Friday, 22 May 2015

A Behavioural Sink: Calhoun's (1962) rat studies

Aggressive gangs of youths, neglectful parents, sexual assault - some of the worst aspects of modern human society. But could they simply be the products of the physical environment we live in?

That is exactly what researcher James Calhoun suggested with his groundbreaking studies on rodents - which found many of the same social problems cropping up in artificial and overcrowded 'rat cities' that he created in his lab.

What happens to a rat's behaviour when it is overcrowded? Image via Pixabay


The most obvious problem the rats suffered from was overcrowding. Things started off well with a total population of 48 rats across 4 enclosures, but they soon began to breed and multiply despite the limited space. The social structures that emerged were put under pressure, with it hard for any of the rats to defend their territory.

Psychological space

Interestingly, it was not just the size of the physical space that impacted on behaviour, but its layout. With the pen divided into four compartments, two were 'end' compartments with a single entranceway, and the remaining two were of equal size and shape, but had a pair of entrances, joining on to the other pens. The results in the two types of compartment were sharply contrasting. In the end compartments, a single male rat was able to dominate a territory, guarding the single entrance and keeping rivals out. Within these compartments, behaviour was essentially normal.

However in the middle compartments, this wasn't possible. It was here that the rats' behaviour degenerated so disturbingly:

- Male rats formed 'gangs' and attacked females and infants

- Females suffered massively increased birth complications

- Infants were forgotten or abandoned

- Some rats wounded, sexually attacked or even cannibalised other rats.

The rats changed so markedly that their behaviour was unrecognisable compared to rats in a more natural habitat - according to Calhoun, they had "stopped being rats".

What do people (and rats) need?

There will always be doubts about comparing animal experiments to humans, but this study had a huge impact because it seemed to tell us something profound about behaviour and psychological health.

The research strongly suggests that the answer to psychological health is not within our brains but within our environments - if our surroundings are positive, it seems to suggest, the chances of deviant and antisocial behaviours may be greatly reduced.

Read more

The social implications of Calhoun's work: 'Letting the Rat out of the Bag'
A similar study with implications for addiction: 'The View from Rat Park'.


Calhoun, J. B. (1962). Population density and social pathology. Scientific American, 206(3), 139–148.

Discussion points:

  • Was this study unethical?
  • Can the rat behaviour in the study be generalised to human behaviour?
  • What human environments might be similar to the 'middle compartments' in the study where most harmful behaviour was observed? 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Hazan & Shaver (1987) - the 'Love Quiz' study


Hazan and Shaver (1987) studied adult relationships to find out whether romantic love shows the same attachment styles as those found among children.

Like Bowlby, they believed that an infant’s attachment to the primary carer provides a schema of how relationships work that will be carried into adulthood. The implications of this, which they set out to test, is that similar attachment styles may be shown in adulthood as Ainsworth and Bell (1970) discovered among infants.

Can childhood attachments lead to adult
romantic behaviour? Image by Robert McGoldrick.


The researchers used a survey printed in a newspaper, presented as a “love quiz”. The first 620 responses were analysed – 205 from men and 415 from women. 42% of participants were married and 31% were dating. Questions asked about issues such as fear of closeness, jealousy and obsessive preoccupation.


The researchers analysed the responses to the questions and categorised each participant into one of three groups:
  • Securely attached: has a healthy balance between wanting closeness and being comfortable with independence.
  • Avoidant: tends to avoid closeness and is excessively independent, i.e. dislikes relying on others.
  • Anxious: clingy and insecure; is very uncomfortable with independence.
From the sample, 56% were secure, 25% avoidant and 19% anxious. These are very similar to the proportions of secure/insecure infants in the classic studies by Ainsworth and colleagues - supporting the researchers’ hypothesis.


A limitation is that there is no way of knowing if the same individuals who report secure adult relationships were also securely attached as children. Therefore, although the results did in principle support the researchers' continuity hypothesis of attachment styles through the lifespan, they didn't confirm it.

However, as the first attempt to link attachment style to adult relationships, this was a large-scale study and very successful.


Ainsworth, M.D.S. & Bell, S.M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Individual differences in strange-situation behavior of one-year-olds. Child Development, 41, 49-67.
Hazan, C. and Shaver, P.R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualised as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Why do we Conform?

To define it broadly, conformity means changing our behaviour to become more similar to those around us. More specifically, the change should come from the social pressure exerted by other people (not necessarily intentionally), rather than simply from social facilitation. It also tends not to involve a direct order or request.

Therefore conformity can be defined as ‘social pressure, usually unspoken, to change our behaviour or beliefs in order to come into line with others in a group.’

Clothing often demonstrates conformity. Image by Celine Nadeau

Types of Conformity

Conformity involves a change in behaviour, but not always a change in attitudes. Psychologists distinguish between three types of conformity (Kelman, 1958):

  • Compliance. Here the individual changes their behaviour - modifies what they do, say or wear -  without changing their beliefs. They go along with the crowd in the social situation, but maintain their own views deep down
  • Identification. Here, there is a change of attitudes and beliefs, but they are shallow and temporary. Typically, the behaviour change will only last for as long as the individual is a member of the group in question.
  • Internalisation. Here there is a permanent change of attitudes. The individual initially conforms to their group, but the new attitude or behaviour becomes part of their individual identity. This means that not only will they behave this way when on their own, but will continue to do so long after the group has ceased to exist

Motivation to Conform

Humans seem to have a strong motivation to fit in with the group. Jones (1964) considered conformity to be based on ingratiation i.e. getting other people to like and accept us. We might adjust our behaviour to what we think others will like and approve of. This is known as normative influence (Deutsch and Gerrard, 1955) and is based on a desire to be liked and not rejected by others. An example might be binge-drinking if your friends are doing it.

Some conformity doesn't seem to be motivated by the desire to be liked - for example, when the other people are strangers and we'll never see them again. Informational influence (Deutsch and Gerrard, 1955) occurs when we don't know what to do, so we look to see what others are doing. It is motivated by a desire to be right. An example could be standing in a long queue rather than a short one, because we assume that it must be there correct place to stand.

Conformity in Society

Conformity tends to be seen as a bad thing - but it can include conforming to others who are obeying the law or donating to charity. It's therefore a mixture - neither inherently good or bad. One thing that is clear about conformity is that it is found in every human society (Smith & Bond, 1993). This means it is a culturally universal process.

An assumption is often made that social influence can only work one way, i.e. the minority conforming to the majority. However, Moscovici and Lage (1976) demonstrated minority influence - the minority exerting an influence over the majority rather than the other way round - by getting two confederates (actors) among a group of six participants to describe a blue slide as green. This gradually influenced the rest of the group. Minority influence is strongest if it is consistent and unanimous. Moscovici (1981) argues that through history, most social change has resulted from a minority persuading the majority into their way of thinking.

The universal nature of conformity suggests that it is a fundamental part of human nature. Tomasello (2014) suggests that 'group-mindedness' was an evolutionary adaptation to our ancestors' reliance on one another when hunting; other apes are highly social, but for humans, conformity to group norms was so important that it became an end in itself.


Deutsch, M. and Gerrard, H.B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influence upon individual judgements. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636.
Jones, E. E. (1964). Ingratiation: A Social-Psychological Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Kelman, H. C. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2(1), 51–60. doi:10.1177/002200275800200106
Moscovici, S. (1981). On social representations. In J.P. Forgas (Ed.) Social Cognition: Perspectives on Everyday Understanding. London: Academic Press.
Moscovici, S. and Lage, E. (1976). Studies in social influence III: Majority versus minority influence in a group. European Journal of Social Psychology, 6, 149-174.
Smith, P.B. and Bond, M.H. (1993). Social Psychology Across Cultures: Analysis and Perspectives. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Tomasello, M. (2014). The ultra-social animal. Invited Horizon article for European Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 187-194.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Top studies for this summer's exams

With the summer exams just around the corner, here is my new improved selection of the most useful research studies described on this blog:

Attachment/Early Socialisation:

Myron-Wilson and Smith's (1998) study of attachment type and bullying. A useful study that links to a number of areas - individual differences in attachment most obviously, but can be used as an evaluation point of Ainsworth's work too.


Anderson and Dill's (2000) study of violent video games found that playing a violent video game led to greater aggression than a non-violent game, and also suggested that in some circumstances, women behave more aggressively than men.


Reitman's (1973) study of decay v's displacement in short term memory. This study can be used as evidence for more than one theory of forgetting, and is useful for general questions on the features of STM too. Loftus and Palmer (1974) is a classic on the applied issue of eyewitness testimony.


Kiecolt-Glaser et al. (1984) - exam stress and the immune system. This study links to stress and the immune system/physical health, but is also of relevance to questions on fight-or-flight, the evolutionary origins of stress, and the sources of stress. Taylor et al. (2000)'s concept of the 'tend and befriend response' gives an interesting evolutionary perspective on the classic idea of fight-or-flight.


Have a look at Jenness's (1932) classic study. It tends to be poorly/inaccurately explained. On the issue of factors that affect conformity, Hornsey et al. (2003) is useful on the issue of strong values/beliefs - also relevant to interventions for resisting social pressure.


Milgram (1963). This classic study is relevant to most questions on Obedience, including the factors that affect obedience level, and even on how social pressure can be resisted. Just be careful not to put in too lengthy a description of the procedure of the study, as markers tend to be looking for you to explain and analyse its relevance! Consider also the more recent Meeus and Raaijmakers (1995) study of 'administrative violence', with its higher ecological validity.


LaPierre's study of discrimination.  An interesting study as it shows how prejudiced attitudes can differ greatly from actual behaviour - again this is a study that is relevant to many situations and therefore many questions. When it comes to prejudice reduction, Aronson and Bridgeman (1979)'s Jigsaw Technique is easy to explain and evaluate.


Bartlett (1932). A key study in the Edexcel GCSE course, but actually relevant to a number of topics - schemas play a key role in memory. A stereotype is a type of schema, so there is a close connection with Social Psychology too.

To follow: a list of some of the most popular posts on theories in Psychology. Good luck with all the exams!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Asch without the actors - Mori & Arai (2010)

The 'length of lines' experiment of Solomon Asch showed how a majority opinion can provide immense social pressure to conform, even when the majority is clearly wrong.  However, it had a some major limitations - it is dated, taking place in 1950s America, and used only male participants. It also used confederates (actors who had been briefed to lie about what they saw) whose behaviour may have been unrealistic and suspicious. According to Mori and Arai (2010):

"Although confederates often play an important role in psychological science, using them has certain drawbacks. One intrinsic problem is that they behave in a manner that is somewhat unnatural and artificial. Even well-trained confederates often violate the norms for social interaction by engaging in stilted conversations and raising participants’ suspicions about the real purpose of the experiment." (p.391).

Mori and Arai tested acquaintances in groups of four.
Image by Greekadman

Mori and Arai therefore tried to update the Asch study with a partial replication which avoided the need for confederates.


Researchers used the MORI technique, where participants wear filter glasses that allow them to watch the same film but see different things. This meant that everyone was a true participant - but one had been given a different type of filter glasses which meant that they perceived a different line to match the length of the target line. The materials were designed to be otherwise as similar as possible to the original Asch research, and there were 18 trials, 12 of which were 'critical trials' (where the participants saw different things.

104 male and female participants were used in groups of four. Participants stated their answers out loud, with the minority participant going third.


For female participants, results were similar to those of Asch (1955), with conformity to the majority shown on 4.41 out of 12 critical trials (v's 3.44 in the original).  However, it was found that the male participants did not conform to the majority view. There were also many mistakes by the majority, indicating that the task was harder than the original.


The researchers explained the gender difference in terms of the different expecations and social roles of males and females, and this could be affected by the culture of the participants - the study took place in Japan. However as conformity has previously been shown cross-culturally, the researchers state that it is too early to draw firm conclusions about why the males conformed less than the female participants.

Another factor was that in this study, the participants knew each other (compared to the strangers used in most previous conformity studies). Mori and Arai believe it is more important to understand how we conform to our friends and acquaintances because conformity to strangers is a rare occurrence in everyday life. The technique in this study therefore provides a useful way of updating the Asch research without the artificiality of confederates, raising the ecological validity of the findings.

More recently, Mori et al. (2014) conducted further research into the gender difference which suggested that males and females begin at an equal level of conformity, and that boys become more independent with age while females remain at the same level. This could reflect social norms and expectations.

Syllabus note: This is a mandatory study for CforE Higher Psychology.


Asch, S.E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193, 31-35.
Mori, K., and Arai, M. (2010). No need to fake it: Reproduction of the Asch experiment without confederates. International Journal of Psychology, 45 (5), 390-397.
Mori, K., Ito-Koyama, A., Arai, M. and Hanayama, A. (2014). Boys, be independent! Conformity development of Japanese children in the Asch experiment without using confederates. Psychology, 5, 617-623.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Stress, and its Origins in our Evolutionary Past

Stress is a major threat to physical and psychological health.  One reason that we experience so much stress is that many of the demands of modern life differ from what we are evolutionarily adapted to.  We have a stress response that helps us fight an attacker or run away (the 'fight or flight' response), but modern stressors are more likely to involve late trains or work deadlines.

For most of evolution, a human's lifestyle was very different
to what we experience today. Image: Wyoming_Jackrabbit

Often we can't avoid stressors, and we can't easily change the basic biological response of the human body.  Attention has therefore focused on ways of coping with life stress.  Methods include:

  • Exercise.  This is effective, because it naturally metabolises the stress hormones and excess glucose released during fight-or-flight.  However, it is not always possible to fit in a run during busy times!
  • Time management.  Often the best way to deal with the stressor is to avoid it - by prioritising, and managing deadlines more carefully.
  • Meditation.  This can be effective, and is easier to fit in than some alternatives.  The individual focuses on a simple stimulus such as a chant or a candle.  It can provide a simple way of clearing the mind from worries, and incorporates deep breathing which helps deactivate the stress response.  When meditating, people are both relaxed and alert.

Slagter et al. (2007) studied whether meditation can help people over the long-term as well.  They found that three months of meditation improved participants’ abilities to perform an attention-based task, which involved spotting numbers among a group of letters. This shows that meditation can help people to deal with life demands.


Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Francis, A.D., Nieuwenhuis, S., Davis, J.M. and Davidson, R.J. (2007). Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PloS Biology, 5, e138.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Brilliant Video - Evolution Condensed into 60 Seconds

Wow - a great video for putting human evolution in perspective:

"Evolution in 60 seconds", counting down from the beginning of life to the present day. Excellent for getting a sense of the overall timescale, and of when things like mammals and birds appeared on the scene.

My only criticism is that the focus on primates/humans could perpetuate the myth that evolution was somehow working towards humans as an end point, which is of course false. They could just as easily have counted down to the evolution of aardvarks!

Having said that, from a teaching point of view it would be great to see a similar video just on human origins for the past 8 million years or so, like the Smithsonian Institution's interactive timeline.