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Four Social Psychology Studies that Matter to Your Business

Psychologists have long recognised the influence groups exert on an individual’s behaviour and attempts have been made to measure and predict outcomes in quasi-experimental designs. In this article, the knowledge derived from a number of seminal studies is being extended to workplace characteristics.

Whilst practitioners within the workplace base their business  activities on empirical evidence and documented research, academics can and should frame their investigations directly within practical contexts to solve real-world issues. There is value for organisations when their capable people assume a dual academic/practitioner role in their undertakings, and significant advantage to be gained when engaging both roles.
With this mind-set, four classic social psychology studies are reviewed in order to highlight how beauty, geriatrics, fortune telling and physical torture can help make a difference to a business operation.

1. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Miller (1970) hypothesised that male and female evaluators would associate photos of attractive people with positive personality characteristics just by seeing the images. To investigate this hypothesis, the author asked 720 university students to review 12 out of 400 opposite-gender photos which had been formerly categorised on a nine-point scale for attractiveness. The participants were then also asked to rate the people in the photos on seventeen personality dimensions.

Photos of physically attractive individuals were thus judged significantly more positively on the personality dimensions than unattractive people were, on no other basis than the first impression. This was shown to be the case for both male and female evaluators and for traits ranging from sense of humour, to confidence, flexibility and conscientiousness.

Why This Matters
Miller’s (1970) study is one of a number of investigations linking physical attractiveness with preferential evaluation and outcomes, and there is documentation to show that attractive people tend to get promoted more, earn higher salaries and do better in selection interviews (Brehm, Kassin and Fein, 2005). If beauty was also linked to on the job performance, such evidence would not be problematic. But this does not appear to be the case.

Such studies highlight the importance of setting up a structured interviewing and selection process as ultimately this can help avoid these biases. Behavioural interviewing in particular helps bring emphasis to measurable and tangible results, thereby limiting the influence that a person’s appearance might exert; on the positive or negative side. When selecting in interviews or carrying out appraisals in performance feedback sessions, emphasis should lie on metrics and measurables, as these will allow a business to run and grow effectively.

2. Lessons from botany and geriatrics
In what has become one of the classic studies in social psychology, Langer and Rodin (1976) carried out a field investigation within a nursing home. The researchers hypothesised that by empowering the elderly patients and involving them in decision making, the patients would perceive an improvement in their overall quality of life.

Langer and Rodin divided participants from the same nursing home into two groups, with the experimental group having passed onto it communication emphasising their responsibility for themselves, while a control group was simultaneously told that the staff members would be taking care of them. The former was also invited to decide whether to participate in a movie group and to see if the members would be interested in taking care of a plant in their room (patients in the control group were not given the choice to do this).

As could have been expected, the results of the study showed that participants in the experimental group presented a greater improvement than those in the control group in alertness, active participation and general well-being. What went beyond expectations in this research was that in a followup study 18 months later Rodin and Langer (1977) found that the improvements were maintained over time, and that additionally the intervention had also led to statistically significant differences between the groups with regards to mortality rates. It would seem that having the elderly take care of a plant had led them to live better and longer.

Why This Matters
There is growing recognition that empowerment is an important contributor to the achievement of organisational goals, as well as for general employee well-being. What emerges from the Langer and Rodin study is that even involvement in small issues can lead to improved outcomes - patients were not asked to take decisions on their medical regimen or the finances of the nursing home, and yet the responsibility for a simple potted plant led to these significant improvements.

Empowering employees does not require making gargantuan strides or changes, but it does require an adapted mind set in management from “we know what to do” or worse still “we will take care of what needs to be done”, to “let us decide on the best way forward”.

3. Fortune Teller
In a self-fulfilling prophecy one person’s prediction of another person’s behaviour somehow comes to be realised. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) went on to set up a self-fulfilling prophecy within a school environment. The researchers conducted their study in Oak School in the South San Francisco Unified School District and at the beginning of the scholastic year they administered an assessment tool to students from kindergarten to grade five, letting the teachers believe that the test was useful in identifying high potential. Within each class, five students were singled out as presenting high potential. But in reality, they had been selected at random.

At the end of year the students were administered an IQ test and in fact the students who had been identified as ‘high potential’ at random were the ones who made the most marked progress. Rosenthal and Jacobson went on to argue that teachers’ beliefs in their students were shaping up the way they were interacting with them. In fact, recordings showed that when dealing with the singled out students, they were more tolerant of errors, they tended to ask them questions more often and they gave them more attention throughout the school year.

Why This Matters
Lay beliefs but also academic research will vouch that in-group employees will do better within an organisational context than out-group employees. Individuals close to managers typically present stronger commitment towards the organisation, a greater extent of citizenship behaviour, stronger on-the-job performance and a tendency to stay in the job even in the face of adversity. Persons in the ‘out-group’ will generally criticise the ‘in-group’ employees and the greater challenge appears to lie in the management of the former.

Within the academic context, the arguments linked to in-group and out-group behaviour have been crystallised in an approach referred to as leader-member exchange theory (LMX) and this viewpoint has in fact stood up well to academic scrutiny. On analysis, the LMX theory presents arguments close to those posited by Rosenthal and Jacobson in that the in-group employees who are perceived by their superiors as having potential do in fact turn out to be successful employees, possibly through a mechanism linked to self-fulfilling prophecies.

4. A shocking reality
In 2013, The Psychologist celebrated the 50th anniversary from Stanley Milgram’s publication of his classic studies relating to power and authority by devoting a full edition to the implications and repercussions of his findings. Milgram was interested in understanding why Nazi soldiers during the second world war committed atrocities and obeyed unquestioningly superior instructions leading to crimes such as those of the holocaust. Snow (as quoted in Milgram 1963, p. 372) writes “when you think about the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more crimes have ever been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion”.

To investigate the subject, Milgram invited participants to what they believed to be a study on memory and learning at Yale University. They were led to an interaction laboratory where they were introduced to an experimenter and who they believed to be another participant. He was, however, a confederate to the researcher. Rigged draws were made, and in each case, the actual participant ended up taking the role of a teacher, while the confederate took on the role of the learner. The teacher was asked to presents words for recall to the learner and to administer a shock when an error was made. The shock machine presented designations from 15 volts to 450 volts and corresponding labels were attached from ‘Slight Shock’ to ‘Danger XXX’. The learner deliberately made errors and as a result the teacher was prompted by the researcher to administer shocks (in reality no shocks were being given but the actors were feigning the pain). In the experiment no participant stopped before administering at least 300 volts, while 26 participants administered the full range of shocks even when the learner pretended to have fallen unconscious.

Milgram argued that participants were administering painful treatment to others as they felt compelled to follow instructions being presented by the experimenter, who in his role was being seen as the source of responsibility for the outcomes.

Why This Matters
It is easy to dismiss the Milgram studies as a product of the 60s or to consider the participants in the study as somewhat deviant, but Milgram had opportunity to repeat the investigation a number of times, including a run with Yale University students, and in each case the outcomes were unequivocally pointing towards the same direction. Incidentally these studies were ground to a halt on ethical grounds, as participants were being deceived on the true intentions of the study, and a good number of participants were experiencing significant distress in the process. But the outcomes are nonetheless fascinating, and call for an exertion of caution in the
handling of power and authority. Within organisations it is easy for managers to fall into the trap of expecting unconditional obedience from their subordinates but this eventually only leads to creation of mindless automata. Automata will do what they have been told and will follow instructions but ultimately they will struggle in instances in which they need to take on responsibility themselves for work decisions and outcomes.

Research investigations are often carried out with the aim of extending knowledge but researchers tend to show interest in having their work see application and fruitful outcomes in the real world. From the practitioner’s side, it is important to keep an eye open on evidence resulting from academia, as this can allow them to carry out their own work from within a more grounded, empirical perspective.

Last modified onSunday, 01 February 2015 22:06
Calvin Cassar

Calvin Cassar is currently employed as Human Resources Manager at FTIAS, part of FTI GmbH, a multi-national company operating in the tourism industry. He holds particular interest and expertise in recruitment, assessment and quantitative analyses having gained exposure in these through academic as well as work experiences.

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