Sunday, July 19, 2009

Social Influences on Human Behavior

Written by: Kelly L. Hunter

Human interaction and behaviors can be affected by many social influences but are not limited to parent/child interaction, culture, peer relationships, or society in general. Human development and interaction begin at birth and continue throughout and individual’s lifetime helping to shape his or her personality and behavioral expressions. Human being’s are continuously evolving in which case they are constantly changing, growing, and developing. This process is known as social development which is the continual change of interpersonal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors during an individual’s lifetime (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). Each phase of a person’s development is essential in their overall growth from child to adult. Through social cognition people form schemas in order to organize interpretations of how they feel in regards to other people, situations, and individual behaviors. Oftentimes individual’s will display abnormal behaviors that are not consistent or typical of their everyday personality depending on various social influences.
Attachment is the first phase of a child’s social development and is crucial in their developmental stages. During this phase, a child begins to bond with his or her caregiver creating a sense of affection towards them. “In the middle of the twentieth century, psychoanalysts observed that children reared in large institutional homes, with minimal stimulation and no consistent contact with a loving caretaker, often became emotionally unstable, lacking in conscience, or mentally retarded” (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). When a child has little or no human interaction they may be deficient in areas of sociability, language, and physical development. Children gain a sense of security from the presence of their caregiver and usually experience some form of distress when that person is absent. Separation anxiety seems to be relatively the same amongst cultures in which similar behaviors like tantrums and crying occur. Neglected or abused children on the other hand, tend to form a detachment and exhibit indifference to the absence of their attachment figure.
Psychologists have discovered that children’s responses to separation can vary and in most cases a child is either secure or insecure in their relationship with their attachment figure. Mary Ainsworth developed three styles of attachment to explain her theory regarding children’s responses to their mother’s absence and return: secure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, and disorganized attachment (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). A child who exhibits welcoming behaviors is displaying secure attachment style. A child who ignores their mother upon her return is displaying avoidant attachment style. Children who are angry or rejecting of their mother while expressing a desire to be close to her are displaying ambivalent attachment style. However, children who have been mistreated are usually disoriented, engaging in unpredictable behaviors while exhibiting a desire to be close to their mother; they display what is known as disorganized attachment style. “Whereas the other attachment patterns seem organized and predictable, the disorganized child’s behavior is difficult to understand and typically comes in the context of parenting that is itself unpredictable, and hence difficult to understand from the infant’s point of view” (Kowalski & Westen, 2005).
Although secure attachment is the most common style observed worldwide, there are substantial differences of attachment styles experienced within certain cultures. Culture plays a large role in a person’s social development. “For example, infants reared on Israeli kibbutzim (collective living arrangements) are much more likely to have ambivalent attachments to their mothers than infants in the West” (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). In the Israeli culture, children spend most of their days with caregivers that are not their parents. This exposure to non-parental caregivers aids in the child’s social development which results in their ability to adjust to socialization as they age. A child who spends most of their time with their mother or a caregiver that provides them with a sense of security will develop a different internal working model than a child who is neglected. In which case the neglected child may exhibit unusual behaviors and have difficulty adjusting to social situations throughout their lifetime. Parenting styles also vary amongst cultures and in some instances; independence for the purpose of socialization is unheard of. “One of the most important ways parents vary across and within cultures is the extent to which they are accepting or rejecting of their children” (Kowalski & Westen, 2005).
Peer relationships are equally important in a child’s social development. For children who have experienced abuse or neglect, friends often have a positive influence in their lives and provide a sense of support. Although the level of friendship changes throughout each phase of a child’s life, these friendships help boost a child’s self-esteem, self-worth, and self-image. Children who are accepted by their peers tend to be more successful in school and in life than do children who are not accepted. Society in general is also a factor to consider in social development. If the majority of a society considers certain behaviors to be abnormal, some children may be alienated and made to feel inadequate. The way a society views social class or monetary ranking can single out children from low-income families causing them to question whether or not they are “good enough” which may also hinder their social development.
“Although human behavior is almost always a function of the interaction of person and situation, social psychologists have called attention to the attributional biases in much of psychology and among the general public that overestimates the importance of dispositional factors while underestimating situational factors” (APA, 2009). For example, a teenager who is an A student and does not use/abuse drugs or alcohol may be pressured by his or her friends at a party to do so. This behavior would not be typical of this individual; however, the social influence brought forth by their peers may outweigh good judgment causing them to behave in a way that they normally would not. If the teen decided to participate in such activities, they could find themselves in jail or worse yet, dead. In this particular case, I would not suggest therapeutic intervention unless the individual continued to engage in drug or alcohol use/abuse.
Another example of social influence on human behavior would be bullying. If a child enjoys participating in the mistreatment or abuse of other children while his or her friends are present, this could be considered a form of social facilitation. Social facilitation occurs when the presence of other people either help or hurt the individual performance of a person. In the case of bullying, I would recommend that some form of therapeutic intervention be put into place in order to deviate from this kind of negative behavior. Childhood bullying can oftentimes lead to other forms of criminal activity including by not limited to domestic violence and murder. Importantly, if warning signs are present, it is beneficial to the bullying child and possible future victims to receive treatment in order to break a possible reoccurring cycle that could land the child in a detention facility or prison.
In conclusion, human behavior is heavily influenced by our social surroundings. Parents, caregivers, culture, peers, and society are only some of the social influences that affect an individual’s behaviors. When a child’s social development is hindered by neglect or abuse, they will oftentimes have difficulty throughout their lives adapting to social settings and viewing them selves as being worthy of love. Some human behaviors may be considered abnormal to some societies and under certain circumstances; an individual may need some form of therapeutic intervention. Being able to understand why some individuals behave in the manners that they do can be beneficial in knowing whether or not that person may need medical attention. Depending on the social situation, a person’s personality and behaviors may stray from their everyday normal approach to life. In some cases, a person may have a psychological disorder and not be aware of it. Passing judgment and not having all the facts can be harmful to an individual’s wellbeing.

“Demonstrating the Power of Social Situations via a Simulated Prison Experiment.” (2009). American Psychological Association. Retrieved July 16, 2009.

Kowalski, R. and Westen, D. (2005) “Psychology.” (4th ed.). John Wise and Sons, Inc. Retrieved July 15, 2009.


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