West Side Story & Group Conflict Resolution

In formally learning about what contributes to group conflict in this class, and more specifically about what conditions must be met in order for contact between groups to reduce conflict and/or prejudice they have about each other, a storyline that came to mind for me was that of the popular Broadway musical West Side Story. Besides the magical romance that dominates most of the show’s plot, the show also largely revolves around the conflict that exists between the two street gangs in the story, the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, and the Jets, who are white. Maria, who comes from the Sharks, and Tony, who comes from the Jets, fall in love and try desperately to avoid being found out by their respective gangs.

It is not as if the main characters Maria and Tony are sitting their groups down together and attempting one, large group intervention, however there are some key social psychological principles that indicate why, when they were brought together, conflict was never resolved.

Firstly, and potentially most importantly, members from both groups do not feel that the social norms of their group either support or encourage equality between them and the opposing group. Although Maria and Tony both feel that their groups may be more equal than they originally thought, they do not trust that their respective gangs will be able to share this more-level headed, fair belief.

Secondly, when Tony meets the rest of Maria’s fellow Sharks, and Maria meets the rest of Tony’s fellow jets, this is an example of the other group members not being exposed to multiple group members, and only being exposed to one token member of the opposing group, which is another essential aspect of resolving group conflict through contact.

Thirdly, at no point in the plot of the show do the gangs ever have to work together to achieve a common goal. The groups do meet so socialize in non-competitive settings occasionally, but as our book explains to us and as research has shown, this passive, non-competitive interaction is not enough to resolve conflict.

And lastly, both groups in this situation do not have equal status. The musical obviously addresses some very clear themes of racial inequality in New York City during this era, and from the beginning of the show the Puerto Rican Sharks are depicted as the class of foreign immigrants. Because the Jets are white and have lived in the city for much longer and were born and raised there in America, the status of the two groups is inherently unequal from the start.

Because of all these reasons, although the show depicts many moments of contact that the groups are able to interact, they are ultimately not conducive to conflict resolution because they do not meet the conditions above.

Sustainability Techniques in Voter Turnout?

Once again, an interesting thing has happened where the curriculum of social psych has overlapped with and become incredibly applicable to the things I’m studying in another course of mine, American Politics. Recently in that class we talked a lot about voter turnout – specifically about how low it is in the U.S. – and we looked at some of the ways that both the national and local government sometimes try to increase it and get more citizens to vote. One really interesting, and almost manipulative, tactic we studied that used to be used in some small towns during the time of both the primary and general elections, was publishing actual lists in the local newspapers of all the names of people in the town who had either registered to, or actually voted in the election in order to incite people to vote in order to avoid the embarrassment of not having your name on the list in the paper. Although rather bold of certain towns do this and put residents so on the spot like this, I thought automatically of how clever the tactic was for all the same reasons some of the sustainability tactics we study in social psych are also clever.

There are a lot of social psychological strategies at play here. First, here we see an example of trying to convey/change social norms in order to change people’s behavior. The list of names in the newspaper is a way of conveying a descriptive norm to people in the town about how their neighbors and peers are behaving. The more manipulative aspect of this technique though, is that the conveying of the descriptive norms to some inactive individuals was not done in private, but made very public.  The town residents, or eligible voters at least, now become an interesting kind of new group and this tactic introduces a whole new aspect of inflicting social pressure, which makes members of the group inclined to go vote in order to avoid the fear of having their name in the paper. In a similar way, this tactic also inflicts a little bit of competition between the group members, or town residents, just as the studies that tried to promote energy/water/gas saving we studied from our textbook did.

Equal vs. Equitable Relationships

The other day my close friend Becca, who lives on my hall, asked me for relationship advice – about her roommate. Becca said she came to me because she knew my roommate Charlotte and I have a really good relationship, which we do. Becca talked about how her and her roommate get along really well and like each other a lot, but that she’s often frustrated about how much she actually puts in versus gets out of the relationship, and that there’s always tension between the two of them over things like how much time they both have in the room, items/clothes they share, and the number of favors they’ve both had to do for each other.

The more I listened to Becca describe the situation, the more it sounded like she was keeping score of every little thing she’s had to do for her roommate, and every little thing she’s gotten in return. In listening to Becca, some of the score-keeping did sound kind of logical – she would say things like, “I had to come let Jaclyn into the room when she locked herself out five times this week, but she’s only had to do that for me once this whole semester,” or,  “I feel like the last three times we cleaned our room it was me who vacuumed and she’s only done it twice.” Though her feelings were entirely valid, the relationship she was describing seemed to be exactly what we described as being an exchange relationship in class. The social exchange theory indicates that our satisfaction with our relationships depends on the costs and benefits of the relationship and a person’s beliefs about what they deserve; however, we can get trapped into too closely keeping track of who contributed what in a relationship, which is called an exchange relationship, and what Becca and her roommate Jaclyn seemed to have going on.

In contrast, I started to believe, and explain to her, that it’s possible I have a better relationship with my roommate because we have a communal relationship, or a relationship where people give in response to each other’s needs, regardless of whether or not you get paid back, and we don’t keep score.

Compliance Techniques in Children’s Cartoons

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Though a bit of an unconventional topic for an academic, social psychological analysis piece, the cartoon strip above, posted on the bathroom wall of one of the freshman dorms, is actually incredibly more sophisticated than one might assume at first glance. Admittedly, I have often passed by the cartoon on the wall, taken it in, and tried to decipher it, very aware that there’s some key ironic or academic reference I’m not picking up on, but without fail, walked away stumped.

It was only once we got to studying social influence and more specifically compliance techniques that I realized the cartoon was a prime example of the door-in-the-face technique. The opposite of the potentially more well-known,  “foot-in-the-door” technique, the door-in-the-face technique is a way of first making a lofty request to someone, that you very well know they’ll reject, in order to increase the likelihood that they say yes to your second, smaller, much more reasonable request. Door-in-the-face is an approach to compliance that we, and is typically, studied in the context of careers in sales – the idea is that a salesman trying to pitch something to you at your door makes such a big request that you’re likely to slam the door in his face, but simultaneously more likely to comply with whatever smaller thing he tries to pitch you next. However, what this cartoon so astutely points out to us is that this approach has become such a widespread cultural phenomenon that even children are familiar with using the technique to get what they want. In the cartoon, the young boy, Calvin, puts in a string of various absurd requests with his mother – he asks to light his mattress on fire and to ride his tricycle on the roof, all of which she says no to. Calvin then proceeds to ask, “then can I have a cookie?” – to which she, unfortunately, also says no. Calvin then says, “she’s on to me.” Calvin’s door-in-the-face approach might not have worked so well, but it’s pretty impressive, if not cunning, that Calvin even knew how to attempt this trick in the first place.

Jack Nicholson and Dissonance Theory




In this incredibly climactic scene from A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson, who plays Colonel Jessep, tells Tom Cruise, the military lieutenant lawyer interrogating him, as well as the whole courtroom, the slightly off-putting, but simultaneously moving, story of what it’s like to be a Colonel in the military and the “greater responsibility than [we] could possibly fathom” that the position requires of him.

As Nicholson’s character tries to explain the very obvious, morally-sound, and patriotic reason he had for ordering a very illegal, and physically abusive, “code red” to two of his inferior lieutenants, his speech starts to sound more and more like dissonance reduction. It’s possible Col. Jessep is really just trying to convince an angry Tom Cruise here, but could it be that Jessep is also trying to convince himself that what he does for a living is not terrible?

If so, then this speech is a perfect example of what dissonance theory states. Colonel Jessep may be in the process of reducing the uncomfortable dissonance he experiences somewhere deep, deep down, caused by the inconsistency between the belief or cognition that he is a good person, and the behavior of killing people for a living and making tough decisions that often cost people their lives. Although we might look down on someone so violent and severe trying to justify this behavior and claim there is a well-grounded, logical explanation for it, it is most likely a survival technique Col. Jessep uses to not lose complete faith in his existence, and preserve his self esteem. Of the three ways there are to reduce dissonance, it is clear that Col. Jessep is not choosing to take the route of changing his behavior. Like many people, its the justifying of behavior by adding or changing cognitions that Col. Jessep chooses to rely on to lessen the dissonance he may feel because of the career he is in. Jessep uses the reasoning that the safety American people rely on and believe in would be nowhere without leaders like him, who are willing to go the extra mile in violently and aggressively disciplining soldiers, in order to justify his behavior.

Presidential Candidates? Or Victims of the Social Comparison Theory?


In watching this past presidential debate I realized there was so much material from both candidates’ behavior, not only in this one debate, but in this entire election at large, that is probably very relevant to what we study in social psych. One thing about this debate that struck me even though it has actually been occurring since the beginning of this election season is the way in which the two candidates compare themselves to others in very interesting and revealing ways. If you play back the video to most of Trump’s speaking points, you see that he often uses Hillary’s flaws as negative comparison points and jumping off points for him to depict himself in a superior and more positive light. However, in reflecting on most of Hillary’s speaking points in the debate as well as many other public addresses she often makes, one notices her method of comparison is often to bring up current president, Barrack Obama, and all of the notable, admirable things he has accomplished in office as well as in his life, as a human being, and compare herself to him, showing people she is striving for greatness.

The social psychological significance of these behaviors only became apparent to me after we discussed and read about the social comparison theory. Donald Trump picking supposedly “inferior” people to compare himself to, so that he, and others, feel better about his own character, is a prime example of downward comparison. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, choosing someone as accomplished and admired as President Obama, and more so than she is, is an example of upward comparison.

The effects of these two methods of comparison, however, are ironic. Though using downward comparison is a tactic used to sometimes increase self-esteem and make yourself look better, it has actually not served Donald Trump well, as the immature way in which he goes about harshly and over aggressively comparing himself to his opponent has built him a certain negative reputation in the eye of the public. Likewise, just as upward comparison usually results in a lesser, or inferior, depiction of the person in focus, Hillary Clinton’s tendency to compliment and praise another political figure other than herself in speeches and debates has done great things for her public image.

Although the social comparison theory is more directly related to more internal forms of comparison, and internal perception of one’s self-esteem, it is also very relevant to the maintenance of our public selves, and the distortion and manipulation of how we want others to see us.

Heuristics in Politics?

In my American politics class we study a unit about public opinion and discuss how unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans are often too politically uninformed to form any educated opinions on things like policy. The lack of their political knowledge means they do not actually have any underlying ideology that they are true to or that they can rely on to exercise judgment about current events or policy activity.

One concept that the past couple of lectures in this politics class have focused on is the idea of costs and benefits, in reference to the way people express opinion on potential policies based on how much it will cost or benefit them – essentially self-interest. However, sometimes people are unable to assess how a certain policy would actually affect them, so people make assumptions and rely on cues from people like government officials they may have come to trust over time in order to develop “opinions.”

The more we studied these ideas, the more I realized this is exactly what social psychologists are trying to get at when they are talking about heuristics. Thinking back on when we studied social cognition and low-effort thinking, I realized assumptions people make about political parties are perfect examples of schemas, and that using these schemas to make fairly reliable political judgments is a perfect example of using a heuristic.

One kind of assumption nearly everyone in this country probably makes at some point in time, is that they most likely agree with whatever their political party has to say about the issue. If you are a democrat, and you have no idea how the United States intervening in Syria’s civil war might affect you, you are likely to to take on the traditional democratic view point of war involvement, and be opposed to supporting possible airstrikes. Similarly, if you have no idea how you how feel about this topic, but know you’ve agreed with most of Obama’s opinions on completely unrelated things like healthcare and education, you are likely to assume you agree with him on this too and assume whatever opinion he seems to have on the issue.

This is precisely how automatic, low-effort thinking works in the realm of politics and public opinion. It is clear that certain concepts of social psychology translate directly into other fields of study and academia, and the more I look into it, the more I realize how very applicable social psych actually is to many other both academic, and non-academic, realms.




Religion, Atheists, and Helping Behavior

Following the theme of helping behavior, but on a slightly more personal note, I wanted to write this blog post about religious opinions. I don’t believe in any higher power, or God, or even in the concept of organized religion at all; however, treating other people right, and that is all people, of all races, religions, and origins, is one of my most valuable core beliefs. To my surprise, however, there was a survey cited in the textbook that reported “the only group [people] disliked more than Muslims was atheists” that made me wonder about the difference in morals/ethics/charitableness between religious people and non-religious people.

Although I’ve continuously suppressed the thought that this endlessly charitable attitude of religious communities might actually be more of a façade or a marketing tactic than it is a pure and altruistic practice, a piece of evidence from the Chapter 11 reading on Prosocial Behavior and the personal qualities that affect it supported these thoughts a little bit.

As I read this section of the textbook I was somewhat surprised, and even off-put, to read that when it actually comes to helping strangers, or people who are not like them (a.k.a. of the same religion as themselves), religious people are no more charitable than non-religious people; and so this pervasive stereotype that religious people are so much more superior in morals than the rest of us is completely invalid – especially because, what is it to be a moral person if not to be able to feel empathy for the people you are not forced to feel connected to through a given, or already present, tangible similarity?

The social psychological concept this mostly relates to is in-group favoritism. Organized religion is a first rate example of how human beings will behave due to an unconscious preference of people who are like us. Sometimes this is a more conscious form of preference, or outright discrimination, which human beings are definitely capable of; however, the unintentional thought processes that also run through our minds when we unconsciously make the decision of whether or not to help someone on the street can be, whether we like it or not, highly related to how similar or dissimilar to ourselves we think this person might appear to be.

Although it is easy to make the assumption that how much people help is clearly personality-based, as making the fundamental attribution error describes, it is more accurate to understand that peoples’ prosocial behavior is influenced by a large variety of situational factors, and also that cultural differences and in-groups, such as religious communities in this case, affect who we help and why we help them.


Enlightened or Paranoid?

Among the influx of new and intriguing social psychological theory I am learning and taking from the chapters of our textbook, this large, overarching concept of prosocial behavior of people in groups and specifically the bystander effect has made me the most aware of and slightly disturbed by my surroundings most recently. The more I think about my every day life and how it relates to this material, the more I am realizing that on college campuses specifically, we live most of our lives in large groups, and the more I am realizing that, the more I realize that I am all the more at risk of being neglected by my peers in any given situation where I need help.

Just the other day I found myself feeling more hyperaware and cautious of my surroundings than I had ever felt, just sitting in the library, which was filled with other students. I sat in a large study area surrounded by tons of other students, some of which I even knew vaguely, or recognized at least. As I prepared to leave my desk to go to the printer, the core principles and concepts of our past few classes, mainly the bystander effect, struck me upside the head and literally stopped me in my tracks. I was fully prepared to leave my laptop and belongings out on the table, where I’m sure no one would have even thought about stealing them from. And at least if someone did do such a thing, I assumed that any other morally sound student with a clear view of my table would have hopefully intervened and/or stopped this thief in my absence. However, at some point in this thought process I convinced myself that, now, as a newly educated student in the field of social psychology, I knew that was very well a horrible idea! Don’t I know individuals in large groups can’t be trusted?, I thought to myself. Through the lens of the bystander effect, I started analyzing the situation and processing how ironic it was that the more people that were in the library who would have most definitely been able to help, the less likely it actually was that anyone would have. How strange it is, I thought, that the presence of more people who are able to help, is exactly what inhibits a person’s ability to help.

This felt like an incredibly pessimistic outlook to have on the behavior of all my fellow Tufts students, but I kept remembering just how shocked I was in hearing what had happened to Kitty Genovese, or the confederate in the Latané and Darley seizure study, and the many other victims the textbook brings up that no one cared to call the police for or help in any way. Something about this lack of action individuals are willing to take when they are aware they are in a larger group is incredibly off-putting, even when we are able to deconstruct this inhibition by looking at it with tools like Latané and Darley’s five-step helping chain to understand at what point in a mental process someone might become more or less inclined to actually act toward helping someone in need or in danger.