Understanding Humans – Social Psychology talk


A little while ago, I was lucky enough to chance upon a course on Social Psychology on Coursera that talked about how people think in relation to others. Apart from being interesting, insightful and a lot of fun (also a good amount of work), it also tried to provide a better way of understanding people and improving yourself based on that.

Barcamp Mumbai 12 Talk

I took a session on “Understanding Humans : How to do it good” based on the concepts I picked up from this course at Barcamp Mumbai 12 this year. For those of you who did attend, and also for those of you who did not, here’s a summary of that (unstructured and random) talk :

1. Construction of Reality :
People are the result of their enviroment, their past and their expectations. This affects the perception of their reality. What this means is that the same object, the same person and the same event is perceived by people differently. Factors that also affect this perception are :
– what we want to see (these are our expectations, that color our behaviour)
– what we expect to see (we might expect someone to be opposed to us beforehand, and that could shape our attitude towards them )
– what we are paying attention to

A classic example is a cricket match between two teams, where you and your friends are supporting opposing teams. Any incident that might happen, is view differently by you and your friends – you tend to see the fault of the opponents more than those of players of your own team.
Knowing this, you could take a step back , and as the phrase goes, “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes” and get a better result for everybody.

2. Attribution Theory

A fundamental mistake that everybody tends to make is attributing behaviour to someone’s personality and disposition than leaving some room for doubt about the situation. Judging people so is biased, not to mention not useful at all. Sometimes, people behave in ways that displease you, sure, but they might not be predisposed to behaving that way and the situation might have influenced that behavior.

If you can think of instances where you have let occurrences of events make you comment about the habits / nature of a person, you have probably been making this error. You do not have to give them the benefit of doubt, but it helps to leave some room for doubt sometimes.

3. Confirmation bias

“We see what we are looking to see”. This is the most concise summarisation of this bias that most of us have. This affects not just social relationships but also professional work. When we have preconceived notions and beliefs, we will jump at the smallest and every piece of evidence that supports our expected results. In doing so, we often don’t even stop to cross examine evidence that might suggest otherwise. This can make us wrongly judge a person, and is the reason behind “cover-ups”, “burying evidence” and scientific studies which have manipulated results.

4. Self-fulfilling prophecies

These are slightly complex, and happen in part because of expectations. This is better explained with examples. Studies were conducted in which a group of students were described as being “promising and smart” to their teachers. These students were chosen at random, and there was no basis for actually marking them. Their academic results were observed a while later and it was found that they did indeed perform better than their usual and in a lot of cases better than others as well. This happened because the teachers were told of them being “special”, and they paid extra attention, gave a lot of positive reinforcements to them in particular etc. thus causing the change.

Another example is that if people believe that a particular person if opposed to them, they behave differently, which in turn causes that person to oppose them though they might not have done so in the first place.This is also how bullies are formed.

Another simple example mentioned in the Social Psychology course is interesting to understand this. Assume two neighbouring countries, A and B. Assume that A “thinks” B is arming itself for war. Country A will start moving its defenses along the borders. This movement might be interpreted by Country B as an act of aggression and thus B might start preparing itself. Country A could see this preparation as confirmation of its suspicion, and the countries might actually end up at war with each other, the basis of which was nothing to begin with.

5. Attitude Behaviour Inconsistency

What people believe and how they behave about matter pertaining to that belief are not always in sync. It is generally thought that people will behave according to their professed beliefs, but that is very often the quite opposite of what actually happens. People claim to have particular attitudes but do not behave accordingly. When this discrepancy is pointed out, they often change their professed attitude much easier than their behaviour.

Tips on getting things done

There are three “hacks” that generally could help you get what you want (I am not advocating any of these methods, just presenting )  :
1. Foot in the door : Make a small request, get it granted, that is your foot in the door. That can then improve your chances of getting a bigger, related request approved.
2. Door in the face : Making a huge unreasonable request first can improve your chances of getting a smaller, related request fulfilled. This can be thought of as “compensation” for guilt that sometimes accompanies denying somebody of something. Kids get good at this over the years ; )
3. Low-balling : This is the hidden costs method. You express a request first and get it approved without mentioning the full implications of the request, and after it has been approved, a lot of hidden costs are attached to that request. This happens often in the case of modern day marketing and sales.

I hope this helps, it definitely did help me in understanding people better : ) Cheers !