Social Psychology as Science or History: An Experimental Approach

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  • This article was downloaded by: [New York University]On: 20 September 2013, At: 23:14Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    The Journal of SocialPsychologyPublication details, including instructions for authorsand subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/vsoc20

    Social Psychology as Scienceor History: An ExperimentalApproachAnne E. Foon aa Department of Psychology, Australian NationalUniversity, AustraliaPublished online: 01 Jul 2010.

    To cite this article: Anne E. Foon (1986) Social Psychology as Science or History:An Experimental Approach, The Journal of Social Psychology, 126:4, 431-435, DOI:10.1080/00224545.1986.9713609

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1986.9713609

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  • The Journal of Social Psychology, 126(4), 431-435

    Social Psychology as Science or History: An Experimental Approach

    ANNE E. FOON Department of Psychology

    Australian National University, Australia

    ABSTRACT. The hypothesis that social psychological findings reflect the disci- plines historical boundaries rather than scientific laws was tested in an experiment using the phenomenon known as the halo effect. Subjects (N = 61) were divided into four groups, each of which evaluated a stimulus person presented on videotape. The conditions varied were: (a) description of the person to be evaluated; (b) educa- tion about the halo effect; and (c) interference. Results indicated that the halo effect could be eliminated by educating the subject about the influence global evaluations have on subsequent individual evaluations. Contrary to expectations, however, edu- cation did not eliminate the halo effect when a distracting task was given subsequent to information about the halo effect.

    GERGEN (1973, 1976) HAS ARGUED that the aim of social psychology has been the discovery of laws that are conceived of as stable relationships between observed events. To discover such laws there must be stable relation- ships to be observed, but Gergen denies that such stable interactions exist. He argues that social psychology . . . deals with facts that are largely non- repeatable and which fluctuate markedly over time. Principles of human in- teraction cannot readily be developed over time because the facts on which they are based do not generally remain stable. Knowledge cannot accumulate in the usual scientific sense because such knowledge does not generally tran- scend its historical boundaries (1973, p. 2). As such, social psychology is not science like physics, but rather a form of contemporary historical inquiry.

    A number of authors have, in principle, agreed with Gergen (Boutilier, Roed, & Svendsen, 1980), whereas others have been highly critical (Schlenker, 1974, 1976). The present study has attempted to assess the hy- pothesis that giving information to people about psychological findings and

    Requests for reprints should be sent to Anne E . Foon, Department of Psychology, Australian National University, P. 0 . Box 4 , ACT, Australia 2601.

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  • 432 The Journal of Social Psychology

    theories will eliminate the observations on which the theories are based. In order to do this, the widely known social psychological phenomenon of the halo effect, or, the influence of a global evaluation on the evaluation of in- dividual attributes of a person (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, p. 250), has been used.

    According to Gergens (1973) hypothesis, an awareness of a theory or phenomenon, in this case the halo effect, will modify the subsequent behavior of subjects. Thus, it was predicted that there would be differences in the be- haviors of groups receiving no information about the halo effect and groups receiving information, and that there would be no difference between groups receiving no information and groups receiving a description of the person to be evaluated and indirect education about the halo effect. A final prediction arose from the simulation of the typical filter processing of information: It was hypothesized that groups receiving a distracting task after being educated about the halo effect and before being given a description of the person to be evaluated would, given Gergens predictions, eliminate the halo effect to the same extent as the educated groups.

    Method

    Naive students (N = 61) from a university residential college served as sub- jects. They were told that the experimenter was interested in how people form impressions of each other. Each subject was allocated to one of four groups and instructed to view a videotaped recording of a speaker, who would then be evaluated on a number of scales. Conditions were varied across groups. The groups were as follows: Group 1 : Control condition-subjects saw only the videotape; Group 2: Description condition-subjects saw the videotape after receiving a verbal description of the person to be evaluated; Group 3: Education condition-subjects were given a description of the person to be evaluated and information about the halo effect before viewing and assessing the person on the videotape; and Group 4: Interference condition-subjects received a description of the person to be evaluated and information about the halo effect, but also an interference task before they rated the person pre- sented on videotape.

    Three hypotheses were developed and tested:

    1. There would be differences in the evaluations of the stimulus person between groups receiving information and groups receiving no infor- mation about the halo effect.

    2. There would be no difference between groups receiving descriptions of the person to be evaluated and those receiving indirect education about the halo effect.

    3. There would be no difference between the group receiving the dis- tracting task and the educated group.

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  • A videotape recording of a biologist at work was used as the stimulus recording. It was chosen because its material was neutral in content and also because subjects would be unlikely to have developed associations between such a recording and personality characteristics. Eleven individual attributes were rated on 9-point scales. The information for rating only two of these attributes could be ascertained directly from the recording of the stimulus person (pronunciation and speed of speech). The remaining traits (ambition, sincerity, dependability, kindness, confidence, passivity, sympathy, social class, and intelligence) could be derived only by using other criteria. An in- troduction to the stimulus person was devised to include the academic status of the researcher. The script that embedded information about the halo effect included four major areas of concern in modem social psychology, one of which was the susceptibility of individuals to judge people on the basis of a few small details. The interference task employed was a Machiavellian rating scale.

    Results

    The mean ratings of the attributes of the stimulus person were scored for all subjects, across conditions. Results are presented in Table 1. For seven of the attributes, it can be seen that the halo effect was eliminated under the condi- tions of education, but that such information appears to have been negated by a distraction task. That is, significant differences were obtained for seven at- tributes between the evaluations of the stimulus person by the educated groups, compared to all other groups. The finding that the control group dif-

    TABLE 1 Mean Group Ratings of the Attributes of the Speaker

    Attribute Control Description Education Interference

    Ambitious Upper class Sincere Dependable Fast speech Kind Confident Active Standard pronuncition Unsympathetic Intelligent

    2.7 4.9 7.0 6.7 4.8 6.3 3.4 6.9 5.6 3.3 6.1

    2.7 5.0 7.2 6.7 4.6 6.4 3.2 6.8 6.0 3.5 6.8

    4.1* 5.1 6.1* 4.6* 4.7 4.5* 5.2* 5.5* 6.0 5 .O* 6.3

    2.8 5.1 7.3 6.4 5.0 6.3 3.3 6.8 6.1 3.8 6.8

    Note. All groups, n = 15. *Mean significantly different from all other means for that attribute.

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  • 434 The Journal of Social Psychology

    fered neither from the group that received a description of the person nor from the group that received an interference task may indicate that the additional information provided about the person was consistent with the presentation of that person. Subjects across conditions did not differ significantly in their ratings with respect to ambition, sincerity, dependability, kindness, confi- dence, and sympathy. The finding that subjects across conditions did not dif- fer in their ratings of the stimulus persons social class, intelligence, speech rate, or pronunciation probably indicated that these attributes were obvious features of the person being evaluated.

    The difference scores of the sum of positive factors and the sum of neg- ative factors were also calculated for each group. A series of r tests produced significant differences at p < .05 between the mean ratings of the speaker for the educated group and all other groups.

    Overall, the results indicate that giving information about the halo effect resulted in its elimination but that introducing an interference task did not eliminate the behaviors on which the effect was based.

    Discussion

    These results indicate that the powerful psychological phenomena, the halo effect, could be eliminated by educating the subjects about the influence of global evaluations on subsequent individual evaluations. This is as Gergen predicted. Contrary to Gergen, however, education did not eliminate the halo effect when a distracting task was given subsequent to information about the halo effect.

    This study attempted to evaluate, in part, Gergens claims. The aim of the investigation was to assess the effect that prior knowledge about a specific psychological phenomenon, the halo effect, had on the subsequent evaluative behavior of individuals. Employing a student sample, the present study found an effect of global evaluations on the subjects evaluations of individual attri- butes. This result is consistent with Aschs (1946) experiment in which he demonstrated the existence of the halo effect: He found that the evaluative rating given to a trait adjective was a function of the total adjective set in which it was embedded. Later, in a different setting, Landy and Sigall(l974) also produced the halo effect. They showed that evaluations of an essay given by male college students were significantly higher when the supposed writer was an attractive woman than when it was an unattractive woman. These studies indicate that people were unaware of the influence of one evaluation on another. Indeed, it may be the case that altered judgments require the ab- sence of awareness (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977).

    It does not follow from this, as Gergen asserted, that the presence of awareness will eliminate the effect of global evaluations on peoples judg- ments. In fact, in the present study, although subjects had access to informa-

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  • Foon 435

    tion about the halo effect, and although there was a subsequent decrease in its magnitude, there was no reason to believe that they were any more aware of their susceptibility to judge others on the basis of a small number of details. This was further indicated by the recurrence of the halo effect when the inter- ference task of reasonably short duration was presented, following informa- tion about the halo effect.

    The present findings do to some extent support Gergen's prediction that the awareness of the existence of a psychological effect, in this case the halo effect, will eliminate the observations on which it is based. An interference task following education, however, produces the opposite finding. These re- sults indicate the utility of examining the issue of whether social psychology should be viewed as science or history in controlled settings.

    REFERENCES

    Asch, S. E. (1946). Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 258-290.

    Boutilier, R. G., Roed, J. C., & Svendsen, A. C. (1980). Crises in the two social psychologies: A critical comparison. Social Psychology Quarterly, 43, 5-1 7.

    Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and So- cial Psychology, 26, 309-320.

    Gergen, K. J . (1976). Social psychology, science and history: A rejoinder. Person- ality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2 , 373-383.

    Landy, D., & Sigall, H . (1974). Beauty is talent: Task evaluation as a function of the performer's physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psy-

    Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration and judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 250- 256.

    Schlenker, B. R. (1974). Social psychology and science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 1-1 5 .

    Schlenker, B. R. (1976). Social psychology and science: Another look. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2 , 384-390.

    chology, 29, 299-304.

    Received March 17, 1986 Dow

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