Sociology 530

Intermediate Social Psychology

Richard Williams, Instructor

Fall, 1992

Discussion Questions


Discussion Questions:

During the last decade social psychologists have debated about the development of the field. Much of this debate has focused on the theoretical integration (or lack thereof) which characterizes the discipline (e.g. Stryker's and House's articles during the late 1970's). Discuss the nature of this debate and assess its relevance for the discipline.

Compare and contrast the following: social learning theory, the cognitive perspective, symbolic interactionism, and operant behaviorism. What are the central propositions or key concepts of each theory? What does each theory say are the primary influences on, or determinants of, behavior? According to each theory, how do the actions of other people influence an individual's behavior? What, in your opinion, are each theory's major strengths and weaknesses?

Attitudes and behavior

Discussion questions:

Dissonance theory has been extremely important in shaping the field of social psychology. What are the central propositions of the theory? Under what circumstances do we expect cognitive dissonance to occur? Give an example of how you might use the theory to persuade a friend to agree with your opinion of a political candidate. Finally, if your friend did not change his or her opinion, how might that fact still be explained within the theory?

Bem's Self-Perception Theory is often viewed as representing the strongest challenge to Dissonance theory. Explain Bem's criticisms of dissonance theory and how self-perception operates.

Few teenagers intend to get pregnant, yet many do. How might attitude-behavior theory account for these discrepancies? Be sure to discuss both general concepts and specific indicators of those concepts that might be relevant (for example, you might talk about how normative influences affect attitude/behavior consistency, and then give specific examples of such influences.)

Social influence and persuasion

Discussion questions:

Next semester, Notre Dame will co-sponsor Christmas in April. This one-day project will use volunteers to fix up the homes of the disadvantaged and elderly living in neighborhoods near the campus. Notre Dame is searching for ways to persuade students to participate in this project. Naturally, the administration has come to you, to get the benefit of your expert advice.

a) Choose one of the following theories, and explain its major propositions.

i. Cognitive dissonance

ii. Fishbein and Ajzen's Model of Reasoned Action

iii. Functionalist theory

iv. Heuristic processes

b) Discuss how your chosen theory can be applied to this particular problem. Be sure to make it clear what things the theory says you should focus on, and specific strategies that the theory suggests.

c) Suppose the persuasive campaign does not succeed - students do not participate. Explain how the theory might account for this.

Notre Dame wants to set up a program to discourage drinking and drunken driving among undergraduate students. Using your knowledge of social influence and persuasion, advise the administration on each of the following:

a) What characteristics should the sources of the message have? Why? What can be done to make the sources most effective?

b) What types of messages will be most effective? What kinds of messages should be avoided? Be sure to discuss the possible uses of fear and attribution strategies.

When answering a and/or b, you may find it helpful to discuss how the functions that drinking attitudes serve affect your choice of a persuasive strategy.

Language and communication

Note: The students presenting will decide on any discussion questions and additional readings. I have never covered this topic before (part of the reason I ma assigning it to students) but it ties in with many of the previous topics, e.g. social learning, influence and persuasion, symbolic interactionism.

Other possible sources:

Chapter 18 of the Handbook of Social Psychology has a chapter on "Language and Language Users" by Herbert H. Clark

The June 1987 (Volume 50, #2) of Social Psychology Quarterly was devoted entirely to "Language and Social Interaction"

Cognitive and moral development

Note: The students presenting have the option of deciding on additional/alternative readings and questions. I have never covered this topic before, although it does have clear ties to many of the other topics discussed in this course. The presenters have the option of going into a more general discussion of socialization if they think it is useful (or don't have enough material to fill the class otherwise).

Discussion questions:

Compare and contrast the processes and outcomes of childhood socialization as conceptualized by cognitive-developmental theories and behavioral theories (e.g. social learning theories). Describe in detail the social and psychological mechanisms by which the outlooks and behaviors of children are transformed and the ways in which socialization agents operate.

Attribution theory

Discussion questions:

The literature on attribution processes identifies a number of "biases" in the processes by which we perceive other persons. (a) How do these biases influence the impressions we form of others as we interact with them? In particular, to what extent and in what ways do these biases influence our perceptions of the identities and goals of those with whom we interact? (b) What are some possible explanations for the existence of these biases? Be sure to discuss the ways in which motivational and cognitive factors possibly affect attributions.

Human beings often speculate as to the causes of other's behavior.

a. What are some of the social and individual consequences of the types of attributions we make?

b. Discuss Kelley's Principle of Covariation (which Brown calls the Causal Calculus) and Seligman's Theory of Attributional Style. According to your chosen theorys, what types of attributions do we make, and what determines why we make them?

c. Explain how cognitive and motivational factors can cause us to be biased when making attributions.


Discussion questions:

Stanley Milgram has said that "the most fundamental lesson of our study is that ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process." Explain why he says this. What insights does the research on conformity and obedience give us on why the atrocities of Nazi Germany occurred? To answer this question, you will want to consider what we now know about why and when people conform. You will then want to speculate about how the circumstances of the time or situation made possible the atrocities you are discussing. (NOTE: You can substitute other incidents from history if you prefer - for example, My Lai, the Stalinist purges, etc.)

Research on conformity and obedience has produced some of the most shocking results in social psychology. How and why do normative and information influence affect conformity? What are three or four of the most important factors that have been found to increase or decrease conformity?

Group decision making

Discussion questions:

Choose some major controversy/"fiasco" (real or alleged) from the last 25 years (other than one of those discussed in the book Victims of Groupthink, i.e., the Bay of Pigs, Pearl Harbor, Korea, Vietnam, and Watergate). Drawing on your knowledge of group decision-making processes, discuss the following:

A. How might "groupthink" account for the (real or alleged) mistakes that were made? That is, what symptoms of groupthink appeared to be present? Look for evidence of such things as group polarization, conformity pressures, self-censoring, mindguards, etc.

B. How could groupthink have been prevented? That is, what are some changes that could have been made in the decision-making process that might have led to better results?

Group leadership/productivity

Note: Lissa VanBebber will give a guest presentation on this topic. She may have additional readings and/or discussion questions.

Discussion questions:

Discuss how two of the following are related to group productivity, and why. Pay particular attention to how these factors are related to increases or decreases in group productivity, and under what conditions. Depending on your choices, you will probably want to include in your discussion some consideration of how group norms and the nature of the task affect the relationship between these variables and productivity.

a. Leadership style

b. Social loafing

c. Group cohesiveness

d. Group size

What makes for a "good leader?" How much of a leader's success is due to his or her abilities, and to what extent is due to external circumstances? Why will a leader succeed under one set of circumstances but fail under another?

Altruism and aggression

Discussion questions:

Compare and contrast two of these six perspectives on altruism and aggression: biological, cultural, personal, situational, affective, and cognitive. According to your two chosen perspectives, why do people behave in an altruistic or aggressive manner? How do the perspectives account for the fact that people are not always consistent in their altruistic or aggressive behavior? That is, why are individuals altruistic or aggressive at one time and situation but not another? Be sure to note any major conflicts between the two perspectives, and how the perspectives account for both altruism and aggression.


Discussion questions:

Choose two theoretical perspectives on deviance that you feel sharply differ from each other. Then discuss the following:

a. What are the major propositions of the theories?

b. Choose one deviant behavior from list 1 and one deviant behavior from list 2. Discuss how your two theories would account for the behaviors. Be sure to make it clear how your theories differ in their explanations, and why.


List 1 List 2
1. Drug addiction 1. Anti-military protests
2. Wife-beating 2. Homosexuality
3. Murder 3. Joining the Hare Krishnas
4. Robbery 4. Being on welfare when one is capable of working

Interpersonal Attraction

Note: The students presenting will decide what the discussion questions are, if any. They may also opt to assign additional readings. Chapter 21 of The Handbook of Social Psychology ("Interpersonal Attraction" by Ellen Berscheid) is another possible source. This is a very big topic, so the presenters may wish to zero in on a specific area, e.g theories of interpersonal attraction, determinants of interpersonal attraction, effect of personality vs. situational variables on interpersonal attraction, types of interpersonal attraction (heterosexual, homosexual, platonic, etc.)

Prejudice, racism, sexism

Discussion questions:

The superintendent of a recently desegregated school system wants to know what she can do to promote interracial harmony. Using your knowledge of such areas as interpersonal attraction, prejudice, and intergroup conflict, explain to the superintendent what factors are likely to affect the formation and stability of interracial friendships. Suggest some policies the schools could adopt that would increase the probability that interracial friendships would form and that they would persist for a significant amount of time. In your discussion, you will want to make it clear what theoretical perspectives and research findings are influencing your answer.

Prejudice has traditionally been assumed to be the product of some form of malice, brought about by social or emotional forces. In recent years, however, there has been increasing research on how prejudice can result from cognitive processes, without malicious intent. Discuss how and why cognitive processes can produce prejudice. Once stereotypes and prejudices are formed, how do they come to be self-perpetuating?

Social structure and personality

Note: The students presenting may choose to bring up other discussion questions and/or readings.

Most of us attribute diseases to biological rather than social factors. Explain how and why social and psychological factors can also affect our physical and mental well-being. Include in your discussion the ways in which at least three of the following are related to physical and/or mental health.

a. Gains and losses of social support

b. Loss of, or lack of, control in one's life

c. Occupational roles

d. Gender roles

e. Marital roles

Synthesis questions/ other topics

Note: These questions synthesize many of the topics we have discussed, or else go over additional material that a well-rounded social psychologist should be familiar with. Those who plan on taking the area exam in social psychology would want to be able to answer questions such as the following:

Schellenberg identifies four "masters" of social psychology: Freud, Lewin, Mead, and Skinner. Their perspectives differ substantially in the kinds of variables they employ in explaining social behavior. Select two of these perspectives and discuss the following:

a) What are the major assumptions/propositions of each concerning the influences on or the determinants of behavior?

b) What are the major weaknesses of each perspective?

c) What are some of the contemporary theoretical perspectives that have been influenced by their work? How successful have these been in overcoming the weaknesses of the "masters"?

Neal Smelser has argued that there are six determinants of collective behavior - structural conduciveness, structural strain, growth and spread of a generalized belief, a precipitating factor, mobilization of participants, and social controls. Choose four or more of these determinants, and discuss how his model might explain one of the following. Your answer should show that you both understand the model and know how to apply it. If you choose a, b, or c, feel free to make up any plausible scenario you can think of.

a. A movement to unionize clerical workers on the Notre Dame campus

b. A student-organized lobbying effort aimed at lowering the legal drinking age

c. A nationwide campaign to reduce social security benefits

d. Any contemporary social movement you are familiar with (e.g. women's movement, civil rights) - but only pick this if you are fairly knowledgeable about the movement.

Not too long ago, social psychology meetings and journals were flooded with papers on dissonance theory. By contrast, much less attention has been given to this topic in recent conventions and issues of leading journals. What has lead to the decline of dissonance theory? Does dissonance theory have utility for social psychology today? [Note: the Personality and social psychology bulletin, volume 15, no. 4, December 1989, discusses this issue at length.]

There are many sources of conflict, and many means by which conflict can be reduced. Discuss how social dilemmas, competition, and misperceptions contribute to conflict. Then discuss how either cooperation or conciliation can be used to reduce conflict.

Take one area of substantive personal interest and illustrate in some depth how one or more of the following areas might help to focus research issues in the field:

a. Attribution theory

b. Behaviorism

c. Expectancy theory

d. Maslow's theory of human development

All of us like to believe that we are in control of our own actions. However, social psychologists have often found that the attitudes, actions, and even the mere presence of other individuals can influence our behavior. Discuss how other individuals and/or social norms affect behavior in at least three of the following areas. You must choose one each from a, b, and c, but you are welcome to add additional areas if you want.

a. attitude-behavior consistency or social influence and persuasion

b. altruism and/or aggression or conformity or productivity

c. crowd behavior or deviant behavior or prejudice

Symbolic Interactionism is sociologically oriented, while cognitive theory is very psychological. Discuss how each of these perspectives explains (or might explain) behavior in two or more of the following areas (see below). In what major ways do the perspectives agree or disagree in their explanation of each behavior? What are the major strengths/advantages of each perspective for explaining behavior in this area, and what are the major weaknesses/disadvantages?


You must choose at least one of these three:

a. Leadership

b. Intergroup conflict

c. Prejudice

Now, you must also choose at least one of the following:

a. social influence and persuasion

b. interpersonal attraction

c. conformity and obedience

d. altruism and/or aggression

e. Group decision-making

f. attitude-behavior consistency

Relatively few interesting studies in the area of small group research have appeared in the scientific journals over the past several years. One can argue that a reason for this gap lies in the theoretical weakness of the majority of studies in this area. Identify and describe at least three theoretical perspectives which may be found in the small group literature. Discuss weaknesses of each perspective in terms of its utility for explaining-predicting the values, attitudes or behaviors of group members. What theoretical framework would you construct if you were conducting a study on peer influences in a small group?