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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

The Social Psychology of Brookline

Dennis Fox

February 2 , 2006

Social psychology straddles psychology's focus on individual behavior and sociology's concern with societies and groups. How do other people influence our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors? Why and when are we susceptible to conformity and obedience, persuasion and propaganda, prejudice and aggression? How do our institutions foster competition or cooperation, apathy or participation, selfishness or altruism?

I've been pondering how all this plays out in Brookline because last month I started teaching social psychology for the first time in years. It's always good to have a few current anecdotes to spice up those three-times-a-week classes.

So what might a social psychologist notice in Brookline?

Our schools, for one thing. For example, I've written before about Brookline's implementation of the state MCAS test and federal No Child Left Behind Act. As a parent, I oppose the politically motivated effort to re-shape public education. I wish more parents would simply refuse to let their children take the test, a course of action the Brookline School Committee reluctantly allows but never publicizes (an ambiguity reflecting its own social psychological and political dilemmas).

The social psychologist in me wonders how institutionalizing MCAS affects not just the children who cram for the test but also the teachers who do the cramming. Brookline has good teachers, many of them knowledgeable about MCAS's inaccurate assumptions and harmful consequences. How do they deal with the cognitive dissonance aroused by following orders to prepare kids for a test they know is educationally damaging? One option is deciding that maybe MCAS isn't so bad after all. That's less risky than refusing to take part, and more comforting than continuing to think they're hurting their students.

Schools offer a multitude of social psychological lessons. My seventh-grade daughter and her friends routinely deal with complex dynamics inside the classroom as well as in the hallways, cafeteria, and schoolyard. They're already familiar with peer pressure, obedience, sex roles, self-fulfilling prophecies, stereotypes, aggression, power, fairness, impression management, and on and on. Unvoiced lessons about interacting with others typically have more impact than the formal subject matter covered in class.

Over at Brookline High School, the latest allegation of sexual assault raises plenty of social psychological questions. According to media reports, four members of the freshman girls basketball team say their male coach touched them inappropriately during a team practice. The coach, now charged with indecent assault and battery, faces a disciplinary hearing this week.

Since the reports don't say what the coach actually allegedly did, a social psychology class is free to generate relevant questions. What makes some touches okay and others inappropriate? How has that assessment changed over time, and how effectively does the legal system reflect new norms? Would the incident strike us differently if the coach were a woman, or the team members men? Since inappropriate touching by an authority figure is rarely reported, what made this incident different - the support the girls gave each other, the coach's part-time status, the recent focus at BHS on inappropriate teacher behavior?

There's life outside school, of course, and where there's life there's social psychology. Police use of power and discretion is always worth paying attention to. So too are everyday interactions easily observable in Brookline District Court, where people acting in a variety of formal and informal roles reflect the workings of hierarchy and legitimacy, stereotyping and symbolism, punishment and reward, and conformity and credibility.

The pending sale of 2 Brookline Place also highlights credibility. It wasn't easy for Winn Development to persuade Town Meeting Members to let them exceed town zoning restrictions. Important to at least some members was their trust in Winn partner and Brookline resident Roger Cassin. How might Cassin's decision to sell the site to Children's Hospital affect the credibility of the next developer who wants to be trusted?

And then there's the Board of Selectmen. Michael Sher's attempt to bring down Public Works Commissioner Tom DeMaio and the subsequent effort by the four other selectmen to isolate Sher and defend the status quo provide useful material for lessons on coalition formation, leadership, decision making in the face of ambiguity, and self-justification. I'll have to tell my students to come to the next Selectmen's meeting if they want to watch social psychology come fully alive.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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