Tell me who you interact with and I will tell you who you are: How Psychology can help us to understand the Contemporary World

Catarina Telo

Psychology has explained human development and behaviour over centuries. General and social psychology theories are paramount to understand the evolution of human behaviour and how individuals adapt to changes including technology, political environment and culture.

To start I would like to highlight William James’ work, a philosopher and a psychologist from the 19th and 20th century, who focused on understanding how individuals respond to the environment. Although William James’s philosophy is essentially individualistic in that it does not allow for a robust theory of community, it still offers an interesting insight. William James’ work Great Men and Their Environment highlights one’s society as not only a context in which great individuals emerge, but even as playing a selective role in allowing their greatness to develop. In turn, that social environment is affected by the individuals. Whether or not an individual will be able to have an impact is, to some extent, determined by society. Thus, socially significant individuals and their communities have a dynamic, that can be understood as a correlative relationship; both parties influence each other.

If in the 19th and 20th century communities had a great impact on individuals but in the present 21st century, with technology developments, individuals and communities face other challenges. These challenges question social norms and the impact of free information in the way that individuals and groups acquire strong conceptions about the world.

In recent years social media has adopted a central role in how we access information and express ourselves. Almost everyone has a smartphone, a tablet or some form of accessing social media platforms. With the social media phenomenon, marketing strategists started to use the internet and data to target potential clients. The social media platforms that are usually free of charge would survive by the amount of adverts that they publish and following this perspective, one may think that this strategy helps the users to filter information that is relevant to them. This phenomenon has been called 'filter bubbles'. The question is, should 'filter bubbles' apply to political and civic content shared online? Does it pose a danger for humanity and its development?

After Donald Trump's victory New York counsellors reported an increased demand for therapy. This phenomenon was called Donald Trump's anxiety and it can be seen in the light of people feeling fear of the future.

The internet has also been a place where all theories can be right and wrong at the same time – every individual select the information that is meaningful according with its ethos and beliefs. For example, if an individual was taught as a child that fish can fly and his or her life experiences confirmed that fish fly, the likelihood of he or she believes that fish fly is greater. However, if a reliable source tells me the opposite it can create an internal conflict. Then, the individual will choose to change or reorder their thinking or beliefs.

In 1997, after the spring equinox in the city of San Diego, California, police found 17 men and 21 women who committed collective suicide by poisoning and asphyxiation. Each of them had documentation and some money in a bag carefully organised. Some of the male bodies had genital mutilation marks. Besides of the emotions of disgust and anger provoked by this event, it had the effect of amplifying the message of the cult called "Do". This event spread the cult message to a higher number of people and after the event was reported on the news the website had around 900,000 visits.

What happens to people who refuse their previous beliefs, and when they do adopt new ways of thinking and adopt a different view of the world? Social influence can be catastrophic for society and to the individuals if the influence mechanisms are exacerbated.

In particular, the ideas, attitudes and actions of the people around us have great influence upon our own actions. The interaction with others create regular patterns that influence our behaviours. Social norms are crucial to understand this; they broaden a set of rules and guide how to understand, think, feel and act. They define the level of behaviours, action trends and opinions that are accepted or rejected (Sheriff, 1965).

Social norms not only help us to guide our behaviour, but they also create stability and structure that allow us to predict events. Social norms are seen as core for social functioning because they can reduce confusion and uncertainty. This can also allude to the illusion of control – by following social norms individuals can control the contexts that they are part of. Indeed, the quality of our interactions depends directly of the correct use of social norms. Some authors in the 1980s considered that individuals are very sensitive to people who don't comply with the social norms. This can explain the tendency to interact with people who share the same social norms as most of the people that we interact with behave in a very similar way to us.

Bandura (1971) in his research of social learning theory distinguishes two major phases: the observation and performance. The social learning theory defends that people learn by observation of an exemplar behaviour and then acquire and reproduce the behaviour. This does not apply to all events but can explain, to some extent, acquired tasks and behaviours that are easily learnt and do not require specialised knowledge or much training.

The value of similarity also can explain how most of our social media feeds select similar information and how we tend to form friendships with people that are similar to us.

Marketing uses the value of similarity as a strategy to reach potential clients. The fact that marketing strategists prefer popular people rather than TV stars to sell products rely on the premise that people are more likely to acquire behaviours of people that are similar to them.

Social psychologists defend that if the similarity between situations and individuals facilitates the adoption of diverse behaviours, it is likely that the level of uncertainty linked to the situation contributes to its dissemination. When individuals do not know exactly what to do, they tend to use others as example. This phenomenon was called "social ignorance" by some. An example of the can be seen in an experiment carried out by Miller and McFarland (1987) where participants read an unrecognisable text and asked for help if they had difficulty to understand it. None of the participants asked for help and all of them presumed that the others had also understood.

In this line of thinking, it is important to understand how influential processes work for different perspectives. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) identified two types of influence related to individual conflicts: informational social influence and normative social influence. The informational social influence refers to the fact that we consider others’ opinions. The normative social influence is related to the search of social acceptance. This dichotomy differentiates the factors that inform us about the validity of arguments and which behaviours are adequate for each situation.

Nevertheless, the creativeness behind political discussions following the explanation of informational and normative social influences relies on the independence of both types of processing. Few researchers identified that polarisation indicates a greater level of informational social influence. Both types of influence – informational and normative – have impact in individuals’ answers (Isenberg, 1986). Different research (Turner, 1987), shows that polarisation is present when people think to be interacting with people of their group and not from an opposition group.

The phenomenon of polarisation does not necessarily mean that the group decision is less valid than the individual one. In many situations, groups are likely to have interest to reinforce and clarify their position regarding a particular question. Nevertheless, research on group decision-making revealed that biases can be frequent. Modern times, such as Brexit and the EUA elections, are full of collective decisions that are based on biases that have profound effects.

In 1982, Janis identified conditions that influence the quality of the group decision making negatively. One of the conditions is related to the selective character that the group has upon the available information. The group impels an environment of rejection and filtering information that is convenient for its cause and beliefs – a group perspective not only limits the access to contradictory information as it also emphasises the bias of interpreting the available information. This leads the group members to acquire a communal perspective. where information is analysed by only the group perspective. The discovery of elements that can compromise the success of the collective decision making it is clearly more difficult.

Following this, it is important to mention the theory of frustration-aggression designed in 1939 by Dollard, Doob, Miller and Sears. As behaviourists and psychoanalysts, they defended that frustration can lead to aggression which is related to the limitation of achieving a desired goal. Hence, any aggression leads to frustration and any frustration leads to aggression even if it is not visible.

To summarise, it is clear that social influence has a great impact in the way that individuals decide to follow a group rather than one another. The value of similarity also shows how people tend to interact more with people with similar characteristics.