Social psychology is a branch of psychology that studies cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes of individuals as influenced by their group membership and interactions, and other factors that affect social life, such as social status, role, and social class. Social psychology examines the effects of social contacts on the development of attitudes, stereotypes, and so forth.
A relatively recent field, social psychology has nonetheless had a significant impact not only on the academic worlds of psychology, sociology, and the social sciences in general, but has also affect public understanding and expectation of human social behavior. By studying how people behave under extreme social influences, or lack thereof, great advances have been made in understanding human nature. Human beings are essentially social beings, and thus, social interaction is vital to the health of each person. Through investigating the factors that affect social life and how social interactions affect individual psychological development and mental health, a greater understanding of how humankind as a whole can live together in harmony is emerging.
The discipline of social psychology began in the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century. The first published study in this area was an experiment by Norman Triplett (1898) on the phenomenon of social facilitation. During the 1930s, many Gestalt psychologists, particularly Kurt Lewin, fled to the United States from Nazi Germany. They were instrumental in developing the field as something separate from the behavioral and psychoanalytic schools that were dominant during that time, and social psychology has always maintained the legacy of their interests in perception and cognition. Attitudes and a variety of small group phenomena were the most commonly studied topics in this era.
During World War II, social psychologists studied persuasion and propaganda for the U.S. military. After the war, researchers became interested in a variety of social problems, including gender issues and racial prejudice. In the sixties, there was growing interest in a variety of new topics, such as cognitive dissonance, bystander intervention, and aggression. By the 1970s, however, social psychology in America had reached a crisis. There was heated debate over the ethics of laboratory experimentation, whether or not attitudes really predicted behavior, and how much science could be done in a cultural context (Kenneth Gergen, 1973). This was also the time when a radical situationist approach challenged the relevance of self and personality in psychology.
During the years immediately following World War II, there was frequent collaboration between psychologists and sociologists (Sewell, 1989). However, the two disciplines have become increasingly specialized and isolated from each other in recent years, with sociologists focusing on macro variables (such as social structure) to a much greater extent. Nevertheless, sociological approaches to social psychology remain an important counterpart to psychological research in this area.
Michael Argyle pioneered social psychology as an academic field in Britain. In 1952, when he was appointed the first lecturer in social psychology at the University of Oxford, the field was no more than embryonic (Robinson 2002). In fact, only Oxford and the London School of Economics had departments of social psychology at the time. In his research, which attracted visits from many American social psychologists, Argyle maintained a different approach, one that emphasized more real world problems and solutions over laboratory-style investigations, but always without sacrificing the integrity of the experimental method. In addition to his research and many publications, of which Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour published in 1967 became a best-seller, he gave lectures and seminars to academics, professionals, and the wider public so that social psychology became known both as a scientific enterprise and as a necessary perspective for solving social problems.
Social psychology reached maturity in both theory and method during the 1980s and 1990s. Careful ethical standards regulated research, and greater pluralism and multicultural perspectives emerged. Modern researchers are interested in a variety of phenomena, but attribution, social cognition, and self-concept are perhaps the greatest areas of growth. Social psychologists have also maintained their applied interests, with contributions in health and environmental psychology, as well as the psychology of the legal system.
Social psychology is the study of how social conditions affect human beings. Scholars in this field today are generally either psychologists or sociologists, though all social psychologists employ both the individual and the group as their units of analysis. Despite their similarity, the disciplines tend to differ in their respective goals, approaches, methods, and terminology. They also favor separate academic journals and professional societies.
Social psychology is the scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others (Allport, 1985). By this definition, scientific refers to the empirical method of investigation. The terms thoughts, feelings, and behaviors include all of the psychological variables that are measurable in a human being. The statement that others may be imagined or implied suggests that we are prone to social influence even when no other people are present, such as when watching television, or following internalized cultural norms.
Social psychology bridges the interest of psychology (with its emphasis on the individual) with sociology (with its emphasis on social structures). Psychologically oriented researchers place a great deal of emphasis on the immediate social situation, and the interaction between person and situation variables. Their research tends to be highly empirical and is often centered around laboratory experiments. Psychologists who study social psychology are interested in such topics as attitudes, social cognition, cognitive dissonance, social influence, and interpersonal behavior. Two influential journals for the publication of research in this area are The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
The study of attitudes is a core topic in social psychology. Attitudes are involved in virtually every other area of social psychology, including conformity, interpersonal attraction, social perception, and prejudice. In social psychology, attitudes are defined as learned evaluations of a person, object, place, or issue that influence thought and action (Perloff, 2003). Put more simply, attitudes are basic expressions of approval or disapproval, favorability or unfavorability, or as Bem (1970) put it, likes and dislikes. Examples would include liking chocolate ice cream, being anti-abortion, or endorsing the values of a particular political party.
Social psychologists have studied attitude formation, the structure of attitudes, attitude change, the function of attitudes, and the relationship between attitudes and behavior. Because people are influenced by the situation, general attitudes are not always good predictors of specific behavior. For a variety of reasons, a person may value the environment and not recycle a can on a particular day. Attitudes that are well remembered and central to a self-concept, however, are more likely to lead to behavior, and measures of general attitudes do predict patterns of behavior over time.
The topic of persuasion has received a great deal of attention. Persuasion is an active method of influence that attempts to guide people toward the adoption of an attitude, idea, or behavior by rational or emotive means. Persuasion relies on appeals rather than strong pressure or coercion. Numerous variables have been found to influence the persuasion process, and these are normally presented in four major categories: Who said what to whom and how.
Dual process theories of persuasion (such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model) maintain that the persuasive process is mediated by two separate routes. Persuasion can be accomplished by either superficial aspects of the communication or the internal logic of the message. Whether someone is persuaded by a popular celebrity or factual arguments are largely determined by the ability and motivation of the audience. However, decades of research have demonstrated that deeply held attitudes are remarkably resistant to persuasion under normal circumstances.
Social cognition is a growing area of social psychology that studies how people perceive, think about, and remember information about others. One assumption in social cognition is that reality is too complex to easily discern, and so people see the world according to simplified schemas, or images of reality. Schemas are generalized mental representations that organize knowledge and guide information processing. For example, one's schema for mice might include the expectation that they are small, and furry, and eat cheese.
Schemas often operate automatically and unintentionally, and can lead to biases in perception and memory. Schematic expectations may lead people to see something that is not there. One experiment found that white American policemen are more likely to misperceive a weapon in the hands of a black man than a white man (Correll, et al., 2002). This type of schema is actually a stereotype, a generalized set of beliefs about a particular group of people. Stereotypes are often related to negative or preferential attitudes (prejudice) and behavior (discrimination). Schemas for types of events (such as doing laundry) are known as "scripts."
Another major concept in social cognition is attribution. Attributions are the explanations humans make for people's behavior, either one's own behavior or the behavior of others. An attribution can be either internal or external. Internal or dispositional attributions assign causality to factors within the person, such as ability or personality. External or situational attributions assign causality to an outside factor, such as the weather. Numerous biases in the attribution process have been discovered:
Heuristics are cognitive short cuts. Instead of weighing all the evidence when making a decision, people rely on heuristics to save time and energy. The availability heuristic is used when people estimate the probability of an outcome based on how easy that outcome is to imagine. As such, vivid or highly memorable possibilities will be perceived as more likely than those that are harder to picture or are difficult to understand, resulting in a corresponding cognitive bias.
There are a number of other biases that have been found by social cognition researchers. The hindsight bias is a false memory of having predicted events, or an exaggeration of actual predictions, after becoming aware of the outcome. The confirmation bias is a type of bias leading to the tendency to search for, or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.
The fields of social psychology and personality have merged over the years, and social psychologists have developed an interest in a variety of self-related phenomena. In contrast with traditional personality theory, however, social psychologists place a greater emphasis on cognitions than on traits. Much research focuses on the self-concept, which is a person's understanding of his or her self. The self-concept can be divided into a cognitive component, known as the self-schema, and an evaluative component, the self-esteem. The need to maintain a healthy self-esteem is recognized as a central human motivation in the field of social psychology. Self-efficacy beliefs are an aspect of the self-schema. Self-efficacy refers to an individual's expectation that performance on some task will be effective and successful.
People develop their self-concepts by a variety of means, including introspection, feedback from others, self-perception, and social comparison. By comparison to relevant others, people gain information about themselves, and they make inferences that are relevant to self-esteem. Social comparisons can be either upward or downward, that is, comparisons to people who are either higher in status or ability, or lower in status or ability. Downward comparisons are often made in order to elevate self-esteem.
Self-perception is a specialized form of attribution that involves making inferences about oneself after observing one's own behavior. Psychologists have found that too many extrinsic rewards (such as money) tend to reduce intrinsic motivation through the self-perception process. People's attention is directed to the reward and they lose interest in the task when the reward is no longer offered. This is an important exception to reinforcement theory.
Cognitive dissonance is a feeling of unpleasant arousal caused by noticing an inconsistency among one's cognitions (Festinger, 1957). Cognitive dissonance was originally developed as a theory of attitude change, but it is now considered to be a self theory by most social psychologists. Dissonance is strongest when a discrepancy has been noticed between one's self-concept and one's behavior; for example, doing something that makes one ashamed. This can result in self-justification as the individual attempts to deal with the threat. Cognitive dissonance typically leads to a change in attitude, a change in behavior, a self-affirmation, or a rationalization of the behavior.
An example of cognitive dissonance is smoking. Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of cancer, which is threatening to the self-concept of the individual who smokes. Most people believe themselves to be intelligent and rational, and the idea of doing something foolish and self-destructive causes dissonance. To reduce this uncomfortable tension, smokers tend to make excuses for themselves, such as "I'm going to die anyway, so it doesn't matter."
Social influence refers to the way people affect the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. Like the study of attitudes, it is a traditional, core topic in social psychology. In fact, research on social influence overlaps considerably with research on attitudes and persuasion. Social influence is also closely related to the study of group dynamics, as most of the principles of influence are strongest when they take place in social groups.
Conformity is the most common and pervasive form of social influence. It is generally defined as the tendency to act or think like other members of a group. Solomon Asch developed the paradigm for measuring conformity in the 1950s. In his groundbreaking studies Asch (1955) found that a surprisingly large number of people would conform to the majority opinion and give an obviously incorrect response to a simple visual task.
Group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, and prior commitment all help to determine the level of conformity in an individual. Conformity is usually viewed as a negative tendency in American culture, but a certain amount of conformity is not only necessary and normal, but probably essential for a community to function.
The two major motives in conformity are: 1) Normative influence, the tendency to conform in order to gain social acceptance, and avoid social rejection or conflict, as in peer pressure; and 2) informational influence, which is based on the desire to obtain useful information through conformity, and thereby achieve a correct or appropriate result. Minority influence is the degree to which a smaller faction within the group influences the group during decision making. Note that this refers to a minority position on some issue, not an ethnic minority. Their influence is primarily informational and depends on consistent adherence to a position, degree of defection from the majority, and the status and self-confidence of the minority members. Reactance is a tendency to assert oneself by doing the opposite of what is expected. This phenomenon is also known as anticonformity and it appears to be more common in men than in women.
There are two other major areas of social influence research. Compliance refers to any change in behavior that is due to a request or suggestion from another person. "The Foot-in-the-door technique" is a compliance method in which the persuader requests a small favor and then follows up with a larger favor; for example, asking for the time, and then asking for ten dollars. A related trick is the "bait and switch" (Cialdini, 2000). The third major form of social influence is obedience. This is a change in behavior that is the result of a direct order or command from another person.
A different kind of social influence is the "self-fulfilling prophecy." This is a prediction that, in being made, actually causes itself to become true. For example, in the stock market, if it is widely believed that a "stock market crash" is imminent, investors may lose confidence, sell most of their stock, and actually cause the crash. Likewise, people may expect hostility in others and actually induce this hostility by their own behavior.
A social group consists of two or more people that interact, influence each other, and share a common identity. Groups have a number of emergent qualities:
Temporary groups and aggregates share few or none of these features, and do not qualify as true social groups. People waiting in line to get on a bus, for example, do not constitute a social group.
Groups are important not only because they offer social support, resources, and a feeling of belonging, but because they supplement an individual's self-concept. To a large extent, people define themselves by their group memberships. This natural tendency for people to identify themselves with a particular group and contrast themselves with other groups is known as social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Unfortunately, social identity can lead to feelings of "us and them." It is frequently associated with preferential treatment toward the ingroup and prejudice and discrimination against outgroups.
Groups often moderate and improve decision making, and are frequently relied upon for these benefits, such as committees and juries. A number of group biases, however, can interfere with effective decision making. For example, "group polarization," formerly known as the "risky shift," occurs when people polarize their views in a more extreme direction after group discussion. Even worse is the phenomenon of "groupthink." This is a collective thinking defect that is characterized by a premature consensus. Groupthink is caused by a variety of factors, including isolation and a highly directive leader. Janis (1972) offered the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion as a historical case of groupthink.
Groups also affect performance and productivity. Social facilitation, for example, is a tendency to work harder and faster in the presence of others. Social facilitation increases the likelihood of the dominant response, which tends to improve performance on simple tasks and reduce it on complex tasks. In contrast, "social loafing" is the tendency of individuals to slack when working in a group. Social loafing is common when the task is considered unimportant and individual contributions are not easy to see.
Social psychologists study a variety of group related, or collective phenomena such as the behavior of crowds. An important concept in this area is deindividuation, a reduced state of self-awareness that can be caused by feelings of anonymity. Deindividuation is associated with uninhibited and sometimes dangerous behavior. It is common in crowds and mobs, but it can also be caused by a disguise, a uniform, alcohol, dark environments, or online anonymity.
Social psychologists are interested in the question of why people sometimes act in a prosocial way (helping, liking, or loving others), but at other times act in an antisocial way (hostility, aggression, or prejudice against others).
Aggression can be defined as any behavior that is intended to harm another human being. "Hostile" aggression is accompanied by strong emotions, particularly anger. Harming the other person is the goal. "Instrumental" aggression is only a means to an end. Harming the person is used to obtain some other goal, such as money. Research indicates that there are many causes of aggression, including biological factors like testosterone and environmental factors, such as social learning. Immediate situational factors, such as frustration, are also important in triggering an aggressive response.
Although violence is a fact of life, people are also capable of helping each other, even complete strangers, in emergencies. Research indicates that altruism occurs when a person feels empathy for another individual, even in the absence of other motives (Batson, 1998). However, according to the bystander effect, the probability of receiving help in an emergency situation drops as the number of bystanders increases. This is due to conformity effects and a diffusion of responsibility (Latane, 1981).
Another major area in the study of people's relations to each other is interpersonal attraction. This refers to all of the forces that lead people to like each other, establish relationships, and in some cases, fall in love. Several general principles have been discovered by researchers in this area:
Physical attractiveness is an important element of romantic relationships, particularly in the early stages which are characterized by high levels of passion. Later on, similarity becomes more important and the type of love people experience shifts from passionate to companionate. Robert Sternberg (1986) has suggested that there are three components to love: Intimacy, passion, and commitment.
According to social exchange theory, relationships are based on rational choice and cost-benefit analysis. If one partner's costs begin to outweigh his or her benefits, that person may leave the relationship, especially if there are good alternatives available. With time, long term relationships tend to become communal rather than simply based on exchange.
Interpersonal perception examines the beliefs that interacting people have about each other. This area differs from social cognition and person perception by being interpersonal rather than intrapersonal. By requiring at least two real people to interact, research in this area examines phenomena such as:
These variables cannot be assessed in studies that ask people to form beliefs about fictitious targets.
Although interest in this area has grown rapidly with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book, Blink, and Nalini Ambady's "thin-slices" research (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992), the discipline is still very young, having only been formally defined by David Kenny in 1994. The sparsity of research, in particular on the accuracy of first-impressions, means that social psychologists know a lot about what people think about others, but far less about whether they are right.
Many attribute this to a criticism that Cronbach wrote in 1955, about how impression accuracy was calculated, which resulted in a 30-year hiatus in research. During that time, psychologists focused on consensus (whether A and B agree in their beliefs about C) rather than accuracy, although Kenny (1994) has argued that consensus is neither necessary nor sufficient for accuracy.
Today, the use of correlations instead of discrepancy scores to measure accuracy (Funder, 1995) and the development of the Big Five model of personality have overcome Cronbach's criticisms and led to a wave of fascinating new research. For example, studies have found that people more accurately perceive Extraversion and Conscientiousness in strangers than they do the other personality domains (Watson, 1989); a five-second interaction tells as much as 15 minutes on these domains (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992), and video tells more than audio alone (Borkenau & Liebler, 1992).
A significant number of social psychologists are sociologists. Their work has a greater focus on the behavior of the group, and thus examines such phenomena as interactions and social exchanges at the micro-level, and group dynamics and crowd psychology at the macro-level. Sociologists are interested in the individual, but primarily within the context of social structures and processes, such as social roles, race and class, and socialization. They tend to use both qualitative and quantitative research designs.
Sociologists in this area are interested in a variety of demographic, social, and cultural phenomena. Some of their major research areas are social inequality, group dynamics, social change, socialization, social identity, and symbolic interactionism.
Social psychologists typically explain human behavior as a result of the interaction of mental states and immediate, social situations. In Kurt Lewin's (1951) famous Heuristic, behavior can be viewed as a function of the person and the environment, B=f(P,E). In general, social psychologists have a preference for laboratory-based, empirical findings.
Social psychology is an empirical science that attempts to answer a variety of questions about human behavior by testing hypotheses, both in the laboratory and in the field. This approach to the field focuses on the individual, and attempts to explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by other people. Careful attention to sampling, research design, and statistical analysis is important, and results are published in peer reviewed journals such as The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Whenever possible, social psychologists rely on controlled experimentation. Controlled experiments require the manipulation of one or more independent variables in order to examine the effect on a dependent variable. Experiments are useful in social psychology because they are high in internal validity, meaning that they are free from the influence of confounding or extraneous variables, and so are more likely to accurately indicate a causal relationship. However, the small samples used in controlled experiments are typically low in external validity, or the degree to which the results can be generalized the larger population. There is usually a trade-off between experimental control (internal validity) and being able to generalize to the population (external validity).
Because it is usually impossible to test everyone, research tends to be conducted on a sample of persons from the wider population. Social psychologists frequently use survey research when they are interested in results that are high in external validity. Surveys use various forms of random sampling to obtain a sample of respondents that are representative of a population. This type of research is usually descriptive or correlational because there is no experimental control over variables. However, new statistical methods, like structural equation modeling, are being used to test for potential causal relationships in this type of data.
Regardless of which method is used, it is important to evaluate the research hypothesis in light of the results, either confirming or rejecting the original prediction. Social psychologists use statistics and probability testing to judge their results, which define a significant finding as less than 5 percent likely to be due to chance. Replications are important, to ensure that the result is valid and not due to chance, or some feature of a particular sample.
The goal of social psychology is to understand cognition and behavior as they naturally occur in a social context, but the very act of observing people can influence and alter their behavior. For this reason, many social psychology experiments utilize deception to conceal or distort certain aspects of the study. Deception may include false cover stories, false participants (known as confederates or stooges), false feedback given to the participants, and so on.
The practice of deception has been challenged by some psychologists who maintain that deception under any circumstances is unethical, and that other research strategies (such as role-playing) should be used instead. Unfortunately, research has shown that role-playing studies do not produce the same results as deception studies and this has cast doubt on their validity. In addition to deception, experimenters have at times put people into potentially uncomfortable or embarrassing situations (for example the Milgram Experiment, Stanford prison experiment), and this has also been criticized for ethical reasons.
To protect the rights and well-being of research participants, and at the same time discover meaningful results and insights into human behavior, virtually all social psychology research must pass an ethical review process. At most colleges and universities, this is conducted by an ethics committee or institutional review board. This group examines the proposed research to make sure that no harm is done to the participants, and that the benefits of the study outweigh any possible risks or discomforts to people taking part in the study.
Furthermore, a process of informed consent is often used to make sure that volunteers know what will happen in the experiment and understand that they are allowed to quit the experiment at any time. A debriefing is typically done at the conclusion of the experiment in order to reveal any deceptions used and generally make sure that the participants are unharmed by the procedures. Today, most research in social psychology involves no more risk of harm than can be expected from routine psychological testing or normal daily activities.
Well known experiments and studies that have influenced social psychology include:
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