Social psychology (psychology)
Learn more about Social psychology (psychology)
- This page deals with the subfield of psychology. For the subfield of sociology by the same name, see Social psychology (sociology).
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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 variables that are measurable in an individual human being. Finally, the reference to imagined or implied others suggests that people are prone to social influence even when no other people are present, such as when watching television, or following internalized cultural norms.
Social psychologists typically explain human behavior as a result of the interaction of mental states and immediate, social situations. As Kurt Lewin (1951) stated, 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. Their theories tend to be specific and focused, rather than global and general.
Social psychology began as an interdisciplinary field, with sociologists and psychologists who had an interest in studying behavior in small groups. The field is poised midway between psychology, which deals with the individual and sociology, which focuses on groups and social structures. Over the years, however, social psychology has become increasingly specialized, and this entry approaches the subject from a psychological perspective.
The discipline of social psychology began at the dawn of the 20th 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 WWII, 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, American social psychology 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 (see Gergen, 1973). This was also the time when a radical situationist approach challenged the relevance of self and personality in psychology.
Social psychology reached maturity in both theory and method during the 1980s and 1990s. Careful ethical standards now regulate research, and greater pluralism and multicultural perspectives have emerged. Modern researchers are interested in a variety of phenomena, but attribution, social cognition, and the self-concept are perhaps the greatest areas of growth in recent years. Social psychologists have also maintained their applied interests, with contributions in health and environmental psychology, as well as the psychology of the legal system.
 Areas of social psychology
The study of attitudes is a core topic in social psychology. Attitudes are involved in virtually all other areas of the discipline, including conformity, interpersonal attraction, and prejudice. Social psychologists have studied attitude formation, attitude change and persuasion, and the relationship between attitudes and behavior.
- Attitude - a learned, global evaluation of a person, object, place, or issue that influences thought and action (Perloff, 2003). Defined more simply, attitudes are likes and dislikes (Bem, 1970).
- Persuasion - a method of influence that attempts to guide people toward the adoption of an attitude, idea, or action by rational and/or emotive means. Persuasion relies on "appeals" rather than strong pressure or coercion. There are four basic aspects:
- The Communicator, a person whose credibility, expertise, trustworthiness and attractiveness all play a role.
- The Message, possessed of varying degrees of reason, emotion (such as fear), one-sided or two sided messages, and other types of informational content.
- The Channel, whether it be interpersonal or media based, passive or active in nature.
- The Audience, possessed of a wide variety of demographics, personality traits, and preferences.
 Social cognition
This is a growing area of social psychology that studies how people perceive, think about, and remember information about others. Social cognition includes schemas, scripts, heuristics, and a variety of cognitive biases. Many of these processes occur unintentionally and automatically.
- Attribution - an explanation of behavior, of oneself or of others. Attributions 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.
- Fundamental attribution error - the tendency to make dispositional attributions for behavior. The actor-observer effect is an extension of this error, the tendency to make dispositional attributions for other people's behavior and situational attributions for our own.
- Just world effect- the tendency to blame victims (dispositional) for their suffering. This is believed to be motivated by the anxiety that good people could be victimized.
- Self-serving bias - the tendency to take credit for successes, and blame others for failure.
- Confirmation bias - a type of statistical bias describing the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.
- Heuristics - as opposed to algorithms, heuristics are cognitive short cuts. Instead of weighing all the evidence when making a decision, people rely on heuristics to save time and energy.
- Availability - a heuristic which occurs 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.
- Representativeness - a heuristic wherein we assume commonality between objects of similar appearance. While often very useful in everyday life, it can also result in stereotyping and false generalizations when used improperly.
- Hindsight bias - a false memory of having predicted events, or exaggeration of actual predictions, after becoming aware of the outcome. Phrases like "I knew it!" or "I told you so!" sometimes, but not always, incorporate hindsight bias.
- Schema - a generalized mental represenation that organizes knowledge and guides information processing. Schemas often operate unintentionally and automatically, and can lead to biases in perception and memory. Event schemas are known as scripts.
- Stereotypes - generalized and often oversimplified beliefs about a social group. Stereotypes are related to negative or preferential attitudes (prejudice) and behavior (discrimination).
 The self
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.
- Cognitive dissonance - a feeling of unpleasant arousal caused by noticing an inconsistency among cognitions (Festinger, 1957). Cognitive dissonance was originally considered to be 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. It typically leads to a change in attitude, a change in behavior, or a rationalization of behavior.
- Self-perception - observations of one's own behaviors, from which attitudes are inferred.
- Self-concept - a person's understanding of his or herself. Self-concept can be divided into a cognitive component, the self-schema, and an evaluative component, the self-esteem. The need to maintain a good self-esteem is a powerful motivator across the field of social psychology.
- Self-efficacy - an individual's expectation of the effectiveness of his or her behavior on a given task.
- Social comparison - humans gain information about themselves, and make inferences that are relevant to self-esteem, by comparison to relevant others. Social comparisons can be either upward or downward.
 Social influence
Social influence refers to the way people affect the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of others. Like the study of attitudes, it is a traditional, core topic in social psychology. Social influence is 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 - the tendency to act or think like other members of a group. Group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, and prior commitment all help to determine the level of conformity an individual will reflect towards his group.
- Normative influence - motivation to conform in order to gain social acceptance, and avoid social rejection or conflict, see peer pressure.
- Informational influence - the desire to obtain useful information through conformity, and thereby achieve a correct or appropriate result.
- Minority influence - the degree to which a minority influences the group. Their influence is informational and depends on consistent maintenance of a position, degree of defection from the majority, and self-confidence.
- Reactance - asserting oneself by doing the opposite of what is expected. Also known as anticonformity.
- Compliance - 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).
- Obedience - a change in behavior due to a direct order or command from another person.
 Group dynamics
A group is two or more people that interact, influence each other, and share a common identity. Groups have a number of emergent qualities that distinguish them from aggregates, such as group structure, leadership, norms, and roles.
- Group polarization - a tendency for groups to polarize their views in a more extreme direction after group discussion. Formerly known as the risky shift.
- Groupthink - a defective form of group decision making that is characterized by a premature consensus. Groupthink is caused by a variety of factors, including isolation and a highly directive leader.
- Norms - implicit rules and expectations for group members to follow, e.g. shaking hands when two people meet.
- Roles - implicit rules and expectations for specific members within the group, e.g. leadership and gender roles.
- Social facilitation - 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.
- Social identity - the tendency for people to identify themselves with a particular group and contrast themselves with other groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Social identity leads to feelings of "us and them." It is associated with preferential treatment toward the ingroup, and prejudice and discrimination against outgroups.
- Social loafing - the tendency of individuals to slack when work is pooled and individual performance is not being evaluated. Social loafing is especially likely when the task is considered unimportant by the participants.
 Interpersonal phenomena
This is a diverse group of topics that involve people's relations and behavior toward one another. Social psychologists study interpersonal relationships, prosocial behavior (such as altruism), aggression, and a variety of other phenomena.
- Aggression - behavior that is intended to harm another human being.
- Hostile - performed as an act of passion. Harming the other person is the goal.
- Instrumental - performed as a means to an end. Harming the person is used to obtain some other goal, such as money.
- Bystander effect - the finding that the probability of receiving help in an emergency situation drops as the number of bystanders increases. This is due to two major factors, pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility (Latane, 1981).
- Deindividuation - a reduced state of self-awareness typically 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, or a dark environment.
- Interpersonal attraction - all of those forces that lead people to like each other, establish relationships, and in some cases, fall in love.
- Proximity - physical proximity increases attraction, as opposed to long distance relationships which are more at risk.
- Familiarity - mere exposure to others increases attraction, even when the exposure is presented subliminally.
- Similarity - the more similar two people are in attitudes, background, and other traits, the more probable it is that they will like each other.
- Self-fulfilling prophecy - 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 crash is imminent, investors may lose confidence, sell most of their stock, and actually cause the crash.
- Social exchange theory - the idea that 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.
 Research in social psychology
 Research methods
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. 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.
- Experimental methods - the researcher manipulates an independent variable and observes the effect on a dependent variable in an attempt to explore causal relationships
- Correlational methods - the researcher looks at the statistical association between two naturally occurring variables, For example: viewing violent media and performing violent behaviors
- Observational methods - this method is purely descriptive and includes naturalistic observation, participant observation, and archival analysis
Controlled experiments are useful in social psychology because they are high in internal validity, meaning that they are free from the influence of extraneous variables, and so are more likely to accurately indicate a causal relationship. However, the small samples used in controlled experiments are 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) compared to being able to generalize results to a naturalistic situation for the population at large (external validity).
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 standard probability testing, which defines a significant finding as less than 5% 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.
 Research ethics
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 (e.g. 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 (e.g. 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.
 Famous experiments
Well known experiments and studies in social psychology include:
- The Milgram experiment, which studied how far people would go to avoid dissenting against authority even when the suffering of others was at stake. (At the time a poll of psychiatrists showed a belief that only 1% of the populace would be capable of continuing to cause pain to an extreme point.) Coming soon after World War II, it suggested that people are more susceptible to control by authority than was then assumed in the Western democratic world (Milgram, 1975).
- The Asch conformity experiments from the 1950s, a series of studies that starkly demonstrated the power of conformity in groups on the self-reported perceptions and behaviors of individuals (Asch, 1955).
- The Stanford prison experiment, by Zimbardo, where a simulated exercise between student prisoners and guards went out of control. This was an important demonstration of the power of the immediate social situation, and its capacity to overwhelm normal personality traits (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973).
- Muzafer Sherif's (1954) Robbers' Cave Experiment. The researchers divided boys into two competing groups and tried to combine them again later on through mutual challenges. Also known as realistic group conflict theory, because the intergroup conflict was induced through competition over resources.
- Albert Bandura's Bobo doll experiment, which demonstrated how aggression is learned by imitation (Bandura, et al., 1961). It was one of the first studies in a long line of research showing how exposure to aggression leads to further aggression.
- Allport, G. W. (1985). The historical background of social psychology. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, pp. 31-35.
- Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582.
- Bem, D. (1970). Beliefs, attitudes, and human affairs. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Cialdini, R. B. (2000). Influence: Science and practice. Allyn and Bacon.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.
- Haney, C., Banks, W.C. & Zimbardo, P.G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97.
- Latane, B. (1981). The psychology of social impact. American Psychologist, 36, 343-356.
- Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (Ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
- Milgram, S. (1975). Obedience to authority. Harper and Bros.
- Sherif, M. (1954). Experiments in group conflict. Scientific American, 195, 54-58.
- Perloff, R. M. (2003). The dynamics of persuasion. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.
- Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology. 9, 507-533.
 See also
 External links
- Introduction to Social Psychology
- Social Psychology - brief introduction
- Social Psychology - basics
- Society for Personality and Social Psychology
- Society of Experimental Social Psychology
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- Current Research in Social Psychology
- Social Psychology Network
- Social Psychology - discussion group
- Social Psychology at The Psychology Wiki
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