How Society Works: 8 Revealing Psychological Insights Into Our Social Behaviour

Post image for How Society Works: 8 Revealing Psychological Insights Into Our Social Behaviour
Would you post a letter dropped in the street, obey an order to electrocute another person, start a conversation with a familiar stranger or help a lost child?

Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist who is most famous for his obedience experiments (see below), but he was fascinated by all aspects of social order, especially in the city.

Like me he wondered how city dwellers manage to live in such proximity to each other. He wondered at how orderly queues are and what happens when their delicate balance is challenged. And he wanted to see how interconnected people were in an age before Twitter and Facebook.

Here are eight pieces of his research which each provide insight into how society works.

1. Lost child

How helpful are people? For example, who would fail to stop and help a lost child? No one, surely?

To find out Milgram decided to enlist the help of some 6 and 10-years-olds. They were sent out onto US streets (with an observer nearby for safety) and told to ask the first passerby: “I’m lost. Can you call my house?”

In the towns the reaction was relatively heartening: 72% offered help. In the cities, less so, with only 46% offering help to the lost child.

Beyond the bare numbers the stories were even more telling. In the towns even those who didn’t help were sympathetic, but in the city they ignored the child, swerved around or just pushed money into their hands. One New Yorker told the child: “Go into that restaurant. Your mother’s waiting for you there.”

2. Line cutting and queue jumping

Milgram considered the queue a classic example of how groups of people automatically create social order out of chaos.

But this social order can be fragile when faced with chaotic threats, like that of the queue-jumper. To test people’s reactions Milgram had assistants travel around New York to 129 different queues in betting shops, railway stations and elsewhere and barge into queues (Milgram et al., 1986).

Surprisingly people’s reactions were quite meek. On only 10% of occasions were queue-jumpers physically ejected from the line. And on only about half the occasions did anybody in the line do anything at all. Anything at all included, in this case, dirty looks or gestures as well as actual verbal objections.

For Milgram’s explanations, read: Do You Challenge Queue-Jumpers and Line-Cutters?

3. Obedience to authority

One of the most famous psychology experiments of all, Milgram’s obedience experiments tested how far people will go when an authority figure orders them to hurt another human being.

Participants in the study were ordered by a man in a white coat to give (apparently) lethal electric shocks to another person (the learner).

63% of the participants continued right until the end: they administered all the shocks even with the learner screaming in agony, begging to stop and eventually falling silent.

Do you think you would obey?

Milgram clearly showed the dark side of people’s tendency to cow to authority (for the study’s full details: Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority or Just Conformity?

 

Stanley Milgram (Chronicle file photo)

4. Familiar stranger

Do you see the same people every day on the way to work or at the shops? People you’ve never talked to? Do you ever wonder where they work, what their story is and if they wonder the same about you?

Milgram wondered the same thing about people waiting for the train near where he lived in Riverdale, New York. So he had his students take pictures of all the people on the platform and then, a few weeks later, they got on the train and distributed the pictures to see who recognised who.

The results were fascinating: 90% identified at least one ‘familiar stranger’ and the average was 4 other people. 62% had spoken to at least one other passenger and almost half were curious about the people they travelled with. Unsurprisingly the most familiar strangers were those who stood out in some way.

He also discovered that people were more likely to talk to each other when they encountered that familiar stranger in unfamiliar circumstances, like when you see the guy from the train in another city.

5. It’s a small world

Milgram was interested in the interconnectedness of human societies. What, he wondered, was the probability that two people chosen at random know each other? And if they don’t know each other, what is the chance that they know someone, who knows someone…(and so on)…who does know that person?

He tested this by sending letters to random people in Nebraska or Boston and asking them to forward it to someone who might be more likely to know the target person, who lived in Massachusetts (Travers & Milgram, 1969).

He found that on average it would take 5.2 intermediaries for his letter to go from the first person to its destination, via each person’s social network.

This suggests that society is highly interconnected (for the full story, though, see: Six Degrees of Separation).

6. Secret opinions

Milgram wanted to measure people’s attitudes indirectly, not by just asking them what they thought, since people often lie. So he left stamped, addressed letters lying around in the street to see whether people would post them on depending on who they were addressed to (Milgram et al., 1965).

He found that 70% of letters that were addressed to the ‘Medical Research Associates’ were posted by random people who found them. But when the letter was addressed to ‘Friends of the Communist/Nazi Party’ only 25% sent them on.

This doesn’t just measure public opinion but also shows how helpful people can be, especially if it costs them little effort.

Subsequent research with dropping wallets in the street to test honesty has proved difficult as people immediately pick them up and return them to the researcher. People are often more honest than we might predict.

7. Drawing power of crowds

Have you ever joined a crowd of people without knowing why, but just assumed something must be going on so it might be worth sticking around?

Milgram was fascinated by how people join crowds for no readily apparent reason. He tested this by having a group of people stop in a busy street and look up to the six-floor of an adjacent office block where nothing whatsoever was happening (Milgram et al., 1969).

What he found was that 4% of passersby would stop to join a single person gazing up, but 40% would stop if there were 15 people already there. On top of this fully 86% of passersby would at least look up to see what all the fuss was about.

8. Urban overload

The last piece of research isn’t an experiment but a theory that tries to explain urban social behaviour.

Milgram thought that the way we behave in cities or busy urban areas is a natural response to information overload. In the city our senses are continually assaulted. There are too many sights, sounds and other people for us to process properly. This is both the attraction of the city and its downside.

City dwellers, therefore, try to conserve their psychological energy:

  • They only have superficial interactions with each other—this is encouraged by frowning or looking angry all the time.
  • They keep moving and transact any business they have as quickly as possible.
  • Social niceties like apologising for jostling are skipped because city dwellers have less spare processing power available.

In the city the norm is anonymity and the unwritten rule is: I’ll pretend you don’t exist if you pretend I don’t exist. City dwellers aren’t bad people (as the lost child experiment might suggest), they’re using rational strategies to deal with information overload.

As Milgram once said:

“It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.”

Image credit: Pryere

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 21 March 2012

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License