People, being naturally inquisitive, have often been referred to as scientists. Even as young children, people are constantly testing and evaluating the boundaries to decipher their own social environment and quickly recognise what is acceptable and what is not. This soon evolves into intuition and whether it is constructed in a logical and rational way depends on a number factors. However, when considering cognitive psychology and the information processing that underpins judgements and risks, people’s cognitive processes are often likened to computers in the way that these processes interact.
This essay begins by looking at Fritz Heider (1944, as cited in Buchanan et al. , p. 60) an influential psychologist in this area who coined the phrase ‘naive psychology’. It then progresses onto the advantages and disadvantages of the attribution theories using Kelley’s covariation method and MacArthurs vignettes to test the theory. This is followed by looking into optimistic bias and whether this bias can prevent people from constructing rational and logical theories when making sense of their social environment.
Finally, the essay evaluates the HIV/AIDs and smoking progression and how people can conceptualise risk, resulting in laying blame elsewhere other than in their social group. Heider was one of the first psychologists to study in detail social cognition. He believed that delving into how people made sense of their social environments was fundamental in understanding social behaviours, he believed people actively built models of cause and effect to find predictability and regularity which would help control their lives, operating like ‘naive psychologists’.
Heider also believed people used this method when people perceive others and their actions. He constructed a study using animated cartoons of moving shapes consisting of a circle, a box and a rectangle. When asked to describe what they saw, all but one of the participants described the shapes movement in terms of human action. The fact that these people were perceiving these shapes automatically to be people goes some way to provide support for Heider’s theory and prove that people are certainly trying to make sense of their social environment.
However this, albeit simple use of experimental social psychology, has a few limitations. As this was a simplified experiment and disimilar to what would happen in a real social environment, Heider was not able to prove that the results would be the same outside in ‘real life’. In fact, often results obtained outside of the laboratory conclude opposite results to that of the laboratory. There is also a possibility that the participants, upon hearing that they would be attending a psychological experiment, subconciously associated psychology with people or themselves and their answers reflected this.
In an experimental condition there will always be confounding variables no matter what measures are taken to eliminate them, it is certainly difficult to take research on perception and attention out of everyday life and into a controlled experiment. In a social environment because people are not manufacturing social situations, people see them as they are, this could put them in good stead to construct rational and logical theories on their environment. What Heider’s theory lacks is specific procedures and data. Harold Kelley (1967, as cited in Buchanan et al. , p. 2) who developed the covariation model, used testable predictions and data in his attribution theory. The attribution theories suggest people distinguish between external/disposition factors and internal/disposition factors to recognise the causes of social behaviour. Kelley proposed that when people use information in causal reasoning, three variables are decided upon, distinctiveness, consensus and consistency, this was known as the covariation model. He supported the belief that people behave like intuitive scientists. MacArthur (1972, as cited in Buchanan et al. , p. 4) tested this theory in her studies, she wanted to test the effect of different types and level of information on the nature of causal attributions. She used 16 vignettes, a short description of a behaviour event that contained different types of the three variables, CCD. They then assigned an internal or external cause to the event. The results were supportive of MacArthurs theory and imply that we tend to favour internal rather than external attributions, the FAE (fundamental attribution error). However, it has been proven that people do not use always use all the information available to them.
This shows that the way people view risk is not particularly logical, people overlook risk and when comparing people to experts, people do not usually conceptualise risks as well as experts Vignettes are easy to use and provide much needed data and from a large number of participants which is likely to produce more accurate results. The kind of control applied in this study would not have been able to take place if it took place in real life. However they do have low ecological validity because of this very reason, it is still constructed.
Attribution theories have also been criticised for overstating the ‘rationality’ of people’s causal reasoning. When considering the idea of people as intuitive scientists it is important to understand that people can tend to be more optimistic about risk than statistics warrant. This results in optimistic bias. For example, irrespective of empirical evidence, some people think smoking won’t harm them. Some people know that they are likely to become ill from it and still continue because the immediate gain overcomes any alternative, albeit potentially deadly.
This may be as a result of a motivational source which can result in judgemental biases. There are several explanations for this optimistic bias. The availability heuristic, which involves making decisions based on generating examples in people’s cognitive system, perhaps someone they know who has smoked constantly for 60 years has other any side effects. These are good examples to use when deciphering whether people are intuitive scientists and can make rational and logical judgements because the risk of smoking can be estimated using mathematics.
The amount of people that still smoke however is a strong argument that people may be intuitive scientists but the concept of making rational, logical decisions can still be lost if alternative factors get in the way, like smoking or HIV. When people have to make decisions quickly, they often unconsciously rely on incomplete information as a result of the environment in which the social cognition takes place, rather than just the basic cognitive processes, this could account for people rejecting the possibility of HIV leading to death, perhaps because the information they have in incomplete.
The fact that people have survived despite this however goes some way to suggest that although people’s cognitive processes do not always lead them to the mathematically correct answer, perhaps that element of risk, optimistic bias and inquisitiveness has prolonged people’s evolution so far.
The studies involving optimistic bias and indeed many studies involving how people conceptualise risk however, have been conducted in largely Western cultures and having found previous contradictions between studies in Western cultures, (which tend to focus largely on the individual rather than the social group, as is more popular in many Asian cultures), these theories may not apply to the majority of people and therefore more research entailing diverse cultures would build a more successful conclusion as to why optimistic bias occurs.
One reason could be evolution, natural selection could have resulted in humans having evolved with optimistic bias meaning that the people who took the risks were more sexually successful. Another reason for this could that in the urgency of everyday life, people do not use all the information available. One could argue that as we do not process everything we see, we connect the dots based on our rational judgement. The people in many of these experiments drew from their own conclusions and upon their own schema which could be wrong.
This kind of error highlights one of the disadvantages of people drawing from their own logical and rational theories. Although it is important to note that the above examples are experiments and the situations are unlikely to occur in everyday life, however research has also shown our schema is highly tuned and usually correct. Both cognitive psychology and experimental social psychology initiate ideas of people thinking in machine ways, operating like scientists but the studies have shown otherwise. Perhaps logical and rational ideas are ideologies and are not appropriate in the context of our own social environments.
People, in general tend to perceive events as being more under their own control than they perhaps are, it is clear from these studies that people can sometimes become more optimistic when is comes to risks when comparing the true scientific statistics. From the research into varying theories it appears that the majority of people are intuitive scientists, that to a certain extent people do use logical and rational theories to make sense of their social environment, however these are not always successful. As the evidence of several theories suggests, intuition in people is not always correct.
Mistakes are bound to be made, especially when motivation factors overcomes logic and experience and imagination interferes with the process. If people have survived thus far using their own rational and logical judgements than anything further may be seen as striving for improvement, where one could argue, it is unnecessary. Word count – 1,503 References K. Buchanan, P. Anand, H. Joffe ; K. Thomas (2007) Perceiving and understanding the social world. In D. Miell, A. Phoenix, ; K. Thomas (Eds. ), Mapping Psychology (2nd ed. , pp. 5-49). Milton Keynes: The Open University
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 8 May 2018