Social psychologists have found that two motives are of primary importance in determining human thoughts and behavior: the need to feel good about ourselves and the need to be accurate. Self-esteem is people’s evaluation of their own self-worth or the extent to which people see themselves as good, competent, and decent. Most people have a strong need to maintain high self-esteem. This need can clash with the need for accuracy, referred to as the social cognition motive, leading people to distort their perceptions of reality (e.g., by explaining their personal deficiencies in more positive ways) so as to preserve self-esteem. Such distortions are more “spins” on the facts rather than complete delusions.
Consider, for instance, a man who proposed marriage and had his proposal rejected in front of his girlfriend’s entire family. This person faces a conflict between the need to maintain self-esteem and the need to be accurate. What should he think about being rejected by his girlfriend? He could protect his self-esteem and assume it was not his fault at all that she said no, or he could try to get an accurate assessment of what happened (e.g., perhaps proposing in front of her family was a bad idea; perhaps his relationship was not as solid as he thought) so it will not happen again. Social psychologists study people’s subjective construals of situations and how these construals are influenced by their self-esteem and social cognition motives.
An important application of this study is to better understand aggressive behavior, a social psychology topic that has far-reaching implications for individuals, groups, and society as a whole. One of the most important reasons for studying aggression is the goal of reducing violence. For example, individuals can be counseled to change the parameters of their situation, trained in communication and problem-solving skills, or provided with ongoing interventions such as anti-bullying programs. Social psychologists seek answers to questions such as: In aggressive situations, do people learn to be aggressive or are their behavior a function of their environment? Do some people have aggressive attributes and tendencies or do they become aggressive because of their unique situations? Are individuals from some cultures more aggressive than those from others?
A fundamental difference between social psychologists and laypeople is the application of this construal approach in understanding how aggressive situations and other types of behavior arise. Social psychologists recognize and examine the power of the situation in influencing people. Lay people often cite the situation to explain their own behaviors, but they overlook the situation and instead cite personality to explain others’ behaviors. This is termed the fundamental attribution error.
For this Discussion, you consider why some individuals are aggressive toward others and how aggression escalates or can be reduced. You will compare how social psychologists and laypeople might each explain various types of aggressive behavior, and in doing so, apply many of the concepts you explored in the Learning Resources this week, including construals, the fundamental attribution error, and the sometimes competing motives of self-esteem and social cognition. Get Social Science help today
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