Exploring Psychology: Perceiving and Understanding

Chapter 7, on Perceiving and understanding the social world runs to about 50 pages and
starts the second volume of the first book. The first option of TMA4 is based on this.
There’s a change in emphasis in this chapter from considering the individual in isolation to looking at their interactions within society. It starts off with looking at how our knowledge shapes our view of the world, moving on to consider common-sense explanations of behaviour, then considering how accurately we use information in forming judgements, finishing off with a look at how different groups judge the risk of HIV/AIDS. This area looks at the attitudes that people hold and the attributions that they assign even to abstract objects like the box and circle animations that Heider and Simmel (1944) used which goes to show how greatly simplified experimental social psychology experiments can be yet still retain ecological validity.
Our knowledge of the world is viewed in light of the schemas which which we use to organise that knowledge and simplify our processing of it. Thus we see someone dressed in a particular manner and attribute them with all kinds of properties by way of schematic processing that may not apply to that individual (i.e. we generalise from our person schema). Similarly we also have event schemas (scripts) which we use to interpret sequences of events. This reduces the workload through simplification and reduces the issues of bottlenecks discussed in the previous chapter but can distort our view of reality and creates stereotypes e.g. rich children are judged as more bright and poor ones are judged as less bright yet there is a significant overlap in ability between the two groups (Darley and Gross 1983). Moreover, we tend to act as a cognitive miser i.e. using the minimum amount of information to come to a conclusion i.e. we use stereotypes but this depends on our motivation to be accurate e.g. Ruscher (2000) found that we seek out more information about someone when our success is dependent on them. Whilst we can be a motivated tactician, there is a degree of automaticity normally.
Attribution theories consider that when we attribute a cause to behaviour this is made up of internal/dispositional causes (i.e. within the person) and external/situational causes (i.e. in the environment). In general, internal causes are more useful as they apply to that person generally whereas external causes only apply in that situation. Kelley (1967) considered that we look at consistency (of that behaviour by that person), distinctiveness and consensus (does everyone else do that). So low consensus with low distinctiveness is attributed to an internal cause but high consensus with high distinctiveness is attributed to an external cause. Tests of this can be done using vignettes. We tend to favour internal attributions for others (the fundamental attribution error) but external causes to our own behaviour. However, we also have a self-serving bias in that we attribute our successes to internal causes but our failures to external ones. Why this should be so may be due to cognitive bias i.e. that we’ve worked hard so expect to succeed so failure is due to an external cause but there may be a motivational bias due to self-esteem and desire to present ourselves in the best possible light (people with high self-esteem tend to make more self-serving attributions than those with low self-esteem [Shrauger 1975]) but…
someone with high self-esteem would be more likely to expect to succeed.
In making judgements, we tend to make the judgement in light of the distribution of information which we have (availability heuristic) i.e. we assume that the new case is in proportion to the information which we have heard about in that area before or about a type of person before (representativeness heuristic). The level of calibration varies i.e. some people can judge what they don’t know better than others. In terms of risk, people in general feel that bad things won’t happen to them i.e. there is an optimistic bias (everyone thinks that they drive better than average). HIV/AIDS studies illustrate most of the above. Thus people consider that they are less likely than average to catch it even if they are in a high risk group, they attribute the causes to things outside their group (e.g. Africans blame western behaviours, westerners blame the Africans).
For the exam, the key topics for this chapter are:

Attribution theory
Self-serving bias
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