Psychobiology and Social Psychology

There are at least two big trends in social psychology, or at least ones that may great affect social psychology. Currently, at least according to Berntson and Cacioppo (2000), one of the fastest growing trends in psychology as a whole is psychobiology. This trend is also seen in social psychology. Another movement is that of the internet (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). As the legitimacy of the internet grew, there was more research interest in it and more interest in using it for research purposes. I will first discuss psychobiology and then the internet. I will finish with my prediction of where social psychology is going.

I think psychobiology is a growing area in part because of the many technological advances that are being applied to psychology (namely, brain imaging and computer modeling). Psychology is becoming a technology-driven science. I think that social psychology will all move this way because of the new ways to study the concepts of social psychology. In part, it provides new ways to research “old” topics, not that anything in social psychology is that old.

Researchers can now look at biological foundations of social behavior and perception. For example, maybe there is a certain area of the brain that is activated when people name racial stereotypes. Also, there could be a different area activated when people are asked what stereotypes they believe, if any. Maybe people who say they do not believe the stereotypes still have the same area of the brain activated as those who do believe them, but in addition they could have additional brain activity associated with suppressing those stereotypes. Knowing this would help us understand that stereotypes really are prevalent, but some people are just really good at suppressing them and don’t even know that they are doing it. I know this was a slightly vague hypothesis, but my point is that psychobiology has a lot to add the social psychology.

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Contributions of Social Psychology Research

The Crowd Looking at the Clock by Ms. Abitibi
The Crowd Looking at the Clock by Ms. Abitibi

Social psychology is the study of individuals within groups, or as they are affected by others. So, while groups are important and often studied, it is really the individual who ultimately receives the focus. It is different from other subdisciplines in that interpersonal relationships are taken into account. In other words, people’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are affected by their relationships to and with others. This differs from cognitive psychology, for example, because cognitive theorists typically are just looking at mental processes and trying to understand the basic nature of thought, without [much] regard to the influence that others have on cognition. I say “much” because social and cognitive psychology have had a long relationship so there is some overlap between the two.

Social psychology is different from behaviorism in that social psychologists look at underlying cognitive processes and behaviorists do not. Although, they are similar in that both look at external influences on behavior (after all, behaviorism is that all behavior is learned from others). So, really the biggest difference between social psychology and all other subdisciplines of experimental psychology is the focus on self and other influences on affect, behavior, and cognition.

These three main components of social psychology—affect, behavior, and cognition—are all areas of psychology where social psychology has provided key and keen insights. One aspect of the uniqueness of social psychological research is how often researchers get surprising results from their studies. First, I’ll address the insights we’ve gained from social psychology about affect (i.e., emotion), behavior, and cognition. Continue reading “Contributions of Social Psychology Research”

William James’ Legacy

William James in the 1890s William James entered the field of psychology not with a bang or an explosion but as the morning dew distilling upon fields of clover. He was a reluctant psychologist, who did not want to even be called a psychologist, but he forever changed the course of modern psychology. William James not only changed the course of American psychology, in some ways he was the Course. James did not produce original research, he did not perform experiments, yet he became the driving force behind psychology. How did he accomplish this feat?

James was born to wealthy parents. His grandfather was one of the richest men in America and William’s father inherited a considerable sum of money. William’s father did not fall into the frivolous failings of inherited money though. He was very involved in his children’s lives, educating them himself in matters both temporal and spiritual. He was not an indulgent father but allowed the children to make their own decisions about life and to formulate their own ideas. He also provided them with opportunities to experience the world’s cultures and diversities. William and his family took a number of trips to Europe in order to be exposed to languages, cultures, arts, and philosophies.

William became interested in art initially. He wanted to become an artist but after studying some in Paris, he decided that, while he was good, he was not good enough. So he decided to become a scientist. He started attending Harvard, where he worked with different scientists. He discovered that he abhorred scientific experimentation, finding it tedious. He appreciated the work of other scientists but did not want to do any experimentation himself. After graduation he started medical school at Harvard. While he enjoyed the subjects he studied, William did not want to be a practicing physician; he decided he liked philosophy best. James had by then also been exposed to the work of the great German psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt and was impressed by their research. Continue reading “William James’ Legacy”

Generalizing Therapy Treatment

There are a number of different strategies to promote generalization of treatment effects in therapy. One common method is to assign homework. Homework is used both for the client to practice therapy techniques as well as for the therapist to assess compliance with and understanding of treatment. As clients complete homework they learn to apply treatment skills to new situations outside of the therapy room; homework is key to CBT. Another method that can promote generalization is exposure (or desensitization), in vivo or imagined. Exposure techniques, especially when they are in vivo, allow for clients to learn how to apply skills they may have learned cognitively but not behaviorally. In vivo exposure provides a way for people to learn that they will live, they will survive, and be happy during and after the time they are facing feared objects or situations. As with any skill, perfection only comes with practice, so desensitization methods provide those opportunities to practice and learn application in multiple situations.

Cognitive restructuring (and flexibility) allows for generalization of therapeutic techniques. When people successfully learn to rethink their reactions to specific situations and events, they then can learn to apply this new way of thinking to multiple situations. This cognitive flexibility allows clients to adapt, progress, and generalize.

Third Wave Behavior Therapies

I’ll continue with another post about psychotherapy. For this post it might be beneficial to read a little about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and other behavioral therapies to best understand my post. I wrote it assuming that the reader had at least a basic understanding of these therapies.

The first wave of behavior therapy was closely tied to the theories of Skinner and Watson. Second wave treatments added in cognitive components and expanded on basic behaviorism. Third wave models keep many of the good techniques from the first two waves but focus more on contextual behavior than atomistic behavior, flexible skills than pathology, and function than form. Third wave methods emphasize the broad constructs of values, spirituality, relationships, and mindfulness whereas first and second wave therapies are focused mainly on the immediate problems. For example, with second wave behavior therapy, the therapist might seek to challenge and change cognitions but in a third wave therapy the therapist might focus more on understanding and accepting the cognitions and how they tie into a person’s value system (that is not the end goal of third wave therapies – the therapists also seek change but change is effected differently than in second wave therapies). Continue reading “Third Wave Behavior Therapies”

Moral Development and the Brain

Moral reasoning is the ability a person has to reason in and through social, ethical, and emotional situations. One component of moral reasoning is moral behavior, which is the intentional and voluntary acting in a prosocial manner (Walker, 2004). Moral behavior and reasoning are the foundation for “many human social and cultural institutions such as family structures, legal and political government systems that affect the lives of virtually every person” (Eslinger, Flaherty-Craig, & Benton, 2004, p. 100). Often situations in life are morally ambiguous and involve a choice between two actions that both have consequences that may or may not be in opposition to each other. Some researchers, such as Lawrence Kohlberg, believe that people will reason through these situations at varying levels or stages, with some in a very concrete and egotistic manner and others in an abstract and universal manner.

Lawrence Kohlberg was the first researcher to come up with a major testable theory of moral development. He formulated six stages of development, with most adults reaching stage four, a few five, and very few stage six. The first two stages are at the pre-conventional level (typically self-centered and concrete reasoning), stages three and four are at the conventional level (recognition of social norms and laws), and the last two stages at the post-conventional level (recognition of universal rights and responsibilities). While Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is a stage model, the progression through the stages is not necessarily viewed as invariant. This means that people reach them at different rates and do not always reason at a particular stage with any given dilemma. There is significant variability within and between people in moral reasoning abilities. Most research focuses on between-person variability.

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