๐Ÿง  Social Psychology
Last modified on April 17, 2022

Some (incomplete) notes from PSYCH 70: Social Psychology at Stanford.


Think about a time you were happy, and a time you were sad; very likely, there were other people involved. The people around us hold tremendous influence in our daily lives.

Social psychology is not new.

Philosophers have been intuitively (if not quite scientifically) thinking about these ideas for centuries!

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy. - Aristotle

Social psychology is not (always) intuitive.

Example: introducing a fine for late-picker-uppers of kids at daycare actually increases the number of late pick-ups. Explanation? The motivation shifted from intrinsic to extrinsic.

What is social psychology?

About understanding the "causal architecture" of the society that we're embedded in.

Three parts of the class: social cognition, interpersonal processes, everyday life.

Levels of organization:

Societies <=> Groups <=> Individual <=> Mind <=> Neurons/Genes/Hormones
^social psych is focused on the middle three levels.

Cognitive Biases: self-serving biases.

Motivated reasoning

Motivated reasoning is our tendency to come to conclusions that make us feel good.

We don't like to admit when we're wrong! (Nor our sports heroes, family, political candidates, etc.)

Group affiliation: "We crushed them!" when your team wins vs. "They were terrible" when your team loses.

Above-average effect: people believe they are above average in valued domains (lol.) BUT in other domains that are seen as really hard (e.g. juggling or living past 100,) we see the below-average effect. The reason: we "anchor" to our initial estimate. E.g. for living to 100, we initially think it's very unlikely, then adjust the estimate upward as we get evidence.

Dunning-Kruger Effect: Correlation between lower skills and greater Above-Average Effect. In other words, correlation between cognitive and metacognitive skills. (Also, those with the most skills underestimate a little!)

Why do we have these biases?

One answer: self-esteem. (But why do we need self-esteem, evolutionarily?)
Another answer: overconfidence gives social benefits?

…is there another way?

Hubristic pride = arrogant/conceited.
Authentic pride = confident, high self-esteem.

Person Perception

Should I date this person? Is this person guilty? How competent is this person?

Person perception is forming impressions about other people.

Thin Slicing

People can make predictive judgments "instantly" – predicting future success, marriage success, sales performance, sexual orientation, etc. (Cue Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, lol.)

Women can predict hetero/homosexual at higher rates when ovulating

These "thin slice" judgments can be surprisingly predictive, but also biased.


There is evolutionary value in swiftly identifying potential threats, mates, and leaders.

Universal Dimensions of Social Cognition: Warmth and Competence

Oh yeah, there's also the whole triangle and circe thing – we immediately make judgments about what they're doing.

(But she should've mentioned that autistic people don't see this the same way)

Confirmation bias:

Tendency to want to verify our pre-existing beliefs.

Pygmalion Effect:

kids whose teachers thought the kids were "late bloomers" – it actually came true.

Side note: whoa. Intuitively I feel like (and I'm of course enjoying that sweet confirmation bias) but it confirms my intuitions – in cases where I've set high, clear expectations for myself, I've achieved them.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

You have expectations about someone => you behave accordingly towards them => they behave just how you expected => reinforces your expectations…

This seems like a kind of positive feedback loop that can either go really well, or really badly. Parents have a huge role in establishing expectations for their children. (As a first-born, I know this firsthand ๐Ÿ˜…)

Cognitive Biases: cognitive dissonance theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory:

cognitive dissonance
holding apparently incompatible / logically inconsistent thoughts about the world.

How to resolve dissonance between beliefs A and B?

You can disregard one belief.
You can change your belief in one.
You can distort one belief.
You can add belief C that resolves the conflict.

Which one to choose? Will probably go with the path of least resistance.

Chicago doomsday cult didn't see doomsday => rationalized by saying that the Guardians had stopped the flood

1755 Lisbon earthquake => threatened belief in God and a just world.

Is dissonance reduction good?

Good: it allows you to streamline cognition.
Bad: it loses the inherent complexity / ambiguity in the world.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Motivated reasoning is a key element in cognitive dissonance.

Severity of initiation: people seem to like organizations with sever initiation rituals, e.g. frats with extreme hazing. The reason is that we have a deep-seated belief that we're not gullible, so motivated reasoning leads us to conclude the initiation task was interesting / the organization is of value, rather than (more accuractely) concluding that we're just gullible.

Behavior precedes thought

Spreading of alternatives: we post-hoc try to "justify" our decisions in life to ourselves.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: change behaviors in people's lives to change their perception of themselves positively.

Don't think like you're the person you want to be, act the way you want to be and become that person. Then, you will convince yourself that you are that person.

TODO Cognitive Biases: attribution


Social "rules" that determine appropriate, acceptable behavior in a certain context.
Descriptive norms
common patterns of behavior
Injunctive norms
patterns of behavior that are commonly approved of / evaluated positively

Injunctive (top) vs Descriptive? (left)

  Descriptive - Yes Descriptive - No
Injunctive - Yes - driving on the right side of the road - sharing cable accts
  - taking turns in conversation - culturally divisive issues
  - standing in line - solar panels
Injunctive - No - Fashionable clothes - food choices
  - Manners of speaking - name choice
  - Gender norms for asking out  

These two types of norms are often overlapping signficantly – injunctive rules become descriptive norms, (people strive to be normal in fear of judgment,) and then descriptive norms also become injunctive (people judge you for being abnormal.)

Morals are injunctive norms about what is right or wrong.

Breaching Norms

Breaching: the purposeful breaking of social norms (usu. descriptive, sometimes injunctive)

E.g.: Stand in elevator facing the wrong way. Order pizza at McD's. Shake head while saying yes. Lol.

You really only learn how strong a norm is when you try to break it. We're reaallllly socially programmed to not break them.

(Norm internalization: people "self-sanction" for deviance) – Panopticon – feels like everyone is watching us, even when they're not watching us. We watch ourselves.

Norm internalization / embarrassability associated with trustworthiness, monogamy, etc.

Lots of the "sameness" we see in society actually has roots in the way they were socialized – same initial conditions.

Reactions to breaches

Common reactions to breaching of norms includes:

  • You are sanctioned
    This is common for injunctive norms
  • Gently brought in line – people want to maintain fluidity of interaction
    breaching causes cognitive dissonance – people seek to resolve it.

    "Dramaturgical analysis" (Goffman): social order like a play. People read their lines, and if someone goes "off-script," they are gently guided back on

    And all the men and women merely players;
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts. - Shakespeare

  • You are imitated
    This is (often but not always) common when the norm is privately unpopular. Can trigger a "cascade" effect…


Social influence is not just a stabilizing force – can also create social change.

Cascades have fascinating properties: "early movers" disproportionately influence. Unpredictable. Can destroy a norm, or create a new one.

Random dance mob started at music festival = cascade. Emergent collective behavior

Threshold model: People have "thresholds" = number of others who must join the collective behavior before individual will.

Very sensitive to early movers: need people with 0- and low-thresholds. This makes it highly unpredictable (average threshold not necessarily telling the whole story.)

Social Influence

View the following studies through these lenses:

  1. What is distinct about the particular type of influence studied?
  2. What would you have done in the study?
  3. How does this influence show up in real life? (Good/bad?)

First Conformity Experiment

Rate pleasantness of odors, alone vs. in groups.

In groups: participants avoided extremes. (Moderation effect)

Instinctual/subconscious submission to the group

Sherif autokinetic experiments

Autokinetic effect: When a white light is presented on a black background, it appears to be moving / fluttering.

Show light on wall of dark room – repeatedly ask "how much is it moving?"

Conditions: Individuals vs. Groups

Individuals: settle on a personal standard, then stick to those

Groups: converge towards a shared answer. Constructed reality.

Groups => Individuals: they stuck to the group's "answer." Social cohesion is strong.

What is special about this?

The stimulus is ambiguous. We use social information to make judgments, because we want to be right. When things are uncertain, we look to others for answers.

What would I have done?

I feel like I probably would have been convinced.

How does this influence show up in "real life"?

Yelp for deciding whether a restaurant is good. Carta for deciding whether classes are good. etc.

Me looking up stuff on reddit, tryna see the "best" way to do [X].

Things to consider:

  • people aren't always right
  • Conformity generates and preserves culture (even across generations)

Asch Conformity Experiments

Perception of lengths of lines – which one on the right is the same as the line on the left.

Conditions: confederate says wrong answer vs. not.

People conform to the wrong answer despite the evidence in front of their own eyes.

What is special about this influence?

Stimulus is not ambiguous

Normative influence: using social norms to guide behavior

We want to be liked.

What would I have done?

Hmmm…I feel like I would not have conformed, at least the vast majority of the time. (There is large individual variance on this trial.)

Why did people conform?

People said they questioned their own judgment – reluctant to admit that they were distorting to be liked.

How does this show up in "real life?"

Well…it doesn't, really. Generally the group doesn't completely contradict what you believe. Lots of grey ar

Social influence at play

  1. How am I being influenced?
    By my desire to be right, to be liked
  2. How am I influencing others?
    Cialdini's 6 principles
  3. Are there places I want to change my behavior (given what I'm learning)?

Milgram - replicated Asch in Norway and France

People being told to administer electric shocks to someone else.

Factors influencing obedience: situational influence.

What is special?

Authority figure telling them what to do

What would I have done?

I feel like I'm honestly not sure. I hope I would've stopped but I can't tell. I feel fairly conforming.

Real life?

Hospital: nurses will blindly follow doctor orders

when white participants were asked to "match the characteristics of their representative" they hired more white people

(…terrible things like the Holocaust?)

Social influence in the 21st century

focus on positive interventions

You can publish data to correct misinformed norms.

Join Your Fellow Guests in saving the environment => more people reuse towels

Working Together – people like to feel like they're part of something.

Dynamic norms: people are moving towards eating less meat. People were inspired to choose the meatless option.

(Just realized: the media has huge influence here.)

nuanced distinctions

sophisticated measures


fake product, drink alone vs. with confederate (congruent, incongruent.) Measure subjective response, physiological response, functional response, endorsement, follow-up => even with no confederate, they improved alertness, increased blood pressure, etc.

What is special?

Demonstrates "transformational influence" (actually changed physical measures!)


No one is immune to the influence of others

Influence can be informational (be right), normative (be liked), explicit (obedience) or subliminal (social roles), potentially destructive, transformational

…in the absence of social verification, experience is transitory, random, and ephemeral, like the flicker of a firefly. But once recognized by others and shared in an ongoing, dynamic process of social verification we term "shared reality", experience is no longer subjective, instead, it achieves the phenomenological status of objective reality. That is, experience is established as valid and reliable to the extent that it is shared with others.
Hardin & Higgins, 1996

Social Identity Theory - Inter Group Conflict


"selves" that individual takes on in interaction

20 Statements Test:

I am:

  • Indian American
  • introvert
  • male
  • 22 years old
  • Stanford student
  • CS student
  • nationality
  • older brother
  • firstborn son, grandson
  • not generous


{ inrovert, polite, optimistic, moody }


{ student, friend, daughter, etc. }


{ nationality, university, political party }

Social Identity Theory

  1. How people identify
  2. Consequences of group ID


  • Need constrast to form categories
  • No group until there is an out-group

(going to Japan: feel my identity sticking out like a sore thumb.)

Accentutation effect

same-group is really similar, diff-group is really different


  • Out-group animosity
  • In-group favoritism

"Minimal group" experiments

People prefer to stick it to the out-group, rather than get more money

Overcoming group conflict

Contact alone is insufficient

Overarching identities => seeing a similarity, common goal, common enemy (lol)

Group you're part of is pretty malleable.

TODO Stereotypes


"37 who saw murder didn't call the police" – people didn't wanna get involved.

Boston marathon bombing – people came together and helped.

Good samaritan experiment – people who had time helped.

Steps to helping:

  • Notice that something has happened
  • Interpret the event as an emergency
    • Overcome pluralistic ignorance
  • Taking responsibility to provide help
    • overcome bystander effect / diffusion of responsibility
      (stronger when more people are there)
    • overcome normative influence to not involve
    • overcome bias toward people in need
  • Decide how to help
    • Overcome "Collapse of compassion"

      If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will. -Mother Teresa

    • feelings of incompetence
  • Actually help
    • overestimate costs/risks of help

Being a giver is good. Can create ripple effects!!

Replication + Open Science

But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves - of having utter scientific integrity- -is, I'm sorry to say, something that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that I'd know of. We just hope you've caught on by osmosis. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself- and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. - Richard Feynman

Reproducibility: you can conduct the study again
Replication: you can conduct the study again and get the same results

  • Direct replication (redo study verbatim)
  • Conceptual replication (do study on same concept, maybe different domain / expt setup)
  • Verification (redo analyses)

Why does it fail to replicate?

  • Direct replication: The world changed (ex: stereotype threat of Tea Party – no one cares about the Tea Party anymore!)
  • Conceptual replication: could indicate a boundary condition
    • Above-average effect: doesn't always happen…for example, below-average effect for juggling. This is good, b/c it allows us to form more general theories.
  • original study was poor

Replication problems

The Open Science Collaboration found lots of replication issues.

Direct replications are often impossible…can't get the exact same people, etc. People bring a lot of complexity to the equation.

Methodological problems

p-values suck. everyone uses p < .05. lol

Multiple dependent variables

Arbitrary data exclusions ("it's an outlier!!")

Optional stopping – stop the study once you get a significant finding

p-hacking: people have motivated reasoning to find a positive result

Small sample size

Only publish positive results (p < .05)


Publicly post the research plan before conducting a study.
Restricts "researcher degrees of freedom"

Registered reports

Will publish the results, no matter the result. Fight bias against null results
Researcher incentivized to run study very well

Open science

Publicly post your data, code, etc.

Determining adequate sample size via power analysis

Political Psychology

Dimensions of polarization

Affective: emotions
Attitudinal: attitudes toward (x)
Partisan sorting: people agree on everything, within their half, but disagree with everything in the other half

Levels of polarization: are they increasing?

  Mass Public Politicians
Affective Yes Yes*
Attitudinal Not much Yuuup
Partisan sorting Yes Yuuup

Theories of Political Psychology

Symmetric: psychology of liberals and conservatives basically the same

Asymmetric: psychology of liberals and conservatives fundamentally different

openness to experience (D), tolerance for ambiguity (D), need for cognitive closure (R), need for cognition (R)

social issues, especially

OkCupid data shows that liberals tend to like complex people, conservatives like simple people.

Positive Psychology

What doesn't make people happy?

Income - not … really, beyond the poverty line.
Success - meh to negative
Possessions - meh

What does makes people happy?

backrubs (lol)

Relationships (strong, eduring, intimate, open, supportive)
Exercise (as a habit)
Generosity (charity, helping, gratitude)



Becoming totally immersed in a challenging, stimulating task that suits your abilities

engrossing coding session

Flow = Active meditation.

Find things that generate flow for you, and build them into the habits of your life.


Really strong effects in the literature.

Verbal gratitude rituals

Gratitude journaling

Links to "Gratitude"

  • The Worst Thing Is To Miss It


    I loved taking Social Dance II at Stanford, and I really loved the way that Richard Powers taught it. He connected dance to life; it's all about being in the moment, noticing and reacting to the people around you, noticing the good in life…which relates to Gratitude. I was just thinking about how gratitude is kind of a "hack" against the onslaught of hedonic adaptation. Most of the time, I'm sitting on a mountain of good fortune, and I've completely forgotten it's there. But if I get reminded of that good fortune somehow, it really puts things in a different perspective.


+emotion regulation

Immune neglect

We have an "affective immune system" that restores us to homeostasis.

We overestimate how long a highly positive/negative(esp negative) feeling from an experience will last.

Affective immune system struggles to clean up without a clear source of negative emotion

That's why introspective essay exercises are really good. Also a solid argument for journaling


  • ameliorate anxiety associated with repressing emotions
  • helps create a narrative for understanding negative events

Also that's why therapy is really good – makes you construct a narrative, dig up what happened, understand the causal structure of it all. See things more clearly.

Type of therapy doesn't even matter that much! You just need a warm body (or a blank page) to talk to, to construct a narrative to. Can be a loved one.

What about meaning?

purpose => something greater
values => act consistent with my right/wrong
efficacy => make a difference
self-worth => I am good, worthy

Meaning-happiness disjuncture: high in meaning, low in happiness. E.g. revolutionaries, parents

Sources: Relationships/Community, Authenticity, Significant Goals. Working on stuff that matters, that "moves the needle." Struggle/Adversity

Carpe Diem

carpe diem: seize the day.

Why are we so bad at seizing the day?

Enemy number one is self-consciousness. We are deluded into thinking that others are harshly judging us.

Illusion of transparency: we overestimate others' access to our internal states.

Spotlight effect: we overestimate others' noticing our actions/appearance.

Expectations of criticism: we overestimate others' judgment of our blunders, failures

Success and failure: people think success and failure are negatively related. But in many domains, those who lose the most also win the most. => celebrate tries, not just success. Seems like a good argument for being prolific.

In the long term, people regret the things they didn't do more than the things that they did.

"It's harder to get over the things you never do."

Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life. - Omar Khayyam


If you remember anything, remember this:

Others have tremendous influence on us.

The paramount fact is that people come into the world not alone with the objects of nature but also with other people, and through this encounter they are transformed into human beings. The environment of others and the products of their labor become a powerful, comprehensive region of forces within which each moves and has being. -Solomon Asch

We often underestimate the power of the situation.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. -Walt Whitman

We are less isolated individuals than nodes in a social graph. Moreso defined by our context than the explicit properties of our node itself.

Reality is constructed.

Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. -Albert Einstein

We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are. -Anias Nin

We see it through our assumptions, filters, biases…

Treat a [person] as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a [person] as he can and should be and he shall become as he can and should be. -Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

We can create positive realities. You just need to have some vision for the future.

Scientific inquiry enables us to pursue curiosities.

The unexamined life is not worth living -Socrates

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