UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The generalization of understanding to behaviour : the role of perspective in enlightenment Shelton, Georgia Anne


The question addressed is the relationship between intellectual understanding of social processes and behaviour: Does intellectual understanding of social psychological principles change social behaviour? Gergen (1973) raised this question and answered in the affirmative. He posited an "enlightenment effect" as a result of sophistication as to psychological principles. The first study reported here subjects were exposed to an enlightenment effect experimental manipulation. Volunteers who demonstrated understanding of Milgram's (1963) behavioural study of obedience were subsequently asked to participate in an experiment that in fact embodied the same principles as Milgram's. The subjects, though they understood the reasons for the teachers' behaviour in Milgram's study, nonetheless behaved in a strikingly similar fashion, coercing a supposedly distressed person (actually a confederate) to continue an upsetting task for the sake of a scientific understanding. Subject's demonstrated scant ability to bring their prior intellectual grasp of the dynamics of obedience and compliance to bear on their current situation or to even consider that it might be appropriate to do so. Two more studies explored the reasons for this failure of an enlightenment effect. In the second study observers watched a video-taped simulation of the first study. Observers in one condition believed that they were watching a tape of real events as they had occurred to the people involved. Observers in the other condition were told that they were watching actors role-play a hypothetical situation. This manipulation produced differential arousal and significant difference in observers' ability to comprehend that the ^subjects in the first study were engaging in behaviours parallel to those of. the teachers. A third study investigated the hypothesis that cognitive attention is captured by situational meanings that are made salient. This study brings together two lines of reasoning. Taylor & Fiske's (1975; 1978) focus-of-attention effect and the. frame-of-reference work of Eiser (1971), Alexander (1970) and Schutz (1970). Observers were again placed in one of two conditions. In one observers were sensitized to the possibility of multiple meanings in a situation and given what Goffman (1972) has called the dramaturgical standpoint. From this perspective they read about and viewed the video-tape of the; first experiment. Observers in the other condition were given a perspective and task that directed their attention to minute behavioural details of the same. The hypothesis was that observers in the multiple perspective condition would be able to take into account many- more levels of meaning and therefore be able to view the, first experiment from the point of view of the investigator. The dependent variable was the ability to surmise the experimental hypothesis of the first experiment. It was hypothesized that subjects in the other condition would have their attention so riveted on details of the experiment that they would not be able to easily re-orient to the more global analysis required. Both of these hypotheses were corroborated. The conclusion from these studies is that an enlightenment effect is a cognitive accomplishment whose achievement depends upon a frame of reference that is defined by the question "what's going on here". Whether or not individuals will bring their intellectual understanding to bear on their behaviour depends on the perceived salience, and availability, of that understanding at the time of the behaviour. Many situational aspects conspire to make an enlightenment effect a difficult task.

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