Social Psychology: Definition, Theories, Scope, & Examples

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

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Social psychology is the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intentions, and goals are constructed within a social context by the actual or imagined interactions with others.

It, therefore, looks at human behavior as influenced by other people and the conditions under which social behavior and feelings occur.

Baron, Byrne, and Suls (1989) define social psychology as “the scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior in social situations” (p. 6).

Topics examined in social psychology include the self-concept , social cognition, attribution theory , social influence, group processes, prejudice and discrimination , interpersonal processes, aggression, attitudes , and stereotypes .

Social psychology operates on several foundational assumptions. These fundamental beliefs provide a framework for theories, research, and interpretations.
  • Individual and Society Interplay : Social psychologists assume an interplay exists between individual minds and the broader social context. An individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are continuously shaped by social interactions, and in turn, individuals influence the societies they are a part of.
  • Behavior is Contextual : One core assumption is that behavior can vary significantly based on the situation or context. While personal traits and dispositions matter, the circumstances or social environment often play a decisive role in determining behavior.
  • Objective Reality is Difficult to Attain : Our perceptions of reality are influenced by personal beliefs, societal norms, and past experiences. Therefore, our understanding of “reality” is subjective and can be biased or distorted.
  • Social Reality is Constructed : Social psychologists believe that individuals actively construct their social world . Through processes like social categorization, attribution, and cognitive biases, people create their understanding of others and societal norms.
  • People are Social Beings with a Need to Belong : A fundamental assumption is the inherent social nature of humans. People have an innate need to connect with others, form relationships, and belong to groups. This need influences a wide range of behaviors and emotions.
  • Attitudes Influence Behavior : While this might seem straightforward, it’s a foundational belief that our attitudes (combinations of beliefs and feelings) can and often do drive our actions. However, it’s also understood that this relationship can be complex and bidirectional.
  • People Desire Cognitive Consistency : This is the belief that people are motivated to maintain consistency in their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Cognitive dissonance theory , which posits that people feel discomfort when holding conflicting beliefs and are motivated to resolve this, is based on this assumption.
  • People are Motivated to See Themselves in a Positive Light : The self plays a central role in social psychology. It’s assumed that individuals are generally motivated to maintain and enhance a positive self-view.
  • Behavior Can be Predicted and Understood : An underlying assumption of any science, including social psychology, is that phenomena (in this case, human behavior in social contexts) can be studied, understood, predicted, and potentially influenced.
  • Cultural and Biological Factors are Integral : Though earlier social psychology might have been criticized for neglecting these factors, contemporary social psychology acknowledges the roles of both biology (genes, hormones, brain processes) and culture (norms, values, traditions) in shaping social behavior.

Early Influences

Aristotle believed that humans were naturally sociable, a necessity that allows us to live together (an individual-centered approach), whilst Plato felt that the state controlled the individual and encouraged social responsibility through social context (a socio-centered approach).

Hegel (1770–1831) introduced the concept that society has inevitable links with the development of the social mind. This led to the idea of a group mind, which is important in the study of social psychology.

Lazarus & Steinthal wrote about Anglo-European influences in 1860. “Volkerpsychologie” emerged, which focused on the idea of a collective mind.

It emphasized the notion that personality develops because of cultural and community influences, especially through language, which is both a social product of the community as well as a means of encouraging particular social thought in the individual. Therefore Wundt (1900–1920) encouraged the methodological study of language and its influence on the social being.

Early Texts

Texts focusing on social psychology first emerged in the 20th century. McDougall published the first notable book in English in 1908 (An Introduction to Social Psychology), which included chapters on emotion and sentiment, morality, character, and religion, quite different from those incorporated in the field today.

He believed social behavior was innate/instinctive and, therefore, individual, hence his choice of topics.  This belief is not the principle upheld in modern social psychology, however.

Allport’s work (1924) underpins current thinking to a greater degree, as he acknowledged that social behavior results from interactions between people.

He also took a methodological approach, discussing actual research and emphasizing that the field was a “science … which studies the behavior of the individual in so far as his behavior stimulates other individuals, or is itself a reaction to this behavior” (1942: p. 12).

His book also dealt with topics still evident today, such as emotion, conformity, and the effects of an audience on others.

Murchison (1935) published The first handbook on social psychology was published by Murchison in 1935.  Murphy & Murphy (1931/37) produced a book summarizing the findings of 1,000 studies in social psychology.  A text by Klineberg (1940) looked at the interaction between social context and personality development. By the 1950s, several texts were available on the subject.

Journal Development

• 1950s – Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology

• 1963 – Journal of Personality, British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

• 1965 – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

• 1971 – Journal of Applied Social Psychology, European Journal of Social Psychology

• 1975 – Social Psychology Quarterly, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

• 1982 – Social Cognition

• 1984 – Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

Early Experiments

There is some disagreement about the first true experiment, but the following are certainly among some of the most important.

Triplett (1898) applied the experimental method to investigate the performance of cyclists and schoolchildren on how the presence of others influences overall performance – thus, how individuals are affected and behave in the social context.

By 1935, the study of social norms had developed, looking at how individuals behave according to the rules of society. This was conducted by Sherif (1935).

Lewin et al. then began experimental research into leadership and group processes by 1939, looking at effective work ethics under different leadership styles.

Later Developments

Much of the key research in social psychology developed following World War II, when people became interested in the behavior of individuals when grouped together and in social situations. Key studies were carried out in several areas.

Some studies focused on how attitudes are formed, changed by the social context, and measured to ascertain whether a change has occurred.

Amongst some of the most famous works in social psychology is that on obedience conducted by Milgram in his “electric shock” study, which looked at the role an authority figure plays in shaping behavior.  Similarly,  Zimbardo’s prison simulation notably demonstrated conformity to given roles in the social world.

Wider topics then began to emerge, such as social perception, aggression, relationships, decision-making, pro-social behavior, and attribution, many of which are central to today’s topics and will be discussed throughout this website.

Thus, the growth years of social psychology occurred during the decades following the 1940s.

The scope of social psychology is vast, reflecting the myriad ways social factors intertwine with individual cognition and behavior.

Its principles and findings resonate in virtually every area of human interaction, making it a vital field for understanding and improving the human experience.

  • Interpersonal Relationships : This covers attraction, love, jealousy, friendship, and group dynamics. Understanding how and why relationships form and the factors that contribute to their maintenance or dissolution is central to this domain.
  • Attitude Formation and Change : How do individuals form opinions and attitudes? What methods can effectively change them? This scope includes the study of persuasion, propaganda, and cognitive dissonance.
  • Social Cognition : This examines how people process, store, and apply information about others. Areas include social perception, heuristics, stereotypes, and attribution theories.
  • Social Influence : The study of conformity, compliance, obedience, and the myriad ways individuals influence one another falls within this domain.
  • Group Dynamics : This entails studying group behavior, intergroup relations, group decision-making processes, leadership, and more. Concepts like groupthink and group polarization emerge from this area.
  • Prejudice and Discrimination : Understanding the roots of bias, racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice, as well as exploring interventions to reduce them, is a significant focus.
  • Self and Identity : Investigating self-concept, self-esteem, self-presentation, and the social construction of identity are all part of this realm.
  • Prosocial Behavior and Altruism : Why do individuals sometimes help others, even at a cost to themselves? This area delves into the motivations and conditions that foster cooperative and altruistic behavior.
  • Aggression : From understanding the underlying causes of aggressive behavior to studying societal factors that exacerbate or mitigate aggression, this topic seeks to dissect the nature of hostile actions.
  • Cultural and Cross-cultural Dimensions : As societies become more interconnected, understanding cultural influences on behavior, cognition, and emotion is crucial. This area compares and contrasts behaviors across different cultures and societal groups.
  • Environmental and Applied Settings : Social psychology principles find application in health psychology, environmental behavior, organizational behavior, consumer behavior, and more.
  • Social Issues : Social psychologists might study the impact of societal structures on individual behavior, exploring topics like poverty, urban stress, and crime.
  • Education : Principles of social psychology enhance teaching methods, address issues of classroom dynamics, and promote effective learning.
  • Media and Technology : In the digital age, understanding the effects of media consumption, the dynamics of online communication, and the formation of online communities is increasingly relevant.
  • Law : Insights from social psychology inform areas such as jury decision-making, eyewitness testimony, and legal procedures.
  • Health : Concepts from social psychology are employed to promote health behaviors, understand doctor-patient dynamics, and tackle issues like addiction.

Example Theories

Allport (1920) – social facilitation.

Allport introduced the notion that the presence of others (the social group) can facilitate certain behavior.

It was found that an audience would improve an actor’s performance in well-learned/easy tasks but leads to a decrease in performance on newly learned/difficult tasks due to social inhibition.

Bandura (1963) Social Learning Theory

Bandura introduced the notion that behavior in the social world could be modeled. Three groups of children watched a video where an adult was aggressive towards a ‘bobo doll,’ and the adult was either just seen to be doing this, was rewarded by another adult for their behavior, or was punished for it.

Children who had seen the adult rewarded were found to be more likely to copy such behavior.

Festinger (1950) –  Cognitive Dissonance

Festinger, Schacter, and Black brought up the idea that when we hold beliefs, attitudes, or cognitions which are different, then we experience dissonance – this is an inconsistency that causes discomfort.

We are motivated to reduce this by either changing one of our thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes or selectively attending to information that supports one of our beliefs and ignores the other (selective exposure hypothesis).

Dissonance occurs when there are difficult choices or decisions or when people participate in behavior that is contrary to their attitude. Dissonance is thus brought about by effort justification (when aiming to reach a modest goal), induced compliance (when people are forced to comply contrary to their attitude), and free choice (when weighing up decisions).

Tajfel (1971) –  Social Identity Theory

When divided into artificial (minimal) groups, prejudice results simply from the awareness that there is an “out-group” (the other group).

When the boys were asked to allocate points to others (which might be converted into rewards) who were either part of their own group or the out-group, they displayed a strong in-group preference. That is, they allocated more points on the set task to boys who they believed to be in the same group as themselves.

This can be accounted for by Tajfel & Turner’s social identity theory, which states that individuals need to maintain a positive sense of personal and social identity: this is partly achieved by emphasizing the desirability of one’s own group, focusing on distinctions between other “lesser” groups.

Weiner (1986) – Attribution Theory

Weiner was interested in the attributions made for experiences of success and failure and introduced the idea that we look for explanations of behavior in the social world.

He believed that these were made based on three areas: locus, which could be internal or external; stability, which is whether the cause is stable or changes over time: and controllability.

Milgram (1963) – Shock Experiment

Participants were told that they were taking part in a study on learning but always acted as the teacher when they were then responsible for going over paired associate learning tasks.

When the learner (a stooge) got the answer wrong, they were told by a scientist that they had to deliver an electric shock. This did not actually happen, although the participant was unaware of this as they had themselves a sample (real!) shock at the start of the experiment.

They were encouraged to increase the voltage given after each incorrect answer up to a maximum voltage, and it was found that all participants gave shocks up to 300v, with 65 percent reaching the highest level of 450v.

It seems that obedience is most likely to occur in an unfamiliar environment and in the presence of an authority figure, especially when covert pressure is put upon people to obey. It is also possible that it occurs because the participant felt that someone other than themselves was responsible for their actions.

Haney, Banks, Zimbardo (1973) – Stanford Prison Experiment

Volunteers took part in a simulation where they were randomly assigned the role of a prisoner or guard and taken to a converted university basement resembling a prison environment. There was some basic loss of rights for the prisoners, who were unexpectedly arrested, and given a uniform and an identification number (they were therefore deindividuated).

The study showed that conformity to social roles occurred as part of the social interaction, as both groups displayed more negative emotions, and hostility and dehumanization became apparent.

Prisoners became passive, whilst the guards assumed an active, brutal, and dominant role. Although normative and informational social influence played a role here, deindividuation/the loss of a sense of identity seemed most likely to lead to conformity.

Both this and Milgram’s study introduced the notion of social influence and the ways in which this could be observed/tested.

Provides Clear Predictions

As a scientific discipline, social psychology prioritizes formulating clear and testable hypotheses. This clarity facilitates empirical testing, ensuring the field’s findings are based on observable and quantifiable phenomena.

The Asch conformity experiments hypothesized that individuals would conform to a group’s incorrect judgment.

The clear prediction allowed for controlled experimentation to determine the extent and conditions of such conformity.

Emphasizes Objective Measurement

Social psychology leans heavily on empirical methods, emphasizing objectivity. This means that results are less influenced by biases or subjective interpretations.

Double-blind procedures , controlled settings, and standardized measures in many social psychology experiments ensure that results are replicable and less prone to experimenter bias.

Empirical Evidence

Over the years, a multitude of experiments in social psychology have bolstered the credibility of its theories. This experimental validation lends weight to its findings and claims.

The robust body of experimental evidence supporting cognitive dissonance theory, from Festinger’s initial studies to more recent replications, showcases the theory’s enduring strength and relevance.


Underestimates individual differences.

While social psychology often looks at broad trends and general behaviors, it can sometimes gloss over individual differences.

Not everyone conforms, obeys, or reacts in the same way, and these nuanced differences can be critical.

While Milgram’s obedience experiments showcased a startling rate of compliance to authority, there were still participants who resisted, and their reasons and characteristics are equally important to understand.

Ignores Biology

While social psychology focuses on the social environment’s impact on behavior, early theories sometimes neglect the biological underpinnings that play a role.

Hormones, genetics, and neurological factors can influence behavior and might intersect with social factors in complex ways.

The role of testosterone in aggressive behavior is a clear instance where biology intersects with the social. Ignoring such biological components can lead to an incomplete understanding.

Superficial Snapshots of Social Processes

Social psychology sometimes offers a narrow view, capturing only a momentary slice of a broader, evolving process. This might mean that the field fails to capture the depth, evolution, or intricacies of social processes over time.

A study might capture attitudes towards a social issue at a single point in time, but not account for the historical evolution, future shifts, or deeper societal underpinnings of those attitudes.

Allport, F. H. (1920). The influence of the group upon association and thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology , 3(3), 159.

Allport, F. H. (1924). Response to social stimulation in the group. Social psychology , 260-291.

Allport, F. H. (1942). Methods in the study of collective action phenomena. The Journal of Social Psychology , 15(1), 165-185.

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology , 67(6), 601.

Baron, R. A., Byrne, D., & Suls, J. (1989). Attitudes: Evaluating the social world. Baron et al, Social Psychology . 3rd edn. MA: Allyn and Bacon, 79-101.

Festinger, L., Schachter, S., & Back, K. (1950). Social processes in informal groups .

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews , 9(1-17).

Klineberg, O. (1940). The problem of personality .

Krewer, B., & Jahoda, G. (1860). On the scope of Lazarus and Steinthals “Völkerpsychologie” as reflected in the. Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft, 1890, 4-12.

Lewin, K., Lippitt, R., & White, R. K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates”. The Journal of Social Psychology , 10(2), 269-299.

Mcdougall, W. (1908). An introduction to social psychology . Londres: Methuen.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology , 67(4), 371.

Murchison, C. (1935). A handbook of social psychology .

Murphy, G., & Murphy, L. B. (1931). Experimental social psychology .

Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology (Columbia University).

Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behavior. European journal of social psychology , 1(2), 149-178.

Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American journal of Psychology , 9(4), 507-533.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion . New York: Springer-Verlag.

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Home / Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs / Bachelor of Arts in Psychology Online / Bachelor’s in Psychology Resources / What Is Social Psychology? Theories, Examples, and Definition

What Is Social Psychology? Definition, Key Terms, and Examples What Is Social Psychology? Definition, Key Terms, and Examples What Is Social Psychology? Definition, Key Terms, and Examples

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Social psychologists explore the power of thought and perception to shape action and cement emotional connections. William Shakespeare provided one of the earliest known examples of an insight worthy of a social psychologist in his most psychologically complex play, “Hamlet.”

When the beleaguered prince of Denmark explains why he considers his native country a prison rather than a paradise, he reflects: “Why then … there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Whether presented as a trick of the mind (“thinking makes it so”) or as an exploration of everyday thought and action, social psychology is concerned with explaining some of the deepest mysteries of human relationships and behavior.

What is social psychology? It is a scientific exploration of who we are, who we think we are, and how those perceptions shape our experiences as individuals and as a society.

Social psychology is one of the broadest and most complex subcategories of psychology because it is concerned with self-perception and the behavioral interplay among the individuals who make up society. What follows is an overview of social psychology as a science, including its origins, its theories of human cognition and behavior, and the educational pathways to becoming a social psychologist, which can include earning a  Bachelor of Arts in Psychology degree .

Social Psychology Definition

Today, researchers and academics examine nearly every aspect of human existence through a psychological lens. The American Psychological Association (APA) lists 15 subfields of psychology, including clinical psychology, brain and cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and quantitative psychology.

Social psychology is the study of how individual or group behavior is influenced by the presence and behavior of others.

The APA defines social psychology as “the study of how an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are affected” by other people, whether “actual, imagined, or symbolically represented.” In essence, even just imagining another person watching you influences how you will process information, behave, and react — and this is something social psychologists strive to understand.

A social psychologist leads a group discussion.

What Questions Does Social Psychology Answer?

The major question social psychologists ponder is this: How and why are people’s perceptions and actions influenced by environmental factors, such as social interaction?

In seeking the answer to that basic question, researchers conduct empirical studies to answer specific questions such as:

  • How do individuals alter their thoughts and decisions based on social interactions?
  • Is human behavior an accurate indication of personality?
  • How goal oriented is social behavior?
  • How does social perception influence behavior?
  • How do potentially destructive social attitudes, such as prejudice, form?

For example, have you ever noticed you act and think differently among people you know than you do among strangers? Have you ever wondered why that is? Social psychologists spend their careers trying to determine the answers to questions like these and what they might mean.

The Origins of the Social Psychology Field

Psychology as a field of scientific exploration remains relatively new, yet its importance as a discipline is clear from the well-known names and concepts of early 20th-century research into human behavior: Pavlov and his salivating dog, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Jung’s archetypes of the unconscious.

These and other researchers wanted to uncover how human perceptions — of oneself, of others, and of the world at large — influence behavior. As the field of psychology matured, researchers began to focus on specialized aspects of the mind and behavior. This gave rise to subcategories of psychology, including social psychology.

Social psychology has been a formal discipline since the turn of the 20th century. An early study in 1898 of “social facilitation” by Indiana University psychology researcher Norman Triplett sought to explain why bicycle racers seemed to exceed their solo performances when they competed directly against others.

Later experiments sought to explain how and why certain artists and performers seemed to shine in front of an audience, while others faltered. During World War II, researchers conducted studies into the effects of propaganda on the behavior of entire populations.

What Is a Social Psychologist?

Social psychology professionals, such as social psychologists, seek to understand the complex interplay between social factors and human behavior. Specific areas of study include:

  • Group dynamics and attitudes
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Implicit bias and prejudice
  • Criminal activity

Social psychologists use a variety of research methods, including experiments, surveys, and observations, to study human behavior in social contexts. They apply their findings to a wide range of fields, including business, law, education, healthcare, and public policy, to help solve social problems and improve people’s lives.

Social Psychologist Salary

Social psychologists had a median annual salary of $81,040, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2021. The BLS estimates that the number of people working as psychologists will grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, as fast as the average growth projected for all professions.

While becoming a social psychologist requires advanced education, starting off with a  bachelor’s degree in psychology  can be an important first step toward this career. Other professions that must consider social psychology principles include social worker, human resources specialist, and  career counselor .

What Is Social Psychology vs. Sociology?

Those interested in what social psychology is should understand the difference between this field and other academic disciplines. For example, social psychology and sociology are sometimes confused. This is understandable, because both fields of study are broadly concerned with the way human behavior shapes and is shaped by society.

The primary difference between the two is this: Social psychologists study individuals within a group; sociologists study groups of people.

As early as 1924, when both fields of study were just beginning to reach academic maturity, University of Missouri researcher Charles A. Ellwood sought to simplify the difference between the two. According to Ellwood:

  • Sociology  is “the science of the origin, development, structure, and functioning of groups.”
  • Social psychology  is “the study of the [individual psychological] origins involved in the development, structure, and functioning of social groups.”

Different Ways of Looking at Similar Issues

Naturally, the work done by both types of social scientists occasionally overlaps. A sociologist focuses on how the interplay among different groups of people — those with religious beliefs or ethnicity in common — affects the course of civilization.

This information could be considered a starting point for research by a social psychologist, who might use it to formulate a hypothesis about how an individual is affected by the group dynamic over the course of a lifetime.

For example, a sociologist might focus on the potential far-reaching effects on society of a new law, whereas a social psychologist might focus on how the new law might affect a specific person in the short term and long term.

Another way to think about the differences between social psychology and sociology is to consider the perception of the group dynamic.

For instance, a sociologist might conduct research into how a group of people acts as a unit, while a social psychologist might want to investigate how and why groups of people influence individuals — and why individual behaviors can influence groups of people.

Examples of Social Psychology Topics of Today

Early social psychologists concerned themselves with internal and external influences on individual behavior. British-born psychologist William McDougall’s 1908 publication, “An Introduction to Social Psychology,” focused on human instinct as the driving force behind social interactions.

More topics crowded under the social psychology umbrella with the 1920s work of brothers Floyd Henry Allport and Gordon Willard Allport. The Allports are credited with applying rigorous scientific theory and experimentation techniques to social psychology research.

This dynamic duo also conducted important studies into the development of attitudes, religious beliefs, and many other topics.

Social Psychology Examples

What social psychology is focused on is studying changes over time. Social psychology research has touched on nearly every facet of human personality in an attempt to understand the psychological influence of perception and human interaction. Of the topics currently being researched in social psychology, examples include:

  • Leadership  — What personality traits define a leader? What is the role of a leader within a group? How do leaders exercise influence on groups and individuals?
  • Aggression  — How is aggressive behavior defined? What triggers habitual aggressive behavior? What role does aggression play in self-preservation?
  • Social perception  — How does an individual develop self-perception? How is self-perception shaped by environmental factors? What is the difference between the existential self and the categorical self?
  • Group behavior  — What characteristics do groups share? How many people constitute a group? What dictates the structure of a group? Why do individuals gravitate to a particular group?
  • Nonverbal behavior  — What nonlinguistic actions communicate thought or meaning? How are nonverbal cues developed and interpreted? What emotions do facial expressions, hand gestures, and other nonverbal behaviors communicate?
  • Conformity  — What prompts individuals to change their perceptions to match that of a group or another person? How does an individual decide to accept influence from another or a group? What is the difference between outward conformity and internal conformity?
  • Prejudice  — What causes someone to harbor prejudice against a member of a different social group? What is the difference between prejudice and discrimination? How are stereotypes used to build perceptions?

Examples of Social Psychology Theories

What social psychology is today can also be described in terms of the theories that social psychology devises to explain human behavior. Consider the following mainstream social psychology theories that include theories of social cognition, group behavior, and identity.

Social Cognition

Social cognition is a subtopic of social psychology. Its focus is the study of how and why we perceive ourselves and others as we do. This is important because, without an understanding of our self-perception, it is impossible to fully grasp how our actions are interpreted by others. Similarly, to understand why others act as they do toward us, we must rely on our perceptions of their thoughts and motivations.

Social psychologists conduct research into how and why certain life experiences influence our perceptions of ourselves and others. This key example of social psychology research seeks to understand how memory is processed and how it influences social cognition.

Early Development of Cognitive Perception

Social cognition research often involves an analysis of environmental factors in the early development of cognitive perception. For example, young children’s perceptions are based on an egocentric view — their views of themselves and the world are shaped by limited experience. They do not yet understand how to interpret their own emotions and actions, let alone those of others.

By adulthood, the ability to perceive emotions and understand behavior has developed with experience. Perceptions are formed and decisions are made based on that experience. A functioning adult can call on experience to answer questions like:

  • Why do I think the way I do about a particular subject or person?
  • How do my actions affect others?
  • How should I respond to the actions of others?

The way individuals learn to answer these and other questions about their self-perception falls under the study of social cognition. Scientists explore the mental processes that affect the interplay among perception, memory, and thought in shaping personality and social interaction.

This information, in turn, helps researchers understand the dynamic between group behavior and the development of an individual’s social identity.

Group Behavior

Why are individuals drawn together to form groups? How does the group influence the behavior of an individual, and vice versa?

A study of group behavior attempts to answer these and other questions related to social cognition. It begins with the basic question: What is a group? There is no set definition of a group, but social psychologists generally agree that a group can be identified as a coherent entity made up of individuals who share certain beliefs or characteristics.

Examples of groups include religious affiliations, scientific societies, and political parties. This definition includes large groups, such as the population of a neighborhood or a city, and smaller groups, such as a nuclear family.

The observable actions of a group make up the definition of group behavior. Social psychologists who study group behavior want to know the underlying motivations of those actions, how they originated, how an individual functions within the group, and the role of leadership in the group dynamic.

For example, how and why do some groups act out of a collective sense of kindness and acceptance, while others seem motivated by prejudice and violence? How does the innate conflict between self-perception and external perception affect an individual’s influence within a group? Not only that, but how and why are individual interests, opinions, and abilities sometimes sublimated to the group’s collective purpose?

Group behavior can be studied through the lens of individual status within the group. The group’s patterns of individual relationships may predict the group’s cohesiveness, and they might help explain how and why one group is more productive than another.

An understanding of group behavior helps explain why individuals might make certain decisions under the influence of a group that they would not have made alone. This kind of personality change — a shift based on group membership — is covered under the topic of social identity theory.

Social Identity Theory

Psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner studied the effects of group membership on self-perception. They formulated social identity theory, which seeks to explain the relationship between group membership and the reinforcement of individual qualities such as pride and self-esteem.

According to Tajfel and Turner, individuals gravitate toward groups that are composed of people they admire or with whom they agree on important matters. Group members perceive themselves, at least in part, through the lens of their membership; they see themselves reflected by other members.

People who belong to groups are linked and governed by similarities. Group members’ self-identity is based on the shared attitudes, beliefs, and moral standards of the group. This explains why individuals in a group might act differently than they would act if they did not belong to the group. They behave as they believe a member of the group should behave, rather than acting out of personal motivation.

Another aspect of social identity theory is the tendency toward tribalism, or embracing “in-groups” while rejecting “out-groups.” The group socialization of an individual takes place in stages, according to Tajfel and Turner:

  • Categorization  — Separating individuals based on characteristics such as ethnicity, occupation, or belief system
  • Social identification  — Adopting the characteristics of a particular group
  • Social comparison  — Seeking to draw favorable contrasts with other groups

Once individuals have thoroughly established their self-perception based on membership in an “in-group,” their mindset and behavior begin to reflect the expectations of the group.

In this way, individual social identity is sublimated to the group. Personal identity is exchanged for a sense of belonging, safety, and well-being.

Typical Social Psychology Curriculum

Social psychologists generally need to earn an advanced degree to work in clinical,  counseling , or research contexts.  Careers for psychology bachelor’s degree graduates  are available in the fields of human resources, market analytics, and survey research. Graduates who go on to earn a master’s degree or higher, such as a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree, may become qualified to work as social psychologists.

The typical social psychology  bachelor’s degree curriculum  includes courses in psychological research methods, research design, and applied statistics as well as courses in psychological theory, such as in abnormal psychology and developmental psychology across the lifespan.

Some social psychology professionals work in academic settings, conducting research and teaching students, while others work in applied settings, such as in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private corporations. Social psychology professionals may also work as consultants, helping individuals and organizations understand and manage social dynamics in their environments.

Pursue a Career in Social Psychology

A career in social psychology feeds a passion for understanding what motivates human behavior, and it requires extensive training in empirical research methods. What social psychology is has everything to do with the expertise that researchers develop in human relationships, self-perception, group dynamics, leadership, and many other areas of psychology.

Social psychology research is vital across multiple disciplines, including business, healthcare, economics, political science, and education. Are you interested in becoming a social psychology professional and doing this important work? Become immersed in the study of human behavior and psychological research by earning a Maryville University  online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology .

Recommended Readings

Forensic Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology: Choosing a Path

Marketing Psychology: Inside the Consumer’s Mind

Social Isolation Impact on Cognitive Health

American Psychological Association, Social Psychology

American Psychological Association, Social Psychology Studies Human Interactions

The Mead Project, “The Relations of Sociology and Social Psychology”

Simply Psychology, “Social Facilitation Theory: Definition and Examples”

Simply Psychology, “Social Identity Theory: Definition, History, Examples, & Facts”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

Verywell Mind, “5 Important Concepts in Social Psychology”

Verywell Mind, “An Overview of Social Psychology”

Verywell Mind, “Social Cognition in Psychology: The Way We Think About Others”

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5 Important Social Psychology Concepts

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

short essay on social psychology

Sean is a fact-checker and researcher with experience in sociology, field research, and data analytics.

short essay on social psychology

Social Behavior Is Goal-Oriented

Situations help determine outcome, social situations form self-concept, we analyze the behavior of others, we believe behavior reflects personality.

Key social psychology concepts focus on different aspects of social behavior, including topics such as social cognition, social influence, prejudice, groupthink, and attitude formation.

Social psychology is a branch of psychology concerned with how social influences affect how people think, feel, and act. The way we perceive ourselves in relation to the rest of the world plays an important role in our choices, behaviors, and beliefs. Conversely, the opinions of others also impact our behavior and the way we view ourselves.

At a Glance

Understanding social psychology can be helpful for many reasons, including giving us a better understanding of how groups impact our choices and actions. This article explores some fundamental aspects of social behavior that play a significant role in our actions and how we see ourselves.

One essential social psychology concept is that our interactions serve goals or fulfill needs. Some common goals or needs include:

  • The need for social ties
  • The desire to understand ourselves and others
  • The wish to gain or maintain status or protection
  • The need to attract companions

The way people behave is often driven by the desire to fulfill these needs. People seek friends and romantic partners, strive to gain social status, and attempt to understand the motivations that guide other people's behaviors.

Another key social psychological concept is that people often behave very differently depending on the situation. To fully understand why people do what they do, it is essential to look at individual characteristics, the situation and its context, and the interactions among all these variables.

For example, someone who is usually quiet and reserved might become much more outgoing when placed in a leadership role. Another example is how people sometimes behave differently in groups than they would if they were alone.

Environmental and situational variables play an essential role in how people behave. Both can have a strong influence on our behavior.

Social psychology allows us to gain a greater appreciation for how our social perceptions affect our interactions with other people.

Another important social psychological concept is that social interactions help form our self-concept and our perceptions.

  • Reflected appraisal : One method of forming self-concept is through the reflected appraisal process , in which we imagine how other people see us.
  • Social comparison : Another method is through the social comparison process , whereby we consider how we compare to other people in our peer group.

Sometimes we engage in upward social comparison where we rate ourselves against people who are better off than us in some way. In other instances, we might engage in downward social comparison where we contrast our abilities to those of others who are less capable.

Social psychology is also concerned with understanding how people think about what others are thinking, feeling, and doing. This area of social psychology is known as social cognition, and it involves the processes that allow us to interpret and respond to the social signals around us.

Expectation confirmation is one common social psychological concept that can influence how we interpret other people's behavior. It happens when we tend to ignore unexpected attributes and look for evidence that confirms our preexisting beliefs about others.

This helps simplify our worldview. However, it also skews our perception and can contribute to stereotyping.

If you expect people to behave in a certain way, you might look for examples that confirm your belief while at the same time ignoring evidence that conflicts with your existing opinions.

Another influence on our perceptions of other people can be explained by the theory of correspondent inferences. This occurs when we infer that the actions and behaviors of others correspond to their intentions and personalities.

For example, if we see a woman helping an elderly person cross the street, we might assume she is kind-hearted. While behavior can be informative, it can also be misleading.

If we have limited interaction with someone, the behavior we see may be atypical or caused by the specific situation rather than by the person's overriding dispositional characteristics.

In the previous example, the woman might only be helping the elderly person because she has been employed to do so instead of out of the kindness of her heart.

What This Means For You

Learning more about social psychology can enrich your understanding of yourself and your world. By learning more about how people view others, how they behave in groups, and how attitudes are formed, you can gain a greater appreciation for how social relationships influence individual functioning.

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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Chapter 1. Introducing Social Psychology

1.1 Defining Social Psychology: History and Principles

Learning Objectives

  • Define  social psychology .
  • Review the history of the field of social psychology and the topics that social psychologists study.
  • Summarize the principles of evolutionary psychology.
  • Describe and provide examples of the person-situation interaction.
  • Review the concepts of (a) social norms and (b) cultures.

The field of social psychology is growing rapidly and is having an increasingly important influence on how we think about human behavior. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media frequently report the findings of social psychologists, and the results of social psychological research are influencing decisions in a wide variety of areas. Let’s begin with a short history of the field of social psychology and then turn to a review of the basic principles of the science of social psychology.

The History of Social Psychology

The science of social psychology began when scientists first started to systematically and formally measure the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of human beings (Kruglanski & Stroebe, 2011). The earliest social psychology experiments on group behavior were conducted before 1900 (Triplett, 1898), and the first social psychology textbooks were published in 1908 (McDougall, 1908/2003; Ross, 1908/1974). During the 1940s and 1950s, the social psychologists Kurt Lewin and Leon Festinger refined the experimental approach to studying behavior, creating social psychology as a rigorous scientific discipline. Lewin is sometimes known as “the father of social psychology” because he initially developed many of the important ideas of the discipline, including a focus on the dynamic interactions among people. In 1954, Festinger edited an influential book called Research Methods in the Behavioral Sciences , in which he and other social psychologists stressed the need to measure variables and to use laboratory experiments to systematically test research hypotheses about social behavior. He also noted that it might be necessary in these experiments to deceive the participants about the true nature of the research.

Social psychology was energized by researchers who attempted to understand how the German dictator Adolf Hitler could have produced such extreme obedience and horrendous behaviors in his followers during the World War II. The studies on conformity conducted by Muzafir Sherif (1936) and Solomon Asch (1952), as well as those on obedience by Stanley Milgram (1974), showed the importance of conformity pressures in social groups and how people in authority could create obedience, even to the extent of leading people to cause severe harm to others. Philip Zimbardo, in his well-known “prison study” (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973), found that the interactions of male college students who were recruited to play the roles of guards and prisoners in a simulated prison became so violent that the study had to be terminated early.

Social psychology quickly expanded to study other topics. John Darley and Bibb Latané (1968) developed a model that helped explain when people do and do not help others in need, and Leonard Berkowitz (1974) pioneered the study of human aggression. Meanwhile, other social psychologists, including Irving Janis (1972), focused on group behavior, studying why intelligent people sometimes made decisions that led to disastrous results when they worked together. Still other social psychologists, including Gordon Allport and Muzafir Sherif, focused on intergroup relations, with the goal of understanding and potentially reducing the occurrence of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Social psychologists gave their opinions in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case that helped end racial segregation in American public schools, and social psychologists still frequently serve as expert witnesses on these and other topics (Fiske, Bersoff, Borgida, Deaux, & Heilman, 1991). In recent years insights from social psychology have even been used to design anti-violence programs in societies that have experienced genocide (Staub, Pearlman, & Bilali, 2010).

The latter part of the 20th century saw an expansion of social psychology into the field of attitudes, with a particular emphasis on cognitive processes. During this time, social psychologists developed the first formal models of persuasion, with the goal of understanding how advertisers and other people could present their messages to make them most effective (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1963). These approaches to attitudes focused on the cognitive processes that people use when evaluating messages and on the relationship between attitudes and behavior. Leon Festinger’s important cognitive dissonance theory was developed during this time and became a model for later research (Festinger, 1957).

In the 1970s and 1980s, social psychology became even more cognitive in orientation as social psychologists used advances in cognitive psychology, which were themselves based largely on advances in computer technology, to inform the field (Fiske & Taylor, 2008). The focus of these researchers, including Alice Eagly, Susan Fiske, E. Tory Higgins, Richard Nisbett, Lee Ross, Shelley Taylor, and many others, was on social cognition — an understanding of how our knowledge about our social worlds develops through experience and the influence of these knowledge structures on memory, information processing, attitudes, and judgment. Furthermore, the extent to which humans’ decision making could be flawed due to both cognitive and motivational processes was documented (Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982).

In the 21st century, the field of social psychology has been expanding into still other areas. Examples that we consider in this book include an interest in how social situations influence our health and happiness, the important roles of evolutionary experiences and cultures on our behavior, and the field of social neuroscience — the study of how our social behavior both influences and is influenced by the activities of our brain (Lieberman, 2010). Social psychologists continue to seek new ways to measure and understand social behavior, and the field continues to evolve. We cannot predict where social psychology will be directed in the future, but we have no doubt that it will still be alive and vibrant.

The Person and the Social Situation

Social psychology is the study of the dynamic relationship between individuals and the people around them. Each of us is different, and our individual characteristics, including our personality traits, desires, motivations, and emotions, have an important impact on our social behavior. But our behavior is also profoundly influenced by the social situation — the people with whom we interact every day . These people include our friends and family, our classmates, our religious groups, the people we see on TV or read about or interact with online, as well as people we think about, remember, or even imagine.

Social psychologists believe that human behavior is determined by both a person’s characteristics and the social situation. They also believe that the social situation is frequently a stronger influence on behavior than are a person’s characteristics.

Social psychology is largely the study of the social situation. Our social situations create social influence — the process through which other people change our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and through which we change theirs . Maybe you can already see how social influence affected Raoul Wallenberg’s choices and how he in turn influenced others around him.

Kurt Lewin formalized the joint influence of person variables and situational variables, which is known as the person-situation interaction , in an important equation:

Behavior = f (person, social situation).

Lewin’s equation indicates that the behavior of a given person at any given time is a function of (depends on) both the characteristics of the person and the influence of the social situation.

Evolutionary Adaptation and Human Characteristics

In Lewin’s equation, person refers to the characteristics of the individual human being. People are born with skills that allow them to successfully interact with others in their social world. Newborns are able to recognize faces and to respond to human voices, young children learn language and develop friendships with other children, adolescents become interested in sex and are destined to fall in love, most adults marry and have children, and most people usually get along with others.

People have these particular characteristics because we have all been similarly shaped through human evolution. The genetic code that defines human beings has provided us with specialized social skills that are important to survival. Just as keen eyesight, physical strength, and resistance to disease helped our ancestors survive, so too did the tendency to engage in social behaviors. We quickly make judgments about other people, help other people who are in need, and enjoy working together in social groups because these behaviors helped our ancestors to adapt and were passed along on their genes to the next generation (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2008; Barrett & Kurzban, 2006; Pinker, 2002). Our extraordinary social skills are primarily due to our large brains and the social intelligence that they provide us with (Herrmann, Call, Hernández-Lloreda, Hare, & Tomasello, 2007).

The assumption that human nature, including much of our social behavior, is determined largely by our evolutionary past is known as evolutionary adaptation (Buss & Kenrick, 1998; Workman & Reader, 2008). In evolutionary theory, fitness  refers to the extent to which having a given characteristic helps the individual organism to survive and to reproduce at a higher rate than do other members of the species who do not have the characteristic . Fitter organisms pass on their genes more successfully to later generations, making the characteristics that produce fitness more likely to become part of the organisms’ nature than are characteristics that do not produce fitness. For example, it has been argued that the emotion of jealousy has survived over time in men because men who experience jealousy are more fit than men who do not. According to this idea, the experience of jealousy leads men to protect their mates and guard against rivals, which increases their reproductive success (Buss, 2000).

Although our biological makeup prepares us to be human beings, it is important to remember that our genes do not really determine who we are. Rather, genes provide us with our human characteristics, and these characteristics give us the tendency to behave in a “human” way. And yet each human being is different from every other human being.

Evolutionary adaption has provided us with two fundamental motivations that guide us and help us lead productive and effective lives. One of these motivations relates to the self— the motivation to protect and enhance the self and the people who are psychologically close to us ; the other relates to the social situation— the motivation to affiliate with, accept, and be accepted by others . We will refer to these two motivations as self-concern and other-concern , respectively.


The most basic tendency of all living organisms, and the focus of the first human motivation, is the desire to protect and enhance our own life and the lives of the people who are close to us. Humans are motivated to find food and water, to obtain adequate shelter, and to protect themselves from danger. Doing so is necessary because we can survive only if we are able to meet these fundamental goals.

The desire to maintain and enhance the self also leads us to do the same for our relatives—those people who are genetically related to us. Human beings, like other animals, exhibit kin selection — strategies that favor the reproductive success of one’s relatives, sometimes even at a cost to the individual’s own survival . According to evolutionary principles, kin selection occurs because behaviors that enhance the fitness of relatives, even if they lower the fitness of the individual himself or herself, may nevertheless increase the survival of the group as a whole.

a family picture

In addition to our kin, we desire to protect, improve, and enhance the well-being of our ingroup — those we view as being similar and important to us and with whom we share close social connections , even if those people do not actually share our genes. Perhaps you remember a time when you helped friends move all their furniture into a new home, even though you would have preferred to be doing something more beneficial for yourself, such as studying or relaxing. You wouldn’t have helped strangers in this way, but you did it for your friends because you felt close to and cared about them. The tendency to help the people we feel close to, even if they are not related to us, is probably due in part to our evolutionary past: the people we were closest to were usually those we were related to.


Although we are primarily concerned with the survival of ourselves, our kin, and those who we feel are similar and important to us, we also desire to connect with and be accepted by other people more generally—the goal of other-concern . We live together in communities, we work together in work groups, we may worship together in religious groups, and we may play together on sports teams and through clubs. Affiliating with other people—even strangers—helps us meet a fundamental goal: that of finding a romantic partner with whom we can have children. Our connections with others also provide us with opportunities that we would not have on our own. We can go to the grocery store to buy milk or eggs, and we can hire a carpenter to build a house for us. And we ourselves do work that provides goods and services for others. This mutual cooperation is beneficial both for us and for the people around us. We also affiliate because we enjoy being with others, being part of social groups, and contributing to social discourse (Leary & Cox, 2008).

What the other-concern motive means is that we do not always put ourselves first. Being human also involves caring about, helping, and cooperating with other people. Although our genes are themselves “selfish” (Dawkins, 2006), this does not mean that individuals always are. The survival of our own genes may be improved by helping others, even those who are not related to us (Krebs, 2008; Park, Schaller, & Van Vugt, 2008). Just as birds and other animals may give out alarm calls to other animals to indicate that a predator is nearby, humans engage in altruistic behaviors in which they help others, sometimes at a potential cost to themselves.

In short, human beings behave morally toward others—they understand that it is wrong to harm other people without a strong reason for doing so, and they display compassion and even altruism toward others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010; Turiel, 1983). As a result, negative behaviors toward others, such as bullying, cheating, stealing, and aggression, are unusual, unexpected, and socially disapproved. Of course this does not mean that people are always friendly, helpful, and nice to each other—powerful social situations can and do create negative behaviors. But the fundamental human motivation of other-concern does mean that hostility and violence are the exception rather than the rule of human behavior.

Sometimes the goals of self-concern and other-concern go hand in hand. When we fall in love with another person, it is in part about a concern for connecting with someone else but is also about self-concern—falling in love makes us feel good about ourselves. And when we volunteer to help others who are in need, it is in part for their benefit but also for us. We feel good when we help others. At other times, however, the goals of self-concern and other-concern conflict. Imagine that you are walking across campus and you see a man with a knife threatening another person. Do you intervene, or do you turn away? In this case, your desire to help the other person (other-concern) is in direct conflict with your desire to protect yourself from the danger posed by the situation (self-concern), and you must decide which goal to put first. We will see many more examples of the motives of self-concern and other-concern, both working together and working against each other, throughout this book.

a collage of pictures of people and monkeys socializing with each other

The Social Situation Creates Powerful Social Influence

When people are asked to indicate the things they value the most, they usually mention their social situation—that is, their relationships with other people (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Fiske & Haslam, 1996). When we work together on a class project, volunteer at a homeless shelter, or serve on a jury in a courtroom trial, we count on others to work with us to get the job done. We develop social bonds with those people, and we expect that they will come through to help us meet our goals. The importance of others shows up in every aspect of our lives—other people teach us what we should and shouldn’t do, what we should and shouldn’t think, and even what we should and shouldn’t like and dislike.

In addition to the people with whom we are currently interacting, we are influenced by people who are not physically present but who are nevertheless part of our thoughts and feelings. Imagine that you are driving home on a deserted country road late at night. No cars are visible in any direction, and you can see for miles. You come to a stop sign. What do you do? Most likely, you stop at the sign, or at least slow down. You do so because the behavior has been internalized: even though no one is there to watch you, others are still influencing you—you’ve learned about the rules and laws of society, what’s right and what’s wrong, and you tend to obey them. We carry our own personal social situations—our experiences with our parents, teachers, leaders, authorities, and friends—around with us every day.

An important principle of social psychology, one that will be with us throughout this book, is that although individuals’ characteristics do matter, the social situation is often a stronger determinant of behavior than is personality. When social psychologists analyze an event such as the Holocaust, they are likely to focus more on the characteristics of the situation (e.g., the strong leader and the group pressure provided by the other group members) than on the characteristics of the perpetrators themselves. As an example, we will see that even ordinary people who are neither bad nor evil in any way can nevertheless be placed in situations in which an authority figure is able to lead them to engage in evil behaviors, such as applying potentially lethal levels of electrical shock (Milgram, 1974).

In addition to discovering the remarkable extent to which our behavior is influenced by our social situation, social psychologists have discovered that we often do not recognize how important the social situation is in determining behavior. We often wrongly think that we and others act entirely on our own accord, without any external influences. It is tempting to assume that the people who commit extreme acts, such as terrorists or members of suicide cults, are unusual or extreme people. And yet much research suggests that these behaviors are caused more by the social situation than they are by the characteristics of the individuals and that it is wrong to focus so strongly on explanations of individuals’ characteristics (Gilbert & Malone, 1995).

There is perhaps no clearer example of the powerful influence of the social situation than that found in research showing the enormous role that others play in our physical and mental health. ƒC (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Diener, Tamir, & Scollon, 2006).

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

How the Social Situation Influences Our Mental and Physical Health

In comparison with those who do not feel that they have a network of others they can rely on, people who feel that they have adequate social support report being happier and have also been found to have fewer psychological problems, including eating disorders and mental illness (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Diener, Tamir, & Scollon, 2006).

People with social support are less depressed overall, recover faster from negative events, and are less likely to commit suicide (Au, Lau, & Lee, 2009; Bertera, 2007; Compton, Thompson, & Kaslow, 2005; Skärsäter, Langius, Ågren, Häagström, & Dencker, 2005). Married people report being happier than unmarried people (Pew, 2006), and overall, a happy marriage is an excellent form of social support. One of the goals of effective psychotherapy is to help people generate better social support networks because such relationships have such a positive effect on mental health.

In addition to having better mental health, people who have adequate social support are more physically healthy. They have fewer diseases (such as tuberculosis, heart attacks, and cancer), live longer, have lower blood pressure, and have fewer deaths at all ages (Cohen & Wills, 1985; Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996). Sports psychologists have even found that individuals with higher levels of social support are less likely to be injured playing sports and recover more quickly from injuries they do receive (Hardy, Richman, & Rosenfeld, 1991). These differences appear to be due to the positive effects of social support on physiological functioning, including the immune system.

The opposite of social support is the feeling of being excluded or ostracized. Feeling that others are excluding us is painful, and the pain of rejection may linger even longer than physical pain. People who were asked to recall an event that caused them social pain (e.g., betrayal by a person very close to them) rated the pain as more intense than they rated their memories of intense physical pain (Chen, Williams, Fitness, & Newton, 2008). When people are threatened with social exclusion, they subsequently express greater interest in making new friends, increase their desire to work cooperatively with others, form more positive first impressions of new potential interaction partners, and even become more able to discriminate between real smiles and fake smiles (Bernstein, Young, Brown, Sacco, & Claypool, 2008; Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007).

Because connecting with others is such an important part of human experience, we may sometimes withhold affiliation from or ostracize other people in order to attempt to force them to conform to our wishes. When individuals of the Amish religion violate the rulings of an elder, they are placed under a Meidung . During this time, and until they make amends, they are not spoken to by community members. And people frequently use the “silent treatment” to express their disapproval of a friend’s or partner’s behavior. The pain of ostracism is particularly strong in adolescents (Sebastian, Viding, Williams, & Blakemore, 2010).

The use of ostracism has also been observed in parents and children, and even in Internet games and chat rooms (Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000).The silent treatment and other forms of ostracism are popular because they work. Withholding social communication and interaction is a powerful weapon for punishing individuals and forcing them to change their behaviors. Individuals who are ostracized report feeling alone, frustrated, sad, and unworthy and having lower self-esteem (Bastian & Haslam, 2010).

Taken together, then, social psychological research results suggest that one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to develop a stable support network. Reaching out to other people benefits those who become your friends (because you are in their support network) and has substantial benefits for you.

Social Influence Creates Social Norms

In some cases, social influence occurs rather passively, without any obvious intent of one person to influence another, such as when we learn about and adopt the beliefs and behaviors of the people around us, often without really being aware that we are doing so. Social influence occurs when a young child adopts the beliefs and values of his or her parents, or when someone starts to like jazz music, without really being aware of it, because a roommate plays a lot of it. In other cases, social influence is anything but subtle; it involves one or more individuals actively attempting to change the beliefs or behaviors of others, as is evident in the attempts of the members of a jury to get a dissenting member to change his or her opinion, the use of a popular sports figure to encourage children to buy certain products, or the messages that cult leaders give to their followers to encourage them to engage in the behaviors required of the group.

One outcome of social influence is the development of social norms — the ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving that are shared by group members and perceived by them as appropriate (Asch, 1955; Cialdini, 1993). Norms include customs, traditions, standards, and rules, as well as the general values of the group. Through norms, we learn what people actually do (“people in the United States are more likely to eat scrambled eggs in the morning and spaghetti in the evening, rather than vice versa”) and also what we should do (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and shouldn’t do (“do not make racist jokes”). There are norms about almost every possible social behavior, and these norms have a big influence on our actions.

Different Cultures Have Different Norms

The social norms that guide our everyday behaviors and that create social influence derive in large part from our culture. A culture represents a group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms, including religious and family values and moral beliefs (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Matsumoto, 2001).  The culture in which we live affects our thoughts, feelings, and behavior through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission (Mesoudi, 2009). It is not inappropriate to say that our culture defines our lives just as much as our evolutionary experience does.

Cultures differ in terms of the particular norms that they find important and that guide the behavior of the group members. Social psychologists have found that there is a fundamental difference in social norms between Western cultures (including the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) and East Asian cultures (including China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia). Norms in Western cultures are primarily oriented toward individualism — cultural norms, common in Western societies, that focus primarily on self-enhancement and independence . Children in Western cultures are taught to develop and value a sense of their personal self and to see themselves as largely separate from the people around them. Children in Western cultures feel special about themselves—they enjoy getting gold stars on their projects and the best grade in the class (Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997). Adults in Western cultures are oriented toward promoting their own individual success, frequently in comparison with (or even at the expense of) others. When asked to describe themselves, individuals in Western cultures generally tend to indicate that they like to “do their own thing,” prefer to live their lives independently, and base their happiness and self-worth on their own personal achievements. In short, in Western cultures the emphasis is on self-concern.

Norms in the East Asian cultures, on the other hand, are more focused on other-concern. These norms indicate that people should be more fundamentally connected with others and thus are more oriented toward interdependence , or collectivism . In East Asian cultures, children are taught to focus on developing harmonious social relationships with others, and the predominant norms relate to group togetherness, connectedness, and duty and responsibility to their family. The members of East Asian cultures, when asked to describe themselves, indicate that they are particularly concerned about the interests of others, including their close friends and their colleagues. As one example of these cultural differences, research conducted by Shinobu Kitayama and his colleagues (Uchida, Norasakkunkit, & Kitayama, 2004) found that East Asians were more likely than Westerners to experience happiness as a result of their connections with other people, whereas Westerners were more likely to experience happiness as a result of their own personal accomplishments.

an Asian family playing Monopoly and a Caucasian female walking a dog by herself

Other researchers have studied other cultural differences, such as variations in orientations toward time. Some cultures are more concerned with arriving and departing according to a fixed schedule, whereas others consider time in a more flexible manner (Levine & Norenzayan, 1999). Levine and colleagues (1999) found that “the pace of life,” as assessed by average walking speed in downtown locations and the speed with which postal clerks completed a simple request, was fastest in Western countries (but also in Japan) and slowest in economically undeveloped countries. It has also been argued that there are differences in the extent to which people in different cultures are bound by social norms and customs, rather than being free to express their own individuality without regard to considering social norms (Gelfand et al., 1996). And there are also cultural differences regarding personal space, such as how close individuals stand to each other when talking, as well as differences in the communication styles individuals employ.

It is important to be aware of cultures and cultural differences, at least in part because people with different cultural backgrounds are increasingly coming into contact with each other as a result of increased travel and immigration, and the development of the Internet and other forms of communication. In Canada, for instance, there are many different ethnic groups, and the proportion of the population that comes from minority (non-White) groups is increasing from year to year. Minorities will account for a much larger proportion of the total new entries into the Canadian workforce over the next decades. Roughly 21% of the Canadian population is foreign-born, which is easily the highest among G8 countries. By 2031, visible minorities are projected to make up 63% of the population of Toronto and 59% of Vancouver (Statistics Canada, 2011). Although these changes create the potential for greater cultural understanding and productive interaction, they may also produce unwanted social conflict. Being aware of cultural differences and considering their influence on how we behave toward others is an important part of a basic understanding of social psychology and a topic that we will return to frequently in this book.

Key Takeaways

  • The history of social psychology includes the study of attitudes, group behavior, altruism and aggression, culture, prejudice, and many other topics.
  • Social psychologists study real-world problems using a scientific approach.
  • Thinking about your own interpersonal interactions from the point of view of social psychology can help you better understand and respond to them.
  • Social psychologists study the person-situation interaction: how characteristics of the person and characteristics of the social situation interact to determine behavior.
  • Many human social behaviors have been selected by evolutionary adaptation.
  • The social situation creates social norms—shared ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
  • Cultural differences—for instance, in individualistic versus collectivistic orientations—guide our everyday behavior.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  • Go to the website Social Psychology Network and click on two of the “psychology headlines from around the world” presented on the right-hand side of the page. Read through the two articles and write a short (120 words) summary of each.
  • Consider a recent situation from your personal experience in which you focused on an individual and a cause of his or her behaviour. Could you reinterpret their behavior using a situational explanation?
  • Go to the website Historic Figures in Social Psychology and choose one of the important figures in social psychology listed there. Prepare a brief (250 word) report about how this person contributed to the field of social psychology.

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An understanding of how our knowledge about our social worlds develops through experience and the influence of these knowledge structures on memory, information processing, attitudes, and judgment.

The study of how our social behavior both influences and is influenced by the activities of our brain.

The people with whom we interact every day.

The process through which other people change our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and through which we change theirs.

The assumption that human nature, including much of our social behavior, is determined largely by our evolutionary past.

The extent to which having a given characteristic helps the individual organism to survive and to reproduce at a higher rate than do other members of the species who do not have the characteristic.

The motivation to protect and enhance the self and the people who are psychologically close to us.

The motivation to affiliate with, accept, and be accepted by others.

Strategies that favor the reproductive success of one’s relatives, sometimes even at a cost to the individual’s own survival.

Those we view as being similar and important to us and with whom we share close social connections.

The ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving that are shared by group members and perceived by them as appropriate.

A group of people, normally living within a given geographical region, who share a common set of social norms, including religious and family values and moral beliefs.

Cultural norms, common in Western societies, that focus primarily on self-enhancement and independence.

Cultural norms that indicate that people should be more fundamentally connected with others and thus are more oriented toward interdependence.

Principles of Social Psychology - 1st International H5P Edition Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani and Dr. Hammond Tarry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Social Sci LibreTexts

1: Introducing Social Psychology

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Social psychology is the scientific study of how we feel about, think about, and behave toward the people around us and how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are influenced by those people. As this definition suggests, the subject matter of social psychology is very broad and can be found in just about everything that we do every day.

  • 1.1: Prelude to Social Psychology
  • 1.2: Affect, Behavior, and Cognition Social psychology is based on the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition. In order to effectively maintain and enhance our own lives through successful interaction with others, we rely on these three basic and interrelated human capacities: Affect (feelings), Behavior (interactions), and Cognition (thought). Human beings rely on the three capacities which work together to help them create successful social interactions.
  • 1.3: Conducting Research in Social Psychology Social psychologists are not the only people interested in understanding and predicting social behavior or the only people who study it. Social behavior is also considered by religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, novelists, and others, and it is a common topic on TV shows. But the social-psychological approach to understanding social behavior goes beyond the mere observation of human actions.
  • 1.4: Chapter Summary The science of social psychology began when scientists first started to systematically and formally measure the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of human beings. Social psychology was energized by a number of researchers who came to the United States from Germany during the Second World War. The 1950s and 1960s saw an expansion of social psychology into the field of attitudes and group processes.
  • 1.5: Defining Social Psychology- History and Principles The field of social psychology is growing rapidly and is having an increasingly important influence on how we think about human behavior. Newspapers, websites, and other media frequently report the findings of social psychologists, and the results of social psychological research are influencing decisions in a wide variety of areas. Let’s begin with a short history of the field of social psychology and then turn to a review of the basic principles of the science of social psychology.
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Social Psychology: A Very Short Introduction

Social Psychology: A Very Short Introduction

Social Psychology: A Very Short Introduction

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Social Psychology: A Very Short Introduction tells the story of social psychology, its history, concepts, and major theories. Discussing the classic studies that have defined the discipline, it introduces social psychology’s key thinkers, and shows how their personal histories spurred them to understand what connects people to people, and the societies in which we live. Taking us from the first ideas of the discipline to its most cutting-edge developments, it demonstrates how social psychology remains profoundly relevant to everyday life. From attitudes to attraction, prejudice to persuasion, health to happiness—social psychology provides insights that can change the world, and help us tackle the defining problems of the 21st century.

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Module 1: Introduction to Social Psychology

Module Overview                              

In our first module we will examine the field of social psychology and how it relates to personality psychology and differs from sociology by clarifying the level of analysis and differences in methods used. We will then embark upon a historical journey to see where the field has come from and where it is going. Finally, we will examine professional societies and journals as they relate to social psychology and share links to blogs and newsfeeds on current research in this subfield.

Module Outline

1.1. What is Social Psychology?

1.2. social psychology…then, 1.3. social psychology…now, 1.4. connecting with other social psychologists.

Module Learning Outcomes

  • Clarify similarities and differences between social psychology, personality psychology, and sociology.
  • Outline the history of social psychology.
  • Describe the status of the subfield today….and in the future.
  • Identify ways in which social psychologists can connect with one another.

Section Learning Objectives

  • Define psychology and deconstruct the definition.
  • Define social.
  • Contrast social psychology and sociology.
  • Clarify how social and personality psychology intersect.
  • Describe general methods used by social psychologists.
  • Distinguish between basic and applied science.
  • Compare and contrast how social psychology, sociology, and personality psychology tackle the same general issue by evaluating empirical articles from a journal in each field.

1.1.1. Defining Terms

Our discussion of social psychology will start by defining a few key terms, or what social and psychology mean separately. We will tackle the latter, then the former, and then put it all together. First up, the latter. Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.  Yes, that is correct. Psychology is scientific . Psychology utilizes the same scientific process and methods used by disciplines such as biology and chemistry. We will discuss this in more detail in Module 2 so please just keep this in the back of your mind for now. Second, it is the study of behavior and mental processes. Psychology desires to not only understand why people engage in the behavior that they do, but also how. What is going on in the brain to control the movement of our arms and legs when running downfield to catch the game winning touchdown, what affects the words we choose to say when madly in love, how do we interpret an event as benign or a threat when a loud sound is heard, and what makes an individual view another group in less than favorable terms? These are just a few of the questions that we ask as psychologists.

Now to the former – social. According to Oxford Dictionaries online, social is defined as relating to society or its organization. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “tending to form cooperative and interdependent relationships with others” ( ). Another form of the word implies a desire to be around people such as being a social butterfly. Really, both forms of the word are useful for the discussion to come in this textbook.

We now address their combination. Social psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes as they relate to how people interact with, or relate to, others. Our starting point is on the person, and not society. The latter is the focus of the field called sociology , or the study of society or groups, both large and small. According to the American Sociological Association ( ), sociology is a social science which involves studying the social lives of people, groups, and societies; studying our behavior as social beings; scientifically investigating social aggregations; and is “an overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics.”

In contrast, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (Division 8 of the American Psychological Association; ; SPSP) defines social psychology as the “scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.” The study of social psychology occurs in a social context meaning the individual as they relate to others and is affected by others.

Personality and social psychology go hand-in-hand and so we should define personality psychology too. Simply, personality psychology is the scientific study of individual differences in people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how these come together as a whole.  A social psychologist may investigate whether an individual helped another person due to a situational or personal factor, while a personality psychologist would examine whether a certain personality type is more likely to make situational or dispositional attributions or look for traits that govern helping behavior.

1.1.2. How Social Psychologists Do Their Work?

The answer to the question guiding this section is really quite simple – observation . Psychology, as most fields in science, operates by observing the world around the observer. We take note of the actions of others in relation to tragic events such as a natural disaster or school shooting, how lovers behave in public and query them about their actions behind close doors, and a person’s reaction to the opening of a new restaurant or receiving poor service (and subsequent tipping behavior).  Observation alone is not enough.

Once we take note of these different types of behaviors, we have to find a way to measure it and eventually record the behavior. If we want to study public displays of affection (PDAs) we have to clearly state what these displays are or how they will appear so we know for sure that they have occurred. This might be a gentle touch, an embrace, a passionate kiss or maybe just a quick one. Once we know what it is we are observing, we can record its occurrence in a notebook, through the use of a video recorder, in conjunction with another observer, or with a golf stroke counter.

Finally, scientists seek to manipulate the conditions in which people experience the world to see what the effect is on their social behavior. This is the hallmark of experimentation as you will come to see in Module 2.

So how do social psychologists do what they do? They observe the world, measure and record behavior, and then manipulate the conditions under which such behavior may occur so that they can make causal statements about social behavior.

1.1.3. Two Forms Their Work Might Take

Science has two forms – basic/pure and applied. Basic science is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of the knowledge and nothing else while applied science desires to find solutions to real-world problems. You might think of it like this – the researcher decides on a question to investigate in pure science, but an outside source identifies the research question/problem in applied science. Of course, this is not always the case. A social psychologist doing basic research may focus on questions related to people’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings such as why do people treat outgroup members differently than ingroup members, why do first impressions matter so much, why do we help people in some situations but not others, and why are we attracted to some people but not others? Applied social scientists would in turn use this research to develop K-12 programs to promote the toleration of those who are different than us, help people interviewing for a job to make a good first impression, develop stealthy interventions that encourage altruistic behavior, or encourage people to interact favorably with all regardless of our attraction to them.

As the Society for Personality and Social Psychology states on their website, “Of course, the distinction between basic and applied research is often a fuzzy one. One can certainly perform basic research in applied domains, and the findings from each type of research enrich the other. Indeed, it would be fair to say that most personality and social psychologists have both basic and applied interests” ( ).

1.1.4. Comparing the Approach to Research Across Three Disciplines Exploring a social issue. One way to really understand the differences between the seemingly inter-related disciplines of social psychology, personality psychology, and sociology is to explore how each deal with a specific social issue. For the purposes of our discussion, we will tackle the obesity epidemic. Sociology . Our focus will be on the article “Obesity is in the eye of the beholder: BMI and socioeconomic outcomes across cohorts” written by Vida Maralani and Douglas McKee of Cornell University in 2017 and published in the journal Sociological Science . The study begs the question of whether the threshold for being “too fat” is a static or fluid concept as it pertains to socioeconomic outcomes. The researchers used two nationally representative birth cohorts of Americans from the 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The sample from 1979 included 5,890 respondents aged 14 to 22 and the 1997 sample included 6,082 participants aged 12 to 17. The relationship between body mass and the socioeconomic outcomes of wages, the probability of being married, and total family income were studied across the domains of work and marriage. In the two cohorts the authors analyzed the outcomes separately for each of four social groups (white men, black men, white women, and black women).

The results showed that the patterns for those who are considered “too fat” or “too thin” differ systematically by gender, race, and social outcome, and “…the association between BMI and social outcomes is often not constant within the ranges of the standard cutoffs…” (pg. 310). For white men, outcomes were worse at higher BMIs while at low and lower-middle BMIs outcomes improved. For white women, meaningful patterns emerged for being quite thin rather than excessively or moderately fat. As the authors say, “The patterns for all women in the 1979 cohort and white women in the 1997 cohort remind us that norms of thinness dominate women’s lives at work and at home. But, we are also struck by the evidence that a body ideal operates for white men in multiple domains as well” (pg. 313).

For all groups the researchers found that the association between BMI and being married weakens across the two cohorts. It may be that as BMI has increased for all groups, we have become accepting of marrying partners who are larger. One stereotype of black men is that they are more accepting of larger women than are white men. The results did not support this notion and in fact, the data suggested that a body ideal of thinness existed for both white and black women in the 1979 cohort.

And finally, the authors end the article by saying, “The relationship between body size and socioeconomic outcomes depends on who is being judged, who is doing the judging, and in which social domain. Rather than using the medical conceptualization of obesity, it is important to recognize that “too fat” is a subjective, contingent, and fluid judgment in the social world” (pg. 314).

Source: Maralani, V., & McKee, D. (2017). Obesity is in the eye of the beholder: BMI and socioeconomic outcomes across cohorts. Sociological Science , 4 , 288-317. Social psychology . Our focus for social psychology will be on the article entitled, “Disgust predicts prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with obesity” written by Lenny Vartanian and Tara Trewarth of UNSW Australia and Eric Vanman of The University of Queensland and published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2016. The authors start by pointing out that there has been a recent shift toward studying the emotions underlying prejudicial beliefs toward individuals with obesity, with a focus on the intergroup emotions of disgust, contempt, and anger. The authors cited research suggesting that the specific emotion elicited by a group was dependent on the threat posed by another group. Since obese individuals are not generally seen as threatening to others or as infringing on the freedom of others, they are less likely to elicit anger as an emotion and more likely to elicit disgust and maybe contempt.

The study by Vartanian et al. (2016) included 598 participants who were predominantly male and Caucasian, had a mean age of 35.88, and a BMI of 26.39. They were randomly assigned to view a photograph of either an obese female or a female with a healthy weight. Information was also given about the target and her daily activities such as being age 35, owning a pet, and enjoying shopping. Participants indicated to what extent they felt disgust, contempt, and anger toward the target individual on a visual analogue scale with possible scores ranging from 0 or Not at all to 100 or Extremely. Attitude was measured on a 7-point scale, the target individual was measured on a series of common obesity stereotypes such as being lazy or lacking self-discipline, social distance or how willing the participant would be to approach the target individual was measured on a 4-point scale, and participants completed an online version of the Seating Distance task as a measure of avoidance.

Results showed that disgust was expressed primarily toward the obese target, and participants held more negative attitudes, negative stereotypes, and saw this person as less competent than the healthy target. There was a greater desire for social distance from the obese target as well. The authors note that obese individuals often report being excluded or ignored, and previous bias-reduction efforts have largely failed. One explanation for these trends might be disgust. In terms of the failed interventions, modifying people’s cognitions are unlikely to change their emotional experiences. Hence a future challenge for researchers will be to find ways to change people’s emotional reactions to individuals with obesity.

Note that this article is a great example of the overlap many researchers have in terms of doing basic and applied research mentioned at the end of Section 1.1.3.

Source: Vartanian, L. R., Trewartha, T., & Vanman, E. J. (2016). Disgust predicts prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with obesity. Journal of Applied Social Psychology , 46 (6), 369-375. Personality psychology. And finally, we will examine the article, “Personality traits and body mass index: Modifiers and mechanisms” written by Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano of Florida State University and published in Psychological Health in 2016. The authors start by noting there is growing evidence that personality traits contribute to body weight with Conscientiousness related to a healthier BMI and Neuroticism having a positive association with BMI (meaning as one becomes more neurotic one weights more – higher BMI). Of course, physical activity is linked to lower body weight and individuals high in Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability tend to be more active.

The researchers obtained a sample of 5,150 participants who were on average 44.61 years old and mostly non-Hispanic European American. They completed the Big Five Inventory as an assessment of personality; reported their height and weight as an indicator of BMI; completed a behavioral questionnaire about their eating and physical activity habits over the past 30 days; and reported whether they had ever been diagnosed with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, or high blood pressure.

Consistent with previous research, Neuroticism and Conscientiousness were most strongly related to BMI but more so for women than men, and in the expected direction. Additionally, those scoring higher on Activity, a facet of Extraversion, had a lower BMI. In terms of age, older participants who scored higher on Agreeableness had a lower BMI and though the protective effects of Conscientiousness were present for all, the association was slightly stronger for older participants. The authors explained, “Participants who were more emotionally stable, extraverted, open, agreeable, and conscientious reported eating healthier food, and less convenience food, engaging in more physical activity, and eating at regular intervals at the same time each day” (pg. 7). The study showed that as obesity goes, personality leads people to engage in specific behaviors that increases or decreases their risk of becoming obese and gaining weight.

Source: Sutin, A. R., & Terracciano, A. (2016). Personality traits and body mass index: modifiers and mechanisms. Psychology & health , 31 (3), 259-275.

For Further Consideration

Now that you have read about the three different articles, what differences do you notice in how social psychology, personality psychology, and sociology approach the same phenomena (i.e. obesity)? Are there methodological differences? How do they talk about the topic? Is the focus top down or bottom up? How do the different subfields (really psychology and sociology though you can distinguish between personality and social) frame their conclusions and the implications of what they discovered?

If possible, please read the articles. If you cannot obtain the article from your school library, your instructor may be able to.

  • Define philosophy.
  • Outline the four branches of philosophy.
  • Hypothesize possible links between psychology and philosophy based on the four branches.
  • Contrast the methods used by philosophy and psychology.
  • List and describe philosophical worldviews that have impacted the field of psychology and clarify how.
  • Clarify the importance of physiology for the development of psychology as a separate field.
  • Identify the founder of psychology and the importance of his work.
  • Clarify why identifying a clear founder for social psychology is difficult.
  • List and describe the work of noteworthy social psychologists throughout history.

1.2.1. Unexpected Origins Philosophy. Psychology arose out of philosophy, which is defined as the love and pursuit of knowledge. Philosophy divides itself into four main branches, each posing questions psychology addresses today as well. Metaphysics is the study of the nature of reality, what reality is like, what exists in the world, and how it is ordered. Key questions center on the existence of a higher power, what truth is, what a person is, whether all events are governed by fate or we have a free will, and causality or whether one event causes another. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and seeks to understand how we know what we know. Ethics concerns matters related to what we ought to do or what is best to do and asks what is good, what makes actions or people good, and how should we treat others. Finally, logic focuses on the nature and structure of arguments and determining whether a piece of reasoning is good or bad.

So how do these four branches link to psychology? Well, our field tries to understand people and how their mind works. We wonder why they do what they did (as you will come to see we call this an attribution) and look for causal relationships. In terms of fate vs. free will, we ask if what we will be throughout life is determined in childhood, and during a time when we cannot make many choices for ourselves. Consider an adult who holds prejudicial views of another group. Did growing up in a house where such attitudes were taught and reinforced on a near daily basis make it for certain a person would express the same beliefs later in life? Issues such as this show how psychology links to philosophy. As well, we study the elements of cognition such as schemas and propositions, how we learn, and types of thinking which falls under epistemology. As you will see, schemas are important to social identity theory and the assignment of people into groups or categories. Psychologists also study the proper and improper use of punishment, moral development, and obedience all of which fall under the branch of philosophy called ethics as well as decision making and the use of heuristics which involves logic.

The main difference, and an important one, between philosophy and psychology is in terms of the methods that are used. Philosophy focuses on speculation, intuition, and generalization from personal observation while psychology relies on experimentation and measurement, both of which were mentioned in Section 1.1.2, and in Module 2 we will discuss its main research methods of observation, case study, correlation, survey, and the experiment.

Philosophy has several worldviews which have played a direct role in the development of our field and some of its key ideas. First, dualism is the idea that questions whether the mind and body are distinct from one another and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) tackled this issue. Before Descartes it was believed that the mind influenced the body but the body had little effect on the mind. Descartes, on the other hand, said that both mind and body affected one another. This brought about a change in what was studied and how it was studied. Attention shifted away from the soul to the scientific study of the mind and mental processes.

Next, mechanism was the underlying philosophy of the 17th century and remained influential until the mid-1900s. It proposed that the world is a great machine. All-natural processes were thought to be mechanically determined and so could be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Due to mechanism, observation and experimentation became key features of science, with measurement following closely behind. People were thought to be like machines and mechanical contraptions called automata were created to imitate human movement and action. These machines were incredibly precise and regular.

Determinism is another philosophical worldview that has been important to psychology. It is the idea that every act is determined or caused by past events and so it is possible to predict changes that will occur in the operation of the universe. Why might this be important for science? Simply, determinism leads us to causal statements and in research, we seek to make such statements. It tells us that if A occurs, B follows. Prediction is the key here. Also important is reductionism or breaking things down to their basic components which is the hallmark of science itself.

Though other philosophical ideas are important too, we will conclude by mentioning empiricism or the idea that all knowledge is derived from sensory experience. Several famous empiricists were influential on psychology to include Locke, Berkley, Hartley, and John Stuart Mill. Empiricism includes the idea of the tabula rasa or the blank slate upon which experience is written. Hence, there are no innate ideas that we are born with. Mill proposed the interesting idea of a creative synthesis in which there is a combining of mental elements such that the product yields some distinct quality not present in the individual elements themselves. He said it is like a mental chemistry. Physiology. It is important to note that psychology did not just rise out of philosophy, but also from physiology. The mid to late 1800s provided many remarkable findings about the functioning of the human brain. During this time we discovered what the cerebrum, midbrain, cerebellum, and medulla did thanks to the work of Flourens, began using electrical stimulation and the extirpation method (determining function by destroying a specific structure in the brain and then observing changes in behavior), discovered white and gray matter courtesy of Franz Josef Gall, realized that the nervous system was a conductor of electrical impulses, and determined that nerve fibers were composed of neurons and synapses. Key figures included people like von Helmholtz who studied the speed of neural impulse and correctly determined it to be 90 feet per second, Weber who proposed the concepts of two-point thresholds and the just noticeable difference (jnd), and Fechner who founded the field of psychophysics and proposed the absolute and difference thresholds. These figures showed how topics central to the new science of psychology could be studied empirically, provided a method for investigating the relationship between mind and body, and gave psychology precise and elegant measurement techniques.

1.2.2. The Birth of a Field

The field of psychology did not formally organize itself until 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt founded his laboratory at Leipzig, Germany. Wundt studied sensation and perception and began experimental psychology as a science.  He employed the use of introspection , or the examination of one’s own mental state, which is used today after being almost discarded as a method by the behaviorists throughout the first half of the 20th century. This method gave him precise experimental control over the conditions under which introspection was used. He established rigorous training of his observers and focused on objective measures provided by the use of sophisticated laboratory equipment, in keeping with the traditions of physiology. Wundt’s brand of psychology would give rise to the school of thought called Structuralism in the United States under Titchener and eventually stirred a rebellion in the form of Behaviorism and Gestalt psychology, though a discussion of how this occurred is beyond the scope of this book.

1.2.3. The Birth of Social Psychology

So, who might be considered the founder of social psychology? A few different answers are possible, starting with Norman Triplett who late in the 19th century published the first empirical research article in social psychology. He was interested in whether the presence of others might affect a person’s performance on a task. To answer the question, he compared how fast children would reel when alone and when competing with another child. His study showed that the “ bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.” To read Triplett’s 1898 article, please visit:

Another candidate for founder is Maximilien Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, who conducted some of the earliest experiments in social psychology dating back to the 1880s. He found that people become less productive as the size of their group increases. He called this the “Ringelmann effect.”

The findings of these two individuals are interesting, and contradictory. In the case of Triplett, the presence of others improves performance but Ringelmann showed that the presence of others hinders performance. So which is it? As you will come to see it is both. What Triplett described is today called social facilitation while Ringelmann’s work is called social loafing . We will discuss this further in Module 8.

The production of research articles usually does not merit receiving the distinction of being a founder. Sometimes, a better indicator is the production of a textbook bearing the name of that area and to that end, it is necessary to give credit to William McDougall who wrote his textbook, An Introduction to Social Psychology in 1908, Edward Ross who also wrote a book in 1908, and Floyd Allport who completed his book in 1924. Though Allport’s book was written 16 years after Ross and McDougall’s books, it is especially important since it emphasized how people respond to stimuli in the environment, such as groups, and called for the use of experimental procedures and the scientific method which contrasted with Ross and McDougall’s more philosophical approaches.

One final individual is worth mentioning. Kurt Lewin, a noted Gestalt psychologist, proposed the idea of field theory and the life space, and is considered the founder of modern social psychology. He did work in the area of group dynamics and emphasized social action research on topics such as integrated housing, equal employment opportunities, and the prevention of prejudice in childhood. He promoted sensitivity training for educators and business leaders.

1.2.4. Noteworthy Social Psychologists

To round out our discussion of the history of social psychology, we wish to note some of the key figures in the subfield and provide a brief historical context as to when they worked. With that in mind, we begin with Francis Sumner (1895-1954) who was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology, which he earned from Clark University in 1920. Sumner went on to establish the field of Black psychology.

Solomon Asch (1907-1996) is most well-known for his studies on conformity and the finding that a large number of people will conform to the group even if the group’s position on an issue is clearly wrong. He also published on the primacy effect and the halo effect. Gordon Allport (1897-1967) , younger brother to the aforementioned Floyd Allport, conducted research on prejudice, religion, and attitudes, and trained famous psychologists such as Milgram and Jerome Bruner. He also helped to form the field of personality psychology.

From 1939 to 1950, Mamie (1917-1983) and Kenneth (1914-2005) Clark conducted important research on the harmful effects of racial segregation and showed that Black children preferred not only to play with white dolls but also “colored the line drawing of the child a shade lighter than their own skin.” Their research was used by the Supreme Court in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 that ended the racial segregation of public schools and overturned the 1892 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson which legitimized “separate but equal” educations for White and Black students. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has the tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

Kenneth Clark was also the first African American to be elected President of the American Psychological Association. For more on the landmark case, please visit:

Leon Festinger (1919-1989) is best known for his theory of cognitive dissonance and social comparison theory while Irving Janis (1918-1990) conducted research on attitude change, groupthink, and decision making. Stanley Schachter (1922-1997) proposed the two-factor theory of emotion which states that emotions are a product of physiological arousal and the cognitive interpretation of that arousal. Carolyn (1922-1982) and Muzafer (1906-1988) Sherif are known for the Robbers Cave experiment which divided boys at a summer camp into two groups who overcame fierce intergroup hostility by working towards superordinate goals.

During the Nuremberg trials after World War II, many German soldiers were asked why they would do many of the unspeakable crimes they were accused of. The simple response was that they were told to. This led Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) to see if they were correct. Through a series of experiments in the 1960s he found that participants would shock a learner to death, despite their protests, because they were told to continue by the experimenter. He also did work on the small-world phenomenon, lost letter experiment, and the cyranoid method.

To learn about other key figures in the history of social psychology, please visit:

  • Describe current trends in social neuroscience as they relate to social psychology.
  • Describe current trends in evolutionary psychology as they relate to social psychology.
  • Describe current trends in cross-cultural research as they relate to social psychology.
  • Describe current trends in technology as they relate to social psychology.

Social psychology’s growth continues into the 21st century and social neuroscience, evolutionary explanations, cross-cultural research, and the internet are trending now. How so?

1.3.1. Social Neuroscience

Emerging in the early 1990s, there is a new emphasis on cognitive processes which has led to the formation of the interdisciplinary field of social neuroscience or how the brain affects our social behavior and is affected by it (Lieberman, 2010). So how do social psychology and social neuroscience form their own separate identities? Cacioppo, Berntson, and Decety (2010) state that social neuroscience studies “neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms and, relatedly, to the study of the associations and influences between social and biological levels of organization” and where human beings fit into the broader biological context.” Though social psychology does study biological factors, its emphasis has traditionally been on situational factors and dispositional factors through its collaboration with personality psychologists. Both social neuroscience and social psychology focus on social behavior and so can be aligned and make meaningful contributions to constructs and theories presented in the other. The authors clear up any concern about overlap by saying, “The emphasis in each is sufficiently different that neither field is in danger of being reduced to or replaced by the other, but articulating the different levels of analysis can provide a better understanding of complex social phenomena.”

Specific contributions of social neuroscience include imaging the working human brain through such methods as “multi-modal structural, hemodynamic, and electrophysiological brain imaging acquisition and analysis techniques; more sophisticated specifications and analyses of focal brain lesions; focused experimental manipulations of brain activity using transcranial magnetic stimulation and pharmacological agents; and emerging visualization and quantitative techniques that integrate anatomical and functional connectivity.” These methods have paved the way for increased understanding of the greatest asset human beings have and move us away from having to make analogies from animals to humans courtesy of brain lesion studies and electrophysiological recording and the postmortem examinations of human brains.

Social neuroscience is an effort of biological, cognitive, and social scientists to collaborate in a more systematic way and all share “a common belief that the understanding of mind and behavior could be enhanced by an integrative analysis that encompasses levels of organization ranging from genes to cultures.”  From it, several subareas have emerged to include cultural neuroscience, social developmental neuroscience, comparative social neuroscience, social cognitive neuroscience, and social affective neuroscience.

Cacioppo, Berntson, and Decety (2010) conclude, “The field of social neuroscience, therefore, represents an interdisciplinary perspective that embraces animal as well as human research, patient as well as nonpatient research, computational as well as empirical analyses, and neural as well as behavioral studies.”

To read the whole article, please visit:

Citation: Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., & Decety, J. (2010). Social neuroscience and its relationship to social psychology. Social Cognition , 28 (6), 675-685.

1.3.2. Evolutionary Explanations

Any behavior that exists today does so because it offers an evolutionary advantage to the species as a whole. Though not its own distinct branch of psychology, evolutionary psychology is impacting all subfields. So what is it? According to David Buss, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, it is based on four premises:

  • Evolutionary processes have affected and shaped both body and brain, in terms of psychological mechanisms and the behaviors that are produced
  • Many of these mechanisms are adaptations to solve problems that contribute to the survival of the species
  • These adaptations are activated in modern environments that differ in important ways from ancestral environments
  • Psychological mechanisms having adaptive functions is a critical and necessary ingredient for psychology to be comprehensive

Buss goes on to describe specific ways evolutionary psychology has informed the various subfields. In relation to our discussion of social psychology he says it has “produced a wealth of discoveries, ranging from adaptations for altruism to the dark sides of social conflict.” Evolutionary psychology is also helping to discover adaptive individual differences through its interaction with personality psychology. In relation to our previous discussion of social neuroscience, Buss says, “Cognitive and social neuroscientists, for example, use modern technologies such as fMRI to test hypotheses about social exclusion adaptations, emotions such as sexual jealousy, and kin recognition mechanisms.”

For more on Buss’ comments, and those of other researchers in relation to evolutionary theory and psychology, please visit the APA science briefs:

1.3.3. Cross-Cultural Research

Quite possibly the most critical trend in social psychology today is the realization that it is completely cultural.  In 1972, the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology was founded and today has a membership of over 800 individuals in over 65 countries. The group’s primary aim is to study the intersection of culture and psychology. The group publishes the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (to learn more about them, visit: ). In 1977, Harry Trandis published the article, “Cross-cultural Social and Personality Psychology” and outlined the study of cultural influences on social behavior.

Singelis (2000) predicted a continued and increasing interest in cross-cultural social psychology due to a rise of a multi-cultural Zeitgeist in the United States courtesy of the civil rights movement, more sophisticated quantitative methods in cross-cultural research which have proven to be more acceptable to those trained in social psychology’s scientific tradition, and a greater acceptance of qualitative methods which is necessary to understanding cultural meanings. This will lead to a redefining of what the self means (the topic of Module 3) since it is shaped by cultural context and influences social behavior through a person’s values, evaluations, and perceptions. The self now includes the East Asian conception of it being interdependent.

Additionally, Singelis (2000) predicts new constructs will emerge that “combine seemingly opposite orientations in an integrative synthesis that is contrary to the typical Cartesian-like dichotomy” and a “shift away from individually oriented constructs toward those that capture social relationships.” Examples include the autonomous-relational self which synthesizes autonomy and human relationships, relational harmony or the degree of harmony in the person’s five most important relationships, and social oriented achievement motivation which includes the Western concept of self-realization and the non-Western idea of achievement motivation including others whose boundaries are not distinct from the self.

Singeleis (2000) concludes, “The increasing interest in culture, the rise in the number of psychologists outside the United Stated, and the willingness to consider many variables and points of view will keep cross-cultural social psychology vital and dynamic into the 21st century.” A more recent trend is multi-cultural research which focused on racial and ethnic diversity within cultures.

1.3.4. The Internet

In Section 1.2.3, and later in this book, we described early work on social loafing. Did you know that employers have recognized that social loafing in the workplace is serious enough of an issue that they now closely monitor what their employees are doing, in relation to surfing the web, online shopping, playing online games, managing finances, searching for another job, checking Facebook, sending a text, or watching Youtube videos? They are, and the phenomenon is called cyberloafing . Employees are estimated to spend from three hours a week up to 2.5 hours a day cyberloafing. So what can employers do about it? Kim, Triana, Chung, and Oh (2015) reported that employees high in the personality trait of Conscientiousness are less likely to cyberloaf when they perceive greater levels of organizational justice. So they recommend employers to screen candidates during the interview process for conscientiousness and emotional stability, develop clear policies about when personal devices can be used, and “create appropriate human resource practices and effectively communicate with employees so they feel people are treated fairly” (Source: ). Cyberloafing should be distinguished from leisure surfing which Matthew McCarter of The University of Texas at San Antonio says can relieve stress and help employees recoup their thoughts (Source: ).

Myers (2016) points out that human beings have a need to belong and when we are alone, we suffer. Today, technology connects us in new and very important ways. He cites research showing that a teenager in the U.S. sends and receives 30 text per day, most teens prefer to use “fingered speech” over talking on the phone, and nearly half of all people in the world use the internet on a daily basis. So what is good about the internet? E-commerce, telecommuting, finding love, and obtaining information are clear benefits. In fact, online romances have been found to last longer since both individuals engage in greater levels of self-disclosure and share values and interests (Bargh & McKenna, 2004; Joinson, 2001a; Joinson, 2001b). How likely are people to give out personal information to someone they do not know? Research shows that trust is key. When we trust we are more likely to accede to a request for personal information (Joinson, Reips, Buchanan, & Schofield, 2010). Costs include deindividuation or faceless anonymity, time lost from face-to-face relationships, self-segregation which leads to group polarization, and what Myers (2016) calls “slacktivism” or, “the effortless signing of online petitions or sharing of prosocial videos may substitute feel-good Internet clicks for real, costly helping.” This ties into the cyberloafing information presented above.

For more on the Myers (2016) article, please visit:

Additional Resources:

  • Psychology Today – Introduction to Internet Psychology –
  • APA – Children and Internet Use –
  • Psychology and the Internet (book) –
  • Clarify what it means to communicate findings.
  • Identify professional societies in social psychology.
  • Identify publications in social psychology.

One of the functions of science is to communicate findings. Testing hypotheses, developing sound methodology, accurately analyzing data, and drawing cogent conclusions are important, but you must tell others what you have done too. This is accomplished via joining professional societies and submitting articles to peer reviewed journals. Below are some of the societies and journals important to social psychology.

1.4.1. Professional Societies

  • Website –
  • Mission Statement – “Division 8: Society for Personality and Social Psychology seeks to advance the progress of theory, basic and applied research, and practice in the field of personality and social psychology. Members are employed in academia and private industry or government, and all are concerned with how individuals affect and are affected by other people and by their social and physical environments.”
  • Publication – Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (monthly) and Personality and Social Psychology Review (quarterly)
  • Other Information – “ Membership in SPSP is open to students and those whose work focuses largely in social/personality psychology. Members receive discounts to the SPSP Convention, access to three journals, access to the SPSP Job Board, and much more.”
  • Website –
  • Mission Statement – “The Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP) is an international scientific organization dedicated to the advancement of social psychological research. Our typical members have Ph.D.s in social psychology, and work in academic or other research settings.”
  • Publication – Social Psychological and Personality Science
  • Other Information – “ One of the main ways that SESP furthers its goal is by holding an annual scientific meeting in the early fall of each year, publishing the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, supporting the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology , and contributing to advocacy efforts as a member of FABBS (the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences). SESP was founded in 1965 by a group of social psychologists led by Edwin Hollander and W. Edgar Vinacke, as described in Hollander (1968). SESP currently boasts over 1000 elected members.”
  • Website –
  • Mission Statement – “The overarching aim of the European Association of Social Psychology is straightforward: to promote excellence in European research in the field of social psychology. As the history of the Association demonstrates, the objectives of those who founded the Association were to improve the quality of social psychological research in Europe by promoting greater contact among researchers in different European countries.”
  • Publication – European Journal of Social Psychology
  • Other Information – “ It is a tradition of the EASP to honour members who make an outstanding contribution to the discipline. Every three years, on the occasion of the General Meeting, one member receives the Tajfel Medal and is invited to deliver the Henri Tajfel Lecture. This recognizes the contribution of a senior researcher to the field of social psychology over the course of their lifetime. In 2017 we will, for the first time, grant a Moscovici award to honour the author(s) of an outstanding theoretical contribution to the field.”
  • Website –
  • Mission Statement – “Founded in 2001, ARP’s mission is a scientific organization devoted to bringing together scholars whose research contributes to the understanding of personality structure, development, and dynamics. From 2001 through 2008, ARP met annually as an SPSP preconference. Since 2009, we have held a stand-alone biennial conference.”
  • Publication – ARP is a co-sponsor of Social Psychological and Personality Science
  • Other Information – “ The ARP Emerging Scholar Award is presented biennially to recognize exceptionally high quality work from emerging personality psychologists. To be eligible for the award, nominees must be a graduate student or postdoctoral member of ARP. The ARP Executive Board established this award in 2018.”

1.4.2. Publications

  • Website:
  • Published by: Taylor and Francis
  • Description: “Since John Dewey and Carl Murchison founded it in 1929, The Journal of Social Psychology has published original empirical research in all areas of basic and applied social psychology. Most articles report laboratory or field research in core areas of social and organizational psychology including the self and social identity, person perception and social cognition, attitudes and persuasion, social influence, consumer behavior, decision making, groups and teams, stereotypes and discrimination, interpersonal attraction and relationships, prosocial behavior, aggression, organizational behavior, leadership, and cultural psychology.”
  • Website:
  • Published by: American Psychological Association
  • Description: “ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology publishes original papers in all areas of personality and social psychology and emphasizes empirical reports, but may include specialized theoretical, methodological, and review papers.” The journal has three independently edited sections: Attitudes and Social Cognition, Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, and Personality Processes and Individual Differences.”
  • Website:
  • Published by: Division 8 of APA: Society for Personality and Social Psychology
  • Description: “ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin ( PSPB ), published monthly, is an official journal for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. PSPB offers an international forum for the rapid dissemination of original empirical papers in all areas of personality and social psychology.”
  • Website:
  • Description: “Personality and Social Psychology Review ( PSPR ) is the premiere outlet for original theoretical papers and conceptual review articles in all areas of personality and social psychology. PSPR offers stimulating conceptual pieces that identify exciting new directions for research on the psychological underpinnings of human individuality and social functioning, as well as comprehensive review papers that provide new, integrative frameworks for existing theory and research programs.”
  • Website:
  • Published by: Wiley
  • Description: “ SPPS is a unique short reports journal in social and personality psychology. Its aim is to publish concise reports of empirical studies that provide meaningful contributions to our understanding of important issues in social and personality psychology. SPPS strives to publish innovative, rigorous, and impactful research. It is geared toward a speedy review and publication process to allow groundbreaking research to become part of the scientific conversation quickly.”
  • Website:
  • Published by: Elsevier
  • Description: “The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (JESP) aims to publish articles that extend or create conceptual advances in social psychology. As the title of the journal indicates, we are focused on publishing primary reports of research in social psychology that use experimental or quasi-experimental.”

For a complete list of journals in social and personality psychology, please visit:

1.4.3. Online Social Psychology News

If you are interested in keeping up with current research in the field of social psychology, visit SPSP’s Character and Context blog by visiting or take a look at Science Daily’s Social Psychology News page at .

Module Recap

Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes and when we apply a social lens, we examine how people interact with, or relate to, others. Social psychology differs from sociology in terms of its level of analysis – individual people and not the larger group – and is allied with personality psychology which examines how traits affect our social behavior. The history of social psychology is relatively short though many meaningful contributions have already been made. Still more are on the horizon as we branch out into cross-cultural and evolutionary psychology, forge a separate identity from social neuroscience, and engage in a deeper understanding of the effects of technology, and specifically the internet, on us. A snapshot of important professional societies and journals was offered as ways to communicate what individual researchers or teams are learning about social behavior with the broader scientific community and at times the general public.

This discussion will lead us into Module 2 where we discuss research methods used in social psychology. This will be the final module of Part I: Setting the Stage.

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Some very short reflections on social psychology

short essay on social psychology

Social Psychology: A Very Short Introduction

Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday , subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS , and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook . This series is also available online , and you can recommend it to your local librarian .

  • By Richard J. Crisp
  • August 11 th 2016

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been able to understand the ‘logic’ of prejudice: how anyone could justify the derogation of others simply on the basis of their culture, gender, religion, or race. Of course, the causes of prejudice are many and varied, and we need contributions from many different disciplines – history, politics, economics – to fully understand what they are, and how they can be addressed. For me, however, there was always something deep in the human psyche that cut to the heart of prejudice. As well as the systemic (economic), structural (organisational) and social (policy) factors, there seemed to be something that linked all three; something that shapes how we perceive these external forces; something that determines whether we react to them with tolerance or intolerance. It turns out that the study of how we understand, and react, to these social forces, is precisely what social psychology is about.

So I leapt in to the field. In my early explorations, it didn’t take long for me to stumble upon Henri Tajfel’s famous ‘ minimal group paradigm ’ (MGP) studies, conducted in the 1970s. Tafjel was driven by that same desire to understand the nature of prejudice. His MGP was an experimental ‘game’ that revealed the utter irrationality of prejudice. In the MGP there was no possible gain for people to favour their own group: everyone was anonymous, and the identities involved were explicitly artificial and meaningless. Nonetheless, under these most minimal of social conditions (i.e., the simple division of people in to “us” and “them”) people still showed prejudice.

What emerged from these studies was a whole area of psychology that revealed the motives and processes that drive peoples’ prejudices. Discovering that it was a basic tendency to categorize that lies at the heart of prejudice had huge implications. It meant that to tackle prejudice we have to not only address the social, the economic and the political: we also need to tackle the psychological.

Armed with this insight I set off on (what became) a 20-year quest to develop an educational and training initiative to tackle the cognitive foundations of prejudice. The result was ‘Imagined Intergroup Contact’, a mental simulation technique that models interactions between people from different cultures and groups. The reasoning was that in the absence of actual contact, people might imagine that encounters with other groups would be negative – and develop negative stereotypes accordingly. If that is the case, then perhaps we can reverse this idea by getting people to imagine the opposite – positive outgroup encounters. Early results supported the idea that simply imagining contact could be useful as a way of reducing prejudice, and promoting an interest in engaging positively with other groups. There have now been well over 100 studies of imagined contact, involving thousands of participants. These studies have found the approach to be effective in tackling prejudice against a whole range of groups, including those formed on the basis of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.

It meant that to tackle prejudice we have to not only address the social, the economic and the political: we also need to tackle the psychological.

The technique has been hugely successful at promoting more positive group-based interactions, reducing prejudice, and empowering individuals with confidence and self-efficacy. It’s such a simple idea, but one with so much power and potential. To see it grow from a flash of inspiration to a research programme to a multi-lab global endeavour is immensely rewarding. Most importantly, I passionately believe imagined contact has the power to change peoples’ lives for the better. Seeing a scientific advance like this begin to be adopted in education and industry gives a real and important sense of meaning to what we do.

And the future? What’s so exciting about research is you really don’t know what’s around the corner – there are so many possibilities. I do strongly believe there is a need for us to better connect basic science with application, to build stronger pathways to impact, and harness scientific advances to effect real and positive change in the societies in which we live. It’s also true that research in all areas is increasingly multi-disciplinary. I think this trend will continue; for me this means an exciting, closer integration between psychological, economic, and social policy approaches. For Imagined Contact research, this can only be a good thing. Cross-fertilization of ideas will help us build a better picture of the processes that lead to the formation of prejudiced attitudes, and through this understanding, will help us develop new interventions to tackle this most pressing of social problems.

Inter-disciplinarily, however, does not mean, and should not mean, complexity. Complexity can be beguiling – a complex idea, one that is difficult to understand, can seem correct precisely because it is difficult to understand. Getting people to believe that a simple idea is sometimes the best idea can be a challenge. But if developing Imagined Contact has taught me anything it’s that sometimes the simplest ideas can be the most powerful.

Finally, none of us must be afraid to suggest new ideas, even if they go against received wisdom. All science needs new perspectives, and this is what makes working in these areas so thrilling and rewarding. Sometimes you’ll be wrong, sometimes you’ll be half right … but perhaps sometimes you’ll have something that no-one else has ever thought of before. Whatever your discipline and whatever your field, your ideas could well be the next big thing.

Featured image credit: Crowd by tinabold. CC0 public domain via Pixabay .

Richard J. Crisp is a professor, writer, scientist, and teacher who has held a lifelong fascination with what makes people "tick". He fell in love with social psychology while studying at the University of Oxford. He is Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Richard is the 50 th Anniversary Chair in Behavioural Science at Aston University and author of Social Psychology: A Very Short Introduction .

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Thanks for an interesting perspective, and best wishes for your research. One thing that feeds prejudice is propaganda, which is used to manipulate people and gain power. There are lots of examples in politics at present. I always wonder why propaganda works – why do people want to believe negative things about ‘others’? Do you have any insights?

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15 Social Psychology Examples

social psychology examples and definition

Traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century, social psychology is a field of empirical science that attempts to answer questions about human behavior and how it is affected by social interaction.

The focus is to identify thoughts, feelings, mental states, and behaviors, and explain how they both influence and are influenced in social situations and interactions between people.

Examples of social psychology include studies of group behavior (e.g. the Stanford prison experiment) , delayed gratification (e.g. the Marshmallow test), and the role of observation in learning (e.g. Bandura’s social learning theory).

Social Psychology Definition and Overview

Social psychology explores how humans are fundamentally social beings. It explores how sociality affects our behaviors and values.

As Goethals (2007) explains:

“Basic questions about social behavior go back to the ancients. Are men and women capable of governing themselves? Is their behavior governed by internal dispositions or the requirements of society and culture? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about human potential and human performance? Are people rational or irrational? What hope is there for independent thought and action in the face of group pressures?” (p. 19)

While these are only a handful of questions that social psychologists have sought to study throughout the last 100 years, the relatively young scientific field contains multitudes of scientists who can be credited.  Some key founders included:

  • Norman Triplett (1861-1934): Triplett has been said by some to be a point of reference for the birth of social psychology. His work in 1895 included hist studies of human competitiveness. He noticed that the presence of other people (in this case, sport cycling) enhanced the performance of competitors greatly.
  • Floyd Allport (1980-1979): Allport is also credited with advancing studies in behaviorism . He explored methods of stimulus and response in data collection.
  • Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) Lewin is acclaimed as the father of action research. He developed equations to explain human behavior. His method of linking theory with concrete data advanced research on group norms in various social systems (Goethals, 2007, pp. 3-9).

Key Theories in Social Psychology

Additional theories:

  • Self-determination theory
  • Learned helplessness theory
  • Locus of control theory
  • Labeling theory of deviance
  • Cultural deviance theory
  • Attribution theory
  • Schemata theory
  • Social exchange theory
  • Social penetration theory

Examples of Social Psychology

1. the stanford prison experiment.

Conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971, the Stanfor Prison Experiment was a shocking reveal of how humans can be cruel to other humans when placed in positions of power.

The study examined how the research participants (who were university students) adapted to roles of power and powerlessness within a simulated prison environment.

Despite knowing they were randomly assigned positions, the people assigned to the prison guard positions became increasingly cruel to the participants assigned prisoner roles.

2. The Milgram Experiment

The Milgram experiment was an experiment that measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to do immoral things. For this experiment, it was electric shocks.

The research participants were told that they were participating in a study on learning and memory. They were asked to play the role of a “teacher” who was supposed to administer an electric shock to a “learner” every time the learner made a mistake in a memory test. They weren’t actually shocking anyone – the people being shocked were actors.

During the study, the “learner” began to protest and show signs of distress while the authority figure (the experimenter) encouraged the participants to continue with the shocks. Milgram found that most participants continued to obey the experimenter and administer the shocks.

This study not only raised ethical concerns in psychological research (i.e. for the flaws in their research participant debriefing ), it also makes us think deeply about the nature of the human condition and why dictators manage to convince entire armies to fight for immoral causes.

3. Asch Conformity Experiments

Conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, this experiment studied how people conform to group norms, even if they personally believe the group norm is wrong.

In this experiment, a group of participants were shown three numbered lines of different lengths and asked to identify the longest of them all. However, only one true participant was present in every group and the rest were actors, most of whom told the wrong answer.

Results showed that the participants went for the wrong answer, even though they knew which line was the longest one in the first place. When the participants were asked why they identified the wrong one, they said that they didn’t want to be branded as strange or peculiar.

This study goes to show that there are situations in life when people prefer fitting in than being right.

4. Robbers Cave Experiment

The Robbers Cave experiment (1945) investigated intergroup conflict and cooperation between two groups of boys at a summer camp.

The researchers formed two groups of 11-year-old boys who did not know each other and had similar backgrounds. The groups were kept separate. Then, two situations were set up:

  • A competitive situation was set up whereby the researchers introduced competitions such as baseball, tug-of-war, and treasure hunts. In this phase, the groups developed in-group and out-group mentalities, even to the point of verbally and physically attacking members of the other group.
  • A cooperative situation was also set up whereby both groups were required to work together to achieve a common goal (an example is fixing a water supply problem). During this phase, the boys began to develop friendships across group boundaries.

The Robbers Cave experiment introduced a few key insights. One was that intergroup conflict arises even among relatively heterogenous groups. Another was that cooperation and shared goals can help reduce group prejudice.

5. The Kitty Genovese Case

The Kitty Genovese Case is a phenomenon where individuals tend not to intervene in an emergency situation when others are present.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in the neighborhood of Kew Gardens, New York in 1694. Despite there being up to 38 witnesses and onlookers in the vicinity of the crime scene, none of them took action to stop the murder or seek help.

This tragic event served as a catalyst for social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley to formulate the social psychology concept of bystander effect or bystander apathy. They conducted an experimental study to test bystander intervention, asking participants to complete a questionnaire inside a room with smoke coming out from under the door.

Participants were either alone or with two other participants who were actually actors or confederates in the study.

The study found that participants who were alone in the room reported the smoke faster than those who were with two passive others, suggesting that the more bystanders present in an emergency situation, the less likely someone will step up to help.

6. The Marshmallow Test

Conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s, the marshmallow experiment examined children’s ability to delay gratification.

The test involved presenting a marshmallow to children aged 4-6 and asking them to wait for 15 minutes before eating it to receive a second marshmallow.

Roughly one-third of the 600 participants managed to delay gratification and were later found to have more success in life, including higher SAT scores, supporting the self-control theory.

However, a 2018 replication study by Tyler Watts and colleagues, which had a larger group of participants (900) and a more diverse representation of the population in terms of race and ethnicity, challenged the classic marshmallow experiment. The study found that the ability to wait for the second marshmallow was influenced more by the economic background and social status of the participants rather than just their willpower.

7. The Blue-eyed/Brown-eyed Exercise

Conducted by Jane Elliott in the 1960s, this experiment examined how people respond to discrimination and prejudice .

Third-grade teacher Jane Elliott conducted an experiment in her class. The experiment involved dividing the class into two groups, the blue-eyed children and the brown-eyed children.

For a day, Elliott gave preferential treatment to the blue-eyed students, showering them with extra attention and rewards. The next day, the brown-eyed children were given the same treatment.

The outcome of the experiment was that whichever group received preferential treatment scored higher on quizzes and participated more frequently in class, while the group that was discriminated against felt humiliated, performed poorly on tests, and became uncertain when answering questions in class.

This experiment shows how prejudice and mistreatment causes damage to people’s self-confidence and ability to contribute to social situations.

8. The Bobo Doll Experiment

Conducted by Albert Bandura in 1961, this experiment studied how children learn through observation and imitation.

In the Bobo Doll Experiment, children were divided into three groups:

  • The first group was shown a video where an adult was aggressive toward the Bobo Doll.
  • The second group was shown a video in which an adult play with the Bobo Doll.
  • The third group served as the control group where no video was shown.

The children were then led to a room with different kinds of toys, including the Bobo Doll that they saw in the video.

Results showed that the children tend to imitate the adults in whichever video they watched:

  • Children who were presented the aggressive model in the video acted aggressively toward the Bobo Doll.
  • Children who were presented the passive model showed less aggression.

While the Bobo Doll Experiment can no longer be replicated because of ethical concerns, it has laid out the foundations of social learning theory and helped us understand the concept of observational learning .

9. The False Consensus Effect

This phenomenon studied by social psychologists refers to the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others share their beliefs and behaviors.

This leads us to spout our own views in social situations expecting others to agree with us when, in reality, they are probably less likely to agree than we think.

There are many social psychology studies into the false consensus effect . One example is a study by Alicke and Largo (1995) where participants were asked to rate their own attitudes and the attitudes of others towards various issues, such as the death penalty.

he researchers found that participants consistently overestimated the extent to which others agreed with their own attitudes.

10. The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect illustrates how a positive perception of one attribute of a person can spill over to other attributes.

In product ads, for example, attractive celebrities are often viewed as intelligent and knowledgeable about the product, despite not having the technical expertise.

Edward Thorndike first introduced the concept of the Halo Effect in a classic study in the early 1900s. He asked military commanders to evaluate their subordinates based on various traits, such as intelligence, dependability, leadership, and physical appearance.

The results showed that high ratings of a particular trait led to high ratings of other traits, creating an overall positive impression or “halo effect.” Conversely, a negative rating in one trait was linked to negative ratings in other traits.

Subsequent experiments on the Halo Effect have supported Thorndike’s original theory, revealing that our perception of a person’s overall personality is significantly influenced by the trait we focus on.

See more famous experiments in psychology

Other Examples for Further Reading

  • The Actor-Observer Bias
  • The Bandwagon Effect
  • In-Group Bias
  • Self-Serving Bias
  • Vicarious learning

Social psychology is one of the most influential domains of research in academia. It helps us to understand and interpret both individual and societal behaviors, helping us to understand ourselves in nuanced ways.

Goethals, G. R. (2007). A Century of Social Psychology: Individuals, Ideas, and Investigations.  The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology: Concise Student , 3– 23.

Haddock, G., & Maio, G. R. (2008). Attitudes: content, structure and functions.  Blackwell Books .

McDougall, W. (2015).  An introduction to social psychology . New York: Psychology Press.

Myers, D. G., & Twenge, J. M. (2012).  Exploring social psychology . New York: McGraw-Hill.

Brown, R. (2000), Social identity theory: past achievements, current problems and future challenges.  European  Journal of  Social  Psychology , 30, 745-778. Doi:;2-O

Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel and W. G. Austin (eds.).  Psychology of Intergroup Relations . (pp. 7–24). Nelson-Hall


Gregory Paul C. (MA)

Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

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Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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Psychology Discussion

Essay on social psychology: top 3 essays | branches | psychology.


Here is an essay on ‘Social Psychology’ for class 9, 10, 11 and 12. Find paragraphs, long and short essays on ‘Social Psychology’ especially written for school and college students.

Essay # 1. Concept of Social Psychology:

Social psychology is concerned with the interactions between indivi­duals or between individuals and groups. Thus, it is a study of the behaviour of persons in social situations. It is a study of the way in which an individual influences other individuals and the way in which he himself is influenced by other individuals.

The social interaction can take place in a face-to-face situation as when two friends or a parent and a child are interacting with each other. The traffic signals on the road also constitute a social situation.

When you want to cross the road, but see a red lamp burning ahead, you will immediately stop. You are now reacting to the red signal which is a communication to you “Stop! Don’t cross.” The person who has lost a dear person starts feeling sad when he sees some object belonging to the dead person. Thus, objects remind us of persons and make us react to them. In short, a social situation need not necessarily involve you and other persons; they may involve you and other objects which are signs of some previous experiences.

Interaction, thus, refers to a set of observable behaviours which take place in two or more persons. There is a sequence of behaviour; for example, as you are walking on the road you recognize the person coming from the opposite side. You immediately say “Good morning” and smile. The other person responds to you, smiles and says “Good morning.” When this sequence takes place one can say that there is interaction. Supposing he is absent-minded and does not see you or hear your greeting, obviously there is no interaction.

When a person responds to the other person there is “interpersonal influence;” he is influenced by the other person. It is a familiar fact that when you are walking on the road and there is a wrist watch on you which is visible, a stranger may ask you “What is the time?”

Though he is a stranger, you are influenced by his question and look at your watch and tell him the time.

When you are in a lecture hall and the lecturer makes some interest­ing remark, the audience responds with clapping. You spontaneously join in clapping. This is an illustration of imitation which was looked upon as the explanation of many forms of social or interpersonal behaviour by early social psychologists like Ross and McDougall. The concept of imitation is descriptive; it describes the interpersonal in­fluence.

But it was assumed to be an explanatory concept. The child imitates his parents. When he goes to school he may imitate the teachers. As an adolescent, he imitates the peers or probably the film-­stars.

Miller and Dollard (1941) try to “explain” the imitative behaviour by using the concept of “models.” Models tend to be superior to imi­tators in age, social status, intelligence or some other kind of com­petence. As Newcomb et al (1965) describe, imitative behaviour is an outcome of at least two psychological processes wanting something and perceiving that another person shows the way to get what is wanted.

Another kind of interpersonal influence is that in which there are simultaneous effects of two or more persons on each other, that is, where there are reciprocal effects. Long ago, the French sociologist, Gustave Le Bon (1896) wrote a book on the way in which groups of people influence one another and often thought, felt and acted in ex­treme ways which none of them would have done when they were alone.

At about the same time an American psychologist, Triplett (1897) reported one of the first experiments in social psychology on this problem. He took up forty children of ten to twelve years of age and asked them to wind fishing reels as fast as possible. He asked each child to work alone and also to work in a small group. He found that twenty children worked faster in a group than when they worked alone; ten of them worked slower when in a group than when alone; the remaining ten worked just as fast whether they worked alone or in a group.

Later on Allport (1924) and Dashiell (1930) conducted more carefully planned studies on the problem and obtained similar results. Allport called this phenomenon of reciprocal effects of interpersonal influence “social facilitation.” He attributed such energizing effects to “the sight and sound of others doing the same thing.”

The most striking instance of the reciprocal effects of sight and sound of others doing the same thing are to be seen in the “spiraling” excitement when a crowed of students on strike throw stones at policemen, break the windows of the college building or set fire to buses.

Instances of the same recipro­cal effects with opposite effects were witnessed when large groups of students behaved in the most disciplined manner in the “Quit India” movement of 1942, when they were pledged to non-violence.

Competition introduces a further complexity to this phenomenon of social facilitation. Dashiell (1930) found that energizing effects were very great when the competitive attitudes were the strongest; they were weak when there was no competitive attitude. This study showed that the reciprocal effects cannot be attributed merely to increased stimulation arising out of sights and sounds.

These studies show the important part played by “attitudes” in social behaviour; the attitude of satyagraha inhibits crowd behaviour and enhances reciprocal control and promotes discipline and orderliness; the attitude of competition increases the reciprocal effects.

Interaction and Communication:

Human interaction is based on communication. The behaviour of one person, the messages that he sends by speaking are received by the other person and he responds to that message by another message which the first person receives and so on. The simplest everyday insta­nce of such communication and interaction is the way in which two illiterate rustic persons interact with one another when they are angry.

It is sometimes seen in the shop when there are angry exchanges bet­ween the shop-man and the customer. Yet another illustration of such interaction is the mother-child behaviour. The child of ten to twelve months will get stimulated and will stimulate the mother in innumerable ways. We not only communicate our emotions to the other person, we also communicate information.

In fact, it is communication of the in­formation that is most vital for the survival and promotion of culture. Sharing of information will make information the common property of the whole group, and thus enhances the cultural life of the group. It increases the store of information in each member of the group. Since one’s attitude toward anything depends on one’s store of infor­mation about it, sharing of information also enables the sharing of attitudes, though, of course, this is not always inevitable.

The Individual and the Group:

A group consists of many individuals, whether it is a family group, neighbourhood group, a functional group or a national group. One of the striking features of the various groups is their diversity. So it is always an interesting matter to determine the causes for such diversity in group characteristics and the relation of the characteristics of the individuals to the characteristics of the group.

The same individuals may be members of different groups, as for instance, two brothers or sisters are not only members of the same family, they may also be members of the same play group and of the same school group. Still, their behaviour as individuals will vary according to the difference in the groups.

The boy may endure any amount of physical pain as a member of the play group, but he will start shouting at the slightest pam in the house. One of the chief tasks of social psychology is to find put the reasons why groups differ in their characteristics and how individuals respond in one way when they are members of one group and in another way when they are members of another group.

The student who is quiet and mild as a member of the class may become very aggressive and turbulent as a member of the striker’s group outside the classroom.

A general idea of the interaction situation may be obtained from the following figure:

This figure suggests that the individual has his own motives and atti­tudes when he enters into the interaction process (arrow 1); each group has its own shared rules or norms which affect the interaction process (arrow 3). As a result of the interaction, the motives and attitudes of the individual may be affected and some change brought about in him (arrow 2).

The changes in the individuals who are interacting may bring about changes in the characteristics of the group (arrow 4). In brief, this is a simple way of depicting the complicated social situation where the groups influence the members through interaction and how the in­dividuals can influence the group characteristics. This may be illustra­ted from the historical fact that Gandhi was able to bring about great changes in the Indian National Congress and in the nation as a whole during the eventful years from 1917 to 1920.

But it must also be borne in mind that he was greatly changed by the group characteristics. His methods of work in India at that period were quite different from his methods of work when he was carrying on the satyagraha campaigns in South Africa at an earlier period.

One of the central problems of social psychology, as noted above, is to study and understand the interaction processes between individuals, between individuals and groups and finally, between the groups themselves. But it must always be borne in mind that the group consists of individuals and our interest is in the study of the individuals who form the group.

Group Mind Concept is not Necessary:

Before we proceed further, a brief reference may be made to the hypothesis posited by earlier psychologists that there is a “group mind,” that the group is not a mere sum of the individual minds, but that a group has certain characteristics of its own and influences the individuals who are the members of the group.

Social Psychology is concerned not only with the behaviour of groups and with social situa­tions but also with collective behaviour of groups. Many earlier thinkers who were concerned with collective behaviour postulated the concepts of “general will,” “collective consciousness,” “group mind” and so on.

Thinkers like Hegel (1770-1831), Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) had stressed the fact that social structure determines the individual’s beliefs, attitudes etc. Some of them also stressed the fact that social groups have a continuity and unity and that each group manifests certain uniformities of behaviour through their customs and institutional practices.

McDougall (1920) used the term “group mind” and suggested that the concept is based on the following factors:

(1) Continuity, the members of the group must be aware of the origin of their group and its various characteristics;

(2) Self-consciousness, every member must feel that he is a part of the group;

(3) Interaction, there must be free exchange of ideas between the members of the group and there must be a common body of thought; and

(4) Tradition, the group must have certain traditions which are shared by each member.

He showed that each group like the nation or the army or the church has charac­teristics of its own based on the fact of organization. He held that the group mind can be viewed as an organization of the needs and pur­poses of individuals. He also asserted that a group has a mental life of its own which is not a mere sum of the mental lives of the individual members; he even went to the extent of asserting that the group mind has its own laws.

The danger in this hypothesis is that it is mystical, it assumes a super-mind over and above the individual minds. There is no basis for this assumption. It is true that an individual, as a member of a certain group, may behave in a particular way. But such behaviour can be explained without positing a mysterious “group mind” which compels people to behave in certain ways.

The concept of interaction helps us to understand the problem. There is no need to assume such a mystical concept as group mind to explain the phenomena.

Essay # 2. Relation of Social Psychology to Other Sciences :

The scope of social psychology may be clarified further by a brief description of its relation to other allied branches of study.

(a) Social Psychology and General Psychology:

Psychology is the scientific study of behaviour. The aim of general psychology is to study the behaviour of individuals in order to find out the laws which govern behaviour. It uses scientific methods to collect data in order to study behaviour. By using such methods a large body of knowledge concerning the processes of perception, memory, learning, imagination, thinking, intelligence, personality, has now been obtained.

But the indi­vidual lives and grows up in a group. In fact, man cannot live without other people. Men live in families, in groups, in communities and nations. It is the other people in the family who not only bring up the child but also give him the language he uses, the standards of his conduct and teach him the roles he has to play in life, by rewarding him when he does well and by punishing him when he does not.

The study of individual in his interactions with others is the task of social psychology. It is in­terested in the study of the formation of groups, how the groups come into conflict and how such conflicts are resolved. It is interested in the study of the way in which the group shapes the behaviour of the indi­viduals and of how the behaviour and characteristics of that group itself are changed. The field of social psychology is primarily devoted to the understanding and the explanation of the basic psychological processes- thinking, striving, perceiving and learning as they occur in a social environment.

Thus, the main difference between general psychology and social psychology is that while the former studies behaviour of an individual in isolation, the latter studies behaviour of an individual in the social situation. Thus, the two studies are complementary. Just as the biologist studies the individual animal and just as the physiologist studies the body of the individual human being, the general psycho­logist also can study the behaviour of the individual irrespective of the group in which he has been brought up.

But social psychology extends our knowledge of the individual by studying his behaviour in the group situation, how he interacts with others and how he is influenced by the other people. From this point of view, social psychology is related more to other social sciences like sociology and cultural anthropology than to the biological sciences, while general psychology is related more to the biological sciences than to the social sciences.

For example, while general psychology is interested in the development of persona­lity as such, social psychology is interested in the study of how perso­nality is influenced by the social environment and the social processes.

Social psychology is interested in the study of how the innate needs of man are modified by the social and cultural influences, how social learning takes place and how an individual becomes a typical member of a group so that he not only speaks the particular language of the group in which he has been brought up but also develops attitudes prevailing in the group and cherishes the values of that group; how he acquires the prejudices of the group and develops hostility to the other groups.

(b) Social Psychology and Sociology:

The aim of sociology is to study society and social organization, how human beings create and recreate an organization which guides and controls their behaviour. Its main concern is to study how society is organized, how it changes and how really fundamental changes in society are resisted.

Sociology studies how society as an organization liberates as well as limits the activities of its members, how it sets up standards which the members must follow and maintain. It studies society as a system of usages and procedures, of authority and mutual aid, and how it controls human behaviour.

Sociology studies social relationships, and how social rela­tionships change, and how the individual depends on the society for his protection, comfort, education, equipment and opportunity. Human beings live in groups, in communities or nations. In fact, it is possible for a person to find all satisfactions in the tribe or the village or the city; he can find all his social relationships and satisfactions within the community.

But modern civilization has released forces which have broken down the self-containedness of the communities. The task of sociology is to study how in the tribal and other forms of group relationships, groups are self-contained and how technological changes in modern times have affected such relationships.

Thus, the main difference between sociology and social psychology lies in this approach; while sociology is interested in the social relationships themselves, social psychology is interested in the individuals who enter into social relationships. The difference thus lies in the focus. The focus of social psychology is on the attitudes, the subjective reactions of individuals to institutions, while the focus of sociology is in the institutions them-selves like the family, the community, the caste, the social class etc.

Every social relationship involves attitudes on the part of the individuals who enter into such a relationship. Two persons may be friendly in their attitude to each other or indifferent or hostile. Thus, the relation­ship between the two persons is obviously influenced by the attitude which each has towards the other.

Similarly, the group as a whole may develop attitudes towards the other groups. When there is a border dispute between two states in India, one group becomes hostile to the other group and social tensions and social conflicts arise. Whether the groups are kinship groups, village groups, linguistic groups, communal groups or national groups, they develop attitudes of friendliness or in­difference or hostility towards other such groups.

Inter-tribal conflicts, inter-village conflicts or international conflicts arise out of such hostile attitudes. Similarly friendly attitudes within the group or between groups promote group cooperation. The task of social psychology is to study such attitudes, how they arise, how they change or how they may resist any kind of change. On the other hand, sociology is more interested in the social relationships and social institutions. It is obvious that both the sciences help in understanding social reality.

(c) Social Psychology and Cultural Anthropology:

The cultural anthro­pologists are interested in the social institutions, the mores and beliefs of tribal societies. According to the anthropologist, all that a group of people have created, whether it is an artifact or a taboo, an imple­ment to work or a mode of worship, in short, whether they are physical objects, or social and religious ideas or relationships, they all form “a culture.”

Thus, for the anthropologist, culture signifies the total social heritage of mankind. In their study of tribal groups, the anthropologists have become acutely aware of the intimate rela­tion between the individuals and the culture itself. They have come to realize that the understanding of the personality of the individual belonging to a culture as well as the culture complex of which the individual is a part demands a careful analysis of the ways in which the two are interrelated.

In other words, the cultural anthropologists have shown that personality and culture are not only interrelated but are interdependent. Thus, we see the resemblances and differences between social psychology and cultural anthropology. Studies in cultural anthropology have shown how the perceptions and learning’s of an individual are closely determined by the cultural background.

Thus, the factual data collected by the anthropologists are of immense help in understanding how the individual behaviour and personality are determined by the social and cultural influences. On the other hand, social psychology helps in understanding some of the cultural problems like superstitious beliefs, magic, etc.

(d) Social Sciences and Behavioural Sciences:

The term social science is relatively old. It includes six disciplines: history, economics, political science, anthropology, psychology and sociology. History is also a part of humanities like philosophy. Psychology is also a biological science. Anthropology is both a biological science and a social science. Economics though a social science is linked with the professional subjects like commerce and business administration.

Similarly though political science is a social science, it is linked on the one side with history and on the other with professional subjects like public administration and law. Because of these varied interrelations bet­ween the six disciplines which constitute the social sciences, with humanities on the one hand, and professional schools on the other, the term behavioural sciences came into usage to distinguish those social sciences which are concerned with observable human behaviour and which can be studied by the use of objective scientific methods from the other social sciences which cannot be so studied.

As a result, cultural anthropology, sociology, and social psychology are now looked upon as three behavioural sciences. All these three sciences, though social, are based on observable human behaviour and can be studied by using objective scientific methods. The aim of behavioural sciences is to establish generalizations about human behaviour which are supported by empirical evidence, collected in an impersonal and objective way.

The evidence must be capable of verification by other scientists; the procedures must be completely open to review and replication. The ultimate end of the behavioural sciences is to under­stand, explain and predict human behaviour in the same way in which physical forces and biological entities are explained and predicted.

The distinction between behavioural sciences and social sciences is that the behavioural sciences are devoted to the collection of original data based on direct observation of behaviour of individuals or groups, while the social sciences are based on indirect and documentary evidence.

Historically, the behaviouristic approach in psychology started in 1913 when the American psychologist Watson initiated his vigorous propaganda against introspection and the concepts of mind, conscious­ness, etc. He believed that by studying objectively the behaviour of animals and men it is possible to build up the science of psychology in the same way as the other physical, chemical and biological sciences which use only objective methods in their studies.

In a broad way it may be said that it was Floyd Allport who used the behaviouristic methods in Social Psychology in 1924. It was he who established experimentally how individuals are stimulated to greater productivity when working at the same task in close proximity to others.

During the Second World War many contributions to the understanding of group behaviour were made by objective studies of behaviour, by Kurt Lewin, Stouffer of “American Soldier” Studies and others. It may be said that the term behavioural sciences came into vogue during and after the Second World War. An outstanding event was the establish­ment of the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences near the Stanford University in California in 1952, by the Ford Foundation.

Essay # 3. Methods of Study Used in Social Psychology:

As noted above Social Psychology collects its facts by observation and experiment. Considerable attention is being given to the collec­tion of data by conducting surveys as well as by conducting experi­ments using design of experiments. Further, attempts are being made to measure the various aspects of social behaviour and to use statistical methods in the analysis of the data collected.

1. Observation:

Observation of individuals in their interactions with each other suggests hypotheses to be tested. Observation also yields data. Many methods and techniques have been devised to observe the social behaviour of children when they are at play. In order to make the data from observation quantitative the “rating” method is used.

For example, a five-point scale may be used to determine the aggressiveness of a child when he is playing with other children. If he is not aggressive at all, the score ‘one’ may be given and if he is highly aggres­sive the score ‘five’ may be given. In order to make the data derived from observation more objective a team of two or three observers may be trained and asked to observe the same group independent of each other and then the results are pooled and scores in aggressive­ness.

Further, time samples may be taken; that is, the same group of children may be observed on, let us say, ten occasions, for ten minutes each time. Like this the method of simple observation could be refined in many ways to give reliable data.

2. Interview:

The interview is a face-to-face meeting in which the opinions, beliefs, etc., may be collected. The primary object of the interview is to obtain verbal expressions from the person in reply to some well-framed questions. To yield data of value the interview has to be very carefully planned and conducted in a standardized manner.

The questions have to be drawn up in advance and they must be tried out on a few persons to find out if they can elicit the required infor­mation. The value of the interview also depends upon the qualifications and the training of the interviewer. He should be a dependable person so that the person interviewed has confidence in him and express his opinions freely and frankly.

The Questionnaire is a written form of interview. The questions can be framed in advance and pretexted. Later on the questions can be printed and information can be obtained on a group of persons at the same time. Thus, the questionnaire is less time-consuming than the interview.

Further, the answers to each question are written down by the subjects themselves. Each method has got its own advantages and disadvantages. Questionnaires may be used to study interests, opinions and so on. The defect of this method is that further probing into the responses is not possible. This is why the questionnaire survey is generally supplemented by interview of some cases.

3. Methods of Survey:

Surveys involve the construction of question­naires which are administered by interviewers to representative samples of the public. The industrialists spend considerable amounts of money on what is called “market research,” which involves survey techni­ques. Their aim is to find out the potential market for their goods and the acceptability of their product.

Similarly, newspapers conduct opinion polls in order to find out the views of people regarding the various issues before the public. Newspapers may also conduct reader­ship surveys in order to find out what age-group and income-group of people read their paper; what is the education level of their readers; what are the items of the paper people generally read and so on.

The ratio authorities conduct surveys to find out the time at which, most people listen to the radio, what programmes they listen, how long they will listen, and so on. In recent years All India Radio has intro­duced the commercials in the Vividh Bharati programme. The charges for the commercials depend not only on the duration of the pro­gramme but also on the time at which the announcements are made.

The cost will depend on the surveys regarding listenership. Surveys are also conducted for theoretical research. Many illustrations will be given later on. The important aspects of the survey research technique are sampling, questionnaire design, and interviewing technique.

There are two principal methods of getting a sample of respondents:

(a) The probability method; all geographical units in the population are put on punch cards and a sample of such communities are drawn at random, mechanically; all the households in each area of the city, for example, are listed; just a few of these households are selected at random for interview.

Since the selection of the households is at random and unbiased, this procedure guarantees that each household in the population will have an equal chance of being included in the sample. This method is indeed very good; but it involves considerable work. The National Sample Survey of India is a huge organization that has been set up in order to conduct surveys regarding many problems of vital interest to the society like unemployment, con­sumer expenditure savings, etc.

The national census operation conduc­ted once in ten years is also a survey technique, but it does not use the sampling technique; it enumerates each household in the country. Statistical studies show that sampling techniques give as much infor­mation, probably with greater exactitude, than the complete enumera­tion technique.

(b) The second method of sampling frequently used is called “quota sampling.” Neighbourhoods are’ chosen at random, but the selection of the household in each area is left to the discretion of the interviewer himself; but he is given a pre-assigned proportion of males and females, old and young, rich and poor, educated and illiterate and so on. This method is cheaper and quicker than the probability method.

The design of the questionnaire, as noted above, is an art; similarly the interviewing is also an art. The questions have to be pretested and the interviewers have to be trained thoroughly.

4. Measurement:

While observation depends on seeing and recording and survey techniques depend on interviewing and recording, measure­ment goes a step further and assigns numbers to the events in accor­dance with certain rules. Measurement implies the mapping of obser­vations into a number system; when this is done the resulting values can be added, multiplied, and so on.

As an illustration of measurement, a brief description of Vineland Social Maturity scale developed by Doll may be given. He tried to develop a scale to measure the social development of children. The instrument consists of a series of rating scales arranged in a develop­mental sequence, grouped according to the age at which they appear typically. With the help of this scale it is possible to compute the child’s “social age” and find out whether the child of a given chro­nological age is at the average level, above it, or below it in social development.

A second illustration of measurement may be given from the field of attitude measurement. One of the simplest ways of measuring attitude is that developed by Bogardus. In 1925 he devised the “social distance scale.”

He asked each person tested whether he would admit a mem­ber of a given group to the most intimate social relationship, namely, kinship by marriage, or to more distant social relationships like being a neighbour on the same street or being a citizen of the country or exclude him even from visiting the country. (For example, South Africans are refused visas to enter India.) There are many other methods of measuring attitudes toward “conservatism radicalism” and so on.

A third illustration is Moreno’s sociometric test which attempts to measure popularity. It is well known that work will be efficient when the work is done in a group by people who like each other. If they do not like each other, the group will be riddled with tensions and quarrels. Moreno devised the test for schoolroom situation.

He asked each boy in the class to name three boys with whom he would like to play some game, or go out for a picnic, and so on. On the basis of the choices it is possible to construct what is called a “sociogram.” This will indicate the boy who is most popular in the class room by receiving the highest number of choices and the boy who is neglected or rejected. This technique is now being used in work situations also.

5. Experimental Method:

An experiment is observation under con­trolled conditions. The essence of an experiment is that it can be repeated at will and that it enables the observation being made under varying conditions. In an experiment the investigator arranges the situation in a way that certain factors are kept constant and certain others are varied. Every situation is made up of a number of condi­tions which are called ‘variables.’

When the experimenter is in a position to introduce a variable, or vary it in intensity, etc., he has a perfect control of the whole situation. It is true that the subject of study of social psychology is highly complex and that the conditions of social interaction are very complicated. To overcome these difficul­ties the social psychologist uses the “control group” technique.

The procedure is to take one group and divide it into two groups so that in as many variables as possible the two groups are similar. For example, one class of students in one school may be divided into two groups using the variables of, let us say, class marks, intelligence, etc. Let us assume that the task is to reduce prejudice towards Harijans or Muslims. An attitude test is first given and the class is divided into two similar groups.

One groups, called the ‘experimental’ group, is asked to discuss the problem of social equality. The other group does not have any such experience. After some sessions the two groups are again given the attitude test.

If the experimental group shows a lower measure of prejudice against the Harijans than the control group and if the data submitted to statistical calculation show that the difference is quite significant, then it is possible to say that discussion of a pro­blem, the dependent variable, reduces the prejudice, the independent variable. Attention may be drawn to the experiment conducted long ago to study the effect of group situation upon the performance of some tasks noted earlier.

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118 Review Questions for Social Psychology

Click here for Answer Key

Multiple Choice Questions

1 .  As a field, social psychology focuses on ________ in predicting human behaviour.

  • personality traits
  • genetic predispositions
  • biological forces
  • situational factors

2 .  Making internal attributions for your successes and making external attributions for your failures is an example of ________.

  • actor-observer bias
  • fundamental attribution error
  • self-serving bias
  • just-world hypothesis

3 .  Collectivistic cultures are to ________ as individualistic cultures are to ________.

  • dispositional; situational
  • situational; dispositional
  • autonomy; group harmony
  • just-world hypothesis; self-serving bias

4 .  According to the actor-observer bias, we have more information about ________.

  • situational influences on behaviour
  • influences on our own behaviour
  • influences on others’ behaviour
  • dispositional influences on behaviour

5 .  A(n) ________ is a set of group expectations for appropriate thoughts and behaviours of its members.

  • social role
  • social norm
  • attribution

6 .  On his first day of soccer practice, Jose suits up in a t-shirt, shorts, and cleats and runs out to the field to join his teammates. Jose’s behaviour is reflective of ________.

  • social influence
  • good athletic behaviour
  • normative behaviour

7 .  When it comes to buying clothes, teenagers often follow social norms; this is likely motivated by ________.

  • following parents’ rules
  • saving money
  • looking good

8 .  In the Stanford prison experiment, even the lead researcher succumbed to his role as a prison supervisor. This is an example of the power of ________ influencing behaviour.

  • social norms
  • social roles

9 .  Attitudes describe our ________ of people, objects, and ideas.

  • evaluations

10 .  Cognitive dissonance causes discomfort because it disrupts our sense of ________.

  • unpredictability
  • consistency

11 .  In order for the central route to persuasion to be effective, the audience must be ________ and ________.

  • analytical; motivated
  • attentive; happy
  • intelligent; unemotional
  • gullible; distracted

12 .  Examples of cues used in peripheral route persuasion include all of the following  except  ________.

  • celebrity endorsement
  • positive emotions
  • attractive models
  • factual information

13 .  In the Asch experiment, participants conformed due to ________ social influence.

  • informational
  • inspirational

14 .  Under what conditions will informational social influence be more likely?

  • when individuals want to fit in
  • when the answer is unclear
  • when the group has expertise
  • both b and c

15 .  Social loafing occurs when ________.

  • individual performance cannot be evaluated
  • the task is easy
  • both a and b
  • none of the above

16 .  If group members modify their opinions to align with a perceived group consensus, then ________ has occurred.

  • group cohesion
  • social facilitation
  • social loafing

17 .  Prejudice is to ________ as discrimination is to ________.

  • feelings; behaviour
  • thoughts; feelings
  • feelings; thoughts
  • behaviour; feelings

18 .  Which of the following is  not  a type of prejudice?

  • individualism

19 .  ________ occurs when the out-group is blamed for the in-group’s frustration.

  • stereotyping
  • in-group bias
  • scapegoating

20 .  When we seek out information that supports our stereotypes we are engaged in ________.

  • confirmation bias
  • self-fulfilling prophecy

21 .  Typically, bullying from boys is to ________ as bullying from girls is to ________.

  • emotional harm; physical harm
  • physical harm; emotional harm
  • psychological harm; physical harm
  • social exclusion; verbal taunting

22 .  Which of the following adolescents is least likely to be targeted for bullying?

  • a child with a physical disability
  • a transgender adolescent
  • an emotionally sensitive boy
  • the captain of the football team

23 .  The bystander effect likely occurs due to ________.

  • desensitization to violence
  • people not noticing the emergency
  • diffusion of responsibility
  • emotional insensitivity

24 .  Altruism is a form of prosocial behaviour that is motivated by ________.

  • feeling good about oneself
  • selfless helping of others
  • earning a reward
  • showing bravery to bystanders

25 .  After moving to a new apartment building, research suggests that Sam will be most likely to become friends with ________.

  • his next door neighbour
  • someone who lives three floors up in the apartment building
  • someone from across the street
  • his new postal delivery person

26 .  What trait do both men and women tend to look for in a romantic partner?

  • sense of humour
  • social skills
  • leadership potential
  • physical attractiveness

27 .  According to the triangular theory of love, what type of love is defined by passion and intimacy but no commitment?

  • consummate love
  • romantic love

28 .  According to social exchange theory, humans want to maximize the ________ and minimize the ________ in relationships.

  • intimacy; commitment
  • benefits; costs
  • costs; benefits
  • passion; intimacy

Critical Thinking Questions

29 .  Compare and contrast situational influences and dispositional influences and give an example of each. Explain how situational influences and dispositional influences might explain inappropriate behaviour.

30 .  Provide an example of how people from individualistic and collectivistic cultures would differ in explaining why they won an important sporting event.

31 .  Why didn’t the “good” guards in the Stanford prison experiment object to other guards’ abusive behaviour? Were the student prisoners simply weak people? Why didn’t they object to being abused?

32 .  Describe how social roles, social norms, and scripts were evident in the Stanford prison experiment. How can this experiment be applied to everyday life? Are there any more recent examples where people started fulfilling a role and became abusive?

33 .  Give an example (one  not  used in class or your text) of cognitive dissonance and how an individual might resolve this.

34 .  Imagine that you work for an advertising agency, and you’ve been tasked with developing an advertising campaign to increase sales of Bliss Soda. How would you develop an advertisement for this product that uses a central route of persuasion? How would you develop an ad using a peripheral route of persuasion?

35 .  Describe how seeking outside opinions can prevent groupthink.

36 .  Compare and contrast social loafing and social facilitation.

37 .  Some people seem more willing to openly display prejudice regarding sexual orientation than prejudice regarding race and gender. Speculate on why this might be.

38 .  When people blame a scapegoat, how do you think they choose evidence to support the blame?

39 .  Compare and contrast hostile and instrumental aggression.

40 .  What evidence discussed in the previous section suggests that cyberbullying is difficult to detect and prevent?

41 .  Describe what influences whether relationships will be formed.

42 .  The evolutionary theory argues that humans are motivated to perpetuate their genes and reproduce. Using an evolutionary perspective, describe traits in men and women that humans find attractive.

Personal Application Questions

43 .  Provide a personal example of an experience in which your behaviour was influenced by the power of the situation.

44 .  Think of an example in the media of a sports figure—player or coach—who gives a self-serving attribution for winning or losing. Examples might include accusing the referee of incorrect calls, in the case of losing, or citing their own hard work and talent, in the case of winning.

45 .  Try attending a religious service very different from your own and see how you feel and behave without knowing the appropriate script. Or, try attending an important, personal event that you have never attended before, such as a bar mitzvah (a coming-of-age ritual in Jewish culture), a quinceañera (in some Latin American cultures a party is given to a girl who is turning 15 years old), a wedding, a funeral, or a sporting event new to you, such as horse racing or bull riding. Observe and record your feelings and behaviours in this unfamiliar setting for which you lack the appropriate script. Do you silently observe the action, or do you ask another person for help interpreting the behaviours of people at the event? Describe in what ways your behaviour would change if you were to attend a similar event in the future?

46 .  Name and describe at least three social roles you have adopted for yourself. Why did you adopt these roles? What are some roles that are expected of you, but that you try to resist?

47 .  Cognitive dissonance often arises after making an important decision, called post-decision dissonance (or in popular terms, buyer’s remorse). Describe a recent decision you made that caused dissonance and describe how you resolved it.

48 .  Describe a time when you or someone you know used the foot-in-the-door technique to gain someone’s compliance.

49 .  Conduct a conformity study the next time you are in an elevator. After you enter the elevator, stand with your back toward the door. See if others conform to your behaviour. Watch this  video  for a candid camera demonstration of this phenomenon. Did your results turn out as expected?

50 .  Most students adamantly state that they would never have turned up the voltage in the Milligram experiment. Do you think you would have refused to shock the learner? Looking at your own past behaviour, what evidence suggests that you would go along with the order to increase the voltage?

51 .  Give an example when you felt that someone was prejudiced against you. What do you think caused this attitude? Did this person display any discrimination behaviours and, if so, how?

52 .  Give an example when you felt prejudiced against someone else. How did you discriminate against them? Why do you think you did this?

53 .  Have you ever experienced or witnessed bullying or cyberbullying? How did it make you feel? What did you do about it? After reading this section would you have done anything differently?

54 .  The next time you see someone needing help, observe your surroundings. Look to see if the bystander effect is in action and take measures to make sure the person gets help. If you aren’t able to help, notify an adult or authority figure that can.

55 .  Think about your recent friendships and romantic relationship(s). What factors do you think influenced the development of these relationships? What attracted you to becoming friends or romantic partners?

56 .  Have you ever used a social exchange theory approach to determine how satisfied you were in a relationship, either a friendship or romantic relationship? Have you ever had the costs outweigh the benefits of a relationship? If so, how did you address this imbalance?

Introduction to Psychology & Neuroscience (2nd Edition) Copyright © 2020 by Edited by Leanne Stevens & Jennifer Stamp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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