Good Report On How Social Situations Influence Our Behavior
Social psychologists describe human behavior in terms of the interaction between a person's mental state and their immediate environment. In social situations, a person's behavior is primarily determined by the presence of other people. Different situations lead to different behavioral outcomes. For example, we act one way when we are a student in a packed lecture hall, another way when we are a commuter on a bus, and yet another way when we are waiting in line at Disney Land. When we are amongst our peers and friends we may be talkative and gregarious; when we are grouped with strangers we are more likely to be silent and reserved. Of course, not every person can be characterized by generalizations such as these, but generalizations are nevertheless good rules of thumb. In general, the person or people you are with dictate the way you act.
Sometimes, a situation will occur that leads to a unique social phenomenon known as groupthink. Groupthink is a collective thinking process in which a group of people get together and start to think as one person. This often results in faulty decision making by the group because of social pressures leading to a breakdown of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment (Janis, p 9). When groupthink prevails, individually-held ideas tend to go unrepresented, while ideas and prejudices held by multiple people become reinforced and amplified. Groups under the influence groupthink are more likely to act irrationally and ignore more helpful alternatives. Groupthink is most common when the members of a group are from a similar religious, ethnic, or racial background; when the group is isolated, or cut off from outside opinions; and when there are no clear guidelines for behavior.
Groupthink commonly involves collective rationalization and belief in inherent morality (Janis). Collective rationalization means that members are more likely to act without caution and do not second guess their initial assumptions. A belief in inherent morality means that the members believe in the righteousness of their cause and disregard the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.
Other characteristics of groupthink include an illusion of invulnerability and stereotypical views of outsiders. The illusion of invulnerability means that members are confident in their inability to fail or do wrong, and so take greater risks with their safety and the safety of others. A distrust of people from outside the group leads to insular thinking and to alternative points of view being ignored outright. Groupthink also puts pressure on the members of a group not to voice a dissenting opinion or argue against any of the group's views. This causes dissidents to censor themselves for fear of retaliation by the other members. Finally, groupthink leads to self-appointed “mind guards.” These are people who “protect” the group from problematic or harmful information by obfuscating and censoring the truth. It is often these “mind guards” who intimidate internal dissenters to silence.
One example of a group in which groupthink may be prevalent is the insular Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn, New York. In 2014, The New Yorker published an article titled The Outcast, in which a Hasidic man finds himself the target of a criminal investigation after he attempts to expose child abuse within his Borough Park community. The man, named Sam Kellner, was called to action in 2008 after his son told him that he was molested by a man who had prayed at their synagogue. Within Orthodox Judaism, sexuality is rarely and never openly discussed. Non-procreative sex is regarded as shameful, and molestation is viewed in roughly the same light as having an affair. Kellner found that he would receive very little support from the religious elders from whom he sought advice. In fact, he was persecuted by the community leaders and pressed with criminal charges after he tried to report the abuse to the city's police. In the Talmud, there is a prohibition against the act of turning a Jew over to the civil authorities, called mesirah. The person Kellner's son accused happened to be a descendent of a rabbinic dynasty, as well an eminent and well-loved member of the Orthodox community. Because of this, the opposition and disbelief Kellner faced was intense. Kellner was quickly ostracized by his community for speaking out about its endemic culture of sexual abuse.
Groupthink is prevalent amongst the member's of Kellner's group who ostracized and persecuted him for his beliefs and values. Many features of groupthink are evident in this example. The attempts of the governing council to censor Kellner by having him charged with a criminal offense is characteristic of groupthink. In this case, the religious elders were trying to “protect” the community from finding out about the heinous crimes that were being committed within its borders. The elders attempted to intimidate Kellner into self-censorship, but ultimately his story would be heard and the molester, named Lebovits, would be prosecuted. However, the inherent distrust of non-Jews, or gentiles, would mean that the process of bringing the accused to justice would be long and convoluted. Throughout Kellner's attempts have Lebovits charged, Lebovits behaved with shameless impunity, because he sincerely believed that he was immune to the consequences of his actions. He also believed himself to be a righteous and godly man, which further reinforced his belief of his invulnerability. The result of these behaviors and systems of belief is that powerful men are allowed to get away with terrible crimes against children, and those who speak out against them are punished.
There is another phenomenon that arises in certain social situations, called social facilitation (Gilles). Social facilitation is the idea that we do better on simple tasks when we are being watched. This theory helps social psychologists understand where motivation comes from and why we are more motivated under certain circumstances and less motivated in others. Social facilitation teaches us how a person's performance is based not only on inherent ability, but also on the desire (or lack thereof) to impress. For example, if you are asked by your lab instructor to perform a calibration, social facilitation says that you are more likely to pay special attention to detail and do a very good job if the instructor watches you. If you are not being watched, you may be more likely to commit a careless error. Conversely, when complicated tasks are involved, the reverse is true. When asked to perform a complex task, we are more likely to mess up if we are being watched. The difference may be due to the fact that with simple tasks, we are eager to demonstrate our competence and do the best job we can. However, with complex and unfamiliar tasks are involved, our eagerness may give way to insecurity and the pressure to perform well can lead us to make more mistakes.
In a hypothetical example, social facilitation influences behavior when a teenage boy attempts to woo his girlfriend by performing an amazing stunt. The boy is very talented on his skateboard and has done hundreds of flips before. He is very confident in his ability, but his desire to impress his girlfriend is making him nervous and distracted. He wipes out on the pavement in front of her, and she laughs. In this example, the consequence of social facilitation is that the boy fails to perform a complex but oft-practiced task, and the girl is left unimpressed and embarrassed for her boyfriend.
In their dedication to the study of human behavior, social psychologists have come up with concepts to aid our understanding and shed light on how and why we act differently in different social situations. The context of our interactions sets the guidelines of our behavior. When we are a member of an exclusive group, we may be prone to groupthink; when we are being personally evaluated, the quality of our performance may be determined by social facilitation. Whether or not we wish to admit it, much of who we are depends on who surrounds us.
Janis, Irving L. (1982). Victims of Groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Gilles, Gary. What is Social Facilitation? - Definition, Examples & Studies. Education Portal. Retrieved from http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/what-is-social-facilitation- definition-examples-studies.html
Aviv, Rachel. (10 November 2014). The Outcast. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/10/outcast-3
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