A Closer Look: Psychology Beyond the Classroom

Watching people in public places can be psychologically revealling.

Posted Feb 22, 2011

One of the challenges of teaching psychology to undergraduates is adequately conveying the role context plays on behavior. In other words, it is one thing to understand how a theory works in the classroom but quite another to see it in action out in the world. To be sure, classroom discussions can often highlight students' past experiences that can be (retrospectively) understood in new ways. But how can students be taught to uncover interesting psychological examples in daily life?

Like any good social psychologist would argue, I think they need to be nosy. They need to look at the people around them and then try to form some reasonable hypotheses about what's driving the behavior they are seeking. They need to take a closer look.

Here's an example of what I mean: One of my favorite local bookstores--admittedly part of a national chain--is closing its doors. The parent company is seeking bankruptcy protection and part of the plan means that quite a few of its stores will close. This past weekend, my wife, daughter, and I went to the sale our store is now having to clear its shelves. As these things go, it was a busy place. Mark downs encouraged many people to come out, peruse the books, DVDs, CDs, and miscellany in pursuit of a bargain.

Well, I got there too late. The books I wanted were already sold. Nonetheless, like good Americans trying to help the national economy (however modestly) or zombie-like consumers--take your pick--the three of us found a few things to buy. Nothing noteworthy, just some notebooks, planners, and the like. While my wife and daughter made one more pass, I got in the rather long line that snaked its away among the shelves.

In a strange way, I was heartened by the scene. "Look," I wanted to say aloud, "people do care about books and the importance of reading--so many people are here buying them." Then I began to look closer at my fellow travelers in the queue and, more importantly, the things they carried. Few of them had any books. Most had the aforementioned DVDs and CDs. Others had games. Many had magazines (including yours truly). Of those who had books, they tended to be of the large coffee-table variety that are often placed in the middle of big chain bookstores as "Bargain Books!" that are always on sale. No one I saw was carrying classics or best sellers or trade books or cook books or you-name-your-favorite category books (please don't think I'm a snob when it comes to readers' tastes-I- may well be--but that's not my point here). I did see a B-list rock star's autobiography in one person's hand. I saw some children's books in another's. And, granted, I did not walk up and down the long line (about 40 or more people from end to end) to see what people were holding (though I confess I was sorely tempted to do so).

It seemed to me that the people in the store were responding to the simple fact that a sale was happening--a BIG CLOSING sale--so they wanted to buy something, anything because the goods were soon to be gone. I am not discounting the fact that some people came to the bookstore to purchase the very items they were holding (but don't we all have enough novelty coffee mugs?), but many just seemed to be there in line because that's what everyone else was doing, too. I did notice something intriguing: Quite a few people would look intently at one of their would-be purchases, shrug, and then put it on shelf. A few minutes later, the person would pick the same object up, stare at it a bit, and then decide once again to buy it. (I had a lot of time in this line for snooping--about 45 minutes or more).

How might students explain the psychology behind these people's behavior? Well, certainly economics is in play--lowered prices do move merchandise. But what if the merchandise is not all that compelling to begin with, like the odds and ends people in my line seemed destined and determined to buy? If they were familiar with some of the social influence tactics studied by psychologists like Robert Cialdini, the students might suggest that the scarcity principle was at work. When something suddenly becomes scarce-the opportunity to have it, possess it, or experience, its perceived value increases in our minds. Sometimes we need to obtain things simply because they are becoming less available.

Scarcity is a tool of social influence, one that merchants use all the time ("Closing Forever! Everything Must Go!" or "Deals Will Never Be this Low Again!"--and yet that same mattress store seems to remain open . . . ). So, to the people in line at the bookstore, the purchasing opportunities seemed more valuable because they were soon to be much less--or not at all--available. (Keep this in mind the next time the siren's song of a sale calls your name.)

I am teaching research methods in social psychology this semester and focus of the course is social influence. I will be sharing my line-time-voyeurism in the bookstore with my students in order to encourage them to look closer still at their daily experiences. Material from the classroom does indeed have applications. Keep your eyes and mind open.

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