Social Psychology: What You Need to Know

social psychology

Social psychology looks at how individuals interact in groups such as this.

Social psychology is the study of how social and cognitive processes affect people perceive, influence, and relate to others. Basically, it’s trying to understand people in a social context, and understanding the reasons why we behave the way we do in social situations. Social scientists and psychologists study how social influence, social perception and social interaction influence individual and group behavior in interpersonal relationships and the ways that psychology can improve those interactions. Social psychology affects every aspect of our lives, whether we depend on, are influenced by, or react to others. People act differently in different situations because the people around us affect our actions. There is no way that this post could explore every facet of the complicated, intricate ways that humans interact with each other, but we can cover the basics.

An Overview of Social Psychology

Social psychology is defined as the scientific study of the effects of social and cognitive processes on how people perceive, influence, and relate to other people. Social processes are the ways the people around us affect our thinking, feelings, and actions. Cognitive processes are the ways in which an individual’s personal motives, memories, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions influence how we look at and understand the world around us. Social psychology is different from other social sciences because it seeks to understand the social behavior of individuals as opposed to groups of individuals, unlike sociology. Basically, the main goal of social psychology is to understand why people act the way they do in social situations.

Like with any other science, there are some basic assumptions of social psychology. One is that all behavior occurs in a social context, and individuals adhere to these norms even when alone. Another is that other people and the society they create around an individual is a major influence on their behavior, thought processes, and emotions. Social psychology looks at different areas such as social influence, social cognition, social behavior, and social development. Within those areas, social psychologists look at conformity, obedience, attitudes, social identity, relationships, attachment, and discrimination. Social psychologists also look at interpersonal and group dynamics and research social interactions and their influencing factors, such as group behavior, leadership, attitudes, and public perceptions.

History of Social Psychology

People began thinking about the concept of social psychology as early as our first philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle had a more individual centered approach, and thought that humans were naturally made to be sociable, in order for us all to be able to live together. Plato instead based his theory on a socio-centered approach, and felt that the environment controlled the individual, stimulating social responsibility through social context. The idea of the “group mind” evolved from Hegel, who introduced the concept that society has links to the developing social brain. This then led to a focus on the “collective mind” in the 1860s, which emphasized the view that an individual’s personality develops because of cultural and community influences, especially language. Wundt is seen as the father of psychology and Völkerpsychologie, in which he studied language, cultural myths, and social customs. He saw language as both a product of cultures, as well as individual cognitive processes.

Some of the first experiments conducted in the vein of social psychology occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Triplett and Ringelmann. Triplett conducted a study on if people would perform better or worse when there were other people present. He was the first to find evidence of social facilitation, which is when people are able to perform tasks better when there are others around them observing. Ringelmann’s study looked at how much effort a person is willing to input into a task or project when working alone versus working with others. His study found the basis for social loafing, which is when an individual puts in less effort when working with other people. Social psychology was able to branch off from other areas of psychology because of the belief that people’s behavior changes depending on the cognitive processes with which they perceive and interpret the social situation they are in. Later experiments included looking at how individuals behave according to the rules of society, as well as studies on effective work ethics and different leadership styles.

Studies in Social Psychology

Unfortunately, a large impetus for the study of social psychology was World War II and the workings of the Nazi party and Holocaust. Researchers sought to understand the effects of the leaders’ influence, and how conformity and obedience played a role in why they were willing to participate in such evil, terrible actions. Researchers were interested in how these attitudes formed and were changed by the social contexts set by the leadership.

One of the most famous experiments in social psychology was conducted by Stanley Milgram and his colleagues, in which they tried to measure how far people were willing to go in order to obey authority figures. Milgram ordered the study participants to give another person increasingly powerful electric shocks, almost to the point where they could die. Even though they were only pretending, and not really receiving the shocks, 65 percent of the participants delivered the maximum level only because they were told to by someone they perceived to be in charge of the situation.

Another infamous experiment in the world of social psychology was conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 and is known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. The participants were randomly assigned to be “prisoners” or “guards,” and were supposed to play out those roles throughout the experiment. Many of the guards grew to be increasingly sadistic towards the prisoners, unsettlingly more so at night when they believed the cameras to be turned off. The experiment had to be shut down after only 6 days, short of the planned 2 weeks, after a riot in the prison, for fear of someone getting seriously hurt. The experiment has been used as a prime example of people accepting and obeying an ideology, especially if they have institutional and societal support for their actions. Unfortunately, we can also see similar effects in the United States after the previous presidential election. There has been a rise in hate crimes, racism, and xenophobia since the election, because the perpetrators feel that they have the support of the leaders in government.

Is it possible to bring individuality to situations with so many rules? Social psychology wants to find out.

Is it possible to bring individuality to situations with so many rules? Social psychology wants to find out.

Is social psychology for you?

Social psychologists are able to work on challenges that affect everyone socially, such as prejudice, implicit bias, bullying, criminal activity and substance abuse. They are able to do so in roles such as researchers, consultants, professors, strategists, or designers. If you are interested in working in social psychology, a masters’ or Ph.D is usually necessary. But the hard work can definitely be worth it if you feel like you are making an impactful difference in people’s lives.



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Carnahan, T.; McFarland, S. (2007). “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty?”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 33 (5): 603–614. doi:10.1177/0146167206292689

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Social Psychology. Retrieved from

Smith ER, Mackie DM. Claypool HM. Social Psychology: Fourth Edition. Psychology Press:2015.

Wilhelm Wundt. (2013, August 1). New World Encyclopedia,. Retrieved March 10, 2017, from

Elsie is a public health professional working in education and research. She is a lifelong learner, and is especially interested in mental and behavioral health. She loves travelling and spending time with her dog.