Behavior in the Social Context

Vera Hoorens & Ype Poortinga. The International Handbook of Psychology. Editor: Kurt Pawlik & Mark R Rosenzweig. 2000. SAGE Publications Ltd.


Humans are a social species. This social nature provides the basic rationale for the present chapter’ focus on the interaction between individual human organisms and their social context. First, we explore the reasons why humans are social beings and briefly consider the broad implications of this characterization. Next, we go somewhat more deeply into the question what it means to be social. In other words, how does an individual function whose primary mode of existence is that of a group member rather than of a solitary individual? After that, we consider some important ‘natural’ social groups and we briefly discuss their role in shaping human behavior. Against this background, we describe designs and strategies used by researchers to study the interaction between humans and their social context. A separate section is devoted to the relationship between biological underpinnings of behavior and the cultural context. While in the past these were treated as competing or contrasting influences in explanations of behavior, their interactive nature has become more central in recent times. In the penultimate section of this chapter, we address some constraints and paradoxes in the explanation of social behavior. The final section offers a brief overview of the different psychological fields and of related disciplines that focus on the social context of human behavior.

The Origins and Dimensions of Being Social

Origins of Being Social

For both ontogenetic and phylogenetic reasons, humans can be characterized as social beings. Ontogenetically, newborn humans are characterized by a remarkable immaturity that renders them dependent for a long time on others for survival and growth (Björklund, 1997). It is clear that infants are critically dependent on their primary caregivers for the fulfillment of even the most basic needs. Most of us spend the extended period from infancy until sexual and social maturity and reaching socio-economic independence mainly within the nuclear or extended family. The emotional bonds of this early period form a blueprint for later relationships and continue to provide the context for our psychological functioning through adulthood. Throughout life, most of our behaviors are influenced by present, past, or anticipated interactions with others. As we argue later on, this holds in part even for those ‘covert’ behaviors that seem intrinsically private and individual, such as feeling, wishing and thinking.

There can be no doubt that the origins of being social are to be found in the phylogenetic and cultural history of humanity. From our hunting and gathering ancestors onwards the primary mode of existence has always been in small groups. Only with the advance of technology, first in the form of agriculture and animal husbandry, and very recently in the form of industrial production, more complex societies have arisen. We share our primary mode of existence with non-human primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos, with whom we show a striking genetic resemblance. Needless to say it may be tempting to assume that our social behavior patterns shared with these species must be genetically determined. However, caution is warranted against interpreting similarities in behavior across genetically related species as evidence of biological determination. For instance, until a few years ago the extrapolation to the human species of male dominance, so clearly observable in the behavior of chimpanzees and other ape species, seemed obvious and straightforward. Since then the description of the more gentle social interactions of the bonobo has shown the danger of such a generalization (De Waal, 1996).

Still, one may ask what the likely consequences are of this ontogenetic and phylogenetic background for human behavior. First, like other species humans show such a strong tendency to seek the company of others and to form and maintain at least a minimal number of stable relationships, that numerous researchers since Freud have conceptualized a fundamental ‘need to belong’ (e.g., Bowlby, 1969; Fiske, 1992). Such a need may well derive from the phylogenetic survival value of living in small groups (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Even in urban societies, most humans still spend the better part of their life within the context of relatively stable (even though not invariable and not unchangeable) small groups.

Second, and related to the former point, it seems that humans are pervasively dependent on each other for the fulfillment of a variety of needs and motives. A solitary individual cannot fulfill many important life tasks. In addition, the degree to which one individual reaches his or her goals often has direct consequences for the degree to which others attain or miss theirs. Even the seemingly total and unidirectional dependence of the infant on its caregivers has aspects of mutuality. Indeed, caregivers are usually rewarded for their care as the infant meets their emotional needs or desires and fulfills their own aspirations. Mutual dependence or, as psychologists tend to call it, social interdependence, is a ubiquitous characteristic of people’ behavioral environment.

Third and at the most general level, human behavior is behavior in and between small groups rather than the behavior of the isolated individual. This implies that solitary situations are not the most natural context for human behavior, but that they are rather the exception. Such a group-as-baseline view renders many ‘enigmatic’ findings on human behavior more readily understandable. For instance, people seem to form groups, to identify with new groups and to behave as established members of them with an amazing ease and speed. Research using the so-called ‘minimal group paradigm’ has shown that categorizing individuals into groups on the basis of an ad hoc procedure, for example, assigning them randomly to a ‘forest’ party and a ‘sea’ party, is sufficient to start treating others as either ‘out-group’ or ‘in-group’ members (Tajfel, 1982).

Dimensions of Being Social

What does it mean to be social? There are various ways to formulate an answer to this question, leading to different taxonomies of social behavior. Many answers that may be extracted from the literature include a classification of cognitive, affective, and motivational tasks that need to be fulfilled for a person to function as an individual and a group member. Here we refer to three task categories: understanding, engagement, and coping.

The most fundamental task is social understanding. The basis for social understanding is distinguishing between oneself and others. For example, in the theory of Piaget (1972) the external world and the subject are undifferentiated for the newborn. Contacts between the body and objects become the source of the distinction between external and internal. Soon the recognition of persons, and even of specific persons follows (to the delight of young parents!). Later distinctions between one’ own group and other groups, between different other groups, and between fellow-humans and members of other species come about. Such distinctions delineate entities—oneself, individuals, groups, species—that need to be understood somehow in order to create a certain degree of predictability and controllability of one’ environment and oneself. Social understanding further includes perceiving, categorizing and interpreting behaviors, searching for causes and consequences, and processing verbal information. These processes of categorization, attribution, and evaluation result in a more or less elaborated personal and social identity (some authors prefer to think in terms of multiple identities), more or less elaborate mental representations of one’ own and other groups (Moscovici, 1984), and more or less stable attitudes towards a variety of groups and individuals (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

Based on the understanding of the social world (including oneself), humans engage in different modes of sociality or in different ways of relating to others. Fiske (1992) mentions four basic modes of sociality that alone or in combination with each other structure human social interaction and cognition. These are communal sharing (social behavior based on a sense of unity and solidarity), authority ranking (social behavior based on a hierarchical ranking of group members), equality matching (social behavior based on a strictly balanced exchange assuming equality of group members), and market pricing (social behavior based on cost—benefit calculations and profit maximization). Besides these fundamental modes of engagement, more specific choices are to be made. For instance, given an equality matching or a market-pricing interaction, one of various social exchange principles may be selected with each of them defining equality or fairness along different dimensions of comparison. Preferences for certain principles may depend on individual characteristics such as one’ sex, but also on situational and cultural characteristics (e.g., Major, Bylsma, & Cozzarelli, 1989).

Finally, humans cannot foresee all possible consequences of their social engagements, nor do they have complete personal control over them. They have to cope with these consequences. According to Lazarus and his associates (e.g., Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), different types of appraisal determine whether social interactions, roles, positions, and other events and situations are experienced as stressful. Primary appraisal consists of evaluating whether an event is positive, negative, or neutral with respect to one’ well being. The subsequent stage of secondary appraisal occurs after one has decided that an event is, or may become damaging to one’ well-being—in other words, after the event has been categorized as threatening, harmful, or challenging. In this case, one assesses whether one’ resources and abilities are sufficient to overcome this harm, threat, or challenge. The combined outcomes of both primary and secondary appraisal determine the degree to which stress is experienced as a result of being confronted with a given event or situation. Efforts to cope with the stress of unwanted and/or unforeseen consequences of social interactions are of two kinds: changing the interaction itself (problem-focused coping), or changing one’ emotional and cognitive responses to its consequences (emotion-focused coping). In turn, coping tasks may be complicated or facilitated by supportive interactions with others. One important finding is that social support or social interactions which are meant to be helpful, may be beneficial in some circumstances but harmful in others. This is not too surprising if one realizes that ‘helpful’ interactions are often unsolicited and inappropriate given a person’ immediate needs, and that they thus may become social stressors in themselves.

Individuals and Their (Natural) Groups

One may argue that after infancy, there appears to be an even more basic choice, preceding the one between modes of sociality. This is the decision whether or not to be with others in the first place. In some circumstances, humans may choose between different degrees of companionship. However, this freedom of engagement is culturally bound and often limited to strictly defined groups of others, as a rule more so for women than for men. For example, in most cultural populations the category of ‘family’ allows little freedom of choice for an individual to seek or to avoid its members’ presence, whereas the categories of ‘friends’ and ‘acquaintances’ do. In the present section we focus on natural groups, i.e. entities of social organization that are characteristic of the way of life in most, if not in all societies.

Social Interactions in Childhood

As already mentioned, social interactions of young children predominantly take place within one setting, namely, the family. For a long time, psychologists believed that the infant’ attachment to its primary caregiver was no more than a learned or secondary reaction to the fulfillment of an infant’ primary need for food by the caregiver. Impetus for change came from the famous experiments by Harlow and his associates (e.g., Harlow, 1958). They provided rhesus monkeys reared in isolation with different types of ‘surrogate mothers’. These monkeys showed a strong preference for a soft and warm surrogate mother covered with comfortable cloth over a hard and cold surrogate mother made of naked wire. Contrary to what a näıve use of learning principles (with emphasis on reinforcement) had led to believe, the monkeys even did so when they were dependent on the latter ‘mother’ for the provision of food.

It is a pervasive assumption that the interaction qualities of the family and particularly those of the primary caregiver shape a child’ later interactions, relationships, and even personality characteristics (see, for instance, Hartup & Van Lieshout, 1995). Currently much attention is being paid to Bowlby’ (1988) attachment theory, in which security (versus insecurity) in the relationship with the mother is the key concept. Depending on whether they feel secure or insecure in this interaction, infants are believed to develop a secure attachment style characterized by closeness and trust or an insecure attachment style, such as avoidance of rejection or ambivalence between seeking closeness and avoiding rejection. Quite often, the early acquired attachment style is believed to characterize the individual for life (e.g., Parkes, Stevenson-Hinde, & Marris, 1991).

In the early interactions with parents and siblings, and later on in the interactions with other family members, peers, teachers, etc., the child develops an identity that is personal but that at the same time may be qualified as a social identity. Experience with family roles is the first confrontation with social roles or with prescriptive expectations concerning the behavior of individuals who occupy a certain position. In a broader sense, the child learns about roles and role expectations concerning him or her and others and about the positions that exist in any social setting. By the time the child goes to primary school it has already acquired an extensive repertoire of actions that allow it to participate in a variety of activities within a range of settings and with numerous persons (Barker & Wright, 1951).

The significance of others for human onto-genetic development is not a matter of discussion; the irreparable damage to development in those rare cases of children reared in isolation preempts any debate. However, there are strong differences of opinion as to how the relationship between the developing individual and the social context is best conceptualized. In maturation theories primacy is given to the biological growth and development of the human organism. Learning theorists take a predominantly empiristic stance; the individual acquires the behaviors that are reinforced by the social environment. The relationship between person and environment is conceptualized in yet another way in traditions that are associated with Vygotsky (1978). In this view, higher mental (i.e., typically human) psychological functions are culturally mediated; they have to be present in the society before the individual can acquire them. Initially, broad functions—such as the ability for abstract thinking—were thought to have originated in this way. Later on, cultural mediation has been postulated to operate on a more specific level—such as cognitive algorithms. This has led to research traditions on everyday cognition and situated learning in various cultural settings (Cole, 1996).

There are substantial differences in socialization patterns between cultural populations. Some of these concern specific developmental tasks like responding to the expectations of parents about the age of onset of walking. So-called parental ethnotheories are thus part of the environment with which children interact. In addition, broader patterns have been suggested, such as a relationship between the degree of food accumulation and socialization towards autonomy in traditional societies. When there is high food accumulation, as among agriculturists, socialization is directed towards dependence, especially for girls; when food accumulation is low, as among hunter-gatherers, socialization is more directed towards independence and more equal for boys and girls (cf. Segall, Dasen, Berry, & Poortinga, 1999).

Extensions of the Social Context

Growing up in a complex society implies becoming part of a number of groups. After the family, kindergarten and primary school are the groups that typically constitute the first expansion of one’ social world. Later on, individuals engage in a variety of other formal and informal groups—such as high school classes, neighborhood friendship groups, sports clubs, and, later on, work teams and romantic relationships—thus further expanding and complicating the social world, especially in complex, urban-industrialized societies.

Interactions with others depend on the social perceptions of actors. Is the other a member of one’ own group, and if so, what is this person’ position or status? Depending on their status, individuals have differential rights and privileges. Those with a similar status display more evidence of solidarity (mutual liking, higher frequency of contacts). Interaction patterns are further controlled by intricate cultural rules, concerning, for instance, forms of address (Brown & Levinson, 1987) and exchange of compliments (Barnlund & Araki, 1985).

If an interaction partner is not a member of one’ in-group, it is likely that the actor’ opinions and attitudes are more negative than if the other is an in-group member. In-group favoritism and out-group discrimination have been studied extensively with both small and large groups. At the level of nations, ethnocentrism and stereotyping are the most central foci of interest. Although the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ distinction does not always come with a negative bias towards the out-group, the tendency in this direction has been demonstrated to be widespread (see Brewer and Campbell, 1976, for a study on thirty ethnic groups in East Africa). Research has shown, for example, that inter-group attraction is positively related to cultural similarity and opportunities for contact. However, individuals who share their membership of certain groups, but who in addition differentially belong to other groups, tend to treat each other as in-group members rather than as out-group members (Vanbeselaere, 1987). Quite clearly, findings like these have political implications for the formation of national identities in multiethnic societies as well as for the opportunities they offer for Machiavellian manipulation.

How Social Behavior is Studied

Research on social interaction has always been shattered over different fields in psychology and over a variety of related sciences. Focusing on psychological research, one major division is between developmental stages. Developmental psychologists typically study changes over time in parent—child interactions within the nuclear and extended family and in peer interactions in later childhood as well as in further stages of life. Social psychologists, in contrast, are mainly concerned with the social behavior of adults. Another division has to do with geographic parameters. Until the end of the twentieth century, most American and European psychologists—in other words, those psychologists who dominate the field—have tended to focus their observations on individuals of their own American and European cultural background to postulate universal insights in human behavior. Despite the growth of cross-cultural psychology, ‘other societies’ still tend to be considered the domain of cultural anthropology.

An impressive arsenal of data-gathering methods and techniques is at the disposal of researchers. Observation of actual interactions is the most general mode of data collection. For infants and young children, naturalistic observation is the method of choice, both for studying interaction patterns holistically and for the assessment of specific variables, such as direction of gaze. However, one also finds a range of other methods, like recordings of psycho-physiological responses to the environment and reports by others, especially reports by parents of their children’ behavior.

Most researchers are strongly concerned with distinguishing the phenomena of interest from ambient events. The widespread preference for research in standard settings (such as the laboratory) and for the use of standardized methods (such as questionnaires and tests) derives from this concern. For example, mother—child attachment may be studied using the so-called ‘strange situation’ in which the mother is requested to leave her child with a stranger for a given period of time. This procedure allows for a standardized assessment of the child’ responses to separation and reunion (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Several authors have raised the question whether such a procedure is culturally appropriate. In other words, are identical results to be expected in societies where young children spend their time in day care centers as in societies where children stay with their mother on an almost continuous basis?

With older children and adults another method can be used, namely, self-reports. These are often gathered using standardized questionnaires. As they are often quick and easy to apply they are frequently used. However, there is ample evidence that responses to questionnaires tend to be distorted by response styles. The most pervasive response style is the tendency to answer in a socially desirable manner. Other examples of response styles that may distort questionnaire findings are the tendency to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’ and the tendency to avoid or to seek extreme values on response scales.

The experiment continues to be the most preferred method for the study of social interactions. It presupposes a systematic manipulation by the researcher of hypothesized situational determinants of behavior. This happens through the creation of various experimental conditions and the random allocation of subjects to these conditions.

One general assumption underlying experimental research is the belief that important elements of people’ social context can be manipulated separately from each other. This implies that experimenters can sovereignly define the research setting and manipulate those elements of it that they deem relevant for the participants’ behavior. Obviously, such assumptions are not always realistic and this may make experimental research vulnerable. Moreover, many aspects of social behavior do not lend themselves readily to strict experimentation, either because this would lead to an ethically unacceptable treatment of persons, or because the behavior of interest cannot be isolated from the social context. The frequent use of quasi-experimental designs is a consequence of these limitations. Quasi-experiments use existing groups of subjects and they incorporate a variety of procedural and statistical refinements to account for the nonrandom allocation of subjects to conditions and for the often limited control on treatments (Cook & Campbell, 1979). However, the extent to which proper controls can be realized and alternative explanations may be eliminated is limited. This becomes particularly evident if one considers behavior in its cultural context. Here subjects are inherently linked to the cultural population they belong to, and it is difficult if not impossible to disentangle in a study the behavior of interest from the broader context. A somewhat similar problem concerns the disentanglement of age and cohort effects on developmental processes. Rather complex cross-sequential research designs are needed to unravel various components that contribute to the variance in a given data set (Adam, 1978).

However, contemporary challenges to the experimental method do not derive primarily from questions about the limited accuracy of data due to weaknesses of design. They derive from the rejection of the assumptions on which the experimental paradigm is based. There are objections to the rigid prescriptions of standardized experimental procedures and measurement instruments, as well as to the presumed status of psychological traits and processes as if these have a quality of objective reality (Gergen, 1973). The traditional idea that psychological concepts refer to an objective reality is questioned. Rather such concepts are considered to be culture bound and mere expressions of a particular time; they are historical. This postmodernist critique comes in many forms and variations. It emphasizes either the (historical) contextuality of scientific concepts, as in Kessen’ (1979) dictum about the American child as a cultural invention, or the uniqueness of individual life trajectories, or the need for indigenous psychologies to complement, if not to replace, Euroamerican concepts that can only be irrelevant elsewhere. Well known is Gergen’ (1982) social constructionism, which states that behavior as well as our thinking about behavior is entirely contextual.

Those who argue against constructionism and postmodernism tend to emphasize the importance of objectivity and the replicability of procedures. They stress the importance of striving for valid data and interpretations. Statements that cannot be validated with methods that are independent of the person of the researcher have been frowned upon for a long time in scientific psychology. We expect that in the future, the demonstration of validity will continue to be the main standard for the evaluation of a study’ merits.

The Societal Matrix

The social context of human behavior cannot be fully described by merely identifying natural groups such as nuclear and extended families, and by analyzing the interaction patterns that occur within them. These groups are part of a broader society and the manner in which this society is organized affects how they function. At the same time, if societal factors affect human behavior through their impact on natural groups, the proximal processes of family interaction can also attenuate societal influence (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994).

One category of building stones of society consists of societal norms, i.e., more or less cogent and widely shared behavioral expectations that are crystallized in explicit laws. Two emphases are possible. The first stresses the conventional character of many norms. From this point of view, norms are social agreements about how to behave in certain situations or even about which opinions are proper. The other view is that norms are based on values, i.e., affective—cognitive representations of what is morally good or bad. Values may be so much part of our lives that we take them for granted until a violation temporarily enhances their salience and elicits efforts to make them explicit.

At a more mundane level, social interactions are governed by a variety of rules that generally refer to desirable courses of action. Many rules have come about for practical reasons. For instance, rules in sports are installed for the pragmatic purposes of knowing how to begin, where to play, when to stop, and who the winner is. Needless to say, within a context of conflict or competition for scarce resources, personal or group interests may masquerade as values and be the true reason behind efforts to establish rules that foster them. For instance, while striving for alternative rules of distribution, subgroups that feel deprived may obscure their material interests by stressing values such as fairness.

Societies further shape behavior through their institutions. These may be defined as habit-ualized actions that are socially defined as the ‘right way to do things’. The social agreement that is at the basis of an institution also includes a definition of the different actors that are assumed to perform these actions (e.g., Charon, 1987). Institutions are established to meet demands faced by society. Cultural anthropologists have linked early economic development from hunting and gathering towards agriculture and animal husbandry to the pressures of increasing population density. Once in place, these new forms of economic subsistence allowed for still higher population densities and for the emergence of more complex societies and diversified institutions.

The implications of this development for social interactions can perhaps best be illustrated with some recent developments. The technological changes of the last centuries, including the recent information technology revolution, have important implications for the magnitude, the number, and the complexity of different groups humans belong to. In contrast to our ancestors, present-day individuals almost inevitably get in touch with others who belong to different religious, cultural, and socio-economic groups. They are thus exposed to different worldviews, preferences, and life-styles. In addition, interactions with fellow group members may now happen on very different levels of interpersonal proximity, ranging from regular face-to-face contact via phone calls to electronic mail. They may even be largely unidirectional as in the case of television broadcasting and the use of websites. However, probably the most striking consequence of the multiple group structures of modern societies is that they allow for role reversals to occur. Individuals may hold different roles in different groups and therefore, even hierarchical relationships may reverse depending on the specific role at hand. This is in sharp contrast with traditional society where the fixed social structure and its psychological consequence of more authoritative and paternal relationships make role reversal rather unthinkable.

The impact of techno-economic developments on behavior can hardly be emphasized too strongly. The GNP of a nation is a strong predictor of a wide range of social variables, including the value dimension of individualism—collectivism, gender role ideology, and reported feelings of satisfaction and happiness (Georgas, Van de Vijver, & Berry, 1999). Of course, GNP is a simple outcome variable related to complex economic processes, and it is highly confounded with the average number of years of school education in a country. However, we should not underestimate the degree to which the financial wealth of a nation allows its members a degree of control over their lives that individuals living in poorer countries cannot even dream of.

Of course, other institutionalized domains should not be ignored. Notably, religious institutions which have been mainly a subject of anthropological analysis, may have a profound impact on the behavior of even non-believing members of a society. As far as they are a cultural fact, religious dogmas, symbols and beliefs provide powerful standards for regulating social behavior (Vergote, 1993).

Relationships between Biology and Context

One remarkable feature of the history of psychology is the intensive battle between social and biological perspectives. Since the dualism between body and soul, each with a separate existence (materia), was given up, no one has denied either that human behavior has biological underpinnings or that it is influenced by environmental events. Biological and environmental factors co-determine behavior in different and often complicated ways. There is evidence suggesting that environmental conditions affect biological processes. These, in turn, influence social behavior. If one considers that social behavior, in its turn, can change the social environment, the interdependence of social and biological factors is clear. However, when it comes to any more precise specification of these processes, essential, often time-bound, differences in perspectives remain between research traditions.

During a few decades before 1990, much theorizing on social behavior emphasized the impact of the social environment. Overt behavior—including social behavior—was seen as the outcome of learning processes. The remarkable cross-cultural variation in human behaviour continues to provide credit for learning as an explanatory principle, especially if learning is not limited to classical conditioning and contingency learning but taken to include imitation and rule learning.

Challenges to traditional behaviorism and cognitive psychology have originated from various fields of biology. Analysis of the nervous system, especially the brain, has greatly expanded with advances in cognitive neuroscience, biochemistry, and (psycho)-physiology. At the same time, developments in sociobiology and (human) ethology have led to the emergence of evolutionary psychology.

Perhaps the most significant insight from ethology is that the distinction between learning and instinct is less absolute than previously believed. On the one hand, the Watsonian assumption that each response may be equally easily coupled with each stimulus has turned out to be incorrect. On the other hand, seemingly fixed action patterns, like song in birds, do show variations under unusual environmental stimulation. In human ethology observational studies have revealed essential similarities in parent—infant interaction patterns across a wide range of societies, such as the universal presence of kissing as a sign of affection. Moreover, it has been pointed out that identical principles may underlie behavior expressions that differ in appearance. Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979, 1989) has argued that such similarities are also evident in culturally specific customs like the diverse greeting procedures that are found around the world. His conclusion was that ‘there exists a universal grammar of social behavior’ (1979, p. 22).

The criterion of universality has been used frequently to argue for the biological determination of behavior. Aggressive behavior may serve as an example. Taking criminal violence as a standard, all over the world and across a wide range of ages men display more aggression than women do, with a maximum in late adolescence and early adulthood. This pattern coincides with age-related increases and decreases in the level of testosterone, a hormone of which men have more than women do. At the same time, cross-cultural differences in aggression rates exist that cannot be correlated with testosterone levels. It is now generally accepted that early deterministic explanations of aggressive acts as being biologically driven—proposed, for example, by Lorenz—are outdated (Herbert, 1988; Segall, Ember, & Ember, 1997). A more complex picture of human aggression is emerging, including biological and social determinants as well as interactions between them.

An approach to social behavior driven by evolutionary theory came with sociobiology. Its main breakthrough was the explanation of altruistic behavior among social insects as being compatible with evolution models. By serving the interests of family members and of their reproductive success, an organism may also enhance the reproduction of the genes that are shared between them, thus rendering altruism and self-interest compatible. Sociobiologists had little hesitation in extending this argument to the social behavior of humans. Many findings have been quoted in support, such as the higher rate of homicide by fathers of their stepchildren as compared with homicide of own-children, the pervasive presence of ingroup—outgroup distinctions, and ethnocentrism and nationalism. Whereas sociobiology and early forms of evolutionary psychology were mainly concerned with demonstrating the biological determination of social behavior, more recent theorizing is shifting towards interactionist positions. From this point of view, conditions in the social environment trigger genetically available modes of action.

The main topic of interest in biological explanations of social behavior is the demonstration and explanation of sex differences. These differences are seen as phylogenetically evolved dispositions resulting from differences between the optimal reproduction strategies of women and men. Studying with samples from thirty countries, Buss and colleagues (Buss et al., 1990) found considerable similarities in the traits young men and women like to see in their mates. Both across genders and across countries mutual attraction, intelligence, and a dependable character were highly valued. However, there were some sex differences that consistently emerged across countries (the term ‘gender differences’ that is popular in the social sciences seems inappropriate here). Men valued physical appearance somewhat more, while women gave somewhat more importance to the earning capacity of their prospective partners. These findings are said to match traditional reproductive roles, where a woman is interested in a good provider for herself and her children while a man is looking for a woman capable to bear his children, with so-called secondary sex characteristics like breast development being a sign of fertility. At the same time, it should be noted that cross-cultural differences (with men and women agreeing within societies) were much larger than the observed sex differences. Hence, it is not surprising that the evolutionary interpretation of ‘gender’ differences in mate preferences is still being disputed (e.g., Eagly & Wood, 1999).

Limitations, Constraints, and Paradoxes

In this section we attempt to consider social behavior from a metaperspective. We examine some aspects of the relationship between the study of social behavior and the context in which it takes place. We also raise some issues that are critical for the development of the field itself.

Constraints on Interpretation

Probably the most serious limitation in the study of social behavior lies in the fact that we are simultaneously the observer and the observed. Its obbligato character does not diminish the relevance of the notion that with respect to our social and cultural context we are like fish that only note the importance of water when they are outside of it. What we often do not seem to realize is the multifacetedness of contextual influences. We already mentioned the changing notions of childhood over historical times. We also referred to the emergence of indigenous psychologies as a reaction against the ethnocentric character of the topics studied in Euro-american psychology and against its ethnocentric methods and theories (Sinha, 1997). Going beyond psychology, we should be struck by the disciplinary dominance of our interpretations. For example, the rapid Japanese industrial development and, later on, the emergence of the Asian tigers has been attributed to decision making, leadership styles, (collectivist) in-group relationships, and (Confucian) values, while in the economic literature a convergence of political and economic factors has been put forward. The unexpected economic upheavals that took place in these countries in the late 1990s have shown the limitations of economic science, but we should realize that they are also quite incompatible with such psychological explanations as mentioned.

Much of the above has to do with the often post hoc interpretation of data and with the fact that scientists tend to look for convergent rather than for discriminant evidence when testing their theories. We have already alluded to difficulties in demonstrating evolutionary adaptations. These difficulties have been made explicit by Gould (1991). He argues that a given characteristic of the human species may not have come about for the function it presently fulfills. It may also have arisen either ‘accidentally’ or through natural selection for a function that it does not anymore fulfill. Long after its emergence, such a characteristic may have proved useful and come to be used (i.e., ‘coopted’) for its current role. Needless to say, similar problems of multi-interpretability occur when adaptations are invoked at more proximal levels, like customs or cultural conventions.

The (Un)Predictability of Social Behavior

Research on social behavior has generated a wealth of useful empirical knowledge. Apart from the general issues that have been mentioned at various places in this chapter, research on social behavior has produced a variety of more specific insights that are surprising and sometimes even disturbing. Many of these results can now be found in any introductory text in the field (e.g., Feldman, 1998; Hewstone, Stroebe, & Stephenson, 1996). For example, in two-party mixed-motive interdependence situations (the so-called ‘prisoner’ dilemma game’), surprisingly often individuals choose to defect on each other and thus to harm their joint well being. While interpreting our own behavior and other people’ behavior, we tend to attribute other people’ successes and our own failures to situational factors, whereas we more readily attribute other people’ failures and our own successes to the actor’ personal characteristics.

Zimbardo constructed a simulated prison and found that the behavior of mentally healthy students who were randomly assigned to the roles of ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ changed dramatically as a function of their ‘new’ group membership—a change that he captured under the label of ‘deindividuation’. Even more well known are the shocking obedience experiments in which Milgram showed that when commanded to do so, almost everyone of us is capable of hurting and even killing an innocent other—at least, as long as the relative proximity of the ‘victim’ and the ‘commander’ fulfills certain requirements. It should be noted that these phenomena were mainly discovered and validated within research traditions relying on the experimental method and on standardized assessment scales. Therefore, we venture to disagree with viewpoints that reject the experimental paradigm.

Nevertheless, we would argue that the importance of many findings is overrated because researchers are too pretentious about the explanatory power of their data. A statistically significant difference appears to be the final goal of many experiments, with the level of significance being treated as if it reflects the size or importance of the explained component of variance (Cohen, 1994). In addition, there is a tendency to overestimate the quality of representation in measurement. Generalizations to broad domains are often made on the basis of a small set of stimuli or items. The validity of such interpretations is then extremely vulnerable. This is particularly worrisome in culture-comparative research, where equivalence of domains and methods of measurement often is presumed rather than demonstrated (Van de Vijver & Leung, 1997).

Some scholars interpret this situation as an indication of the relative recency of the field. Consequently, they envisage a world to be won by further and methodologically even more sophisticated research. It is important to realize, however, that there are inherent limits to the predictability of social behavior and of developmental pathways. In this respect, we tend to agree with postmodern and constructionist research traditions. In our view, however, the solution should not be sought in the introduction of ideographic methods in which the principles of objective measurement and validation are given up. We would rather propose that alternative conceptualizations be developed in which the predictable and the unpredictable, or the explainable and the unexplainable, are more clearly demarcated.

Such a demarcation is possible with nonlinear dynamics, like ‘chaos’ or ‘catastrophe’ models. Sometimes we tend to identify these with unpredictability, i.e. allowing any possible outcome. However, chaos and catastrophes in physical systems are characterized by unpredictability within well-described boundaries. Whether these boundaries are deterministic or probabilistic does not matter for the present argument. Taking the famous example of weather forecasts, chaos theory does make clear the uncertainty in predictions beyond a few days. At the same time, it equally allows for long-term regularities, like low temperatures in winter or high rainfall during the monsoon season.

We fully realize the danger of interpreting any unexpected change in behavior as chaos. However, this can be avoided if precise theoretical models guide research. Not surprisingly, this way of thinking is rapidly gaining attention. For instance, it is a fascinating idea that stage transitions in ontogenetic development and the emergence of higher stages can be described in terms of non-linear dynamics (e.g., Van Geert, 1994). More generally, humans may show a variety of possible courses of action. At the same time constraints limit the set of alternatives that are open to them. While it may be impossible to predict which course of action from that set a given individual will choose at any given time, it is possible and fruitful to delineate the constraints governing his or her behavior (Poortinga, 1997).

The Primacy of Group Membership: Some Further Considerations

Besides its contribution to psychological knowledge on the functioning of groups and individuals, the aforementioned minimal group paradigm has far-reaching implications for the methodology of studying behavior in a social context. In this respect, a remarkable contradiction is found with researchers who wonder about the amazing strength of the minimal group paradigm and yet neglect its potential relevance in everyday research practice. Imagine the situation in which research participants arrive at a laboratory in order to perform an ‘individual’ task. It may be sufficient that four or five participants arrive simultaneously and that they are collectively addressed as ‘participants’ or ‘guests’ by individuals who introduce themselves as ‘experimenters’ to temporarily activate a certain social identity in the participants. From this point of view, we may indeed wonder to which degree certain findings on so-called individual behavior are in fact findings on social behavior. Thus, many studies comparing human behaviors in ‘individual’ versus ‘social’ situations can be said to actually compare behaviors in different types of essentially social situations.

The minimal group paradigm can also be used to illustrate another methodological paradox. Above we have argued that the effectiveness of the paradigm is demystified if we assume that humans behave primarily as group members rather than as solitary individuals. This justifies the assumption that behavior in groups and social situations should be treated as the true baseline of human functioning, rather than the behaviors in isolation that have typically fulfilled this role. In other words, in contrast to common research practice it is perhaps not the effect of group membership or the presence of others that is to be explained, but the effect of their absence (Hoorens & Poortinga, in preparation). A number of enigmatic findings fall into place if the central question is reformulated as to how and to which degree behavior changes when it is displayed in isolation rather than in the presence of or in coaction with others.

At the same time, behavioral patterns that seem obvious while mainly viewing humans as solitary individuals may become less straightforward. For instance, in interactions characterized by social interdependence and by a partial conflict of interests between the participants—such as in the prisoner’ dilemma game—people often make behavioral choices that maximize their own immediate outcomes while jeopardizing the group result that also includes their personal share. Consequently, the group result deteriorates to such a degree that each individual’ total outcome becomes markedly less than optimal—hence the notions of ‘social traps’ and ‘social fences’. Even in situations of stable interdependent relationships and in which there is no conflict of interest at all, lose—lose agreements are reached rather than win—win agreements (Thompson & Hrebec, 1996). Thus, we would seem ill equipped for optimally functioning in our natural habitat. Part of the solution appears to be that in many cases the sum of the individual inputs that are necessary for a group to survive successfully, is lower than the sum of the input needed from an individual for his or her solitary survival. If this is true, there is no point for an individual group member to invest the maximum of his or her energy and capacities in the realization of group goals, as he or she may necessarily do when acting alone.

Social Research and Social Reality

Many classics of social research have emerged from researchers’ dismay or wonder over societal problems. One example is the research tradition on social dilemmas that took off after Hardin’ (1968) description of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Using the overgrazing of the meadows of a traditional village as a case in point, Hardin showed how individual gain (a larger number of cattle for one farmer) and communal loss (overgrazing of the commons) can go hand in hand. The relevance of this view for research on environmental exploitation is obvious.

Another instance is the research program by Darley and Latané (for an overview see Latané & Nida, 1981) on the ‘bystander effect’. This is the phenomenon that people are more likely to help a fellow human being in need when they are alone with the victim than when they are in the company of others. The starting point of Darley and Latané’s research program was the fate of a young woman who was stabbed to death while tens of witnesses did nothing to help rescue her. These and other instances give ground to the impression that fundamental questions on human behavior may take specific incidents as their starting point and that they tend to be formulated on the basis of a mixture of scientific interest and societal concern.

A focus on practically relevant questions is highly recommendable and starting social and behavioral research from apparent societal problems seems only laudable. However, it creates a nagging uncertainty to realize how much our knowledge is grounded in the vicissitudes of what happens to strike researchers’ attention. In the case at hand, much research on helping behavior has focused on single acts of helping behavior in sudden and rather severe emergencies and between strangers. In reality by far most helping behavior is towards members of one’ in-group.

The intimate relationship between research and reality that characterizes social behavioral phenomena also works the other way around. The results of social and behavioral research may affect reality itself (Gergen, 1973). Through mass media and classroom coverage certain findings may spread so widely beyond the scientific community that they become common knowledge. People may even deliberately try to alter their own behavior, depending on the moral value that they attach to insights derived from research. Paradoxically, to the degree that it is appealing and successful, analysis of human behavior may render itself obsolete. In the 1950s, for instance, Asch reported his famous studies on conformism. He showed that even highly educated people often follow a majority that is clearly and undoubtedly wrong. Since then, a decrease in conformist behavior has been noted in a number of studies (Bond & Smith, 1996). Several explanations for this change have been advanced. However, it is not unreasonable to argue that widely reported and often shocking demonstrations of human conformity and obedience have contributed to a heightened awareness of the dangers of behaving in accordance with the acts and commands of others and to a strengthened desire to resist this tendency.

Pertinent Fields and Disciplines

As we have seen in this chapter, human behavior in its social context is the focus of study in various subdisciplines of psychology. First among these is social psychology, encompassing the scientific study of all forms of social behavior. A range of textbooks and handbooks is available (e.g., Feldman, 1998; Hewstone, Stroebe, & Stephenson, 1996). One subfield of social psychology is social cognition. It studies how we understand our social environment. This subfield borrows heavily from basic knowledge on human perception, learning, memory, and thought processes. Another subfield is social interaction. It studies, among other topics, exchange modalities, such as equity, equality, and need. These subfields have relevance for, and are often inspired by, applied domains of psychology such as organizational and community psychology.

In cross-cultural psychology the emphasis is on one particular kind of context in respect of which there are pervasive differences, namely culture. Cross-cultural research does not only deal with the sociocultural environment, but also with ecocultural factors. By incorporating information from diverse cultural contexts it extends the range of behavioral variation, thus allowing for a much broader perspective than can be obtained within the boundaries of a single society (Berry et al., 1997). The third subdiscipline that should be mentioned is developmental psychology. One of its foci is on the interactions of the individual with significant others during various phases of the life course. These others vary systematically; from the mother in early infancy via peers in adolescence, to one’ own spouse and children in adulthood and to grandchildren in old age (e.g., Shaffer, 1994).

When considering the position of social psychology and related subdisciplines among other sciences, the most important distinction is between natural and social sciences. Psychology belongs to both these broad domains. Many perspectives on individual functioning presume the application of methods and theories from biological sciences like neurology, physiology, and biochemistry. The new emergence of biological approaches to the study of social behavior grounded in ethology and evolutionary theory has been referred to before. As a social science, psychology is unique in that it is directed at the individual level. Other social sciences are oriented towards the supra-individual level of social institutions.

Among these other social sciences, in our view cultural anthropology is the most pertinent to the study of individual behavior in a social context. It also has the widest scope as it deals with virtually all aspects of human life and activities, be it from the perspective of humans as culture-bearers (Levinson & Ember, 1996). In ethnographies, cultural anthropologists have described the way of life of people of a large number of societies. Anthropologists always have been concerned with psychology (notably in the tradition of culture-and-personality or psychological anthropology; Bock, 1988). This is even more so with the recent shift from an emphasis on (technological) artifacts and societal structure (i.e., culture as external context) towards psychological concerns. The meanings of customs and institutions as the members of a cultural population experience them have become a focus of attention (i.e., culture as internalized).

Cultural anthropology is fascinating for psychologists because of its reliance on the observation of behavior in natural settings, because of its theories, and especially because of its data. Ethnographies open our eyes for the full range of variation in human social interaction patterns. An extensive data record, the Human Relations Area Files, makes this record accessible (Murdock, 1983). One neat example is the finding across 250 societies that infants tend to be carried in cradles when the average temperature during some part of the year drops below 10°C, while arm and sling carrying is predominant in warmer societies (Whiting, 1981). Apparently, urine leaking on one’ clothes is too disagreeable in cold weather.

Within Western societies, the discipline closest to social psychology is sociology. It may be defined as the study of social institutions, including the family, work organizations and the state. These institutions determine the contexts in which social behavior takes place and by which it is constrained. Sometimes sociological and social psychological studies show close overlap. This is the case, for instance, for studies on topics such as attitudes, values, positions, and roles.

By now a variety of social sciences have emerged that deal with a particular kind of institutions or of modes of social interaction at a societal level. Thus, political science is concerned with the state and how it is organized to carry out its administration and its regulating functions, as well as with relationships between nations. Economics, and more specifically macroeconomics, is concerned with the exchange of resources at the societal level. The relationship with social psychology is quite evident in the case of microeconomics or consumer psychology—the study of individual economic behavior. Journals like the Journal of Consumer Research publish research by economists and psychologists alike, and many studies on consumer behavior use social-psychological concepts and are based on social-psychological theories. Although economics and psychology are characterized by very different assumptions, points of view, and criteria for the selection of relevant research questions, here they may find themselves studying identical phenomena. It is possible that such overlapping interests give rise to the emergence of multidisciplinary fields that often have an applied focus.

While considering the rather vague boundaries between various disciplines that are concerned with human behavior, one might expect a tendency towards integration. However, we should not forget that practising social and behavioral sciences is a form of human behavior, just as much as choosing between friends to play tennis with or as persuading our students that their hard work will eventually lead to fascinating insights. As such, the influence of processes that make us prefer familiar situations and objects above unknown ones and that give rise to in-group versus out-group biases also apply here. Thus, even if content-related boundaries lose much of their meaning scientists are apt to defend the right of ‘their’ science to survive as an independent and unique approach of human behavior within the social context.