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Understanding the Social Word: Intuitive Scientists

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2176 words Published: 28th Mar 2018

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  • Joanna Zbroniec

In understanding our social world we act as “intuitive scientists”. Evaluate this proposition drawing upon relevant psychological research.

The[p1] concept of people acting as naïve psychologists (has been) was originally proposed by Fritz Heider, and further developed by his research in 1944 (Buchanan Anand et al 2007). It has been claimed that people look for cause and effect and a certain level of predictability in order to make assumptions about other people and situations in general, as reflected and confirmed by Heider’s (1944) research. However, very often these assumptions are biased and not as accurate as reality is. (Storms (1973) provided us with evidence that people actually interpret situations in favour of their own selves.) That urge to interpret and to understand social world, a process purely based on (assumptions[p2] and motivations) seeking truth logically and rationally, is regarded by psychologists as a system that people, namely defined as intuitive scientists, use in order to act in a social world. That claim that people operate as scientists would need to have a basis in people acting rationally and logically in making their assumptions. However, that is not always the case, (as demonstrated in Lau and Russell (1980) and Joffe’s (1999) researches, where) as research has illustrated that participants interpreted a situation in a way that portrays them in a good light. People usually lack the empirical evidence that can provide a total reassurance of their interpretations and thus are subjected to distortions in their perception. Hence we could assume they act via intuition.

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One of the first experiments that gave a basis for existence of naïve psychology was performed by Heider and Simmel in 1944 (as cited in Anand et al 2007). Participants were asked to interpret the animated video on which squares and other shapes were moving in particular way. In experimental group, all but one participants interpreted the action of the squares as a social situation. Squares were given the roles of actors and the whole movie was regarded as a short story (Anand et al 2007). This research provides us with an evidence that people do actually search for meaning in everyday life, with emphasis on social situations. It might appear that a certain level of familiarity or predictability in behavioural patterns provides people with cues for understanding cause and effect of that behaviour. The findings could be regarded as a basis for describing people as intuitive scientists. Looking for casual relationships between different aspects of situations, namely interpreting shapes as human beings and assigning them social roles point us to the way that people look for certain cues in other people that can fit perceived roles – some repetition here).

The next building block in intuitive scientist’s definition would be to find out what is needed in order to give meanings to social world. Barlett (1932) was one of the pioneers to suggest the existence of schemas. Familiar patterns of thought and behaviour, framework of assumptions and predictions or just simply expectations towards the world, are all falling into a definition of schema. In order to give meaning to various situations, people use these schemas that (are) represent(ing) different categories and are based on knowledge from past experiences. (Buchanan 2007). That gives certain level of predictability to everyday situations. In Darley and Gross’s (1983) experiment, it has been found that schemas play not only a role in a way information is interpreted, but also can distort the perception of that situation. Participants clearly demonstrated that their formed expectations provide them a way to notice and interpret aspects of situation (Anand et al 2007). Just as scientists, people collect information(s), they sort it and analyse it (by using categories – schemas) and provide findings (conclude meaning and act accordingly). However, (not always) the process of categorizing (could be) is not always accurate. Using just a few bits of information could trigger the whole framework of schema. One of the familiar examples would be stereotyping. Even with a few (of) behavioural cues, people are quick to form an expectation of who the other person might be. One of the errors, or in other words bia­ses, is self-confirming bias. In Darley and Gross (1983) experiment, both groups of participants demonstrated that they are able to see ‘evidence’ in their interpretation, although both groups interpreted a situation differently. They have seen what they expected to see, and because particular schema has been triggered, familiar expectations could follow (Anand et al 2007). The high probability of bias in forming interpretations does act in favour of describing people as acting on intuition, because there can never be a complete reassurance that the triggered schema possesses enough information to influence correct interpretation. There will never be a firm evidence that people’s perception of social world is not biased.

The types and degrees of bias are described in detail by different models of attribution theory. This theory not only provides us with explanation on how people interpret their own and the others’ behaviour, but also provides us with the mechanism of distorted interpretations. The locus of causality was described by Heider as allocating the cause of behaviour to internal (dispositional) factors, namely a person, and external (situational) causes located in the environment and situations (as cited in Anand et al 2007). Just as scientists, people collect the data about particular behaviour and analyse it. In terms of Kelley’s attribution theory model, they assess the behaviour in terms of consensus, consistency and distinctiveness (as cited in Anand et al 2007). This apparent process would need to appear logical and rational in order to fit into claim that people fully operate as scientists. As we know, scientists rely on objective, measurable data and evidence in order to gain reassurance about correctness of hypothesis/theory. By describing people as intuitive scientists we would expect them to behave in a similar manner and using certain level of rationality and objectivity. That is not the case in Storms (1973) research, in which it is clearly demonstrated that people explain the behaviour of others in terms of situational causes, whereas their own behaviour in terms of dispositional causes (as cited in Anand et al 2007). This fundamental attribution error not only minimize objectivity in judging situations, but also provides a comfortable basis for self-serving bias in individuals and ‘not me’ response on a social groups level.

Lau and Russell (1980) research aimed to test the hypothesis of self serving bias. They have used content analysis method in order to transform qualitative data, namely interpretations into quantitative data, including coding interpretations and analyse it on a numerical level. Naturalistic approach of asking sports team and their managers to interpret the reason why they have won or lost, based on articles in newspaper, was high in ecological validity. It has been confirmed that people tend to interpret their failures by placing the blame outside themselves, whether that would be another team, or luck, whereas attributing winning to their own skills (Anand et al 2007). This evidence suggest that although people do try to collect and analyse data in order to form interpretations, the tendency for self-serving bias reduces the degree of scientists in themselves. If it would be assumed that the reason for that tendency is motivational bias, namely an urge to enhance own self-esteem, then the whole definition of intuitive scientists would not make sense, because in that case people would thought to make interpretations and assumptions just in order to feel right, and not for the sake of finding out what exactly is going on. On a social group level, there seems to be similar tendency. Cross cultural study based on semi-structured interview conducted by Joffe (1999 cited in Buachanan 2007) aimed to collect responses of Britons and South African participants in regards to HIV origins, transmission, and risk. The study provided us with similar pattern to self-serving bias, that is, participants tend to blame and put at risk other social groups, whereas their own group portraying in the best light. Scientists tend to build a theory in a logical manner and collect evidence on the basis on objectivity and measurable methods, whereas ‘intuitive scientists’ make assumptions without empirical evidence, nor rational manner to form interpretations. Rather, they tend to form these assumptions according to what would be the best for their own self-esteem or the general opinion of their own social group. However, the big weakness of both Lau and Russell (1980) and Joffe (1999) studies is that they are based qualitative data. Although the qualitative data can be transformed into quantitative data, there is a strong chance of experimenter bias that could influence the interpretations of findings.

The[p3] argument of whether the claim that people act as intuitive scientists is valid, could be confirmed and declined by evidence drawn from research studies. It has been confirmed that indeed people do try to make sense of everyday situations and try to attribute cause and effects of their behaviour and the behaviour of others and the evidence can by found in Heider (1944), as well as Darley and Gross[p4] (1983) researches. On the other hand, it has been found that people do not search for meaning just for the sake of explaining the behaviour, and instead tend to favour the interpretations and explanations that mostly enhance their self-esteem. Storms (1973) and Lau and Russell (1980) researches, although different in methodology and setting, provide (an) evidence for self-serving and self-confirming biases.

(1523 words)


Anand, P; Buchanan, K; Joffe, H; Thomas, K (2007). Perceiving and Understanding the Social World. In D. Miell, A. Phoenix & K. Thomas (Eds), Mapping Psychology (2nd ed., pp 59 – 99). Milton Keynes: The Open University

A good attempt at referencing – I understand why you have put Anand first rather than Buchanan it is likely that Buchanan is used first as he is the main contributor so stick to the way reference to multiple authors are presented in the book.

[p1]Whilst you have clearly stated the issue in relation to Heider’s “intuitive scientist”, self – serving bias and lack of evidence this is not really an introduction. Don’t refer to studies until you have explained them (i.e. not in an introduction) and do tell the reader how you mean to approach the question (though you do provide some idea of this).

[p2]Not quite right – the “intuitive scientist” is the idea that we seek “truths in a logical and rational way” (Buchanan 2007).

[p3]A reasonable conclusion focused on the evaluative part of the question concluding that it is the motivation that most influences our social cognition.

[p4]The “Hannah” study actually illustrates the effects of schematic processing in terms of categorisation and stereotyping. A better example is MacArthur’s vignettes – used to test Kelley’s co-variation model.


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