Review of reading

This post discusses three psychology-related articles I have read recently.

The Independent reports that 1 in 5 corporate bosses are psychopaths. This rate was found in research by Nathan Brooks from Bond University in Australia, and is roughly the same as that among the prison population. Even more surprising is that the number of psychopaths (a condition often referred to as antisocial personality disorder) among the general population is just 1-4%. One possible reason for this is that the structure of the corporate world encourages cold-headed risk taking and a lack of empathy/sympathy and  this suits psychopaths, while their superficial charm can make them more likely to get hired. However the article noted that short-term success of such individuals may come at the cost of longer-term failure as they take excessive risks without regard for the consequences. Other occupations with an over-representation of psychopaths are sports and politics.

A second article was about introverts, one of the main personality traits that are recognized in psychology. According to the author, Susan Krauss-Whitbourne, many people don’t admit or acknowledge that they are introverts. She provided nine signs that might suggest that you are an introvert after all. For example, do you do your best thinking when alone? This article is helpful as it gets away from some of the inaccurate negative stereotypes of introversion, such as the idea that introverts don’t like other people. As Susan Cain said in her book ‘Quiet’, the world is set up to suit extraverts – so much so that people might convince themselves that they are one, and suffer as a result.

The third article I looked at was based on a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), which had found that 1 in 5 Americans avoid some of their colleagues because of political differences. This problem is perhaps worse at the moment due to the election year, and in addition the controversial nature of the two main presidential candidates. A significant proportion of workers also reported that their work quality had been adversely affected. Most are pragmatic, however – the survey found that over half of workers simply avoid talking about politics at work.

Example blog post – approaches

One area of interest to psychologists is body language. Why and how do people communicate using their body rather than words? Examples of this include facial expressions, posture, and gestures such as clapping or sticking fingers up at people. [here I have briefly explained a topic – body language].

There are at least three approaches to psychology that can help to explain body language. The evolutionary approach explains that human behavior evolved over many thousands of years, and characteristics that we see today helped our ancestors to survive. The behaviourist approach is very different – it explains behavior in terms of conditioning and social learning, stating that anything can be learned. It doesn’t take genes into account. Finally the cognitive approach explains behavior in terms of beliefs and thinking. It treats people as all being similar, and states that we need to study thought processes in order to understand behavior. [here I have briefly explained/contrasted 3 approaches]

I think that the behaviourist approach might help to explain gestures. We learn/imitate gestures from others (social learning) and get rewarded or punished (e.g. by being told off) when we use them. On the other hand, facial expressions like smiling are the same in all cultures, and babies smile from a very early age. Therefore facial expression is probably best explained by the evolutionary approach – smiles may have helped our ancestors to survive, for example, helping them to build alliances in their tribe by showing when they were friendly  and when they were not. Finally, the cognitive approach explains body language in terms of thoughts and beliefs; one example would be choosing a certain posture because you think it makes you look attractive. This is probably true for some body language but not for all.[here I have tried to explain the behavior using the three approaches]

Factors Affecting Obedience


Obedience means changing behaviour because of a direct order from a legitimate authority figure. We are all affected by obedience, and often do not question what makes the individual giving the order the authority to make demands that we are to respond to. There are many factors which affect our level of obedience.


If there is someone in society who is perceived to be superior to us, we are more likely to obey them unquestioningly, for example a policeman or less officially, our parents. For example, in a classroom environment, if one of your classmates told you to be quiet you would be more likely to ignore the command than if the request came from a teacher, a person of more power and authority. This theory is further proved by the Bickman (1974) experiment in which people dressed in normal clothes, as a milkman or as a security guard asked passers…

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Assignments – to do

A reminder of the points I emailed round before the holidays. All of these things should be addressed before you gather any data. I am hoping that all groups will be close to this stage by now – aim to complete any remaining work by the start of next week:

  • Background – read up on the topic and develop your ideas, taking notes of sources. Draft your intro section.
  • Aim and hypothesis – we worked on this in class, check the ppt if you missed it or ask Mr Firth.
  • Materials ready (e.g. your experimental task/questionnaire)
  • Initial briefing & consent forms ready
  • Instructions – these should be written out so that they are standardised for all participants
  • Debrief written (to be read out/shown to participants at the end of the study)
  • Think through your procedure and in your group/pair, discuss practicalities e.g. how to test, how and when to test people and how long it will take.
  • Complete a first draft of your method section.

Remember that work on preparing materials/brief/instructions/debrief etc can be split among group members. It is important that data gathering is done ethically and carefully, so if in doubt, ask – there is no huge rush at this stage and we want to avoid mistakes!

Summary of blog topics

These are the blog posts/tasks that were set in 1st term – please check that you have added all to your blog (looking over your blog will also be an excellent revision task ahead of the prelim!)

  • Explain an everyday behavior referring to two psychological approaches or a classic study from one approach (e.g. Pavlov’s dog).
  • Conformity – summarise normative influence and informational influence.
  • Obedience – explain how factors in obedience have affected you (see my example post)
  • Analyse the BBC prison study.
  • Observation method – evaluate it.
  • A post on any aspect of sleep (e.g. factors that affect sleep/insomnia).
  • An explanation of how you will apply memory techniques in your studies, referring to one background study (e.g. Kornell’s work on spacing & flashcards).
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the experimental method.
  • Explain 2 approaches to memory or to sleep (e.g. the psychoanalytic and biological approaches to sleep/dreams)
  • TASK – ensure that at least one of your previous blog posts includes an ethical evaluation with reference to BPS guidelines (e.g. ethically evaluate the BBC prison study or conformity research such as Jenness).

There was also an optional task on a cult of your choice, from your own research. If you do this, make sure you link your blog post to research into conformity and obedience and/or explain how people can avoid getting sucked into cults! We will also have some class time after the holidays to finalise and present info on cults.

Well done on all of the fascinating posts so far! Some really good work has gone into these, do comment on those of your classmates if you get a chance. If there are any posts that I have not commented on, please let me know.

Enjoy the holidays!



Some factors that affect obedience

The role of authority figures

One characteristic of obedience as a form of social pressure is that it features an authority figure giving a direct command. The presence of this authority figure i.e. whether the authority figure is physically present affects whether we obey or do not obey an instruction. For example, in a swimming pool, children often run at the edge of the pool instead of walking, but if there is a lifeguard yelling at them to walk, they generally will do so. Milgram (1974) found a similar effect when he replicated his classic experiment with a key variation – the experimenter gave initial instructions and then left the room, afterwards communicating only by phone. The obedience level fell from 65% to 20.5%.


Another factor is personality. When people are given instructions such as from a driving instructor, some people will unquestioningly do what they are told – checking mirrors etc – while others might argue and say that they don’t think it’s necessary. Some people are more confident to argue, while others are generally more rebellious and dislike rules. This may link to upbringing; people who have been brought up with authoritarian parents may obey unquestioningly, while others who have been brought up with a democratic parenting style have, throughout their childhood socialization, been encouraged to debate and discuss rules. However, Zimbardo et al. (1973) have argued that it is the situation that plays the main role in behavior, not our personalities.


Finally, power plays a major role in obedience. In any obedience situation, one person has more power, and tries to change the behavior of people who have less power. One form of power is legal power – the right to punish someone by law if they don’t obey, e.g. a police officer telling someone to stop their car. Another, very different form of power is charismatic power – power which comes from the force of persuasion and someone’s personality. Real world examples of this include the leaders of cults, such as Charles Manson who persuaded vulnerable young teenagers to join his ‘family’ of criminals, and commit murders when he ordered them to.


Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. London: Pinter & Martin.
Zimbardo, P. G., Haney, C., Banks, W. C. & Jaffe, D. (1973). The mind is a formidable jailer: A Pirandellian prison. The New York Times Magazine, 8, 38-60.

Example post: explanations of an everyday behaviour

Why do people go to sleep at different times? Some people are known as ‘larks’ i.e. early risers, while others – nicknamed ‘owls’ – prefer to go to bed late and get up late. This is an example of an everyday behavior that can be explained using the different approaches to psychology.

Are you a lark or an owl?

A biological explanation

The biological approach to psychology explains behavior on the basis of processes within our bodies, such as hormones and brain areas. This approach explains that we fall asleep when our bodies release a hormone called melatonin. The release of melatonin occurs when it gets dark, as low light to the eyes sends a signal to a brain area called the hypothalamus, which in turn triggers melatonin to be released.

However, why do some people fall asleep earlier than others? According to biological psychologists, there are genetic differences between individuals. Therefore it’s likely that some people have genes for being an early riser – one gene called ‘Period 3′ seems to be involved (source: here).


Another explanation is that people learn to associate sleep with different stimuli in the environment due to classical conditioning. Researchers such as Watson said that anything could be learned or unlearned through the environment. Although most people fall asleep when it is dark, some may have had parents who stayed up late into the night, and have come to associate late evenings with lots of fun things going on. If they then stayed up late themselves, this would have been rewarded (operant conditioning). There could also be an element of social learning, as seeing others stay up late and enjoy themselves would cause us to learn this behavior vicariously, according to researchers such as Bandura.