What is social psychology? What are its practical applications? Who are its main authors? What topics do social psychologists study? In this article, we will solve all these questions and we will comment on several examples. Learn valuable knowledge that will help you to scientifically explain your day to day. Welcome to the exciting world of social psychology.
What is Social Psychology?- Definition
Why is it that people are so determined to fight? What drives some people to donate all their money to charitable causes? Why do we feel so identified with certain groups? If you have asked yourself these questions, you have tried to solve the concerns of social psychologists.
Social psychology is a popular branch of psychology that studies the psychological processes of individuals in society. 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. In broad outline, we can say that it is responsible for explaining how our social relationships make us feel, what we think about them, what are our motivations for relating other people, how we act with other people, etc. This area in psychology was born at the beginning of the 20th century.
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.
What does Social Psychology study?
The issues addressed by social psychologists are as diverse as the immense variety of situations that are presented daily in our social life. These are the main topics studied and an example of a problem associated with each one:
- Identity construction: How do we determine which features define us?
- Attitudes and Social Psychology: What pushes us to be ecologists?
- Cognition in social relations: How do we make judgments about others behaviors?
- Communication: What drives us to spread our intimacies in social networks?
- Interpersonal relationships: Why do some people attract us and others disgust us?
- Culture from a psychosocial perspective: How do we collectively place images that influence our emotions?
- Stereotypes in social psychology: Why are blondes said to be dumb?
- Conflicts: What can lead someone to bully someone else?
- Helping others: Why do some people spend their time volunteering?
- The groups: What encourages us to consider ourselves unconditional fans of a certain team?
Social Psychology: Features
1. Social psychology and relations with various disciplines
Sociology is the science most closely related to social psychology. Other fields such as education, economics, philosophy, political science, history, anthropology, or other branches of psychology maintain a two-way relationship that is remarkably enriching with this area of study.
2. Social psychology’s focus on psychological processes
Despite the need to combine different perspectives to reveal the insights that this discipline explores, not all sciences related to society are the same. Social psychology is distinguished from other subjects by its particular emphasis on what happens within the minds of individuals and their influence on behavior.
3. Social psychology: scientific approach
The object of study of social psychologists is less tangible than that of other scientists such as chemists or biologists. Even so, there are methods, such as experiments or correlational methods (which consist in observing how certain variables are affected), which enable social psychology experts to develop solid and applicable theories.
4. Social psychology and confusion with common sense
We all have a theory about the aspects that social psychologists study. At times, when the general public reads about social psychology, it thinks that it only deals with cliché and/or subjective opinions. However, these professionals are rigorously demonstrating issues that people are accustomed to discussing based on their personal experiences.
Applications of social psychology
In addition to theory and research, social psychology has many uses that directly affect our daily lives. Applied social psychology tries to improve the quality of life of people in an endless number of dimensions.
- Health: It seeks to improve the individual’s well-being through tasks such as promoting healthy habits or neutralizing stressful social situations.
- Social Problems: Unemployment, immigration or gender violence are issues analyzed by social psychologists, who also design intervention plan in order to resolve conflicts.
- Education and social psychology: It focuses on issues such as the perception that people have about the education system or how to improve coexistence among students.
- Environment: Social psychology is concerned with the interaction between the environment and people.
- Legal area: It addresses issues that connect the world of law with that of psychology, such as prevention of criminal activity.
- Organizations: Explore leadership, productivity, relationships among corporate workers, etc.
- Politics and social psychology: It questions issues such as the effectiveness of political discourses or the attitudes of citizens towards politicians.
- Communication and consumption: Advertising influence, our communicative skills, the union between individuals and brands or behavior in social networks are examples of topics addressed in this field.
In short, the performance of applied social psychology is indispensable in many and varied areas that require progress. Also, social psychologists are concerned with empirically demonstrating the validity of the solutions they propose and implement.
Social Psychology: Experiments
In this section, we will tell you two of the most renowned experiments in social psychology to show you how social psychologists work and their shocking discoveries.
During World War II
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.
Experiment on social facilitation
Norman Triplett is the creator, according to several authors, of the first experiment of social psychology in 1898. He was curious about the speed increase observed in cyclists as they moved in a group. Its objective was to find out how the influence of a subject’s performance influenced the presence of other people performing the same activity.
His hypothesis was that our performance increases when we think we are competing with others (in motor tasks). Therefore, Triplett tried to verify the veracity of this affirmation in a laboratory. He asked some children to roll up reels of fishing thread. Some of the participants did it alone and the others accompanied by others who performed the same task. The result was that subjects in the second group were significantly faster.
Standford Jail Experiment
Philip Zimbardo, an acclaimed social psychologist, devised an experiment that went down in history for its bewildering results. He chose twenty-four students who appeared mentally healthy after an evaluation. Subsequently, he divided the group and randomly performed two groups. One was composed of policemen and the other by prisoners. In addition, he turned the basement of Standford University into a prison and made sure that the costumes and standards were as realistic as possible.
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.
The social explanation is that any person can act badly given a particular context. Watch the trailer to a movie based on this experiment.
Social psychology case studies: How can I apply social psychology to my daily life?
Who has never wanted to better understand and predict others behavior? Have you ever considered the motive that drives you to pretend that you feel like doing something for your group? Fortunately, social psychology gives us scientific answers to our daily questions.
Given that we live in society and need to adapt as best we can, a little bit of social psychology in our lives can help us explain teamwork discussions, job stress, the madness of Black-Friday sales or prejudices against people.
Discover these tips and recommendations that will help you apply the principles of social psychology to your routine:
Beware of your cognitive bias
Cognitive biases are deviations from reality that arise when we process information. We do not have enough resources to devote attention to everything around us and our brains tend to think at an amazing speed. For example, in order not to waste time, we tend to confirm our beliefs and to elude data that deny them.
This predisposition is natural and happens frequently. However, sometimes it can lead us to make mistakes, to contemplate our world through inappropriate stereotypes or to have unjustified prejudices. We need to reflect on our opinions and try to be objective.
Learn to influence others
We all need to occasionally influence others to get something. This does not involve manipulating or having evil intentions. Simply, we may want our sister to lend us a dress, make a good impression at a job interview or prevent a friend from making a lousy decision.
Actions like being polite with our interlocutor, doing favors or complimenting are remarkably effective tactics to achieve our purposes. Robert Cialdini is one of the greatest experts in social influence in the world and describes how effective in his book Influence.
Connect with today
The media are inexhaustible sources of knowledge about social psychology. The social network scandals, different leaders opinions and its power or comments from our acquaintances provide us with a multitude of data that we must process.
By the way, we must not be satisfied with knowing the reality through a single channel. Taking a holistic approach helps us to better anticipate others behavior and improve our problem-solving ability. Our knowledge will be enriched if we listen to the different versions of the stories and try to interpret different points of view.
Discover the exciting books on social psychology
Some social psychologists, such as Robert Cialdini, Elliot Aronson, or Philip Zimbardo, have written very interesting books for both professionals and non-specialists. Their works give you a practical, enjoyable and affordable approach to unravel the mysteries of our behavior in society.
Social psychology: Theorists and main authors
The list of fundamental social psychologists who made astonishing and still influential discoveries today is quite extensive. Here we present five essential authors and their most relevant contributions.
Social psychology and Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)
This father of social psychology proclaimed the interaction between each individual and all components of his environment. In fact, he was related to Gestalt psychology. He was especially interested in putting his ideas into practice and one of his maxims was “to understand a system you have to try to change it”.
Lewin created the theory of field, which emphasizes the importance of contemplating people’s vital space. This dimension is formed by the totality of the situation of each individual at a certain moment. Insists on not isolating the different factors that influence us and focusing on the dynamics that happen between them.
Solomon Asch (1907-1996) and social psychology
His main area of study was conformism, which is elemental for life in society. He is the celebrated creator of the “Asch paradigm”, which was demonstrated by a revolutionary experiment. In 1951, this psychologist brought together groups of between five and seven people. One of them was the subject studied and the rest were collaborators of the researcher.
Asch presented two images, in one there was a line and in the other three lines of different lengths. Subsequently, he wondered which line of the second card had the same length as the first. The experiment had been designed so that the individual analyzed was one of the last to respond. The collaborators gave an erroneous answer and it was verified if the participant also would do it.
The answer was tremendously obvious and simple. However, Asch discovered with surprise that after several trials, 50% of individuals were “mistaken” at least half the time. Asch also showed that conservative ratings vary from one culture to another, collectivists are more prone to this phenomenon.
Social Psychology and Stanley Milgram (1933-1984)
Milgram held one of the most terrifying experiments in history. Inspired by the atrocities committed in World War II, he studied obedience to authority and decided to explore the limits of individuals to their superiors.
He selected subjects with normal behavior. He asked the participants in his controversial experiment to administer electric shocks that progressively increased (although in reality they only reached 45 volts) to another person when he was wrong to answer a question.
The victim was an accomplice of the psychologist and had to fake progressive pain as the power of punishment rose. Despite his desperate cries and entreaties, the scientist who played the role of authority insisted that the subjects continue. Unexpectedly, 65% reached the maximum level, which involved delivering 450 volts to the other “participant”.
The explanations proposed for this grisly fact are that Yale provided credibility for the scientific experiment. Meaning that if Yale backed the experiment the discharges were not harmful or maybe the insistence since children on obeying our superiors (parents, teachers, etc.). How would you react to this situation?
Serge Moscovici (1925-2014) and social psychology
Moscovici set out to investigate how we understand the world around us. It started from that we know the reality from social representations that guide us and allow us to develop next to the others. Communication between people is essential to transmit valuable knowledge and ideas and guide us.
We construct concepts collectively and create common sense shared by all of us. Our ideas are interrelated allowing us to enrich our thoughts and give meaning to the different events that take place in the day to day. What are we without others?
Robert Zajonc (1923-2008)
This social psychologist revealed the “mere exposure effect,” which manifests our tendency to appreciate more of a stimulus after being frequently exposed to it. For example, the first time we hear a song on the radio, it may seem bland. However, if you put it on every time we go out, in the car, on television and also becomes a summer hit, it is likely we end up loving it.
Likewise, Zajonc states that our preferences are not completely rational. Emotions always escort thoughts. This influences us when choosing friends or partners since we like the people we see more often. Advertisers have taken advantage of this phenomenon to create deeper links with brands.
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.
Thank you very much for reading this article. We hope that social psychology has been inspiring. We invite you to comment if you want to ask us something about this subject or if you feel like making a contribution.
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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
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This article is originally written in Spanish by Aihnoa Arranz, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.