TV and Social Psychology: Obedience

Milgram’s obedience experiment shocked the world with its revelations that people can be basically blindly manipulated when faced with a perceived authority figure. But how does the media make sense of this?


Yesterday, I watched an episode of CSI: Miami, specifically Season 8 Episode 24, “All Fall Down.” I was surprised to hear the name Milgram within the first ten minutes of the episode. The beginning of the episode focuses on a psychologist working on a study very similar to Milgram’s obedience experiment involving fake electric shocks. However, this psychologist’s hypothesis is not that people submit to obedience, but that “the brain just wants to be evil.”


Strangely enough, the procedure for this experiment was almost entirely the same as Milgram’s. For example, when the participant did not want to continue with the experiment, the researcher repeated the same phrase Milgram did: “The experiment requires you to continue.”


The procedure that this fictional experiment follows gives it a “scientific air” or “plausibility” for those who watch the show and have not taken any social psychology or even general psychology courses.


With the perceived rational reasoning of the “evil brain” hypothesis, the viewer may begin to question Milgram’s experiment on obedience. The episode specifically references Nazi Germany and tries to disprove the idea that it was blind obedience to authority that caused the atrocities of World War II to take place, an idea that social psychologists have almost universally agreed upon.


Now why would a crime TV show want people to think that humans are innately evil?


CSI: Miami, being a crime/drama TV show, ultimately wants to boost interest in its show. By making people think that some people are just dispositionally more evil, crime shows are able to “sell” the idea that we are all evil and are all prone to performing evil tasks. This can widen the net of possible suspects that a viewer is paying attention to, leading to more interaction with the show and more money for the show overall. This also gives us the idea that the participants in the experiment were more aggressive, which has been proven to not be a contributing factor to a participant’s willingness to continue with the experiment.


We learn later, though, that the researcher was fired for manipulating the results of her study, so we can be relieved that Milgram’s original conclusions on obedience still remain true today.


Interestingly, CSI is not the only crime TV franchise to portray Milgram’s experiment. Crime TV series Bones also dabbles in the notions and consequences of Milgram’s conclusions in the Season 10 Episode 9 episode titled “The Mutilation of the Master Manipulator.” In this episode, a psychologist repeating Milgram’s experiment is found dead and chopped up into pieces (a horribly gruesome murder that had to be premeditated), and the very first list of suspects comprises the experiment’s participants.


Again, this gives the idea that people are naturally evil and that study participants who administered “fatal” doses of electric shock were also capable of murder: one of the ultimate evils.


For those who have taken psychology courses (such as the one taken right now!), we come to realize that these “experiments” really detract from an immersive experience. Personally, when re-watching the CSI: Miami episode, I remembered from the textbook the information about how the experiment would not pass the ethical guidelines created in the US, such as the creation of psychological distress and the inability to willingly quit the study.


Ultimately, what we are watching is fictional TV and should be taken with a grain of salt. When too much of reality mixes with the fictional world we watch on a screen, then the immersive aspect of watching TV is suddenly inhibited.

Psychology and Disney

For the past week, I’ve been vacationing with my family in Orlando, Florida. On Thursday, I went to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, a place I haven’t been to in around thirteen years. Throughout the day, plagued with heat and “technical issues,” I found a new level of understanding of social psychology.


Firstly, as soon as we arrived, I darted towards the Winnie the Pooh ride attraction, one that I loved and rode many times in the past. However, there was an attendant in front of the ride saying that “Pooh had a honey spill” and cleaning would take some time. Obviously, as a 19-year-old, I knew that this was a cover story and instead, either the ride malfunctioned or perhaps a child got motion sickness and threw up into the ride cart.


Interestingly enough, I don’t remember these explanations seeming fake or made up when I was six years old. When I looked around, the very young kids did not seem too distraught from this announcement. Using the Yale Attitude Change Approach learned in class last week, I thought about the three key factors: the speaker, the speaker’s arguments, and the audience.


Focusing on the speaker, I noted that she was an employee at Disney World, but what made her more believable was the fact that she dressed in attire that closely resembled the style of clothing worn in the series. The expertise perceived from the woman’s attire brought more authority and legitimacy to what she said in the eyes of younger kids, making them more obedient and less likely to have an outburst.


Additionally, cognitive dissonance also played a part in why the younger kids did not complain from the ride shutting down. Some younger kids, those who still think that Santa and the Easter Bunny are real, adamantly (and maybe even to the point of delusion) want to think that these Disney characters are real (which they can, thanks to their employees portraying various characters with whom kids can take pictures). When faced with a real-world problem instead of one in their own “fantasy world,” they start to experience cognitive dissonance, as these two ideas contradict each other. Therefore, hearing the statement that it was not a possible technology malfunction and instead a mistake caused by Pooh himself is the addition of a cognition that serves to reduce the kids’ cognitive dissonance.


Another thing I noticed at Disney was sometime similar to the door in the face phenomenon in regard to wait lines. My sister and I loved going on rides similar to Splash Mountain, so we decided to try the Disney version of Canobie Lake Park’s Log Flume. We ended up loving it and decided to ride it twice, even with the long (sometimes 100 minute) standby wait line.


Both times we waited in line, it ultimately took around 80 minutes to be able to actually go on the ride (75 minutes the first time and 80 the second). However, the first time we went on the ride, the attendant when we first entered in line told us that the wait time would be two hours, then corrected himself to say that the wait time was 75 minutes. There were sighs of relief coming from those around my sister and I and everyone was generally happy that the time was shorter than first reported. However, when my sister and I entered the line the second time, the attendant told everyone that the wait time would be 80 minutes, and there were people who complained and one family that left the line altogether.


This is the perfect analogy of the door in the face phenomenon, as in the first scenario, the people waiting in line were primed with the idea that the queue would last a full 120 minutes. However, when the attendant corrected himself, these people were glad that the time was cut, even if it was around 80 minutes in the first place.


In the second scenario however, people waiting in line were directly told that the wait time would be 80 minutes, and without any “outrageous” amount of time to wait first, these people were left feeling less satisfied with the amount of time they would have to wait to ride this attraction.


This concept is already used by airlines when marketing flying time, as a 2h30min flight marketed as 3h would make passengers happier than a 2h30min flight marketed as is.


Ultimately, I think that the door in the face phenomenon should be used more often in amusement parks as it can increase the morale of the people waiting in line and allow them to enjoy the ride more. Happier customers are then more likely to purchase merchandise and souvenirs, so it would become a win-win situation.

Arcane Arcade Problems

Four days ago, one of my best friends from high school, Madison, turned 19, so she invited a few friends that still kept in touch to celebrate at Dave and Busters (for anyone who doesn’t know what that is, think Chuck E. Cheese’s for adults).


Now, I’m definitely not the type of person to dive into an arcade. I know that all the games are essentially rip-offs programmed for the player to lose money. However, it was my friend’s birthday so I thought I would still go and enjoy myself and the company. It still felt somewhat foreign to start throwing cash left and right to play every game, so I became more of a “coach” or observer for certain games. Throughout the afternoon, I noticed two particular interesting phenomena that after starting this social psychology course made me more aware of our behaviors and actions.


Firstly, some of my other friends who were more conservative with their money spending started to purchase more coins to use and put more money on their Dave and Busters card. This behavior certainly wasn’t anything internal, as it was high in all three categories of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency, as defined by Harold Kelley. Therefore, it had to do with something in the environment.


I hypothesized that Dave and Busters creates an environment that drains people of their self-control through their mental acuity. The dark environment combined with the loud music puts a large amount of strain on individuals. Therefore, they would become more mentally tired. Since self-control is positively correlated with mental acuity, people who are present in Dave and Busters tend to exhibit less self-control, instead purchasing more items and engaging in riskier arcade games.


For me personally, at certain points of the afternoon, the music was so loud that I preferred not to think and instead just followed the group to the next arcade game to be played.


Secondly, at the end of the afternoon, we pooled together our tickets to redeem one giant prize, and Madison ended up choosing a mini disco light ball. What was particularly interesting was that a few weeks ago, she and I had a conversation about how pointless disco lights were and she felt that they were became boring and unintriguing after only a short amount of time. In this scenario, a bunch of people suggested for her to redeem the disco light with the tickets, and she immediately took it and went to the counter.


When I talked to her about her choice of prize, she said she thought it was cool and “funky,” and that it was a great prize overall. This clearly contradicted what she said only around twenty days before, which got me thinking again.


From my point of view, I believe that the self-perception theory led her to contradict herself. In other words, she realized that she did not have any averse reactions to the disco light but could not explain why, thus, she decided that she liked it.


However, I hypothesize that internally, she had to convince herself that a cheap disco light maybe worth $20 at most was a good prize from more than $100 dollars worth of arcade coins and credit spent. Without realizing the root of these thoughts, she instead turned to the idea that she liked the disco light.


Ultimately, when she did have time to reflect on the day, she realized what a silly prize the disco light was, and I was told today that the disco light had been put in the back of a shelf essentially never to be seen again, trying to get rid of the memories where social psychology got the best of her.

Social Psychology and Pokemon GO

Yesterday night, on Saturday 7/22/2017, some of the biggest news headlines talked about  how the developer of the internationally known game Pokémon GO, Niantic, once again failed to deliver on announcements and promises relayed from the company’s CEO. Saturday was supposed to be Niantic’s first real-life event, Pokémon GO Fest Chicago, where players would be able to catch all kinds of Pokémon and work together to complete challenges throughout the day.


As soon as the event started, attendees were plagued by lines and mobile services outages (required to play the game). Although some decided to leave, many stayed while angry and yelling ire. The main question here to tackle is how come such a “flawed game,” as attributed by the game’s player base, was still able to continuously attracts millions of players.


Firstly, we can analyze this game from a general perspective using Kelley’s covariation theory to see if the anger the game causes is internal (from the players), or external (caused by the game). The anger associated with the game is high in consensus, as a lot of players feel this frustration towards the game. Specifically, at the event, when the CEO of Niantic stepped on stage, loud echoes of boos were heard and players started to chant phrases like “Fix this game.” The anger associated with the game is also high in distinctiveness, as other games in the Pokémon franchise or other mobile games do not receive so much negativity. These two factors combined with the high consistency of the anger provide enough reason to prove that this anger is externally attributed; it is something about the game itself.


So at this point, we’ve talked about how this game causes frustration and anger, but why do people continue to play? One major reason is nostalgia. Pokémon has existed for more than 20 years, and people want to relive memories from their childhoods. Pokemon GO provides an easy facet to satiate that desire, being on a mobile platform in a world in which more and more people are owning smart phones. In other words, the game is highly accessible.  However, not everyone can materialize these exact ideas, and thus the self-perception effect comes into play. People who cannot explain why they continue to play the game notice that since they still open the app and play, therefore, they still want to and enjoy playing the game.


However, I’ve noticed that this blind rage can sometimes be questionable and unjustified, especially in cases where positive news is sent out and yet players still complain. Firstly, when new features are released, some players continue to mock the game and complain in reports that claim that gameplay is improving. People who exhibit behavior like this are going through belief perseverance, as they immediately shut down any ideas that contradict what they believe. This is also a form of self-esteem maintenance, in which the cognitive dissonance between what the player thinks and the real life info are dissonant, so the players must insert new cognitions to convince themselves that the game still is still horrendous. This ultimately leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, as when people pre-emptively believe that the game has not changed and is still horrible, they will be primed with a negative attitude which will affect their perception and enjoyment of the game, thus making it less enjoyable.


Overall, this game seems to be a social experiment itself, in which it can quickly gather masses of people and get them to march from one place to another as well as manipulating feelings and emotions. When looked upon from a general view, it seems preposterous that a free game on a phone could accomplish so much, but that just goes to show you the power of social psychology.

An Application of the Diffusion of Responsibility

A few days ago, I had a day off from work so when I woke up I decided it would be the perfect time to go to the gym. However, I woke up during rush hour. Unfortunately, I somehow did not realize that until it was way too late. Five minutes into my voyage, I turn onto a street with a ton of traffic. Thinking that there could have been a traffic accident (due to the availability heuristic!), I thought that the traffic would be very temporary and I would arrive at the gym quickly.

That turned out not to be true, and I learned that as soon as I opened Google Maps on my phone and saw the entire route highlighted in the disastrous red colour.

At a a T-intersection with two way traffic, the car ahead of me needed to tun left, while I would continue going straight. At this point, I thought that the cars on the other side of the street would easily let the car in front of me pass since they were all going at such a slow speed that no car crashes or injuries would result from a car stopping to clear up a path.

However, I sat in the car for around five minutes before a car from the opposite direction stopped to let the car in front of me turn left and so I could continue my journey to the gym. I sat there for five minutes just staring at the stagnant car, imagining everything about the driver of the Lexus SUV.

Although this was not an emergency where someone’s life might have been at stake, all the other drivers from the opposite lane thought only about themselves and did not intervene to help the car turn onto the side street.

I am going to loosely use the “Bystander Intervention Decision Tree” from the textbook to analyze this event, with a somewhat tweaked version to better fit this scenario.

The first step again would be to notice the event. I believe that almost everyone driving on the road would have noticed the car trying to turn left, since drivers must keep a wide view of the road at all times to know what is exactly going on. From both my personal experience and observational experience, however, I hypothesize that being in a car serves as a sort of shielding effect from everything on the road, similar to that of urban overload, which could cause some drivers to not immediately notice that a car wants to make a turn.

Next, the original step two was to “interpret the event as an emergency.” However, since this is not a critical situation, my next (and final) step would be to assume responsibility/take action. In (what seemed to be) an endless string of cars, it would be very easy for a driver to assume that the driver behind them would stop to let the Lexus turn. However, each driver, angered by the traffic chose to focus on themselves and let themselves get a tiny bit closer to where they needed to be. Coupled with the time crunch associated with every morning traffic rush, any further distance travelled would temporarily satiate the drivers’ plea to get to work on time.

Ultimately, social responsibility doesn’t only fall to individuals during times of stress or emergency, and social psychology really helps to provide awareness for these more automated decisions people take in mundane situations.

Another Hotel Towel Story

For the past week, my family has been in various parts of Quebec province to a) celebrate my younger sister’s birthday (which just so happens to fall on the same day as Canada Day), and b) have the opportunity for both my sister and I to practice using French. Therefore, almost everything we did in Canada was in French, with English subtitles beneath.


This particular story happened just hours after watching the first PSY 13 lecture, so it remains very clear in my mind. Like the example in the lecture, this story again revolves around the idea of reusing towels.


On the second night of our stay in Quebec City, after reusing the towels from the first night, we decided that we did not want to reuse towels for a third night in a row. The trifold sign stated that towels that were to be swapped out should be thrown in the shower/bath area. Now, normally in hotels that we have stayed in, hotels ask for guests to place the towels on either the ground or bath area, with the key word being “place.” In this case, my sister read the sign and, with a loud battle cry, slammed the towel into the bath.


Only hearing the scream and being instantly confused, I thought of this as something peculiar when she told me what she did. She had never done anything like this in previous hotels where the hotel signs merely asked us to “place” the towels.


It got me thinking, what spurred this sudden behavior? From the lecture, I learned to remember the Fundamental Attribution Error, as to not question my sister’s sanity. Therefore, I looked for environmental changes. Everything else in the situation was approximately the same: the size of the bathroom, the accessibility of the bathroom, etc…. But there was one notable difference: the word choice on the sign. Maybe it just wasn’t a good translation of what the hotel intended, or maybe French Canadians are just more violent (with the latter being a drastic assumption), but the situational influence caused a very unique reaction from my sister.


Everyone who has taken an English course, whether in middle school or at a university, knows that word choice or diction is key to communication. And it showed in the hotel bathroom that it is also a key in psychology.


(Disclaimer: the sentences below look like they were plucked directly out of an English class paper)


The word “throw” conjures up ideas of violence and power, while the word “place” has a calmer and more delicate connotation. Already thinking of ideas like violence and power, anyone who was initially just going to put a towel in the bathtub now may violently hurl the towel.


To experimentally test the hypothesis if word choice truly influences a person’s disposition, I would perform a survey. In this survey, I would present participants in two different groups with a few sentences about a father who got home from work and saw that the dishes had not been done yet. (Below are examples I created of a possible short story.)


Brandon had come home from work and noticed dirty dishes still in the sink. His daughter, Lisa, was supposed to have washed the dishes before he got home. Brandon made Lisa clean the dishes.


Brandon had come home from work and noticed dirty dishes still in the sink. His daughter, Lisa, was supposed to have washed the dishes before he got home. Brandon forced Lisa to clean the dishes.



Both stories would follow the exact same story line, except one group would read the last sentence as the father “making” the daughter clean the dishes while the other would read the key verb as “forced.” At the end of the end of the story, I would ask if the readers felt sorry for the daughter.


My hypothesis is that the word “forced” conjures up more ideas of violence and authority than “made” does, and therefore, these ideas would make the readers feel more pity for the daughter.


Additionally, from this situation, I also focused on the effect of the bad English translation of the hotel sign and its more general impacts on daily life. Immigrants for foreigners for whom English is not their first language generally do not know as many English words as native speakers, and therefore do not pay as much attention to connotation as do native speakers. When speaking to a native speaker, not being able to 100% translate the original idea into English, and thus potentially using words with unintended connotations, could create reactions from confusion to anger. In my opinion, this miscommunication is a great contributing factor to the alienation and sometimes even violence against immigrants and foreigners.


Unfortunately, there is no way to combat this issue other than a) improving the knowledge of the English language or b) becoming more socially aware of the impacts of social psychology. Ultimately, for individuals who more closely think about social psychology, I think they would more likely notice the differences in mood and attitude that even changing one word can do and then be able to better regulate said mood or attitude. In the meantime, it can save some towels from being whipped around in hotel bathrooms.

P.S. After writing this entry, I looked up the psychological power of word choice and found a great article from UMich.