Book Review - The Social Animal

© Edwin Ng 2001

In The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson provides us with the definitive introductory guide to the science of social psychology. Each chapter opens with vignettes, anecdotes or questions regarding contemporary social issues and their important moral consequences as well as their significance to social psychology; leading ultimately to the question of how the discipline can contribute to the lessening of the social woes that we so often witness but are often unaware of or indifferent to their implications in our lives.

In fact Aronson makes no small beans about the moral agenda he has in writing the book as he wrote it. For him, the 1970’s was a period of great political and social upheaval; and all around him, while society was disintegrating, academicians were writing about social psychology as if it had no relevance whatsoever to the society they were studying. The Social Animal was birthed in response to that need to bridge disparity between the exciting developments within the young science and its impact on everyday life. In the book, Aronson turns evangelist in order to prove that despite its youth, social psychology has something to contribute to societal well-being.

The book is written as a text for the student social psychologist, but that is as far as it being a textbook goes. Aronson intended it to be the anti-thesis of what it means to be a textbook, styling the language in the manner in which he speaks and displaying less than social psychology’s fair share of academic discourse. He admits that the topics he touched on were his personal favorites adding while he would like to cover all that the discipline has to say governing human behaviour, few things could be more boring. The reader can expect to be pleasantly surprised with the presentation of the text, considering that it deals with scientific material. No doubt the main reason why the book has gone into its sixth edition, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, translated into eleven languages and read by more than just college students.

Topics covered within the book - conformity, propaganda, self-justification, aggression, prejudice, attraction and interpersonal communication – reflect Aronson’s early childhood experiences as well as professional biases. Born and bred in Revere, Massachusetts - a poor, working class town in the 1930's and 1940's - his was the only Jewish family in a virulently anti-Semitic neighbourhood. At dusk, walking home from Hebrew School, he was occasionally roughed up by gangs of tough guys shouting anti-Semitic epithets. One of his earliest vivid memories involves sitting on the curb, age 9, nursing a bloody nose and a split lip, wondering how it was that these kids could hate him so much. They didn't even know him! Were they born hating Jews or did that kind of hatred have to be taught? If they got to know him better, would they like him a little more? If they liked him more, would they hate other Jews less?

As fate would have it, when Aronson was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, he found himself following a pretty young woman into her class, hoping to continue the conversation they had begun in the coffee shop. The class was Introductory Psychology, and the lecture that day concerned prejudice. Lo and behold, the professor was raising the same questions that Aronson had been asking himself as a young boy sitting on the curb. For the first time, he realized that there was an entire science devoted to asking such questions. Aronson immediately switched his major from Economics to Psychology that very same day - and the rest as they say, is history. The teacher of that class also became one of his mentors and imparted to him that inclination to improve the human condition so apparent in The Social Animal. That teacher was none other than Abraham Maslow – father of the human potential movement.

The chapters on conformity, mass communication, self-justification, aggression and prejudice reflect this humanistic outlook. In discussing conformity, Aronson exposes our vulnerability to social influence and susceptibility to situational pressures. The classic experiment carried out by Solomon Asch was also used to illustrate which basic need; the need to be accurate and the need to maintain good relations with the people around us, will win out when these two needs are pitted against each other. He also takes us to task over the Kitty Genovese case, in which a young women is stabbed to death in New York while her neighbours watched, bringing to light the risk of over-conforming behaviour which ultimately leads to a non-interventionist attitude among urban dwellers.

In the book, Aronson also discuses the ethical concerns of propaganda. He tries to warn us about the filtered reality of everyday news reporting, insisting that selective news casting is actually a form of entertainment. He recounts the stand-off between the University of Texas students and the police which threatened to blow up into a full-scale riot until the very last minute when a team of university psychologists, law professors and students intervened to prevent its anticipated outcome. The result was that the ravenous media hordes that descended upon the city during the week dispersed quickly upon learning that there was no sensationalising clash to report. Conclusion: no violence, no coverage. A sense of alarm comes through in his writing when he examines the social psychological implications of the deluge of violence portrayed in the mass media. Most notably, he examines the implications in the light of how violence can affect pro-social behaviour in children in an experiment conducted by Bandura and his associates. In the experiment, recounted in the chapter dealing with aggression, children were reported beating up “Bobo” dolls after watching adult models on television doing the same. The chapter ends by examining how effective principles unveiled in social psychological research regarding persuasion can be

In self-justification, Aronson investigates the mental gyrations we employ to keep our good self-image after we have supposedly committed some absurd, stupid or immoral act. He also unveils for the first time, the name of the theory that has had a major impact on his career – cognitive dissonance. His fascination with the theory stem in part from Leon Festinger, his other mentor. Aronson arrived at Stanford as a Ph.D. student the same year Leon Festinger arrived as a professor. Festinger had the reputation of being a genius. But he was also known to be tough, demanding, impatient (in Aronson’s words, “a tough bastard”), and capable of devouring tender young graduate students for breakfast. Feeling some trepidation about the prospect of enrolling in Festinger's graduate seminar, Aronson asked him whether there was something of his he might read to help him decide. Somewhat dismissively, Festinger handed him a carbon copy of a manuscript he had just sent off to the publisher. Its title: A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Aronson read it in one sitting, enrolled in the seminar immediately, and felt in many ways that he had come home. For Aronson, dissonance theory was an invigorating breath of fresh air - opening the door to dozens of interesting hypotheses, many of which flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day.

Dissonance theory is responsible for the way we justify the Vietnam War, staying put on Three Mile Island despite the real threat of a nuclear melt-down and why we continue smoking in spite of convincing evidence that demonstrates conclusively that smoking is detrimental to health. Aronson depicts human beings as rationalising beings in contrast to the rational behaviour we so fondly associate with ourselves. In many ways, Aronson’s contribution to social psychology originate from dissonance theory in which he expanded the original theory first propounded by his mentor to include the individual’s propensity to defend his self-definition. The expanded theory allows for the fact that people normally distort information to suit their own preconceived notions. Aronson also focuses on the fantastic rationales and means people adopt to reduce post-decision dissonance, for instance, in the justification for the escalated bombing of North Vietnam. The irrevocability of making a decision that has important consequences when unscrupulous salesmen use the technique of lowballing to influence prospective car buyers to agree to a higher price than what was previously promised.

Dissonance theory debunked traditional reward-punishment theory when Leon Festinger and J. Merrill Carlsmith was able to prove that insufficient justification actually lead to relatively permanent attitudinal changes. This has important educational implications when it comes to educating the young. The chapter ends off by cautioning that man cannot live by consonance alone and explicated important pointers for personal growth.

Approaching the topic of aggression, Aronson defines for us what is the social psychological meaning of human aggression. He then asks whether aggression is instinctual or even necessary. Again he brings up interesting, contemporary anecdotes to make his point, citing the case of Dan Devine, coach of the Green Bay Packers. When Devine led the Packers to a losing season, he and his family was the target of both physical and emotional abuse. Even his dog was not spared – it was shot right in front of his house. Aronson states in no uncertain terms that as a society, we have been taking our competition a bit too seriously. He suggests some cure for our present state of affairs, since conventional methods such as directly punishing aggressive models do not seem to be working. Some techniques suggested are rewarding alternative behaviour patterns, building up the presence of non-aggressive models and building empathy towards others.

The Social Animal looks into the causes of prejudice. From economic and political competition to the prejudiced personality, the chapter looks into why minority peoples are often the receiving end of discrimination as well as negative stereotyping. Aronson also documents his famed jigsaw method of instruction for the schools in Austin, Texas. The method of instruction is unusual as it departs from traditional teaching currently in practice in which the teacher is positioned to be the sole source of information and power. The jigsaw method makes the teacher redundant by turning the students into sources of information instead, creating opportunities for them to learn from one other, increasing their self-esteem as well as promoting greater understanding. Thanks to Aronson’s ingenuity, jigsaw was instrumental in helping the schools in Austin make that smooth transition from segregation to desegregation.

Chapter seven on interpersonal attraction documents a fascinating account of social psychological procedure. Aronson, wishing to test his gain-loss theory, which predicts that increases in positive, rewarding behaviour from another individual has more impact on a person than if that rewarding behaviour is constant, constructs a rather elaborate experiment. In it, the subject interacts with an accomplice, eavesdrops on that accomplice’s evaluation of her, interacts and eavesdrop again and so on for seven times, all the while being unaware that her reaction to the accomplice’s evaluation is the crucial variable to be tested. To close, Aronson advocates the fostering of open, authentic communication in marriage, using such intimate and yet confrontative techniques of conflict resolution to achieve marital satisfaction.

For a few years that he was involved in encounter groups, Aronson felt he was leading a double life. As an experimenter, he was deceiving people in the laboratory and on weekends he and his wife would invite twenty-odd people over to his house to engage in intensive encounter sessions where the only policy it seems, is honesty. Some of his colleagues were little embarrassed with his weekend affairs but the encounter groups taught him more about interpersonal dynamics more than years of colleagueship ever had. In fact, the jigsaw method grew out of his encounter group experiences. In writing about interpersonal communication and sensitivity, there is no training as potent as the experiential learning in encounter groups – despite the lack of empirical evidence as to their effectiveness.

Aronson ended The Social Animal the way he started it – by dwelling on the subject of social psychology. His need to justify social psychology as a legitimate science stems from his observations while he was at Harvard, that students normally drift towards the hard sciences, and his own belief that the science has much to offer for the benefit of humanity. He lays out the methodology that social psychologists use in validating their hypotheses and makes the claim that the experiments conducted are every bit as impactful and meaningful as those in the hard sciences. He also addresses the ethical concerns that come with conducting experiments in the laboratory.

Overall, The Social Animal is an absorbing and useful read for students who would like a general orientation towards the science. Aronson is both missionary and educator in his book. As a teacher few can compare to what he has done to promote social psychology to the masses, continuing to teach undergraduate studies despite the objections of his mentor, Festinger. In the end, even Festinger admits that Aronson is the only researcher he knew whose teaching enhanced his research, perhaps the only time he ever admitted publicly that he was wrong.

The book, as Aronson mentions, covers only select topics, and students who want a more comprehensive read should refer to the textbook he co-authored with Timothy D. Wilson and Robin M. Akert – Social Psychology: The Heart and the Mind. Conventional topics such as law, business and health are not covered in The Social Animal, but the conversational tone and unpretentious language makes the book so intelligible that even the layman with no inkling of what the science is all about, will be able to comprehend at the end of the book - what exactly are the issues at stake in the world and how social psychology may be able to help. Aronson helped bridge the gap between the discipline and the real world, writing as what he has always been doing for the most of his life - when he chose social psychology over economics, when he participated in encounters groups, continuing to teach despite the discouragement from Festinger – and that is to always follow his heart.

Wilkes, J. (1984). A Missionary for Social Psychology. Psychology Today.