Chapter 14: Psychology in Our Social Lives

Binge Drinking and the Death of a Homecoming Queen

Sam Spady, a 19-year-old student at Colorado State University, had been a homecoming queen, a class president, a captain of the cheerleading team, and an honor student in high school. But despite her outstanding credentials and her hopes and plans for the future, Sam Spady died on September 5, 2004, after a night of binge drinking with her friends.

Sam had attended a number of different parties on the Saturday night that she died, celebrating the CSU football game against the University of Colorado–Boulder. When she passed out, after consuming 30 to 40 beers and shots over the evening, her friends left her alone in an empty room in a fraternity house to sleep it off. The next morning a member of the fraternity found her dead (Sidman, 2006).

Sam is one of an estimated 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 who die from alcohol-related injuries each year. These deaths come from motor vehicle crashes, assaults, and overdosing as a result of binge drinking (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2010)1.

“Nobody is immune,” said Sam’s father. “She was a smart kid, and she was a good kid. And if it could happen to her, it could happen to anybody.”

Despite efforts at alcohol education, Pastor Reza Zadeh, a former CSU student, says little has changed in the drinking culture since Sam’s death: “People still feel invincible. The bars still have 25-cent shot night and two-for-ones and no cover for girls”(Sidman, 2006).

Sam’s parents have created a foundation in her memory, dedicated to informing people, particularly college students, about the dangers of binge drinking, and to helping them resist the peer pressure that brings it on. You can learn more at about the foundation.

We have now reached the last chapter of our journey through the field of psychology. The subdiscipline of psychology discussed in this chapter reflects the highest level of explanation that we will consider. This topic, known as social psychology, is defined as the scientific study of how we feel about, think about, and behave toward the other people around us, and how those people influence our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

The subject matter of social psychology is our everyday interactions with people, including the social groups to which we belong. Questions these psychologists ask include why we are often helpful to other people but at other times are unfriendly or aggressive; why we sometimes conform to the behaviors of others but at other times are able to assert our independence; and what factors help groups work together in effective and productive, rather than in ineffective and unproductive, ways. A fundamental principle of social psychology is that, although we may not always be aware of it, our cognitions, emotions, and behaviors are substantially influenced by the social situation, or the people with whom we are interacting.

In this chapter we will introduce the principles of social cognitionthe part of human thinking that helps us understand and predict the behavior of ourselves and others—and consider the ways that our judgments about other people guide our behaviors toward them. We’ll explore how we form impressions of other people, and what makes us like or dislike them. We’ll also see how our attitudesour enduring evaluations of people or things—influence, and are influenced by, our behavior.

Then we will consider the social psychology of interpersonal relationships, including the behaviors of altruism, aggression, and conformity. We will see that humans have a natural tendency to help each other, but that we may also become aggressive if we feel that we are being threatened. And we will see how social norms, the accepted beliefs about what we do or what we should do in particular social situations (such as the norm of binge drinking common on many college campuses), influence our behavior. Finally, we will consider the social psychology of social groups, with a particular focus on the conditions that limit and potentially increase productive group performance and decision-making.

The principles of social psychology can help us understand tragic events such as the death of Sam Spady. Many people might blame the tragedy on Sam herself, asking, for instance, “Why did she drink so much?” or “Why didn’t she say no?” As we will see in this chapter, research conducted by social psychologists shows that the poor decisions Sam made on the night she died may have been due less to her own personal weaknesses or deficits than to her desires to fit in with and be accepted by the others around her—desires that in her case led to a disastrous outcome.

1National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2010). Statistical snapshot of college drinking. Retrieved from /StatisticalSnapshotCollegeDrinking.htm


Sidman, J. (2006, June 26). A college student’s death may help save lives. USA Today. Retrieved from -binge-drinking_x.htm


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