Social Psychology Section




Our blog aims to showcase the breadth of social psychology from summaries of recent research to reviews of events.  

In June 2016, in collaboration with BJSP, we run a series called Power in Social Psychology, where every Tuesday for four weeks we published blog posts from academics in the field debating power, introduced by Nick Hopkins and Karen Douglas, editors of BJSP.   You can read this introduction post here, which will then lead on to the other posts by Ana Guinote, Christine Griffin, David Harper and John Cromby.  We concluded the power debate with a #spchat on Twitter.

To whet your appetite, here are some of our other recent posts:

If you are a Section member, you will have the option to comment on any of our posts when you are logged in. Click on the post, scroll to the bottom, and then "Add Comment".  We are keen to promote dialogue on our blog, so very much encourage you to engage with the posts. You can also tweet us using #spsblog @SocialPsychUK

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If you have an idea for a blog post or a blog series, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us on e-mail [email protected] or Twitter @SocialPsychUK #spsblog


Tue, 05/07/2016 - 11:18

By John Cromby, University of Leicester

[email protected]

It is positive to see a psychological model (of anything!) that integrally includes influences from the material world. That said, Reicher is correct to say that Pratto doesn’t go far enough in trying to include this world. This is because the influences of material and technological resources are not determined solely by their own characteristics or affordances. They are also determined by what we – with whatever tools, skills and knowledge we have available – can do with them.

I don’t agree, though, with the way that Reicher seems to wholly subordinate material and technological influences to historical forces of production. It is certainly not that such historical forces are irrelevant. It is simply that actual material and technological affordances are not irrelevant, either. In recent years much ink has been spilled trying to accommodate both kinds of influence, in debates associated with approaches such as actor-network theory and sociomaterialism. Whilst I do not hold a position within those debates, my reading of them leads me to endorse Reicher’s argument but not his conclusion.

But my primary concern is with Pratto’s assertion that power be defined as the ability to achieve one’s own goals. As Reicher notes, this proposal seems to ignore research, much of it inspired by Foucault, which explores how forms of selfhood – subjectivities, to use the jargon – are created through the workings of power.

This omission by Pratto is especially troubling at a historical moment when psychology has been thoroughly co-opted as a tool of government policy. Here in the UK, psychology’s recruitment into policy is visible in the work of the Behavioural Insights Team or ‘nudge unit’ (Cromby & Willis, 2014); in health and wellbeing policies (and associated research) that address the associations between ill health and social inequality in individualised ways (Crawshaw, 2013); and in the IAPT programme, where submission to psychological therapy is explicitly linked to work availability and benefits eligibility (Watts, 2016).

Because of their psychological character, these policies are frequently concerned with people’s goals - what they want, the choices they make, and the preferences they hold. In relation to health, for example, policy makers are often concerned that many people have the wrong goals. Too many, it seems, want to eat chocolate and fried foods, rather than fruit and quinoa. Too many want to smoke tobacco and drink alcohol rather than breathe country air and drink spring water. And too many want to watch TV, play computer games and socialise, rather than exercise, diet and keep fit.

It is quite clear that these people with the wrong goals are disproportionally poor and disadvantaged. It is less clear that the goals which poor and disadvantaged people set themselves, the things they seem to want, are not only sensible but in a certain sense rational when understood from within the adverse circumstances they occupy.

For example, Graham’s (1987) study of single mothers who smoked found that they did so despite adequate knowledge of its damaging health consequences. But they persisted in smoking because it punctuated their time, created opportunities to rest and take breaks, helped them to socialise, and engendered feelings of relaxation, calmness and competence. And similarly, with regard to ‘unhealthy’ food, George Orwell observed many years ago that:

"A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'." (Orwell 1937, p.49-50)

It is perfectly reasonable to alleviate the misery of persistently adverse circumstances by pursuing feelings of satiety, comfort, relaxation and competence. This is especially so when there seems to be no possibility that those circumstances might change for the better. In these ways, the health goals and choices of poor and disadvantaged people are already the product of unequal power relations.

And it is not only in relation to health that people’s goals reflect their circumstances. Contemporary politicians sometimes bemoan how the poorest seem to lack ambition, motivation and confidence – how they are not sufficiently entrepreneurial. Yet those same politicians are responsible for policies that have created stark inequality, precarious employment, low pay, economic hardship, housing insecurity, and vast reservoirs of unmet need in relation to physical health, mental health, education, social care and disability. And one frequent effect of these policies - particularly amongst the poorest, who are most damaged by them - is precisely to undermine ambition, motivation and confidence.

So the goals people set themselves cannot be divorced from social and material circumstances, because these circumstances structure the realms of imagination (the ‘subjective possibility spaces’ - Tolman, 1994) within which they are conceived. Nor can these goals be divorced from the feeling bodies of those who adopt them, because how we feel both reflects our circumstances and, simultaneously, shapes our desires (Cromby, 2015). Pratto’s psychological model of power fails to recognise that people’s own goals are already a consequence of power relations. Ironically, this leaves it unable to address the exercise of power through the practices and knowledge of psychology itself.


The introduction to the power series was written by Nick Hopkins and Karen Douglas (BJSP editors).  Power in Social Psychology: Everywhere yet nowhere.

We are running a Twitter Chat to conclude this power series on Tuesday 5th July at 8pm, using the hashtag #spschat.  We hope you will join us.

We are keen to promote dialogue within this power debate, so very much encourage you to comment below (when logged in).  You can also tweet us using #spsblog @SocialPsychUK


Tue, 05/07/2016 - 11:14

by David Harper, UEL

[email protected]

It is good to see psychologists taking the issue of power seriously.  As someone working in the arena of mental health it is difficult to avoid it as it is intimately caught up with psychological distress (Coles et al., 2013).  Power, for example, is relevant in understanding causal influences on distress – we face growing inequality in our societies with less powerful groups experiencing higher rates both of physical health problems and psychological distress (Psychologists Against Austerity, 2015). 

At a personal and interpersonal level we may experience distress as a result of being hurt by those with some form of power over us (as a child from parents or other caregivers).  But, of course, all of us live in societies where we are subject to power working at a more indirect level through governments, transnational corporations, the financial markets and the media.  Psychologists are often more comfortable in looking at the personal and interpersonal level but this means we neglect the way in which institutional power affects us, often through culture via the media. 

For example, we are continually exposed to messages inviting us to compare ourselves with idealised standards, often associated with consumer products which we are told might help us attain them.  The cultural availability of particular ways of conceiving distress changes with changing patterns of institutional power, with medicalised conceptions (promoted by the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical psychiatry:  Healy, 2004) vying with psychologised conceptions (promoted by the psychological therapy professions)

However, with a few notable exceptions, most psychologists either avoid the topic of power altogether – arguing, for example, that it is the job of other disciplines – or they define it in a rather narrow manner according to the assumptions of conventional psychological research methods.  Mary Boyle (2011), for example, has argued that by primarily focusing on decontextualized intra-psychic variables and their correlates, psychologists fail to address the meaning of distressing experiences and their link to real events in the social contexts of people’s lives.

Those psychologists who do focus on power, though, often fall foul of the ‘streetlight effect’ by defining power in terms more easily researchable by currently dominant conventional research methods (e.g. the small group experiment, the survey or the interview) – the name of the effect recalling the apocryphal story of the drunk man looking for his lost keys under a streetlamp because the light was better there than the actual place he lost his keys.  Thus there is a good deal of research on interpersonal influence but little on the complex webs of power at what David Smail (1999) termed the distal level. Alternatively, psychologists can inadvertently psychologise power.  Thus we might use the term ‘empowerment’ (popular in the 1980s and 1990s) to refer, rather vaguely, to whether an individual feels more personally confident rather than to whether they actually have more power in their lives, for instance, having more access to valued resources (Burton & Kagan, 1996).

Of course, researching this more distal level of power is more difficult and it may be particularly difficult for psychologists as the assumptions of our discipline – with its focus on the individual -- mesh so closely with currently dominant ideologies like neoliberalism -- with its focus on individual choice and individual responsibility.

However, some aspects of power may be worth noting to help us find a way forward.  For example, power is often noticed most keenly by those with less power than psychologists (e.g. mental health service users and those from marginalised communities).  Moreover privileged groups tend to emphasise their intentions rather than the effects of their actions (Hardy, 2001).  Thus, if we are struggling to identify the relevance of power to our discipline we might seek the views of groups with less power than us.

To avoid the streetlight effect, we need to develop new methods for studying the operations of power.  For example, what new methods might be needed to investigate the operation of power in a relatively small number of transnational corporations, primarily banks (Vitali et al., 2011)?

Power does not float about in some abstract space.  Rather, it is immanent.  Thus we need to develop new conceptualisations of power and how its influence moves from more distal levels to the more proximal level of the person and interpersonal relationships (Cromby & Harper, 2009).  How might we do this?

We need to develop a fuller understanding of how we can influence more distal levels of power.  Given the pernicious effects of inequality, for example, how might we persuade the public to support policies for more equal societies (Psychologists Against Austerity, 2016)?

Finally, for applied therapeutic psychologists there is a need to develop new therapeutic approaches which do not neglect power but, rather, take it seriously.  Fortunately, there are some psychologists doing just that – see the contributions to Afuape and Hughes (2015) and Coles et al. (2013) for inspiration.


The introduction to the power series was written by Nick Hopkins and Karen Douglas (BJSP editors).  Power in Social Psychology: Everywhere yet nowhere.

The fourth (and final) commentary was from John Cromby (Leicester): Comments on Pratto and Reicher.  This post was published on Tuesday 28th June

We are keen to promote dialogue within this power debate, so very much encourage you to comment below (when logged in).  You can also tweet us using #spsblog @SocialPsychUK

Tue, 21/06/2016 - 09:36

by Christine Griffin, University of Bath

[email protected]

Social psychology has a long tradition of research on the operation of power and its impacts on everyday social interactions, from Jahoda and Lazarsfeld’s community psychology project on the psychological effects of long term unemployment in 1930s Austria (Jahoda et al., 1972); to Michael Billig’s more recent work illuminating the mundane ways in which nationalism and racism are woven into everyday practices such as flag waving (Billig, 1995). Some psychological research has adopted a more explicit focus on power, examining the operation of social relations around gender, sexuality, race and to a lesser extent class (Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1993; Bhavnani & Phoeniz, 1994; Hodgetts & Griffin, 2015). There has also been important and diverse work on the role of psychology as an institutional practice in the operation of the ‘psy complex’ (Parker, 1994; Rose, 1985).

Recent debates in social psychology have focussed on the ways in which power itself can be conceptualised. Pratto (2015) advocates a concept of power that can be universally applied, resting on the assumption that power can be quantified and measured. For Pratto, power is defined as “the possibility of meeting goals, coupled with recognising survival as the fundamental goal for all living things” (2015, p.1). Pratto does not explore the conditions through which ‘power’ (and indeed ‘goals’) are constituted, as Reicher argues in his commentary on Pratto’s paper, citing the work of Foucault on the constitutive nature of power. For Reicher, Pratto “takes the subject of power for granted...ignor[ing] a wealth of research which shows ... how power constitutes the nature of subjects and, ... how subjects (especially collective subjects – groups) constitute power” (2015, p.1).

I have spent the past 35 years concerned with the ways in which young people engage with relations of power, as these are (re)produced, negotiated, survived – and transformed (Griffin, 1993). I have been influenced by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson’s approach which attempted to develop a ‘symptomatic reading’ within the frame of a ‘conjunctural analysis’ (Hall & Jefferson, 2006).  A ‘symptomatic reading’ understands specific social phenomena as symptomatic of changes in wider society. A conjunctural analysis builds on this by asking “why now?”, analysing (youth sub/cultural) phenomena in relation to the “political, economic and socio-cultural changes of their respective times” (Hall & Jefferson, 2006, p.xiv; see Griffin, 2011).

An appreciation of the operation of power is unavoidable in addressing these questions. So – what are the key political, economic and socio-cultural changes of our times? What Is the “something” that is happening here (to quote Bob Dylan), and what are the psychological, social and cultural impacts of living through this period? I want to explore these questions with reference to young women’s navigation of femininity in contemporary youth drinking cultures.

"Something is happening here”: Young women and the dilemmatic character of contemporary femininity"

Contemporary femininities are shaped by what Rosalind Gill has termed ‘postfeminist sensibility’ based in neoliberal ideology (Gill, 2007; Hall, 2011).  As Nikolas Rose put it:

“Contemporary individuals are incited to live as if making a project of themselves: they are to work on their emotional world, their domestic and conjugal arrangements, their relations with employment and their techniques of sexual pleasure, to develop a ‘style’ of living that will maximise the worth of their existence to themselves”            

(Rose, 1996, p.157, original emphases in italics, added emphasis underlined).

This authentic and fully-realised self should be subject to continual (self-) surveillance, transformation and improvement, in a process that has long formed a central element of normative femininity (Walkerdine, 2003).

Young women are exhorted to be sassy and independent – but not feminist; to be ‘up for it’ and to drink and get drunk alongside young men – but not to ‘drink like men’. They are also called on to look and act as agentically sexy within a pornified night-time economy, but to distance themselves from the troubling figure of the ‘drunken slut’ (Bailey, Grifftin & Shankar, 2015). Traditional gendered and sexualised double standards remain in place, since drinking and being drunk is still viewed as more acceptable for men, and as profoundly unfeminine (De Visser & McDonnell, 2011).

On nights out, young women are expected to wear high heels, short skirts and heavy make-up in a glamorous look that is termed ‘hyper-sexual’ femininity (Evans, Riley & Shankar, 2010). The juxtaposition of hyper-sexual femininity and the culture of intoxication produces a particularly contradictory set of dilemmas for young women (Griffin et al., 2013). Not all young women adopt this hyper-sexual glamorous look, but young working class women are most likely to be viewed in such derogatory terms (Rudolfsdottir & Morgan, 2009).

How power works and the forms it takes are profoundly shaped by the conditions in which power is (re)produced. Pratto’s approach does not enable us to appreciate the dilemmas at the heart of contemporary femininity, especially its illusory quality – the ‘as if’ element. Post-feminism appears to unsettle or even overthrow the contrast between normative feminine respectability as an aspirational category and the ‘sluttish’ agentic sexuality associated with the reviled figure of the slag. Young women are called on to ‘have fun’ as if they are ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ subjects, and as if pervasive sexual double standards have faded away. They are exhorted to enjoy the pleasures of what Angela McRobbie termed ‘the post-feminist masquerade’ within the culture of intoxication as if the risks and dangers associated with being visibly drunk can be dealt with without recourse to feminist critique (McRobbie, 2004gf). However, young women are aware of the illusory nature of this promise of fun and freedom, and they do manage to inhabit this impossible space in which pleasure and danger are locked in a dangerous and alluring embrace (Bailey, Griffin, & Shankar, 2015; Griffin et al., 2013).

The introduction to the power series was written by Nick Hopkins and Karen Douglas (BJSP editors).  Power in Social Psychology: Everywhere yet nowhere.

The third commentary was from David Harper (UEL) titled: Taking power seriously.  This post was published on Tuesday 21th June.

We are keen to promote dialogue within this power debate, so very much encourage you to comment below (when logged in).   You can also tweet us using #spsblog @SocialPsychUK

Tue, 14/06/2016 - 09:26

by Ana Guinote, UCL

[email protected]

Over the centuries, social scientists, philosophers and practitioners have documented power holders’ greater ability to act at will, access opportunities and resources, and more readily carry out their aims and desires. Some have argued that power corrupts, leads to selfish behavior, and a sense of entitlement. It would come as no surprise to most of us to hear that the powerful more effortlessly meet their needs compared to the powerless. After all, people avoid being dominated and those who lack power often attempt upward mobility. Subordination thwarts basic needs for autonomy and control.

The greater opportunities that come with power are by most scholars a consequence of having power (for a review see Guinote, forthcoming). That is, having power allows individuals to more readily pursue their desires and needs. In a recent article Pratto (2016) goes one step further. She claims that power is the ability to meet one’s needs. Such a definition in non-relational and contrasts with perspectives that define power as the ability to influence or control others’ thoughts, feelings or behavior. According to Pratto, people can meet their needs through opportunities in the environment, including education, wealth or networking opportunities. For example, members of disadvantaged groups have less access to resources, and therefore can meet less their needs, so they may have less power than members of advantaged groups. However, each party may have alternative attributes (e.g., intelligence) or opportunities (alliances) for empowerment, which will enter as an input to the estimation of each party’s overall power.

An emphasis on the links between power and needs satisfaction is a commendable contribution to the field given that the two are often correlated. It aligns power with the notion of personal control, which has been considered by earlier scholars, such as Fritz Heider, Bertrand Russell, or John Thibaut, one form of power: the ‘power to’ carry out desired actions.  ‘Power to’ is different to ‘power over’, or ability to dominate and control others. In recent decades psychological research has emphasized ‘power over’, whereas ‘power to’ has been examined under research on perceived control.

Yet defining power solely on the basis of needs satisfaction is not without important issues and criticisms. Firstly, this definition of power is inferred from observed outcomes (i.e., whether needs are satisfied or not) and therefore conflates socio-structural antecedents of power with people’s behavioral and psychological responses. Furthermore, people may have power under suboptimal conditions for the self. For instance, people in positions of authority often sacrifice personal needs to serve the collective (they see power as responsibility). Secondly, the concept of needs is vague and could encompass biological and psychological dimensions, with varied degrees of social dependency, and varied social implications. Thirdly, needs can be satisfied or thwarted through multiple means, in social and non-social contexts. A conceptualization of power based on needs is too broad and risks losing predictive value. In contrast, considering power as a relational phenomenon affords unique predictions that differ from those of mere personal control. For instance, in power relationships, powerless individuals pay close attention to power holders, are more inhibited, talk less and are less self-expressed, strategies that are less prominent when lack of control arises in non-social contexts (see Bukowski, Fritsche, Guinote, & Kofta, 2016). In addition, power is most frequently negotiated and consented (legitimized) based on perceived or actual added value of power holders for the advancement of collective goals. Finally, Pratto’s conception of power neglects a crucial factor that stems from power relations – the fact that having or lacking power changes people in fundamental ways, including how they pursue their goals and how they behave in social domains.

The last two decades of socio-cognitive research have shown that having power energizes people, triggering a clear focus and prioritization of salient goals. These tendencies are linked to an activation of the behavioural approach system associated with goal pursuit (see Guinote, forthcoming). In contrast, lacking power makes people think more carefully before taking action. For example, in a series of studies (Guinote, 2007) participants were first assigned to a powerful or a powerless role in the laboratory. Subsequently, they made decisions regarding courses of action (e.g., a choice of a future holiday), or initiated goals (e.g., to submit an application for an internship that started 3 months later). Consistently, participants in a powerful position made faster decisions, were faster at initiating goal directed action (e.g., they sent an application earlier than the powerless), persisted longer in the face of difficulties, and attempted more means to attain their goals compared to those in a powerless position. Conversely, people in disadvantaged positions prioritize social goals. They affiliate more, are more communal and prosocial compared to people in advantaged social positions (Guinote, Cotzia, Sandhu, & Siwa, 2015). That is, those at the top of the social ladder are more agentic and self-sufficient, whereas those at the bottom rely on relationships and are more interdependent.

Power affects individuals in ways that help maintain the status quo, facilitating power holders’ attainment of their aims and desires, while hindering goal pursuit and self-expression of powerless people. This is one reason why social inequalities are difficult to alter. Social inequalities are the result not only of the distribution of resources and opportunities but also of self-fulfilling prophecies that emerge in power relations. A non-relational conception of power misses these effects that frequently occur in asymmetric relations of power. 

The introduction to the power series was written by Nick Hopkins and Karen Douglas (BJSP editors).  Power in Social Psychology: Everywhere yet nowhere.

The second commentary will be from Christine Griffin (University of Bath, UK) titled:  “Something ­is happening”: Psychological approaches to understanding the performance of power”.   This post was published on Tuesday 14th June 2016.

We are keen to promote dialogue within this power debate, so very much encourage you to comment below (when logged in).   You can also tweet us using #spsblog @SocialPsychUK

Tue, 07/06/2016 - 08:07



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