Core Social Motive Two - Understanding (Part One) - Social Representation, Attribution Theory, and Social Judgement Theory

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Core Social Motive Two - Understanding (Part One) - Social Representation, Attribution Theory, and Social Judgement Theory

N Cubed Group
Published by Laurence Nicholson CEO in Change · Monday 29 Jan 2024
The Core Social Psychology Motives in Change Management
Core Social Motive Two - Understanding

by Laurence Nicholson

Part One - Social Representation, Attribution Theory, and Social Judgement Theory

(For the Audio Podcast, click HERE)

Welcome back to this series on the Core Social Psychology Motives, and to the first part of this discussion around the second core social motive: Understanding.

First let’s think about what is meant by ‘understanding’ in the sphere of social psychology. As far as a definition goes, ‘the need for shared meaning and prediction’ (Have, Rijsman, Have and Westhof. 2019), is as good as any.

In order to function as an effective group, or even an ineffective group, there needs to be a level of shared understanding, and in an organisational context, this is often evident in a well-supported vision or corporate mission, a positive culture or set of values, and positive social cohesion aligned with the leadership. Of course, negative social cohesion of a group operating against a common enemy (the leadership or suggested changes), also requires a shared understanding.

In essence, there needs to be a focus on understanding when facing change elements such as leadership, organisational culture, resistance and vision support.

In this part of the series, I will take a look at the first set of concepts and theories relating to Understanding; social representation, attribution theory and social judgement theory.

So, what do I mean by social representation?

Well, social representation can be seen as values, beliefs, ideas and behavioural practices shared by a group’s members, and such representations are constructed from a shared knowledge and understanding of generally accepted reality, and this forms the ‘vehicle’ for inter and intra group, and interpersonal communication.

Of course, over time, positions, opinions and consensus changes, so social representations also change over time, being both the process and result of social construction that is constantly being re-interpreted.

The term ‘social representation’ was created back in 1961 by Moscovici, who also stated that its fundamental aim is to “make the unfamiliar familiar” (Moscovici , 1984), and who had defined it in more detail in 1973 as follows:

“Systems of values, ideas and practices with a two-fold function: first, to establish an order which will enable individuals to orient themselves in their material and social world and to master it; secondly, to enable communications to take place amongst members of a community by providing them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their individual and group history” (Moscovici, 1973, p. Xiii)

The purpose is to represent issues in socially recognisable constructs, according to a socially shared set of schemas, enabling them to be anchored in a common understanding and thus consistently interpreted.

The process of taking a new, abstract representation and ‘normalising’ it, can be seen in the ‘Toblerone Model of Social Representations’ (Bauer & Gaskell, 1999), showing a relationship between the carriers of a representation ‘S’ (subjects); objects ‘O’ as the activity or idea being represented; and social group projects in which the representation meaning (‘Surface’) makes common sense.

When considering this from the perspective of organisation and change, by anchoring a concept (the object) through establishing a meaning and relating it to an already established common frame or view, it takes on a familiarity, and then objectifying it through the association with familiar images to produce its own iconic form, it can become socially familiar and more established, or concrete, than abstract.

Consider the ‘fair trade’ concept, well known in the west, for a moment. This object (idea) is now easily recognised as being a method of helping developing world farmers achieve better trade deals and conditions, encouraging sustainable farming, yet ‘fair’ has no actual contextual meaning as it is a subjective norm, but as a group (the Western World) we gave it a more concrete understandable principle and thus an easily accepted idea.

With change, the ‘new’ proposed norm(al) can be seen by many as abstract and lacking concrete meaning, so the leaders need to ensure key social objects such as vision, mission statement, corporate values and strategy, etc, are clearly and transparently defined, purpose explained and end state elaborated.

Belasco (1990) suggests that experience shows an energising and compelling, inspirational vision, properly communicated (Moscovici’s ‘socially shared and recognised’, conditions), is key to mobilising support, in his statement: “This vision is the picture that drives all action” (p.11).

We must not also forget that other ‘objects’, such as sense of urgency, are also key, as illustrated by Kotter’s (2012, p.4) statement:
“By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organisations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees”

Okay, so now let’s take a look at ‘Attribution Theory’.

We, as a species, tend to look at events and behaviours, and try to attribute causes in order to make some sense from them. Essentially this is attribution theory; the assigning of causes to behaviours of both the self and of others.

It does go a level deeper though, and tries to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ people explain the things as they do, generally by asking two primary questions: Why do I do what I do? And; Why do others do what they do? And this is coming from the knowledge that emotional and motivational impulses, such as anger and commitment, are the drivers for most of our attributions.

When non-psychology trained individuals look to explain behaviours, especially that of others, as part of the attribution process, there are typically three areas focused upon: consistency (whether this is typical behaviour for the person(s) in most/other situations), consensus (whether others behave in the same way under the same circumstances) and distinctiveness (when a behaviour or action by an individual is judged by another to be common or unusual). These are important as we use them to determine our decisions such as whether to follow a leader, or support or oppose a change process or plan.

The big problem we have, though, is when we tend to fill in gaps (heuristics) because it is easier and quicker than following all the information to a complete and detailed conclusion. In applying such shortcuts as patterning, applying stereotyping, and benchmarking, because the information is either sparse or ambiguous, our personal biases direct our ‘filling in’ and we then attribute based on our prejudices.

It is this very lack of completeness of information, and opaqueness of explanation, that interferes with appropriate attributions, and start to impact relations as well as performance, and the ultimate outcomes driving the change, within organisation and change. Resistance in the form of dragging feet, or interfering with the change process, is often the result of this problem not being addressed by leaders.

Let us now turn our focus on social judgement theory.

What we know from psychology, is that when we make judgements, we do so against the backdrop of our personal attitudes towards the idea being advocated, and our own position regarding it.

Sherif & Hovland (1961) defined social judgement theory as the perception and evaluation of an idea by comparing it with current attitudes. These current attitudes are in fact the anchoring point for our own personal position, being the preferred position by consensus or majority, however there is also interplay from our judgement of any alternatives, and our ego involvement in the advocated idea or position.

It is worth noting that for those more ego-involved, meaning the idea is more important to, the more likely they are to have a larger latitude of rejection, and any suggested change could appear to them to be further away from their anchoring point, and they are unlikely to be easily persuaded otherwise. In contract, if the idea/change is closer to their anchoring point (personal attitude), their latitude of acceptance is also greater, and will potentially make them open to persuasion.

It is this involvement that is seen as a core concept in social judgement theory. Effectively, persons who have strong affiliations to the present ways and strong personal opinions, are typically not willing to change, and are thus the ones who need the most communication and clarity of the basis or need for the change.

It is worth recounting the concept of conformity and social identity here, and more specifically the fact that the drive to belong to a group will see shifts in people’s opinions and attitudes to fit in with the group norm. Resistance to change often sees individuals coalesce into a resistant group, and leaders need to be watchful for signs of this happening, to avoid resistance gathering strength and momentum.

Understanding of this should be built in to the strategy and design of organisational culture, as well as in leadership behaviours and reactions to issues of commitment to change.


Well, that’s it for this time. In the next part, we take a look at the next sub-elements of the core motive of ‘Understanding’; ‘Social Learning Theory’ and ‘Social Impact Theory’.

As always, leave me comments, good bad or indifferent, by email or against the article (on the ‘blog’ page if you are listening to the podcast).

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