Social Psychology: Is It Just Common Sense?

Social Psychology: Is It Just Common Sense? Social Psychology and Common Sense may seem relatively similar or even the same thing: often, scientific studies into what are perceived as 'common sense notions' are mocked in the mass media as 'unnecessary' and 'pointless'. Naturally, there are some similarities with one another - this does not mean, however, that they are the same thing. In order to fully examine these similarities and differences, we need to define what is going to be analysed.

Common Sense, by definition, is non-existent. Semantically, it seems unwise to call common sense as such. Since 'common sense' is usually played out in short phrases or proverbs, these do not always translate or are taken as 'common sense' in other cultures. Similarly, if common sense was common in one culture, then no contradiction of this would occur whether as a 'crime' against common sense or as a contradiction of common sense against common sense itself. In the related subject Sociology, CW Mills described common sense as:

"...filled with assumptions and stereotypes of one or another particular society; for common sense determines what is seen and how it is to b explained." [Mills, C.W., The Sociological Imagination. 2000: p123]

The word 'sense' in itself would suggest that it is innate to human nature. As such, if this was true, then it would be somewhat redundant to spout what is already known.

On the other hand, Social Psychology is the empirical study of human behaviour in relation to a social aspect. Social Psychology has often came under fire - both directly and indirectly - for, in the minds of society, being too much like common sense to be considered a worthwhile venture. Directly, it has been criticised by many people:

“… [Social Psychology offers] no ideas or conclusions that can't be found in [any] encyclopaedia of quotations. . . . Day after day social scientists go out into the world. Day after day they discover that people's behaviour is pretty much what you'd expect." [Murphy, C. (As quoted by Meyers, D, 1994: pp.15.)]

Indirectly, this can be seen in the study of epistemic authority of professors in Statistics and Psychology by Raviv et al (1993) where it was found that students rated their Statistics professor higher in his authority of his subject than the psychology professor. Since Mathematics is arguably the “purest” science, knowledge in this area seems more “intensive” than in Psychology. Similarly, the Psychology professor was rated higher on general knowledge, emphasising that Psychology - on the whole - was largely common sense. However, what is often ignored in the naïve criticism of social psychology is that social psychology has substantial evidence to affirm it’s theories compared to common sense who does not.

However, as previously discussed, social psychology has similarities and differences with common sense. These will form the basis of the following essay, expanding on the explanation of human behaviour, subjective versus objective, “agendas”, positivism, hindsight bias, reductionism and “true theory”.

A similarity, as mentioned previously, is that both try to explain human behaviour. Common sense can be taken as a naïve version of Volkerpsychologie (folk psychology). Folk psychology is primarily concerned with the discussion of how an individual’s cognitive processes and emotions affect the world and vice versa. One such example of this is empathy. Characterised by the saying “being in someone else’s shoes”, empathy and empathic concern has basis in pro-social behaviour. If we consider the argument put out by Batson et al (1981), altruism can only be considered as thus if they give help irrespective of if they will be emotionally troubled later. Empathic concern then becomes a point within the sphere of pro-social behaviour: people will be less likely to be pro-social if they do not empathise with the problem.

One aspect that is considered as an important difference between social psychology and common sense is the subjective/objective dichotomy. Common Sense is largely taken as subjective - subjective to cultural or internal aspects, whereas social psychology aims to be as objective as possible. This is shown in Milgram's series of studies on obedience (1963, 1974). The study entailed a participant taking a "teacher" role and a confederate taking a "student" role. The “student” would be linked up to a shock generator and would be shocked with an ever-increasing voltage when they would get a question incorrect.

The confederate would act as appropriate to the voltage applied, from crying out to pretending to be unconscious. The experts in human behaviour of the day said that few "normal" people would continue past 'intense' shocks. What was actually found was that a vast majority continued far beyond this point. Milgram stated this as the participants falling into an "agentic" state. This "agentic" state contradicted the previous theories about such obedience in "authoritarian personalities" which was used to explain such acts as the Holocaust in World War Two. As such, it has been looked upon as an example of a fundamental attribution error: i.e., taking their own personalities as what everyone would do and not placing enough evidence e on external causes. As such, previously set attitudes interfere with hypotheses in common sense and social psychology but in social psychology, this is not the case.

Another aspect is the possibility of agendas being set in common sense. Pre-set notions and ideals about how society is run can be traced in common sense, usually raising themselves in the ideas about ethnicity, gender and so on. This effect can be shown by the self-fulfilling prophecy which shows that stereotypes - set by society and thusly, common sense - can effect people and even cause stereotypes to become 'truth'. Such a study that shows this is Rosenthal and Jacobenson's (1968) study with five year olds entering school. The participants were given an IQ test. The class teacher was given a list of "bloomers" and "non-bloomers" - pupils who it was seen to have a higher IQ.

The lists were actually populated by a random selection of pupils, regardless of IQ. They were tested again at the end of their first year and the start and end of their second year. It was found that the "bloomers" gained more IQ points than the "non-bloomers". This theory was supported by a meta-analysis of 345 follow-up studies on a similar vein and the results were the same all around. As such, it is hypothesised that the teachers gave unconscious "extra" help to the "bloomers" rather than the "non-bloomers". This could be used to explain how certain minority groups could have a lower IQ than others if there is underlying prejudices held and "proven" by common sense.

On the other hand, there is the case of 'positivism' in social psychology - or when science is treated as infallible or sometimes as “a religion”. A quote that sums this up is as thus:

“The error which may beset students seeking an orientation in the science would come not from the mere acceptance of any one of the viewpoints described, but rather from its acceptance to the exclusion of the other approaches, or from the over-emphasis of some one position.” (Allport, Floyd H., 1927: p383.)

The problem related back to the objectivity of social psychology: since we are technically studying ourselves, we cannot obtain a truly “scientific” objectiveness. As such, this has caused the uprising of “alternative” approaches to social psychology that deviates from the scientific model such as social constructionism and humanistic psychology and the change from wishing to create ‘laws’ in psychology to ‘operational definitions’. Again, this can be seen in treatment of social problems such as marital issues. These issues can be treated with negotiation and introspection as required by counselling, Psychodynamic and humanistic therapies. This is also shown in the treatment of depression: the success of the biological model in the treatment of depression is not extensively more effective than “talking” therapies.

One particular bias that common sense has against social psychology is the problem of hindsight bias - also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect. This is where some piece of social psychology research is dismissed as common sense or already known. An example of this can be seen in Bolt and Brink’s experiment on this phenomenon (1991). They asked half the participant group to predict the results of the election of a controversial Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, a week before the election; the other half to say what they would have predicted if they were asked a week ago. It was found that 58% of the first group predicted that he would win, compared to the 78% found in the second group. This shows that once the “answer” is known, then we adjust our perception of the “answer” and hindsight.

A problem, however, that is a problem in social psychology is reductionism - when the answer to a question in social psychology is either reduced to terms that do not satisfactorily answer the question in hand. Specifically, this is used against research in social psychology that relies on individual psychology, missing the point of social psychology. This has further been extended to cover biological bases of behaviour - causing Restak (1979) to claim that psychology and psychiatry will be demolished in academia in favour of “psychobiology”. This is shown in the explanation of drug addiction.

Washburn (1978) proposed that social problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction and crime (as well as many others) is primarily - if not entirely - genetic. However, a study on Vietnam War veterans and narcotic use found that despite over 75% of soldiers who were given a drug test were found to have narcotics in their blood stream - but only a third continued their habits at home and only 10% of the remaining veterans showed signs of addiction. (Robins, Davis, & Goodwin, 1974). Another experiment by Alexander, Coambs, & Hadaway (1978) used morphine addicting in rats in two differing habitats - a cramped, “laboratory” condition in isolation and a larger, freer condition in which they could have social interaction with other rats. Both conditions were given only a morphine solution to drink for 53 days, then a choice of water and the morphine solution intermittently thereafter. It was found that the isolated rats drank far more of the morphine solution, to the extent that there was virtually no overlap in the results. This shows that addiction, like so many things in social psychology, is dependent on social and environmental factors, not solely biological or individual factors.

This is closely connected to another problem with common sense. There is also the fluidity of its 'theory' that renders its right as a theory somewhat less. For example, the saying 'many hands make light work'. This may seem reasonable enough but 'too many cooks spoil the broth' is equally as valid in common sense. As such, these obvious contradictions mean that any particular behaviour can be commended or condemned - regarding on how positively or negatively the outcome is viewed - using the one 'common sense'. This was explored in the study by Teigan (1986) about common sayings and proverbs. He asked students to evaluate either 'true' sayings or 'reversed' sayings. For example, 'Fear is stronger than love' and 'Love is stronger than fear.' The results found that both the 'true' and the 'false' proverbs were rated highly - showing that common sense is constructed, like Psychoanalysis, that everything could be perceived as true.

In conclusion, social psychology is the empirical study of human behaviour. This is similar to common sense in the sense that they both try to explain human behaviour in a social context. Common sense however, is inaccurate and is subject to bias and life-experiences as well as a hindsight bias. Social psychology is given to be more accurate but can be subject to positivism and reductionism.

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