Research from Psychology Sorted: Social Identity Theory

sitHow we develop our social identity is still a hot topic today, and for those of you studying the effect of technologies, especially social media, on social identity, there is a developing literature on the subject.  But we should start with the classic minimal groups paradigm from Tajfel (1971), found in our new book Psychology Sorted, as it is still so relevant today.

The predominant 1960s theory of social identity formation came from Sherif et al.’s (1961) study which led to the development of his 1966 realistic conflict theory that competition for scarce resources is the foundation for group (social) identity, and also one cause of conflict. Think of the worldwide competition for water and oil on a large scale and maybe sporting competitions on a smaller scale. Why do you think that schools have ‘houses’, ‘sporting colours’, ‘house badges’?

However, Tajfel’s research contradicted this, demonstrating that only minimal conditions were necessary for group identity to form: his experiment randomly allocated schoolboys to two groups.  The boys thought they had been allocated their group according to their preference for a painting by either Klee or Kandinsky, but this was a deception and the allocation was random. This perception of belonging to a certain group was enough for boys to show in-group favouritism when allocating virtual money via a complex matrix of rules.  The minimal groups paradigm formed the basis of Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory, which remains a powerful explanation of in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination.

The three sequential steps Tajfel & Turner (1979) deemed necessary for social identity to form are:

  • social categorisation – we understand that people (and things) can be grouped
  • social identification – we identify with a group
  • social comparison – we compare ourselves favourably with another group

Social comparison underlies stereotyping, gang fights (though these can also be seen as competition for scarce resources), between-class competitions, girl/boy competition, online identities…how many more can you think of?

Tajfel’s theory can be used extensively in the curriculum, from his lab experiments in the 1970s (research methods), to an argument for the formation of stereotypes (sociocultural approach), to an explanation of how competition and maybe even conflict is generated in human relationships, to how images are cultivated socially on Snapchat, Instagram and (amongst us oldies) Facebook for cognitive psychology.  This is an example of a classic theory that can be easily accessed through Psychology Sorted.

Cognitive biases – don’t let them confuse you.

Studying the reliability of thinking and decision-making leads us into the slightly

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System 2 thinking

complex world of System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow) thinking and heuristics.  Teaching cognitive biases is straightforward, and less is more.  The key point is that we are inclined to base our current thinking and decision-making on past experiences and present perceptions.  Our memories distort the past, and the media and our selective attention distort our present, especially if we are being pushed into a fast decision.

Tversky & Kahneman (1974) review a range of research in which they themselves have tested different heuristics, looking for evidence of ways in which System 1 thinking (effortless, fast, a short-cut to the answer) may operate when tested under specific conditions.  They describe three different heuristics, leading to cognitive bias.

The representative heuristic is based on the idea that one event is representative of other events very similar to it, using the idea of how probable something is according to the individual’s prior knowledge of it. Even though participants knew that 70% of the descriptions of people that they had been given had referred to engineers, while 30% had referred to lawyers, when faced with a description of a man who could have been either, they judged that there was an equal chance of John being either an engineer or a lawyer.  Similarly, when given a description of a shy quiet person, they were immediately judged to be most likely to be a librarian, even though the list of possible occupations included those that were much more statistically probable.  This can be seen as the basis for stereotypes – taking a shortcut based on prior knowledge and assumptions.

The availability heuristic works by people tending to judge an event using the probability of its occurring, according to their prior knowledge: e.g. a middle-aged man with chest pains might be assumed to be having a heart attack but a four-year-old child with similar pains would not elicit the same response as four-year-old children do not tend to have heart attacks.  This can lead to bias in diagnosis, as clinicians base their diagnoses on previous examples that come readily to mind; they are cognitively available.

The anchoring bias involves an initial value or starting-point in an information processing task determining how the final value is arrived at. The researchers tested high school students asking them to estimate one of the following: 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1 or 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8. Of course, each answer is the same as the numbers are identical per list. What Tversky and Kahneman found was that the descending list (8x7x6 etc.) produced a much higher estimate than the ascending scale (1x2x3 etc.) with the researchers concluding that the first value anchored the value as either high or low and that this is what caused the adjustment to the estimations.  This is related to our first judgements about people: if we judge them in a positive light because of their friendly behaviour, this can ‘anchor’ our appraisal of their subsequent behaviour.

Use these examples as the basis for discussing how stereotypes are developed, or how diagnoses can lack validity, and they are also useful for discussing the lab experiment method.  I am sure students can think of many more examples of how these heuristics can occasionally (not always) work to distort our thinking and decision-making in real life. But that might take some time and some logical, patient reasoning using System 2 thinking!

Psychology Sorted cognitive research: The effect of digital technology on memory and learning

There has been a lot in the news recently about the effect of social media on mental health, but less about the effect on school and university students of reading or responding to texts during lectures.  As students expect to be ‘connected’ throughout the day, gradually mobile phones have been finding their way into classrooms and lecture halls. Students often argue this makes no difference to their learning, as they can disregard texts and interruptions.  But is this true? Another study from Psychology Sorted  is explored today, with examples of how it may be used.

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Rosen et al (2011) conducted a field experiment to examine the direct impact of text message interruptions on memory in a classroom environment and found the effects to be a slight, but significant, reduction in memory.  This is an example of a study that can be used to illustrate research into the influence of technology and also to explore a common method used to research the influence of technology – the field experiment.

The researchers conducted their experiment in a classroom during a lecture.  The independent variable was the  number of texts received and sent (3 groups, no/low, medium and high), and the dependent variable was the score on a test based on the lesson content. 185 college students (148 female and 37 male) were told that they were going to view a 30-minute videotaped lecture relevant to their course and that during the session some of them would receive texts from the researchers to which they should respond as promptly as possible. They were informed that they would be tested on the material after the lecture.

The results were that the no/low texting group performed 10.6% better than the high texting group in their tests. The test score was significantly negatively correlated with the total number of words sent and received. Those participants who chose to wait more than 4-5 minutes to respond to a text message did better than those who responded immediately.  But in all cases the difference was only just significant. This led the researchers to suggest that metacognitive skills (including learning to wait before responding to disturbances that make us lose focus) should be explicitly taught and that it might be wise for teachers and lecturers to use strategies that focus on when it is appropriate to take a break and when it is important to focus without distractions.

Some schools have opted to require all mobile phones to be turned off or left in lockers, but the problem is that just because the student’s technology is ‘out of sight’ it is not ‘out of mind.’ Maybe teachers should share the results of this study with their students?

Cognitive Dissonance theory explains a lot.

cigarettes-3564364_640Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, and, for an old-ish theory is in very good health today.  Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when trying to reconcile our beliefs with our actions and cognitive dissonance theory explains how we try and reduce this.

An excellent example to illustrate this is teenage smoking.  We all have the clear evidence that smoking leads to heart disease and/or lung cancer in the majority of people who smoke.  At the very least it reduces lung function and gives you a hacking cough and some breathlessness, especially if you catch a cold or have a chest infection.  This is often when most people try their hardest to give up.  Yet 19% of UK adults smoke, and 40% of these began smoking before they were 16.  (UK Cancer Research statistics, 2017). So how do teenagers deal with the cognitive dissonance created by smoking?

Firstly, fewer teenagers smoke now than ever before.  So by not starting, they are avoiding cognitive dissonance in that their actions mirror their beliefs – they are what is called ‘consonant’.  Others try and give up, and while the dangers of ‘vaping’ remain fairly unknown, this is a viable alternative that allows them to argue that the tar, and not the nicotine addiction is the problem, and they are solving that.  Those who are already too addicted to give up have to change their beliefs, as the discomfort of knowing that you are negatively impacting your health becomes unbearable.

They do this through statements like: ‘While I’m young and doing sports, the impact will be minimal, and I’ll give up when I get older.  Therefore it won’t affect me.’  Or they rationalise that they have never had a cough in their life and can still run and play sports better than most adolescents their age.  Or they admit that they would like to give up, but it’s just too difficult at the moment, as they’re under a lot of stress, but will definitely do it later.

The point at which teenagers and young people who smoke give up is when they cannot ignore their underlying beliefs and the facts any longer.  This usually happens when someone close to them dies of a smoking-related disease or is told by their doctor to give up before they do die of it.  Sometimes, the sociocultural approach can explain smoking or non-smoking behaviour: as friendships change, the teenager may find him/herself socialising largely with a non-smoking group, and the attractions of smoking become less.  The cognitive dissonance then becomes too large to ignore as friends dismiss your arguments and rationalisations to point out the harm you are doing yourself.

Cognitive dissonance theory can explain our behaviour while (not) dieting, or when feeling a dislike for a certain person, or even when choosing a political party to support.  We show a confirmation bias, by selectively attending to information that supports our decision, and closing our ears to dissenting voices.

Coming soon – ‘Psychology Sorted’, the book!

Hi Psychology teachers from all over the world! Yes, I know that summer is beckoning but wouldn’t you like a sneaky peak at a BRAND NEW RESOURCE that is due to be out around October 1st? Written by Laura Swash and Claire Neeson, this resource will solve all those pesky teaching dilemmas such as: ‘Which studies should I use for each topic and how can I re-use them to create less bulk for the students to learn?  How can I find a streamlined, easy, cross-referenced resource that’s user-friendly (for me and my students)?  What can I use for both teaching AND revision?’ Here is a sample for you to taste, to get the ‘flavour’ of what we’re doing. Add us to your school shopping list: #1 Order ‘Psychology Sorted’ next term.  Sorted!

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Bio KS1 Fisher et al_2005

The new IA process for IB Diploma – get started!

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Let’s get started! This is a useful summary for teachers and students of the process for the new IA (internally-assessed student-conducted experiment…now you see why the name is shortened 🙂  This will first be assessed in May 2019, and I’m sure some of you are getting started soon.

Group work is mandatory.  Up to 4 students in a group, and preferably each group conducting a different experiment, so you don’t run out of participants.  The experiment is run together by the group to collect the raw data, but every section, and all data calculations, have to be performed and written about individually.  

Statistical Analysis must be conducted by everyone.  Descriptive statistics identify if there is a difference between the two conditions and inferential statistical analysis tells you whether or not this difference is significant at the p<0.05 level.  Unless you are an expert statistician, it is easier to just manipulate the independent variable once to give two conditions under which you measure the dependent variable. Plan how you are going to do this, and which tests you need to use before even starting your experiment.

Ethical Considerations – be sure that your experiment will cause no harm or stress to the participants, who may not be animals or young children.  Conformity experiments are not allowed, because they are stressful, and you may not ask your participants to eat or drink anything in order to test the effects. Neither may you deprive them of sleep.  Your appendices at the very end of your report should contain a blank copy of the informed consent form, a copy of your briefing and debriefing notes, raw data tables and your calculations for the analysis.

IA Report – This needs a header containing the following information:  title; your IB candidate code and the codes of all group members; date, month and year of submission; no. of words.

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The Report should be between 1800 and 2200 words and split into the following 4 sections:

Introduction  (6 marks) –  Contains the aim of the experiment, and explains the link between the experiment and the model or theory on which it is based.  (Most likely your experiment will be based on another study or experiment, but you need to know the underlying theory and show the link).  The hypotheses should be written out carefully, and contain the operationalised independent and dependent variable.  It is probably easier to write these separately first and then combine them to make the hypothesis.

Exploration (4 marks) – This is where you describe your procedure, including the design, sampling technique, participant characteristics, controlled variables and materials.  Write it very carefully, as you will want to refer back to it later in your last (Evaluation) section.

Analysis (6 marks) – Consists of correctly chosen and applied descriptive and inferential statistics.  The descriptive statistical analysis results should be shown in a bar chart (graph) that is carefully labelled.  The inferential statistics results need to be interpreted in terms of what they show about the hypothesis.  Do you have to accept or reject your null hypothesis, and why?

Evaluation (6 marks) – This is where you explain your results, in relation to the theory/model and study on which you based your experiment.  You need to explain the strengths and limitations of your design, sample and procedure and suggest how you could have improved upon what you did.  We cannot always anticipate the effect of decisions we made earlier when deciding how to conduct the experiment, but we can explain their effect at the end.

All IAs need a list of references at the back, and the appendices follow this.  They do not count towards the word count.

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Remember – it doesn’t have to be a complex experiment.  The simpler the better.  Old ‘favourites’ from Cognitive Psychology always do well: Loftus and Palmer, Stroop, Peterson & Peterson and Bransford & Johnson are all tried and tested studies from the area of memory.

 

 

Social media ‘addiction’ – the evidence.

screen timeWhile most of us think of addiction as the physical and psychological dependence on a substance such as alcohol, cigarettes or any kind of drugs, the word has also been used for psychological dependence on behaviours like shopping, eating, gambling, and now screen time – especially the time that adolescents spend on social media. But what is the evidence for this?

Well, as everyone knows, when doing research, first of all the terms have to be operationalised.  Given that screens are multi-media, and the person could be reading a book, Skyping with a grandparent, watching a TED talk for their homework, contacting a friend, or posting their latest pics on Instagram, we need to be clear that it is time on social media that is causing the moral panic.  Though it is also worth noting that every time a teenager is seen staring at a screen, the assumption is always that they are on social media. In his latest letter to social media firms, Jeremy Hunt (UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) proposed a future where every child gets a state-imposed social media limit, similar to the alcohol units recommended by government. After a child surpasses a set cutoff point, their social media access is stopped for the day.

To implement such an extreme policy, scientific evidence of damage would be needed.  And this is where the problem begins:  the evidence is controversial.  Social media use has been found to be correlated with depression and  sleep disturbance  in young adults. The popular press has many alarming stories of permanent damage done to young people.

However, longitudinal studies of social media suggest that frequent social media use is generally associated with increases in self-esteem and empathy for adolescents.  As Professor Sonia Livingstone notes in her TEDx talk on how children engage with the internet, research suggests that little has changed in terms of youth mental well-being since the pre-internet era which makes the causal connection between internet use and lower mental well-being unwarranted.  Moreover, US statistics on crimes against children showed a significant decrease in physical and sexual abuse and neglect of children between 1990-2014, with sexual abuse (the crime most often associated in the public imagination with internet use) showing the biggest decrease.

All new forms of media, especially those used predominantly by young people, tend to disturb the equilibrium of older people.  Newspapers, radio, TV, video games and now social media all receive or have received negative attention and been blamed for a perceived decrease in moral values amongst the young. Socrates blamed writing for weakening memory, and allowing the pretence of understanding, rather than true understanding.