Outline the Main Features of Experimental Social Psychology

3 March 2017

Outline the main features of experimental social psychology and consider the influences that led to its emergence. What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? Social psychology has many different theoretical perspectives. The focus of this essay will be the cognitive social perspective and its central method of research; experiments. I will therefore refer to this approach as experimental social psychology (ESP). My aim is to argue that despite some downfalls, ESP provides an indispensible contribution to understanding how the mind is structured by society (Haslam, 2007, DVD 1, DD307).

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To argue this I will outline the key characteristics of the approach which will involve looking at its historical development. This will give us an insight into how the discipline became grounded within scientific principles and was the dominant approach for much of its 100 year history (Holloway, 2007). I will then draw out what features undermined the perspective and will place the favourable and questionable aspects of the approach within four analytical themes called power relations; situated knowledge; individual-social dualism and agency-structure dualism (Holloway, 2007).

These will also be used to critically evaluate ESP. Other perspectives will be incorporated to illustrate strengths and weaknesses but I will not go into detail about them. The intent is to finish the essay with a resonating thought that ESP has its main downfalls routed in its historical negligence but is nevertheless an invaluable source of knowledge that can be seen as complimentary to other perspectives. ESP aims to research the “science of social behaviour” (DVD 1, DD307, 2007) by using quantitative methods of investigation such as the laboratory experiment.

Although not confined to the laboratory, this setting facilitates achieving two of the main features within the discipline: control and measurement. It would be impractical to attempt to record physiological responses though observational methods. Experiments are used as a tool in which researchers aim to isolate variables and show that by manipulating them they can cause a particular outcomes (DVD 1, DD307, 2007). The main feature that sets this perspective in opposition with the others is that it carries out quantitative rather than qualitative research.

It is therefore worth looking at why statistical methodologies are employed. Perspectives are governed by particular ontological and methodological assumptions and ESP believes that individuals are social thinkers. This ontology gives rise to a statistical methodology which adheres to scientific principles. The outcome of these assumptions is the methods. Thus in the case of ESP, experiments are utilised to extract internal causal mechanisms. ESP emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century when science had “an almost religious status” (Holloway, 2007, p. 4).

At a time when it was believed that science was the key to all knowledge it seems obvious why psychologists attempted to apply this undefeatable knowledge to understanding people in their social world. Historical influences such as the First World War had significant impact on research subjects at the time. Allport (1924) for instance, carried out investigations into social facilitation, a subject relevant to warfare tactics (cited in Holloway, 2007). Another heavy influence that lent support to ESP was psychometrics. The practical implication of having the means to measure psychological characteristics was considered a big leap forward.

For example, an article in the New York Times predicted that with the use of psychometrics they could match people up to their best suited jobs and therefore produce an enormous growth of national wealth (cited in Holloway, 2007). In analysing how the ESP became dominant within social psychology the concept of power relation is a useful tool. Without the backing of universities, publishers and funding bodies’ ESP could not have risen to be as powerful as it was. Institutional power and science were extremely influential in how knowledge was produced and interpreted.

Experiments therefore had the power to give scientific authority to the knowledge they produced (Holloway, 2007). Experimental methods produce results with forceful impacts. Presenting numerical figures that can represent cause and effect such as ‘students will improve their grades by 45% if they attend tutorials’ is a quality that lends power to the discipline as this type of knowledge is heavily sought after by commercial companies and even governments. Oppositionists claim that experimental methods often fell victim to reductionism and dehumanisation.

Standing against the power of numerical presentation is the necessity to make complex human behaviours fit into predetermined numerical scales. How can the number ‘1’ do any justice to the complex feeling of ‘hate’? Holloway, (2007) citing Potter and Wetherell (1987), demonstrates another downfall of measuring psychological characteristics from a discursive approach. Attitude measurements make a fundamental assumption that all respondents have the same object of thought, suggesting that attitudes are a fixed phenomenon rather than conflictual and dynamic. The latter would flaw the concept of generalisation.

Experimenters have been accused of not paying enough attention to their own power and influence on participants and findings. Although often unintentional, this bias has still been isolated as a shortfall (Rosenthal, 1966, cited in Holloway, 2007). Holloway (2007) citing Harre (1979) argues that a confounding variable that was overlooked in Milgram’s experiments (1963, 1965) was that the people urging the participants to inflict pain were the experimenters themselves. Therefore the findings may not reflect obedience but rather the trust that the participants had in the researchers.

However experimenter effects can also manifest during interviews and observational studies which are strongly associated with qualitative approaches. Deception and ethics are another aspect that also questions the theme of power during experiments. At what cost can participants be deceived? For example, the power that was invested in the researchers of Milgram’s study (1965, cited in Holloway, 2007), not only lent authority to the instructions that were given out but also falsely led participants to believe that they were inflicting harmful electric shocks.

Was deceiving and allowing participants to believe that they may have delivered lethal waves of electrical current into another human being morally right? Most people would have strong reservations about the deception and ethical principles employed in this study. However, it is worth considering one aspect that may salvage some of its dignity, that of situated knowledge. The beliefs and values of the time were that, “scientific knowledge was a greater priority than protecting participants from harm” (Holloway, 2007, p55).

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