Category Archives: Social Psychology

Spotlight Study: Delayed Gratification


In the classic, late 1960s experiment, a researcher placed a marshmallow in front of a child. If the child could resist the marshmallow for 15 minutes they were told they would get a second marshmallow. The large majority of the children, with an average age of four, could not wait the 15 minutes to receive a second marshmallow. Follow up studies also confirmed these findings and lead to further investigation into the role delayed gratification played in a child’s future success. What they discovered was a revolutionary correlation between the amount of time a child could delay gratification and their success as an adult. Furthermore, delayed gratification was shown to be a better predictor of later success than intelligence.

A new study published in the October 2012 of Cognition has cast new light on this study, by showing that there may be a rational decision between certain children’s inability to wait for that second marshmallow. Doctoral candidate Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester, the lead author of study, hypothesised that the rationale is based on the likelihood of perceived trust in getting the second marshmallow.


According to Kidd’s hypothesis, delayed gratification is not a rational decision if a child does not trust in the researcher. Living in poor socioeconomic conditions fosters a mistrust in delayed gratification, and so Kidd believed that recreating an environment of mistrust in experimental conditions can reduce the time a child could delay their gratification.

Kidd et al. gave children some poor quality art supplies and told them that if they could resist them, a researcher would return with better art supplies. In the ‘reliable’ condition, the researcher did return with better quality art supplies, but in the ‘unreliable’ condition, the researcher did not return with better supplies stating they did not have them. Like in the original experiment, these children were also an average age of four, and the majority of the children could not wait the full fifteen minutes. However, the difference between the ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’ condition is that in the first condition that child could wait an average of 12 minutes, where as in the second they only waited an average of 3 minutes.


These findings suggest a strong association between how long a child was able to wait for the supplies and various measures of mental health, competence and success in later life.

In the article on delayed gratification featured in the March/April 2013 edition of Scientific American Mind an imaging study was mentioned that studied the kids in the original 1960s experiment. This study found significant differences in the activity of key brain areas between those who could and could not resist the temptation of the marshmallow. This counters the idea that only self-control plays a role in resisting temptation  socioeconomic status, quality of parenting and environmental factors also play a crucial role.


Makin, Simon. ‘Delayed Gratification “A Marshmallow in the Hand.’” Scientific American Mind March/April t 2013: 8. Print.

Profile of a psychologist: Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo, Psychology

Philip Zimbardo, Psychology

Philip G. Zimbardo is world renowned for his controversial study, the Stanford Prison experiment. In more recent years he has become known for his theory known as the “Lucifer Effect,” in which he investigates the question “What makes good people do bad things?” A Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University and currently still teaching, Zimbardo also holds the title of two-time past president of the Western Psychological Association and past president of the American Psychological Association. As a social psychologist, Zimbardo constantly questions how we interact and influence others in our society; however, most notably, he seeks to discover how our environment is and will remain our strongest influence.

Philip Zimbardo was born in 1933 to a Sicilian-American family in New York City, New York. His academic career landed him classmates with another future social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in James Monroe High School. Next he merited a BA from Brooklyn College and a PhD from Yale University. After several years of teaching a universities all across the United States, he finally started his professorship at Stanford in 1968. Since 2000, Zimbardo has been on a mission to bring psychology to the forefront of research and also the public eye by presenting a TV series on “discovering psychology” and lecturing at TED, to name a few.

zimbardo2Inspired by Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies in 1963 that demonstrated the moral aberration people are willing to commit to obey authority, Zimbardo aimed to discover what makes people concede their moral compass when put in a place of power. Zimbardo wanted to uncover under what circumstances people would “willing use (or abuse) power granted to them.” In light of this curiosity, he carried out the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971. His subjects were twenty-four, mentally healthy, American, university students. The similarity of subjects attempted to control for all dependent variables. Randomly, the students were assigned the role of “guard or prisoner.” Then one morning the “prisoners” were arrested by real police officers whom booked to them be transferred to the mock prison built in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department.

zimbardo3Once transferred into the “prison,” the “prisoners” were “stripped, searched, deloused, and given uniforms and bedding.” The prisoners were then stripped of their identify and dehumanised by the “guards” who were told to  refer to them by assigned numbers. To heighten their lack of freedom, the “prisoners” also had a chain bolted around one ankle. The “guards” wore military inspired uniforms, sunglasses (to prevent eye-contact) in addition to carrying keys, whistles, handcuffs and clubs. The “guards” patrolled 24 hours a day and where given full control of the “prisoners” to maintain order. It did not take long for the environment to quickly turn “threatening” forcing the experiment to end prematurely after only six days.

Every single “guard” became “abusive and authoritarian; prisoners were denied food or bedding, hooded, chained, and made to clean toilet bowls with their hands.” The “prisoners” were used as playthings to take part in the “guards” degrading games. One prisoner had to be released after only thirty-six hours after suffering a nervous break.

Zimbardo’s findings, the basis for the Lucifer Effect showed the world that good people can be induced to evil by “immersion” in “total situations.” Total situations have an “apparently legitimizing ideology and approved rules and roles.”  Zimbardo served as an expert witness in the defense of a guard during the Abu Ghraib trails, which as Zimbardo discusses in his TED video, showed many parallels with the Stanford Prison Experiment. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse against Iraqi prisoners by American soliders gathered wide controversy. Please view the TED video for further information. The scary thing Zimbardo explains is that “any deed that any human being has even done, however horrible, is possible for any of us to do – under the right or wrong situational pressures.” However, as Zimbardo discusses in his final chapter of The Lucifier Effect, his book, these situational pressures not only shows human capacity for evil but also for heroism.


Collin, Catherine. The Psychology Book. New York: DK Pub., 2012. Print.

“Philip G. Zimbardo.” Philip G. Zimbardo. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2012. <;.

Zimbardo, Philip G. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Models of Attribution

HeiderHeider’s 1948 model of attribution comes from his book Psychology of Interpersonal Relations and seeks to explain causal attributions. According to Heider, causal attributions give “order to a chaotic world.” Causal attributions help make behaviour seem more predictable and controllable. In other words, Heider believed that people want to be able to explain behaviour because it helps make them feel the world is more just and understandable. Mainly, this done by attributing behaviour to a stable, enduring personality that remains so despite changes in their behaviour. This is known as ‘person perception.’ The issues with Heider’s model is that as people we do sometimes take context into account, and even if we like to attribute behaviour mainly to disposition, in some contexts it is impossible to ignore the context. For example, if you see someone dancing like a maniac in a club, you are likely to attribute this behaviour to alcohol and the club-context more so than their personality. This is especially true if everyone else in the club is also behaving with less inhibition than normal, which obviously is more than likely. This summates the key issue, which is that behaviour is influenced by both internal causes (disposition) and external causes (context), and unfortunately, Heider’s model does not address context thoroughly.

Correspondent Inference Theory 

Jones and Davis, 1965 attribution model is known as correspondent inference theory. The main hypothesis is that when observing other people, people tend to try and guess which of their actions reflect their disposition. In this scenario, people tend to overestimate which actions are dispositional and which are contextual. Jones and Davis (1965) believe people prefer making dispositional attributes because concurrent with Heider’s (1948) model, disposition is much more stable over time. However, unlike Heider’s model, the contextual inference theory, takes into account other information when judging which actions are dispositional.

Social desirability information: where or not the behaviour is concordant with social norms. If the behaviour is not concordant with social norms, it is likely the bahviours has a dispositional origin.

Non-norm effects: internal disposition seems more likely when the outcomes of behaviour have a unique effect.

Correspondent information: whether or not behaviour is freely chosen. It is unlikely that context is irrelevant if the behaviour is not freely chosen.

ANOVA Model 


Kelley’s 1967 ANOVA model focused on how people make causal attributions just like Heider’s model. ANOVA, however, considered three causes for causal attribution: the person, the circumstance and the stimulus. Kelley believed that what factor co-varies when the behaviour is present is the factor most likely responsible for the behaviour. These factors include the person, the circumstance and the stimulus.

Information used to make causal attributions:

For the example: Jess is interested in this cute guy from her course. She is nervous to ask him out for drinks because she is unsure if his behaviour towards her means he likes her as well or not. Using the ANOVA model, Jess will try and figure out if Joe is interested in her or not.

– Distinctiveness (Stimulus – Joe)

Joe walks home only with Jess after their lecture and only compliments her: HIGH distinctiveness.

Joe walks home with lots of girls and generally gives out compliments: LOW distinctiveness.

– Consensus (Person – Jess)

Many people in her course have told Jess that they think Joe is interested in her: HIGH consensus.

Only Jess thinks that Joe is interested in her: LOW consensus.

– Consistency (Circumstance)

Joe always walk with Jess after their lecture and compliments her everyday: HIGH consistency.

Joe rarely walks home with Jess after their lecture and has only compliment her once or twice: LOW consistency. 


Deciphering the chart:

If Joe walks home with lots of girls and gives lots of people compliments (low distinctiveness), Joe always walks home with Jess and compliments her (high consistency), but no one else thinks Joe is interested in Jess (low consensus), the likeliest explanation for Joe’s behaviour is Joe’s disposition (person). In other words, Joe’s behaviour is due to his disposition, he is just a flirty  person who just likes Jess as a friend :(

If Joe walks home only with Jess and only compliments her  (high distinctiveness), but Joe rarely does this (low consistency) and no else thinks Joe is interested in Jess, the likeliest explanation for Joe’s behaviour is the circumstance. In other words, Joe’s behaviour is due to a one time thing, there was just one day when Joe thought Jess looked especially nice and decided to walk home with her. It is unlikely Joe is interested in Jess :(

If Joe only walks home with Jess and only compliments her (high distinctiveness), Joe does this everyday (high consistency) and everyone else also thinks Joe is interested in Jess (high consensus), the likeliest explanation for Joe’s behaviour is Jess (stimulus). In other words, Joe’s behaviour is exclusive to Jess meaning it is very likely he likes her 😀

Even though this chart is quite good, the supportive experiments have been artificial. The theory is far too artificial in that it assumes people are unbiased and always willing to consider all evidence. In reality, even if people were to have all the information at hand, they wouldn’t necessarily use it. Beattie and Anderson (1995) showed that people do not always use this technique in real life situations.


SHEERAN, P. (2013). Referencing and citation – Harvard style, from PSY110 Social Understanding, Social Communication and Social Places. Psychology. University of Sheffield, Richard Roberts Building on 14th February. Available from: Blackboard.


Attribution Errors

Fundamental Attribution Error 

Fundamental attribution error as defined by Ross et al. 1977 is the tendency to overestimate the impact of dis positional factors and underestimate the impact of situational factors in making casual attributions to behavior. In his study, he randomly divided a sample into questioners and contestants. The questioners were asked to come up with the hardest questions they could think of. Even though both the questioners and contestants knew this, both rated the questioners as more intelligent than the contestants. This clearly illustrates the fundamental attribution error. Other researchers have also illustrated the FAE in other studies. Barjonet 1980 found that people consistently attribute poor driving to the disposition of the drives rather than external factors such as road conditions or perhaps an emergency situation.


Interestingly enough, although perhaps not all too surprising, the fundamental attribution errors appears to be more prevalent in western societies. Miller (1984) found that US adults were far more likely than Indian adults to commit the fundamental attribution error.

Actor-Observer Differences

Jones  and Nisbett (1972) described actor-observer differences as the tendency for actors to attribute their behaviour to external rather than internal causes. In his study Nisbet (1972) asked male students to write 2 essays. One essay was about their girlfriend and their choice of course. The other essay was about their best friend’s girlfriend and their friend’s choice of course. Nisbett found that when the male students wrote about themselves they made far more situational attributions to their choices, and when they wrote about their best friend, they made far more dispositional attributions to their choices.

Actor-observer differences were also observed by West (1975) during the Watergate Scandal involving President Nixon. He found that observers such as the public and the press blamed the scandal on the dispositions of the White House staff, where as the Nixon administrations blamed the circumstances for their behaviour.


Storms et al. (1973) attributed the actor-observer differences to perceptual focus. If you change perceptual focus, he believed you could also change attribution style. In the study, actor attributions become less situational and more dispositional when a videotape of the conversation between the participant and another person was viewed from an observer’s view point. The actor attributions became more situational and less dispositional when video was shown from the person they had been taking to’s view point.

False Consensus Effect 

In 1977 Ross et al. also described the false consensus effect as a criticism of the ANOVA model. The false consensus effect suggests that people rely less on distinctiveness and stimulus and more on consensus. Ross et al. believed that people would act the same us as in a given situation (consensus). In the study, Ross et al. asked students if they would walk around campus for 30 minutes wearing a sandwich board. 62% of the students that agreed to wear the sandwich board thought other people would also agree. 67% of the students that refused to wear the sandwich board through others would also refuse. Clearly, 67% plus 62% adds up to more than 100!


Sometimes, the false consensus effect works the other way. When we feel strongly about and issue or when something is very important to us, we want to believe others do not believe the same as us or did not do as well as us. Fenigstein’s (1996) study is an excellent paradigm of this. He observed that students who received an A on a test underestimated the amount of other students that also received an  A. Fenigstein believed that we fall prey to the false consensus effect because it helps boost our self-esteem to over-estimate or under-estimate consensus in certain circumstances.

Self-Serving Bias 

Self-serving bias is the tendency to contribute success to internal causes (self-enhancing bias) but failure to external causes (self-protecting bias). Self-serving bias comes in many forms such as the self-centred bias and self-handicapping.

Pupils sit GCSE exams in a school hall

The self-enhancing bias is far more pervasive than the self-protecting bias, quite unsurprisingly. Williams et al. (1979) found that exam success was attributed to intelligence where as exam failure was attribute to either poor lecturing ability or bad luck. Self-centred bias is quite similar, but it specifically refers to taking too much responsibility (or too little) for jointly produced outcomes. A classic example is couples blaming their significant other for sexual dysfunction in their relationship (Mall and Volpato 1989). Self-handicapping is also self-enhancing and is something we all tend to do around this time of year. We exaggerate a factor that detrimentally affects performance in order to decrease feelings of guilt and responsibility in case of failure but also to increase our self-esteem if we do happen to succeed.

Unrealistic Optimism 

Unrealistic optimism is the false belief that you are slightly better than average and that good things are more likely to happen to you. This is consistent with human tendency to believe in a just world and also to disguise any feelings of vulnerability to death. Manstead et al. 1992 found that even after being hospitalised due to car accident, these drivers still rated their driving abilities as above average. Even more astounding is the survey conducted by Burger and Burns (1998) who found that women who did not use contraception thought they were less at risk of getting pregnant compared to other women.


Elucidating Experiments: Asch’s Configural Model


Noted social psychologists, Solomon Asch’s configural model was developed in 1946 as criticism of cognitive algebra. Cognitive algebra is a model of social psychology that proposes that impression formation – the way in which we form impressions and attribute characteristics to people –  is processed through an assignment of values to traits. Basically, we attribute traits with positive or negative numbers, varying in numerical value according to a variable of factors. These factors include the type of relationship we wish to instigate (friend, co-worker, etc.), what other attributes are present, contexts such as occupation and also personal biases (as in we think being caring is more important than being intelligent). Research suggests that weighted averaging is the most reliable model for cognitive algebra. In the most simple terms, this involves integrating the value of all these traits into one number. If his number is largely positive we know that person is very approachable. If this number is largely negative, we know to avoid that person. This suggests a holistic or gestalt impression of a person is more important that individual traits. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense; certain traits or physical attributes rise alarm bells to avoid that person.

Asch surmised that our impressions of other’s are formed by far more complex rules. We we form impressions of people, certain central traits are disproportionately influential in impression formation. Asch stressed that these central traits allows us to efficiently organise and summarise lots of information about a person into one overarching trait. To prove this hypothesis, Asch conducted an experiment in 1946 in which he provided participants with a hypothetical word lists. One list included the word ‘warm’ and the other ‘cold.’  Participants given the list including ‘warm’ were more likely to see the person as generous, happy and altruistic even though all the other words in the two lists were identical.  The words polite and blunt were substituted for warm and cold without the same effects; suggesting that warm and cold are central traits. Not only that but the experiment is consistent with Asch’s hypothesis that central traits do exist.



Carlson, Neil R., G. Neil. Martin, and William Buskist. “15.” Psychology. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004. N. pag. Print.