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Social Psychology Course Syllabus


Spring 2006
Mount Ida College
Newton, Massachusetts

Note: Class-Related Website has relevant links

Course Introduction

Instructor: Dennis Fox


PS 225A - 3 Credits - RI 32



Monday/Wednesday/Friday 11:00-11:50 am


Office Hours - RI 25A



Monday 11:50- 12:30 & by appointment

Eight Comments on Reading



Situation Analysis Paper

  General Guidelines for Papers  


Tentative Course Outline


Course Introduction

In The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson defines social psychology as "the influences that people have upon the beliefs or behavior of others." He is especially interested in "the relevance that sociopsychological research might have for some of the problems besetting contemporary society."

Social psychologists commonly use experimental and other scientific methods to dissect the sources, variations, and implications of everyday behaviors. When it comes to topics such as prejudice and aggression, sex roles and interpersonal attraction, obedience and rebellion, and cooperation and competition, research often verifies what's ordinarily called common sense, but sometimes it makes us realize that things we take for granted are not always so.

As we critically assess social psychology's accomplishments and weaknesses we will inevitably reflect on our own lives. What social behaviors do we assume are natural, inevitable, desirable, or fair? Where did our own assumptions and behavior patterns come from, and what are the consequences of what we believe to be true? If we succeed, by the end of this course we may understand ourselves and others a little better. Perhaps we will become more thoughtful about the choices we make as individuals and as members of society.

As the "instructor," I've prepared this syllabus in advance so you can decide whether to remain in the class. Unfortunately, this means you have had no input into the course, even though I don't think that's the best way to teach or to learn. My willingness to go along with the requirements of the situation is an example of a topic social psychologists study. So is your own attitude toward hierarchy, power, peer pressure, and similar topics that we will get to in due course.

Make sure you understand the requirements in this syllabus and related handouts. Class format, requirements, topics, and grading system are somewhat flexible and subject to change. Suggestions, comments, and general discussion are welcome during office hours or at other times.


  • Elliot Aronson, The Social Animal (9th edition). Worth Publishers, 2004.
  • Additional readings on library reserve and short assignments as assigned.

Reading - Participating - Attending

This is not primarily a lecture class. Although I will present material that isn't in the readings, class discussion is central in both small groups and the larger class. Discussion can be productive only if everyone critically reads the assigned material, thinks about its implications, and comes to class prepared to express reasoned views. Discussion generally will supplement rather than duplicate what you have read. I will assume you understand the material if you don't ask for clarification.

Class discussion can proceed in an informal, conversational manner only if you read carefully and accept a role as participant rather than audience member

Many topics social psychologists examine touch on controversial value questions with no universally agreed-upon "right" or "wrong" answers. Even the methods social psychologists use are controversial. Rather than take everything at face value, you should feel free to say what you really think and to disagree with me, with the readings, and with other students. The personal views you express in class or in papers do not affect your grades. But remember, one course goal is to learn to better support your views with thoughtful argument. So rather than simply trashing viewpoints you disagree with, you should evaluate those viewpoints and consider the issues they raise.

Class participation counts 20% of your grade. We will try to structure class so that everyone feels comfortable (a task that's related to a number of social psychological topics). If you find it difficult to get a word in or if you are not used to participating, tell me. If you tend to dominate discussions, please give others a chance. Listen to what others have to say.

Quantity is less important than quality. A useful comment goes beyond mere agreement or disagreement or a simple expression of personal views:

  • it reflects consideration of issues addressed in assigned readings and previous discussion
  • it offers a unique and relevant perspective
  • it contributes to moving the discussion and analysis forward
  • it builds on other comments
  • it goes beyond "I feel" to include evidence, argumentation, or recognition of inherent tradeoffs and complexity
  • it demonstrates how underlying values or assumptions affect seemingly objective data

Attendance. You cannot participate if you are not here.

  • Repeated absence or tardiness hinders class discussion and results in a lower participation grade.
    • Every three absences lowers your participation grade by 1/3 of a grade (e.g., from B to B-).
  • Frequent absence (more than 10) results in a failing course grade.
  • Regular attendance with minimal participation receives a C for participation.

Colleges generally expect students to work about two hours outside class for every hour in class. Thus, you should plan to average six hours a week on outside assignments for this three-credit course. Read and write very carefully.


There will be an essay exam at the end of the semester worth 25% of the grade. The focus is on application and analysis, not memorization. We will discuss details in class.

Eight Brief Comments on Assigned Reading

Eight times this semester you will e-mail me a brief comment on the coming week's reading. This will help you prepare for class discussion and help me learn what the class finds interesting, useful, or confusing. The eight comments are worth 25% of the course grade.

Note! Frequently I will read selected comments in class and ask students to elaborate. Please tell me in your email when you consider your comment too personal to talk about in class.

Comments should generally be about 350 words. That's too short for a well-developed essay, but long enough to elaborate a bit on a single point. Do not summarize the readings, merely agree or disagree without explanation, or comment superficially on many topics. Don't try to be "objective" -- I want to know what you think -- but you should try to be reasonably fair.

Whatever your topic, show that you can apply specific aspects of the reading (e.g., correctly use terms listed in the Chapter Outline; refer to a specific experiment or interpretation; propose an alternative explanation). See also the General Guidelines for Papers.

You have much leeway in what you write. For example, you could focus on one of these questions or suggestions:

  • Answer an in-class question in more depth than we went into in class.
  • Identify and analyze a specific interaction or setting (in class, dorm, theater, church, bar…..)
  • Propose a question for the final exam; answer it; explain why it’s a good question.
  • What surprises you about the reading? Why?
  • How does this topic reveal common assumptions about "common sense," "human nature," "mental health," or "normality"?
  • How does it illustrate the interplay between "the person" and "the setting"?
  • Who might disagree with the reading's assumptions, methods, or conclusions?
  • What are this topic's societal or political consequences?
  • How does this topic relate to a news issue, movie, or book?
  • Why is this topic important to you?
  • What empirical questions remain? How might they be answered?
  • Follow an in-class suggestion about out-of-class exercises and analyze your results.

Other possible sources of comment ideas:

E-mail is informal and quick, but does not have to be sloppy. You should write coherent, grammatically correct paragraphs. Email is still writing.

We will discuss this assignment in class, and revise it if necessary based on experience.


  • You must submit each comment at least one day before we discuss that topic in class, but no more than one week in advance.
  • Only one comment can be submitted in any single week.
  • Four comments must be submitted before Spring Break, the other four after.

E-Mail Instructions

  • Send comments as plain e-mail text (no attachments!) to
  • Begin the Subject line with 225 Comment and then write the number of the Aronson chapter you are commenting on (or the beginning of the article title if you're writing about a supplemental reading).
  • At the end of your comment, type your name as it appears on the class list.
  • Keep copies of all your comments in case there's confusion about how many you submitted.

Situation Analysis Paper

Due April 19th. This 5-8 page double-spaced paper is worth 30% of the course grade. It is based on your observing, for at least an hour or two, a specific off-campus setting that is new to you. The setting should be one you have never been in before where you can watch behavior you do not usually see, or perhaps a setting you have been in before but in a different role.

Observe this new situation in the second half of the semester so that you have enough course material to apply to what you see around you. You should select a setting likely to present behaviors you can analyze based on a range of course concepts and the General Guidelines for Papers. In the meantime, you can practice this kind of analysis in your email comments.

There are many settings to choose from. Some to consider: a religious service of a denomination you know nothing about; a basketball game if you never attend sports events; a crowded Saturday night movie by yourself if you've never gone to a movie alone; a session of the legislature or a court; a political rally; a downtown coffee shop; a long-distance bus trip.

Your paper should:

(a) describe the setting, the people who are part of it, and the behaviors you observe;

(b) analyze the behavior in terms of relevant course concepts (this analysis should be the main part of the paper); and

(c) relate the situation and behaviors to your own life, e.g., why you chose the setting, what you expected, how your behavior was influenced by others.

We will discuss details in class.

If your paper is turned in on time, you can revise it if you’re not happy with the grade.


Assigning grades is a frustrating and sometimes destructive task. I am glad to provide feedback in the form of written comments and one-to-one conferences, but reducing a subjective evaluation to a single letter is a gross over-simplification. As some social psychologists note, grading fosters excessive competition at the expense of real learning. It makes distinctions among you for the benefit of institutions over which you have little control. Although the significance of any single grade is usually minimal, I know that worrying is inevitable when grades have consequences.

Despite my misgivings, I take grading seriously and try to avoid grade inflation. Grades on assignments reflect my honest appraisal of your work so that you can assess your progress. I use the grading system described in the catalog, modified by pluses and minuses:

  • A = Excellent
  • B = Good
  • C = Average/Fair
  • D = Poor
  • F = Failing

Final course grades are based on the weighted average of all assignments, though I may give less weight to a single grade that is much lower than your others.

In keeping with the college grading system, students interested in the material who work hard to meet course expectations, read all assignments carefully, regularly attend and participate in class, and routinely produce good work receive a B. Students whose truly excellent work goes beyond basic expectations and requirements receive an A. Students who aim to meet minimal requirements with minimal effort often receive a C at best.

Cheating. Students who commit plagiarism or violate other standards of academic honesty will fail the course and be subject to further disciplinary action as described in the catalog.

If you have questions or concerns about grades or workload, please see me.

Tentative Course Outline

Revised Feb. 12, 2006

Week of

Topic - Aronson Chapters
The Social Animal (9th ed.)

- Additional Topics

Additional Reading

CP = Critical Psychology: An Introduction (Fox & Prilleltensky – On reserve)


(details discussed in class)


Course Introduction


Browse Web (esp. student forum)



Aronson - Preface

1. What is Social Psychology?

Aronson handout:

On Baseball and Failure

Observe behavior…


Search “social psychology of”


2. Conformity

Video: Human Zoo #2 -  Following the Herd


Act of nonconformity



Video: Human Zoo #3 - Crimes of Obedience

Fox handout:
The Social Psychology of Brookline

Course Feedback



3. Mass Communication, Propaganda, & Persuasion


Bring & analyze persuasive ads



9. Social Psychology as a Science

CP Ch. 10 - Pancer:
Social Psychology: The Crisis Continues




Critical Psychology

CP Ch. 1 - Prilleltensky & Fox:
Introducing Critical Psychology: Values, Assumptions, & the Status Quo

Discuss possible Situation Analysis settings


4. Social Cognition


Due: Fourth E-mail Comment







5. Self-Justification




6. Human Aggression




Psychology and Law

CP Ch. 14 - Fox:
Psychology and Law: Justice Diverted



7. Prejudice



8. Liking, Loving, & Interpersonal Sensitivity


Due: Situation Analysis Paper (April 19)



Catching Up

Video: Human Zoo #1 - Brief Encounters



Social Psychology and Social Change

Fox handout:
Social Science’s Limited Role in Resolving Psycholegal Social Problems

Due: Eighth E-mail Comment







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Page updated September 30, 2007