Lecture 12 - Social Psych

Social Structure & Personality


(Adapted from Handbook of Social Psychology, chapter 27, "The application of social psychology"; Michener et al; 1988 Soc 311 Notes, Lecture 7, "Mortality")

I. OVERVIEW: (From Michener):

A. Every person occupies a position in a social system. The relationships among these positions make up the social structure. Social structure and positions affect people in a last three ways.

1. We have role expectations about how occupants of positions will behave, e.g. we expect professors to behave in a certain way.

2. Positions are associated with sets of relationships, which we call social networks. Each of us is woven into several networks, including those involving coworkers, family, and friends.

3. Each position has a status associated with it. Some positions are more prestigious than others.

B. Acting via roles, social networks, and status, social structure can affect the health, values, occupational attainment, and sense of belonging in society. (We will also consider how some other social psychological variables are relevant influences on these.)


A. Social support. In the last several years there has been considerable research on the effects of help that people receive from informal supports, such as family, friends, or neighbors

1. Social networks. Many studies show that people who are part of social networks are less likely to be negatively affected by stressful life events and are less likely to become ill.

a. Favorable social environment has been linked to fewer complications during pregnancy, faster recovery from illness, fewer health problems during stressful periods of life.

b. Married men live longer than unmarried men

c. Studies suggest that it may be more feasible to attempt to improve and strengthen social supports in order to improve or retain good health than to reduce exposure to stressors or pathogens

2. Why is social support helpful?

a. Mutual transmission of health info. Peers can relay which physical symptoms are threatening and which are not. Failure to assess a dangerous situation could allow degenerative disease to worsen.

b. Having a friendship network promotes a sense of responsibility toward friends, which may cause you to take greater responsibility for yourself (e.g. it makes a difference to others whether you live or die).

c. Support system may mitigate physiological stress. Presence of others reduces anxiety. By social comparison, we avoid exaggerating physical problems, which could cause them to become even worse.

3. Effects on health of losses of social support.

a. Increases in mortality risk are greater following bereavement. Most dramatic increase in risk comes from suicide, accidents, liver cirrhosis - suggesting psychological factors play a crucial role. Evidence for non-psychological causes (shared unfavorable environments, joint accidents, infectious diseases) is weak.

b. About 40% of those bereaved are fearful at one time or another that they are going crazy.

c. Have major losses in self-esteem - partner isn't there to "repair you" after a bad day. This can lead to an increased reliance on drugs, lower motivation to engage in health-sustaining behavior.

d. Surviving spouse frequently confronts a substantial loss of material and task support as well. The higher the specialization of roles in a marriage, the more drastic are the effects of the loss of the partner. Greater stress, since decision-making is not shared

4. Social support can also be lost because of illness. Ill individuals often lose support for reasons they cannot understand and that may therefore have an even greater debilitating effect.

a. Cancer patients generally receive ambivalent responses from those in their major social support network. Feelings about cancer patients are often negative. Cancer arouses great fear and feelings of vulnerability, and may evoke aversion and disgust in others. Individuals may be strongly motivated to protect themselves by attributing the disease to others undesirable characteristics or past behavior.

Also - many family members believe that discussion about cancer or death will make the patient uncomfortable. Feel they must act cheerful. This affects frequency and quality of time members of the support network spend with cancer patients, and the interactions that do take place are likely to evoke a certain amount of anxiety.

Also - ambivalence, confusion, discomfort lead the individual's major social supports to behave in ways that are unintentionally damaging to the patient's welfare, leading to avoidance, reluctance to talk about the disease, vast discrepancies in behavior.

Also - potential supports often do turn against recipients of help. People may be upset if the recipients receive more help than they deserve. Very act of providing help may lessen regard for the recipient. Help is most grudgingly given when people are seen as responsible for both the cause and solution of their problems and least grudgingly given when they are seen as responsible for neither.

B. Control and health. It has been argued that the desire to make decisions and affect outcomes, that is, to exercise control, is a basic feature of human behavior. There has been much research on the relationship between loss of control and the onset of poor health.

1. Personality is related to feelings of control. Type A personality - consists of such predispositions as competitive achievement striving and sense of time urging and hostility. Type As work hard to succeed, suppress subjective states (e.g. fatigue) that might interfere with task performance, express hostility after being harassed in their efforts at task completion. They want to exert control over environmental demands. They have a coronary-prone behavior, because they are always involved in a struggle for control, whereas type Bs are relatively free of such concerns.

2. Life change. Investigators have considered how control mediates the effects of life changes on health. A study tried to assess whether individuals who experience a series of uncontrollable, undesirable life events exhibit greater illness. It found that hospitalized patients reported more uncontrollable losses during the one-year period prior to hospitalization. Only undesirable, uncontrollable events were bad though.

3. Medical procedures. Illness itself may threaten a persons sense of control. Illness threatens the ability to regulate physiological processes. Furthermore, may feel in an inferior position to the health-care practitioner.

a. Many studies have looked at the effect of control enhancement in medical settings. Some approaches give patients a great deal of preparatory information - patients can thus make plans, enhancing the feeling of control.

Study showed that patients had better reactions to anesthesia and surgery when focus of attention was directed away from their own emotional reactions to the specific tasks that made them feel more in control.

b. A study of nursing homes assessed the effects of interventions designed to encourage elderly home residents to make a greater number of choices and fell more in control of their lives. Those with more control became more active and less unhappy.

c. In another study, elderly were taught coping skills - they showed a significant reduction in stress, increased problem solving ability, and significant reductions in corticosteroid level, an indicator of physiological stress

C. Occupational roles.

1. A 1960 study showed that mortality rates for professional men were 20% below the average. Also showed that as income and education go up, mortality goes down.

2. Some occupations directly expose you to health hazards, e.g. mining.

3. Others expose you to stress. As work load increases (perceived demands on one's time, number of hours worked, feeling of responsibility), so does the risk of coronary heart disease

4. To deal with overload

a. Set priorities, establish a queue

b. Renegotiate role expectations. EX: reschedule an exam, take on a partner.

c. Exit from one of the roles - e.g. quit school.

D. Gender roles.

1. Women generally live longer than men do, and the gap is widening. In 1900 women could expect to live 2 years longer than men in the U.S. Today it is 7 years (78.3 vs. 71.3). This has not always been true. In premodern times, females faced higher risks of dying, especially during adolescence and the childbearing ages. Repeated pregnancies, lengthy breastfeeding, prolonged childrearing left women vulnerable to such illnesses as tuberculosis, anemia, diseases related to pregnancy and labor. Fewer pregnancies have worked to women's advantage. Maternal mortality has all but disappeared; in 1986, only 272 women died of maternal causes (about 7.2 per 100,000 live births). In addition, women smoke less; however, since WWII, women have started smoking more, and lung cancer rates have risen more for women than men (71% vs. 16%). Women may also be under less stress than men.

2. Men are two to 6 times more likely to experience coronary heart disease,lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver.

3. Men are more likely to be type As

4. Men smoke more, drink more, have poorer driving habits.

5. Women tend to have poorer mental health than men. For women, being married may increase stress, because they may feel they have less control over what happens in their lives. NOTE: Reporting may be an issue here - women are more likely to report problems of mental illness.

E. Marital Status: Married people tend to live longer than unmarried people. Married people find life more satisfying than the unmarried. Unmarried men ages 25-64 have suicide rates that are double those for married men. Unmarried men and women have higher death rates from alcohol and cigarettes. Married men are less likely to engage in voluntary, health-threatening behavior. Men get the biggest benefits from marriage, and also suffer the most from divorce and death of a spouse. This may be because women have more of a support network.

F. Race: Black mortality is higher than white mortality by about 10%. Income and education alone cannot account for all of these differences. Infant mortality is twice as high for blacks as it is whites (18 per 1000 vs. 8.9 per 1000).


A. Occupation. Certain occupations are associated with certain values. Men whose jobs are less closely supervised, less routine, and more complex place high value on responsibility, good sense, and curiosity. Men whose work is closely supervised, routine, and not complex, are more likely to value conformity. Whether or not the occupations actually cause these values, or whether these values cause people to go into certain types of occupations, is unclear.

B. Education influences values. Educated people tend to be more open to new experiences, more independent from authority, and more interested in public affairs.

C. Social class - Persons of high status give high ratings to a sense of accomplishment and family security, whereas those low in education and income give high ratings to a comfortable life and salvation. High status persons already have a comfortable life, so it seems less important to them; Religion can be a source of comfort to the lower classes, making salvation an important concern of theirs.

IV. ALIENATION - sense that one is uninvolved with the social world or lacks control over it.

A. Self-estrangement - awareness that one is engaging in activities that are not rewarding in and of themselves.

1. Industrial technology is said to produce estrangement because worker has no connection with the finished product (he won't see the car after it leaves the plant), workers have no control over company policies, workers have little control over the conditions of employment.

2. Work in large bureaucratic organizations may also produce estrangement. Workers have little or no control over the work process and do not participate in organizational decision-making.

B. Powerlessness - sense of having little or no control over events. People feel they have no control over political affairs and world events. Social position affects how powerlessness is expressed. Middle and upper classes may be more likely to stay home on election day, or to feel apathetic about political affairs. Lower class persons may be more likely to have hostile attitudes toward city officials and to vandalize businesses

C. normlessness - believe socially disapproved behavior is necessary to achieve goals. Lower classes are especially likely to experience this, since they often lack socially approved means of achieving their goals.

D. meaninglessness - a feeling that the world around you is incomprehensible. Since meanings arise out of interactions with others, meaninglessness may be a consequence of lack of group ties and the absence of the familial and other roles that reflect such ties.

E. Social isolation - lack of involvement in meaningful relationships. Most adults are not isolated from family and friends. But, some people are isolated and have virtually no ties - for example, the chronically mentally ill, street people, bag ladies.

F. Cultural estrangement - rejection of the basic values and life styles available in society. Whereas self-estrangement is alienation from one's self, cultural estrangement is alienation from society. This was the basis for the counterculture movement of the 1960s and for the founding of various utopian communities. Such a rejection promotes either a lack of commitment to established cultural values and a withdrawal form organized social life, or militant attempts to change the society. The former leads to deviant behavior while the latter is a source of social protest and social movements.


A. Occupational status is a key component of social standing, and a major determinant of income and life style.

B. People improve their status via upward mobility, the movement from an occupation lower in prestige and income to one higher in prestige and income.

C. Status attainment model. Attainment is influenced by education, indirectly by background. This suggests that the effects of a poor background can be offset by good education. Others argue that the effects of social background persist throughout life.

D. Info about employment is often obtained via social networks. Opportunities are often discovered via weak ties, since weak ties are more likely to be characterized by members of different groups.