I Can Heal with Dr. Wendy Treynor


      Where Science & Spirit Meet

 Where Science & Spirit Meet

                                  CA:LL 310-YES-LOVE



I envision using this page to communicate the many ways that social psychological research and principles (derived using the scientific method) can be applied to your own life, to enhance it.

The knowledge I share is informed by the unique research contributions of
Phoebe C. Ellsworth, Craig Smith, Barbara Fredrickson, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Norbert Schwarz, Solomon Asch, Leon Festinger, and many others.

My studies have focused on emotion, depression, love, group processes, and morality. To get a quick overview of my research, you can click the "Curriculum Vitae" button to your left.

Ah, the benefits of thinking positive thoughts!

The idea that thoughts and feelings are intertwined is reflected
in Phoebe C. Ellsworth's, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema's, and Barbara Fredrickson's research.

Phoebe and her students have communicated this idea in Appraisal Theory.  A wonderful description of the theory and a study supporting  it (among the first of many!) comes from a lovely scientific paper written by Craig Smith and Phoebe C. Ellsworth (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). 

Susan and her students have been studying the relationship between rumination and depression.  They recently found that dwelling on negative aspects of one's situation--termed "brooding"--predicts depression (Treynor, Gonzalez, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2003), suggesting that it is in our best interest to focus on the positive (or at least on the non-negative!), regardless of the challenges we face.

The idea of cultivating positive emotion in our lives to achieve a sense of well-being comes from Barbara Fredrickson's "Broaden and Build Theory" (Fredrickson, 1998; 2001) and from her work with Marcial Losada (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005), which suggests that cultivating 3 times as much positive, as compared to negative, emotion in our lives compounds over time, contributing to an optimal sense of well-being.

To learn more, I encourage you to visit these researchers' websites, which you can access simply by clicking on their names below:




Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?
Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Fredrickson B. L. & Losada M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686.

Smith, C. A. & Ellsworth, P. C. (1985).  Patterns of cognitive appraisal in emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 813-838.

Treynor, W., Gonzalez, R., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Rumination reconsidered: A psychometric analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 27, 247 - 259.


                                Mentors: Phoebe C. Ellsworth

                                                    Richard Gonzalez

Socialization Theory: Summary

Understanding Human Cruelty, Human Misery, and, Perhaps, a Remedy:

A Theory of the Socialization Process


Wendy Treynor, Ph.D.


            All humans have a fundamental need to see themselves as “morally adequate”, as “good”.  Milgram’s research (1965; 1974), however, seems to challenge this claim, for it showcases people’s willingness to endanger another human being’s life to win social acceptance, suggesting that “the desire to be accepted” overrides “the desire to be good”:  If the need to see oneself as “morally adequate” is basic, why would one ever choose to engage in an immoral act?

The social psychology literature provides a self-justification answer to this question, saying that an excuse was made (by the unethical actor) to preserve one’s self-view of being ethical  But anybody who has ever been tempted to engage in an unethical act under social pressure—and who ultimately resisted this temptation—knows that self-justification is not the whole story; one becomes aware of powerful social forces at work (such as pressures toward conformity of action—feeling pressure to behave as the group does—or uniformity of opinion).

Because the social psychological literature overlooks the profound role that social influence plays in motivating unethical action—social influence being a process that is related to, but distinct from, that of self-justification  (the human tendency to justify one’s actions: to perceive them as “right,” even if they are “wrong”)—a theory that delineates the interaction of these two processes is highly desirable. 

In the 1950’s such a theory might have emerged.  At the time, Leon Festinger was studying both processes as separate lines of research.  Festinger addressed self-justification through his cognitive dissonance theory, and social influence through his social comparison theory.  Festinger intuitively knew that these processes were linked somehow, but never formally proved it.  Today, these ideas remain separate—evidence being that Festinger’s two theories are still presented in separate chapters in social psychology textbooks today

 The theory presented here seeks to answer a basic question raised by social psychologists: “Why is evil perpetuated by good people?” and does so by offering the first known formal explanation of how these two processes are linked.  The theory regards self-justification as internal conflict reduction and social influence as external conflict reduction—a reconceptualization which suggests that Festinger was actually studying two types of conflict: internal (as self-justification in his dissonance theory) and external (as social influence in his social comparison theory).

Building on the contributions of researchers in social psychology, the theory assumes that the myriad causes of perpetuation of inhumanities that they identify (e.g., dehumanization of the victim, attributing blame to others, norms, roles, deindividuation, etc.) (which address the question of what but less so how or why), are best understood when distilled to the single, unifying principle that underlies them all, namely that each is an example, an instantiation, of the internal conflict reduction (self-justification) process.  Next, the theory assumes that a complete understanding of the forces that shape unethical behavior requires adding external conflict reduction (social influence) to the picture.  Finally, the theory delineates how these two processes—external and internal—combine with each other, over time, to create unethical action.

According to the theory, for every individual, there are two groups—an everyday group and a reference group.  One’s everyday group is “the social group whose context one generally finds oneself in” whereas one’s reference group is “the social group whose ethics are implicitly used as a yardstick upon which others’ (and one’s own) conduct is judged.”    According to the theory, although, at any given time, one’s everyday group may— or may not—be one’s reference group, with long-term contact, one’s everyday group automatically becomes one’s reference group.

Allowing social psychology to unite short-term and long-term perspectives into a single framework,  the theory distinguishes between one’s everyday group (which longitudinal studies capture) and social context (which laboratory studies capture), thereby reconciling the social psychological finding of behaviors betraying conscience (beliefs about what is good, right, and true) under group influence in the short-term (e.g., Asch, 1956; Milgram, 1965), with the finding of conscience coming into alignment with behavior under group influence in the long-term (e.g., Newcomb, 1943; Crandall, 1988).  In doing so, the work sheds light on how values, beliefs, and attitudes are internalized (even if these values, beliefs, attitudes, now held, are contrary to one’s past position, conscience, value system), thereby shedding light on how the socialization process works. 

Best of all, viewed through the lens of the socialization process, for the first time, seemingly intractable questions in our field are easily answered: 

(a)   The Lemmings Problem: Why good people do evil things?

 The work resolves the seeming paradox of  how “good” people can be led to do

“evil” things while maintaining a clear conscience, by introducing “the identity shift effect” and explaining how, why, and when it occurs.


(b)   Where does self-esteem (our sense of self-worth) come from?   The contingencies

This work shows how these three seemingly disparate scientific accounts of the origins of self-esteem are identical:   Self-esteem is derived from reference group acceptance (i.e., from the social group whose values and standards we internalize as our own—their standards being our own standards means that reference group acceptance corresponds to self-acceptance).   Research suggests that one’s reference group is generally one’s everyday group; thus, as a general rule, winning belonging (everyday group acceptance) means winning self-esteem (reference group acceptance). 

(c)    What is identity? Where does it come from? Why, how, and when does it change?

According to the work, one’s identity is derived from one’s reference group.  An identity shift corresponds to a reference group shift. 

(d)   What might a social psychological explanation of—and possible remedy for—
depression look like?

Offering a novel, and distinctly social psychological, hypothesis of a cause of and cure for depression, the work offers a shame hypothesis of depression.   According to the theory, when one is trapped in an everyday group setting to which one cannot conform, one experiences shame (internal conflict and external conflict) on a sustained basis, making this conflict seem inescapable: depression sets in. To escape depression, one is advised to find an everyday group with attainable standards; overtime, this group will become one’s reference group, allowing one to obtain both social acceptance (everyday group acceptance) and self-acceptance (reference group acceptance—with standards the self shares), thereby eradicating conflict.

(e)    Why, after 50 years, might reference group theory—a theory deemed central to
social psychology—remain unfinished?

Reference group theory may have remained unfinished (Kelley, 1952) because its founders failed to show the process by which an ordinary group becomes one’s reference group and by which one’s reference group (again) becomes an ordinary group—a process this work terms socialization. This work reveals this process, and thereby advances, and may complete, reference group theory.  According to a founder of reference group theory, Harold H. Kelley,  “A more complete theory of reference groups must consist of at least two parts, one having to do with groups as sources and enforcers of standards and the other having to do with groups as the standards themselves,” (1952, p. 413).   This work responds to Kelley’s two-part request.  Responding to the first, it posits that reference groups are the source of standards and that these standards are enforced through rejection, a property of all groups, rather than of reference groups, alone (contrary to the reference group founders’ conception, see Kelley, 1952).  Responding to the second, it communicates how groups can be the standards, themselves, by positing that it is the reference group, alone, that sets the standards that are internalized by an individual, and that any group can become one’s reference group, provided that it best satisfies one’s need for acceptance (relative to the other groups competing for reference group status, in the mind—and heart—of an individual).  By answering these basic questions, this work “promises to be of central importance to social psychology,” (Kelley, 1952, p. 410).

(f)    How is dissonance (internal conflict) and dissonance reduction (internal conflict
reduction) related to the emotion guilt, and how does guilt relate to the identity shift effect?

Contrary to common thinking, this work suggests that guilt plays a pivotal role in the perpetuation of inhumanities. According to the theory, a group incites one to act contrary to one’s conscience by creating external conflict (or threat thereof), also known as social rejection, everyday group rejection, or more commonly, ostracism; by conforming, one eliminates external conflict (or threat thereof), but as soon as external conflict is eliminated, one experiences internal conflict (guilt) for having violated one’s reference group standards. This feeling of guilt, in turn, is eliminated by undergoing an identity shift  (one shifts one’s beliefs of what is good, right, and true so that they are now aligned with the everyday group’s, thereby resolving one’s guilt—or stated differently: one’s everyday group, holding standards contrary to one’s own, now becomes one’s new reference group, so that they share the same standards), thereby resolving both  internal and external conflict, allowing one to commit atrocities or crimes while maintaining a clear conscience—for under this new value system, one is now winning both self acceptance (reference group acceptance; satisfying their need to be good—need for self-esteem) and social acceptance (everyday group acceptance; satisfying their need for belonging).

(g)   What might a clinical application of social psychological principles look like?

Insight into the social psychological profile of an individual can be gained by noting the relation of one’s actions (A) to one’s beliefs (R) and social environment (E)—or equivalently, the relation of their actions (A) to their reference group (R), and everyday group (E) standards.  When one’s actions coincide with the standards of both one’s everyday and reference groups (A = R = E), one is in equilibrium: in harmony with oneself and surroundings; one is at peace and experiences positive emotion. When one’s actions conflict with either one’s everyday or reference group standards, one is in disequilibrium: in conflict with either oneself or one’s surroundings; one experiences conflict and negative emotion. (Chronicity of conflict may correlate with the occurrence of mental illness.)

(f)     Forty years ago, Milgram urged the field to action: “Ultimately, social psychology would like to have a compelling theory of situations which will, first, present a language in terms of which situations can be defined; proceed to a typology of situations; and then point to the manner in which definable properties of situations are transformed into psychological forces in the individual,  (1965, p. 74)”   This work responds to Milgram’s call.

According to the theory, there are two types of social groups—reference and everyday—and four types of social situations, three entailing conflict: (a) internal conflict, only, (R A = E), (b) external conflict, only,   (R = A E), or (c) internal conflict and external conflict, together, (A  R = E), and one peaceful: (A = R = E).  The properties of these situations are transformed into psychological forces within the individual by way of emotion: Each situation elicits a different emotion in the perceiver: guilt, humiliation, or shame, respectively.   The aversive nature of each emotion incites short-term (immediate) changes within the individual, giving rise to new changes within the individual with long-term consequences.    

(g)        How are Festinger’s separate works—cognitive dissonance theory and social comparison theory—related, and why are they essential pieces to solving the “why people do ‘evil’ things” puzzle, and to developing a more complete theory of the socialization process? 

According to the theory, cognitive dissonance theory answers the question of how internal conflict is resolved, whereas social comparison theory suggests how external conflict is resolved.   The socialization process begins with external conflict and its resolution and ends with internal conflict and its resolution.  Festinger’s life’s work concerned illuminating these two fundamental sources of psychological conflict: external (social influence; Festinger, 1950; 1954) and internal (dissonance; Festinger, 1957).  Both arise from two primary needs being umet: the need for acceptance (Asch, 1956; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955) (i.e., need to belong—coming from one’s everyday group) and the need to be good (i.e., need for self-esteem—coming from one’s reference group).   These two sources of conflict are resolved either by moving in and out of social groups (Festinger, 1950) (i.e., a context shift occurs) or by changing one’s beliefs (Festinger, 1957) about what is good, right, or true (i.e., an identity shift occurs).  It is this process of conflict resolution that leads “good” people to commit “evil” acts.   


Returning to the question raised at the outset: “Does the need to be accepted override the need to be good?”  According to the theory, the former is met by one’s everyday group, and the latter by one’s reference group.  Throughout life, we endure periods of tension in getting both these needs met. To simultaneously satisfy them both, people either move in and out of social groups or change their beliefs, allowing them to return to a harmonious, conflictless state.  In short, the need to be accepted does not override the need to be good.  They are equally paramount.