Seeing psychology everywhere: The case of Gangnam Style

This semester, I’m teaching Intro to Social Psychology — which I pretty much see as an excuse to share my joint obsessions with social psychology and pop culture with a group of one hundred 18-to-21-year-olds who essentially have to be my captive audience.

Last week, I asked my students to watch the viral video “Gangnam Style” by Korean pop sensation Psy and come up with ways to use anything we’ve learned in the course so far to explain any aspect of the video. Because I have an awesome group of students, I got some really interesting and creative answers! So, below is a sampling of some of the social psych phenomena that my students found in the video, though there were many more great responses that I didn’t touch on in this post. Like I always say, once you know about the concepts, you really can find psychology in everything around you!

Fundamental Attribution Error

According to the fundamental attribution error, people are often biased towards making dispositional attributions instead of taking the situation into account. For example, if someone cuts you off during rush hour, you might immediately conclude that the driver is “rude” rather than thinking about the situational factors (kids in the backseat, traffic, etc.) that could have influenced his/her actions.

Several students noted that the FAE is clearly at work when people view this video; for example, the comments on the video are quick to call the singer fun, crazy, or weird. However, the commenters aren’t attributing his behavior to the fact that he’s in a music video and he wants the video to be popular, so the situation might actually be driving his behavior more than his personality is. Also, others noted that we might be attributing the fact that Psy is always surrounded by women to the fact that he is desirable or a “ladies’ man,” when the director of the music video might just be dictating that the women should be surrounding him. Finally, several students who know a bit about “Gangnam” (an affluent district in South Korea) noted that being “Gangnam Style” says more about your situation and your environment (e.g. being in a situation where people are generally wealthy and eccentric) than anyone’s individual personality.

Kelley’s Covariation Principle

I’ve blogged before about covariation theory in connection with doping accusations at the Olympic Games. Essentially, covariation theory posits that we form internal or external attributions for people’s behavior based on three key criteria: Consensus, Distinctiveness, and Consistency. If a person differs from most other people in his actions (low consensus), acts the same way across multiple different situations (low distinctiveness), and is highly consistent in this behavior (high consistency), you will form an internal attribution for his behavior and deduce that it is something about his personality. However, if most people act that way in the situation (high consensus) and the person doesn’t normally act that way in other situations (high distinctiveness), you will form an external attribution and blame the behavior on the environment.

Many of my students picked up on the application of covariation theory to this video, in several different ways! For example:

  • You can form an external attribution for everyone’s behavior in the video and credit the song being “awesome” as the cause for everyone’s odd behavior. Everyone in the video seems to be dancing similarly (high consensus), the one “Gangnam Style” dance move is the only move being performed instead of any other dance move (high distinctiveness), and the people are always dancing in every scene (high consistency).
  • Other students took a different approach to covariation theory, noting that the video demonstrates how we can attribute Psy’s womanizing to his personality, rather than the situation. There is low consensus (he is the only man dancing towards the women), low distinctiveness (he dances towards everyone, not just one woman in particular), and high consistency (he repeatedly dances towards women), so we can conclude that he’s desperate or into pretty much anyone, not that these women are particularly desirable.
  • Finally, students also used covariation theory to examine how they should interpret my recommendation to watch the video! One noted that consensus was high, as most people seem to love the video, but that distinctiveness was low, as I tend to like…pretty much everything. Given these two factors, plus the fact that consistency was high (I mentioned in my e-mail that I’ve watched the video over and over), people can’t form a solid internal or external attribution; you would have to predict an interaction (I like the video because of something dispositional that leads me to find most things funny, but it also happens to be a video that most people would like).

Confirmation Bias

According to the principle of confirmation bias, people tend to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses. Several students noted that they watched the video already expecting to like it, since it came accompanied by a glowing recommendation from me and also they had heard about it from several other friends. Some of them noted cautiously that they enjoyed the video, but they weren’t sure how much they would have liked it if they hadn’t gone into the experience expecting to like it based on what they had heard beforehand.

The Augmentation & Discounting Principles

Two students noted that Psy’s behavior can be linked to the augmentation principle, which states that out-of-role performance is more informative than in-role performance; when someone does something that is not expected in a given situation, you can draw even stronger dispositional attributions. For example, if someone acts loud and talkative at a party, you can’t say much about them (everyone is “pressured” by the situation to act loud and talkative at parties), but if someone is loud and talkative in class, you can probably draw conclusions about his/her personality from these actions.

One way of applying the augmentation principle is that when Psy is dancing crazily in the video, it is not necessarily informative about his personality because we know that he is in the “role” of filming his music video. However, if he were dancing like this in the street outside of that context, it would be easier to draw the conclusion that he is truly crazy. On the other hand, another student judged Psy’s behavior within the context of the video and used the augmentation principle to determine that Psy is likely very strange after all, because he randomly dances in settings where it is not necessarily appropriate (like in horse stables, in the middle of the street, etc.)

Students also noted that we could apply the discounting principle to why the video went viral. The discounting principle says that when there are multiple possible causes for something, you put less weight on any one of the causes. The video could have gone viral because the song is catchy, because the video is crazy, or because the dance moves are hilarious — however, because there are so many possible causes, it’s hard to pinpoint which one of them is responsible.


I’ve blogged before about self-complexity theory and the fact that people who find self-esteem in multiple domains are generally happier than those who put all of their “self-esteem eggs” in one basket, so to speak. A few students noted in their responses that Psy probably has high, resilient self-esteem because he seems to be spreading himself across multiple domains — during the video, we see him dancing, swimming, playing with horses, talking to pretty girls, and driving in cool cars. As a result, if he were to be “dinged” in any one of these areas, he would still have generally high self-esteem because the other domains would be able to act as a buffer.

Also, according to the process of basking in reflected glory, students noted that there are probably many people who know Psy who are now basking in his glory and telling everyone that they know him in order to boost their own self-esteem. This is probably very true!

Social Comparison Theory

I’ve blogged about social comparisons before, and several students noted ways in which the video demonstrates social comparison theory.

  • As viewers, we can engage in either upward or downward social comparisons with the singer. We can compare ourselves upward, thinking that we aren’t as good of a dancer as him or as able to pull off some of the wardrobe choices, and this could motivate us to practice more and become better. On the other hand, we could compare ourselves downward, noting that we’re happy we don’t embarrass ourselves that much in public. This would make us feel better about ourselves.
  • Some students noted that the young boy at the beginning of the video is probably Psy’s “protege” or dancer-in-training. As a result, this boy is probably engaging in upward comparisons, analyzing Psy’s dance skills and using him as a motivating force to improve his own dancing abilities and continue to work hard.

Pluralistic Ignorance

As an unabashed lover of the video, these responses made me sad, but I had to acknowledge that it was a great application of this concept. Some students noted quite accurately that pluralistic ignorance is likely at play here. Pluralistic ignorance is the tendency to misperceive the social norm because people publicly act in a way that doesn’t fit with their true feelings, and this public behavior leads others to continue misperceiving the social norm as well (for example, many students are not in favor of binge drinking, but they see others drinking and continue binge drinking to fit in, which perpetuates the social norm). Many people probably don’t actually like the song, but they pretend to like it because others love it and they don’t want to look like a “loser” by saying the song is terrible. Meanwhile, many people who don’t actually like the song are continuing to say they enjoy it because of this misperceived social norm.

Availability Heuristic

According to the availability heuristic, information that is easy to think of is judged as being more frequent or more likely. As noted in some responses, because this song seems to be everywhere, people might think that “most videos” on YouTube are videos that are similar to this or parodies of this, when they actually are not. Along a similar line, one might note the presence of an illusory correlation, which uses the availability heuristic to make us think that things are correlated when they are really not (for example, it is easier to think of times that it rained immediately after getting your car washed than times when it does not, so you feel like the two are correlated and it is more likely to rain right after you wash your car). After hearing this song for the first time, several students remarked that it suddenly seemed like the song was playing everywhere, when this was probably not the case — it was just easier to notice.

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This post has been slightly edited since it was originally posted to make sure that all responses were appropriately deindividuated to the fullest extent possible.

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