Social Psychology book summary

Social Psychology by Elliot Aronson [Summary]

This is a comprehensive book summary of the book Social Psychology by Elliot Aronson. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.

Worksheet: Download the interactive sheet for taking notes

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

Social Psychology by Elliot Aronson, Timothy Wilson, and Robin Akert is a textbook that offers a detailed research on human nature. More specifically, why we, humans, do the things that we do.

Even though the text inside this book may “feel” a bit overwhelming at times, the authors did a hell of a job of explaining such a complex topic so simply – the human behavior that is. Full of examples and research insights, Social Psychology is one of the best books on understanding the reason behind a certain action by a person.

The Core Idea:

The way we act in different situations is strongly influenced by external factors, as well as by our previous experience. Each person will act differently depending on his own observations and motives. If the situation is rather unrecognizable, he will mimic the behavior of the majority of the surrounding people.

The whole concept of the book is to help you better understand people. Why we make certain decision; What motivates us; How our attitude changes; How important is to be accurate; Other interesting stuff related to human psychology. This type of information is extremely valuable when communicating with fellow humans. If you know what drives others, you can easily convince them to do what you want.

5 Key Lessons from Social Psychology:

Lesson #1: Social Psychology Wants To Translate Human Behavior

At the very heart of social psychology is the phenomenon of social influence: We are all influenced by other people in some way. Thinking of social influence, we imagine that one is persuading us to do something against our will. It’s mostly true, but it’s an extreme definition.

Social influence is what happens when we interact with others. And interacting with people can take many forms: seeing a marketing billboard on the street, reading a book, speaking with someone over the phone, watching a TV show, speaking with someone face-to-face, reading a blog post, watching a video on YouTube. In all of these cases, we’re interacting with other people. Even the ads you see on the street – the ad itself was created by other humans who want you to believe that their product is better and it will save your life in some way.

Often these interactions are an attempt to persuade us to do something we don’t really want to do – to buy something, to go somewhere, even to go to bed with someone we don’t really want.

Social psychology, as a science, is devoted to understanding and explaining why people behave the way they behave in different situations. And as I mentioned, social influence takes a major part in social psychology.

If you observe your behavior for a moment, you will quickly understand that even the mere presence of someone around you will influence your decision in some way. Say you’re walking down the street with your wife and you see a beautiful girl walking right towards both of you. You will act differently if your wife wasn’t standing right next to you, right?

Social psychologists are interested in studying how and why our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are shaped by the social environment. Taking all these factors into account, we can define social psychology as the scientific study of the way in which people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by real or imagined presence of other people. Scientists are particularly interested in what happens in the mind of an individual when various conflicting outside factors are all trying to persuade him.

The subject is very broad and it’s hard to summarize the essentials. Still, if I can give you a piece of advice related to social influence, it will be the following: Observe your reactions, and thoughts, when you’re exposed to outside influence. Take the needed time to see why you’ve made a certain decision and learn from your mistakes. For example, if you’re going to a nightclub every Friday because of your friends – but you don’t really want to go – see what exactly in their behavior is making you say “yes” and build some sort of shield against this.

Lesson #2: We Have a Need To Feel Good And Accurate

The information below is really powerful and understanding it will help you build better relationships with everybody around:

According to the research made by the authors of the book, there are two motives that are of primary importance for people: 1) The need to feel good about ourselves and 2) the need to be accurate. Depending on the situation, these two motives either pull us in the same direction or pull us apart. According to Leon Festinger, a social psychology theorist, precisely the moment when these two motives tug us in the opposite directions we can gain our most valuable insights.

Imagine you’re running a company and you just decided to spend 100,000 dollars on TV ads. After a couple of months, you check the reports provided by the TV company and you see that the percent of people watching is not enough to say that the money is being spent well. At that moment, you can: stop the ad campaign and save money but admit you’re wrong. Or, continue with the ad, secretly hoping that things will get better over time and prove you’re correct. Most of the people will go with the second decision.

We face similar dilemmas every day and we always choose option 2. Why? Because most of us have a strong need to maintain high self-esteem. Meaning, that we need to see ourselves as good, competent, and as decent as possible. We do everything possible to maintain a favorable image of ourselves.

An example we can all relate to is when we post images on the different social media channels. We post good, high-quality photos of ourselves. Photos with filters, where we look close to perfect. We will never post a photo where we don’t like ourselves or pics where our apartment looks messy. Rather, we will clean it, take a photo, and then post it. Even though we never look as good as the pics we post on social media, we use these channels to boost our self-esteem and to feel good about ourselves.

A key takeaway here will be this: Don’t ever try to make the other person look bad or stress on the fact that he is wrong – even though he or she will be wrong in some situations. The best course of action will be to explain what can be improved in his decision. Also, you will never go wrong by saying to the other person that he/she looks good today (or compliment him/her about the new hairstyle, a new pair of jeans, etc.).

Lesson #3: Talent is Not Everything

Talent is surely an important factor for succeeding in a particular field but is it enough to bring you all the way to the top?

We inevitably hear some of these definitions towards people who are obviously gifted: “She’s a natural”; “He’s one in a million.” Still, talent is not the main thing that can make you an expert or a respectful movie star. Talent will probably guide you to the area. Unravel the path. You’ll basically see that you’re good at something without making tons of effort. Still, in order to be truly successful and master a specific skill, you should double, even triple your efforts.

The authors give us a really good example with the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. He was expelled from his high school team when he was really young, but instead of giving up, he redoubled his efforts. He started going to practice at six in the morning before school – every day.

When he was accepted to play for the University of North Carolina, which was one of the top basketball programs in the country, he didn’t stop practicing. Instead of resting on his laurels, Jordan constantly worked on his game.

The best players, actors, writers in the world rarely consider themselves as actually the best. Their attitude towards their skills is never that they’ve mastered it. No, they look at what they’ve accomplished and they find ways to improve further. They view their performance as something that can be polished even if they’re currently on the top of the game.

How we see ourselves is what matters. After all, if you think, believe, that you’re the best you won’t push yourself. You won’t train hard. Eventually, your skills will become obsolete which will lead to your downfall.

In contrast, if you accept that you’re good but there is still room for growth, you can work harder to become better.

Lesson #4: To Encourage Children, Praise Them For Their Efforts

Parents and teachers often use rewards to motivate children to do specific tasks better. Or simply make them do something that will be good for them in the long run, like reading books, for example.

As explained in the book, several years ago, a professor at West Georgia College, decided to offer a really lucrative reward to children who read a lot. He started a program called Earning by Learning in which low-income children were offered $2 for every book they read. The program was really well accepted by people. Which was quite normal.

Rewards are one of the oldest and most fundamental psychological principles. You give a reward each time a behavior occurs and you hope this will increase the frequency of that behavior. It’s a really powerful motivator. But does getting paid to do something make you want to do it more?

The danger of reward programs, such as the example mentioned above, is that people will begin to think they are reading to earn money, not because they think that reading is a pleasant activity in itself. They consider it work, for which they’re getting paid, not joy. Also, when the reward program ends, the activity, reading in this particular case, will probably decrease.

So, the key question here is: What should parents and teachers do?

According to the studies made by universities and psychologists, the best course of action is to praise the effort: “If you study hard, read more, for the next test, I bet you’ll do better.” The idea of the authors is to encourage a growth mindset. Namely, promote the concept that hard work pays off when things get tough. Also, along with the praise for effort, it’s a good idea to make children feel that they have gained competence in the area: “You worked hard on your science project and you really learned a lot; You’ve become quite an expert on ancient history.”

In other words, the message we should try to pass on is that through hard work you can achieve more.

Lesson #5: You Need To Gain Growth Mindset

The way we see, understand, explain our talents and abilities to ourselves, is a really important kind of self-knowledge. Some people believe that their abilities are set in stone. They think that they either know how to dance or they don’t. If they don’t, nothing can change that fact.

According to social psychologists, this way of thinking is a fixed one – fixed mindset. In this view, we have a fixed amount of intelligence, abilities, strength, talent, and so on. We believe, wholeheartedly, that we can’t do anything about our dance skills because God gave us only the basic moves – swinging from side to side. Our fixed mindset is telling us that there is no point in even trying to learn how to dance – because we believe that we’re bound to suck at dancing. Our fixed mindset keeps us in the current state for years. Sometimes even till our final day.

As you probably already guessed it, a fixed mindset is a bad thing. It doesn’t allow you to advance as an individual. We all have a fixed mindset towards certain things and this, in a way, is a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to learn how to dance better. If you’re not a professional dancer you certainly don’t need to put a lot of work to improve in this area. However, if you’re working as a choreographer, you definitely need to become better over time.

Research shows that the mindset people have is crucial for their success: People with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up after setbacks and are less likely to work on and hone their skills. They think that if they fail, it must be a sign that they simply don’t have what it takes. That they don’t have it in them.

On the other hand, people with the growth mindset understand that there will be few (if not many) bumps on the road. However, they don’t see them as ways to bail out. No, they view the setbacks as an opportunity to improve through hard work.

Actionable Notes:

  • Offer small rewards: If you want a person to become committed to an attitude or to a specific behavior, the smaller the reward or punishment that will lead to momentary compliance, the greater will be the eventual change in attitude, and therefore the more permanent the effect. Avoid large rewards and severe punishments. They are strong external justifications and encourage compliance, yes. But they prevent real attitude change and things do get worse over time.
  • Social comparison: The behavior of comparing ourselves to others is automatic. And even though comparing our current situation with someone who “made it” can feel devastating and quite disturbing, it can be something valuable. By making upward social comparison we can map a path and strive to reach greater results, which in this sense will help us become better.
  • Looking glass self: We often adopt the views our friends hold – this is called “looking glass self.” If you look around and investigate, you’ll see that people who hang out together tend to see the world in the same way. Obviously, over time they form social bonds that grow stronger. This realization leads to two important takeaways: 1) Avoid people with self-destructive behavior at all costs. Otherwise, you’ll start acting the same way; 2) Adopt other people’s beliefs if you want to win their trust faster.
  • Find a pain you can handle: All our thoughts and actions are directed towards things that will help us do less work and have more fun. However, life is not always rainbows and butterflies. If you really want to succeed, you need to find a certain pain you’re willing to accept. Think about pro athletes. Though they love running, swimming, whatever, they struggle daily to reach world-class results.
  • Getting a growth mindset: Growth mindset sounds so spiritual. It’s like talking to an online guru trying to sell you his course. Still, it’s what you need to stay in the game of life. A growth mindset can give you what social media can’t, purpose and drive. So, even in your worst moments, always try to shift your mind towards things that can help you stand up and keep going.

Commentary And My Personal Takeaway

Even though the book is full of insights, adopting a growth mindset is my main takeaway from Social Psychology. Each day is an opportunity for us to be better, do better. Small improvements every single day will lead to a better life in the long run.

Personally, I fell asleep a couple of times while I was reading the book. Don’t get me wrong though, the book offers really valuable information and the authors of Social Psychology did a hell of research. Simply the facts, all the data, stats, were too much through the whole book.

Nevertheless, this book is probably one of the best books on the market for understanding others. It offers an enjoyable, fascinating story, about human behavior and how we can influence others.

The summary above covers the key themes in the book and they might be enough for you. Still, if you really want to dive deep into the subject I’ll suggest getting the manuscript.

Notable Quotes:

People tend to take personal credit for their successes but to blame their failures on external events beyond their control.” Elliot Aronson

Self-justification, therefore, is not only about protecting high self-esteem; it’s also about protecting low self-esteem if that is how a person sees himself.” Elliot Aronson

We need to challenge our own thinking.” Elliot Aronson

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