Social Influences on Behavior

Social cognition is the process through which we categorize and understand the world around us and the social interactions that link us to that world. There exists within the psychological understanding of social cognition three models for understanding social interaction: networks of association, schemas, and concepts (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). The manner that human behavior changes in different social situations can be adequately explained within the framework of one or more of these models. In particular, agoraphobia can be caused by a network of associations that lead to panic attacks, and the social aspects of religious gatherings are best understood as the outcome of social pressures acting on a complex network of schemas and concepts.

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Strictly speaking, agoraphobia occurs when “…a person is afraid to be in places or situations from which escape might be difficult…or help unavailable if panic-like symptoms were to occur” (Comer, 2005, 116). It is now understood that agoraphobia is caused by the performance anxiety associated with the onset of a panic attack. The underlying cognitive mechanisms that bring about the panic attacks, or perceived panic attacks, are connected through a network of associations and attitudes. The discrepancy between the ideal-self and the actual-self, in someone who suffers from agoraphobia, can only be bridged through the moderation of automatic negative thinking and ensuing implicit attitudes. The performance anxiety usually associated with agoraphobia is only a by-product of the line of thinking that precedes the person’s attitude about being in open places, exposed. As the dysfunction progresses, staying at home acts as a negative reinforcer by removing the anxiety usually associated with going out into public. This process begins a cycle that leads to social isolation. By contrast, the in-group/out-group, “us and them” attitudes that sometimes accompany religious gatherings are rooted in the psychological schemas and concepts created by the religion, both purposefully and inadvertently, and by the people within the religion. When a person regularly or sporadically attends religious services the concept of that particular denomination, and subsequent place of worship, is slowly built within the category of religion. As a person begins to adapt their self-concept to accommodate their new religious association the schemas that would usually govern their opinion of the people in that religion begin to become superimposed on their opinion of themselves. It is through this process that a person identifies themselves as part of a religious in-group and other people as the out-group. As a result, people in the out-group are viewed as homogeneously different and people in the in-group are given the benefit of the doubt in most cases. This apparent duality is what leads to an “us and them” mentality, brought on by the adoption of a social schema into a person’s self-concept.

One of the major dilemmas of introducing someone who suffers from agoraphobia into a social situation is that social facilitation works against them, not for them. Because the performance anxiety associated with the panic attacks is continuously in play while they are in social situations, social interaction becomes a non-dominant behavior. However, as a person begins to overcome the perceived inevitability of the panic attacks social interaction can become a positive reinforcer, a dominant behavior. On the other hand, social loafing and groupthink are continuously at work in religious gatherings. In the case of religious gatherings, a person exerts less effort in the area of critical thinking because of their perceived association with the group as part of the self-concept. Also, the social activity of attending religious services can quickly become a well-learned, dominant behavior; reinforcing the frequency of attendance. Consequently, groupthink can become a major factor when understanding religious services in the light of social cognition. Groupthink involves applying the unquestionable opinion of a leader to a person’s behavior and activities (McAdams, 2006). Through the mechanism of social loafing, groupthink becomes the inevitable eventuality of inhibited critical thinking. Henceforth, it is through the phenomena of social facilitation, social loafing, and group think that the social cognitive understanding of agoraphobia and religious associations come into view.

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A fear of being in open, exposed places coupled with intense performance anxiety can be adequately confronted through the classical conditioning technique of graded exposure. Through the technique of graded exposure, a person can face the conditioned stimulus of performance anxiety within the comfort of a therapist’s office. This method of psychological treatment entails asking a patient to visualize themselves being exposed to the phobic stimulus while the therapists explain how to better control the usual conditioned responses. A therapist might practice relaxation techniques with the patient while they are being exposed to the feared stimulus. It is in this way that a neutral response, such as calmness, can begin to become associated with the phobic stimulus. Of particular interest to the treatment of agoraphobia is the new implementation of virtual reality exposure therapy. This treatment includes the ability to more realistically expose a person to the feared stimulus while still maintaining the functionality of safety. In contrast, the in-group, “us and them” attitude that sometimes leads to groupthink and social loafing is not necessarily an undesirable social circumstance, as long as the underlying premises and leadership of the religion are personally advantageous. There is not essentially a social problem that needs to be fixed, but rather the socially unbeneficial side-effects of groupthink that need to be moderated through the mechanism of critical thinking. Critical thinking is the tool that people use to compare proposed knowledge with an existing knowledge set. It is in this manner that new information can be understood within the context of already established facts. Only then can the negative effects of groupthink be overcome and moderated.

In conclusion, the social-cognitive approach to human behavior can adequately explain, confront, and treat the negative effects of agoraphobia and religious associations, exemplified in groupthink. Furthermore, the phenomena of social loafing and groupthink work against the moderating effect of critical thinking, when applied to religious associations. Also, social facilitation at first can be an inhibitor of the avoidance of panic attacks for those that suffer from agoraphobia, but can eventually help reinforce normal psychological functioning. Therapeutic intervention, in the case of agoraphobia, will likely include some type of graded exposure therapy, and the group-think effect of religious association can be overcome through sound critical thinking.


Comer, R. J. (2005). Fundamentals of abnormal psychology (4th ed.). New York: Worth. Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2005). Psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

McAdams, D. (2006). The person: A new introduction to personality psychology. (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Paper Topic

Prepare a 1,050 to 1,400-word paper in which you examine basic concepts of human interaction from a psychology perspective. In your examination, describe at least two examples of how human behavior changes based on social situations. In your description be sure to address the following:

  1. Describe the specific behaviors.
    • Describe the context in which the behaviors occurred.
    • Analyze precursors and consequences of the behaviors in terms of social psychology concepts.
    • Identify any associated phenomenon (e.g., social faciltation, social loafing, group think) with your selected behaviors.
    • Determine if the exhibited behaviors necessitate therapeutic intervention.

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