A 2017 NYT Magazine article by Susan Dominus notes below the rise of a field: social psychology–and how one of its most visible experts, Amy Cuddy, whose TED talk with more than 43 million viewers–became a victim of a reform movement launched from within (P-hacking).
The field is of interest to diplomacy as it relates to the group-level, touching on such mainstays as groupthink, persuasion/influence, and more. (The larger story of Cuddy, is also interesting–and her main idea, that you body language can influence others, although now under scrutiny, is still interesting and useful, as well.
One of the seminal social-psychology studies, at the turn of the 20th century, asked a question that at the time was a novel one: How does the presence of other people change an individual’s behavior? Norman Triplett, a psychologist at Indiana University, found that when he asked children to execute a simple task (winding line on a fishing rod), they performed better in the company of other children than they did when alone in a room. Over the following decades, a new discipline grew up within psychology to further interrogate group dynamics: how social groups react in certain circumstances, how the many can affect the one.
The questions grew even more profound, using experiments to tease out universal susceptibilities, raising the possibility that behavior was more easily swayed by outside forces than personality researchers previously believed. The field reached a moment of unusual visibility in the mid-20th century, as practitioners, many of them Jewish refugees or first-generation immigrants from Europe, explored, post-World War II, the way group pressures or authority figures could influence human behavior. In one simple study on conformity in 1951, the social psychologist Solomon Asch found that people would agree that one drawn line matched the length of another — even if it clearly did not — if others around them all agreed that it did. In subsequent years, researchers like Stanley Milgram (who tested how people weighed their consciences against the demands of authority) and Philip Zimbardo (who observed the effect of power on students assigned as either prison guards or prisoners) rejected the traditional confines of the lab for more theatrical displays of human nature. “They felt the urgency of history,” says Rebecca Lemov, a professor of the history of science at Harvard. “They really wanted to make people look.”
Since the late 1960s, the field’s psychologists have tried to elevate the scientific rigor of their work, introducing controls and carefully designed experiments like the ones found in medicine. Increasingly complex ideas about the workings of the unconscious yielded research with the charm of mesmerists’ shows, revealing unlikely forces that seem to guide our behavior: that simply having people wash their hands could change their sense of culpability; that people’s evaluations of risk could easily be rendered irrational; that once people have made a decision, they curiously give more weight to information in its favor. Humans, the research often suggested, were reliably mercurial, highly suggestible, profoundly irrational, tricksters better at fooling ourselves than anyone else.
Already relatively accessible to the public, the field became even more influential with the rise of behavioral economics in the 1980s and 1990s, as visionaries like Richard Thaler, (who won the Nobel Prize in economics this month) found applications for counterintuitive social-psychology insights that could be used to guide policy. In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the best-selling “Tipping Point,” applied irresistible storytelling to the science, sending countless journalists to investigate similar terrain and inspiring social psychologists to write books of their own. In 2006, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, published the best seller “Stumbling on Happiness” — a book that tried to explain why we plan so poorly for our own future. That same year, TED started airing its first videos, offering a new stage for social psychologists with compelling findings, ideally surprising ones. The field was experiencing a visibility unknown since the midcentury; business schools, eager for social psychologists’ insights into leadership and decision-making, started pursuing social psychologists, with better pay and more funding than psychology graduate schools could offer.