Phenomenological Psychology

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Social Psychology – Questions, Answers and Illustrations – Part I

July 8th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments

What Is Social Psychology?

Social psychology. Social psychology is the scientific study of the feelings, thoughts and behavior of individuals in social situations.

Social influence. Social influence is the myriad ways that people impact one another, including changes in attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and behavior that result from the comments, actions or even the mere presence of others.

Hindsight bias. Hindsight bias is our tendency to overestimate our powers of prediction once we know the outcome of a given event.

Dispositional view. Dispositional view is the assumption that a person’s behavior is the result of his or her personality (disposition) rather than of pressures existing in the situation.


The concept of mens rea is the foundation of our criminal justice system. One and the same set of actions can be characterized as criminal or not depending on the actor’s specific intention. There was a time 33 years ago now when I was a young lawyer specializing by and large in representing the homeless, the mentally ill (including those with diminished capacity) and the criminally insane. [There came a time a few years later when I stopped being a lawyer to enter the music business full-time, which was another one of my persistent interests.] I also volunteered at what then remained of California’s mental health hospitals. One of the arguments I frequently deployed was that environmental factors (the defendant’s background) were more important in evaluating conduct than cognitive factors (the defendant’s mental state, what the defendant may or may not have intended). I tried over 50 cases in front of a jury, losing most of them, by which I came to understand that a dispositional view is just as important (or was as important 33 years ago) than a social psychological perspective.

What Is Conformity?

Groupthink. Groupthink is a kind of faulty thinking on the part of highly cohesive groups in which the critical scrutiny that should be devoted to the issues at hand is subverted by social pressures to reach consensus.


I attended undergraduate school at U.C. Berkeley graduating in 1973. While this was a few years after the height of the free speech movement it still was a time of considerable unrest provoked mainly by continuing U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. It hovered over all cultural discourse, suspended overhead like a permanent malaise. Every spring was riot season and tear gas would waft gently over the campus, suffocating everyone with whom it came in contact, even those who just were passing by innocently. I was a member of several student groups and in retrospect I have to say I was disappointed at the way they tended to reach conclusions quickly based primarily on stereotypes and caricatures of people with whom they thought they were in opposition. Instead of there being “free speech” there was extraordinary peer-group pressure towards consensus-driven “conformed speech.” For example returning Vietnam Vets were objects of scorn and derision. They often were met with violent protests at the Oakland Naval Base, their point of disembarkation. It only was much later when it became generally acknowledged that the problem was not the Vietnam Vet, but rather governmental policy. It would be unthinkable for veterans returning today from the Middle East to be treated with a similar level of contempt. This discrepancy probably is a significant contributor to the large variance in psychopathology between these two groups.

Conformity. Conformity is changing one’s behavior or beliefs in response to explicit or implicit (whether real or imagined) pressure from others. The following factors tend to increase or decrease conformity:

1. Unanimity. Unanimity occurs when all of the members of a group concur as to the disposition or outcome. It exerts pressure on a dissenter to conform.

2. Commitment. Commitment occurs when an individual member of a group explicitly advocates adherence to a particular point of view. Because it is strongly expressed it tends to recruit neutral members or even opposing ones.

3. Accountability. Accountability is the need to justify one’s decision to other members of the group. Individuals faced with accountability tend to evaluate the underlying facts more accurately because they have to explain their non-conformity.

4. The person and the culture (self-esteem). Self-esteem is the positive or negative overall evaluation you have of yourself. Individuals with generally low self-esteem or confidence in their accomplish specific tasks are more likely to yield to group pressure.

5. The group exerting pressure. This refers to the composition of the group and the capacity of members to apply social pressure. If the group membership comprises experts, persons of high SES or persons whose POV is similar to the individual, then the individual is more likely to adopt (or yield to) their opinions.


A frightening example of conformity is the Jonestown mass suicide. A religious leader named Jim Jones founded a cult called the People’s Temple based in San Francisco. Through a variety of methods he persuaded people to join and reprogrammed them to abandon their former lives and recognize his supreme authority. I frequently was in the Bay Area when the Temple was active and out of curiosity attended one of their meetings. It reminded me of the depiction of Aimee Semple McPherson and her “International Church of the Foursquare Gospel” in the Nathaniel West book The Day of the Locust. There came a time when Jones decided to move the community from San Francisco to Guyana. A congressman named Leo Ryan visited them to investigate charges of undue influence. Members of the cult killed him and his entourage as he was leaving. This was Jones’ cue to implement a ritual suicide in which close to one thousand people died. The Jonestown incident illustrates the power of conformity, persuasion, self-justification and other social-psychological effects. The People’s Temple incident was eerily reprised by the Branch Davidian shoot-out in Waco, Texas in 1993; and by the Heaven’s Gate cult based in Rancho Santa Fe, California, the members of which committed suicide hoping to ride the tail of the comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. [I have to say this was one amazing comet. I can remember standing out in the Arizona desert watching it pass by and thinking it was the most spectacular celestial display I ever had observed.]

Responses to social influence. Responses to social influence means how the individual reacts to the pressures exerted by the beliefs or behaviors of others. It is the influence of other people that comes from the desire to avoid their disapproval, harsh judgments and other social sanctions (for example, barbs, ostracism). The presence of another on an individual’s performance can be either positive or negative. It comprises the following elements:

1. Compliance. Compliance is responding favorably to an explicit request by another person. A person complying is motivated by a desire to gain reward or avoid punishment. People also want to comply with a request from someone who has done them a favor.

2. Identification. Identification describes a response to social influence brought about by an individual’s desire to be like the influencer regardless of one’s own POV. Especially when there is not an objective standard of evaluation or comprehension, people evaluate their opinions and abilities and internal states by comparing themselves to others.

3. Internalization (include secondary gain). Internalization occurs when one acquires a belief about the roles, duties and obligations we assume in groups, frequently from somebody whom one trusts. We strive for stable, accurate beliefs about the self because such beliefs give us a sense of coherence. They lead to a self-schema, which is a knowledge-based summary of our feelings and actions and how we understand others’ views about the self. Secondary gain occurs when continues to hold the internalized belief and engage in the internalized behavior even after the original reason for compliance (reward, punishment) is discontinued. Once a belief becomes part of our own system of values it becomes independent of its source and resistant to change.


An example of secondary gain is Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. According to Skinner it was not necessary to hypothesize the existence of goals and intentions to explain complex psychological phenomena. Rather they could be reduced to behavioral responses to the environment and shaped by the dynamics of a given situation. Operant conditioning as refined by Skinner envisions four types of reinforcement situations: (a) positive reinforcement (R+), which is a reward for increasing desirable behavior, causing it to go up; (b) extinction (EXT–↓), which is the removal of a previously-given positive reinforcer, causing undesirable behavior to go down; (c) punishment (PUN+↓), which is the administration of an aversive, causing undesirable behavior to go down; and (d) negative reinforcement (R–↑), which is the removal of previously-administered punishment, causing the desired behavior to go up.

It is not difficult to discredit Skinner’s obdurate insistence on operant conditioning as the only legitimate technique of psychological research. For starters it does not account for psychodynamic factors such as stress and anxiety or the ability to change behavior with psychodynamic therapy and CBT, where patient insight is the primary driver – not non-cognitive shaping. These techniques at least have the potential to create or open up the world in which the patient functions comprised of self, objects, other people, roles and various other world-like attributes. Despite this, operant condition remains the sine qua non of secondary gain, because through an intermittent schedule of reinforcement one can be conditioned to act in a certain way even if the initial motivation for doing so (e.g. R+) is removed. It also is highly useful for treating persons (such as the gravely mentally ill) who simply may lack sufficient cognitive capacity to engage with interpersonal therapy.

Milgram studies of obedience. Using a “shock generator” that looked real but actually was just a prop Milgram studied whether participants would continue to obey instructions and shock a learner even after believing the learner was in grave distress as a result of the shocks. Participants found themselves in conflict between opposing forces: those compelling them to complete the experiment and to continue delivering shock versus moral imperative to stop the suffering of the learner. Examples of the former were the fact they had accepted compensation to participate in the study, thus felt they had to fulfill their part of the bargain; they wanted to advance science and the understanding of human behavior; they wanted to avoid the disapproval of the experimenter; and they wanted to avoid “making a scene” and upsetting others. Examples of the latter were the concrete desire not to see the specific person hurt and a more abstract injunction against hurting others.

1. Bystander effect. Bystander effect refers to the likelihood of someone intervening in a social situation that is perceived as averse. It measures altruistic behavior that benefits others without regard to consequences for the self. It has two components: bystander intervention is helping a victim of an emergency by those who have observed what is happening. It generally is reduced as the number of observers increases, as each individual feels that someone else will be likely to help. Diffusion of responsibility is a reduction of a sense of urgency to help someone involved in an emergency or dangerous situation under the assumption that others who also are observing the situation will help. Bystanders may do nothing if they are not sure what is happening and don’t see anyone else responding.

2. Debriefing. Debriefing is a procedure that should be implemented at the end of an experiment to ensure that participants leave the experimental situation in a frame of mind that is at least as sound as it was when they entered the experimental situation.


The implication of Milgram’s experiments was that people tend to obey the commands of someone who occupies a position of authority. The extent of compliance is affected by variables such as proximity of the participant to the learner; distance from the participant to the experimenter; strength of the participant’s conviction as to whether the participant should obey the experimenter; whether the experimenter took responsibility for what was happening (giving “cover” or justification to the participant’s actions); and the participant’s step-by-step involvement in the project, proceeding from low voltages to increasingly higher ones.

An example of bystander effect is the “Good Samaritan” study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior, which is a classic study by John Darley and Daniel Batson from 1973. Their experiment was based on the Biblical tale of the Good Samaritan who helped a man who was robbed and beaten after various religious functionaries had passed him by. Darley and Batson primed different groups of seminary students at Princeton University by telling them that they were in a rush to appear for a particular class, or that they had plenty of time to get across campus for the meeting. Students passed a confederate who was slumped over and groaning in a passageway. The students who were not in a hurry were more than six times as likely to stop and attend to the suffering man than those who were in a rush. Being told the story of the Good Samaritan had no statistically significant effect.

Mass Communication, Propaganda & Persuasion

What Is Emotional Contagion? Emotional contagion occurs when people adopt beliefs or engage in behaviors following a sensationalized incident, which may be disseminated by the media.


When I was a senior in high school I was quarantined in a special group called “independent study.” For whatever reason it had been determined we would not integrate well with the general school population. We did not go to classes but instead worked on “projects” ranging from scientific experiments to artistic endeavors. In retrospect this was doctoral thesis research being conducted by our “advisors” who notwithstanding were well-intentioned and in retrospect the program was a success, for me at least. One day a member of our small learning community was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana. The rest of us had no experience with it and I for one did not even know what it was. Nonetheless the entire group came under suspicion for the rest of the academic term as straight-up drug addicts, an impression that proved to be difficult to dispel. The administration was caught up in an atmosphere of emotional contagion.

Persuasion. Persuasion is an argument or inducement to get somebody to do something or believe in something.

1. Central route. The central route to persuasion also is known as the “systematic route.” People pay attention to the propositional content of the message, the evidence it cites, and the principles it evokes. They evaluate it for logic and cogency against their own relevant experiences and memories.

2. Peripheral route. The peripheral route to persuasion also is known as the “heuristic route.” The individual pays attention to aspects of the message separate and apart from its substance. These variables may include the style of delivery, how long it is, the response of others and other implicit cues.


I still remember the Nixon-Kennedy debates from 1960. The semantic content of the messages being delivered by the two debaters was by and large indistinguishable. They both were for apple pie and motherhood and against Russia and communists. Nonetheless JFK decisively “won” the debate in part because of Nixon’s weird, extraterrestrial appearance and his nervous, unsettled mannerisms.

Source of the communication. Source of the communication is the circumstances of its delivery, including various characteristics of the person who delivers the message (including the person’s attractiveness, credibility and expertise) and the context in which it is delivered.

1. Credibility. Credibility is the perceived expertise of the deliverer.

2. Increasing trustworthiness. Increasing trustworthiness is an incremental process whereby the deliver acquires increasing credibility over time. The means by which this occurs is subtle. For example the deliverer may argue against self-interest, engage in an unfolding yet persuasive dialectical argument, or seem not to be influencing the audience.

3. Attractiveness. Attractiveness is the physical characteristics of the deliverer, such as likeability or beauty.


As a result of my career in the entertainment business I acquired considerable expertise on issues such as marketing and promotion of records, the financial characteristics of record companies and the economics of personal service contracts. I regularly spoke on these topics at continuing education conferences, seminars and the like. There came a time when I associated with RAND Corp. in Santa Monica where I lead several studies on pop culture theory such as does violence in media contribute to adolescent delinquency and the implications of false-self identities on social-networking sites. While at RAND it gradually dawned on me that the issue was not the intersection of culture and economics but rather cultural applications of psychodynamic theory, which is a subject that completely fascinates me. All of a sudden I found that people paid a lot more attention to what I was saying simply as a result of RAND’s perceived status as a “think tank” generating socially noteworthy opinions even though by and large its hey-day had passed in the mid 1960s and now it was just another organization of dubious usefulness struggling for governmental and philanthropic funding. Even though I still was the same person I had become invested with credibility and increasing trustworthiness (though not necessarily beauty).

Nature of the communication. Nature of the communication is the mode in which it is delivered.

1. Logical versus emotional appeals. A logical appeal is directed to the audience’s reasoning ability. An emotional one is directed to its visceral, intuitive responses.

2. Fear and the threat of terrorism. Refers to the tendency of people to consider warnings and instructions in light of the 9/11 terrorist attacks despite their vagueness and lack of determinacy. Also refers to the tendency of persons to adversely judge persons of Middle Eastern descent based on their ethnicity.

3. Consensual statistical evidence versus a single personal example. Consensual statistical evidence is based on controlled studies that evaluate certain characteristics of a sample set based on generally recognized techniques of manipulating and analyzing data. A single personal example is “word of mouth” recommendations collected from family and friends.

4. One-sided versus two-sided arguments. A one-sided argument is where you only present your view of the evidence and attempt to argue to a conclusion without reference to other pertinent factors. A two-sided argument is a debate where all of the evidence pro or con to a given conclusion or course of action is presented and evaluated. It is thought to be a more effective persuader.

5. The order of presentation. Refers to the simple dynamic of who speaks first and who speaks last (or later) in a two-sided argument. Which position is better can be decided only in the context of the situation.

a. Primacy effect. The audience pays more attention to whoever speaks first.

b. Recency effect. The audience pays more attention to whoever speaks last.

6. The size of the discrepancy. The speaker attenuates her/his position to situate it along a continuum of views, from most extreme to mildest.


I grew up in the 1950s in San Diego County, which was a center of military activity. The impact of the Cold War on my tender young psyche cannot be overestimated. There was a tall yellow tower at the corner of our street. Its air-raid siren sounded on Mondays at noon. My parents acquired a ranch in the country to which they intended we would flee at the first sight of atomic bombs dropping (though it never was clear to me how we would get there under those circumstances). We built a fall-out shelter and were instructed to shoot our neighbors if they tried to enter. We had duck-and-cover drills at school and were assured (unconvincingly) by our teachers that, if we implemented this maneuver properly we surely would live for up to five minutes more.

These directives created an atmosphere of contingency and uncertainty, eerily complementing the transience and impermanence of Southern California – the iconic Southern California of Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West. It was, as historian John Lewis Gaddis has observed in his book The Cold War (2005) a time of “ever-present anxiety, that at some point, because of some miscalculation or act of hubris, we might find ourselves in the middle of a nuclear holocaust – a war that, if we survived it, would change our lives and our planet forever.” It also postulated a weird kind of “zero-sum” game as both the Russians and us had the means to annihilate each other and knew it so whomever struck first simply would insure its own counter self-destruction. Another cold war scholar, Thomas Reed, described the situation thus in his book At the Abyss (2004): “An immediate victory was not in the cards, and trying for one could unleash a nuclear holocaust.

In retrospect there was a considerable discrepancy between the extent of Cold War rhetoric and the actual threat level. Politicians created an atmosphere of mass hysteria that lead to a massive redeployment of assets, time and initiative that could have been directed more productively to other social problems such as racial inequality. They used all of the classic techniques set forth: logic versus emotional appeals (“The Ruskies are coming!”), fear and the threat of terrorism (nuclear invasion), consensual evidence (not a single instance where a fall-out shelter actually was required for anything except storage), one-sided argument (debate stifled on the grounds one was “anti-American”), etc.

Characteristics of the audience. The socio-economic-cultural standing of the recipients of a communication.

1. Self-esteem. An individual’s attitude, orientation and outlook towards her/himself and its effect on her/his persuadibility.

2. Prior experience of the audience. The audience’s frame of mind immediately prior to the receipt of the communication – ranging all the way from attention to physical needs (water, restrooms) to emotional climate (the “mood of the room”).

a. Inoculation effect. Small attacks upon our beliefs that engage our attitudes, prior commitments and knowledge structures, enabling us to counteract a subsequent larger attack and be resistant to persuasion.

3. Opinion. What a person believes factually to be true.

4. Attitude. An evaluation of an object in a positive or negative fashion that includes the elements of affect, cognitions and behavior.


Another feature of growing up in Southern California in the 1950s was the space race. This included not only launching monkeys and astronauts into orbit but also its larger influence on style and design. As a kind of reciprocal to the Cold War it promoted an expansive and optimistic outlook, an attitude that anything was possible just given an orientation in the right direction. It was a signifier of a bubbly, JFK-ish buoyancy. It also emphasized the hegemony of technological solutions to seemingly-ordinary problems and the requirement for specialists to implement them. We were beguiled into a set of cognitions and beliefs, which lead to objectives, which lead to activity and behavior. For example it is preposterous to think we had any need to land men on the moon (assuming we actually did). To this day nothing of significance has come of that endeavor which cost billions of dollars to implement and seemingly only was an illustration of national hubris. We were gullible and gradually conditioned to accept, even encourage, this as a socially-desirable objective. The main ways in which this took place were by appeal to our self-esteem (“our citizenry is smart!”), the prior experience of the audience (“don’t you want to be more technologically advanced?”) and the opinions and attitudes engendered by the media.

Social Cognition

Effects of context on social judgment. The way things are presented and described affects our judgments about people, including ourselves.

1. Reference points and contrast effects. A reference point is a particular spot, place or position that is used as a starting point to measure changes in social judgment. Contrast effect occurs when something is contrasted with the reference point and judged on balance to have greater marginal utility than normally would be the case.

2. Priming and construct accessibility. Priming is a procedure used to increase the accessibility of a concept or schema (for example, a stereotype). Construct accessibility occurs as a result of priming and the use of stereotypes.

3. Framing the decision. Framing effect is the influence on judgment resulting from the way information is presented, including the order of presentation.

4. The ordering of information. A factor influencing the way we organize and interpret the social world.

5. The primacy effect and impression formation. Primacy effect is the disproportionate influence on judgment of information presented first in a body of evidence. Impression formation occurs as a result of the primacy effect.

6. The amount of information (dilution effect). The tendency for neutral and irrelevant information to weaken a judgment or impression.


Another big influencer on me when I was young was Disneyland. Disneyland was a confusing amalgam of impressions and an artificial juxtaposition of images and objects. As expressed by Kirse May in her book Golden State, Golden Youth – The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955 – 1966 (2002), “By creating a monument to the dreams of youth, Disney offered a privileged model of life for mass consumption.” We took it all in like an “E”-ticket ride. Not to forget the burning settlers’ cabin, wild Indians dancing all around. Also in this category would have to be “The Wizard of Oz,” notable not only for its imagery of fields of poppies and flying monkeys but also its underlying message: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, he might not even be there, he’s just a figment of your imagination. In other words, like on “My Favorite Martian,” it might actually be possible to levitate buildings, or leap them in a single bound, or even fly. In this way Disneyland became an important “reference point” for filtering subsequent imaginative decisions.

Judgmental Heuristics. Intuitive mental operations that allow us to make a variety of judgments quickly and efficiently.

1. The representative heuristic. A simple mental operation when we focus on the similarity of one object to another to infer that the first object acts or is like the second one.

2. The availability heuristic. A persuasive route wherein people attend to relatively simple, superficial cues related to the message, such as the length of the message or the expertise or attractiveness of the communicator. Also known as the peripheral route of persuasion.

3. The attitude heuristic. A judgment primarily based on beliefs or judgments one already holds hold about an object or situation.

a. Halo effect. A general bias in which a favorable or unfavorable general impression of a person or situation affects our inferences and future expectations about that person or situation.

b. False-consensus effect. Overestimating the percentage of people who agree with us on an issue; “leaping to conclusions.”

4. When do we use heuristics? (a) When we don’t have time to think carefully about an issue; (b) when we are so overloaded with information that it becomes impossible to process the information fully; (c) when the issues at stake are not very important so we do not care to think about it; (d) when we have little solid knowledge or information to use in making a decision.


I attended Point Loma High School in San Diego, California during from 1967 – 1970 – by all accounts a period of heightened social unrest. When coming together with the normal development of adolescent personality it made for a particularly heady brew. We were just a shade too young (and too convention-bound) to participate in some of the more interesting social groupings of the era such as Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party. [We also were disqualified with respect to this latter group because we uniformly were white, not black.] Nonetheless they held a peculiar fascination for us at a distance. Stokely Carmichael held a leadership position in the Black Panther Party. With fascination mingled with trepidation several of us trouped to UCSD one fine evening in 1968 where he was scheduled to speak. Carmichael was a mesmerizing orator and the situation was bizarre and peculiar. Before we knew it we were raising our hands in “black power” salutes and participating in the generally rowdy responses to Carmichael’s speech. We used judgmental heuristics in lieu of thinking through what actually was being said from any kind of logical point of view.

Categorization and social stereotypes. Stereotypes are schemas we have for people of various kinds that can be applied (and misapplied) so as to facilitate a course of interaction. These include beliefs about attributes that are thought to be characteristic of members of particular groups.

1. Stereotypic knowledge and expectations. When stereotypes invoke specific data or categorization schemas that then guide our expectations.

a. Self-fulfilling prophecy. The process by which expectations or stereotypes lead people to treat others in a way that makes them confirm their expectations.

2. Illusory correlation. When we perceive a relationship between two people, situations or entities we think should be related but in fact they are not.

3. In-group/out-group effects. A way of categorizing people by dividing them into two groups such as “us” versus “them.”

a. Homogeneity effect. We tend to see members of outgroups as more similar to one another than to the members of our own group.

b. In-group favoritism. The tendency to see one’s own group as better on any number of dimensions and to allocate rewards to one’s own group.

i. Minimum group paradigm. An experimental paradigm in which researchers create groups based on arbitrary or seemingly meaningless criteria and then examine how the members of these “minimal groups” are inclined to behave towards one another.


The Watts Riots were another eye-opener for me. Growing up more or less obliviously in the privileged environment of La Jolla it came as a shock to learn there were disadvantaged people with legitimate grievances who were not content simply to sit there with their hands neatly folded, queuing up in orderly fashion and listening to instructions. For that matter they were not paying any attention at all to authority. Rather, they were rioting, destroying their own environment and infrastructure, not really caring about anything, thereby manifesting a kind of civic nihilism. As a paradigm or a template, it was precisely the opposite of everything we had learned, yet, there it was, in black and white (and even on television). They were the paradigm of a clearly-defined outgroup. This resulted in a peculiar sense of disorientation, exacerbated by inflammatory coverage by the media. To a large extent this had the opposite effect than intended, because as a result I developed a strongly-felt need to understand and help, however possible. This tension still is confusing; consider the recent images of rioting in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. It creates a sense of dissonance, emphasizing the categories and social stereotypes all of us hold as to who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup.

Constructive predictions (future) and reconstructive memory (past). Constructive prediction is an imaginative thinking process predicting our reaction to future events. Reconstructive memory is recalling the past. Both play an important role in our social interactions and are subject to bias.

1. Autobiographical memory. A person’s recollection of previous details from her/his life.

a. Self-schemas. The organization of personal histories into coherent memories, feelings and beliefs about ourselves that hang together and form an integrated whole; knowledge-based summaries of our feelings and actions and how we understand others’ views about the self.

b. False memory syndrome. An alleged memory typically of a childhood experience that has no basis in empirical fact; can be induced by a person in an apparent position of power talking about the event as if it actually had happened.

2. The recovered memory phenomenon. A traumatic childhood memory that was unintentionally planted by therapeutic intervention.

3. Confirmation bias. The tendency to seek confirmation of initial impressions or beliefs from others; changing one’s behavior or beliefs in response to explicit or implicit (whether real or imagined) pressure from others.

4. Hindsight bias. When we know the outcome of an event we have a strong tendency to believe we could have predicted it in advance.

5. How do attitudes and beliefs guide behavior? There only is weak support for the hypothesis that attitudes predict behavior. It is considerably more likely that attitudes will be unrelated or only slightly related to overt behaviors and more influenced by socio-psychological variables.

a. The attitude-behavior relationship in our heads. The naïve intuition that a person’s attitudes are strongly related to her/his behavior despite the fact there is no consistent relationship.

i. Correspondent inference. The tendency to attribute the cause of an individual’s behavior to characteristics of the individual such as personality traits and attitudes rather than to the power of the situation itself.

b. When does attitude predict behavior? The conditions under which attitudes in fact predict behavior by creating a social world that is phenomenologically consistent with its own objects, people and roles.

i. Attitude accessibility. The strength of association between an object and one’s evaluation of it.

c. Acting on perceptions. The way in which people’s observations of a social situation influence their attitudes and expectations, which in turn affects behavior and subsequently affects the next round of perceptions.


There came a time in the late 1970s when stopped being a lawyer and became an entertainment industry executive. I was Vice President of Capitol based in Hollywood, California. I had an office underneath the Hollywood sign in that funny round building that always topples over in movies about earthquakes. After a decade at Capitol I then became a Senior Vice President of Atlantic Records, a unit of the Warner Music Group, formerly part of Time Warner. In the late-1990s I segued into producing and financing independent films.

The reason why I bring up this background is that early on I discovered that Hollywood decision-makers are in the grip of a herd mentality. Executives strive to emulate the accidental success of their peers by attempting to clone exactly the same thing, evidently on the principle that if the public liked it once, they’ll surely like it again. The inevitable result: a culture of conformity and a lowest-common-denominator aesthetic. This has come to be analyzed by academic writers, see e.g. Bielby, W. & Bielby, D. (1994), “Institutionalized Decision Making and the Rhetoric of Network Prime-Time Program Development,” 99 Am. J. Sociology 1287; and Miller, D. & Shamsie, J. (1999), “Strategic Responses to Three Kinds of Uncertainty: Product Line Simplicity at the Hollywood Film Studios,” 25 J. of Management 97 (although the conclusions of these authors are based on the television and film industries, respectively, they apply to the music business with equal force and effect).

One only needs to look at the logic of the creative executive (itself a misnomer) to understand how this works. First, the safest thing to do is absolutely nothing, because any decision you make inevitably will be wrong (in that it will conflict with your bosses’ preference, will result in an undemanded work, etc.). The creative executive assumes an almost unimaginable burden upon electing to become the proponent of a property, or a project. Not only is there the risk of choosing the wrong thing – there is the tantalizing prospect of all the other potentially “right” things, i.e., hypothetical alternative courses of action, that would have been available (at least in principle), if only one had not elected the course upon which one has embarked. As a result, the creative executive becomes immobilized with fear and indecision. Most of such an executive’s career trajectory is measured in prevarication, obfuscation, and, when pushed, learning how to say “no” as politely as possible.

Second, in the unlikely event one absolutely is forced to make a decision, again the safest thing to do is whatever seems to be the prevailing mood of the herd, which is why two movies come out in the same season on, say, volcanoes (Dante’s Peak and Volcano, both released within months of each other in 1997; Deep Impact and Armageddon, both released within months of each other in 1998). From a phenomenological standpoint this illustrates how creative choice is constrained by the industry’s “background” – its matrix of cultural practices – which in turn offers a disclosive space defining roles, context and significance. If one must act, the best way to rationalize or justify one’s choice is by appeal to consensus and precedent.

Third, you actually might attempt to assess an idea’s creative potential “on its merits.” Although here you most likely will be subject to a form of hypnotism practiced by magicians with powers much stronger than yours – the creative talent, on the prowl for a deal. Take for example the typical Hollywood “pitch” meeting for a film proposal (which, again, just as easily could be a new-artist audition). The decision to “green-light” a picture (move it towards production) often is taken quickly, sometimes within 15 minutes. Yet, tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars ride on that outcome.

Bizarrely much of the success of a “pitch” depends upon the creative frenzy into which the “pitcher” (i.e., the writer) can work the “catcher” (i.e., the studio executive) – that is, pander to the studio executive’s belief that he (she), too, is a creative soul. One study to this effect is Elsbach, K. & Kramer, R. (2003), “Assessing Creativity in Hollywood Pitch Meetings: Evidence for a Dual-Process Judgment Model of Creativity Judgments, 46 Academy of Management Journal 283. Needless to say, this seduction process has little to do with the commercial or aesthetic merit of the property being “pitched.”

Three possible biases in social explanation. Our explanations of social phenomena often are rational and accurate. However they also are vulnerable to inaccuracy based on preconceived notions or even prejudice.

1. Fundamental attribution error. A tendency to believe mistakenly that a behavior is due to a person’s disposition rather than the situation in which the person finds herself/himself; also known as correspondence bias.

2. Actor-observer bias. Differences in attribution based on who is making the causal assessment: the actor (who is relatively disposed to make situational attributions) or the observer (who is relatively disposed to make dispositional attributions).

3. The self-biases. What happens to social cognition when self-knowledge becomes involved; the way in which we conceive of the self and how it influences social cognitions.

a. Egocentric thought. The tendency of a person to perceive herself/himself as more central to events than actually is the case.

4. The self-serving bias. The tendency to attribute failure and other bad events to external circumstances, but to attribute success and other good events to oneself; to make dispositional attributions for one’s successes but situational attributions for one’s failures.

a. Self-concepts. An understanding of the existence and properties of a separate self and its characteristics.

b. Ego-defensive. The tendency to view oneself in a favorable light; if one has a positive view, one sees and accepts oneself as accomplishing positive things whereas on the other hand a threat to this positive self-view must be defended against through denial or excuses.

5. Of what value are self-biases? Self-biases have social and personal utility. The individual who believes that she/he is responsible for positive outcomes will try harder and persist longer to achieve difficult goals. Such a person also will be less daunted by setbacks. Self-biases give one a schema or interpretive framework to understand tragic or unfortunate events, facilitating the development of coping skills. An optimistic style of thinking leads to more achievement, better health and an improved mental outlook.


As I mentioned earlier one of my early law experiences was defending persons who were designated as candidates for mental health conservatorships under California’s Lanterman-Petris-Short (“LPS”) Act. Court decisions held that proposed conservatees had a right to court-appointed counsel because the appointment of an LPS conservator deprived them of significant liberties such as the right to vote, have a driver’s license, and even consent to the administration of psychotropic medication and electro-convulsive therapy. At the time San Diego had a policy of instituting mental health conservatorships with alacrity because with its pleasant climate San Diego had become a magnet for homeless people. Homeless people were perceived as interfering with San Diego’s stated image as “America’s Finest City.” The rate of initiation of mental health conservatorships in San Diego was far greater than in any other California county. This made no sense at all unless one hypothesized people who lived in San Diego were inherently crazier than ones who lived in say Orange County, which of course could not possibly be correct.

I never will forget one of my clients whose name was Bonnie Beach. I don’t know if this was her real name or not; I always suspected it was an inadvertent alias because she had been picked up for vagrancy at the beach (as in, where the ocean meets the land). There was some doubt in my mind as to whether Ms. Beach met the criteria for imposition of an LPS conservatorship, which are, one is unable to take care of basic personal needs such as food, clothing and shelter. Ms. Beach also was against being declared a ward of the state. So I determined to take the case to trial. I obtained an independent psychiatric examination, which was favorable, and devised a strategy to cross-examine the county’s witnesses and medical examiner.

Unfortunately as a result of non-voluntary administration of psychotropic medication Ms. Beach had developed tardive dyskinesia, which is a tendency to distort one’s facial muscles. It was clear to me I would need to humanize Ms. Beach in front of a jury and be able to explain this pathology, as well as some of her other peculiar personal traits. As I was making my closing argument, I looked over my shoulder and saw her attempting to ignite a pen with a cigarette lighter. So I walked over, put my arm around her, and said in the most convincing way possible that she was not all that unlike you or me. In this way I hoped to overcome the jury’s innate biases of social explanation. As typically was the case, I lost the trial and Ms. Beach was remitted to the tender ministrations of the county mental health care system.

More than any other of the cases I tried this one illustrated to me the main flaw of the jury system, which is that it is inherently susceptible to power relationship dynamics – the tendency to believe the prosecution’s case “just because” it is the prosecution and has the weight and emphasis of the state behind it. The LPS cases were difficult because they challenged the jurors’ concepts of self – who they were, what predicates they ascribed to themselves and others, and how they functioned in a community (social) setting. Reciprocally they also challenged the defense’s portrayal of the proposed conservatee as having a coherent, integrated social self (which frequently was not the case). These competing presentations of self-concept provided a stark contrast, which was one of the main reasons why these cases were so interesting.