28 Apr

The social animal – Part 1

The social animal is an academic textbook aimed to give the reader an introduction to the subject of social psychology. The author is the American psychologist Elliot Aronson.
A few years ago, while I was walking in Pavia (Italy) with a friend of mine, I told him that since I had attended a job course about interaction with customers, persuasion, and Neuro Linguistic Programmation, I had figured out that I was very interested to social psychology. I didn’t have a clear idea about what psychology was, but I wanted to understand more about the human brain and the behave of people in the society. Since my friend was a psychology student, he advised me the book “The social animal of Elliot Aronson”, telling me I would have liked it very much.
Well, I took more than 2 years to follow my friend’s advice, but I can now say that he was completely right. I enjoyed to read this book, and I decided to sum up the best of it in my blog. I would like to thank my friend Franco for the good advise. I strongly recommend the book to anybody who would like to understand more about people and their behaviors in our society. 🙂

The Social Animal

– People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy.
This is what Aronson calls ‘his first law’. As you can imagine he doesn’t want to justify thieves and murderers with that statement, but he simply wants to explain that our behave and our decisions can be easily influenced by things and people around us. As a social psychologist, the author researched and studied those triggers, and organised his findings in his book.
Often, what seems to be craziness is only an automatic mechanism in our mind, brought from years of evolution.
Humans are social animals, and this is not new. It’s easy to see how much each of us interact with others everyday. Examples are social networks and smartphones that let us communicate very easily, and today have huge impacts on our lives.

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The first topic explained is conformity. Try to imagine that you are walking in a supermarket and suddenly everybody start running in one direction. You have not idea of what it’s going on but my guess is that you won’t lose too much time trying to understand it, rather you will start running as fast as you can in the same direction. That is exactly what conformity is. Last year I was living in Sydney and everyday I had to walk to the station and across busy streets. As everyone knows the red man on the traffic light means that people have to stop and wait, and although this is an important rule, it is not always followed. Someone might be late and might refuse to wait if there are no cars coming. This would be an exception, but what surprised me was that once the first brave person crossed the street, he or she was followed from many others. They were probably thinking: “If he can do it, why I can’t?…”.


This behave to conform to others is very common in our society, and largely explained in the book. Aronson gives three reasons of why we conform to society and people around us.
Our tendency to conform to avoid a punishment or to gain a reward is called compliance. This reason to conform does not change our beliefs or attitudes. For example, if while we are driving we slow down only because we know there is a speed camera, we are conforming to the street rules, but we won’t change our belief. We will conform only to avoid a big fine, and if the speed camera will be removed we might decide to exceed the limit when the road is free and we think it’s not dangerous.
The second reason why we conform to others is identification. It differs from compliance because when we conform for identification we don’t do it to avoid a reward or punishment, but because we like a person or a group and we want to be like them. This reason for conform might change with time our own values and beliefs. However, we may turn back to our own believes if our opinion for this person or group change.
The third, and most permanent reason to conform is internalisation. The motivation we have to internalise a particular belief and make it our own is the desire to be right. When we think a person is trustworthy and with good judgment, we accept the belief he or she advocates and we integrate it into our system of values. Once it is part of us, it’ll become very resistant to change. Conform for identification is not as easy as it seems. Indeed, Aronson shows with a few experiments that it is fundamental “who says what to who?”. Our opinions are influenced only by expert and trustworthy individuals. We will then trust more a doctor than our uncle on medical decisions and so on.

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A second topic I found interesting was the explanation of judgmental heuristics.
Heuristics are something we use everyday in almost every situation of our life. They can be translated in “mental shortcuts”: simple, and often approximate rules or strategy for solving a problem. We make decisions and judgements all the time, and if we carefully consider and analyse every possible outcome of them, we would not do anything else. Our mind provide us with heuristics to make every decision easier for us, without the need to think about every option every time.


For example, if you meet three people from a different country and they are all amusing, you will assume that the country has an amusing culture and that most other people from there will also be fun and pleasant. This is an example of one of three common heuristics Aronson mentions in his book: the representative heuristic.
The representative heuristic facilitate us to make a decision by comparing information to our mental prototypes. In the previous example, the three amusing people will be our prototype for everyone else from that country. If I see two bottles of wine on the shelf and one has a higher price, I leap to the conclusion that the more expensive one is the better wine because I know that high-quality products are usually expensive. If at the supermarket we see cereals with a colorful box we are driven to believe they are full of sugar, while if they have a brown pack with spikes of grain’s picture they must be full of fiber and good proprieties. We often select only one feature to decide if wine or cereal are good or bad, and probably the wrong feature.
The second common heuristic is the availability heuristic, which helps us to make a decision based on how easy it is to bring something to mind. An example of it is the huge influence that media has on people. We are likely to overestimate each event we see in television or on social networks because it comes easily to mind. For example, after seeing several news reports about car thefts, you might believe that vehicle theft is more common than it really is in your country.
The attitude heuristic is the last the author quotes in the book. An attitude is a special type of belief
that includes an emotional component. The attitude heuristic uses the emotional component to assign an object or a person to a favorable or unfavorable class. To better understand this heuristic, another dimension of it is the halo effect, which I described better in my last article.