The Social Animal

by Elliot Aronson


Picture the following scene: A young man named Sam is being hypnotized. The hypnotist gives Sam a posthypnotic suggestion, telling him that, when the clock strikes 4:00, he will (1) go to the closet, get his raincoat and galoshes, and put them on; (2) grab an umbrella; (3) walk eight blocks to the supermarket and purchase six bottles of bourbon; and (4) return home. Sam is told that, as soon as he reenters his apartment, he will “snap out of it” and be himself again.

When the clock strikes 4:00, Sam immediately heads for the closet, dons his raincoat and galoshes, grabs his umbrella, and trudges out the door on his quest for bourbon. There are a few strange things about this errand: (1) it is a clear, sunshiny day—there isn’t a cloud in the sky; (2) there is a liquor store half a block away that sells bourbon for the same price as the supermarket eight blocks away; and (3) Sam doesn’t drink.

Sam arrives home, opens the door, reenters his apartment, snaps out of his “trance,” and discovers himself standing there in his raincoat and galoshes, with his umbrella in one hand and a huge sack of liquor bottles in the other. He looks momentarily confused. His friend, the hypnotist, says,

“Hey, Sam, where have you been?”

“Oh, just down to the store.”

“What did you buy?”

“Um . . . um . . . it seems I bought this bourbon.”

“But you don’t drink, do you?”

“No, but . . . um . . . um . . . I’m going to do a lot of entertaining during the next several weeks, and some of my friends do.”

“How come you’re wearing all that rain gear on such a sunny day?”

“Well . . . actually, the weather is quite changeable this time of year, and I didn’t want to take any chances.”

“But there isn’t a cloud in the sky.”

“Well, you never can tell.”

“By the way, where did you buy the liquor?”

“Oh, heh, heh. Well, um . . . down at the supermarket.”

“How come you went that far?”

“Well, um . . . um . . . it was such a nice day, I thought it might be fun to take a long walk.”

People are motivated to justify their own actions, beliefs, and feelings. When they do something, they will try, if at all possible, to convince themselves (and others) that it was a logical, reasonable thing to do. There was a good reason why Sam performed those silly actions—he was hypnotized. But because Sam didn’t know he had been hypnotized, and because it was difficult for him to accept the fact that he was capable of behaving in a nonsensical manner, he went to great lengths to convince himself (and his friend) that there was a method to his madness, that his actions were actually quite sensible.

The experiment by Stanley Schachter and Jerry Singer discussed in Chapter 2 can also be understood in these terms. Recall that these investigators injected people with epinephrine. Those who were forewarned about the symptoms caused by this drug (palpitations of the heart, sweaty palms, and hand tremors) had a sensible explanation for the symptoms when they appeared. “Oh, yeah, that’s just the drug affecting me.” Those who were misled about the effects of the drug, however, had no such handy, logical explanation for their symptoms. But they couldn’t leave the symptoms unjustified; they tried to account for them by convincing themselves that they were either deliriously happy or angry, depending on the social stimuli in the environment.

Aronson, Elliot (2008). The Social Animal, 10th Edition (pp. 181-182). Worth Publishers.
“STILL THE BEST...A MASTERPIECE!” - Contemporary Psychology

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