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Could you be angry at a good Samaritan who just fixed your car? Would you sit in a doctor's crowded waiting room while smoke poured in and do nothing? Can you imagine yourself judging people based on looks alone?

While most of us think of ourselves as being reasonable people who try to do the right thing most of the time, growing evidence out of social psychology labs - hottest area of people research in the '80s - suggests that we've all got certain fundamentally flawed ways of looking at things and each other.From our kitchen tables to roundtable talks among nations, these bad habits of our social thinking keep recurring, getting us and the world into trouble.

Yet things don't have to be this way, the social psychologists affirm: If we could just all learn to avoid this relative handful of everyday "traps," perhaps simply by becoming more aware of them, things might start going a lot better for our troubled world.


Beauty is only skin deep, right?

Try telling that to researchers Mark Snyder, Elizabeth Decker Tanke and Ellen Berscheid, who arranged phone conversations between prospective "blind" dates and found that the men like the women's personalities (!) better when they thought they were talking with "good lookers" (they were given fake photos.)

Even more revealing, the women believed to be more attractive by the men actually ended up chatting more pleasantly - i.e., they tended to live up to the men's expectations of them.

"Studies like these show we often wind up acting the way we look," says psychologist Dr. Lawrence A. Messe, of Michigan State University. "More attractive people are often treated better from little on up, so as adults they end up being more easygoing and sociable."

Maybe that helps explain why the good lookers among us tend to have more friends, get better grades, be the first hired, even fall in love more often and, according to one study of college women, wind up with lower blood pressures.

To counter this sort of prejudice, various groups have experimented with get-in-touch seminars, where blindfolded people meet and talk, even touch each other's faces before they're allowed to look. This way, acceptance can grow between people who otherwise might have shunned each other at first sight.


Cocooned in our tight groups, we also tend to dress like others dress, talk like they talk, even eat the same kinds of food.

When researcher Solomon Asch showed individual test subjects three lines and asked them to pick out the longest one, almost everybody did this easily and correctly.

But when Asch set up group tests where several "stooges" answered first and picked the same wrong line, many of the real test subjects followed suit and gave the same wrong answer.

"Conformity isn't always bad," says University of California, Los Angeles, social psychologist Dr. David Sears, "but it can lead us down the wrong path at times. Here is where the lone maverick or misfit in society becomes important, by sparking a useful self-examination in us and showing us another way."

This is perhaps part of the reason we commemorate the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Jesus.


This is our way of putting on rose-colored glasses through which to view the world.

Surveys show that whenever there's been an accident, crime, act of sex abuse or even some sort of natural disaster, we tend to "blame the victims" for their misfortune, feeling they must have been careless or unprepared, or invited the tragedy in some way.

Even the victims tend to blame themselves.

But why would we be so callous, so unfair?

Researcher Melvin argued this stems from our deep-seated need to believe the world is a just one. And, therefore, the world's victims must have had a hand in their own undoing.

We also seem to derive a sense of control out of this: "If the world is fair," we say to ourselves, "I'll be OK because I'm a good person."

While this may lend us some peace of mind at times, it carries with it obvious dangers, especially when this "just-world belief" teams up with other social traps to reinforce an unfair social order.


Imagine you're one of a hundred farmers sharing a common field that is capable of supporting only a hundred cattle. So all of you get together and agree that in the common interest, each will graze only one cow there.

But then one night somebody sneaks a second cow into the herd, reasoning this will double his output from the field while overtaxing it very little. Soon others - maybe even you - start doing the same thing until . . . an overgrazed mudfield results.

Ecologist Garret Hardin dubbed this the "tragedy of the commons," warning that it can spring up wherever a group of people own something communally. This can be on a narrow local level, or on a grand scale or global scale, as follows:

We toss candy wrappers and empty cigarette packages out the car window, then are dismayed to find our roadways littered . . .

We disconnect our car's anti-pollution equipment, then gripe about dirty city air . . .

We cheat on our taxes, then groan about the mounting budget deficit . . .

We dump sewage into the world's oceans, then become alarmed to see dead fish washing up on the shore . . .

Generally, by each of us pursuing our narrow self-interest, we may erode our collective well-being.