Principles of the Sociocultural Level of Analysis

Social psychology is an umbrella term, in which it encompasses many elements/principles. 2 most studied principles are: the influences of the social and cultural environment on individual behavior, and how we construct ourselves as well as our social self.

The influences of the cultural environment on individual behavior was investigated in Bond and Smith’s cross-cultural study on conformity using Asch’s paradigm which included participants from 17 different cultures. The researchers found that individuals of collectivistic cultures showed higher degrees of conformity whereas individuals from individualistic cultures showed less conformity.

The principle of the construction of our social self can be seen in Tajfel’s social identity theory which examines the role of social comparison, social categorization, positive distinctiveness and social identity. This theory aims to demonstrate the importance and influence of in-groups and out-groups on how we construct our social self.


Emic and Etic Concepts

Etic and Emic are different approaches to the studying of behavior. Etic studies aim to discover or investigate a behavior or set of characteristics that all humans have in common, this involves cross-cultural analysis. However, emic based studies aim to investigate a culture-specific phenomena and is rooted by the theory that the attribution of a behavior can only be understood within that specific culture.

An example of an etic approach is the study of conformity by Bond and Smith (1996). This study involves a meta-analysis of findings of studies with the same technique (Asch’s Paradigm) which was repeated across 17 different countries. The researchers found that countries with a collectivisitc rooted culture showed higher levels of conformity and individuals from an individualistic culture showed low levels of conformity.

An example of an emic based study is that of Manson et al (1985) aiming to investigate the depression in Native American Indians. The researchers used the method of interviewing with Hopi native informants to understand the illnesses relevant to depression. They found 5 behaviors that were similar to depression: worry sickness, unhappiness, heartbroken, drunken-like craziness and disappointment. Most Hopi natives could not identify a word that was equivalent to the term of depression but they were all familiar with the 5 behaviors. The Hopi diagnosis of depression shows not to be consistent with the Western diagnosis of that mental illness thus supporting that behaviors are culture dependent.

Cultural dimensions

Hofstede in 2001 conducted a meta-analysis of 72 IBM employees from 40 different countries aiming to deepen the understanding of work-related attitudes pertaining to culture. These are called cultural dimensions. Cultural dimensions are measures of characters, beliefs, or attitudes/behavior that are used to classify a particular sub-cultural group. Cultural dimensions are used by psychologists to help with international interactions in the means of minimizing ‘culture shock’, however this could lead to over-simplifying and stereotypes. Hofstede identified 5 cultural dimensions: individualism/collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, and long-term or short-term orientation.

The following will focus on individualism/collectivism and long-term or short-term orientation, however, a brief definition of the other cultural dimensions are:

Power distance: the extent to which legitimize power and social status is distributed amongst individuals. In high power distance cultures, individuals tend to be used to a large inequality gap and accept it as a naturally occurring condition.

Uncertainty avoidance: this measures the maximum level of social ambiguity an individual can attend to without feeling anxious. Research has found that individuals from cultures high on uncertainty avoidance feel more threatened in spontaneous or unknown situations than those of other cultures.

Masculinity and femininity: this dimension refers to the extent of which the culture promotes a difference in gender roles.

Individuals from individualistic cultures are defined with a personal identity with an independent set of characteristics. Collectivistic cultures have identities that are more so defined by the characteristics of the collective group of that individual. A study supporting this cultural dimension is the cross-cultural analysis of Bond and Smith (1996). Bond and Smith carried out a meta-analysis of 133 conformity studies of the Asch paradigm. These studies were carried out through 17 different countries. He found that for countries that had a collectivistic culture, like Hong Kong, Japan, and Brazil, the level of conformity was significantly higher than that of countries with individualistic cultures like UK, France and USA. The findings of this study confirms the cultural dimension theory that Hofestede proposed as social harmony and a reduction of conflict can be achieved through conformation and it is shown from individuals of a collectivistic culture.

Long-term or short-term orientation is also called time orientation, it refers to the scope to which a culture can identify a dynamic future-orientated goal or obtains this mindset and encourages the sacrificing of material, social and emotional needs in order to achieve the goal. Chen et al’s study on impatience reflects the focus of this cultural dimension. Patience is promoted in Eastern countries whereas immediate consumption is imparted to Western countries. Chen investigated the time orientation factor in 147 Singaporean ‘bi-cultural’ participants. These participants were previously exposed to 2 different cultures and them being Singaporean and American. Chen purposefully activated only one of the two cultures of the participants (half of the participants were exposed to the Singaporean culture and half to the American culture) by presenting them a collage of photos with pictures pertaining to that culture. They were then tasked to buy a book online but the delivery of the book took 4 working days with standard fee, the participants had the option of express delivery with an additional charge. Chen found that the participants with a Singaporean-primed culture continued with the standard delivery, however those of a US-primed culture were more willing to pay for the express delivery. And hence concluded that participants of US-primed (western) cultures valued immediate consumption more than Singaporean-primed (eastern) cultures.



What is culture? Although there is no one set definition for culture, it is known as an umbrella term that encompasses the attitudes, symbols and behaviors of a group of people and can be seen as an information system transcending through generations. For example in a Chinese culture, there is a normative attitude in terms of superstitions that during Chinese New Year, a plate breaking is seen as an ominous sign that the new year would bring bad luck. There is also a symbol of a red lion that celebrates the freedom of people and wards off monsters. Lastly, there is a shared behavior in that an individual should always greet and respect the elderly. In many ways, culture is also seen to be a building block of numerous social networks and ways of recycling information. Culture also allows for a platform in which people can socially interact with others to form the basis of society by food production, knowledge development and procreation.

In establishing culture, we can also establish cultural norms, which are simply attitudes, symbols, and behaviors shared across a group of the same culture which is passed on through generations. Cultural norms are a subset of social norms where the social dimension is set by the elements of culture (eg. ethnicity), this in-group is usually a larger group in comparison with other social groups (eg. friendship circles). Sub-culture norms can also be apparent in large cultural groups where sub-units can be formed in terms of social hierarchy, or specific behaviors (eg. particular organizations).


Conformity is when people adhere to the attitudes, beliefs, values and the behavior of their in-group having been exposed to them. In other words, conformity is where people change their perspective of normative standards to that of society’s norms. There are two different types of conformity: private conformity where the individual privately adheres to the social norms, or public conformity where the individual overtly accepts the social norms but does not privately agree.

Conformity can be influenced by a number of factors for example normative influence, this is where the individual conforms to the expectation of others. This is based on our need to be liked and accepted, in fear of social disapproval and rejection.

A study which supports this theory is Asch’s paradigm study. Asch aimed to investigate conformity in a non-ambiguous situation (i.e. where the correct answer is explicit). This study involved 50 male American undergraduate students where they were unknowingly placed with a group of 6 other participants which were confederates. The group of the participant and the confederate were then tasked to take part in a visual study asking them to compare the lengths of lines and identify which line was equal in length to that of the model. The answer was so explicit that if the participants performed it alone, they would get the answers all correct. The group was then asked to publicly announce which line they thought was identical, however, the confederates were previously arranged to give the wrong answer to 12 out of the 18 questions. This was then repeated for every participant.

Asch found that 32% of the participants went along with the wrong answer, 76% of the participants conformed at least once to the wrong answer and 24% of them did not conform at all. Asch then asked the participants that conformed, why they did. The participants explained that it was due to them wanting to avoid criticism and social disapproval.

Another factor that influences conformity is informational influence, this is the conformity whereby there is no explicit answer of which is the correct decision or action therefore individuals would conform to the social norm. This can be shown through Sherif’s ambiguous study in 1935 which was based on the autokinetic effect. This is an optical illusion where a small spot of light is projected in a dark room, though it is still, individuals see it as moving. Sherif tasked his participants to individually estimate how much the spot had moved (eg 20 cm), this is was their personal norm. He then recorded this answer and put the participants in groups of 3 where 2 of the 3 participants had similar estimates and the other participant had a very different estimate. The groups were then asked to call out their estimate of the movement of the spot, this was repeated 100 times.

Sherif found that as the groups were asked more of the questions, the answer of the participant who originally had the most different personal norm started to conform to the answers of the other group members, this formed a convergence in the participants’ answers which became the social norm. Sherif concluded that in ambiguous situations where individuals doubt their own answer, they would often look to others as sources of information, thus conforming to the social norm which formed the basis of informational conformity.

Compliance Techniques

Aronson et al. defined compliance as ‘a form of social influence involving direct requests from one person to another.’ Put differently, compliance techniques is an umbrella term which includes ways in which we persuade others to achieve a precedented goal. For example if you want to coax a co-worker into doing you a favor, you might present the request in a nicer manner so to say.

A compliance technique demonstrated by Freedman and Fraser (1966) is the foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique. This technique states that an initial smaller request should be placed preceding a larger request (the ultimate goal). The requests should also be placed where there is a delay in presenting the larger request as our desire for commitment will force us to comply to the latter request. This is supported of their study on whether or not householders in California would volunteer to put up an aesthetically unpleasing sign saying ‘Drive Carefully’ in their front yard. The participants were split into 2 groups where the first group were directly asked if they would volunteer to house that sign and the second group where the participants were initially asked to put up a smaller and nicer looking sign, and after two weeks were asked to put up the original ‘ugly’ ‘Driver Carefully’ sign. The researchers found that in the first (direct) condition, only 17% of the participants volunteered, however, when following the FITD technique in the second condition, 76% of the participants volunteered.

Another compliance technique is the lowballing technique. This is where after a person is presented and has agreed to a deal, the deal is then changed to be less attractive, i.e. to the target request. It sounds unfathomable that you would continue to agree to a deal after it has shown to be less attractive but the study of Burger and Cornelius (2003) clearly demonstrates the effects of this technique. This study involves students which were asked, through the phone by a female caller if they would donate $5 to an unprivileged students scholarship fund. The students were then split into 3 conditions: lowballing condition where the caller initially said that the participants would receive a coupon for a free smoothie and was later informed the students that she had run out of coupons, the interrupt condition where when the caller was making the request, before the participants had agreed, she interrupted and said they had run out of coupons, and finally the control condition where the participants were asked to donate and was not told about the coupons. The researchers found that in the lowball condition, 77% of the participants agreed despite the change in deal, and in the control condition, 42% of the participants agreed, however in the interrupt condition, only 16% of the participants agreed. This study supports the initial agreement factor in the lowballing technique as only after the participants had agreed to the more attractive deal, did they still settle for the less attractive alternative (shown in the difference in percentage of compliance).

Social Learning Theory

Social norms are acceptable ways of behavior by our society, for example saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’s. Behaviorists have long believed that the elements which govern our way of learning and applying social norms are rooted from direct forms of learning which emphasize reinforcement, this is called operant conditioning. In other words, it has been believed that we learn from experiencing the consequences (punishment or praise) of an action we have made. However, Albert Bandura theorized that not only do we learn from direct experiences, but also indirect (vicarious) methods. Thus, forming the social learning theory. The social learning theory explains the way we learn from indirect means, it concentrates on overt behaviors of other people that can be observed and measured by ourselves. It illustrates the way in which we learn from observing one another. Consider a child learning table manners from his mother. His mother is the model in which he observes the actions of, then the child imitates the actions of the model and thereby learning the action. In this scenario, reinforcement of the environment (in terms of punishment) was completely unnecessary as the child had already learned the behavior of the model without the need for punishment.

Bandura’s Bobo doll study, clearly demonstrates the social learning theory in terms of learning aggression. This study was conducted in 1965 which consisted of young children (36 boys and 36 girls, aged between 3-6 from Stanford Nursery School) being shown a film of an adult aggressively punching the Bobo doll. The adult displayed violence such as kicking the Bobo doll to the other side of the room, throwing it around, and hitting it with hard objects. The children were split into 3 conditions: control condition where the film shown was just of the adult showing aggression to the Bobo doll without reinforcement, the model-reward condition where after the adult was seen to punch the Bobo doll and received positive reinforcement (sweets), and the model-punished condition in which after the adult performed violent acts, the adult received negative reinforcement (being scolded and spanked).

Having seen these films, the participants (children) were sent into a playroom with toys which included a Bobo doll, Bandura then observed the children’s behavior in that playroom for 10 minutes, especially towards the Bobo doll. He found that in the classic and model-reward condition, the children displayed equal amounts of violent acts, however in the model-punishment condition, the children displayed less violent acts.

Bandura extended this study so that after observing the children’s behavior, he then told all of them that they would be rewarded for each aggressive act performed to the Bobo doll and found that regardless of the condition the children were previously in, they all displayed equal amounts of aggression.

This study supported the vicarious learning methods of the social learning theory as the children learned from merely watching the film. It also supports that the unneeded reinforcement factor of the theory as the children themselves were not punished or rewarded and therefore reinforcement wasn’t necessary for learning as all the participants showed the same level of aggression towards the Bobo doll despite the condition they had been in before.

However, this study received criticism as many people doubt that hitting an inanimate object can be classified as an act of aggression. It was also criticized in terms of the ethical side effects as the children learned to be aggressive and violent which could negatively affect their behavior towards other inanimate or animate objects. The participants could also owe their behavior due to demand characteristics where the participants understood what the aim of the research was and that they had to act accordingly regardless of if it is  natural. Also the findings of this research can only be extended to the sample of participants i.e. children between 3-6 with the same culture as those in the Stanford Nursery School. Hence it cannot be generalized to show that the social learning theory applies to adults.


Stereotypes are widely held evaluative generalizations about a group of people (Aronson et al. 2007). They are characteristics assigned to all members of a group, in spite of the individual differences between the members. Stereotypes can be based on gender, age, race, beliefs, culture, ethnicity etc.

Stereotypes can be both positive or negative and greatly contribute to the prejudice and discrimination in our society. There are many theories that explain why and how they are formed, for example, the illusory correlation, confirmation bias and the social-cognitive theory. They can be formed due to illusory correlation whereby a trait is assigned to a group without any relationship between the two variables. They can also be formed due to confirmation bias, where we only focus on our predisposed impressions and disprove or ignore opposing other factors. Stereotyping is a way in which we categorize a large amount of social information into different groups depending on the typical characteristic displayed by different groups (social cognitive theory). Campbell (1967) argues that it is formed due to the grain of truth hypothesis which states that if a trait were to be attributed, it must have a reason.

As the oversimplified generalizations are made and subconsciously ingrained, our  behavior towards certain individuals, depending on their stereotype, could change. For example, the stereotype for an elderly person might be a person with grey hair, wrinkles and mobility difficulties, so the way we behave around an individual that has that stereotype, we move slower to adjust to their pace and be more careful. The study of Spencer et al. (1977) which demonstrated the potential danger of stereotyping. This study involves the mathematical testing of male and female participants. The participants were told (put under stereotype threat), before they had done the test that females would under-perform and males are better at math. The researchers found that this resulted in the female participants scoring lower than the males. However, a literature test was performed where the participants were not put under any stereotype threat and found that male and female scored almost equally well. This study shows that when under stereotype threat, we tend to act according to the stereotype whether its conscious or subconsciously.

Social Identity Theory

One’s self-concept is the person’s idea of who they are based on who they associate themselves with, their environment and their behavior. Henry Tajfel, in 1979, developed the social identity theory whereby one’s identity is based on: social categorization, social identity, social comparison and positive distinctiveness. Tajfel believed that the groups we are in, heavily influenced our sense of who we are, and so groups lead to the development of a social identity.

Tajfel stated that social categorization ordered the environment into in-groups (group containing the individual) and out-groups (group that the individual doesn’t belong to). Social categorization allows for one to feel similar to others in the group, perceive that everyone in the out-group is the same, it also allows us to distinguish our in-group from the out-group by identifying the differences. Exaggeration of intra-group similarities and inter-group differences commonly occurs, this is called the category accentuation effect.

Tajfel’s definition of social identity is the social groups in which we identify ourselves with. He believed that by associating ourselves with the in-group members and displaying norms of the social group, we would take up the behavior displayed, which would form part of our self-concept.

Social comparison also plays a role in developing our self-concept. Tajfel states that the way we see ourselves in comparison to the people around us helps us measure our abilities and potential etc. In other words, it allows us to know how we ‘rank’ or place in social settings.

According to the social identity theory, we instinctively attempt to positively identify our selves, this is the self-esteem hypothesis. Therefore, when comparing in-groups and out-groups, we would perceive the in-group as superior – ethnocentrism.

Tajfel et al. (1971)’s study using the minimal group paradigm. This is where participants are placed as in-groups and out-groups randomly due to an arbitrary criteria eg. tossing coin. Tajfel split a sample of 48 British schoolboys into 2 groups randomly, however, the participants were told that they were separated by their preference from 2 paintings. The participants worked individually. They were then tasked with a set number of points and was asked to allocate them to in-group members and out-group members. They also followed a chart which stated that for a set amount of points allocated to an in-group member, a sum of points had to be given to an out-group member, eg. 7 points allowed for in-group and 1 point had to be given to the out-group. As the number of points distributed to the in-group increased, the difference between points given to the out- and in- group decreased, eg 14 – in and 15 -out. Tajfel found that not only did the participants allocate more points for their in-group (positive distinctiveness and in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination), in order to enhance the variability between the groups, the participants gave less points to themselves, so that they would have to give the out-group even less (category accentuation effect).

However, the social identity theory has been criticized in a number of studies. For example, the self-esteem hypothesis has been discredited by a studies proving that the increase in self-esteem drawn from the discrimination of the out-group is too short term and does not translate to one’s self-concept. Although Tajfel aimed to attribute self-concept due to situational factors, rather than dispositional factors, many argue that the formation and association of oneself to different social groups is based on their disposition.

With that said, the development of the social identity theory instigated many other studies which supports the theory. The theory helps us understand our need for belongingness, the derivation of our self-esteem and the variability in attitude displayed in different social situations. It has also notably contributed towards the understanding of how we construct our own personal identities.

Attribution Errors

When attributing the behaviour of others, according to the actor-observer theory, the attribution is always based on a guess. This guess however can be influenced by a number of factors causing the attribution to be wrongfully placed. There are 4 main theories of attributional errors, which are: fundamental attribution error, self-serving bias, illusory correlation, and the self-fulfilling hypothesis. This article will focus on fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias.

Although it is logical to acknowledge that both situational and dispositional factors play a role in the attribution of behaviour, many people tend to ignore situational elements and only focus on one’s disposition. In other words, if a person is seen to be yelling, we conclude that they have an angry personality and ignore other situational factors that might’ve had implications towards this behaviour. This is called the fundamental attribution error.

The study conducted by Jones and Harris in 1967, supports the theory of the fundamental attribution error. They enlisted university students and asked for them to read and evaluate essays written by fellow students about Fidel Castro’s ruling in Cuba. The essays were written in the form of either supporting Castro’s ruling or critiquing his ruling. The students writing the essay were split into 2 groups: Choice-condition group where the students were free to choose whether they supported or opposed to Castro’s rule. Or the no-choice-condition whereby the students were randomly assigned either pro- or anti- Castro. The participants were then tasked to attribute the essays in both condition either to situational factors (random assignment) or dispositional (reflective of their own opinion). The researchers found that the participants attributed the essays from the choice-condition to dispositional factors. They also found that participants attributed the essays in the no-choice-condition to dispositional factors, despite having known that they were randomly assigned and had no choice in the decision.

Another error in attribution is the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias illustrates that we explain our own successes due to dispositional factors and blame failures on situational factors. Eg. if one did not perform as well during a race, they would say that it is due to them not having breakfast, the floor being slippery or any other external factor but not because they are not as good as they had thought. This is demonstrated in the study of Johnson et al. in 1964. In this study, the participants, consisting of psychology students were asked to teach children how to multiply numbers by 10 and 20. They taught the children using a one-way intercom system. After the students had been taught, they did a set of worksheets on their own for participants to asses their learning progress. The worksheets were marked externally and in such a way that the children were split randomly in 2 groups and in group 1, the questions were all marked correct, regardless of if they were and in group 2, the questions were either marked wrong for the multiplication of 10 then correct for that of 20, or completely wrong on both the multiplications. The researchers found that when the participants evaluated the marks of the children, they attributed the improvement due to the participant’s own teaching ability but they attributed the children’s failure due to the children’s lack of ability.