PSYC 110: Introduction to Psychology

Lecture 16

 - A Person in the World of People: Self and Other, Part I


This is the first of two lectures on social psychology, the study of how we think about ourselves, other people, and social groups. Students will hear about the famous “six degrees of separation” phenomenon and how it illuminates important individual differences in social connectedness. This lecture also reviews a number of important biases that greatly influence how we think of ourselves as well as other people.

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Introduction to Psychology

PSYC 110 - Lecture 16 - A Person in the World of People: Self and Other, Part I

Chapter 1. Social Psychology and Connections between People [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Bloom: This is going to begin a two-lecture sequence on social psychology on how we think about ourselves, how we think about other people, how we think about other groups of people. We’ve talked a lot about the capacities of the human mind and some of these capacities involve adapting and dealing with the material world. So, we have to choose foods, we have to navigate around the world, we have to recognize objects, we have to be able to understand physical interactions. But probably the most interesting aspect of our evolved minds is our capacity to understand and deal with other people.

We are intensely interested in how other people work. The story that was a dominant news story in 2005 was this. And some of you — this — for those of you who aren’t seeing the screen, is the separation of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. I remember where I was when I first heard about this. [laughter] And it’s an interesting sight. Just remember — stepping back. As psychologists we have to question the natural. We have to take things that are commonsense and explore them. And one thing which just happens is, we’re fascinated by this stuff. We’re fascinated by the lives of celebrities. We’re fascinated by the social lives of other people. And it’s an interesting question to ask why. And this is one of the questions which I’m going to deal with in the next couple of lectures but before I get to the theory of social psychology I want to talk about an individual difference.

So, we devoted a lecture early on — of a couple of weeks ago, to individual differences across people in intelligence and personality. I want to talk a little bit about an individual difference in our social natures and then I want people to do a test that will explore where you stand on a continuum. That test is the piece of paper you have in front of you. Anybody who doesn’t have it please raise your hand and one of the teaching fellows will bring it to you. You don’t know what to do yet with it so don’t worry. The test was developed actually by Malcolm Gladwell who is a science writer — in his wonderful book The Tipping Point. And as he introduces the test, Gladwell recounts another experiment done by Stanley Milgram, of course famous for his obedience work but he did a lot of interesting things.

And one classic study he did was he gave a package to 160 people randomly chosen in Omaha, Nebraska and he asked these people to get the package somehow – and this was many years ago before the internet, before e-mail – to get the package to a stockbroker who worked in Boston but lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. What he found was that most people were able to do it. Nobody, of course, knew this man but they knew people who might know people who would know this man. So, most people succeeded. Most people were able to get the packages to this man and it took at maximum six degrees of separation, which is where the famous phrase comes about that we’re all separated from another person by six degrees of separation. This is not true in general. This was a very — a single experiment done within the United States, but the idea is appealing, that people are connected to one another via chains of people.

But what Milgram found that was particularly interesting was that in about half of the cases these packages went through two people. That is, if you plot the relationships between people — We can take each person in this room, find everybody you know and who knows you and draw a line, but if we were to do this you wouldn’t find an even mesh of wires. Rather, you’d find that some people are clusters. Some people are what Gladwell calls “connectors.” It’s like air traffic. Air traffic used to be everything flew to places local to it but now there’s a system of hubs, Chicago O’Hare for instance or Newark where planes fly through. Some people are hubs. Some people are the sort of people who know a lot of people. Some people in this room might be hubs, and it is not impossible to find out.

The piece of paper you have here is 250 names chosen randomly from a Manhattan phone book. They capture a range of ethnicities, different parts of the world, different national origins. Here’s what I’d like you to do. And I’ll give about five minutes for this. Go through these names and circle how many people you know. Now, the rules of this are, to know somebody you have to — they have to know you back. So, if it’s a celebrity — Well, here — one of the names here is Johnson. Now, I’ve heard of Magic Johnson but Magic Johnson has never heard of me, so I cannot circle it. On the other hand, our department chair is Marcia Johnson. She has heard of me, so I could circle it. Go through and circle it. Circle all the people you know who know you. Those are the people you’re connected to. If you know more than one person with the same last name, circle it twice. If you don’t have this piece of paper and you want to participate, please raise your hand and one of the teaching fellows will bring it to you. I’m going to talk a little bit more about this while people go through this.

The issue of connections between people is intellectually interesting for many reasons and might allow us to develop some generalizations about how people interact. The game of Six Degrees of Separation has, of course, turned into a famous movie trivia thing revolving around the actor Kevin Bacon, I think chosen just because it rhymes with “separation.” And the game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is played by taking any actor and computing how many steps it would take to get to Kevin Bacon. And some computer scientists have developed this. They’ve gone through each of the quarter million actors and actresses on the international movie database and computed their “Bacon number.” And the Bacon number is the number of steps it takes for them to get to Kevin Bacon. So for instance, Ed Asner was in the movie Change of — ;”JFK” with Kevin Bacon. So, Ed Asner has a Bacon number of one. Elvis Presley was in the movie “Change of Habit” with Ed Asner and that’s his closest connection to Kevin Bacon. So, Elvis Presley has a Bacon number of two.

It turns out that if you look at the 2.5 — sorry, the quarter million people on the movie database and compute their Bacon number, the average Bacon number is 2.8. That’s how many steps your average person is away from Kevin Bacon. You could then, for any actor or actress, compute the most connected one. So, the most connected one would be the one for whom the quarter million are, on average, the most connected to. And the answer of the most connected actor or actress is reasonably surprising. Does anybody want to guess? I’ll start you off with the wrong answer and this, by the way, can be found on this web site. It’s not John Wayne. John Wayne has been in many movies, 180 movies, in fact, over sixty years, but he isn’t well connected at all because mostly he was in westerns so we saw the same people over and over again. Meryl Streep also isn’t it because Meryl Streep has the misfortune of playing only in good movies. [laughter] So, she has no connection with people like Adam Sandler and John-Claude Van Damme. [laughter] Guess. Any guesses?

Student: Christopher Walken

Student: Nicholas Cage

Professor Paul Bloom: Christopher Walken is a good one. We could look it up. I only know a few names here. Christopher Walken is not a finalist. Nicolas Cage is an interesting case. Has Nicolas Cage been in good movies? I don’t want to get — I’m going to get more controversial than I want to.

Student: A guy who is one step above an extra. He’s like a B-list actor at best.

Professor Paul Bloom: Pardon me? The most connected guy? The most connected guy, and I think this shows that you’re right, is Rod Steiger. He’s the most connected actor in the history of acting because it isn’t that he’s been in more movies than everybody else. Michael Caine has probably been in the most movies of any person on earth, but he’s [Rod Steiger] been in all sorts of movies. He was in “On the Waterfront,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and really bad movies like “Carpool.” He’s been in dramas and crime serials, thrillers, westerns, horror movies, science fiction, musicals. Now, some people are like Rod Steiger. So, some people in their day-to-day lives have many interactions and I think one of the things we know from interacting with people is we can distinguish them from other people.

How many people have finished their things right now? Okay. I know one person in the department who is one of the most connected people I know on earth. If I wanted — If I really had to talk to Rumsfeld, I’d go to this person and say, “Can you get me in touch with Rumsfeld?” If I wanted to get somebody whacked, I’d ask this guy. [laughter] Then I know someone else in the department and, as best I know, I’m the only person she knows. [laughter]

So, how many people scores below ten on this? How many between ten and twenty? Between twenty and thirty? Thirty and forty? Between forty and fifty? Fifty and sixty? How many people scored above sixty? Anybody above sixty? Gladwell has done this in a lot of places. The average is twenty-one among a college crowd. Some people score as high as over 100. The older you are, the more — the higher you tend to score, maybe obviously, not — the longer you’ve been in the country the higher you tend to score. Journalists tend to score reasonably high, academics not so high, and — but what Gladwell points out is some people have the gift. Some people are more social than others and this connects in all sorts of interesting ways.

The issue of connection has social factors and it’s one answer that sociologists give for why it’s good to go to Yale. So, one answer is, well, because of the great intellectual benefits. Put that aside. Let’s be more cynical here. Another answer is that you develop powerful friends. And that’s closer, but the interesting answer sociologists come to is it’s not so much you develop powerful friends; rather, you develop powerful acquaintances. Through Yale you know a lot of people and they don’t have to be close friends but they are acquaintances. And sociologists point out that for a lot of aspects of your life, like getting a job, acquaintances matter, connections matter, and the connections you establish by going to a place like Yale hold you in good stead for the rest of your life, above and beyond any intellectual qualities that this place may offer.

Here’s what we’re going to do for the next lecture and a half, two lectures. We’re first going to talk about the self. Then we’re going to talk about the self and other; basically, differences between how we think of ourselves and how we think about other people. Then we’re going to talk exclusively about how we think about other people and then we’ll talk about how we think about groups like Harvard students or gay people or black people. I’ll start with my favorite finding of all time and this is about the self. And this is about the spotlight effect.

Chapter 2. Aspects of the Self: The Spotlight and Transparency Effects [00:15:56]

So, my mornings are often rushed because I have two kids. So, I get up and sometimes I don’t set the alarm and I get up late; I stagger out of bed; I wake the kids; I greet the servants; I get ready; [laughter] I make breakfast. I run out of the house and then usually around 3 o’clock somebody points out, in one case a homeless man, that I have a big glob of shaving cream in my ear or — because I neglected to actually look in the mirror while I shaved. Or I have once been to a party and I found my shirt was misaligned, seriously misaligned, not one button but — Anyway, [laughter] so — and so I feel when this happens I’m very immature. And I basically feel this is the end of the world, this is humiliating and everybody notices. And so the question is, how many people notice when something happens? And the spotlight effect — Well, before talking about my favorite experiment ever, there is an episode of “The Simpsons” that provides a beautiful illustration of the spotlight effect. And then it has a beautiful illustration of psychological testing, so I’ll give you them quickly one after the other. [clip playing]

So, Tom Gilovich, a social psychologist, was interested in the question of the spotlight effect, which is when we wear a pink shirt to work, shaving cream in our ear or whatever, do we systematically overestimate how much other people notice? He did a series of experiments. And in one experiment what he did was he got in the subjects – standard Intro Psych drill – and said, “I want you to wear a T-shirt for the next day and I want it to have a picture on it,” and he got them to wear T-shirts that had pictures on it that were the most embarrassing pictures that they could have on it. It turns out that if you ask people what’s the worst picture to have on the T-shirt that you are wearing, the number one answer is Hitler tied with Barry Manilow. [laughter] The best pictures to have on your T-shirt are Martin Luther King Jr. and Jerry Seinfeld.

It turns out that people — And then he had them go about their day and asked them, “How many people noticed your T-shirt?” And then the psychologists went around and they asked the people, “How many of you noticed this person’s T-shirt?” And it turned out they got it wrong by a factor of about two. They thought, say, 100 noticed, but fifty people noticed. And across study after study after study Gilovich and his colleagues have found support for the spotlight effect, which is that you believe that people are noticing you all the time but they aren’t. They’re busy noticing themselves. And this is actually a useful thing to know.

Gilovich got interested in this because he’s interested in the psychology of regret. And it turns out that if you actually ask dying people, or really old people basically, “What do you regret from your life?” they regret the things as a rule that they didn’t try. But when you asked them why they didn’t try it the answers tended to be “I would look silly.” And it turns out, interesting to know, that people just don’t care as much as other people think you are. You could take that as good news or bad news but the spotlight is not on us as much as we think it is.

There’s a second effect Gilovich discovers called “the transparency effect.” And the transparency effect is quite interesting. The transparency effect is that we believe that we’re more transparent than we are. I need somebody up here who thinks that he or she is a bad liar. Just — I just need you to say three sentences. I’ll even tell you what it is ahead of time. I’m going to ask you three questions: “Have you been in London? Do you have a younger sibling?” and “Do you like sushi?” I want you to answer with one of those answers there. I want you to lie about one of them. The task will be for everybody else to recognize and guess which one you’re lying about. Do you want to go up? Yeah. And I will even write down which one you should lie on. So, I want you to lie as to that number. Okay? Have you ever been in London?

Student: No, I have not been in London.

Professor Paul Bloom: Do you have a younger sibling?

Student: Yes, I have a younger sibling.

Professor Paul Bloom: Do you like sushi?

Student: No, I do not like sushi.

Professor Paul Bloom: Okay. Let’s have a vote. She was lying about one of them. Who votes for one? Who votes for two? Who votes for three? Pretty much of a tie between two and three. You could say which one you were lying.

Student: Three.

Professor Paul Bloom: The effect — there are two aspects of the effect. One aspect is people are actually quite good at lying. It is a rare person who couldn’t stand up there and everybody would figure out what they’re lying about, but the transparency effect is we don’t feel that way. We often feel like things bleed out of us and so people will systematically overestimate the extent to which other people notice their secrets. And this is actually, in general, why it’s sometimes difficult to teach or to tell stories because we constantly overestimate how much other people know. We think of ourselves as more transparent than we are.

Chapter 3. Aspects of the Self: You’re Terrific! [00:22:40]

A second social psychological phenomena is you think you’re terrific. If I asked people, “How well are you doing in Intro Psych this semester?” and I asked you to give yourself a percentage rating relative to the rest of the class, then if everybody was accurate, or at least not systematically biased, the number should add up to 50%. Roughly half of you are doing better than average and roughly half of you are doing worse than average. It turns out though that people will systematically and dramatically view themselves as better than average. They will view themselves as better than average when asked how good they are as a student, as a teacher, as a lover, and particularly, as a driver. [laughter] Everybody who drives thinks that he or she is a wonderful driver.

This has been called the “Lake Wobegon effect” based on Garrison Keillor’s story about a place where all the children are above average. And the Lake Wobegon effect in psychology involves a systematic bias to see ourselves as better than average. What psychologists don’t really know is why the Lake Wobegon effect exists, and there are a couple of proposals. One is the nature of the feedback we get. So, for a lot of aspects of your life you only get feedback when you’re good, when you do something good. In a normal, productive, healthy, happy environment, people don’t scream at you about how bad you’re doing but they compliment how good you are and that could lead to an inflated self-esteem on the part of people in certain domains.

Another possibility is there’s different criteria for goodness. For a driver, for instance, when I ask you to rank how good you are as a driver, what people often do is they think — they say, “I’m better than average,” but what they do is they focus on one aspect of their driving. So, some of you might say, “Hey, I’m just a great parallel parker so I’m a great driver.” Others might say, “I’m very careful, great driver.” Others might say, “I take chances no one else will — great driver,” [laughter] but above and beyond that there does seem to be a psychological effect manifested here and manifested elsewhere, which is a motivation to feel good about yourself. You think you’re important, which is why the spotlight effect exists. You think your thoughts bleed out, which is why the transparency effect exists. But above and beyond that, in a normal, healthy mind you think you’re terrific.

And so, this shows up in all sorts of ways. It shows up as well in what’s been called “the self-serving bias.” Half of you did above average on the Midterm; half of you did below average on the Midterm, but if I went up and asked each of you why the answers would not be symmetrical. People who did well in the Midterm would describe it in terms of their capacities or abilities. They’d say, “It’s because I’m smart, hardworking, brilliant.” People who did poorly would say, “The Midterm was unfair. I was busy. I have better things to do with my time.” Professors as well — When people get papers accepted it is because the papers are brilliant. When they got them rejected it’s because there’s a conspiracy against them by jealous editors and reviewers. There is this asymmetry all the time. The asymmetry has been found in athletes, in CEOs and in accident reports. And again, this is sort of a positive enhancement technique. You think that you’re terrific and because you’re terrific the good things that happen to you are due to your terrific-ness; the bad things are due to accident and misfortune.

Chapter 4. Aspects of the Self: Cognitive Dissonance [00:27:01]

The final aspect of self that I want to talk about is the idea that what you do makes sense. And this is one of the more interesting sub domains of social psychology. The idea was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger and it’s called “Cognitive Dissonance Theory.” And what Festinger was interested in was the idea that what happens when people experience an inconsistency in their heads. And he claimed it causes an unpleasant emotional state, what he described as “dissonance.” And he argued that we act so as to reduce dissonance. When there’s a contradiction in our heads we’re not happy and will take steps to make the contradiction go away.

This all sounds very general but there are some striking demonstrations of this and how it could work in everyday life. So, this very simple example is that — is the confirmation bias. Some of you are politically right wing. Some of you are politically left wing. If I asked you what magazines you read, it turns out people who are right wing read right wing magazines, people who are left wing read left wing magazines, because people don’t as a rule enjoy getting information that disconfirms what they believe in. They want to have information that confirms what they believe in and that supports it. If you support Bush you’re going to be looking for good news about Bush, if you don’t support him you’ll be looking for bad news.

And this manifests itself in all sorts of interesting ways. I’ll tell you about a very simple experiment. I’ll — It was done by Louisa Egan here at Yale and it illustrates a point which is going to — which — and then I’ll talk about real world implications of this. Very simple. You have three M&Ms. You pretest to make sure that the person doesn’t like any M&M more than the other. And there are three M&Ms. Who cares? But then you ask them to choose between two of them. So, suppose they choose the red one. You’ve got to choose one. So, they get to eat the red one. Now, they’re offered — You take the red one away and now they’re offered a choice between the two remaining ones. It turns out, to a tremendous degree, and you could imagine yourself in that situation, they choose this one, the one that wasn’t the one they turned down. And the claim is that when you choose this, in order to justify your decision, you denigrate the one you didn’t choose. And so this one you didn’t choose is then tainted and you turn and then when compared to a third one you favor that third one. What’s particularly interesting is you get this effect easily with undergraduates but you also get it with four-year-olds and with monkeys. So, the same denigration tends to be more general.

Well, that’s a laboratory effect but there are some more interesting manifestations of cognitive dissonance. One is the insufficient justification effect, which is so famous it had a cartoon based on it. The guys says, “Why should I hire you as my consultant?” The dog — Some dog says, “I use my special — the special process of cognitive dissonance to improve employee morale.” “How does it work?” “Well, when people are in an absurd situation their minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion.” Not quite right. When people are — have an internal conflict, when there’s something uncomfortable — Well, that’s right. So says to this person, “Isn’t it strange you have this dead-end job when you’re twice as smart as your boss? The hours are long, the pay is mediocre, nobody respects your contribution, yet you freely choose to work here. It’s absurd. No. Wait. There must be a reason. I must work here because I love this work, I love this job.” [laughter]

This actually works. Here is the classic experiment by Festinger. Gave two groups of people a really boring task, paid one of them twenty dollars, which back when this study was done was real money, gave another group of subjects one dollar, which was insultingly small, then asked them later, “What do you think of the task?” It turns out that the group that had — were paid a dollar rated the task as much more fun than the group given twenty dollars. So, think about that for a moment. You might have predicted it the other way around, the twenty dollars, “wow, well, twenty dollars, I must have enjoyed it because I got twenty dollars,” but in fact, the logic here is the people with twenty dollars when asked, “What do you think of the task?” could say, “It was boring. I did it for twenty dollars.” The people paid one dollar were like the character in the Dilbert cartoon. When paid a dollar they said, “Well, I don’t want to be a donkey. I don’t want to be some guy who does this boring thing for a dollar. It wasn’t that bad really, it was kind of interesting, I learnt a lot,” to justify what they did.

This has a lot of real world implications. Festinger did a wonderful study with people — a group of people, and he wrote this up in a book called When Prophesy Fails, who were convinced that the world was going to end so they went on a mountain and they waited for the world to end. They had a certain time and date when the world was going to end. He hung out with them and then the time passed and the world didn’t end. What people then said, and this is what he was interested in — ;So, people’s predictions were totally proven wrong and they left their families, they gave away their houses, they gave away all their possessions, they lost all their money, but what Festinger found was they didn’t say, “God, I’m such a moron.” Rather, they said, “This is fantastic. This is exactly — This shows that us going to the mountain has delayed the ending of the world and this shows that we’re doing exactly the right things. I couldn’t have been smarter.” And in general, when people devote a lot of energy or money or expense to something, they are extraordinarily resistant to having it proven wrong.

Now, people have manipulated cognitive dissonance in all sorts of ways and, for instance, hazing. Hazing is cognitive dissonance at work. Fraternities and med schools and other organizations haze people. What they do is when people enter the group they humiliate them, they cause them pain, they cause them various forms of torture and unpleasantness. Why? Well, because it’s very successful at getting somebody to like the group. If I join a fraternity — it is also by the way illegal so – but if I were to join a fraternity and they say, “Welcome to the fraternity, Dr. Bloom. Here. Have a mint,” and then we have a good time and everything. I’m thinking “okay, sounds like a fun idea.” But if I join a fraternity and they pour cow poop on my head and make me stand in the rain for a month wearing pantyhose while they throw rocks at me [laughter] I then think — after it I think “God, I went through a lot of stuff to get into this fraternity. It must be really good.” And in fact, hazing through cognitive dissonance draws the inference that this is really, really valuable and this is why it exists.

If you are a political — If you are running for office, you will tend to have volunteers and not necessarily pay people. One reason for this is obvious; it’s cheaper not to pay people, but the other reason is more interesting. If you don’t pay people, they are more committed to the cause. Again, it’s cognitive dissonance. If you pay me ten thousand dollars a month to work for you, I’ll work for you and I’ll think “I’m doing it for ten thousand dollars a month, that makes a lot of sense,” but if I do it for nothing then I have to ask myself, “Why am I doing it?” And I will conclude I must think very highly of you.

Therapy for free tends to be useless therapy. This is one — [laughs] Therapists ask for money for all sorts of reasons, including they like money. But one reason why they ask for money is if you don’t pay for therapy you don’t think it has any value. You have to give up something. So, cognitive dissonance will lead you then to think that what you are giving it up for has some value and then you establish a liking for it.

Finally, cognitive dissonance shows up with children. One of the most robust and replicated findings in education or developmental psychology is very simple. You take two groups of kids and you ask them to do something like draw pictures. Half of the kids you reward. Maybe you give them a sticker or a toy. The other half you don’t reward. Now, according to sort of a simple-minded view of operant conditioning in behaviorist psychology, the children you reward should do it more. That’s how operative conditioning works. In fact though, the children who you reward later on think that this activity has less value and they are less likely to do it when there’s no reward present. And the idea, again, is the kids who don’t get rewarded say to themselves, “Well, I just spent time doing it, it must have an intrinsic value,” while the children who get rewarded say, “I did it for the sticker. I did it for the toy. I don’t care much for this.” And so, rewarding children has a danger, which is if you give them too much reward and too much a value for what they’re doing they will denigrate the activity.

Now, we need to be careful here about what’s going on. It’s not simple inconsistency. So, go back to this insufficient justification effect. So, the dollar group rated a task as more fun than the twenty dollar group. And it’s true; each group needed a justification for lying about the task. Each group needed a justification for saying how interesting the task was, but they each had a justification. They were each doing it for money after all. So, cognitive dissonance is a little bit more subtle. It’s not just that there’s a clash. Rather, we adjust our beliefs to make ourselves look more moral and rational than we are. Go back to hazing. There’s a perfectly good reason why I let them do all those things to me. I’m the sort of person who will let people do those things to me. The problem is that’s not an answer I could live with. So, cognitive dissonance motivates me to create an answer that’s more comfortable for me, an answer such as “This must be a really wonderful group with a wonderful bunch of people.” And in other words, we are biased to believe that we are terrific.

So, to sum up, there are three main findings about you that come out in social psychology. One is you believe everybody notices you even when they don’t. You’re the hero of your story. The second one is, you’re terrific, you are better than average in every possible way, each one of you. And finally, what you do makes sense. If it doesn’t make sense, you’ll — If it doesn’t make sense or, more to the point, if it’s something that you do that’s foolish or makes you look manipulative or cheap, you’ll distort it in your head so that it does make sense.

Chapter 5. Self and the Other [00:40:00]

I want to move now to how we think about self and other, how we think about ourselves relative to how we think about other people. And this brings us to the notion of attribution. So, an attribution is a claim about the cause of somebody’s behavior and Heider — ;Now, there’s all sorts of reasons for somebody’s behavior. Suppose you insult me or suppose you’re very kind to me. I could say you’re a kind person or you’re a rude person. I could say “this must be a great day for you” or “you must be a lot of — under a lot of stress or you must want something.” There’s different sorts of attributions we could make to people but Heider’s insight is we tend to attribute other people’s actions to their personality characteristics, to long-standing aspects of what they are. And this is known as a person bias. And more generally, people tend to give too much weight to the person and not enough weight to the situation. This is also sometimes known as the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error, which is one of the core ideas in psychology, is that we tend to over-attribute things to a person’s personality or desires or nature and not enough to the situation or the context.

There’s a lot of demonstrations of this. A lot of the demonstrations have to do with intelligence so, for example, there’s actually been studies showing that people tend to overestimate the intelligence of professors. Why? Because I stand up here and I talk about the one or more than one thing I know about and so it’s easy to infer that I must know a lot but in fact by the time this semester ends I will have tell you — told you everything I know. [laughter] And if you stood up and started talking about everything you knew you’d look really smart too.

The best study to show this is a quiz show study, which is you take two people and you flip a coin. And one of them is the quiz master and the quiz master gets to ask questions, any question he or she wants. And the other person has to answer the questions. And if they play seriously, the quiz master’s going to destroy the other person. “What was my dog’s name?” [laughter] “Well, I don’t know.” “What’s the capital of the city in which I was born?” “Well, I don’t know.” And then you’d expect a third person watching this to say, “Who cares? It’s just — They’re just doing this because of the coin they flipped.” But in fact, when the person watching this has to assess their intelligence they give the quiz asker a higher intelligence rating than the other person. After all, “He seemed to know a lot of answers. The other person didn’t get much right.”

We tend to fail to discount the situation. If you were giving a job talk — and this is for people in graduate school particularly — If you were giving a job talk and the slide projector breaks, you’re screwed. Nobody is going to say to themselves, “Oh, well, it’s not such a good talk because the slide projector broke.” They’ll say, “It’s not such a good talk because of the person.” Somebody could give a talk and we could throw smarties at them the whole time and then you could — then the other people would say, “The person looked kind of upset during the whole talk. [laughter] I wonder — They seemed like a nervous type.” [laughter]

This can be taken to extremes and the biggest extreme is the case of actors, which is if there’s ever a case — Anybody know who this is, the actor? [laughter] Have none of you been alive in 1950? [laughter] This is Robert Young. Does anybody know the part he plays? He played an — He played a doctor called Marcus Welby in this famous show “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” and Marcus Welby was a wonderful doctor. He was compassionate and kind, he made house calls, he saved lives, he counseled people, and it turned out that Robert Young was then deluged with mail, thousands of pieces of mail, by people asking for his advice on health matters. [laughter] And he then, in a twist, exploited the fundamental attribution error — people confusing the actor for the role — exploited this by going on TV and espousing the benefits of Sanka decaffeinated coffee where he produced the famous line “I am not a doctor but I play one on TV,” [laughter] whereupon people heard this and said, “Well, he must have some authority then about medical matters.” [laughter]

It turns out that the confusion between actors and their roles is extremely common. Many people, for instance, view Sylvester Stallone as either an actual hero during the Vietnam War or sort of a hero during the Vietnam War given all his Rambo stuff but in fact, of course, he played — he was in a Swiss boarding school teaching girls age twelve through fifteen during the Vietnam War. But it doesn’t seem that way because the role infects how we think about the person. When this movie came out twenty years ago they needed a character to play a gay man. According to IMDb, [The International Movie Database] where I get all my information, they hit up all the big stars, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, and Richard Gere, and they all turned it down because they didn’t want to play a gay man because people would think that they were gay. Finally, they got Harry Hamlin to do it, who was kind of a B-list sort of guy.

The biggest extreme of the fundamental attribution error, confusing the actor for his role, is Leonard Nimoy who, because he played the emotionless Vulcan, Spock, on Star Trek, was then repeatedly viewed by people who saw him on the street as if he was an actual Vulcan. [laughter] He got sufficiently upset about this to write a book called I Am Not Spock where he described all the ways in which he was not a Vulcan. [laughter] His career, where he attempted many times to play roles that were different from his Vulcan nature, stalled until finally many years later he gave up and wrote another book called I Am Spock [laughter] where he finally conceded to the fundamental attribution error. [laughter]

If I gave this lecture ten years ago, I would say that the fundamental attribution error is a human universal, something that we’re born with, a fundamental aspect of human nature. This is not entirely true though and we know that through some very interesting cross-cultural research that compares these biases across different countries, in this study between the United States and India. And it turns out that for whatever reason, and it would take another course to talk about the different explanations, but people start off at, say, age eight not committing the fundamental attribution error but in Western cultures, where there’s an ideology perhaps that people are in charge of their own destiny, the error occurs and people over-attribute the role to the person.

In some Eastern cultures there’s more of a view about faith and more attributions to situation. And this has been shown in many ways. For instance, if you look at newspaper reports about murders, in cultures like the United States the report tends to emphasize the personal characteristics of the person accused of the murder. In countries like India, the reports tend to emphasize, to a greater degree, the situation that the person found himself in that might have driven him to commit a murder. So, this is an important reminder that just because we find something in our culture and just because it might well be pervasive doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s universal.

So, to summarize so far, and we’re going to look at this a little bit more for the rest of this lecture, we’ve talked about two morals in social psychology. One is enhancement of the self but the other is what you can call “oversimplification of the other.” So, we know ourselves that our behavior is due to a complicated cluster of the situation and our personal natures. When things go badly, in fact, we’ll blame the situation. When things go well, the self-serving attribution bias, we’ll credit ourselves. We don’t do this for other people. For other people we’re a lot less forgiving. You do something stupid, that’s — you’re a stupid person. I do something stupid, it’s an off day. And so, you have this difference between how we think about ourselves and how we think about other people.

Chapter 6. How We Think about Other People [00:50:03]

Let’s talk a little bit about what we think about other people and start by talking about why we like other people. And here I’m going to some extent to go over material that was raised earlier in the course in Peter Salovey’s wonderful lecture. So, some of this, our liking of other people, is obvious and we talked about it in Dean Salovey’s lecture, we talked about it when we talked about sexual attractiveness. We like people who are honest, who are kind, who are smart, who are funny, but study after study finds more fundamental processes are also at work and here is a list of three of them.

One is proximity. We tend to like people who we’re close to physically, who we are physically and spatially close to, who we spend a lot of time with. In one study they looked at a housing project in Manhattan and they asked people where their best friend was and 90% of them said, “My best friend is in the same building as me,” and 50% of them says the same floor. Ask yourself who is your best friend at Yale. For how many of you is it somebody in your same college? Okay. How many in a different college? So, call it a tie but then there’s a lot more colleges that aren’t yours than the one — How many of you would you — say your best friend is somebody your — currently on your same floor? Yeah. If you were going to marry somebody from this class, it is the person you are sitting next to? [laughter]

Now, in some sense this is an — a rather trivial finding. Of course you’re going to get more involved in people you encounter frequently. How else is it going to work? But it’s actually more than that. The more you see something the more you like it and this is sometimes known as “the mere exposure effect.” The mere exposure effect is simply seeing something makes it likable perhaps because it becomes comfortable and safe. In one study by James Cutting, Cutting taught an Introduction to Psychology course and before each lecture he’d flash pictures on the screen. He’d have a screen saver showing pictures on the screen, paintings, and didn’t say anything about them. People would sit down, look at them while they prepared their notes. At the end of the semester he then asked people to rate different pictures as to how much they liked them, and even though people had no memory of seeing one or — versus the other they tend to like the pictures more that they had seen before. They were somehow familiar and somehow more likable.

If I showed you a picture of yourself versus a mirror image of yourself and asked which one you’d like more, the answer is very strong. You’d like your mirror image more because the mirror image is what you tend to see from day to day. If I showed your best friend a picture of you versus a mirror image picture of you, your best friend would say he or she likes the picture more because that corresponds to what he or she sees each day. Familiarity is itself a desire for liking, a force for liking.

Similarity — we like people who are similar to us. Friends tend to be highly similar to one another. So do husbands and wives. Now, to some extent, similarity is hard to pull apart from proximity. So, the fact that you are similar to your friends at Yale might just be because you are close to your friends at Yale and people who are at Yale tend to be fairly similar to one another. But there’s a lot of evidence that similarity, above and beyond proximity, has an effect on attractiveness and on liking. Similarity predicts the success of a marriage and through a phenomena people aren’t exactly sure about, couples become more and more similar over the course of a relationship.

Finally, people like good-looking people. People like attractive people. Physically attractive people are thought to be smarter, more competent, more social and nicer. Now, some of you who are very cynical and/or very good looking might wonder “yes, but good-looking people like me actually are smarter, more competent, more social and morally better.” This is not a crazy response. It is — it could be, for instance, that the advantages of being good looking make your life run a lot easier. Teachers are more responsive to you, people treat you better, you have more opportunities to make your way through the world, you make more money, you have more access to things, and that could, in turn, cause you to improve your life. This would be what’s known in the Bible as a “Matthew effect.” A Matthew effect is a developmental psychology phrase for the sort of thing where, well, as Jesus said, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance.” That means if you’re good looking you’ll also be smart but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. It’s a long version of the rich get richer and the poor even lose what they hath. So, there’s a variety of studies suggesting that teachers rate attractive children as smarter and higher achieving. Adults think that when an ugly kid misbehaves it’s because they have an ugly soul [laughter] while the attractive kid, “oh, that little scamp, somebody must have been bothering him.”

When I was in the University of Arizona and we lived next — and all I remember of my neighborhood is we lived next to this little boy and his name was Adonis. [laughter] Cute kid, but come on. [laughter] Also in mock trials judges give longer prison sentences to ugly people. [laughter] That’s the Matthew effect, those who hath little get even that taken away and thrown into prison.

There is a recent study, which I’ll tell you about but I am not comfortable with it as an experiment. The study observed people in a shopping — in a parking lot of a supermarket and found that parents were a lot rougher to the kids if their kids are ugly than if their kids are good looking. And they attribute it to the fact that, for all sorts of reasons, the ugly kid just matters less to the parent. I was watching a poker game once on TV and somebody who lost said, and I quote, “They beat me like an ugly stepchild” [laughter] and the fate of the ugly stepchild is, in fact, not a very good fate but this is not a good study. For one thing, and I don’t know how to phrase this in a politically correct way, but the parents of ugly kids are likely to themselves be ugly people [laughter] and maybe what they’re finding is just ugly people are more violent than good-looking people. [laughter] This is an excellent time to stop the lecture [laughter] so I’m going to stop the lecture and we’re going to continue social psychology on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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