Chapter 10: Social Influences on the Development of Human Potential

Group Cohesiveness, Attitudes and Prejudice

Group Cohesiveness

A group consists of two or more individuals sharing a social relationship. The relationship can be based upon any shared characteristic (e.g., age, sex, grade-level, etc.) or interest (e.g., sports, academics, politics, etc.). A Nukak band can be considered a nomadic group consisting of a few families that live and move together. Consider what is likely to happen during the three steps of the bystander apathy flowchart if the person requiring assistance is a relative or friend. In the first stage, the relative will almost definitely be noticed, no matter how many other bystanders there are. In the second stage, the event will almost definitely be interpreted as requiring assistance. In the third stage, the person will almost definitely take direct action.

The prediction that one is more likely to help a fellow group member than a stranger probably does not surprise you. What may be surprising is how easy it is to establish group cohesiveness, a meaningful connection with another individual or several individuals. For example, one is more likely to help an injured person if they are wearing the football jersey of a shared favorite team (Levine, Prosser, Evans, & Reicher, 1968). In an experiment, college students were divided into low- and high-cohesive groups of two or four individuals. Cohesion was established by simply having the students discuss their likes and dislikes with respect to school and other activities. As expected, in the low-cohesiveness conditions, there was a social diffusion effect whereby subjects were more likely to assist another student when no one else was available. However, in the high-cohesiveness conditions, it did not matter if others were available to help; the subject felt personally responsible simply based on their prior conversations (Rutkowski, Gruder, & Romer, 1983).

Interestingly, the opposite of the social diffusion effect occurs with friends. Increasing the number of bystanders increases coming to the aid of friends, in comparison to strangers (Levine & Crowther, 2008). Tragically, the reverse can also be true. Increasing the number of bystanders can increase the likelihood of inflicting harm on members of a defined group. This is a necessary component of Milgram’s original questions regarding the Holocaust. How could human beings inflict such pain and suffering on others? Under what conditions do people passively display obedience to authority figures commanding that they behave cruelly? To answer these questions we must understand the formation of attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudice.

Attitudes, Stereotypes, and Prejudice

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

South Pacific by Rodgers & Hammerstein


The video “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein (1958) is under a standard You Tube license  :

Rogers and Hammerstein set to music how classical conditioning principles described in Chapter 5 to help us understand emotional responding and the acquisition of word meaning can also be applied to the formation of attitudes , prejudice , and stereotype s. If a child’s parents pair emotionally toned words with members of a particular race or ethnic group (e.g., immoral, dirty, lazy, etc.), the child can learn to fear and/or dislike members of that group. Razran (1938, 1940) demonstrated that ratings of political slogans could be affected in opposite directions by pairing them with either food or noxious odors. Similarly, Staats and Staats (1958) showed that attitudes toward national names (e.g., Dutch, Swedish) or even personal names (e.g., Tom, Bill) could be influenced by pairing them with positively or negatively charged words. Scapegoating is a particularly pernicious form of stereotyping. It involves selecting an individual or group (e.g., a sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.) for negative treatment. Often this individual or group is inaccurately blamed for unfortunate events or circumstances (e.g., loss of jobs, income inequality, etc.). It is important to recognize the potency of these procedures, since they are so frequently used in an attempt to influence your behavior. For example, advertisers pair their products with attractive images (see Figure 5.3) and political candidates frequently “dress themselves in the flag” and “sling mud” at opposing candidates.

These examples are attempts to affect attitudes toward their products and candidates. An attitude consists of one’s emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to a person, place, object, or event (Allport, 1935; Rosenberg & Hovland, 1960). Classical conditioning can account for two of the three components of attitudes (including discriminatory attitudes); the affective (prejudice) and cognitive (stereotype) components.  The behavioral component is the target of the advertiser and candidate. Their objective is to convince you to purchase the product or vote for the candidate. The behavioral component, unfortunately, is also the target of the child’s relatives in the song. The objective is to have the child discriminate against an out-group (Allport, 1954; Duckitt, 1994; Whitley & Kite, 2010). Fortunately, at least in this case, there is an extensive literature indicating that the emotional and cognitive components of attitudes are not necessarily predictive of overt behavior (c.f., Rosenberg & Hovland, 1960; Wicker, 1969). The likelihood of behaving in a manner consistent with one’s beliefs is influenced by the following: comparative strength of each belief, perceived consistency with social norms, perceived ability to carry out the behavior, and motivation for complying (Ajzen, 2002).

Muzafer Sherif believed that prejudices and stereotypes were especially likely to develop when there was competition between groups for scarce resources. This position has become known as Realistic Conflict Theory . He conducted the Robbers Cave Experiment (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961), a classic demonstration of conflict and cooperation between experimentally established in- and out-groups. Each group consisted of eleven, randomly assigned normal, well-adjusted fifth grade boys attending a summer camp. The groups were randomly assigned to two cabins at different locations and not initially aware of each other’s existence.

During the first of the three stages of the research, the campers engaged in activities designed to foster group identity and camaraderie such as hiking, swimming, and a treasure hunt with a monetary prize which they could spend together. The groups named themselves the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers” and developed their own behavioral norms and leadership structures.

In the second stage of the research, a tournament of competitive games including baseball, tug-of-war, and touch football was scheduled. The winners would receive a trophy and individual prizes. As soon as the games began, the teams started calling each other names. This escalated into flag burning and dormitory raiding. A fight was on the verge of breaking out when the counselors (actually members of the research team) stepped in and broke it up.

During the third stage of the research, two different approaches were implemented to try to reduce hard feelings and promote cooperation between the groups. The first approach, described as “mere contact”, involved having the groups attend meals and movies together. Other than a few “food fights”, there was practically no interaction between the groups. The group members continued to stick together. The second approach introduced superordinate goals, tasks affecting the members of both groups and requiring their cooperation. In one instance, they needed to determine if a water tank serving the entire campsite was damaged and if the faucet needed to be repaired or replaced. Working together to address common concerns in this way succeeded in breaking down barriers between the two groups.


Watch the following video of the Robber’s Cave Study:

Figure 10.4 shows the changes in the friendship patterns occurring between the end of the second and third stages of the study. Especially for the Rattlers, there was a substantial increase in the percentage of Eagle friends in comparison to friends from their own cabin. The same pattern occurred for the Eagles but was not as pronounced. Thus, engaging in superordinate tasks requiring cooperation between competing groups appears to be an effective procedure for breaking down stereotypes and enhancing cooperation. More recent research has confirmed the effectiveness of creating an environment of forced interdependence in reducing prejudice (Fiske, 2000).

Image result for robbers cave experiment results

Figure 10.4  The Robber’s Cave Experiment.


Other procedures, besides creating interdependence through superordinate tasks, have been found to reduce stereotyping and prejudicial behavior. A related strategy is to have groups try to define their boundaries in a more inclusive manner, for example by describing themselves as sharing objectives and being on the same team (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2000). Having pairs of individuals disclose facts about themselves reduces prejudice toward out-groups (Ensari & Miller, 2002). Similarly, practice in assuming the perspective of others can reduce stereotypes and prejudice (Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000). For example, imagine what it is like being told that “people like you don’t live in this neighborhood.”

The fundamental attribution error underlies many stereotypes. That is, an out-group member’s failings are attributed to personal dispositional factors (e.g., the person is lazy, stupid, etc.) whereas in-group members’ failings are attributed to situational factors (e.g., it is a hot day, the problem is difficult, etc.). In a procedure designed to counteract this tendency, White adults were taught to consider situational explanations for negative stereotypical Black behaviors (Stewart, Latu, Kawakami, & Myers, 2010). This procedure was found to reduce racial stereotyping in comparison to control subjects not receiving the training.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Imagine how members of the “Eagles” and “Rattlers” felt after working together to achieve common goals. They probably started to develop beliefs about members of the other group which were inconsistent with what they previously believed. The conflict felt when holding contradictory beliefs or when there is an apparent discrepancy between one’s beliefs and behavior was described by Leon Festinger (1957) as cognitive dissonance. An example of the former might be, “I thought all Rattlers were jerks but this guy seems nice.” An example of the latter might have occurred if a member of the Rattlers engaged in an enjoyable conversation with a member of the “evil Eagles.” Festinger believed that cognitive dissonance was aversive and would motivate individuals to attain consistency between their beliefs and behavior. This could be achieved by changing either a belief or a behavior. For example, the Eagle might conclude “some Rattlers are nice” and the Rattler might conclude “not all Eagles are evil.”

In a test of cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959), college students were asked to repeatedly perform a boring task for an hour (e.g., turning pegs a quarter turn at a time). After finishing, the subjects were asked to do a favor for the experimenter by telling another subject (who was actually part of the experiment) that the task was enjoyable. Subjects were randomly divided into three groups: one was paid $1 (currently approximately $10) to lie; the second was paid $20 ($200) to lie; and a control condition was not requested to lie. Try to place yourself in the situation of the subjects who received money for lying. You have complied with the request of the experimenter to say something you do not believe to be true. Would you feel differently about performing the boring task after receiving $1 for lying about it in comparison to $20? In the study, participants who received only $1 for lying reported enjoying the task more than subjects receiving $20. Why do you think this occurred?

According to cognitive dissonance theory, the subjects that were paid to lie should experience dissonance resulting from believing one thing (the task is boring) and saying another (it is enjoyable). Those receiving the lower amount of money should have difficulty feeling that they lied in order to receive the money. Subjects receiving the higher amount should have less difficulty attributing their lying to being paid. That is, the lower paid group should experience a higher level of dissonance than the group receiving the higher amount.


Watch the following video of research related to Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance theory:

The way for the lower paid group to reduce the dissonance would be to change their belief about how much they enjoyed the task. That is, to conclude that they did not really lie since the task was enjoyable. The results were consistent with this cognitive dissonance analysis. At the end of the study, the lower paid group did in fact report liking the task more than the higher paid group or the control group not paid for lying.

The Pyramid of Hate

The results of social psychology research studying conformity, obedience to authority figures, the power of social roles, bystander apathy, group cohesiveness, prejudice, stereotyping, scapegoating, and cognitive dissonance enables us to address Milgram’s question of how we can understand the Holocaust. Figure 10.5 shows the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate.


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Figure 10.5  Pyramid of Hate 


The Pyramid portrays a stage theory in which individuals are first “carefully taught” prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes, very much consistent with the Rodgers and Hammerstein song. Then, depending on their social groups, one might escalate to overt acts of prejudice including name calling based on personal characteristics (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc.), social avoidance and bullying. The next stage, involves discriminatory policies requiring systematic collaboration among members of a group. As indicated in the Pyramid, the groups could be as ubiquitous and respectable as businesses, real estate associations, and private schools. The linkage between where one lives and the quality of the education they receive is a particularly pernicious form of societal discrimination. The likelihood of a child going to college can be predicted from a zip code!

The two “highest” levels of the Pyramid involve violent acts by individuals or groups. It is at these levels, that individuals might experience severe cognitive dissonance resulting from the discrepancy between their beliefs and behaviors. For example, “How can I be a religious, moral person if I participated in a violent act against someone?” Frequently, such dissonance is dissipated through dehumanization and scapegoating. For example, “those people are shiftless, lazy, and often criminals” or “they are unpatriotic”, or “here illegally”, or “practice immoral acts”, or …… In its most extreme form such as the Holocaust, genocide is practiced against an entire ethnic group.

The Pyramid of Hate has been used as an educational tool by the Anti-Defamation League to try to prevent such atrocities from occurring. Educational materials for high-school students include an exercise “Have you ever …?” Students are asked to indicate whether or not they ever experienced or practiced different prejudicial or stereotyping activities such as being called a name or being the target of name-calling, etc. This is followed by discussion of the impact of prejudice on individuals and on society (Anti-Defamation League, 2003).

It seems possible to base out-group membership on practically any characteristic and then target an individual or group for discrimination. The day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Jane Elliott, an Iowa schoolteacher, devised an exercise for her third-grade students (Peters, 1987). Most children in Iowa at that time had never seen a Black person. She asked them if they would like to participate in a lesson on what it feels like to be a person of color in the United States. They agreed and she divided them into two groups; those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. Blue-eyed students were told they were superior and seated in the front rows of the class and brown-eyed students sat in the back rows. Blue-eyed children were instructed to only play with each other and to ignore brown-eyed children. The two groups were not permitted to drink from the same water fountains. Sure enough, similar to the results obtained by Zimbardo in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the students quickly adapted to their roles. Blue-eyed children behaved in a bossy and arrogant manner whereas brown-eyed children became passive and submissive.

There have been multiple examples of genocide resulting in the loss of millions of lives in the past century (e.g., Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Darfur, and Rwanda). The social psychology research helps us explain how such inhumane behaviors can occur. We can describe the types of parenting practices and experiences likely to result in prejudice, stereotyping, scapegoating, obedience, bystander apathy, discrimination, and violent role playing. Every one of these acts has been demonstrated under controlled and realistic conditions. Every one of these acts is a component of genocide. Every one of these acts is taught. Every one of these acts can be prevented and discouraged.

Teaching Heroes

Heroes are those who can somehow resist the power of the situation and act out of noble motives, or behave in ways that do not demean others when they easily can.

Philip Zimbardo



The animated video of M. C. Escher’s Angels and Devils “M.C. Escher’s Angels and Devils Animated” by Ulrich Utiger is used under a Standard YouTube license.


Zimbardo (2007, pp.2, 289) begins and ends The Lucifer Effect with a discussion of M. C. Escher’s fascinating reversible image (see video).  At the end, what do you see? It will depend on what you perceive as the figure and what as the ground. If blue is the background, you will see a bunch of white angels in the foreground. If white is the background, you will see a bunch of blue devils.  Zimbardo suggests we are all like Escher’s print; we all have it in us to be devils or angels. We all have the possibility of undergoing a reversal from one to the other.

The title of the last chapter of Zimbardo’s book (2007, pp. 444-489) is “Resisting Situational Influences and Celebrating Heroism”. It is in this chapter, that he considers the implications of the knowledge we have acquired from social psychological research to address “our better angels” (Dickens, 1841). In the same way that Zimbardo (and Milgram) argued for rejecting the attribution of evil deeds to an evil disposition, he argued for rejecting the attribution of heroic deeds to a heroic disposition. Zimbardo supports a situational model, providing multiple examples of how the very same experiences that produce obedience to authority and conformity to anti-social roles can result in pro-social attitudes and behaviors. We can build a Pyramid of Love.



Figure 10.4 “Robber’s Cave experiment” by Christopher Green, Classics in the History of Psychology is in the Public Domain

Figure 10.5 “Pyramid of Hate” by HB is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0






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Psychology Copyright © by Jeffrey C. Levy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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