26 Applying Social Psychology
The Problem Phase: From
a Problem to a Problem
Social problems are everywhere around us. Open up a newspaper, watch television or listen to the radio, and suddenly you are confronted with a rich variety of social issues, many of which have a social psychological dimension. Regardless of whether it concerns the problem of teenage pregnancies, smoking and health, divorce, anti-social behaviour in residential communities, school truancies, prejudice towards ethnic minority members or even global warming, social psychological factors play a role in all of them. Indeed, as societies grow larger and individuals live and work more closely together, social and environmental problems are bound to rise, affecting an ever larger proportion of the population (Gardner & Stern, 1996; Van Vugt et al., 2000). Hence, there is an urgent need for the involvement of social psychologists to study these problems, and to offer solutions while working together with fellow scientists and policy makers (see, for example, Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2002; Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 2005; Hewstone, Stroebe & Jonas, 2005; Hogg & Vaughan, 2005; Kenrick, Neuberg & Cialdini, 2005; Myers, 2005). This is not to say, of course, that all or most societal problems can be directly attributed to social psychological factors.
For example, the primary cause of lung cancer is smoking, and pollution is primarily caused by the use of cars. Hardly social psychological matters, so it seems. Yet social psychologists will try to understand why, despite the widespread knowledge about the health risks, so many individuals still continue to smoke (Gibbons, Gerrard & Lando, 1991; Stroebe & Stroebe, 1995). Or they will investigate why most people continue to drive cars, although there are sometimes much better travel options available (Joireman, Van Lange & Van Vugt 2004; Van Vugt, Meertens & Van Lange, 1995).
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the important role for social psychology can be seen from a sample of headlines that appeared in British newspapers in the week that this chapter was being written. This list reads as follows:
1. Treeplanting schemes may help to reduce carbon emissions.
2. Sale of the 'morning-after' pill on the increase.
3. Government to build a network of health care walk-in centres near companies.
4. Workplace bullying on the increase with nearly 80 per cent of human resources departments saying it exists in their firm, according to a new survey.
5. One in seven UK students drops out of university.
The Problem Phase 27
6. Efforts to promote 'lifelong learning' using computers have done little to increase the number of adults in education.
7. Threatening or abusive youngsters targeted as part of a new crackdown on anti-social behaviour.
8. Police use of anti-terror laws leading to arrests of the wrong people, according to think tank's study.
9. Nottingham charity says fewer people are willing to get involved because of commitments in modern life.
10. Police are looking for more ethnic police officers to join the force.
This summary shows not just that our society (as well as many societies around the world) is facing a diversity of problems today, it also indicates that there are vast differences in the way these problems are stated. Some of them are based merely on an observation (for example, one in seven students drops out of university) and it is not always that clear what the problem is exactly (the what question). Others are based on a piece of systematic research (for example, workplace bullying is on the increase), and while it is immediately clear what the problem is, it does not state anything about why it is perceived as a problem or when it first appeared (the why question). Other statements do give a potential cause for the problem (for example, a charity saying fewer people get involved because of commitments in modern life) — the causes question — but it is unclear for whom it is a problem, how widespread this problem is (the for whom question) and whose cooperation is essential to solve the problem (the question about the target group). Finally, there are problems which are merely expressed as an intention to do something about an unsatisfying situation (for example, the police force looking for more ethnic officers), but it is unclear how these can be solved (the aspects question). Thus, although from each of these above statements inferences can be made about what the problem is, important details are lacking, and many more questions need to be asked in order to establish a formal problem definition.
Towards a Problem Definition
What do we mean by a problem description? By this we mean a clear and precise description of what the problem is, why and for whom it is believed to be a problem. Also we should identify the target group for intervention in the problem definition. In addition, a problem definition should give some insight into some possible causes and key aspects of the problem, such as whether this particular problem is an applied, concrete and social psychological problem, and whether the problem is solvable or relievable.
In articles appearing in social psychological journals, little attention is usually given to the process of formulating a problem definition. This is perhaps more understandable in the case of basic social psychological research, in which researchers are primarily interested in understanding the mechanisms underlying a particular social problem. For example, in their empathy-altruism research, Batson and his colleagues are primarily (but not exclusively) interested in understanding the conditions under which individuals are motivated to help others in need (Batson, 1991; Batson & Powell, 2003). They are less concerned with applying their knowledge to promote altruistic
28 Applying Social Psychology
behaviour in society and leave it to applied psychologists to use their insights for developing intervention.
Yet even in articles with a more applied focus, a systematic problem analysis is often lacking. As an illustration, research articles on environmentally sustainable behaviours, such as household recycling, household energy use or carpooling, often begin by stating that there is a problem (the depletion of environmental resources) and then quickly move into the particular behaviour under investigation (for examples from our own work, see Van Vugt, 2001; Van Vugt et al., 1995). However, a more systematic problem analysis would reveal that domestic energy use, for example, represents only a third of total energy consumption in a country (Gardner & Stern, 1996). Thus, from an intervention point of view, it would make more sense to concentrate on energy savings from bulk consumers, such as businesses and factories.
An elegant example of research based on a problem definition is work on volunteering by Mark Snyder (see Box 2.1), Allen Omoto and colleagues (Kiviniemi, Snyder & Omoto, 2002; Omoto & Snyder, 1995; Omoto, Snyder & Martino, 2000). In their research they first recognized, through surveys and interviews, that the act of volunteering — to assist people with HIV/AIDS — served different psychological functions for different volunteers. Some volunteers were primarily driven by a pan-altruistic motivation to help others, while others were motivated more by a specific attachment to the community of people with HIV/AIDS or by the effects of volunteering for their personal growth and development. On the basis of these results, they argued that it would be wise to develop a volunteer recruitment campaign that would target individuals on the basis of their main motive for volunteering. They were indeed more successful in their recruitment if they tailored their message to a specific target audience of potential volunteers (Kiviniemi, Snyder & Omoto, 2002). Below is an interview with Professor Mark Snyder, from the University of Minnesota, about his applied social psychological research.
Box 2.1 Interview with Professor Mark Snyder of the University of Minnesota (USA)'As a psychologist, I wear many hats. I am a basic scientist, and I am an applied researcher. I work in the laboratory, and I work in the field. I address problems of theoretical significance, and ones of practical concern. Rather than keeping these various facets of my professional identity separate from each other, I have worked to integrate them. Thus, I have a particular fondness for research that, at one and the same time, advances the state of theoretical understanding and also speaks to the challenges that confront society.
'Accompanying my belief that social science should contribute to solving the problems of society has been a longstanding fascination with people who themselves take action for the benefit of society. In my research, I have sought to understand how and why people become actively involved in doing good for others and for society. Such involvement can take the form of participation in volunteerism and philanthropy, community and neighbourhood organizations, social activism and political movements. In this research on social action, my collaborators and I are discovering why individuals become involved in various forms of social action, what sustains their involvement over time, and the consequences of such action for individuals and for society.
'A defining feature of my work is its focus on real people involved in real social action in real settings. For instance, in our studies of volunteerism, we have followed volunteers over the entire course of their service with community-based organizations, thereby allowing us to chart their life histories as volunteers and to study the unfolding processes of volunteerism. Such work can be time-consuming and effortful but has been well worth it. For such research is contributing meaningfully, I believe, to an emerging understanding of the nature of volunteerism and other forms of social action. Moreover, it is speaking directly, I believe, to critical concerns with the role of individual and collective involvement in society. And, for me, it is extremely rewarding to be engaged in scientific activity in ways that can deliver benefits to science and to society— a 'win-win' situation for all concerned,
Interested in Mark Snyder's work? Then read, for instance:
Snyder, M., Omoto, A.M. & Lindsay, J. (2004). Sacrificing time and effort for the good of others: The benefits and costs of volunteerism. In A.G. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil (pp. 444-468). New York: Guilford Press. Stiirmer, S., Snyder, M. & Omoto, A.M. (2005). Prosocial emotions and helping: The moderating role of group membership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(3), 532-546.
Reformulating the Problem
From the above discussion, it should be clear that many of the problems stated in our 'news item' list should be rephrased and reformulated in order to reach a more formalized problem definition. First, many of these problems were stated in such generic terms that it is unclear what the problem was (for example, in the case of the drop outs among UK students) or how it could be tackled (for example, the police force wanting more ethnic police officers). When it is stated that the sale of the morning-after pill is on the increase, does this imply that there is actually a problem with the preventative use of contraceptives (condoms, birth control pills)? Furthermore, if there is a
30 Applying Social Psychology
problem with contraceptive use, how many men and women in the UK (or in the whole of Europe or the world) are affected by it? Finally, it does not tell us anything about where the problem lies. For instance, do people forget to take contraceptives or are they not readily available to them? In sum, such global statements must be made more concrete in order to be useful for further investigation.
Second, a more detailed problem analysis could reveal that the real problem is different from the one that is stated. For example, a lack of volunteers for the Nottingham charity may have nothing to do with people having other time commitments. It may, for instance, have more to do with dissatisfaction among current and potential volunteers about the activities of this specific charity. A systematic problem analysis could even reveal that there is no problem at all. If after further scrutiny it appears that the `one in seven UK students' that drop out from university finds a useful and rewarding alternative career path (for example, as plumbers), there may be little reason for further investigation.
Third, even if it is totally clear what the problem is then there is an array of different solutions that one could think of for solving it. Some of them may have nothing to do with psychology. Carbon emissions, for example, could be cut drastically if all cars were fitted with catalytic converters (giving clean engines; see Van Vugt et al., 1995). Ensuring this happens would involve legislation to force car companies to adopt this technology. There is little involvement by social psychologists in this kind of intervention (although a social psychologist could, for instance, assess the willingness of car companies to accept legislation).
Finally, if there is a clear social psychological dimension to the problem then it is a challenge for the social psychologist to find an appropriate theory or paradigm from a toolbox of different theories to investigate this further. For example, the problem of bullying in the workplace could be studied from a gender perspective (Quine, 2002) if it appears that women are predominantly the victims, either from a power framework perspective (if it appears that bosses bully subordinates) or from an intergroup perspective (if it appears that it mainly occurs between departments).
In a similar vein, the problem of absenteeism at work could be studied from a social exchange perspective (if it appears that people feel they put more effort into their work in comparison to what they receive in return), a social comparison perspective (if it appears that people feel frustrated and deprived in comparison with their colleagues), or from a commitment perspective (if it appears that a lack of organizational commitment plays a role; see Buunk & Ybema, 1997; Geurts, Buunk & Schaufeli, 1994a and b).
The Path from a Problem to a Problem Definition
The above delineates that a social psychologist seldom proceeds from a problem to a problem definition along a short, straight path. Rather, one travels a long and winding road and, along the way, there are a number of important decisions to be made. Some of them are quite straightforward. For instance, if bullying in the workplace is the focal problem, there is not much point in studying bullying among school children, except for comparative purposes perhaps.
The Problem Phase 31
Other decisions require a more careful consideration. Applied social scientists (and we are the first to admit this) all have their own hobby horses in terms of favourite topics and theories and will therefore see a particular problem in a particular way. For example, whereas an economist might stress the financial benefits of carpooling, a social psychologist might emphasize the benefits of carpooling in terms of companionship (Van Vugt, Van Lange, Meertens, & Joireman, 1996). In promoting contraceptive use, some social psychologists would pay more attention to the role of social cognitive factors in promoting contraceptive use (for example, a knowledge gap), whereas others would focus more on affective and motivational factors (for example, the desire to have unprotected sex; see Buunk, Bakker, Siero, van den Eijnden, 1998). It is good to be aware of such tendencies as they may colour a particular problem analysis (Kok, Schaalma, De Vries, Parcel and Paulussen, 1996).
In a related vein, when social psychologists are asked to get involved in solving a particular issue for a client, that client may not necessarily know exactly what the problem is or they may have a vested interest in defining a problem in a particular way. Take the example of the police service wanting to recruit ethnic officers. This force may be inclined to attribute past recruitment failures to a lack of interest from ethnic community members for police work rather than a reluctance by the police force to become more open and inclusive (cf. fundamental attribution error; Ross, 1977). Hence, a problem definition that would focus on persuading ethnic minority members to join would be less fruitful than a strategy directed at increasing tolerance among police officers. It is up to the social psychologist in question to make a judgment regarding the validity of a client's perspective and the reasons for defining a problem in a particular way. If a social psychologist believes that a client's perspective is not helpful, they should persuade him or her to adopt a different perspective and, if all else fails, should hand back the assignment to the client.
There are various reasons why it is important to develop a sound problem definition. First, it will delineate what needs to be explained and offer suggestions for finding the appropriate literature sources. On the basis of a good problem definition, it is easier to move to the next stage, the development and test of an explanatory model. Perhaps even more importantly, without a good problem orientation it is virtually impossible to map out a programme of interventions to tackle a problem. If a social psychologist fails to capture the essence of a problem, chances are that the proposed intervention programme will also fail. If, for example, the researcher wrongly assumes that company employees are interested in getting health checks done while at work, the provision of walk-in health centres near company premises will be a waste. The importance of problem definitions is illustrated below by various examples, both good and bad, of a hypothetical conversation between a social psychologist and a potential client, the chief constable of a large police force. The problem revolves around the recruitment of ethnic officers.
Examples of Interviews Example of a Bad Interview
Chief 'We are experiencing problems recruiting officers from Arab, Asian and African backgrounds into the police force. My colleagues in other police forces around the country tell me that they have the same problem.'
32 Applying Social Psychology
Social psychologist: What do you mean?'
Chief `Well, when we hold officer recruitment days for the public, hardly anyone from these communities turns up. And if they do, they don't submit the application form that they receive at the end of the day.'
Social psychologist: `So, if I understand you correctly, you want to recruit more officers from an ethnic minority background.'
Chief` That's correct, but I also want to make sure that we retain our best ethnic officers. Quite a few of them have left recently, and we don't know why.'
Social psychologist: `If I understand you correctly, the problem seems to be a lack of enthusiasm among the ethnic community for doing police work.' Hm ... yes, I believe so.'
`OK, I'll find some literature on job satisfaction and employee motivation and get back to you.'
In this example, the social psychologist and their client may decide to focus on understanding the lack of enthusiasm among ethnic officers for doing police work. Yet it is clear that they have developed, at best, an incomplete problem definition and, at worst, a problem definition that is plainly wrong. There are key questions that remain unanswered here. Is this a recruitment problem, a retention problem or is it both? For whom is it a problem — for the police, the community, the government? Is this really about a lack of interest in doing police work? Can the problem be attributed entirely to the ethnic community, or is the police force itself (also) responsible for causing these problems? Furthermore, when have these issues first been noticed, and if these problems have emerged only recently, how does that inform the search for possible causes? The next conversation provides a better example of the development of an adequate problem definition.
Example of a Better Interview
Chief 'We are experiencing problems recruiting officers from Arab,
Asian, and African backgrounds into the police force. My colleagues in other police forces around the country tell me that they have the same problem.'
Social psychologist: 'What seems to be the problem?'
Chief 'Well, when we hold officer recruitment days for the public,
hardly anyone from these communities turns up. And if they do, they don't submit the application form that they receive at the end of the day.'
Social psychologist: 'Why is this a problem?'
Chief: 'Well, there have been targets set by the government for the
intake of ethnic officers, and so far, we have failed to reach any of these targets.'
The Problem Phase 33
Social psychologist: `What is the relevance of these targets?'
Chief: `We're operating in an ethnically diverse community, and it seems to us that the police force should be a fair reflection of the community in terms of its ethnic make-up.'
Social psychologist: `Why is this important?'
Chief`We rely a lot on cooperation from the community in preventing and reporting crimes. At the moment, we're not getting this help. There's a lot of unreported crime in this area. When I talk to members of the public, particularly ethnic members, there seems to be a lot of suspicion about the police force.'
Social psychologist:`What are these suspicions about?'
Chief`Some believe that we pay less attention to crimes when the victims are of Asian or African background. People also accuse us of being prejudiced in terms of who we stop and search on the streets.'
`So what is your main problem? That you are not recruiting enough ethnic police officers, that many crimes are unreported, or that some members of the community think the police are biased?'
`All three really. But if we can do something about people's suspicions regarding our policing work, that would be a major step in the right direction.'
`So the main problem seems to be a lack of trust in the police force among the ethnic members of the community, which may or may not affect recruitment strategies — we don't know that yet. And you would like to know how trust can be improved?'
In this example, the problem definition is being shaped more clearly through the specific questions the social psychologist asks regarding the various attributes of the problem: what is the problem, why is it a problem and for whom? As a consequence, the problem has switched from specific recruitment to a more general issue regarding the relationship between the police force and ethnic community members.
It may seem that this is complicating matters unnecessarily. Yet think about the implications in terms of intervention. Had the social psychologist concentrated exclusively on the recruitment problem then he might have suggested organizing a recruitment campaign directly targeted at members of the ethnic population, for example, by advertising in mosques, temples or churches. Knowing that the recruitment failure might possibly result from a more widely held negative perception of the police force suggests that such an intervention is doomed to fail, because it does not directly alter the image of the police force. However, there are yet more issues to be raised by the social psychologist to establish a more complete problem definition.
34 Applying Social Psychology
Social psychologist: `Are there any other aspects to the problem'?
Chief` Over the past few years, I've also noticed an increase in turnover among ethnic officers, some of them were really the pick of the crop when they started here.'
Social psychologist:`Do you know why they left the force?'
Chief` `Well, we havn't done any systematic research, but some at least felt isolated in their working units. They didn't get enough support from colleagues in their units. They also felt under threat from members of their own community who didn't approve of them working for the police force.'
Social psychologist:`Have you interviewed the chief officers in the units about the problems that the ethnic officers experienced?'
Chief` `Not yet, I haven't had the time to go around the units and gather information.'
Social psychologist:`But you think it's an important problem and that it may be related to what we previously mentioned, a lack of trust in the police force among the ethnic population.'
Chief` `Keeping the best ethnic officers is paramount for our force. I think these problems are related, but, as I said before, where do we start?'
Social psychologist:`What are your ideas about who best to focus our efforts on? Whose cooperation is necessary for the problem to be solved?'
Chief` `Well, of course members of the ethnic community should be addressed. But in my opinion, a lot also depends on the chief unit officers. They talk on a daily basis with their officers and are responsible for the atmosphere in the unit. It is the task of the chief unit officer to stop bullying and discrimination among his officers.'
Social psychologist:So to summarize, we've now established that there are problems with regard to both the recruitment and the retention of ethnic police officers in this force. And improving recruitment and retention is important in order to increase the quality of police work in the community, and also importantly, to meet government targets. You see it as a priority in your force to tackle these Problems. We don't know it for sure yet. but a possible cause of these problems may be lack of trust in the police force among members of the ethnic population. This may prevent ethnic person frm applying to the force and it may promote the turnover of ethnic police officers. You believe that we should focus our effort especially on members of the ethnic population and the chief unit officers. Is that a correct representation of what you said?’
Chief ‘Yes, I would agree with that analysis’
35 Applying Social Psychology
Furthermore, it addresses a number of questions relevant to establishing an adequate problem definition, such as:
1. What is the problems?
2. Why is it a problems?
3. For whom the problems?
4. What are the possible causes of the problem?
5. What is the target group?
6. What are the key aspects of the problem?
· Is it an applied problem?
· Is it a concrete problem?
· Is it a social psychological problem?
… Also, there will be importen social psychological aspects to
36 Applying Social Psychology
the proposed intervention programme, such as trust-building, reducing prejudice, and increasing the legitimacy of the police force.
• Can the problem be solved or relieved? From the above, it appears that there are enough clues to reassure the social psychologist that the problems are solvable or relievable, at least in principle. Moreover, there is clearly a willingness on the part of the client to work towards reducing the problem.
The Problem Phase 37
anything that a client says and also open-minded about what the true causes of a particular problem might be.
A few years ago, one of the authors of this book was asked by the board of a water company to examine residential water use and conservation attitudes during a shortage. Some initial research was carried out, which revealed that residents with a water meter acted much more responsibly in response to the shortage than residents without a meter (Van Vugt, 1999; Van Vugt & Samuelson, 1999). In presenting his findings, he suggested that the problem should be refocused on how to get residents to voluntarily adopt water meters. This problem definition did not agree with that of the board of the water company, who did not want to introduce widespread metering because of the costs involved. Instead, the board wanted to focus on changing the conservation attitudes of those households without meters.
Another concern is that problems are often stated in terms that are too generic to be useful. For example, suppose a council officer notices that there is a lot of litter in certain areas within a city. He also observes that many people are using cars to drive their children to school. He therefore concludes that the residents are not environmentally conscious enough and asks a social psychologist to look into strategies to make people more environmentally aware. Yet the stated problem 'residents are not environmentally aware' is probably too general to be of much use in finding strategies to solve the problem. Indeed, an anti-littering campaign would probably emphasize the norm that one ought not to litter, but in anti-car campaigns such normative pressures are likely to be ineffective (Cialdini, Kallgren & Reno, 1991; Van Vugt et al., 1996).
Why is it a Problem?
It is important for social psychologists to ask why a particular issue is perceived as a problem in the first place. How does the problem express itself? What are the consequences of the problem? What makes it problematic? When did it first emerge? If the vice-chancellor of a university approaches a social psychologist with a question on what to do about university drop out rates, they must first establish why it is a problem that some students do not finish their studies. Is it largely a financial matter for the university, or is there (also) a concern about the self-esteem and well-being of such students? Furthermore, if the vice-chancellor believes it has something to do with the 'motivation' of particular students, the social psychologist should ask them to specify what they mean by this rather abstract term. Is it a question of them not attending lectures (in which case compulsory attendance may be considered) or did they have the wrong expectations about the study or university life in general (leading to an intervention to alter prospective students' course expectations)? Thus, answering the why question does not just help to specify the problem, it also suggests directions for the proposed intervention programme.
It may take some effort to find out which problems really bother a client. A first impression about the Chief Constable is that he is concerned with meeting the targets set by the government about the intake of ethnic officers. This may indeed be an immediate concern, but it is only after further enquiry that the social psychologist finds out that it is really the quality of police functioning and a lack of cooperation from the
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community that concern him. If the problem is solely defined in terms of meeting targets then the success of interventions will be based on this criterion. This may not necessarily be desirable in the long run. In the police example, the force may use substantial incentives to recruit ethnic officers in order to meet the intake targets, but new recruits may not have the right attitude and motivation to continue in the job, eventually dropping out. Hence, it is vital not to be persuaded by the quick-fix solutions that clients themselves may offer by simply looking at their perspective on the problem. Equally, however, one should be careful to define the problem entirely within the subjects' interests. For example, ethnic police officer recruits should be subject to the same stringent criteria for admission into the force and should therefore not be seen as getting an easy ride (Heilman, Simon & Repper, 1987; Maio & Esses, 1998).
To answer the why question, it may help to ask since when it was a problem. This might reveal important clues about the potential causes and solutions of the problem. By asking these questions a social psychologist attempts to build an historical picture of the problem, which can be quite informative. First, it can reveal that what appears to be a problem may not necessarily be a problem after all. For example, sales of the `morning-after' pill at chemists around the country may appear to be rising, but a brief investigation may reveal that this is really due to the government being able to give a more precise sales figure for the first time. Second, an historical analysis might point to a particular time when the problem first started to emerge or be noticed. For example, citizens and nations first started to become aware of issues regarding environmental conservation after the oil crisis in 1972, when oil-producing countries cut their supplies (Gardner & Stern, 1996). Similarly, the drought in England in the summer of 1995 made English people suddenly aware of the finiteness of important water supplies. Knowing this might help a social psychologist to propose an intervention programme using the salience of this crisis (Van Vugt, 1999; Van Vugt & Samuelson, 1999). Third, a brief historical analysis may indicate reasons why a problem has suddenly increased in severity. For example, the sudden rise in sales of the `morning-after' pill at chemists may be due to the difficulty some underage teenagers have in getting the contraceptive pill from their doctor without parental consent.
Of course, it is also possible that the issue has been ongoing for a much longer time, but suddenly has been perceived as a problem by the client because of some ulterior reason. It is important to be aware of this. The Chief Constable in the police example may have known about the recruitment failure of ethnic officers for a long time, but only been willing to consider it a genuine problem because of the intake targets recently set by the Government. If a social psychologist is unaware of this, he or she may be tempted to propose a quick-fix solution to the problem rather than one that would prove successful in the long term.
For Whom is it a Problem?
Who are the parties involved in the problem? It is instructive to know whether the problem involves just the client or whether there are also other parties involved. The latter is usually the case. The recruitment failure in the example is of concern not just to the chief (who may lose his job if targets are not met) or the force (which may face a
The Problem Phase 39
financial penalty), but also to those members of the community who wish to join the force, and even of concern to the entire community itself (namely, if there is a lack of trust in the police, the community welfare may be at risk: see Tyler & Blader, 2002; Van Vugt et al., 2000). A subsequent step is to ask oneself if the other parties perceive the problem in the same way. It may be instructive to spend some time investigating this. Often it will emerge that parties agree about the problem definition. However, we should not automatically assume that this is the case. As an extreme illustration, one of the authors of this book was asked by the chair of a professional football club to investigate why the club's youth academy was not producing enough first team players. In a subsequent interview with the director of the youth academy, he plainly denied that such a problem existed and pointed to evidence which contradicted the chairman's claims. It is obvious that these contrasting perspectives made it very difficult for the social psychologist to accept this assignment.
Sometimes, involved parties will notice the existence of a problem but they may not necessarily agree on the kind of problem they face. The more complex problems are, the more likely this seems to be the case. For example, the managing director of a firm may believe that the cause of absenteeism in the company is a lack of monitoring of workers by supervisors. However, an interview with the workers may reveal an entirely different picture. They may perceive their absences as being caused by extensive control and policing by their supervisors. If problems are defined so differently by the parties involved, this is in itself a problem. In such cases, before engaging in any further work, a social psychologist must consult with all the parties involved to agree on a version of the problem that all can endorse.
Finally, it is significant to note that even actors within the same party may have a different version of the story. For example, in a firm where some female employees feel discriminated against, it is good to find out if all females in the company experience these problems in the same way. Only through interviews with several members of the party involved can a social psychologist develop an adequate problem definition, incorporating the multitude of perspectives that exist about the origins of the problem.
What are the Possible Causes of the Problem?
With this question a social psychologist can build up a picture of the background to and potential causes of the problem. He can also determine if there is a social psychological dimension to the problem, and if so, can use this to create a preliminary causal model (see Chapter 3). Note that the purpose of establishing a problem definition is not to be definite about the exact causes underlying the problem. At this stage, it is more important to get a first impression of the causal model and the possible social psychological processes involved.
Building a preliminary causal model is facilitated by asking two interrelated questions:
1. What causes this problem?
2. How do these causes affect the problem?
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In the volunteering example, the Nottingham charity experienced difficulties in recruiting volunteers and they attributed this problem to a potential cause, which is that people nowadays have many other commitments. Suppose this is true, how would this cause then affect the problem? A straightforward causal explanation would be that because people nowadays work at the weekend more, they will have less time to engage in other activities, such as volunteering.
It is also important at this point to distinguish between immediate causes and more distal causes. By making this distinction, one can develop a model of the causal process leading to the problem. For example, the Chief Constable conveyed that the force was failing to recruit ethnic officers and noticed an immediate cause of the problem: members of ethnic groups simply not attending officer recruitment days in large numbers. The social psychologist then has to delve deeper into this problem by asking what causes this. Suppose the chief suggested that ethnic community members have little interest in joining the police and suffer from a lack of motivation. The social psychologist should then ask why this might be the case and the Chief Constable might answer that there is a lack of trust in the police force among the ethnic community. What causes this? Perhaps they feel that the police are prejudiced against their community. Why may this be the case? The chief might then reveal a number of high-profile incidents whereby crimes against the ethnic population, including some racial crimes, were never solved. He may also point to the failure of current ethnic officers to get promotion, which may have caused grievances in the population. A process-like causal model now emerges leading all the way from unresolved racial crimes (a distant cause), to the failure to recruit ethnic officers, with a number of more immediate causes in between (accusations of prejudice, a lack of trust in the police, a lack of motivation to do police work).
Establishing the process of events reveals a number of different clues about the causal model underlying the problem as well as the proposed intervention programme to tackle it. Nevertheless, at this stage it may not be clear what exactly the causal chain of events leading to the problem is or which factors play a major or minor role in causing the problem. This is not a worry. In the next steps of the model it will become clear what the causal model looks like through further research and theorizing. And yet, the factors that have been identified in the problem definition could certainly play a role in choosing the theories to develop the causal model.
What is the Target Group?
Even though we are in the earliest stage of defining our problem, a social psychologist should already get some idea of the target group. Whom should be convinced of the problem? Whose cooperation is necessary for the problem to be solved? In the police example, a social psychologist may decide to bring it to the attention of police officers and try to influence their attitudes. He may approach members of the ethnic community, especially those between 20 and 30 years old, and encourage them to apply for a place in the police force, or he may do both. He may even focus his efforts on Members of Parliament, and try to persuade them to lower the strict targets the government has set for the intake of ethnic officers.
The Problem Phase 41
Selecting a target group narrows down the broad field of actors that may play a role in the problem. It clarifies the problem and makes it more specific. This in turn makes it easier to come up with strategies to help solve the problem (see Chapter 5). Should the social psychologist later discover that the target group is too difficult or costly to aim his intervention at, he can always backtrack and redefine the problem. Remember, the PATH model is not a rigid process and going from problem to intervention is usually an iterative process that includes moving back and forth between the different steps in the model.
What are the Key Aspects of the Problem?
To capture the main aspects of the problem, social psychologists have to ask to what extent the problem is a) an applied problem; b) a concrete problem; c) a social psychological problem; and d) to what extent the problem can be dealt with.
Is it an Applied Problem?
Many problem definitions set by psychologists are concerned only with finding the causes for a particular problem, for example, what gene is responsible for aggression? These fundamental research problems are very important but they are not the kind of problems we are interested in here. The issues we are interested in, and this should be clear by now, are those that require an intervention to be developed. Finding an effective solution to a problem is not the primary concern of fundamental research in psychology, but it is the priority of most applied psychological research. Nevertheless, even in applied research there is a distinction between research questions that primarily focus on finding the causes of a particular problem, like divorce, burn-out, racism, or environmental pollution, and questions that are directed toward finding solutions (for example, how can we tackle racism?).
In this regard, it is important that the 'why is it a problem?' question also incorporates a question about the way a particular problem could be solved. Because it is not always clear at the beginning what the intervention programme will look like, some problem definitions are merely stated in terms of identifying the cause of the problem (for example, why do police forces find it difficult to recruit ethnic officers?). To frame it in this way, however, would be a mistake because the ultimate goal of the problem task is to actually do something about the issue (namely, how to recruit more ethnic officers). It is important not to forget this when designing a problem definition because it provides a standard against which any work done by the social psychologist will be evaluated .
Thus an example of a good problem definition would be: 'Why does the police force find it difficult to recruit ethnic officers, and what can be done to increase the intake of ethnic officers'? This is not to imply that the problem then immediately shifts towards searching for a quick-fix solution. It is only by building a good causal model of the problem using social psychological theory and research that a social psychologist will be able to suggest an intervention programme that is likely to succeed. Only by finding out exactly why there is a lack of interest from the ethnic community in joining this police force can a coherent programme of intervention be put together.
42 Applying Social Psychology Is it a Concrete Problem?
It is also important that the problem is formulated in sufficiently concrete terms. All its important aspects must be operationalized appropriately if they are to be useful. For example, a problem definition aimed at doing something about bullying in the workplace should try to define bullying in a manner which makes it sufficiently clear to everyone what it means, such as 'the act of intimidating a less powerful person into doing something against their wish' (see the Wordnet definition at http://wordnet.princeton.edu/). Once the behaviour has been operationalized, it is much easier to recognize it and measure the frequency of bullying behaviour in the workplace.
Furthermore, it is sensible to specify the properties of the particular sample of people who experience or cause the problem in as much detail as possible. Rather than stating the problem as 'the failure to recruit ethnic officers', one could specify the backgrounds of the potential recruits the force is looking for (for example, officers of Pakistani and Indian descent). This makes it easier to find out if an intervention has been successful or not.
Finally, one should be clear in the problem definition about the kind of specific behaviours that one wants to tackle with an intervention. A problem concerning the anti-social behaviour of teenagers in urban neighbourhoods can only be dealt with if a social psychologist has not only defined the behaviour, but also has a clear indication of the specific behaviours that fit within the general domain of anti-social behaviour. This could include such diverse acts as littering, graffiti, vandalism, joy-riding or verbal and/or physical aggression against other children or adults. Only by being clear about the set of behaviours is a social psychologist able to develop and test the effectiveness of an intervention programme.
To encourage specifying the problem, a social psychologist is advised to step into the shoes of a researcher. Suppose you are asked to develop a research programme measuring bullying in the workplace — how would you measure this behaviour? What questions would you ask the employees in the company that you are investigating, and what behaviours would you be interested in observing? You may decide that you are interested primarily in finding out whether male employees make any derogatory comments about female colleagues or about females in general in the presence of other staff. In order to do this, you may decide to interview staff members and get permission to record conversations and email exchanges between staff members. Once you have established the prevalence of the problem, you may suggest a possible intervention to the client (for example, informing staff that email traffic will be monitored). Because you have specified the bullying problem that you are interested in, you can then go on to measure the effectiveness of this intervention.
Is it a Social Psychological Problem?
This question will have been addressed, at least in part, by answers to the previous questions. There are two related concerns here. Are there any causes other than social psychological causes of the problem, and, if there are, are these perhaps more important than the social psychological determinants? For example, there is little point in asking a social psychologist to solve a shortage of hospital beds because this is largely a financial and administrative matter. Similarly, if we know that the major factor
The Problem Phase 43
influencing residential water use is the presence of a water meter, a social psychologist can do little in terms of social psychological interventions to influence people to conserve more water (Van Vugt, 1999).
A second, related, question is what contribution a social psychological perspective on the problem could make, especially in relation to other perspectives such as an economic, political, or engineering perspective. Of primary interest to social psychologists are problems that are associated with how individuals behave and respond to their social environments. If problems are primarily an issue of money (say, hospital beds), politics (for example, EU laws), or technology (say, cleaner energy sources), then a social psychological approach is likely to be ineffective. Similarly, if a problem is primarily clinical (for example, anorexia among young females) or cognitive (say, improving performance on intelligence tests), there is also less need for social psychological expertise.
But the same problem can be looked at from different angles, only one of them being a social psychological angle. For example, in studying the origins of anti-social behaviour among teenagers one could take a social psychological perspective, examining how such activities are informed by peer pressure and a conformity to social norms. A psychological problem orientation would involve looking at whether there were differences between teenagers in their preparedness to engage in anti-social behaviour that could be explained by facets of someone's personality (for example, extraversion, agreeableness). Similarly, one could take a developmental-psychological view, examining ontogenetic differences between teenagers who engage in anti-social behaviours versus those who do not. Finally, one may be interested primarily in the societal causes underlying anti-social behaviour among teenagers, for example, understanding the relationship between anti-social behaviour and age, family income, type of housing or the professions of parents. Each of these perspectives helps to foster an understanding of the problem and, in collaboration with other social science disciplines, social psychology provides an essential part of the problem analysis.
However, the primary input on a problem from a social psychologist will be the extent to which the issue is caused by aspects of the social environment: what is the effect of individuals' social interactions on the development of the problem and its possible solution? Even within this broader social psychological framework, different sub-perspectives can be recognized. A distinction is usually made between three perspectives: the social self, social cognition, and social interaction (see, for example, Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2005; Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 2005; Hewstone, Stroebe & Jonas, 2005; Hogg & Vaughan, 2005; Kenrick, Neuberg & Cialdini, 2005; Myers, 2005). In the police example, a social interaction expert will emphasize the importance of the quality of the relationships between the force and the ethnic community as an underlying cause of the recruitment problems (Tyler & Smith, 1998). The social cognition expert will pay more attention to how the parties perceive each other (Fiske, 1998), for example, do police officers hold any prejudiced beliefs about ethnic officers or the ethnic population in general? Finally, an expert from the social self perspective would perhaps focus more on the effects of felt prejudice on the self-esteem of ethnic officers (Baumeister, 1999). Yet it must be stressed that these are merely differences in emphasis. A well-equipped applied social psychologist should be able to employ theories and techniques from the entire social psychological toolkit.
44 Applying Social Psychology
Box 2.2 A Case Study: The Modification of Driving Behaviour
in a Large Transport Organization
in a Large Transport Organization
The depletion of fossil fuels is a huge problem facing the world. Traditional energy sources, such as oil, are being used up at an increasing rate, and, as a consequence, become more expensive. Alternative sources of energy need to be developed, but that takes time. For now, saving energy is therefore of vital importance. Social psychologist Sjef Siero and his colleagues at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) were asked by The Netherlands Postal and Telecommunications Services (PTT) to develop an intervention programme to change the driving behaviour of mail-van drivers so as to encourage energy savings.*
The social psychologists first conducted a pilot study to identify the determinants of the driving behaviour of the mail-van drivers. A questionnaire was sent to 628 drivers that contained questions about the drivers' driving styles, beliefs about the possible consequences of energy-saving driving, the opinions of colleagues and superiors (social norms), and the PTT organization.
Results from this pilot showed that thrifty drivers differed from wasteful drivers with respect to several beliefs, social norms, and organization-related variables. For instance, drivers who shift gears at a higher number of revolutions (RPM) and thus drive more wastefully, generally believe that the motor will become lazy if gears are shifted at a lower RPM. On the basis of these results, an intervention programme was designed that incorporated three interventions to influence driving behaviour: providing information about economical driving styles, appointing local supervisors to control the drivers' gasoline consumption, and providing drivers with feedback on their gasoline consumption.
In a field experiment in a postal district the social psychologists studied the effect of the intervention programme. Their study showed that, compared to a control group, mail-van drivers in the experimental group (who received the intervention) reported more positive attitudes and social norms towards economic driving and had adopted a more economic driving style. As a result, energy savings of more than 7 per cent were achieved.
* Siero, S., Boon, M., Kok, G. & Siero, E (1989). Modification of driving behaviour in a large transport organisation: A field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 417-423.
Is the Problem Solvable?
A final issue that should be mentioned here is the judgement by a social psychologist about whether a problem, which has been analysed carefully in terms of its social psychological aspects, can be solved or, at least, substantially relieved. A careful analysis of the viability of several possible solutions is important because it could avoid a lot of
The Problem Phase 45
frustration on the part of both client and social psychologist if they find out that the intervention they have chosen is simply impractical or socially undesirable.
For example, based on the suggestion from the social psychological expert, a company may develop an excellent carrot-and-stick plan to promote cycling by building safe bike racks, showers, and reducing the number of car parking spaces. But if it then turns out that most employees live more than 10 miles from work it becomes a very impractical solution indeed. Employees may feel deprived of something which they think they are entitled to and may experience anger and resentment as a consequence (a phenomenon called 'relative deprivation'; see Buunk, Zurriaga, Gonzalez-Roma & Subirats, 2003; Walker & Smith, 2002).
In a similar vein, what would seem to be the most efficient solution to the problem may not be the one that a client want or likes to hear. Recall here the story about the water shortages in which water meters were identified by the social psychologist as the best possible solution to reduce water use, but due to cost this solution was not much favoured by the board of the water company (Van Vugt, 1999).
Particular interventions, however attractive they seem at first glance, should also be avoided on ethical grounds. For example, probably the easiest way to get more ethnic officers in the police force is by lowering the tough selection standards for this particularly group of recruits. One wonders though whether such affirmative action policies are morally defensible and whether they are good for the individual officer as well. There is evidence, for example, which suggests that employees who enter a job via an affirmative action programme have a miserable working life because they are thus stigmatized at work (Heilman et al., 1987). Thus, social psychologists must think very carefully when establishing a problem definition which includes a suggestion to improve a particular situation (which most good problem definitions do) and as to whether the interventions that are likely to be the most effective in theory will also be possible to implement in practice. Only via thorough analysis of the problem and interviews with the client and various other parties will it be revealed if this is the case or not.
RESEARCH FOR A PROBLEM DEFINITION
To answer any questions pertaining to a sound problem definition, it is often necessary to conduct some preliminary research by collecting data from multiple sources. The primary aim of research in this phase is to better understand the problem and its possible causes as well as to estimate the feasibility of potential interventions. At this stage, we are not yet concerned with an empirical test of the causal model nor with an evaluation of the intervention programme. Nevertheless, some exploratory research could be helpful because it might generate ideas regarding the antecedents of the problem, and provide valuable clues for what the intervention may look like. The interview with the Chief Constable mentioned previously can be viewed as an example of preliminary data gathering by the social psychologist.
Exploratory research is often desirable for establishing the problem definition because it ensures that the social psychologist does not make any mistakes in identifying the
46 Applying Social Psychology
primary causes of or solutions to the problem. For example, in order to facilitate doctors' visits among people with long working hours (problem), the government intends to build walk-in health centres near main industrial zones (solution). Yet a preliminary investigation into the feasibility of this intervention may reveal that employees are reluctant to use this opportunity because they will not get time off work from their employer. Or alternatively, from interviewing employees a social psychologist may conclude that the option is not attractive because employees are fearful about their privacy if they visit a doctor at or near their workplace. Thus, a considerable amount of time and money could be saved by conducting preliminary research into the endorsement of particular intervention programmes.
There may be constraints in conducting research at such an early stage in the relationship between client and social psychologist. Clients may not yet know whether they would want to use the services of a social psychologist so they may be reluctant to give permission to them to gather data. Or the problem or intervention may still be confidential, and therefore it may be too sensitive to collect data, for example, by interviewing interested parties. Nevertheless, a social psychologist should try to conduct a preliminary investigation into the problem in order to establish a sound problem definition and ensure that relevant information is not ignored. There are various sources available to collect preliminary information about a problem.
For some social problems there may be a variety of materials already available to the social psychologist. Bigger social issues (for example, poverty, crime, anti-terror policies) usually appear in newspapers or on television and it would be worthwhile to inspect these media for information about a particular problem. In addition, it is always sensible to do a search on the internet — the largest database of all — for information. For us, as authors of this book, the internet will often be the first port of call if we need to read about a particular issue.
The facts and figures surrounding a specific problem may be readily available. For example, if one wants to inspect crime figures in a particular area one should consult the statistics that are available from the local police or government. In general, national and local governments are a great source of information on all sorts of matters and it would be advisable to contact them with specific requests.
Finally, it is advisable not to rely exclusively on information that has come directly from a client as this may often be incomplete. In the police example, the Chief Constable may have had information regarding the percentage of ethnic officers currently in the force, but he may not necessarily have known how many had been turned down after they had applied. Similarly, relying on a client as the sole source of information may give a somewhat distorted picture of the problem. The Chief Constable may have ascertained that in the past recruitment efforts had been specifically designed to recruit ethnic officers, but present day interviews with potential and current ethnic applicants may now reveal that they believe that they have not received any special
The Problem Phase 47
attention from the force. To gain more insight into a problem, it is therefore important to rely on a number of different sources to obtain background knowledge of a particular issue.
It may also be instructive to conduct a brief review of the available scientific literature at this point. Although a more systematic literature review will be done at a later stage, it is good to know what information is out there in order to facilitate the search for potential problem causes and solutions. Going back to the example of threatening and abusive teenagers, a brief summary of the social psychological literature may provide a wealth of data that can give a valuable insight into the problem of aggression among children. A closer scrutiny of the literature could be made by consulting PsychINFO, PsychARTICLES or Google SCHOLAR (electronic databases that comprise all scientific articles and books in the field of psychology between 1872 and today). An investigation of these sources may, for instance, reveal that:
1. Boys are more aggressive than girls.
2. Aggression is more common in so-called cultures of honour.
3. The literature distinguishes between instrumental aggression, that is aggression to achieve a goal, and emotional aggression, that is aggression that stems from anger and frustration.
4. Violence is often associated with alcohol intake.
5. The hotter it is on any given day, the more common violence is.
6. The presence of an 'aggressive' object, such as a knife or baseball bat, increases people's aggression if they are provoked.
7. Children can learn aggression by watching violence on television or in video games.
8. Punishment decreases aggression if the punishment is prompt and certain.
9. Aggression can be reduced by improving communication skills.
A closer scrutiny of the literature may also yield a number of additional perspectives and explanations that could shed further light on the prevalence of anti-social behaviour and aggression among youngsters. These may be used to develop hypotheses about the causal model and, ultimately, to set up a plan for intervention. In the problem phase, the main purpose is to generate as many ideas as possible about the possible antecedents of the problem, which would facilitate the establishment of a causal model to develop later on.
It is good to talk. Even though there may be plenty of background and scientific materials available on a particular issue, it is always good practice to organize interviews with those individuals who are party to a particular problem (the for whom question). This helps to get an intuitive understanding of the problem, which is not as easy to get from studying the literature alone. Interviews also enable social psychologists to get a better picture about how the parties experience their problems and, importantly,
48 Applying Social Psychology
whether they view matters in a similar or in a different way. Only through interviews can a problem definition be developed that all parties recognize and are willing to sign up to.
In general, it is advisable to interview the members of all relevant parties, that is, those who experience the problem, those who may cause the problem, and those who are responsible for solving the problem. In the latter category, one should interview the key figures in an organization who are responsible for finding solutions to the problem. In the police example, the social psychologist had already interviewed the Chief Constable, but it would also be advisable in this case to interview the key staff members who are responsible for recruitment and training. They may be part of the problem, but even if they are they may have valuable observations and insights to offer. In addition, the social psychologist here may want to approach the chief constables of other forces to find out if they are experiencing a similar problem.
It is, of course, equally important to interview people who are affected by the problem and have experienced the negative consequences themselves. In the above example, these would be those ethnic officers who have left the police force (or are thinking about leaving) and the ethnic members of the community who have an interest in doing police work or in other examples, those teenagers who have been the victims of antisocial behaviour. The perpetrators of bullying must be interviewed by the social psychologist concerned.
These initial interviews ought to have a number of important features in order to be useful. First, they must be relatively unstructured as they should enable the interviewer plenty of room to interact freely with the interviewees based upon what they raise. Unstructured interviews are the best way to gather information at this stage of the investigation. One would only need a checklist of different topics and questions to use as a guideline for the interview. The rigorous scientific standards of objectivity and reliability do not apply as much to this stage of data collection as they do to the more advanced stages of this methodology. This is not to say that just about anything can be raised in these interviews, but it is important not to be too prejudiced about certain explanations or interpretations that interviewees might bring up. Even a rather unlikely explanation should not be dismissed a priori. If the interviewee believes it then he or she will judge any problem definition or intervention in terms of dealing with the explanation they offer. For example, the Chief Constable may prove genuinely convinced that members of ethnic populations are not very interested in conducting police work full stop. Although this may be proven to be untrue at a later stage, he will most likely not accept a problem definition that excludes this as a possibility.
Another feature of these interviews is to investigate if there are differences between interested parties in their perspectives on a problem. If all parties perceive the problem in the same way, it will be much easier to solve the problem. However, the mere fact that they have hired a social psychologist to intervene suggests that the different parties may have a different version of what has caused the problem. Interviewers should be focused on detecting these differences as they provide useful information. For instance, the social psychologist who investigates the lack of enthusiasm for doing volunteer work at a charity would interview not only the board of the charity, but also current and
The Problem Phase 49
former volunteers. After an initial impression from the charity board that people are `simply too busy to want to get involved in charity work these days' the social psychologist might become a bit more sceptical about this version of events when they had interviewed current and ex-volunteers who indicated that:
1. the charity needs to raise more money to be successful (which partly answers the whatis the problem question);
2. the charity has just replaced its director (which partly answers the issue for whom it is a problem);
3. there are conflicts between the paid staff and volunteer staff members (which partly answers the question regarding the causes of the problem);
4. the charity has not made any major recruitment efforts (which partly answers whether the problem is solvable);
5. the charity has approached the wrong people (target group) to volunteer, that is mainly students and working mothers. Although they might want to, both students and working mothers are generally just too busy to do volunteer work.
Sometimes it can be difficult to work towards a problem definition by collecting material from interviews alone. Interviewees may have such different views on a problem that it will be extremely difficult to generate a problem definition that is universally agreed upon. Equally, it is possible that there can appear to be a sense of unanimity among interviewees about a problem, but the social psychologist involved is a bit suspicious about whether everyone is telling the entire truth. Some issues, such as institutional racism or sexual harassment in the workplace, are so sensitive to deal with that it may be in the interests of all parties to hide important information in the interviews. In such cases, a social psychologist may want to rely on an indirect method, such as observation, to gather more reliable data about a specific issue.
There are various methods of observation that may be informative in establishing a problem definition. First, one could rely on a more unstructured observation method where no formal observation and coding scheme is necessary. As with the interviews, one could prepare a checklist of different topics that one would like to pay attention to in a particular setting. For example, in studying anti-social behaviour among youngsters it may be helpful to go into the neighbourhoods in which these youngsters live and actually observe their social interactions. In studying household recycling, one could observe and analyse the contents of recyclable and non-recyclable bags to see what people put in them — which is what we did in a recent project (Lyas, Shaw & Van Vugt, 2002). In companies with high levels of absenteeism, it may be relevant to have a look around the workplace to investigate under what conditions employees do their work and to what extent absenteeism is accepted in work teams (Buunk, 1990).
Sometimes it is better to remain unidentified as a social psychologist. The classic Hawthorne effect tells us that people behave differently when they realize that they are being watched (for example, Big Brother, see also Gillespie, 1991). This is particularly important in the study of more sensitive social issues, such as racial prejudice and sexual harassment. For example, in a classic study on prejudice (LaPiere, 1934), a team of
50 Applying Social Psychology
researchers in the USA contacted various motels and hotels across the country by pretending to be interested in renting a room. The white researcher had a much higher success rate in getting the room than the Chinese researcher, perhaps an indication of prejudice. It is quite clear that had the research team relied on interview data it would have been rather unlikely that the home owners would have expressed any open signs of prejudice. Naturally, the success of this participant observation technique stands or falls with the quality of fit between the researcher's profile and the profile of the sample he/she is studying.
Box 2.3 Examples of Good Problem Definitions
Below are two examples of problem definitions that social psychologists may come up with after answering the six key questions (see Box 2.4) and gathering additional data about the problem through interviews and observation, thus collecting background and scientific materials about the problem.
Example 1: Littering in Birmingham city centre
Littering is a problem in many larger cities in Europe and the USA (Gardner & Stern, 1996). Many inner-city residents in Birmingham see it as a nuisance and have complained to the city council about the amount of litter they find on their streets (the who and why questions), especially at the weekends (the what question). It is an ongoing problem, but people are more aware of it now that more people have started living in the city centre. The council is reluctant to hire more street cleaners because of the extra costs involved (the who and why questions). The main question now is how street littering can be prevented in the centre of Birmingham (the what question). This is an applied problem that can potentially be solved after an intervention (problem aspects). The problem is specific in so far as it needs to be tackled in Birmingham (the target group question), but the results may have implications for anti-littering strategies elsewhere (problem aspects).
There is likely to be a social psychological dimension to the problem (problem aspects). The literature suggests that people litter more if they see others doing it (Cialdini et al., 1991) and when they think they can get away with it, for instance at night (the cause question). They may also think that it is not their responsibility to clean it up (the cause question). It is possible that the problem is aggravated by a lack of street bins in the centre (the cause question). The problem might be tackled through an intervention (psychological and/or infrastructural), although it is questionable whether the problem can be completely solved.
Example 2: Obesity among school children in the UK
According to government statistics in Britain, almost one in 10 children in the UK is now seriously overweight, and if nothing is done this figure is likely to rise (see http://www.nationa►obesityforurn.org.uk/). Obesity is a problem (the what question) as it is linked to a number of health problems, such as high blood pressure,heart and kidney problems and diabetes, which lower the life expectancy of these individuals (the who question) and lead to a rise in the costs of health care for the nation as a whole (the why and who questions). Obese children are also more likely to be stigmatized at school (the who question), and as a consequence may suffer from underachievement and, more generally, a low self-esteem (the why question; see Crandall, 1988).
As preventing obesity seems to be easier than tackling it after it has emerged in children, the main question is how obesity can be prevented in children (the what question). Although there are basic questions that still need to be answered regarding the causes of obesity, the problem is applied. Obesity is caused by many different factors, but it most certainly involves unhealthy eating habits and a lack of exercise (the cause question). Unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise are two behaviours that have a clear social psychological dimension, because they are influenced by, among other factors, prevailing social norms, peer pressure, and modelling by parents (problem aspects). The target group constitutes at a minimum obese children and their parents. As obesity is such a complex problem, it is likely best tackled through a mix of interventions, including incentives, infrastructural arrangements and social psychological intervention.
The Problem Phase 51
COMPLETING THE PROBLEM DEFINITION
Having collected all the relevant information through consulting different sources in order to answer the key questions, we can now formulate the problem definition. A problem definition usually consists of a single paragraph that articulates the key properties of the problem in a fluent and coherent manner. A problem definition is not a laundry list of answers to different questions, although initially it is better to systematically address each question to make sure they have all been discussed. Answers, of course, are not just phrased as simple statements like 'Yes, this is a social psychological problem'. Each answer should carefully explain why: 'This is a social psychological problem, because bullying is about the relationship between a powerful and less powerful person'. It should be clear from the final problem definition what the problem is, why it is a problem, for whom it is a problem, what are the main causes, the target group and relevant problem aspects. Box 2.3 contains a few examples of good problem definitions.
We must stress that for educational purposes we would recommend that researchers initially develop the problem definition by answering systematically all the key questions on the list. Later on, once the researcher has gained experience working with our methodology, they can prepare a longer version for themselves and an abbreviated version for a client. This shorter version would usually describe what the problem is, why it is a problem, for whom it is a problem, and the background and potential causes of the problem.
52 Applying Social Psychology
Box 2.4 The Problem Phase: Steps From A Problem
To A Problem Definition
In reaching a solid problem definition you need to address the following questions (not necessarily in the order below. In so doing, you will have to gather data about the problem by collecting background information, by exploring the scientific literature, by conducting interviews with relevant parties and by relying on observations. The following six key questions must be answered in order to establish a problem definition.
1. What is the problem?
Describe the problem in as much detail as possible by asking various specific questions about the nature of the problem.
2. Why is it a problem?
Describe the consequences of the problem in detail and make clear to what extent each of those is perceived to be a problem. Since when is it a problem? Describe the historical background of the problem. When did it first emerge and when was it first noticed? Has the severity of the problem increased or decreased over time?
3. For whom is it a problem?
Describe all the parties that are involved in the problem, both in terms of who causes the problem, who suffers from the problem, and who is responsible for tackling the problem. Describe the different perspectives that each of these parties has on the problem and whether these are compatible or not. Also, describe whether the problem definition needs to be adjusted in order to incorporate the different takes on the problem.
4. What are the possible causes of the problem?
Describe the possible causes and background of the problem. What might cause it and what could explain the emergence of the problem? Use the double question: What causes the problem and how do these causes affect the problem?
5. What is/are the target group(s)?
Describe the actors or groups that a possible intervention should be targeted at. Whom should be convinced of the problem? Whose cooperation is necessary for the problem to be solved?
6. What are the key aspects of the problem?
Describe whether it is an applied problem that you are dealing with and whether it is a concrete problem. In addition, describe the social psychological aspects to the problem and give an indication of whether the problem can be tackled or solved through social psychological intervention.
The Problem Phase 53
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
Schaalma, H.P., Kok, G, Bosker, R.J. & Parcel, G.S. (1996). Planned development and evaluation of AIDS/STD education for secondary school students in the Netherlands: Short-term effects. Health Education Quarterly, 23(4), 469-487.
Semin, G R. & Fielder, K. (1996). Applied Social Psychology. London: Sage. (This book contains many interesting applied research programmes from Europe.)Stern, P. C. (2000). New environmental theories: Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 56(3), 407-42