Psychology is the scientific study of how people act, think, and feel. Social psychology studies how people act, think, and feel in the context of society. That is, how people’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings change because of other people.
Image source: huffpost.com
The Stanford Prison needs to be mentioned here for those who haven’t heard about it yet because it demonstrates our helplessness (or willingness) to accept power structures and situations that we are parties to.
Philip Zimbardo was curious about why prisons are such violent places; is it because of the character of their inhabitants, or is it due to the corrosive effect of the power structure of the prisons themselves?
To find out, Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department. He recruited clean-cut young men as volunteers none had criminal records and all rated “normal” on psychological tests and he randomly assigned half of them to play the role of prisoners and the other half to play guards. His plan was that he would step back for two weeks and observe how these model citizens interacted with each other in their new roles.
What happened next has become the stuff of legend:
Social conditions in the mock prison deteriorated with stunning rapidity. On the first night the prisoners staged a revolt, and the guards, feeling threatened by the insubordination of the prisoners, cracked down hard. They began devising creative ways to discipline the prisoners, using methods such as random strip-searches, curtailed bathroom privileges, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, and the withholding of food.
Under this pressure, prisoners began to crack. The first one left after only thirty-six hours, screaming that he felt like he was “burning up inside.” Within six days, four more prisoners had followed his lead, one of whom had broken out in a full-body stress-related rash. It was clear that for everyone involved the new roles had quickly become more than just a game.
Even Zimbardo himself felt seduced by the corrosive psychology of the situation. He began entertaining paranoid fears that his prisoners were planning a break-out, and he tried to contact the real police for help. Luckily, at this point, Zimbardo realized things had gone too far. Only six days had passed, but already the happy college kids who had begun the experiment had transformed into sullen prisoners and sadistic guards.
Zimbardo called a meeting the next morning and told everyone they could go home. The remaining prisoners were relieved, but tellingly, the guards were upset. They had been enjoying their new-found power and had no desire to give it up.
“Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously, I was not among that noble class,” Zimbardo later wrote in his book The Lucifer Effect.
What Do the Results of the Stanford Prison Experiment Mean?
According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the powerful role that the situation can play in human behavior. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or in other situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.
The official site of the experiment: Prisonexp.org
This is more behavioral/consumer focused but has social implications…and it is mind-blowing.
The chart above (from a study by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein titled “Do defaults save lives?”) shows the percentage of people in each country who consent to donate their organs.
What is interesting is that many of the countries in yellow on the left (Denmark, UK, etc.) are similar to many of the countries in blue on the right (Belgium, Sweden, France, etc.) in terms of economics, development, etc. So why the staggering difference in consent to donate organs?
It turns out the difference is based on the framing of the options (opt-in versus opt-out) on the government form. Here is essentially how it plays out:
Yellow Countries (Opt-In Form)
“Please check the box if you want to donate your organs.”
Nobody checks the box. Nobody donates.
Blue Countries (Opt-Out Form)
“Please check the box if you do not want to donate your organs.”
Again, nobody checks the box…but (because of the form) everybody donates.
This study is a powerful example of how important the default option is in decision making. Making a decision is difficult so often times people resort to the default option. Thus, the manner in which the decision is framed has huge implications for the resulting behavior.
The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.
This combined with the Bandwagon effect will lead to a greater fan following for the leader, here’s how:
Body language affects how we see ourselves.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard proves it through her experiments and her life motto of “faking it till you become it”:
Aoccdrnig to research at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy,
the oredr of lteetrs in a wrod is nto vrey iprmoetnt. Waht mttaers is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The ohter letetrs can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed wthuot mcuh probelm. Tihs is bcauseae yuor brian deos not raed ervey lteter, but raeds wrods and gruops of wrods.
What our eyes see is not what our brain ends up with – We think that we are walking around looking at the world around us with our eyes and that our eyes are sending information to the brain which processes it and gives us a realistic experience of “what’s out there”. But the truth is that what our brain comes up with is not exactly what our eyes are actually seeing.
The great interpreter – Our brain is constantly interpreting everything it sees. Take, for example, the picture below:
What do you see? Your first reaction is probably that you are looking at a triangle with a black border in the background, and a white triangle upside down on top of it. Of course, that’s not really what is there, is it? What’s there are some partial lines and some partial circles? Your brain creates the shape of an upside down triangle out of blank space because that is what it is expecting to see. This particular illusion is called a Kanizsa triangle, named after an Italian psychologist (G. Kanizsa) that first came up with it in 1955.
Shortcuts to the world – Our brains create these shortcuts in order to try and quickly make sense out of the world around us. There are so many (millions) of sensory inputs coming into our brain every second, that it has to try to make it all make sense. So it uses rules of thumb and extrapolates what it has experience with, to make guesses about what it is seeing. Most of the time that works, but sometimes it causes errors.
What you design may not be what people see – The take-away is that what we think people are going to see may not be what they do see. It might depend on their background, knowledge, familiarity with what they are looking at and expectations. Conversely, we might be able to persuade people to see things in a certain way, depending on how they are presented. Here’s another example from the Solso book:
By using different colored backgrounds we can draw attention and change the meaning of the sign.
What do you think? Do you think designers use these principles to draw attention on purpose? If you are a designer do you use these ideas? If we can read so well with all these misspellings, are typos even a problem?
Here’s the Solso book reference: Cognitive Psychology, edited by Solso, 7th edition, Allyn and Bacon, 2005.
The Brain Looks For Simple Patterns
What do you see when you look at the x’s below?
xx xx xx xx
Chances are you will say you see four sets of 2 x’s each. You won’t see them as 8 separate x’s. You interpret the white space, or lack of it, as a pattern.
People are great at recognizing patterns – Recognizing patterns helps you make quick sense of all the sensory input that comes to you every second. Your eyes and your brain will want to create patterns, even if there are no real patterns there. Your brain wants to see patterns.
Individual cells respond to certain shapes – In 1959, two researchers, Hubel, and Wiesel showed that there are individual cells in the visual cortex of your brain that respond only to horizontal lines, other cells that respond only to vertical lines, other cells that respond to edges, and cells that respond only to certain angles. (In 1981 Hubel and Wiesel won a Nobel price for their work on vision).
The Memory Bank Theory – Even with Hubel and Wiesel’s work in 1959, for many years the prevailing theory of pattern recognition was that you have a memory bank that stores millions of objects, and when you see an object you compare it with all the items in your memory bank until you find the one that matches.
You recognize objects by simple shapes – But research now points to the idea that we recognize certain basic shapes in what we are looking at, and we use these basic shapes, called geons, to recognize objects. Irving Biederman came up with the idea of geons in 1985. It’s thought that there are 24 basic shapes that people recognize and that these shapes are the building blocks of the objects we see and identify.
The picture at the beginning of this article shows examples of Biederman’s geons and how they are incorporated into objects for pattern recognition.
- Use patterns as much as possible, since people will automatically be looking for them. Use grouping and white space to create patterns.
- If you want people to recognize an object quickly, use a simple geometric drawing of the object. This will make it easier to recognize the underlying geons, and thus make the object easier and faster to recognize.
What do you think? Have you tried using simple shapes to create your drawings and icons for people to recognize?
And for those of you who like to read the research:
Biederman, I., Human Image Understanding: Recent Research and a Theory in Computer Vision, Graphics and Image Processing, 1985, Elsevier.
The Chameleon Effect–
Although it had long been suspected that copying other people’s body language increases liking, the effect wasn’t tested rigorously until Chartrand and Bargh (1999) carried out a series of experiments.
According to Chartrand and Bargh, the chameleon effect is the natural tendency to imitate another person’s speech inflections and physical expressions. You can notice that people who get along well behave almost the same way, as they unintentionally mimic each other’s body posture, hand gestures, speaking accents, and other. The body is actually autonomously making the interaction smoother and increasing the level of likeability when in rapport.
So the ‘chameleon effect’, far from being the preserve of cold-blooded reptiles, is actually a warm response facilitating social interactions. Individuals usually do it so instinctively that they’re not aware of it, and in most cases, doing such really does increase their likeability. Empathic individuals, people who are more willing to share others’ perspective, were also concluded to mirror the actions of others more often. “Those who pay more attention mimic more,” says Chartrand, and make more friends in the process.
Now this can be applied on a larger scale to many scenarios, i.e. at school when students try to “fit in” with the popular group, so they tend to mimic their behavior. When we’re young we tend to change who we are with every person that we are around if for only to fit in or seem normal. With every new group, we’re a different color. One would think that being around different people would be good in making us a better-rounded person. I see diversity as a thing that should add to us and make us better, not make us change who are to fit the situations. It’s better for us in the long run to find people and situations that accept us as ourselves and let that be the thing that attracts people to us, not the ability to change at the demands of others.
This is definitely something that should be taught at school.
People often go to surprising lengths to conform to the majority opinion.
Solomon Asch designed an experiment where people were shown the reference line on the left and then asked which of the 3 lines on the right was the same length.
Pretty easy task, right? The catch is that participants had to state their answers after 5-7 other people had answered the same question — people who were actually Asch’s confederates. This was repeated 18 times, and 2/3 of the time the confederates gave the wrong answer (e.g. every person said the answer was An even though it was clearly C). About 1/3 of the study participants agreed with the incorrect group consensus at least once, and 30% of participants confirmed on a majority of the trials. Peer pressure FTW.
On an unrelated note, the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram’s experiment are pretty neat, but I think many people have heard of them so I won’t include them in this answer.