Experiments With People : Revelations From Social Psychology
This book provides an opportunity to explore the fascinating, underpublicized, and sometimes misunderstood subject of social psychology. In it, twenty-eight intriguing studies that throw light on human social thinking and behavior are reviewed.
These studies, mostly laboratory experiments, address topics such as people’s unawareness of why they do what they do, the tenacity with which they maintain beliefs despite contrary evidence, and the surprising extent to which they are influenced by the social groups to which they belong.
The results of these studies help the reader understand many social phenomena that would otherwise remain deeply puzzling, such as the operation of unconscious prejudices, belief in mental telepathy, intense loyalty to questionable groups, the occasional cruelty and indifference of ordinary people, and the nature of love relationships. We chose to include each study because, in addition to being ingeniously designed and carefully executed, it raised a question of theoretical significance or addressed a problem of practical importance.
This volume is not a reader—we do not reproduce (lawyers take note!) any of the original journal articles. Rather, each chapter offers a detailed exposition of, and commentary on, a single study (though often citing closely related research). We first introduce the problem that the researchers sought to solve (“Background”). We then describe how the study was conducted (“What They Did”) and what its findings were (“What They Found”). Next comes a “So What?” section, the purpose of which is to persuade anyone inclined to view the study as trivial that his or her misgivings are unfounded.
We continue with an “Afterthoughts” section, in which we discuss some of the broader issues that the study raises, of a conceptual, practical, or ethical nature. Finally, each chapter concludes with an explicit statement of the unique “Revelation” that each study affords, often a profound and counterintuitive truth.
One of our goals in writing this volume was to make a convincing case for the use of experiments in social psychological research. Colloquially, the word experiment refers to the trying out of some new idea or technique. Our usage is more technical: It refers to the random assignment of many subjects—here human participants—to different groups (conditions) where these groups are treated identically except in one or a few crucial respects.
The impact of these independent variables on how participants think or act (the dependent variables) is then assessed—did the manipulation have an effect? Experiments have a unique advantage in that they allow causal inferences to be made with confidence. They also permit alternative explanations for a phenomenon to be efficiently ruled out.
Although we do not claim that experimentation provides absolute knowledge, we do claim that it enables researchers to better distinguish between viable and untenable theories about the mind and behavior. Indeed, when the findings of social psychological studies come in, the pitfalls of commonsense are often shockingly exposed.
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