For many years psychologist have tried to piece apart how humans learn, evolve, and develop identities. Many theories have been observed and explained, but none can ever be perfect. For as long as the human mind has been a subject of study, psychologists who study it will always be asking certain questions, such as: do humans learn through observation or through experience? Which carries more weight, experiences in the environment, or being taught step-by-step procedures? For example, if a mother sees her child reach for a hot stove, she will probably slap the child’s hand away telling him to not do that because he will be burned and it will hurt. The child then has two options: to not touch a hot stove because the mother told him not to, and the mother knows best, or to touch the hot stove and find out for himself that stove is indeed hot, and it hurts! Many psychological theories claim to possess the ability to predict which choice the child will make; either through observational learning (a mother’s fear of a hot stove), or through experience (touching the hot stove; it’s hot!). This author hopes to examine and assess the claim that environment plays a very important role in human behavior and performance.
Three aspects of environment will be examined and assessed with respect to human social learning, social interactions and memory retrieval. The first being the social learning theory and its role on the human environment; specifically that humans make more decisions than they are aware of based on observing others, using marital violence as an example. The second aspect will be how do social interactions affect learning; particularly children’s friendships affecting their learning and achievement goals in social interactions. Lastly, this paper will look at memories and the effects that environmental factors have on memory; and in particular how “repressed” memories can be manipulated and how “leading questions” can change memories.
Social Learning & Behavior
An important part of social learning, especially for children, is what is known as “priming,” which simply means that when exposed to a certain behavior, a child (or person) is more likely to react with a stored behavior (Brace & Byford 2010, p. 123). For example, when a couple fights it is always with anger and their child sees that repeatedly, then the priming mechanism states that when that child is in a relationship they are more likely to argue with anger instead of calmly discussing the disagreement. The person has no tools with which to handle the situation in a different way, so the same behaviors are repeated. Another important mechanism is called “desensitization,” which if a person is exposed to the stimuli enough times, it is no longer a stimulus for that person (Brace & Byford 2010, p. 124).
An excellent example of that behavior is an article written by Robert Ciladini (2005, p. 160), in which he surmises that social influence is much stronger on the human race with respect to behavior that we give credit to. In his article, he has at least three experiments set up, but the one that is significant to this paper involves numerous not-for-profit organizations touting messages of being “greener” to save the environment, complete with pamphlets telling the public what percentage of America was doing negative acts like not recycling. In order to test the theory of significant social influence, he decides to reverse the negative effects (i.e. By telling the public about how much everyone else pollutes, the public copies that very behavior as well), by creating an experiment in a hotel to get more customers to re-use their towels. Instead of using the hotel’s usual messages, he decides to create signs and pamphlets telling customer how many other guests re-use their towels too, thereby influencing them to copy that behavior, saving energy and money for the hotel. So although people may be desensitized to messages of being green and to not contribute to what everyone else does, by merely releasing the statistics of how many people do recycle and how many people do use public transit it would shift the desensitization into positive social influence.
Another example of social influence, which brings up the subject of priming again, is a far less positive case of social influence dealing with marital violence. In a study conducted by Sharon Mihalic and Delbert Elliott (1997, p. 21-47), the main hypotheses was testing the social learning theory by itself, and not including ethnicities or socio-economic status, stating that if those were influences they would be an indirect proxy to the main social influences. The study supported the social learning theory for marital violence, especially for those adolescents who had been a direct victim of abuse, abused alcohol, and/or committed a felony assault. An interesting pattern the study found was that witnessing violence or being a victim of violence within a family as a child for females had a greater impact on future acts of violence, victimization, and low marital happiness. For males, any direct violence or victimization greatly increased the likelihood that marital violence would be committed in the future.
In both of these studies, social learning, and its mechanisms has a great effect on human behavior, especially for children and adolescents who are at greater risk for absorbing and repeating any negative behaviors that are learned.
Social Interactions & Learning
The next aspect of environment has to do with social interactions and its role in affecting learning. For example, it would be hard for a child to do well in school if this child was being bullied all day long, everyday. Instead of being concerned with doing well in school, a child would be primarily concerned with not getting hurt and just making it through the day. However, this next study has a far more positive outlook than bullying, which is do child friendships in school increase learning? In a study conducted by Peter Kutnick and Alison Kingston (2005, p.521), they set out to test whether child working on problem solving skills in either friendship pairs or acquaintance pairs could enhance their cognitive learning. They used several different types of pairings, from girls with girls, to boys with boys and girls with boys, ranging from ages 1, 3 and 5 years old. The tasks they were working on were science based assessments. Remarkably, these social interactions did enhance learning for girls paired with girls, and had a mid-level of enhancement for girls paired with boys; however, boys paired with other boys did poorly in their tasks. This article states that healthy friendships and social interaction among people can help facilitate cognitive abilities in that a person is able to see environments from different perspectives, are necessary for the development of new skills, and can increase problem-solving abilities.
Indeed, these ideas of social interaction are wholeheartedly supported by another study conducted by Damon, Butera, & Harackiewicz (2007, p. 61), who studied achievement goals in social interactions, and how these affect participants mastery goals in a particular subject. In this experiment, participants were asked to interact with a partner and discuss a text that they had been studying. In the conditions where the confederate partner disagreed with the participants viewpoint and initiated certain mastery goals with the participant, it was shown that the participant had better learning for the topic discussed. In the study, the mastery goals seemed to initiate a “desire to understand a task, acquire new knowledge, and develop abilities,” (61). Increasingly it seems that social interactions with people can facilitate not only learning, but a desire to learn, which is very interesting. For example, imagine that you are at a party. You get into a conversation with a woman who has a career in neuro-science. Previously to this party, you didn’t really know anything about neuro-science, but perhaps had assumptions that it was a dry and complicated topic. Upon meeting this woman, however, suddenly you are very interested in what she does for a living. She makes it seem important and interesting. You remind yourself that when you get home after the party, you will do a little research and read up on what is new in the field on neuro-science. Now, this is just a made up example, but an important one to see how in everyday social interactions with people in our environment, learning can be facilitated.
Memory & Environmental Factors
Memory is a very interesting aspect of humanity, and often one that is amusingly inaccurate. I myself have “changed” memory of falling into a pool when visiting an aunt’s house, but instead of remembering myself falling into the pool, the memory is of me floating above myself, watching me fall slowly, as if in dream. It is very odd that I remember it this way, and when asking my mother about the event she, of course, tells it completely different. This is just one example of how two people can experience the exact same day and moment in time (well, slightly different, since I was the one who fell!) in two completely different ways.
Recently in the psychological community there has been a “repressed memory” phenomenon, where hundreds of people are going to therapists to bring up repressed memories about their past. In a particularly shocking article about repressed memories of past sexual abuse, Ofshe and Watters (1998, p. 367-376) discuss the various methods and techniques used by therapists to pull the repressed memories out of patients. These techniques range from mild hypnosis, to leading questions and finally to pressure and suggestion. Clearly, the external environment of the psychologists “therapy” is having a very real consequence on people who claim to have repressed memories of events that never happened. The article is very clear that the authors are dubious, if not downright angry, about the kind of the therapists who conduct these analyses on patients.
In another article by Elizabeth Loftus (2003, p. 232) it outlines the serious legal implications that can take place when victims of assault or witness’ to a crime are brought in to the police station for questioning and end up being led by suggestion or pressure, which produces memories that are fabricated or changed. The witness’ or victims then become confused themselves, often believing their own testimony 100%, even though it may be false. The environments of the police station, or the psychologists office (if a victim is asked to see one), can have monumental damage on the lives of those falsely accused of crimes.
So far, this paper has assessed the claim that social learning, social interactions and the environment around us can have an important impact on human behavior. In several examples, it was shown how social learning has a significant impact on behavior in humans, and especially on children. In addition, it was shown how social interactions can have a positive outcome for learning, and can even facilitate the desire to learn more. Furthermore, it was positively shown that certain environments and situations can alter a person’s memory and have dreadful consequences for those caught in the cross-fire. In closing, social learning is a very powerful aspect of humanity, one that should be respected and taught to those who decide to have children, so that positive learning can always take place.
Brace, N, & Byford, J 2010, Discovering Psychology, The Open University, London.
Cialdini, RB 2005, ‘TARGET ARTICLE: Basic Social Influence Is Underestimated’, Psychological Inquiry, 16, 4, pp. 158-161, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 April 2011.
Darnon, C, Butera, F, & Harackiewicz, J 2007, ‘Achievement Goals in Social Interactions: Learning with Mastery vs. Performance Goals’, Motivation & Emotion, 31, 1, pp. 61-70, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 April 2011.
Kutnick, P, & Kington, A 2005, ‘Children’s friendships and learning in school: Cognitive enhancement through social interaction?’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 4, pp. 521-538, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 April 2011.’
Loftus, E 2003, ‘Science and Society: Our changeable memories: legal and practical implications’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, 3, p. 231, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 April 2011.
Mihalic, S, & Elliott, D 1997, ‘A Social Learning Theory Model of Marital Violence’, Journal of Family Violence, 12, 1, pp. 21-47, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 April 2011.
Ofshe, R, & Watters, E 1998, ‘Making Monsters’, Society, 35, 2, pp. 367-376, Points-of-View Reference Center, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 April 2011.
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