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.

— — —
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.

02 Apr

The Halo Effect

Our brain is an incredible tool, but despite its power and all its amazing features it isn’t perfect and can make us believe wrong information or make us take the wrong decision. In my opinion, everyone should have at least some knowledge of these biases and limitations of our mind. Once we know some of the common biases of the human mind, we can begin to think a little better and make smarter decisions. My idea is to write about some of these limitations. In my first article I talked about the Optimistic bias which help us to be optimistic about ourself even if sometimes it can be a double side sword. Today I’ll talk about another very interesting bias which leads people to like or dislike everything about one person or object just after the first impression. The name of this bias is the Halo Effect. The term has been in use in psychology for a century but it has not come in use in everyday language. The psychologist Edward Thorndike was the first who studied the halo effect and gave the phenomenon its name in his 1920 article “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings”.

If you think about your favourite actress, you will probably realise that you like her voice as well as her films and appearance. On the other hand, if you dislike a politician, you probably disagree with him and hate the way he talks. This tendency is the halo effect. Being able to recognise it can be very useful for many reason: we may realise how important the first impression is when we try to sell something or when we meet a person for the first time. Furthermore, we might avoid to make hasty decisions we would make because of it.
We tend to think that celebrities are smarter, healthier and more creative. What we know of them is a very small part of their personality but our brain assumes that if they are attractive, they are probably also intelligent. Since when we were children, we learned that the good is beautiful, and the bad is ugly. The princess was always kept in prison by the ugly witch and she needed to be saved from the awesome prince. Beautiful people are always advantaged because unconsciously considered better from our society.

Halo Effect

An advantage of the halo effect is that it works as an heuristic, or mental shortcut. We don’t need to analyse every action someone do but we can base our decision to trust someone or not on our overall impression. This might also be a disadvantage though. For instance, people who are physically attractive can better persuade others. They are also considered friendlier and more talented. That’s the reason why sales men are always well dressed and tidy. The first impression results to be valid in all sorts of domains: job opportunities, dating, and even daily life. An enthusiastic behaviour with a remarkable appearance make the difference between a successful meeting and a regrettable one. The first impression will remain the same, bringing advantages (or disadvantages) in the interaction with people over the time. If people like you, they will forgive you for your “wrongs” and remember your “rights”.

As the image above wants to demonstrate, the halo effect may often drive us to the wrong conclusion. Even if we now know how strong is the first impression we cannot remove this bias from our brain. However, if we are aware of our tendency to overestimate a beautiful smile and underestimate a serious person, we can try to learn better about someone or something before to make a decision. A second big advantage is that we may use this bias to improve our interaction with people. The importance of the first sentences in a presentation and a big smile are straightforward. The first 5 minutes might create the idea one person has about you for the next 5 years.

Remember that you never get a second chance to get a first impression.

16 Mar

The optimistic bias

In this my first article about psychology, I will talk about the optimistic bias: the tendency of people to overestimate good events like our career in the future and underestimate bad events. A personal example that demonstrate the optimistic bias is the certainty I had last year to permanently live in Australia for more than 2 years. I did not evaluate if it would have been worth it or not, and I am now not as sure as before. Another example are marriages. 100% of spouses believe that their marriage will last forever, but as you can see in everyday life the divorce rates in the world is very high: from 20% to even more than 50% in some countries like Spain or Portugal.

Are you more or less intelligent of the average person? What about your driving capability or the capacity to get along with people? Most of us believe to be over the average person in these and many other abilities. Well, we cannot all be better than everyone else because this is statistically impossible. 🙂


So, is the optimistic bias positive or negative? Most of the people might assume that this bias is not positive and that to have low expectation is better because when things don’t happen we are not going to be disappointed. Furthermore, if something good happen we are happier because it wasn’t expected.
This assumption turn out to be false. Tali Sharot, psychologist and author of the book “The optimistic bias”, gives three reasons why an high expectation is better in her Ted Talk.

First, the interpretation of an event matters. People with high expectation will always feel better because when they succeed they attribute that success to their own characteristics and when they fail they attribute the reason of that failure to other factors. They know that the failure is just an exception and therefore they know the next time they’ll do better. On the other hand, people with low expectation do the opposite: when they fail they know it was because they were not able to do better, and when the succeed it was just because they were lucky and next time they will do bad as usual.

The second reason is that anticipation enhance reality. This means that envisioning future positive events can produce a very positive emotional response. The happiness of doing something we’ve been looking forward to does not increase only in that day but also during the days before. In a study which asked people if they were more willing to pay to kiss your favourite celebrity after 1 hour, or after 3 days, the majority of them chose the second option. The extra hours gave people more time to imagine the event. This is also the reason why people prefer Friday to Sunday. On Friday people can anticipate their weekend, on Sunday instead the only thing they can anticipate is the work week.

The third reason is that optimism is not only related to success but it also leads to success. Experiments have demonstrated that if we expect an amazing future, stress and anxiety are reduced. Furthermore, if we have high expectations we are much more willing to work harder to achieve our goals and succeed. Optimism has a lot of benefits.

Optimism - Like a picture

Of course, too much optimism may be also dangerous. If some smokers think the probability they’ll get lung cancer is 10%, but studies says the average is 5%, they’ll efficiently change their believe to 5 or 6 percent. On the other hand, if smokers think the probability for them is 1 or 2 percent, they will not change their believe even after the statistical results say it’s 5%. This means that we believe to signal like “Smoking kills” but we think that mostly it kills other people. Moreover, the optimistic bias can lead us to unnecessary risks with our health or finance. An example might be people who don’t respect speed limits in highways or people who invest huge amounts of money even if they know the percentage of success is incredibly low.

It is scientifically possible to eliminate the bias with electromagnetic impulses to some area of our brain. The question is “Do we really want to get rid of the optimistic bias?”. We have seen the benefits and harms of this bias. Being aware of them means that we may be able to control it more. It is important to have high expectation to improve our future but if we jump from a cliff without a parachute because we are optimist, that might not be a very good decision. The solution is to balance and follow our dreams being aware of the reality