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Social Psychology in a Time of Crisis

I am currently sitting in an empty classroom because, although face to face teaching is not officially suspended until tomorrow, none of my seminar students have turned up. In this rather depressing situation, however, there is much for a psychologist to reflect upon, particularly the process of social influence.

First there is the phenomenon of obedience to authority. In his seminal series of experiments, Milgram (1974) was trying to understand the destructive power of obedience; the tendency of people to do what they are told even when it is morally wrong and they know it to be so. The current situation is different. While it is always important to question science (as anyone who has studied CRI1007) should be well aware!) large scale public health measures have no hope of working unless everyone obeys. Milgram did not just explore how obedient people can be – he also investigated the conditions under which obedience is strongest. One of the factors that enhanced obedience was an aura of scientific authority. Participants were more likely to obey when they were instructed by a person in a white coat, who worked in a smart laboratory in a reputable university and who made reference to science, research and experiments, than when they were confronted by someone in scruffy clothes in a run-down building in a tatty back street. Boris Johnson has a poor record of telling the truth and inspiring trust. It is no coincidence that he is currently delivering his daily briefings flanked by his chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor.

Then there is the phenomenon of panic buying. There is probably a deep-seated evolutionary drive that causes us to hoard food in times of potential shortage. Just as the onset of autumn drives squirrels to bury hazelnuts, so the mention of self-isolation drives humans to buy pasta and tinned tomatoes (or potatoes in the case of one of my elderly relatives). My grandmother, who was her family’s main breadwinner through the Second World War, kept a stash of sugar under her bed until the day she went into a care home. And I guess Freud might have had something to say about the fact that the items we are hoarding most fervently are toilet rolls!

Evolutionary drives are, however, not the whole story and social influences play a part too. We panic buy because everyone else is panic buying. In his research on conformity, Asch (1956) identified two main reasons why people went along with the crowd: some just wanted to fit in and be socially accepted (compliance); others doubted their own judgment and believed that everyone else must be correct (conversion). The latter process is helping to drive the current retail crisis – people think “everyone else is panic buying, so there must be a good reason to do so, so I need to do it too!”

Asch was investigating the influence of majorities but minorities can be influential too, often for similar reasons (Moscovici, 1976). As if we didn’t have enough disease to worry about, I have just passed a screen warning students about outbreaks of mumps in British universities. The reason why mumps is on the rise among students is that 20 years ago, when the current generation of students were babies, a small minority of scientific opinion suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Backed by authoritative sounding research and confident and charismatic individuals, it led parents to doubt mainstream opinion and reject vaccination for their children.

Another topic which has puzzled social psychologists for many years is that of altruism. Are we ever truly, selflessly altruistic? Or are we good to others because it has rewards for us? Looking at the Facebook group for the village where I live, there are some heart-breaking accounts of selfishness over the last few days. The grandmother desperately appealing for Calpol for a 5-month-old baby with chicken pox, because every shop she has tried has been cleared out by panic buyers. And the farm that sells eggs by the side of the road with an honesty box that is now asking customers to phone with orders because someone has stolen all the eggs and all the cash. But there are some lovely examples of altruism too. People offering to shop or collect prescriptions for the elderly and vulnerable. People offering to cook meals for health professionals. People setting up Facebook and WhatsApp groups in order to maintain social contact. And the wonderful woman who offered free mango chutney to anyone in the village, just because she was making a batch and wanted to share the love!

We live in interesting times! Stay safe, keep calm and use this opportunity to read and reflect.


Asch, S.E. (1956) Studies of independence and submission to group pressure: 1 A minority of one against a unanimous majority. In Psychological Monographs, 70, (9) (Whole No. 416).

Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.

Moscovici, S. (1976). Social influence and social change. London: Academic Press.

“Truth” at the age of uncertainty

Research methods taught for undergraduate students is like asking a young person to eat their greens; fraught with difficulties.  The prospect of engaging with active research seems distant, and the philosophical concepts underneath it, seem convoluted and far too complex.  After all, at some point each of us struggled with inductive/deductive reasoning, whilst appreciating the difference between epistemology over methodology…and don’t get me stated on the ontology and if it is socially proscribed or not…minefield.  It is through time, and plenty of trial and error efforts, that a mechanism is developed to deliver complex information in any “palatable” format!

There are pedagogic arguments here, for and against, the development of disentangling theoretical conventions, especially to those who hear these concepts for the first time.  I feel a sense of deep history when I ask students “to observe” much like Popper argued in The Logic of Scientific Discovery when he builds up the connection between theory and observational testing. 

So, we try to come to terms with the conceptual challenges and piqued their understanding, only to be confronted with the way those concepts correlate to our understanding of reality.  This ability to vocalise social reality and conditions around us, is paramount, on demonstrating our understanding of social scientific enquiry.  This is quite a difficult process that we acquire slowly, painfully and possibly one of the reasons people find it frustrating.  In observational reality, notwithstanding experimentation, the subjectivity of reality makes us nervous as to the contentions we are about to make. 

A prime skill at higher education, among all of us who have read or are reading for a degree, is the ability to contextualise personal reality, utilising evidence logically and adapting them to theoretical conventions.  In this vein, whether we are talking about the environment, social deprivation, government accountability and so on, the process upon which we explore them follows the same conventions of scholarship and investigation.  The arguments constructed are evidence based and focused on the subject rather than the feelings we have on each matter. 

This is a position, academics contemplate when talking to an academic audience and then must transfer the same position in conversation or when talking to a lay audience.  The language may change ever so slightly, and we are mindful of the jargon that we may use but ultimately we represent the case for whatever issue, using the same processes, regardless of the audience. 

Academic opinion is not merely an expert opinion, it is a viewpoint, that if done following all academic conventions, should represent factual knowledge, up to date, with a degree of accuracy.  This is not a matter of opinion; it is a way of practice.  Which makes non-academic rebuttals problematic.  The current prevailing approach is to present everything as a matter of opinion, where each position is presented equally, regardless of the preparation, authority or knowledge embedded to each.  This balanced social approach has been exasperated with the onset of social media and the way we consume information.  The problem is when an academic who presents a theoretical model is confronted with an opinion that lacks knowledge or evidence.  The age-old problem of conflating knowledge with information.

This is aggravated when a climatologist is confronted by a climate change denier, a criminologist is faced with a law and order enthusiast (reminiscing the good-old days) or an economist presenting the argument for remain, shouted down by a journalist with little knowledge of finance.  We are at an interesting crossroad, after all the facts and figures at our fingertips, it seems the argument goes to whoever shouts the loudest. 

Popper K., (1959/2002), The Logic of Scientific Discovery, tr. from the German Routledge, London

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