The Social "Simpson": Psychology Found WithinBy Chris Moyer
We as humans are socialized everyday by our surroundings. Everything from what we say, do, and even eat, is influenced by our society and how it effects us. Social Psychology is the study of these social influences, and the influences that people have upon the beliefs and behaviors of others.
Television is a major influence in our everyday lives. It gives us entertainment, provides us with information, and also advertises products to us. Its spectrum of influence is enormous. One show beautifully depicts the aspects of Social Psychology within its entertainment. "The Simpsons" has become a cultural icon to American society. Since its debut in 1987, "The Simpsons" have defied all logic of an animated sitcom and have reached and overcome those boundaries of what critics refer to as "main-stream television." With its colorful animation and outlandish humor, "The Simpsons" are a prime example of the Social Psychological aspects of everyday life. Within this report, I shall go over the main topics of Social Psychology and give examples of how "The Simpsons", maybe inadvertently perhaps, display these topics.
To begin, we first look at one major psychological theory, The Person Centered Theory. Within this theory, there is the concept of Homeostasis, which is trying to maintain a psychological balance. A perfect example of such an effort of this is the wife and mother of the family, Marge Simpson. Marge portrays the type of mother and wife most men would love. Yet she seems stuck in this life of filth and frustration. She realizes that she is married to a sub-par man, has a son who is rambunctious and troublesome, and has two daughters that seem to be wasting away with time. Even with all these circumstances, she manages to control herself and the family in general, by being there for them and showing them true values in life. She is disciplined, worrisome, and stern. Yet she shows love and realizes that her family is far from perfect. By doing this, she is balancing out her life and emotions and portraying her homeostasis.
Now with Operate Conditioning, we see an example of Symbolic Interactionism. In these two scenes, Homer is clearly displaying impression management. In this episode, Homer starts a new job and is trying to make a good impression with his new boss, Hank Scorpio.
Hank: You will notice my new best friend that we are pretty casual around here.
Hank: Having a place like this has always been my dream Homer. What's your dream?
Homer is engaging in a mental rehearsal before he speaks. He is conforming to situational norms. He believes that in order for his new boss to approve of and like him, he must do everything right and be perfect in all of his actions.
Interactionist Theory is also found within "The Simpsons". Field Theory is given through the example of Life Space. In this same episode, Marge is experiencing some differences in her settling in of this new town.
Marge: Ok the oven is cleaning itself, the auto-vac's on dirt patrol, and Maggie's enjoying her Swing-a-majig. I can't believe it. I've done all my housework and it's only 9:30am. Well, better go upstairs and make sure the beds are still made.
Marge's behavior is being affected because of her new environment. The fact that this new environment is perfect is changing her behavior. Since all of her chores are done, Marge begins to take sips of wine to waste time later in the episode. That one change in her life space is affecting other aspects of her life.
We continue on with the theory of Self Presentation or Impression Management. In this theory, how you present yourself to others is a form of communication. In this episode, Marge discovers a high-class suit for cheap and decides to buy it. Once seen by an old high school classmate, who needs help pumping gas, she is assumed as being more professional.
Marge: 90% of the time, if the gas isn't pumping, this is your problem. (pushes lever up).
Once Marge is invited to the country club, her spirit soars. Since she can't afford another dress, she decides to alter the one she has as much as possible. She continues to do this to be perceived as being upper class and professional.
There are 2 major differences found within impression management. One is Self-Monitoring, where we attempt to control images and impressions we give to others. In one such episode, Homer realizes that he can work at home by claiming disability. He gains 61 pounds to do so, thus weighing over 300 pounds. Once at home, he decides to go see a movie and the following interaction occurs.
Homer: One for "Honk" please.
Homer is portraying a low self monitor. His behavior is being controlled by his weight. Because he weights so much, he is not allowed to enter the theatre. This behavior in turn affects his attitude and he tries to explain that he is just like anyone else and what you see is what you get.
Moving on, we come to Self Schema. According to Markus, this is "how we organize information about ourselves; generalizations that we make about ourselves derived from experience; organize and guide how we select information about ourselves". In this next scene, Lisa easily portrays this theory after being announced that she is failing.
Principal Skinner: Simpson, Lisa.
Obviously, Lisa has a well-pronounced self schema. She is in tune with who she is and knows how to select information about herself. She knows where she wants to be in her life and can vividly picture herself there.
Within self schema, you try to process information about the self. You investigate self schemata on all aspects of your life and dimensions of your body. You also present Possible Selves. There are visions of what you would like to become and what you are afraid of becoming. One possible self is your personal efficacy expectations. In one episode, Lisa sees a fortune-teller who predicts her future. The fortune-teller tells Lisa that she will have a wonderful love that she meets in college but that it will end in heartbreak. Lisa receives these images of herself in a future setting and begins to develop feelings about those situations. Once she finds out how her love is broken, she evaluates her self's current status and appreciates what she has.
Self-Consciousness is another theory found within "The Simpsons". Self-consciousness is 'the habitual tendency to engage in self-awareness". There are two different types of our self-consciousness, private and public. In this next scene, Homer wins a free boudoir photography shoot. After discovering what it is, he decides to use the prize, but does so privately.
Homer (on phone in disguised voice): Hello. I have a certificate for a free erotic photo session.
Here we see that Homer is high in private self-consciousness but shows attention to his personal standards because he doesn't seem to mind the idea of posing nude. Because of his high private self-consciousness, his self concept is an accurate reflection of his normal behavior. There are numerous times in which Homer struts around the house in just underwear, so there are plenty of incidents to verify that this is his normal behavior. But because of the situation, he wishes for it to remain private.
Attribution Theory derives from inferences, not necessarily true, which explain a person's behavior or an event by indicating a cause. In this next scene, Homer promised Marge to get rid of a gun he had purchased. When a robber comes into their hotel, the following interaction occurs.
Snake (holding a knife to mayor Quimby): Alright everybody, hands up! Dude, give me the cash drawer.
Homer was making an external attribution. He was showing that the gun was controlling his life and that when he had it, it made him feel more powerful. This cause is what drove him to keep the gun.
Attribution Theory also includes Correspondent Inference Theory, which entails the theory of Self Handicapping. In this next scene, Homer has seen a TV show with one of the main characters having his name. The character is a doofus and needless to say, Homer feels as if it is a poor representation of his good name. To protect his good name, he changes it and the family soon finds out.
Lisa: Max Power?
According to Self Handicapping, Homer was trying to arrange the circumstances of behavior to protect himself. He did this by changing his name. This was basically a type of self-imaging protection. Because of the bad feedback from the show, he wanted to avoid diagnostic information about himself and he felt that changing his name was the best possible solution.
There are many ways in which "The Simpsons" portray social psychology in their show. Weiner's Model of Achievement Attributions is portrayed perfectly. In this model, "a persons causal attributions of achievement behaviors affect subsequent achievement behaviors, motivation, and future achievement expectancies". This next clip shows us how Homer portrays this in which he invests in pumpkins.
Homer: This year I invested in pumpkins. They've been going up the whole month of October. And I got a
feeling they're gonna peak right around January. Then, Bang! That's when I'll cash in.
Since Homer was doing so well with his investments in October, he felt that if he continues, he will continue to have future achievement. Unfortunately, his expectations were too high because of his lack of knowledge.
Attitude is "a predisposition to respond in a favorable or unfavorable manner toward a specific class of social objects". There are major functions that attitudes serve and one of these functions is the Social Adjustment Function. This is where attitudes help us to discriminate ourselves from other people to identify with a group and gain group approval. In this next scene, Homer finds out that his co-workers Lenny and Karl are part of a secret organization called the Stonecutters. He confronts them the next day at work and displays his attitudes.
Homer: I saw weird stuff in that place last night. Weird, strange, sick, twisted, eerie, godless,
evil stuff. And I want in.
Homer is clearing discriminating himself from other people because he wants to be a part of the organization. He also has an affective attitude toward the group because his feelings toward the group lead him to want to be a member, which is a positive response to those feelings.
The general idea behind the consistency theory of attitude change, is to maintain coherence or consistency among your beliefs, feelings, and actions. When an inconsistency is introduced, it sensitizes the individual. In this next scene, Homer has become attracted to a new female employee but tries to avoid her because it conflicts with his beliefs.
Homer (about to enter the elevator): Ahhh. I made it the whole day without seeing her again.
(seeing Mindy on elevator) AHH!! I mean, hello!
There is definitely an inconsistency with Homer's encounters with Mindy. He likes her but wants to maintain his beliefs of having a good marriage. There is tension in this situation and it motivates him to come up with an equilibrium, which is done by telling himself to think un-sexy thoughts. By doing this, he reduces his dissonance greatly.
Continuing on, we come to Dissonance Theory. This occurs when "one holds two or more cognitions that are inconsistent". Dissonance is a negative drive state and there are many circumstances which cause it to occur. One cause is Free Choice Decision Making where one chooses between 2 attractive alternatives. In this Halloween episode, Homer has received a hair transplant from an executed convicted killer. The hair takes control of him and he becomes the killer, enacting revenge on all the people that were responsible for his death. One of those people is Bart and Homer has to choose between his hair or the killers revenge.
Bart: You've got to fight the hair dad.
In this situation, Homer had to choose between 2 attractive alternatives. Obviously, he loved having more than 2 hairs on his head. But on the other end, he loved his son and wanted him alive as well. Homer had dissonance because they were both very positive alternatives to him.
Persuasion is our next topic, which is the act of inducing someone to take a course of action by means of argument or reasoning. There are many forms of persuasion and one in particular stands out on "The Simpsons". Brainwashing is a form of persuasion that "relies on brute force and a creation of emotional dependency on the brainwasher." In this next scene, Homer has joined a cult and is telling the family about it. He explains to them that they are moving to the cult compound and that he had to give up all their money to join. The family is not happy with his decision.
Lisa: Dad, don't you think that you might have been brainwashed?
Homer has obviously been the subject of mental conditioning. He was most likely brainwashed to act out what he said to Lisa, if people were to disagree with him in a particular way. Sort of like a mental cue that triggered him to say that.
There are many studies done to understand the effects of persuasion. One such study that was done was called the Yale Study. In this study, they diagnosed that there are three variables that come into play when learning new attitudes. They are attention, comprehension, and acceptance. In this scene, Homer fears that Bart is becoming gay. He decides to change his sons' ways and sits him in front of a highway billboard advertising a brand of cigarette with 2 scantily clad women.
Bart: What am I supposed to do here?
In actuality, it did work, although not in the way Homer had wished. First, the message was noticed because Homer most likely remembered seeing it there. Second, it was understood because afterwards Bart wanted to have a cigarette. Lastly, there was the expectancy of having girls with you when you smoke this particular brand of cigarette.
There are many variables that are important in communication. One in particular is the source, or the expert. This person's expertise may be communicating to us about a certain topic and because we feel as if he is a trusted spokesperson, we believe what that person has to say. Such an instance happens in this next scene.
Troy McClure: (On TV, pressing orange to face) Until now, this was the only way to get juice
from an orange.
Because Dr. Nick has endorsed so many products in the past, Homer feels as if he can lose weight by buying this product. To him, Dr. Nick is a credible source and with him delivering the message, it is making a big difference.
Continuing on, we come to the theory of Personal Attractiveness. There are many ways in which one can increase his or her personal attractiveness. One such way is through Sociotrophy. This is where you have people who like to please other people. A general state of happiness by portraying your happiness. In this next scene, Apu, the Kwik-E Mart owner, has just had octuplets with his wife. Ned Flanders sees Apu at work and asks him how he is doing.
Ned: Well, morning Apu. How are the little blessings?
Ned is definitely a product of Sociotrophy. Even after numerous attempts by Apu to shut him up, he continues to try and convince Apu about the joys of having children.
The next topic in Social Psychology that is found within "The Simpsons" is social cognition. This is the study of how people make sense out of themselves and others. In this next scene, Homer explains to Lisa and Grampa how he sees himself.
Lisa: It's awful being a kid, no one listens to you.
Homer is showing how he makes sense out of himself and is showing how he thinks people view him as well.
Within Social Cognition, there is the theory of weight. This is an estimate of the contribution of the trait to the overall impression. There are many factors that effect weight and one such factor is priming. In this next scene, the Simpons' house is stolen by some carnival people they've helped. Homer and the family discuss how to get them out of their house.
Marge: We can't just give up our home. There's gotta be a way to get those guys out of there!
The reason Homer kept saying fire was because it was a recent thought. That thought or idea influenced his subsequent thoughts or ideas, thus he was priming.
Schema is defined as "an abstract memory representation of knowledge derived from past experience and inference that we use to interpret current experience". There are many ways in which schema's can influence us. One such way is encoding. In this next scene, Homer is the union representative for the nuclear power plant workers. When he goes to see Mr. Burns to negotiate about their contract, the following scene occurs.
Mr. Burns: We don't have to be adversaries, Homer. We both want a fair union contract.
As you can see, Homer was interpreting info. He was listening to what Mr. Burns was saying and interpreted it as some sort of homosexual advance. He obviously had no idea what Mr. Burn was referring to when he was talking to him.
Next is the theory of Prejudice. This is where you have a hostile feeling toward a person who belongs to a group simply because he or she belongs to that group. Here, Homer has befriended a storeowner who after spending some time with, discovers that he is gay. Homer clearly portrays his prejudice.
Homer: Oh my god, oh my god I danced with a gay. Marge, Lisa, promise me you won't tell anyone. Promise me!
Homer is clearly showing a hostile feeling toward John simply because he is part of the homosexual community. He is adjusting to societies' norms and also to his personal norms. He feels as if this is the wrong way of life. He is also acting out his prejudice of John. He is doing this by avoidance. When john shows up, he hides behind the curtain and refuses to go out with him and the family. He is clearly avoiding John because he is a member of the disliked group.
Conformity is another theory of social psychology that can apply to the above episode. Homer's behavior is changing drastically because of the pressure and uncomfortableness of John and the fact that he is gay. Homer obviously was not born with this self-awareness of disgust and hatred for the homosexual community. He obviously formed this belief because others were acting that way. Most likely, other people were showing their hatred for gays and lesbians so Homer, during his course of life, picked up on this and his beliefs conformed to that of the groups.
Social influence is how we respond to what people as a whole do, say, and think. There are many different responses to social influence and one of them is identification. This is where we desire to be the influencer. In this next outtake, Homer feels as if he hasn't accomplished anything in his life. So he decides to model himself after Thomas Edison and discusses it in bed with Marge.
Homer: Then he worked on a machine to communicate with the dead. Some kind of scary telephone I guess. Or
maybe he planned to just stick his head under the ground and yell.
In that last scene, Homer was developing the desire to be like the influencer. He adopted the same opinions as Thomas Edison and that in turn put him into a satisfying relationship with him. He became attracted to Thomas Edison and his accomplishments.
The next theory we are going to talk about is Obedience. This is an act of compliance to someone or a group or institution with power over us. In this next out take, Homer has recently asked his sisters-in-law, to help him with his money problems. When the do, Homer is under their power until he can repay the debt because he doesn't want Marge to find out. This act of obedience is perfectly illustrated here.
Lisa: You're certainly in a good mood tonight Dad.
Obviously, since Homer didn't want Marge to know that he was having money problems, he complied with Patty and Selma because they had power over him. If he would of backed out and treated them badly, they most likely would of told Marge about his situation.
Continuing on with obedience, there are many factors that affect the degree of obedience. One of these factors is to play the role of devil's advocate. In this role, the job is to find reasons against canonization and to express these views to the other advocates. A form of pleading, or arguing in favor of another's behalf. In this next clip, you would imagine this to be portrayed, but ends up in hilarity.
Krusty: You got to help me. My daughter found out I'm a jerk!
Homer was in perfect position to actually play that role, but in fact had something else in mind. Although this may not pertain to the issue, I felt it was a good representation of the humor found within the show.
We now move on to a very persistence subject found within "The Simpsons", aggression. Aggression is defined as "any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such harm". One episode in particular illustrates this with perfection. Upon moving to Springfield, former president George Bush steals the spotlight from Homer in a local rummage sale. Homer and Mr. Bush soon become mortal enemies after Mr. Bush spanks Bart for ruining his memories.
Homer: Hey, Bush! Get out here!
As you can see, the form of behavior directed toward Mr. Bush from Homer that was intending to harm him was his yelling and the possibility of Homer punching him in the face. Throughout the episode, the two neighbors continue to play pranks on each other, eventually leading to a fight at the end of the episode. Homer aggression was when he was fighting Mr. Bush.
Now there are two types of destructive aggression, instrumental, which is to attain a goal, and hostile, which comes from anger. In this episode, Homer is Mayor Quimby's new bodyguard and has discovered that Fat Tony, the local gangster, is supplying the school's milk concession with rats' milk. After making the Mayor promise to get it out of the school, Fat Tony is arrested and the following display of hostile aggression occurs.
Kent Brockman: And so, as the rats' milk is returned to the sewers, the circle of life is complete.
Fat Tony, do you have any comment?
After Mayor Quimby shut down Fat Tony's operation, he was filled with rage. He was extremely angry with Mayor Quimby for being sent to jail and that anger came from his hostile aggression from that situation.
Now what causes aggression? Is it every human's natural instinct that dwells within us waiting for a particular opportunity to repress our rage? According to social psychology, aggressive behavior falls into 3 distinct categories with one of them being, the Person Centered Category. Now with aggression there hopefully is a catharsis, where experiencing an emotion is a way to release it. Releasing these emotions as aggressive displays is brought by through the Hydraulic Model. We store up aggressive energy and this energy needs to be released. In this next scene, Christian extremist Ned Flanders and his family have recently had their house destroyed by a hurricane while the rest of the townspeople are spared. While Ned questions his beliefs as to why this has happened to him, the townspeople rebuild his house. When the house falls apart due to unprofessional construction, Ned finally snaps in this amazing display.
Ned: Now calm down Neddily-diddly-diddly-diddly-diddly. They did their best, shoddily-iddily-iddily-diddly.
Gotta be nice, hostility-itily-bitily-ditily. Aw, hell diddily-ding-dong crap! Can't you morons do anything right??
The Hydraulic Model was perfectly displayed in that last scene. Through the years of the show, Ned Flanders has been an uplifting Christian, neighbor, and all around nice guy to everyone he's ever met. All of the negative aspects of his life kept bottling up inside of him and this rage, or steam, needed to be released. Although not with physical attacks, his display of rage was very unlike his normal behavior.
Another category that causes aggressive behavior is the Situated Center Theory. In this theory, there is the theory of Social Learning. This is where aggression is acquired through viewing aggressive models. In this scene, after seeing a movie about Zorro, Homer notices his aggressive behavior with a glove he uses to smack people across the face with. After the movie, a situation occurs and Homer displays his aggression.
Snake (pushing Marge out of the way): Ho, move it, Q-Tip. Ha.
After watching the movie, which he clearly enjoyed, Homer displayed his aggression through the model he just viewed. When Snake pushed Marge, Homer thought of this model, the movie, and displayed it the way he remembered it, aggressively.
Well there you have it folks. "The Simpsons" have remained a show that is capable to illustrate and educate on any field of comprehension. With it's witty remarks and subtle humor, the show continues to entertain us with pop culture parody's and wise-ass comments. Social psychology is found around us all. The only thing we as observers, customers, and students must do, is recognize it; sometimes, even try to comprehend and understand it. Who knows, maybe one of us will "pull a Homer" and not even realize it.
© Chris Moyer (firstname.lastname@example.org) 2001.
Last updated on June 26, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)