Monthly Archives: March 2011

Strategic advantages to helping international out-groups

U.S. aid workers load supplies for relief efforts in Japan

By Kevin R. Betts

The United States has played a supportive role in at least two major world events recently. In response to a natural disaster in Japan, U.S. officials sent monetary and human resources to aid in recovery efforts. In response to government-backed violence in Libya, U.S. officials helped initiate a no-fly zone to protect civilians. One thing that is interesting about these prosocial acts is that they both involve the U.S. helping an out-group. Taking away from limited  resources that might be devoted to local problems, the U.S. has voluntarily sought to help members of the international community. Why might the U.S. see value in helping these international out-groups at the expense of problems at home? Are the intentions of the U.S. government purely humanitarian, or might officials see a more strategic advantage to helping these international out-groups?

Research by van Leeuwen and Täuber (2008) suggests that helping an out-group also garnishes some benefits for the in-group. For one, the act of helping in and of itself is associated with power differentials which may reduce the recipient’s degree of autonomy. When the U.S. offered assistance to disaster-ravaged Japan and war-torn Libya, they placed these countries in a position of dependency on the U.S. Even if assistance is welcomed, it carries with it the implied notion that the U.S. is qualified and able to provide help where these countries cannot help themselves. Helping out-groups also renders the in-group a sense of meaningfulness and purpose to the degree that being able to help implies that the in-group is valued and needed. Providing assistance to Japan and Libya confirms the beliefs of many American citizens that their country holds a valuable position in the world such that other countries rely on their help. Third, out-group helping promotes a favorable image of the in-group in the eyes of beneficiary out-groups and other outside observers. Providing help to Japan and Libya alerts the international community that the U.S. promotes humanitarian values and goals.

Whether or not U.S. officials recognize all of these advantages to helping international out-groups is unclear. Nonetheless, the recent prosocial actions of the U.S. can be expected to sway the power differential in the favor of the U.S., promote a sense of meaningfulness and purpose among American citizens, and enhance the image of the U.S. abroad.

Read more:

Tsunami aid and relief: How you can help

Gunfire, explosions heard in Tripoli

van Leeuwen, E., & Täuber, S. (2008). The strategic side of out-group helping. In S. Stürmer, & M. Snyder (Eds.), The psychology of prosocial behavior (pp. 81-99). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts

Reshaping reality by reshaping social perceptions: the power of talk in promoting equality

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.

While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.

A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.

Smith, L. G. E., & Postmes, T. (2011). Shaping stereotypical behaviour through the discussion of social stereotypes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 50-74.

Walton, G. M., & Cogen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

Finding a Human In-group in the Wake of a Ravaged Japan

By P. Getty

Much of the research tackling questions regarding our shared human identity seems to focus on the infra-humanization and de-humanization of out-group members (Paladino & Vaes, 2009, for example), or how human norms effect our reactions to victims and perpetrators generally and more specifically in the context of historical atrocities (Greenaway & Louis, 2010). While these research programs are vital to understanding “the human element” of inter-group attitudes, I think they ignore an even more elemental phenomenon that I like to call spontaneous human-in-group affiliation (Getty, in progress). While we are hopelessly bound to humanity, people rarely, if ever, name humanity as a salient in-group. In fact, Lickel, Hamilton and Sherman (2001) studied lay theories of groups and found that the abstraction of group extended only as far as loose affiliations of interests (e.g., Coltrane fans). Not once did they suggest that species-level affiliation was seen as a viable in-group. However, studies of de- and infra-humanization showed that strong identifiers from diverse groups report believing that their in-group posses more human-like qualities than out-group members (Castano & Kafta, 2009). What does this mean? It could be that our species-level affiliation is simply a distant, abstract concept concealed in our allegiances to in-groups, but present nonetheless. The question I’m tackling, then, is, when do we shed our lesser in-group identity and spontaneously identify as “human beings” when being human is not a salient self-categorization?

One clue to answering this question might have been revealed in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes and following tsunami that ravaged much of the northeastern coast of Japan. While there is little to report about the details of the disaster that goes above and beyond the facts already reported in the media, there does seem to be an interesting phenomenon that might be related to my concept of spontaneous human-in-group affiliation. If one were to follow the link below to the Web site discussing the disaster they would find at the bottom a number of posts (one of which is mine) from concerned and empathetic people from around the world. Some of these people come from countries that have had historical conflict with and mistrust of Japan  (China, for example). Even still, for one reason of another, these folks have been compelled to take the time to write and express their concern for the suffering of others who would normally be out-group members, if not for their human ties.  I commented on this observation: “It is amazing how human beings from around the world, despite strong in-group affiliations and histories of conflict with each other, find their humanity in situations of suffering. We find our human in-group and that, I think, is a fragile good that comes from these situations.”

I still have much work to do to answer the question of spontaneous human-in-group affiliation. My own personal good to come from this disaster, however, is a testable hypothesis: Spontaneous human-in-group affiliation occurs in the wake of natural disasters (Getty, now in progress). You will have to wait for the “why” of this hypothesis when the manuscript is done.

In closing, there is little to say other than to express my sincerest empathy for my fellow humans suffering in Japan. I hope those of you who read this, and are able, will join me in following the link below to contribute to the American Red Cross, who is equipped to help those suffering in Japan, or contribute to other charitable organizations that can do the same.

Follow link to donate funds for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief via the American Red Cross

Follow link to VOA news and comments about the Japanese disaster.

Paladino & Vaes, 2009

Greenway & Louis, 2010

Affirmative action for women in Iraq

Iraqi Minister for the Environment Narmin Othman, at a women’s conference in Ramadi, 29 March 2008. Othman is one of the few women in Iraq who has reached the post of Minister. Photo by: Cpl. Erin A. Kirk

A recent Human Rights Watch report outlines ways in which women’s rights became more limited in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.  According to the report, women had a better place in politics and society during the 1970s than at present.  Similarly, an article in yesterday’s New York Times explains how the current struggle for power in the political arena has curtailed women’s rights despite a 25% quota for women in parliament.  Some people think there should be a quota for women in the ministries as well, while others feel women are not qualified or do not belong in politics.

In social psychology research, the study of attitudes about affirmative action has expanded to include gender inequality.  A survey study conducted by Boechmann and Feather (2007) examined attitudes about affirmative action for women in Australia.  For male participants, they found that unfair male advantage was negatively associated with a belief in women’s entitlement to affirmative action. However, when men’s perceptions of personal responsibility and guilt were entered into the model, unfair male advantage was positively related to women’s entitlement and deservingness.

In Iraq, efforts to secure more basic human rights for women might be advanced not just by pushing for more quotas but also by complimentary efforts to increase civic-mindedness and awareness among men.

Boeckmann, R. J. & Feather, N. T. (2007). Gender, discrimination beliefs, group-based guilt, and responses to affirmative action for Australia women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 290 – 304.

Iraqi women feel shunted despite election quota by Michael S. Schimdt and Yasir Ghazi, published March 12, 2011

At a crossroads: Human rights in Iraq eight years after the US-led invasion, Human Rights Watch, February 2, 2011.  See Section I. Rights of women and girls

Bystanders… just standing by. When do people help and when do they not?

By Erica Zaiser

Understanding when and why people intervene to help others, or when they don’t, is at the heart of social psychology. All students of psychology study the famous case of Kitty Genovese, whose screams while being attacked failed to elicit help from the nearly 40 bystanders. Most research on bystander intervention has found that the size of the group greatly impacts the likelihood of intervention. Too big of a group and everybody shifts responsibility assuming that someone else will help but the more people the less likely that any individual will help.

It seems hard to imagine that people would not help when someone is in trouble, wounded, or in danger, yet it happens all the time. Recently I myself stumbled upon a scene of bystander non-intervention which I have since struggled to understand.

The other day while walking home I came upon a man running up and down the street with no shoes or coat holding a phone out shouting at the people on the street and stopping cars banging on the windows. I took a second to survey the scene and it was clear this man was trying to get something from those around him. However nobody was answering him and none of the cars even rolled down their windows to listen. I heard his questions loud and clear, albeit in broken English, “How to call an ambulance?” Still nobody was saying anything. I shouted to him that he needed to call 999 and he came over profusely grateful for my help and I helped him make his emergency call and assisted him and his family until paramedics could arrive. His mother had fallen unconscious in their flat and he had run into the street desperate to know how to call emergency services in this country. I learned that he and all his family was from eastern Europe and they knew very little English. He also told me that he had been trying to get the number for quite some time but nobody had been willing to help.

Having read work on bystander behaviour I shouldn’t have been that surprised that nobody helped but the situation just didn’t fit the common notion that with greater numbers people are less likely to help. Most of the famous incidents involving non-helping behaviour has been within large crowds. There were maybe 7 or 10 people on the street when I arrived. Most were just standing and watching. I don’t have a great answer for why people didn’t help, maybe they couldn’t understand his question… but it seemed quite clear to me. Maybe they feared that it was some type of scam.. but certainly it can’t hurt to tell someone a phone number.

Even more frustrating than not understanding the lack of help was the sneaking suspicion that had he been British, white, or at least a native English speaker, maybe someone would have helped. Research by Levine and colleagues suggests that there might be an element of truth to that. In a study of non-intervention, their research suggests that bystanders are much more likely to help people when they feel that the person seeking assistance is part of their ingroup. This effect holds true even when controlling for the severity of the situation and the emotional arousal felt by bystanders. In other words, no matter how bad the situation or how badly the bystanders felt, they were still less likely to help when the victim was an outgroup member.

This all makes sense from a social psychological perspective and lines up with other research. People tend to behave better to people in their own group in general. But seeing it play out… was still a little depressing.

Read More: Self-Categorization and Bystander Non-Intervention

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Social and Personality Psychology Compass first Video Abstract

Using Neuroscience to Broaden Emotion Regulation: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations (pages 475–493)
Elliot T. Berkman and Matthew D. Lieberman

AbstractFull Article (HTML)PDF(438K)References

Cooperation begets cooperation

Volunteers organize to fight a Spring flood in Fargo, ND. Image courtesy of Adam Fetterman.

By Kevin R. Betts

When we anticipate that others will act cooperatively, it is easy for us to cooperate too. Donating money, volunteering, and other altruistic behaviors are all easier to engage in when we trust that others similar to us will engage in similar actions. In contrast, we may hesitate to act cooperatively when we anticipate that others will not follow suit. If we do not believe that others will contribute to collective goals to the same degree we have, our interest in engaging in these cooperative pursuits may begin to dwindle. But what would happen if we acted cooperatively even when we anticipated that others would not? Our cooperative efforts might be taken advantage of initially, but we might also inspire others to begin acting cooperatively down the line.

A study by Rahn (2008) provides evidence for this assertion. She predicted that interpersonal trust would encourage cooperation under some circumstances, while the reverse relationship would be true under other circumstances. That is, cooperation may lead to trust so long as it is reciprocated. To investigate this hypothesis, her research team interviewed 730 adults from 47 different communities. She asked respondents to evaluate the trustworthiness of residents in their community, to indicate their personal level of engagement in their community, and to specify the degree to which they felt they could have an impact on making their community a better place. Additionally, she sought out response rates to the 2000 U.S. Census and crime rates as objective measures of cooperation by community. Her results revealed that in communities characterized by high levels of cooperation, perceived trustworthiness of community members tended to also be high. In some communities, high levels of trust led to cooperation. In other communities, reciprocated cooperation led residents to trust one another.

Rahn’s (2008) findings allude to the idea that cooperation may enhance interpersonal trust so long as that cooperation is reciprocated. Returning to our original question, it may be worthwhile to engage in cooperative acts even when we do not expect others to do the same. If cooperation inspires trust, and trust inspires cooperation, then cooperation may also beget cooperation.

Read more:

Impact your world (CNN)

Rahn, W.M. (2008). Cooperation with and without trust: Evidence from local settings. In B.A. Sullivan, M. Snyder, & J.L. Sullivan (Eds.), Cooperation: The political psychology of effective human interaction (pp. 259-274). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts

Astrology, the Forer Effect, and the Allure of Personal Feedback

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

You may have heard some of the recent discussions that the astrological zodiac is actually astronomically inaccurate. Because of shifts in the earth’s axis called precession, similar to how a spinning top wobbles, the traditional zodiac has been drifting out of its original alignment for hundreds of years. That means that old zodiac signs have shifted in date and a new 13th constellation, Ophiuchus, could also be included in the zodiac. Thus, even if you buy into the idea that stars can influence your fate, astrologers have focused on the “wrong” stars for many hundreds of years. Now, hopefully most readers know that astrology is limited to, if we are being generous, “entertainment value” only (see Carlson, 1985 if you need empirical convincing). However, millions of people take astrology seriously, and that makes its appeal a topic of legitimate psychological investigation. So, why do so many people believe that horoscopes provide insight into their lives?

One answer is the Forer Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people are likely to interpret statements or predictions as being personally relevant. However, these statements can apply to nearly anybody. In a 1948 study, psychologist Bertram Forer gave participants a “unique personality analysis” and asked them to rate its accuracy from 1 to 5. The “unique personality analysis” was always the same, but had an average accuracy rating of 4.26. This was the statement:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

The “analysis” above was simply a combination of sentences from several different horoscopes. The effect has been duplicated by other researchers many times, with most people claiming it to be 80% to 90% accurate; it appears nearly any horoscope can apply to nearly any person. One of the tricks to this “accuracy” is to say two statements that appear to be opposites and cover everything in between, eg, “at times you are extroverted, while at other times you are introverted.” A similar trick is to say something that is true of just about everyone, eg, “you need for other people to like you” or “you have considerable unused capacity.” Finally, these statements tend to flatter our own egos. People tend to find personally relevant information satisfying, particularly when it is complementary, as many of the above statements are, eg, “you are an independent thinker.”

While most of you are already aware of the psychological tactics that make astrology convincing to some people, pop psychology can exploit many of the same cognitive biases. When you hear about a psychological analysis method or personality test, be critical, consider the Forer Effect and ask yourself the following questions: What evidence is there to support the claims? Is the evidence peer-reviewed? Is the promoter selling something? Pop psychology can appear convincing because it often appears to have a veneer of academic rigor, and for this reason we must be especially critical and skeptical when considering psychological theories.

Carlson, S. (1985). A double-blind test of astrology, Nature, 318, 419-425.

Dickson, D.H. & Kelly, I.W. (1985). “The ‘Barnum Effect’ in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature”. Psychological Reports, 57, 367–382.

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118–123.