Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, How Does Psych Reflect Us All?

“Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.” – Earl Nightingale, American motivational speaker

ResearchBlogging.orgIn 1898, Norman Triplett stumbled upon an interesting observation as he watched a group of cyclists competing in a race: He noticed that the athletes tended to ride faster when they were around other people than when they were alone. He successfully replicated this phenomenon in the laboratory by asking groups of children to reel in spools of fishing line, noting that the children working in pairs reeled the line in faster than those who worked alone. Triplett published the findings, labeled the phenomenon “social facilitation,” and kicked off the entire field of experimental social psychology as we know it with (arguably) the first-ever published social psychology paper.*

The fact that the first paper in social psychology derived its hypotheses from a real-life experience is not surprising. After all, social psychology itself is supposed to be the “scientific study of how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.”1 If people in a field that revolves around interpersonal interactions don’t draw our examples and scientific questions from real life, from where exactly are we supposed to get them?

Yet it’s not only casual anecdotes, observations, or everyday happenings that have influenced the trajectory of our field. Social psychology has actually served a truly interesting historical function: Throughout the years, the field has managed to become a cultural mirror, consistently reflecting society’s standards, norms, and cultural traditions in its zeitgeists and trends. Going back through the annals of social psychological science can almost feel like reading a history textbook; as you parse through the findings, you see how the current events, pop culture, societal phenomena, and core values of each era shifted and grew along with the research trends.

1950s

Let’s first look at the social psychological research that happened shortly after World War II. The 1950s stand out in part because of the extensive program of research at Yale University led by Hovland, which was an incredibly practical program of research dedicated to scientifically understanding the dynamics of interpersonal persuasion.2 Along with Milgram’s classic obedience study3, this research was explicitly created as an attempt to rationally understand how Hitler could have persuaded so many German citizens to join the Nazi movement.

But what else are the 1950s notable for? Three words: The G.I. Bill. Between 1944 and 1956, roughly 2.2 million World War II veterans benefited from the post-war program, which was intended to fund higher education for war veterans (some of whom went on to pursue graduate studies in psychological science). It should not be particularly surprising that these former soldiers entered the field wanting to study the areas that were particular compelling for their demographic, given their shared military experiences: Conformity, group dynamics, persuasion, and attitude change. As a result, many of the areas perceived as “frivolous” (or feminine) were ignored – most notably, nothing having to do with attraction, close relationships, or romantic love is anywhere to be found in the literature. John Bowlby began to touch on attachment theory with his work in the 1950s,4 but his really important research on attachment theory wasn’t published until 1969.5 Research that focused more specifically on attraction and romantic relationships didn’t emerge until the 1960s and 1970s.6 Even if one were to argue that Freud, with his focus on sex, displays a focus on “love and attraction,” he cannot be categorized as an experimental social psychologist (he was a clinician and psychoanalyst).

1960s & 1970s

But then, everything changed. In contrast to the practical rationality of the WWII veterans’ research, what do we begin to see two decades later in the 1960s?

First of all, we get Schachter and Singer’s Two-Factor Theory of Emotion7,8, which overturned early physiological theories of emotion by theorizing that emotion arises in two phases: First, people feel undifferentiated physical arousal; second, they look for cues in the environment to help them interpret and label their arousal as distinct emotions. In the classic study on this phenomenon, Schachter and Singer gave participants shots of epinephrine and then exposed them to manically euphoric or incredibly irritable confederates; those who were unaware of the epinephrine’s physical effects interpreted their own arousal as either euphoria or anger, depending on the environmental cues that they received. I wonder if it’s really an accident that, in an age filled with rampant hallucinogenic drug use, one of psychology’s most influential theories involved the interaction between (drug-induced) physical sensations and subjective construals of “objective” environmental features.

Okay, so drawing a comparison between a theory based around “undifferentiated arousal” (drug-induced or not) and hippies on LSD might seem like an easy target. But what about the other defining features of the Civil Rights era and the so-called “Me Generation” of the 1970s? A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals a succinct synopsis of the era’s cultural mores: The 1960s were defined by “political protests, radical experimentation with new cultural experiences, [and giving] rebellious young people serious goals to work towards [through the Civil Rights Movement].” The 1970s, on the other hand, were defined by disillusionment, conspicuous consumption, narcissism, and “unapologetic hedonism.”**

Other than the Schachter-Singer Two-Factor Theory, what else do we see in the 1960s? We have Milgram, not caring about the emotional experiences of his subjects as he commits his “radical experimentation” regarding obedience to authority.3 We have Darley and Latane, opening our eyes to the shocking impacts of the Bystander Effect.9 We have Zimbardo, showing us all how evil we can really be in his prison studies on deindividuation.10 And, in addition to John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s work on attachment theory in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we finally get our first classic studies on love and attraction, authored by Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Berscheid – just in time for the reign of free love.6 And don’t forget the fact that Berscheid was personally mentioned during the presentation of the “Golden Fleece” award from an angry Senator Proxmire of Wisconsin – an award reserved for the most “wasteful federal funding of research” – for her work on why people fall in love. It was the 1960s, and the times, they were a-changin’.

So what about the 1970s? Say hello to disillusionment – and say hello to social loafing, which argues that people exert less effort in groups than they do when working alone.11 Welcome, Black Power Movement – and welcome, Tajfel and Turner, introducing the theory that people tend to define themselves based on important social groups that tell us who we are and make us feel good about ourselves.12 Say hello to the first computers and women’s growing presence in the American workplace – and while you’re at it, welcome in the decade’s revolutionary theories about self-efficacy13 and self-determination theory14, the first well-known papers to point out the need for autonomy and just how important it is for people to feel like they can do things for themselves. Think about the “Me Generation” and the obsessive focus on the importance of the self, and then think about Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory, which argued that we learn everything we need to know by observing our own behaviors and drawing conclusions about the attitudes that must have caused them.15 Finally, when do you think we published the first studies on the fundamental attribution error, the “shocking” tendency for people to overestimate the role of the self on behavior and underestimate the role of the situation? 1967 and 1977, of course.16,17

1990-Today

But enough about the 1960s and 1970s. Other than the eerie cultural mimicry, do you notice anything strange about the research discussed thus far?

How about the fact that it’s all taken place in the United States?

Well, enter 1990, and enter the decade when that’s no longer going to be acceptable. The 1990s brought globalization, democratization, and the rise of East Asia as a worldwide superpower…and they also brought the classic research on Eastern and Western cultural differences by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama.18 For the first time in the social psychological oeuvre, there was a truly strong surge in cultural psychology research, and an acknowledgment that came through loud and clear: No longer would it be okay to pretend that the psychology of the United States can speak for the psychology of the rest of the world. Researchers began by attempting to replicate the standard social psychology experiments in East Asian countries, but gradually began to focus on articulating the actual cultural differences between countries like Canada, America, and most of Western Europe, and countries like China, Japan, and most South American and African nations.18,19

The 1990s also brought another surge of close relationship research, which could only be compared with its unprecedented first surge in the 1970s. Which makes sense, when you think about it. The average student graduates from college at 22. Assuming that many (though not all) graduate students are coming in straight from undergrad, most incoming graduate students in the 1990s would have been born sometime between 1968 and 1978. Meaning that the female graduate students entering psychology in the 1990s were born to mothers in the 1970s; the same mothers who had been coming of age during the rise of feminism, entering the work force, and presumably instilling their daughters with feminist values. Is it any surprise that these female intellectuals, upon graduating from college, might have mirrored the cultural values of their upbringing?

So What’s Next?

This all leaves us with an obvious question: What is our field mirroring today?

Well, in my humble opinion, one of the best demonstrations of contemporary society making its way into social psychological research priorities has been the surge of recent interest in research related to power, status, and social class. Research in 2009 and 2010 alone on issues related to power and socioeconomic status have examined the use of contextual explanations in low SES individuals,20 the importance of fit between dispositional and role power for self-expressions,21 the use of dominance displays to gain power in groups,22 the link between socioeconomic status and charitable giving,23 the self-regulatory skills of powerful people,24 sexual overperception in powerful people,25 and the concept of power across cultures.26

Interest in these issues is nothing new. In fact, some of the most important research on power was done as early as the 1950s.27 But the surge in interest lately is certainly unprecedented, not to mention the emergence of social class as a theoretically based cultural difference, much like the emergence of individualist vs. collectivist comparisons in the 1990s.20

My hypothesis is that much like the 1950s were about persuasion, obedience, and conformity, the 1960s brought the reign of “free love” and radical experimentation, the 1970s brought disillusionment, social groups, relationships, and personal autonomy, and the 1990s brought globalization, the 2010s will be defined by our fascination with power and status. At the moment, global society is somewhat obsessed with these issues on a broader, societal level – and rightfully so. In the past five years alone America has experienced an unprecedented credit downgrade, there have been economic crises and recessions all over the world, many countries have rapidly lost power and status in the international political scene, and many citizens worldwide are personally experiencing distinct downward socioeconomic shifts due to alarmingly high levels of unemployment. It is no surprise that as researchers, we have become greatly interested in the ways in which issues related to power, status, and class impact thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

But luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom. The 2000s and 2010s have also brought a rush of other happier developments – like iProducts, Facebook, tablets, and laptops. In a world that has led more and more of us to sit behind our computer screens, plenty of work seems to have conceptually grown out of these technological revolutions. For example, take the recent uptick in research on meta-accuracy, the line of research that holds that our friends and family often know us better than we know ourselves.28 Is it any accident that this coincides with the rise of the “oversharing” generation, where children, teenagers, and college students of all ages have been criticized for putting so many personal details about themselves (and their personalities) on public forums like Facebook and Twitter for anyone and everyone to see?

There’s also been a huge swell in research on embodied cognition,29 with every physical process being tied to a different effect. Holding a warm beverage makes you think that other people are “warmer,” holding a heavy clipboard makes you think that a topic is “weightier,” moving clockwise makes you open to novel experiences – the list goes on and on, and it seems like every issue of every journal has at least one embodied cognition finding in its Table of Contents. Is it purely coincidental that in a world that is increasingly virtual, where we can talk with friends every day even if we only see them in person every other year, people are becoming fascinated by the effects of being touched? If that argument is not compelling enough to explain the obsession with embodied cognition, I’ve got another idea as well – these findings have been often criticized for focusing too narrowly on “sexy” or “flashy” effects, with the focus on “cool,” novel, attention-grabbing findings rather than more theory-driven science. Perhaps it’s not surprising that these “sexy, flashy effects” would be in vogue during a decade defined by the “attention economy,” instant gratification and “flashy technology.” The newest iPad, Kindle, iPhone, or Android is only a few months away from landing in our pockets, and those of us in graduate school have come of age during a time when everyone is looking for sleeker, brighter, faster, stronger. If the sexy, attention-grabbing findings of embodied cognition don’t give us that rush, then what ever could?

The French philosopher Henri Bergson once said, “If you want to know a man, don’t listen to what he says; watch what he does.”

I hear you, Bergson, but I’m going to take it one step further: If you want to know a society, don’t listen to what they endorse.

Watch what they research.


* Recent work has refuted this contention, claiming that Triplett was not actually the first published social psychology paper and that his methods were highly suspect. However, what I stated has been the prevailing view for most of social psychology’s history, so I will continue to refer to it this way.

** Information on the “Me Generation”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_generation

*** Of course, one might easily notice that I left out several decades (like the 1980s and 2000s, in particular). There are, of course, incidents of mirroring in these decades as well. For example, behavioral economics and JDM research grew substantially in the 1980s, during the era of Reagonomics; the period right after 9/11 marked the emergence of Terror Management Theory. There are also several important research trends in all of these decades that I did not discuss here either. However, for the sake of brevity, I chose to make my focus as narrow as possible for this piece.


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3 responses to “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, How Does Psych Reflect Us All?

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