Saturday, February 05, 2011

Book Review: Zimbardo's outstanding guide to social influence for the seriously curious

Book Review: The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence

Phillip G, Zimbardo and Michael R. Leippe - 1991 McGraw Hill

Link to review on Amazon .

I 've been studying social psychology for years and I've remained fascinated by it since college, and have read dozens of texts on the subject. I bought this text because I like Zimbardo's clear informal style of writing and I suspected this might be a good reference book to give to my son who is studying psychology. I was surprised that when I received the book and started reading it that I would find it so uniquely engaging. I enjoyed it so much that I bought another copy just for myself.

The thing that makes this book so outstanding to me is that it doesn't just list the principles or theories of influence, it actually organizes them into something I didn't even realize existed: a single relatively coherent framwork for persuasion and social influence. The authors choose several particularly comprehensive and robust models such as the "Theory of Reasoned Action" and the "Attitude Systems" model to help organize their book into a systematic explanation of how and why influence works. The result is that they manage to tie together a vast diversity of theories into a reasonable framework for study.

The book starts off making the critical distinction between attitudes, behaviors, thoughts, emotional evaluations, and intentions, and introduces the crucial concept that these are all linked together in various ways. The resulting general model is an enormous help in understanding the various many experimental results and theories that the authors introduce in later chapters.

Second, after introducing the general model, the book begins with how behavior changes from situational forces independently of attitudes or beliefs. We learn about the classic experiments in obedience to authority, conformity with groups, reciprocity, and committment; the various click-whirr responses we use to help guide our behavior without thinking.

Third, the book begins to apply the general model, we first see how our observation of our behavior feeds back to our own thinking and attitudes.

Fourth we enter the grander realm of persuasion: we learn the conditions under which we tend to think about the situation rather than just responding with behavior. We learn how our thinking is guided by both internal and situational factors, and the patterns by which it organizes itself to maintain consistency, and to help us achieve our goals.

Fifth, we begin to see the conditions under which the various shifts we have been seeing in people sometimes become more lasting, and when they are actually manifested in later behaviors. Yet again, we see how the general model introduced at the beginning of the book helps to understand the diverse theories in the book. This is not a small accomplishment in my opinion.

What creates resistance to influence, and what makes for exceptional vulnerability to influence? The Sixth major topic covers the fascinating question of why our attitudes and values form a stable system for thinking and why and how it can shift sometimes.

Seventh, there are various applications of the previous ideas, investigating such questions as "unconscious" or "subliminal" influence, how well it works and for what purposes, and how it relates to the cognitive model. We also look at the important application of these ideas to juries and courtrooms.

The book ends appropriately with the application of its ideas to health, survival, thriving, and happiness. This isn't "positive psychology" per se, rather it is an exploration of how the concepts of persuasion and influence detailed previously in the book might relate more directly to physical and mental health through attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

This is a very focused book and probably the best overview I've come across on the social psychological and social-cognitive theories of influence and persuasion (both self and other influence and persuasion) especially if you want to understand the theories and how they relate to each other.

There are other books more focused on applying the theories for those who just want strategies to improve their influence skills, but I have not found another book with a better educational discussion of the ideas. This is my favorite book on persuasion and influence for the seriously curious.