social psych and org theory

One of the best consequences of coming to Kellogg is that I’ve been exposed to a lot more psychological research. Half of my department consists of social psychologists who study the micro-mechanisms that affect individual and group behaviors. Methodologically, the research is overwhelmingly experimental. Much of it looks at the biases and heuristics that shape judgment, decision-making, and interpersonal interaction.  One of the most famous examples of this kind of research is Kahneman’s and Tversky’s finding of loss aversion – the notion that people are more likely to take risks to avoid losses than they are to get potential gains. Because this research has direct implications for how people make choices and trade-offs, the program has had a big impact on behavioral economics, showing that people’s choices often deviate from rational expectations. Social psychology has had less influence on organizational theory.

It’s strange that social psychology and organizational theory have had so little cross-fertilization. In business schools the two are often thrown together in the same department, and so the two groups frequently intermingle as colleagues. They sometimes share grad students, but usually those students face the choice of specializing in one or the other. There are some exceptions to this. Jim Westphal, for example, has taken a lot of insights from group process theory and applied it to corporate governance, but even when borrowing occurs, it tends to move from the more meso-related theories of social psych to a similar meso-level of theorizing in organizational theory. Why do we not see more crossover from the micro-world of judgment and decision-making to the macro-world of institutions and fields?

A few reasons come to mind. First, the differences in the methodological toolkit of the two camps might impede real conversation and attempts at collaboration. Many sociologists are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with experimental design or see it as lacking utility for their purposes. On the other side, the methodological choices of many OT scholars seem bizarre to most social psychologists. As I see it, organizational theorists emphasize external validity of measures while social psychologists put more emphasis on internal validity.  Forcing one group to make a trade-off with their preferred type of validity creates problems. Another reason may be that despite our similar interest in social behavior, the two camps fundamentally conceive of theory in a different way. One colleague described the divide this way (and I’m not sure how true this is, but I’ll write it anyway) – social psychologists are primarily interested in cataloging mechanisms whereas org theorists are more interested in contributing to paradigmatic research.  And finally, the lack of conversation may be attributed to a basic epistemological difference. Social psychologists seem to take a more realist approach to social science, whereas organizational theorists, perhaps because of their rootedness in sociology, take a more constructivist approach. Now, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here and so I realize there are plenty of exceptions, but it does seem that most social psychologists see their role as to uncover traits, natural biases, or patterns of interaction that have universal application across social settings. These traits are often thought to be hardwired or inherent to the human condition. Organizational theorists, in contrast, see the world as contingent on local meaning and structural differences. The goal of social science, from the latter point of view, is to figure out how these varying structures and meaning systems contribute to variation in action or how they get constructed in the first place.*

This latter difference seems pretty substantial. When I talk to some of my sociologist friends about a cool result from social psych, one of the first things we try to do is figure out how or why the result might be explained by some local structural or cultural configuration.  The pattern, we seem to think, couldn’t be possibly be natural or hard-wired. But couldn’t both be true? Isn’t it possible that some behaviors or reactions are perfectly natural and can be attributed to the basic hardwiring of the human system and that some of our social structures and meaning systems work precisely because of these natural inclinations? Couldn’t social structure be constrained in some ways by the natural tendencies of human interaction that result from real psychological traits? And isn’t it possible that not all social psychological mechanisms are natural but can be attributed to local effects of culture or structure? If so, perhaps the two areas have good reasons to pay attention to each other. Of course, there has been some attempts to make sociology more cognitive. This movement has not been widely embraced by sociologists, however. Perhaps social psychology provides the perfect mediating mechanisms to further make this link between the realm of the cognitive and the macro-social/organizational aspects of human life.

*This is not to say that social psychologists aren’t interested in cultural differences (in fact, there’s an entire area of research that examines cross-cultural variation in biases and heuristics), but the idea is that culture activates or de-activates certain kinds of natural behavior.

Written by brayden king

February 18, 2010 at 3:40 pm

11 Responses

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  1. on the subject of social psych, have you read this review essay on “Salt Passage Research“?



    February 18, 2010 at 3:59 pm

  2. Brayden: I’m not sure about the realist (micro) – constructivist (macro) contrast that you are proposing (well, w/o getting into the varied definitions of realism and constructivism). Specifically, much of social psych precisely is driven by various types of “priming” effects which strongly assume a constructivist logic rather than a realist one. In short, the similarity is in the focus on ‘external’ and environmental factors as stimuli, signals (whatever) for the interpretation, construction and determination of reality. Sure, the levels at which this is studied tend to be different but the central mechanisms are, in my mind, strikingly similar. [Insert various qualifications.]



    February 18, 2010 at 8:40 pm

  3. Teppo, I’m not sure about that. Inasmuch as psychologists see mechanisms as having a neurological foundation, they seem pretty realist to me. And increasingly I think this is the case among the behavioralists. The trend is to get more and more micro, until you can locate every bias or heuristic in a particular part of the brain.



    February 18, 2010 at 9:03 pm

  4. Right, there are unquestionably varieties of psych out there. I was referring to the micro stuff that often is cited in top org theory papers (well, or, the type of social psych at most b-schools) — so, if you look at the most micro of citations in any macro papers (actually a fun exercise) you tend to find that you have self-similar mechanisms when it comes to the following (and, it’s often a one-to-one borrowing from the lower to the higher level — “absorptive capacity” is a fantastic example): language, environment, priming, categories, experiential mechanisms etc. Sure, people are pushing this stuff — well, largely in the originating disciplines — to lower levels as well (though moving lower does not equal a shift toward realism); but there are also varieties of psychology (e.g., note the bias versus heuristic debate or associated debates on human rationality in decision-making — Krueger and Funder, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2003, nicely touch on these issues and debates).



    February 18, 2010 at 9:23 pm

  5. I’m not sure that social psychologists in org departments would necessarily recognize your characterization of them as being fundamentally preoccupied with traits, nor with ‘universals’ in terms of behaviour.

    To me, a lot of the most interesting stuff in the ‘social psych’ side of org studies tends to focus on person-situation interactions and on the contingencies of our biases and behaviour.

    The first (in the tradition of Lewin) is how personality traits and individual differences shape and are shaped by organizational life. The role of founders on culture, the attraction-selection-attrition mechanism, and the work on person-organization fit are good examples of social (and I/O) psychology tackling some of the microfoundations of ‘macro’ phenomena usually explored exclusively by sociologists.

    The second area is the influence of broader cultural forces (eg national culture) on psychological phenomena. There’s some really interesting work on cross-cultural negotiation that shows interesting cultural contingencies to negotiator behaviour. There’s a 2007 Ann Rev Psych by Gelfand, Erez and Aycan that reviews some of the progress in cross-cultural OB.

    All that said, though, I think your bigger point (two camps, two priorities in terms of validity, very little crossover) is entirely valid — and it’s a caution that building a multidisciplinary department is no assurance of interdisciplinarity.



    February 19, 2010 at 2:02 am

  6. Lukas – fair point. Situationalism is a strong component of social psych research and so I may have overstated things a bit here. And yes, there is a lot of really interesting research looking at cross-cultural variation.

    Still, I think that there is a difference in the way that social psychologists approach inquiry. Although they are quick to point out how the social environment, culture, etc. moderates psychological mechanisms, the mechanisms are still at their core found within the mind. Environmental or situational features only enter into the situation as moderating or mediating factors. Sociologists, in contrast, are much more interested in the how structure, culture (i.e., the environment) gets constructed. So the projects of inquiry differ considerably.



    February 19, 2010 at 6:50 am

  7. Sorry to join the let’s gang up on Brayden chain, but I must protest against the notion that cognitive sociology has not caught on. At least if we count number of citations to DiMaggio 1997, the number of prominent people who are willing to consider a cognitive turn (and maybe this is just a reflection of my biased professional network), the number of young sociologists in culture that are into cognition then I would say that cognition–in a broad sense that includes cognitive neuroscience–is on the upswing in sociology (for a tour de force review see Cerulo 2010, and the other papers (in press) in a forthcoming special issue of Poetics).



    February 19, 2010 at 5:30 pm

  8. Brayden,

    I’d agree with you with respect to certain literatures in the soc-psych side of org departments. The literature on power in social psych, for instance, while full of interesting findings, has a very narrow view of power as a perceptual phenomenon (i.e., feeling powerful) rather than a structural one. That’s an example where your argument about psych folks viewing everything as “at their core, found within the mind” resonates for me.

    I think one of my favourite articles that touches on this issue is Chip Heath and Sim Sitkin’s “Big-B versus Big-O: What is organizational about organizational behaviour” article (JOB, 2001). Their typology of topics highlights some of the topics where your critique rings true, and others (e.g., transactive memory – the social distribution of shared knowledge) where your characterization isn’t as accurate.





    February 19, 2010 at 6:31 pm

  9. “When I talk to some of my sociologist friends about a cool result from social psych, one of the first things we try to do is figure out how or why the result might be explained by some local structural or cultural configuration. The pattern, we seem to think, couldn’t be possibly be natural or hard-wired. But couldn’t both be true? Isn’t it possible that some behaviors or reactions are perfectly natural and can be attributed to the basic hard wiring of the human system and that some of our social structures and meaning systems work precisely because of these natural inclinations?”

    To be honest, I have a *very* limited knowledge of the social psych/cognition literature. That said, I’m going to make an effort to jump in here. I think that the dichotomous language we currently use to talk about the intersection of culture and cognition is not always helpful. For example, knowing that our “hard wiring” can literally be reshaped through social interaction makes me think that we should not think of things as being either based in or caused by nature or based in and caused by culture or structure (as the quote I pulled out above suggests), but rather by both- in a feedback loop sort of way.



    February 19, 2010 at 10:10 pm

  10. Shinobu Kitayama gave a talk I went to last term. He started off with a very neurological, brain-and-behaviour type of talk.

    Let me see if I can summarize the talk, with two caveats: 1) I’m working from memory here, so I may have some of the details wrong, and 2) none of this is really about organizational psychology/sociology specifically.

    Kitayama started by describing how those who learned the use of an abacus at a young age (i.e. those from eastern cultures) take a neurologically distinct approach to math problems. Even when they’re not actually using an abacus, they are thinking of the math problems in visual ways. Do an fMRI scan of an abacus expert doing mental arithmetic, and all the visuospatial processing centres of the brain light up in a way that they don’t in non-abacus users (read: Westerners). So, 1) Culture changes our ‘hard wiring’.

    He also talked about how although members of different cultures are implicitly motivated toward interdependent or independent self-construal, that very few people will actually perform *all* of the “cultural tasks” associated with that construal: Perhaps you’ll make situational attributions, but you won’t engage in indirect communication. Or you’ll defer to authority but won’t value conformity. He basically talked about a cultural imperative that is fulfilled by the selection of some, but not all ‘cultural tasks’ — these ‘tasks’ are culturally distributed, and the ones chosen by individuals will be shaped by environmental forces – the economy, social class, etc. So 2) the environment shapes the way in which our hard-wired ‘culture’ manifests itself.

    It was a beautiful talk in terms of drawing a narrative thread stretching from culture to the mind back to culture again. It gives the sense of the type of possibility there is in connecting these levels. I’m not doing it much justice here. :)



    February 20, 2010 at 12:31 am

  11. […] the social psychology of comparison processes and similarity judgments (in the spirit of Brayden’s recent post). […]


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