy confers. We have found some preliminary evidence supporting the idea that peers can influence each other to benefit more from therapy, leading us investigating whether those who are more susceptible to peer influence benefit from therapy more than those who are not. So perhaps social proof may be limited on its impact of group therapy, but it may be instrumental in showing that there are more reasons to utilize group therapy beyond saving money.

Image Credit: http://www.pussreboots.pair.com/photos/fairview/bookcrossing/20080117_monkeysee_monkeydo.jpg

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Reciprocity and Commitment and Consistency: A Good Way to Get Things Done, A Bad Way to Make Friends?

Two principles of social influence are reciprocity and commitment and consistency. These two principles have been backed up by plenty of empirical evidence showing that they are effective ways to influence others’ behavior, but they both rely on what we might label as “deceitful” strategies. So while the use of these principles may be a great way to get what you want out of others, is there some sort of downside or backlash that comes from the use of these principles?

Reciprocity at work.

First, let’s do a quick introduction to reciprocity and commitment and consistency (C & C). Reciprocity is a concept that holds that we feel obligated to reciprocate when someone gives us something. This was exemplified through a study by Dennis Regan in 1971 in which a confederate either gave or didn’t give a subject a free Coke before a sham study, then asked the subject after the study if he/she wanted to buy raffle tickets. Subjects who received the free Coke bought raffle tickets 2 times more than those who didn’t, presumably because they felt obligated to reciprocate because of the free Coke.

Commitment and consistency is the concept that states that once you make a decision (commitment), there is pressure to behave in-line with that decision (consistency). One example of this is the low-ball technique, in which car salespeople offer a really good price on the car, let the prospective buyer take it home and drive it around while they think about the potential purchase. During this, the salespeople are running the paperwork, and call the buyer, saying that they made a mistake with the pricing, and it is actually a higher price, which is no longer a really good deal. However, because the buyer already has the car with them at home, has driven it around, and generally gotten used to the idea of having the car, they tend to pay the higher price anyway. In this, they have made the commitment by having the car with them at home, doing the things they would be doing if the bought the car, so even when the price is raised, they stay consistent to that behavior.

So these two concepts lead to some very effective social influence, but is there some sort of cost to this effective social influence? Because of the ways in which these concept are deployed, whoever is trying to do the influencing risks doing harm to their relationship to the person they are trying to influence. This isn’t a problem if you aren’t interested in maintaining a relationship, but if you are, you might not necessarily want to employ reciprocity and commitment and consistency. Reciprocity often involves placing an uninvited debt on the influence target. In the Coke study, the free Coke was never asked for by the subject, but when it was given, it came with a debt. With commitment and consistency, most of the potentially problematic elements are related to the commitment. Obviously, the low-ball technique is a fairly insidious way to induce a commitment, as in the example of the car salesperson, they are intentionally deceiving the buyer to get the car home with him, sealing that commitment.  I think that if the influence target is aware (or made aware) of the process going on, like if they realize in reciprocity that they never asked for the first favor, or that in C & C that they did not actually want to make a commitment, it could lead to resentment of the person who is employing the social influence concepts. So maybe take a second before you try to influence someone, and consider what happens to your relationship with that person as a result.

Image Credit: http://www.cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/cartoonists/tcr/lowres/tcrn235l.jpg


Thought Experiment: Using Cognitive Dissonance to Reduce Stereotyping and Prejudice

Stereotyping is prevalent in humans; it is a way to reduce the cognitive load we carry on a daily basis, so it is adaptive in a sense: we just can’t spend all our time evaluating people on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, there are times where this stereotyping can result in terrible consequences, like the recent death of Trayvon Martin. So, while there are times stereotyping is adaptive, there potentially may be certain stereotypes that are worth trying to change, such as the association of young black men with crime or violence. Stereotypes, though, can be really resistant to change, as when presented with someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype, one can make an external attribution for the person to explain away this difference and retain the stereotype, or one can create a new subtype for the person to retain the stereotype.

Cognitive dissonance could potentially provide a framework for creating some sort of salient stereotype change. Past research has shown that introducing cognitive dissonance has resulted in behavioral change. Dickerson et al., (1992)  did a water conservation study in which they introduced dissonance in female swimmers about to take a shower by reminding them of their past failures in conserving water and then having them make a public commitment to conservation. This combination introduced tension between the swimmers’ past behavior and their present mindset, which resulted in them taking shorter showers than those who did not make a public commitment and had no reminder of past water conservation failure.

So how would we apply cognitive dissonance to stereotype change? I propose using a paradigm called the Police Officer’s Dilemma that has been used in past research to show that in a simulation of a possible violent confrontation, unarmed blacks are shot in error more often. This research has also more recently shown that this bias exists only in simulations safe contexts, not dangerous contexts (where both whites and blacks are shot more).  As a sidenote, similar sorts of findings have been found in ERP studies of weapon bias, where even with no prior racial bias, blacks are thought to have weapons when they do not more often, showing the automatic nature of the stereotype. In the Police Officer’s Dilemma paradigm, subjects are placed in a video game-like simulation where they are presented with white or black targets that are armed or unarmed and are asked to shoot armed targets and not shoot unarmed targets.

My proposed usage of cognitive dissonance to affect change would start with subjects completing this task. At the end of this task, subjects would be informed on how they did. The task would only utilize the safe context simulations where the research has shown this racial bias exists, making it likely subjects would make errors on the task, or at least make more than they thought they would. Taking a page out of Dickerson’s research, I would then have subjects make some sort of public commitment to reducing prejudice, like signing a petition that has signatures displayed publicly or writing some sort of blurb to be posted on a website. The combination of these two tasks should introduce cognitive dissonance in the participants: they would have a reminder of past/not-so-past failures (the errors on the shooting task) as well as a public commitment, leading to tension between their behaviors that have resulted in racial bias (even though it is not necessarily their fault) and their new commitment to reducing prejudice. They should resolve this cognitive dissonance by hopefully changing their attitudes, which we might be able to test by either putting them through the Police Officer’s Dilemma again, or using the weapon bias ERP task.

So would this work? Even though I just proposed it, I’m not so sure, because of the nature of stereotyping. Stereotyping is so automatic, that you do not need to have some sort of preexisting attitude towards certain races to engage in it. What really is of concern is the link between young black men and violence/danger. There needs to be an attenuation of this link, a removal of this as a valid stereotype that people tap into. It’s not necessarily about telling people they are racist for utilizing this stereotype, but presenting enough evidence that counteracts this stereotype that the stereotype gets changed on a national level. Obviously, this would be quite an undertaking, so every little thing that people can do to attenuate this very harmful stereotype from young black men would help. Perhaps this cognitive dissonance technique can be part of this process.

Huge hat-tips to this great Scientific American post and this excellent TNR post about the subject specific to the Trayvon Martin case.


The Bachelor and Misattribution of Arousal

Ah, the Bachelor. A goldmine for pop-culture pundits and social psychologists equally, the Bachelor is always there (since 2002) to be laughed at, used for criticisms, or, you know, enjoyed. Specifically, for my purposes, the Bachelor is great because it is a nice public venue for social psychological processes, especially romantic ones. It’s logical, given that the show throws 25 women and 1 man into a 10-week speed-engagement process, where the Bachelor and all the contestants try to figure out if they can truly find love (or at least what they think is true love).

Interestingly enough, the producers seem to be clued in to/got lucky with social psychological processes, as shown by an early-season episode featuring a date with the Bachelor (Ben) and a contestant Emily. Before the date, the producers treat us to a nice little soundbite from Emily noting that her one big fear is heights. Naturally, when she gets to the date, she finds out that Ben and her get to climb up the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, which unfortunately for her, is 526 feet tall. Of course, this causes immediate consternation in Emily, as she harps on the fact that a little harness clipping them to the bridge is the only thing separating her from a long fall, and also to her chagrin, every so often while they go up the bridge, they have to unclip their harness from the the bridge to move it over an impassable piece of the railing. So is this torture, some sort of cruel game by the producers to exploit Emily’s fear on national television?

Worked out okay, huh?

Actually, if anything, it is a clever play by the producers to make sure Emily is attracted to Ben. The study by Dutton and Aron (1974) about the shaky bridge and attraction showed that people are prone to mislabeling their physiological arousal as attraction. In the study, those who crossed the high, scary bridge in Canada and met a female experimenter right afterwards were more likely to have sexual themes when taking the Thematic Apperception Test as well as more likely to display the behavior indicator of attraction of calling the experimenter after the field portion of the experiment completed. So, in the case we are looking at, playing on Emily’s fear of heights is a sure way to raise her arousal levels considerably, and with strong, handsome Ben to comfort  and accompany her on the climb, Emily is probably labeling those symptoms of arousal as symptoms of attraction to Ben. This is good for the producers, as it would be a pretty bad season if no one ended up being attracted to Ben.

I would question, though, what effect does this have in the long run? Sure, Emily might feel attracted to Ben because of this ploy, but does that attraction persist past this event? Does the attraction convert into love? Those questions remain unanswered, partly since much of the literature that resulted in the aftermath of the Dutton and Aron study focused on alternative explanations for the mechanism of this arousal-attraction link. In my opinion, this is still a pretty good tactic for getting the contestants to fall for the Bachelor, at least compared to normal, less intensely arousing dates, based of the idea that a foot in the door is better than no foot at all. In terms of long-term attraction, it might be better for the producers to find some sort of thing that will terrify both the Bachelor and his date, causing some sort of mutual attraction as a result.


Being the Green Lantern Might Not Be As Cool As You Think

Being the Green Lantern is probably pretty cool. You have a pretty sweet ring that you can use to pretty much whatever you want as long as you focus on it. You can make any solid construct you can think about, which is clearly pretty handy whether you are fighting bad guys or saving innocents. You can also fly pretty fast, which also helps with the fighting and the saving. Furthermore, you get access to this whole planet of other Green Lanterns that train you and back you up in battle. All you have to do is be utterly fearless. But that’s the problem: being fearless is really, really, stupid.

We know from social psychology literature that emotions are pretty important. They motivate behavior through the link between emotions and action tendencies, they serve as communication to others, and they are a pretty crucial part of the human experience, as we experience physiological responses often, and we need emotions to attach a label to those responses to help us make sense of them. Furthermore, we know from the literature that emotions are adaptive, as the action tendencies that come from emotions led to behaviors that either help your survival or your reproduction chances, the two most important things for passing your genes on.

Fear is one of these emotions. Fear lets you know that there is some sort of danger present that could possibly threaten your survival, so you better get yourself away from whatever would be causing you harm. Green Lanterns are known for being fearless; in the film, the character played by Ryan Reynolds is selected to be the next Green Lantern in Earth’s sector because he is a fearless test pilot. And the movie spells it out definitively: fearless isn’t just another way to talk about being brave, fearless is meant as the complete lack of fear. Unfortunately, that lack of fear is tremendously maladaptive; without fear, we wouldn’t have the impulse to get away from things with significant chances of causing our deaths, which would make our genes pretty short-lived. So why it would be pretty cool to be a Green Lantern and get the powers that come with the role, giving up the ability to have the fear emotion doesn’t quite seem like a fair trade-off.


Social Comparison and the Doctoral Application Process

I haven’t been too personal on the blog, which makes sense, because this is for a class, so I’m really just working on noting the phenomena we discuss in class as they occur in real life. However, I figure it can’t be too bad to be personal, as this blog is implicitly very personal, as I am drawing from my own interests and experiences for topics to write about. With that being said, I’m going to essentially write this entire post about myself. It won’t be that bad, I promise, just a little self-serving. Specifically, I want to write today about the concept of social comparison and how it has applied to my experience applying to clinical psychology doctoral programs.

A bit of background first: clinical psychology doctoral programs, unlike some other psychology doctoral programs, do their application process in two steps. First is the online (formerly paper) application, where one fills in their GPA, their GRE scores, attaches a personal statement and letters of recommendation, etc., and sends all this information electronically to the schools they are interested in. Clinical psychology is a fairly popular field to try to attend graduate school in, so many schools get over 300 applications, some of the ones I have visited reported receiving 600 or more applications, which is high for a doctoral program. After all the schools receive all these applications, they narrow this applicant pool down for the second step of the process, which is the interview portion.

Most schools do their interviews on campus, though some elect to offer phone or Skype interviews as a substitute. When you apply, you list your top preferred mentors, so interview invites are sent out on a lab-by-lab basis. Schools generally invite anywhere from 2 to 12 people per lab, usually resulting in anywhere from 20 to 60 people being invited for an interview (out of 300+, if you’re keeping score at home). Of note is the fact that most labs only will admit one applicant out of those that they invited to interview, meaning that acceptance rates at clinical programs are often under 2% out of all applicants that sent in the initial online application. Most schools try to get all their applicants to interview at the same time, either during the same weekend or spread over 2 or 3 interview days. It is during this on-campus interview process that the social comparison concept comes into play.

The immediate consequence of schools interviewing all the applicants invited on the same day(s) is that all the applicants have the chance to meet each other, even those applying for the same lab, which brings social comparison into play. When people engage in social comparison, they evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to others. This is done to reduce anxiety and uncertainty about the self. Social comparisons are often made to similar others in order to see where one stands, though downward social comparisons (which enhance self-esteem) and upward social comparisons (which threatens self-esteem) depending on the context of the social comparison, in that when self-esteem is low, downward comparisons are made, and when one is motivated to improve the self, upward comparisons are made.

So in the interview days at the schools, I got plenty of exposure to other applicants, on the first night (day before the interview), I usually got thrown into an opening night dinner with other applicants; at one school, it was a standing buffet dinner with 60+ applicants all standing in a big room with graduate students, at another it was centered around tables with only 20-30 applicants divided among 5 tables, and at another school it was only the applicants for the same lab and the graduate students, so only 4 applicants. However, at all the schools, I spent any down time I had as well as meals on the actual interview day in one central room where all the other applicants are, so there was plenty of time to meet other prospective graduate students. And whether it was at the dinner or during the interview day, when applicants talked to each other, the conversation eventually starts to reflect social comparisons being made. People always ask what you are doing right now. This, of course, is a perfectly normal question to ask, it’s pretty ordinary to ask somewhat what they do for a living. However, in the context of interview day, this question becomes a vehicle for social comparisons. When you are applying for clinical psychology programs, you are usually being evaluated on your academic credentials, your research experience, the match between your research interests and the lab focus, and other smaller factors like social fit. Thus, asking people what they do isn’t just nice small talk, it’s a way to assess what a person’s research experience consists of and what their research interests are. Is the person currently a research assistant at a known lab? Do they do research that fits really well with the lab they are applying to? How does that person’s research experience compare to mine? These are questions I found myself wondering, even if I didn’t directly ask someone what they did, and I don’t think its a stretch to guess that other applicants were thinking the same thing.

Going into the interview day at each school, I thought that I would try as hard as possible to avoid social comparisons completely. In a strange way, I didn’t want to try to figure out where I stood in terms of my research experience, mostly because I did not want to open myself up to the possibility that I was lacking in that department compared to others.I might have been taking on some uncertainty and anxiety as a result, but I preferred to protect myself (and my self-esteem) from the worst-case scenario that could result from making those comparisons. I figured I could go in and talk sports, music, TV, and movies and avoid comparisons. However, when I was in the interview day situation, I just couldn’t help but eventually talk about my own research or other people’s research at some point, and then internally I started to note the other person’s accomplishments, like how they’ve been doing research for 2 years already, or how they work in a lab that studies the same exact topic as the lab they are applying to. As a result, at least for me, I grew a little anxious with each comparison, as I started to realize just how qualified everyone was. However, I was able to resolve those feelings after some thinking, as I remembered that I was invited just as these other applicants were, so we had to be somewhere in the same ballpark as far as qualifications. So as it turned out, social comparisons ended up being a fairly pervasive thing during these days, despite my best efforts, and it initially provoked, not reduced, some anxiety, but ended up not being such a bad thing, as it reminded me of my own qualifications.


Social Identity and Video Games: Online Communities and the “Gamer” Identity

The concept of social identity is seen at work in a variety of contexts, such as sports teams, political parties, ethnic groups, and many other affiliative groups. One interesting context in which social identity can be observed at work is the online communities that have sprung up around video games. Video games themselves are a relevantly new phenomenon, being only commercially sold since 1971. However, the prominence of video games has risen in a similar fashion to the prominence and prevalence of the internet. As such, the fans of video games, much like the general populace of the world, have taken readily to the internet, convening often on message boards, like NeoGAF and Penny Arcade. These sorts of websites have been able to provide a virtual community in which those who enjoy video games can meet to talk about video games or even just have a general discussion. These communities have served to solidify an emerging social identity, that of the “gamer”. Many who frequent these message boards (or forums) refer to themselves and other enthusiasts as “gamers”. The gamer identity existed for a significant period of time as a relatively socially undesirable identity, often negatively stereotyped as a “nerd” identity for social outcasts and associated with images such as immature adults huddled around a computer screen in their parents’ basement.

Googling "gamer" results in this.

However, the gamer identity has eventually evolved into a more relatively common identity to embrace, with celebrities professing their love for games and featuring prominently in advertisements for video games. The gamer identity may seem to not be a social identity until you consider the role of gaming forums in the development of the gamer identity. Those who frequently played video games were fairly isolated before the prevalence of the internet, as they could only talk to their friends and others they saw in person about video games, limiting the number of people they could communicate and share their enthusiasm with. However, with the emergence of the internet as commonplace in society, gaming forums also started up as a way for video game fans to share their opinions and also make new friends with similar interests. Furthermore, even though the “gamer” identity coalesced with the help of online communities, one such community, Penny Arcade, has translated the virtual gathering of gamers into a real, physical gathering of gamers at an event called Penny Arcade Expo (or PAX). PAX is a convention focused specifically on gamers, especially those who are fans of the Penny Arcade comic strip and also frequent the Penny Arcade forums, with attendance figures reaching 70,000 people last year. For a more concise and visually affecting description of PAX, I present:

PAX has served as an effective way to bring gamers with similar interests together, further solidifying the social identity of gamers by adding on to virtual interactions with in-person face-to-face interactions. Despite the value in meeting other gamers face-to-face, the evolution of the “gamer” social identity has shown that identities can be constructed through the medium of technology, and that you don’t need to physically meet to have a shared sense of community.

Photo Credit: http://www.motifake.com/tags/gamer