The Social Animal: Summary & Review

the second best psychology book

In The Social Animal, author Elliot Aronson provides an overview of social psychology.
Aronson has made it his life work to constantly update the book as new research improved our understanding of social psychology, so “The Social Animal” remains until today one of the best psychology textbooks available.

Bullet Summary

  • We like to preserve a positive and congruent image of ourselves and we’ll go to great lengths to ensure it
  • To persuade a knowledgeable audience, present both sides of the argument; present one for ignorant audiences
  • To inoculate people from persuasion present a small persuasion attempt that people can refute (a bit like a vaccination shot)

Full Summary

About the Author: Elliot Aronson is an American psychologist and researcher. He helped refine the theory of cognitive dissonance and has received several prizes and awards for his work and research, and he has taught, among other universities, at Harvard University.


I was almost afraid of summarizing The Social Animal.
There is so much great information in this book that you can’t really summarize it.
Consider this to be an appetizer.

Social Psychology: A Definition

Elliot Aronson defines social psychology as:

“the influences that people have upon the beliefs, feelings, and behavior of others”.

We Like to Think Highly of Ourselves

One of our major goals as human beings is to maintain and enhance a positive view of ourselves.

The self-serving bias is such an example. We think that others’ success is often because of situational circumstances but we think our success is because of the disproportional qualities we have.

Basically, we take credit for the good and deny the bad.

Conformity & Individuality

Aronson defines conformity as:

A change in a person’s behavior or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people

In the face of conformity pressure, individuals tend to avoid voicing their dissent.
On occasions, individuals go with the flow of the majority even when they otherwise have strong personal reservations.
Depending on the situation individuals might even deny what seems incontrovertible evidence of the truth if the group does the same (Solomon Asch experiments on line lengths).

Over the course of twelve judgments, three-quarters of the individuals conformed at least once with the majority even in the face of clearly wrong opinions.

Brain scans showed a lot of activity in the amygdala among the people who resist. The amygdala is associated with pain and emotional discomfort, telling us that going against the group is painful.

Factors That Increase Conformity

There are many factors that can increase or decrease conformity, including:

  • The unanimity of the group:3 people in the group same effect as groups of 16
  • Presence or absence of other dissenters
  • Prior commitment to the truth: only 6% conformed VS 25% without commitment
  • Accountability: people held accountable for accuracy had less conformity
  • Requests for accuracy: accountability and request for accuracy are more powerful together
  • Self-esteem: high self-esteem people are more independent
  • Self-assessment of status: how secure the individual feels in the group, which higher security linked to higher independence
  • Culture: conformity more prevalent in collectivist societies
  • Gender: small difference but women are consistently more conformist
  • Group traits: experts, high social status, similar or different from the subject

Doing crazy things doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crazy

Does Conformity Change Minds?

It depends.

In the case of Asch’s experiment of guessing the length of a line, group pressure only changed public opinions, and not what people believed to be true.

However, Leon Festinger says that when reality becomes more complex and uncertain, people rely more and more on “social reality”.
When reality is difficult to assess indeed individual conforms to the group not out of fear of punishment and exclusion, but because the group supplies the only viable information (experiments on littering in a parking lot to show conformity to social norms: people kept the place clean if it was clean).

Elliot Aronson proposes not to use the term “conformity” which is too general but using instead three terms depending on the response to social influence:

  • Compliance: conforming out of fear, bending to power
  • Identification: we are attracted to the person or group, and want to be the same (and the opposite: if we don’t like we’re less likely to conform). Works mostly if we don’t have strongly held opinion on a subject
  • Internalization: we wholeheartedly agree and identify with the group or source of influence. The credibility of the source is important here

It’s an important difference.
In compliance, the behavior changes only until the group or threat is present (albeit permanence can be increased with a commitment to stay within the group and if we discover our changed behavior is good for us).
For example, I might say in public I don’t like a political candidate but then vote for him in private. In identification and internalization instead, the behavioral change is permanent.

Conformity and Letting People Die

Elliot Aronson talks at length about conformity and diffusion of responsibility in reviewing the famous cases of the Kitty Genovese murder and the Darley-Latané experiments.

He says that it’s possible for people to fall ill in the middle of a crowded street with nobody helping. That’s another case of conformity, and it happens because:

  • People look at others to see if it’s serious, and if nobody acts nobody will
  • If someone’s on the floor already people think that if nobody intervened there’s no need to
  • We don’t need to feel guilty if we can keep on walking

Help will be less forthcoming if:

  • It’s difficult to assess the seriousness
  • Helping is costly or dangerous (people are less likely to help bloodied victims)
  • You don’t think you can actually help
  • You will be stuck with the situation for long

The tendency to help can be increased:

  • People can help easily
  • Helping will have a strong and direct impact (fewer people help when pain is intense because they don’t think they can do much)
  • If there is a sense of “shared meaning” (ie.: camping where people feel like kindred souls)
  • It’s difficult to move away (ie.: in a subway car VS the street)

The Power of Advertising

Aronson explains how the power of advertising is highest in children, but they quickly catch on.

Skepticism goes up not just with age but also with education. However, that’s not to say that skeptics are immune to commercials.

Usually, there is a relationship between exposure, or how often we are exposed to a commercial, and to how much we believe it to be true.

Aronson says that candidates who spend the most money on TV commercials are also most likely to win the election

My Note: Causation or correlation?
This was a major flaw in The Social Animal for me as the author didn’t question the causation here.

For example, he didn’t consider that politicians who get more donations to run ads are also already more likely to win.

The Central and Peripheral Routes to Persuasion

There are two ways to persuasion: weighing arguments with facts and figures or in a “less judicious” manner.
Aronson doesn’t exactly use the terms here, but it seems like the old argument of “logic VS emotions”.

And we are more susceptible to the peripheral routes than we’d think.
For example:

  • Slogans that rhyme convince us more
  • Clever nicknames (ie.: “death tax” to convince people against succession tax)

Communication Persuasiveness

Aronson says that there are three major variables that command the persuasive power of communication:

  1. The source of communication (who says it)
  2. The nature of the communication (how he says it)
  3. The audience (to whom he says it)

1. The Source

People will ask themselves the following questions when it comes to influencing:

  • Does he have anything to gain (even an unattractive or immoral person can be persuasive with nothing to gain or something to lose)
  • Is it trying to influence us
  • Is he attractive or likable (we associate attractiveness of communication with the message)

Liking’s limitations:  Elliot Aronson explains that athletes can influence the cereal we eat and beautiful women can get us to agree on an abstract topic. But it’s unlikely they influence us on, say, the presidential candidate or the morality of abortion.

The author summarizes the research on the source of communication as such:

Individuals who are both expert and trustworthy influence us. Trustworthiness (and effectiveness) can be increased if he argues a position opposed to his or her self-interest and does not seem to be trying to influence our opinion. People we like can strongly influence where trivial opinions and behaviors are concerned, and even if it is clear they’re trying to influence us and profit by doing so.

2. The Nature of Communication

The research is far from conclusive, but it seems the case that an emotional appeal is more powerful than a logical one.

  • Fear works if the receivers have high self-esteem

fear can make people more likely to act or less likely. It depends on the receiver’s self-esteem.
People with negative self-images want to crawl into bed instead of taking action. To help everyone take action, make the message scary but make people feel they can do something about it, and then give clear instructions on what to do.

  • Fear fails with abstract threats

Fear fails with abstract threats. Global warming, for example, has failed for years to rally the masses because it has no face.
If we could put a face on global warming like Bin Laden was the face of terror, it would be easier to get people to take action.

  • Personal examples and experiences trump data

People are more influenced by one vivid, clear personal example than by lots of data.
For example, instead of giving data on the benefits of insulating their house, it was more effective to tell people “adding up all the cracks you have a hole the size of a basket. Wouldn’t want to fix a gaping hole in your kitchen?”

  • One-sided or two-sided arguments?

Presenting two sides shows more objectivity, but also that the issue is controversial.
On average the more well-informed is the audience, the less they’ll be influenced by one-sided arguments (and vice versa). On average the more one person is leaning towards the argument of the communicator, the more the one-sided argument will be effective (and vice versa).

  • Strategizing on order of presentation (go first or last?)

Speak first if the election is several days away and you speak back to back (the primacy effect of your speech will ruin your opponent’s subsequent speech and the latency effect of your opponent’s speech is mitigated by the far away election).
If the election is imminent and there is a coffee break between speeches, speak second (the primacy effect is mitigated by the break and the latency effect is strongest with the election nearby).

For a complete guide on when to go first or last, check this post.

  • What if the Message is Highly Discrepant With Beliefs

When people disagree with the message, the beliefs of the audience will change the most if the communicator has high credibility -because they can’t discredit him-.

When the communicator has low credibility he will influence people the most when the discrepancy between the audience’s beliefs and the message is small -otherwise, it would be easy to discredit him-.

3. Audience Characteristics

  • Low Self-esteem individuals are more easily influences

An individual with low self-esteem is more easily influenced than high self-esteem people. Low self-esteem people are less likely to experience internal conflict between themselves and the communicator and more likely to go along with the speaker.

  • Political Orientation: conservatives struggle with uncertainty

Conservatives have a greater need to manage uncertainty and threats and are more influenced by appeals to fear and black-and-white arguments.
The author says that liberals respond to more nuanced and fact-based arguments.

  • Prior Experiences

What happens before the communication impacts the influencing power of communication. Eating good food or being in a good mood are more conducive to influence.
Telling people that there will be an attempt to influence decreases the influencing power (also read: Pre-Suasion).

  • People Want to Protect Their Freedom: Don’t Push

The author says that pushy salesmen induce a reaction from people to re-assert their freedom and avoid doing what they’re told (explicit social pressure is different from implicit one).

  • Focus On The Message (or distraction)

People who were distracted during the influencing message experienced more changes in their opinions.

  • Amount of Information: KISS

Adding too much information can dilute the power of the message.

How to Resist Influencing Attempts: Inoculation

Elliot Aronson says that it’s possible to “inoculate” people from influencing attempts the same way we inoculate people from flu: with a small dose exposure.

Just like with virus vaccines, when people are presented with a watered-down message that they can refuse themselves, they are more able to resist a bigger influencing attack later on.

The author makes the point that the previous American policy of promoting American values and denigrating communism wasn’t helpful. It would have been better to teach students the pros and cons rather than simplistic sloganeering.

I quote the author as this is very powerful:

The person who is easiest to brainwash is the person whose beliefs are based on slogans that have never been seriously challenged.

We’re Not Rational: Psychological Biases

The Social Animal delves a lot into psychological biases as well.
By now psychological biases have become such a popular hit in pop-psychology books that I will skip them here.

The most interesting for me were these:

  • We all think we are smarter and better than the average
  • Loss aversion: loss-based messages are more powerful than gain-based ones
  • Confirmation: We seek confirmation of our initial hypothesis, we confirm it and we feel certain about it (and it’s often wrong)
  • Hindsight bias: “we always knew it, it was obvious”
  • Personal Responsibility: we assign personal responsibility for outcomes that are otherwise difficult to explain (ie.: most people will think that a subject who hasn’t gotten anything at the flip of a coin worked less hard. Blaming the victim is strongest in people who believe the world is fair!)

If you want to explore psychological biases, read:

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Is it true that you should start with your most impressive feature first?

Yes, it is.

When it comes to forming impressions the primacy effect -what comes first- powerfully trumps what comes in the middle and what comes last -the latency effect-.

Elliot Aronson says it’s for two reasons: the first item prepares us for what comes next, and we tend to give a positive spin to all the rest. And we pay less attention to what comes after.

Memory Failures

Memory is a reconstructive process.

Often we change memories to reflect the image that we have of ourselves.
For example, when we believe that something is good for us and want to start adopting it, we might remember having done it more often in the past (Example: brushing teeth).

Sometimes people can even “recall” memory that never truly existed.
This is one of the reasons why Elliot Aronson states that the majority of self-reported sexual abuse stories might not reflect reality.
The reason is that repeated instances of traumatic events aren’t usually forgotten.

Behavior is NOT Personality

Subtle situational variables often have an outsized impact on our behavior.

That also means that our behavior is not always and necessarily a reflection of “who we are”, but it’s more a consequence of the specific situation we are in.

Usually, when we judge our own behavior after a mistake or non-flattering event, we “know” that it was situational.
But when we observe other people’s actions we tend to attribute their behavior and their results as a direct consequence of their personality traits and “who they are”.

Similarly, we assume that people’s attitudes are a great indicator of their behavior in a way that discounts the situational variables.
And we see attitude-behavior relationships even when there might be none.

Social Roles Influence Behavior

Individuals have many social roles in life which will lead them to behave in different ways depending on which roles they have.
Of course, when we observe just one of their behavior we generalize to their full personality and believe they are much more homogeneous than they actually are.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) is so important, and with so many deep ramifications that you should devote some time to make sure you understand it.

Elliot Aronson defines cognitive dissonance as:

a state of tension that occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.

The driving force behind cognitive dissonance is cognitive discomfort, and people will try to convince themselves (and others), change opinions, or justify their actions in a way that will make them feel good.

The theory of cognitive dissonance does not see human beings are rational creatures, but as rationalizing human beings.
That means that we are not so much motivated to be right, good, or fair, but to believe we are right, good, and fair.

Looking for confirmation

Once we make a decision on something, we try to insulate ourselves from cognitive dissonance by only looking for information that confirms our good choice.

It’s not uncommon for example that people who bought a car go back to enjoy the advertising material for that car.

And we also change the way we remember things to protect our decisions.
Jones and Kohler found that people tended to remember plausible arguments agreeing with their beliefs and implausible arguments for the opposite opinion -which would strengthen their belief in the correctness of their decision-.

We are rationalizing creatures more than rational ones

Self-justification trap

When our behavior is inconsistent with our beliefs we will change our behavior, our beliefs, or the meaning of our behavior to avoid cognitive dissonance.

For example, when the US administration decided to bomb North Vietnam they ignored the intelligence saying that heavier bombing was useless and was only strengthening the communists’ resolve.
The way out of the trap is to bring in advisers who were not involved in the earlier decision -and thus immune to cognitive dissonance-.

Foot-in-the-door technique

One way to leverage cognitive dissonance in changing opinions and behavior is to make people commit to a small course of action first.

This helps people feel committed to the cause and when a bigger request is made later on cognitive dissonance will pressure people into accepting the larger request.

The bigger the gain/loss the bigger the dissonance

Imagine a situation where cheating would give you a huge advantage. If you decide not to cheat, you will become a much stronger and more vocal supporter of honesty.

This is because since you had to forego a big gain because of honesty, now you need a bigger justification for it.
Your justification is that cheating sucks and must be punished severely and honesty is the only way to go.

Internal & External justification: achieving long-lasting change

Imagine we commit an immoral act.

We could go two ways to justify it to ourselves -and potentially to the people around-: external or internal justification.

External justification seeks “excuses” and extenuating circumstances in the world around us. We were tired, we were pressured, someone gave us a big wallop of money, etc.

But if it’s difficult to find an external justification, then we will change our own internal beliefs to align action with beliefs.
This is very important because it means that if you want someone to truly change their beliefs forever you should let them take action or commit to something without any major reward.
That way, without any external excuse for their behavior, they will change their internal beliefs. In short: the smaller the reward, the greater the attitude change.

Similarly, bigger threats to influence behavior do not change long-term behavior as much as smaller threats.
And working hard towards a goal makes that goal all the more attractive (justification of effort).
However, putting a lot of effort into something also means that we will try to convince ourselves that we are happier with the results, For example, people who spend a lot of time and money to get in shape might try to convince themselves that the results are good.

Amplifiers of dissonance

Dissonance theory says that the biggest attitude changes will happen when:

  1. We feel personally responsible for our actions (we can’t blame anyone else)
  2. Our actions have serious consequences (the stakes are higher and we can’t move on and forget)
  3. Self-esteem is at stake (we really need to protect our ego, and people with high self-esteem experience more cognitive dissonance when they do something cruel or stupid)

That means that people with low self-esteem will find it easier to commit immoral actions.

Related to the third point, narcissistic personalities with an overblown sense of self get angrier and more aggressive when their ego is threatened.
Cristina  Salmivalli and her colleagues though suggest that high narcissistic self-esteem, is not genuine self-esteem but stems from insecurity. This type of paper-thin self-esteem is present in bullies.

My Note: True, also see Roy Baumeister
Baumeister indeed explains that people most likely to lash out violently have big but fragile egos.
Also see: Evil.

Justification of Cruelty

To avoid cognitive dissonance people who commit or have to commit cruelty try to blame the victim in order to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Ironically, the more good people want to be and the nicer they think they are, the more they need to frame the victims as terrible people,
And the higher their self-esteem, the more they need to blame the victim -lower self-esteem people already see themselves as not-so-great people so their need to offload blame is smaller-.

Also, read:

When cognitive dissonance undermines us

Imagine your resolution was to quit smoking.
But you didn’t manage and started smoking again after two weeks.

That could be a blow to our ego, to try and fail.
So to protect our ego we would downplay the importance of the resolution and the seriousness of smoking.
We would look for confirmation that smoking isn’t so bad, that “everyone does it” or we could take a daredevil approach of “you only live once”.

This is a very maladaptive approach: we’d be happier in the short run, but in the long run, it will make us unhealthier and will also reduce the chances we’ll ever try and succeed again.

What’s a better alternative?
Probably it would be to lower our expectations of success.
Instead of going cold turkey, we could try to half the amount of cigarettes.

How We Skirt Cognitive Dissonance By Not Paying Attention

Sometimes we avoid cognitive dissonance by not paying attention to what we’re doing.

Elliot Aronson says that’s the case for example with condom use. Most people know it makes sense to use condoms and we should all be using them.

But when they don’t use a condom they fail to even consider the possibility of putting on a condom. They are in a state of denial and hypocrisy.

How do you get people to take action when they already believe it’s the right thing to do? Aronson came up with a clever experiment to make people confront their own hypocrisy.

Physiological Effects of Cognitive Dissonance

Under certain conditions, cognitive dissonance can have physiological effects.
For example, make hungry and thirsty individuals less hungry and thirsty.

Cognitive Dissonance or Simple Observation?

We have seen how easily people can change their opinions based on their actions.

But how do we know that they are experiencing cognitive “pain” and not simply looking at their behavior and simply changing their own perception in a calm and dispassionate way?
Indeed that’s what Bem proposed.

And it turns out, in some circumstances, there is little cognitive discomfort indeed.

Elliot Aronson says that we change opinions without discomfort only when we don’t have a clear belief, to begin with.
But when we do have a fairly clear opinion or belief, then the discomfort and the threat to our self and ego do come into play.

Aggression: Nature or Nurture?

It seems clear that aggression has an instinctual component.
But it’s not entirely based on instincts either. There is evidence showing that culture and situational variables influence our aggressive responses as well.

For example, primates who are induced into an aggressive state will attack… Unless they’re in the presence of the alpha male of the group. In this case, they will flee.

Is Aggression useful?

There is a current of thought believing that limiting aggression would also limit our human achievements -for example, Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life-.

For example, the drive behind “conquering space”, “attacking” a mathematical problem, and “mastering” a science are all in a way connected to aggression.

Elliot Aronson though says that’s a mistake as it uses too large a definition of aggression. He defines aggression as “an intentional action aimed at doing harm or causing pain“.
Thus, says the author, equating aggression and hostility with advancement and achievement is to confuse the issue.

And the world needs a different breed of people. He quotes Loren Eiseley when he pays tribute to our ancestors but then also says:

The need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear

I really liked this part, it makes a lot of sense to me.

Violence Breed Violence

Answering with violence and aggression with violence and aggression is likely to lead to a self-reinforcing cycle.

Retaliation almost always exceeds the initial offense because the pain we receive feels more intense than the pain we inflict.
And even if we induce more pain than we received, we will justify each increased round of aggression by blaming the victim and convincing ourselves that they deserve it all.

Also behaving aggressively increases testosterone, which in turn contributes to further escalation.

There will never be a war to end all war

Gender and Violence

Women display much lower physical aggression but they seem to engage in more forms of social aggression.

Nikki Crick and her associates call it relational aggression. This includes activities such as:

  • Spreading false rumors
  • Isolating
  • Malicious gossip
  • Ruining someone’s reputation

Is the difference in gender aggression style biological or cultural?
Evidence points to both biology and culture.

For example, Australian women showed greater evidence of physical aggressiveness than Swedish and Korean men.

Alcohol and Aggression

Alcohol works as a disinhibitor. It reduces social fears and makes us less cautious.
But there is more than that.
Alcohol also makes us more socially stupid. When something happens we respond to the earliest and most obvious cues and miss all the subtleties.

So for example, if someone steps on our toes we react to the pain as if it were purposefully inflicted instead of considering the situation and the excuses that we received.

More Inhibitors of Aggression

More contributors to aggression are:

  • Pain and body discomfort (more aggression in the heat)
  • Expectations are high but we get blocked
  • We are drawing near our goal but something stops us
  • There is hope for change (hopeless people accept even the worst of conditions)
  • Perceived social unfairness (exclusion, taunting, humiliation, and rejection. Example of Columbine)
  • Exposure to violence (even on TV or by seeing guns laying around; mostly effective on those who already have a disposition for aggression)
  • Anonymity
  • Violent pornography (normal pornography is harmless)
  • Children seeing aggression rewarded (but aggression punished might not work as disinhibitor and might be better not to show violence at all)

Disinhibitors of Violence

  • Personal responsibility
  • Accountability
  • Punishment (but applied judiciously in the context of a warm relationship)
  • Child education to internalize values that denigrate violence and aggression
  • Using empathy to stop the dehumanization process (empathy-training exercises in children to identify other people’s emotions lead to a sharp decrease in aggression)

Do Violence and Sex Sell?

Aronson says that sex and violence can hog all the attention to themselves and overshadow the product.

My Note: No final answer provided here
fair enough, but can overshadow the product is not a final indictment. That’s not to say, indeed, that sex and violence cannot be deployed effectively to sell.

Violence to Attract Attention

The Social Animal dedicates space to the question of violence and rioting to attract media attention to social injustice.
Aronson says that in an apathetic society, it can work to attract attention indeed. However, violence rarely leads to rectification of what was wrong.

There will never be a riot to end all injustice


Many authors say that the best way to change our beliefs is to expose ourselves to many instances that prove our beliefs wrong.

However, Elliot Aronson makes the point that’s not the case.

Bombarding people with facts that prove their prejudices wrong won’t change the prejudices but only create new mental subcategories -ie.: “intelligent black guy”, and “female good with numbers”-. Basically, they tell themselves they are just running into exceptions.

Two Forms of Sexism

One form of sexism antagonizes women. The other one seems benevolent and seems to favor women but is actually patronizing.

Prejudice Acts Both Ways

Prejudice can work against minorities but sometimes also discriminate in favor of minorities.

We Are Predisposed to Prejudice

Stereotyping is not necessarily and always an act of abuse, and it’s not always negative either.

Often it’s simply how our mind works. And it’s a system of organizing and simplifying otherwise complex information about our world.
Sometimes the information would be too complex for our brain otherwise, and even when it might be not, we still have a tendency to save as much cognitive power as possible.

However, the specifics of prejudice are learned.

Causes of Prejudice

Elliot Aronson says there are five basic causes of prejudice:

  1. Economic and political competition
  2. Displaced aggression
  3. Maintenance of status or self-image
  4. Dispositional prejudice: some people have a greater tendency to hate (authoritarian personality)
  5. Conformity to social norms

Stereotype Is Strongest in Uncertainty

Stereotypes are strongest in ambiguous situations and when we don’t have clear answers and information.

In ambiguous situations, people tend to choices and attributions consistent with their stereotypes.

How to Reduce Prejudice

Elliot Aronson dedicates a long chapter to prejudice, what affects prejudice, and how to effectively combat prejudice.

Here is how to reduce prejudice:

  1. Equal-status contact without economic conflict (ie.: state-sponsored housing)
  2. Inevitability of contact (leverage cognitive dissonance in accepting the situation and seeing it positively)

However, the ideal scenario is rarely present, and the following increases prejudice:

  1. Economic conflict (private homes with minorities and whites believed their house values would go down)
  2. Competitive settings like de-segregated schools where minorities started at a marked disadvantage (blacks and latino increase hostility towards whites partially as an attempt to regain lost self-esteem)

Liking, Loving and Interpersonal Sensitivity

Elliot Aronson introduces the chapter with a slight, entertaining dig at Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People“.

Indeed, praise does work in making people like us as long as it doesn’t come across as manipulative and the praiser is not in a position to benefit from coddling us.
Not only do we feel manipulated, but also like the praiser is attempting to limit our freedom by trying to trap us.

It’s similar to receiving favors.
And with favors, it’s often more effective to get people to make favors to us than not us doing favors to them (remember justification of effort? They will convince themselves that we must be very deserving fellas).

Aronson summarizes the findings by saying that praise and favors do not always have a positive effect. How they impact liking and influencing depends on the situation.

Flaws make us more attractive

The pratfall effect explains how we will “too perfect” individuals more after they make a mistake. But we will like average people less when they make mistakes.

Confidence and Gullibility

Evidence suggests that the more insecure we feel, the more we will like people who like us and compliment us.
People with low confidence will also seek less attractive partners because they want to minimize the risk of rejection.

People who are more secure of themselves are less needy and less easily swayed by a smooth talker.

Social contact makes us healthier

Social exclusion and rejection cause physical symptoms while social contact can make us physically healthier.

We like most people who grow to like us

We like people who like us, but even more, we like people who grow their opinion of us. Thus starting from the negative and going into the positive is more powerful than always staying positive.

To be effective though the change must concern the same traits and it must be gradual (ie.: happening over time).

Falling in Love

People fall in love with those who are near them.
The major factor of love is proximity.
The second most important one is similarity (in values, attitudes, beliefs, and personalities).

Intimate details make us closer

Sharing intimate and personal aspects of ourselves, both positive and negative, helps the development of close relationships.

Honest self-disclosure strengthen relationships

Honesty Best Medicine for Relationships

If all the wisdom in The Social Animal weren’t enough, Aronson drops another life-changing gold nugget when it comes to relationships.

He says that humans seek “gain” and novelty. But in love relationships that are always stable, there is little to gain because our partner already loves us.
And there is much to get hurt about because our partners are so important to us that a small criticism can take us down.

How to cure this conundrum?
Honesty and authenticity!
Honesty is the key to long-term relationships, says Aronson.

Because with honesty we can get real feedback that will give us a bit of that “loss and gain” experience that keeps the relationship fresh. It won’t allow us to take our partners for granted and it will keep the relationship from becoming dull and boring.

For more on relationships check out:

the social animal

Real-Life Applications

There is so much information here if you want to maximize your effectiveness with people. For example:

  • Take Away Excuses to Make People Act

To increase donations to a non-profit an experiment was added to the pitch “even a penny will help”. The effect was extremely powerful because it took away the excuse of “I don’t have much money”. People donate more and even gave bigger donations.

  • Link to Self to Retain Information

We have an egocentric memory. Such as, we remember better what we think is related to us. Thus, when you want to remember something, relate it to your personal experience and ask yourself what it means to you and/or how you can use it.

  • Leveraging Cognitive Dissonance

To induce positive attitudes toward an object or opinion, get people to commit themselves to the object or opinion.
If you want people to harden or soften their moral attitudes, respectively tempt without them committing or tempting them enough that they commit the deed themselves.

  • Speak First to “Destroy” Your Opponent’s Presentation

When you speak first you imprint people with your message. When your opponent starts speaking they are still thinking of your speech, and that “pollutes” your opponent’s presentation.

  • Don’t Be Afraid of Criticizing: it Gains Admiration

The Social Animal shows that negative evaluations increase the admiration we feel for the evaluator -as long as it’s not evaluating us :)-.


Even great books like The Social Animal can have a few cons:

  • Sometimes jumping to Conclusions

At times while “The Social Animal” I felt like it was jumping to conclusions, making the inference sound obvious truth when it wasn’t.

For example, the author says that US residents in the South have a bigger sense of honor and are more likely to get into gunfights because in the past a reputation for being tough was useful to protect their kettle. Well, that might be the case indeed, but how can we be sure?

Later it says that our mind is predisposed to stereotyping -and thus prejudice- because our ancestors needed to quickly assess friends VS foes, members of a friendly tribe, and members of enemy tribes.
Again, these evolutionary psychology explanations are mental lucubrations that do seem to make sense, but they are not science.

  • Doesn’t Always Ask Difficult Questions

I feel that at times the author doesn’t stop and ask the difficult questions. For example, when he discusses racism his position always seems to be that “we are all the same”.
What if instead he asked if there were even the tiniest inborn differences among different ethnical groups?

Or he talks about violent pornography perpetuating the “myth that women enjoy rape”. The vast majority of women don’t enjoy rape, but it’s a fact that many women want more dominant men and that some women have sexual fantasies revolving around sexual aggression and domination.
I feel “The Social Animal” could have made a footnote for some of those thornier aspects.

  • Not Always Purely Scientific

The author at times jumps in with his opinion and views.
Sometimes that’s great, like for example when he weighs in giving his own opinion on the research. Some other times, it felt a bit moralistic for a scientific text.
An example is the criticism of a society showing how violent solutions are both predominant and violent like for example Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Bond becoming (negative, in his opinion) cultural icons.

  • Small Samples in Scientific Method Explanation

The last chapter of “The Moral Animal” is dedicated to explaining the scientific method in social psychology. The author explains that the correct method is to have two random groups which will make sure that we can only measure one variable.

However, he does not talk about the size of the groups, and sometimes his examples are based on small samples.
With small samples it’s quite possible that the two groups won’t be homogenous at all, with one group presenting, say, many more individuals who are richer, smarter, aggressive, or whatever you have it.
As How to Lie With Statistics explains, small sample sizes are prime examples of wrong conclusions.

  • Slight Political (Liberal) Bias?

At times it feels like “The Social Animal” presents a slight liberal bias.
For example, it introduces the F-scale of authoritarianism where F stands for “fascist” and doesn’t address the criticism. It also only enumerates the “cons” of authoritarian personalities, like insecurity, being highly dependent on parents, and suspicion.

And just to be clear: I think what Aronson says is true and enlightening. But without also adding criticism and the advantages of an authoritarian personality -and there should be some?- the text seems less balanced.

P.S.: I read that previous versions were even more strongly politically on the left.

  • Change Behavior Instead of Attitude

Changes in attitude can lead to changes in behavior. But it’s difficult to change attitude with, say, education.
It might be easier to change behavior to change attitude.

  • Too Long on Some Topics, Ignoring Others

If the book wanted to be more of a textbook, I found it to expand too much on certain topics and too little on some others.
For example, the racial issue is most relevant to the US and I would have liked all the space on race and prejudice to go to some other big issues of social psychology.
But that’s up to personal preferences of course.


The Moral Animal is the best social psychology book I have read so far. And one of the very best books I have read on psychology.

  • Great Overview

One of the biggest advantages of “The Social Animal” is that you get a solid overview of the whole field of social psychology.

  • Wisdom With Little Fluff

Little stories and little fluff but lots of wisdom. Just like I love it.

  • Great Influencing Manual

This is more great material in influencing here than in many books on the influence that I have read.
Also read: best books on influence and persuasion

  • Deep Relationship Wisdom

There is more wisdom on relationships in “The Social Animal” than in a few dedicated relationship books I have read.


The Social Animal is simply the best and most comprehensive book on psychology available today.

The amount of wisdom and information in “The Social Animal” is simply staggering.

That doesn’t mean you won’t need any other book on the topic: if you’re hungry for knowledge, you do.
But if you’re in a hurry and want a good overview, then pick this one first and the rest when you’ve got time.

Check the best psychology books or get the book on Amazon

Scroll to Top