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Social psychology seeks to explain and understand social behavior. Learn more about group behavior, how we interact with others, and social influences on decision making. According to psychologist Gordon Allport, social psychology is a discipline that uses scientific methods "to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other human beings" (1985). Social psychology looks at a wide range of social topics, including group behavior, social perception, leadership, nonverbal behavior, conformity, aggression, and prejudice. It is important to note that social psychology is not just about looking at social influences. Social perception and social interaction are also vital to understanding social behavior.
Social psychology is the study of how people and groups interact. Scholars in this interdisciplinary area are typically either psychologists or sociologists, though all social psychologists employ both the individual and the group as their units of analysis. Despite their similarity, psychological and sociological researchers tend to differ in their goals, approaches, methods, and terminology. They also favor separate academic journals and professional societies. The greatest period of collaboration between sociologists and psychologists was during the years immediately following World War II. Although there has been increasing isolation and specialization in recent years, some degree of overlap and influence remains between the two disciplines.
Brief History of Social Psychology
While Plato referred to the idea of the "crowd mind" and concepts such as social loafing and social facilitation were introduced in the late-1800s, it wasn't until after World War II that research on social psychology would begin in earnest. The horrors of the Holocaust led researchers to study the effects of social influence, conformity, and obedience. The U.S. government also became interested in applying social psychological concepts to influencing citizens. Social psychology has continued to grow throughout the twentieth century, inspiring research that has contributed to our understanding of social experience and behavior.
How Is Social Psychology Different From Other Disciplines?
It is important to understand how social psychology differs from other disciplines. Social psychology is often confused with folk wisdom, personality psychology, and sociology. What makes social psychology different? Unlike folk wisdom, which relies on anecdotal observations and subjective interpretation, social psychology employs scientific methods and empirical study of social phenomena.
While personality psychology focuses on individual traits, characteristics, and thoughts, social psychology is focused on situations. Social psychologists are interested in the impact that social environment and interaction has on attitudes and behaviors. Finally, it is important to distinguish between social psychology and sociology. While there are many similarities between the two, sociology tends to looks at social behavior and influences at a very broad-based level. Sociologists are interested in the institutions and culture that influence social psychology. Psychologists instead focus on situational variables that affect social behavior. While psychology and sociology both study similar topics, they are looking at these topics from different perspectives.
Basic Concepts in Social Psychology
Our perception of 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. Social psychology is a branch of psychology concerned with how social phenomena influence us and how people interact with others. There are some basic aspects of social behavior that play a large role in our actions and how we see ourselves.
Social behavior is goal-oriented. Our interactions function to serve a goal or fulfill a need. 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, and to attract companions. The interaction between the individual and the situation determines the outcome. In many instances, people behavior very differently in various situations. The situation plays an important role and has a strong influence on our behavior. People spend a great deal of time considering social situations. Our social interactions help form our self-concept and perception. One method of forming self-concept is through a reflected appraisal process in which we imagine how other people see us. Another method is through a social comparison process whereby we consider how we compare to other people in our peer group.
We also analyze and explain the behavior of those around us. One common phenomenon is expectation confirmation, where we tend to ignore unexpected attributes and look for evidence that confirms our preexisting beliefs about others. This helps simplify our worldview, but it also skews our perception and can contribute to stereotyping. 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. While behavior can be informative in some instances, especially when the person's actions are intentional, 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 persons overriding dispositional characteristics. Studying social psychology can enrich our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us. Explore other links in this section to enrich your understanding of social behavior.
Major Perspectives in Social Psychology
Stresses the importance of social norms and culture. Proposes that children learn behavior through problem-solving interactions with other children and adults. Through these interactions, they learn the values and norms of their society.
Argues that social behaviors developed through genetics and inheritance. Emphasizes the role of biology and gene transmission across generations to explain current behavior.
Social Learning Perspective
Stresses the importance of unique experiences in family, school, community, etc. According to this viewpoint, we learn behaviors through observing and mimicking the behavior of others.
Supports an information processing model of social behavior, where we notice, interpret, and judge the behavior of others. New experiences can either be assimilated (using already held beliefs to interpret the event), or accommodated (which involves changing existing beliefs in response to the event.) By understanding how information is processed, we can better understand how patterns of thoughts impact behavior.
Research Methods in Social Psychology
Psychologists use a number of different scientific methods to conduct research on social psychology topics. These methods allow researchers to test hypotheses and theories and look for relationships between different variables. Which type of research is best? This depends largely on the subject the researcher is exploring, the resources available, and the theory or hypothesis being investigated.
The goal of descriptive research is to portray what already exists in a group or population. One example of this type of research would be an opinion poll to find which political candidate people plan to vote for in an upcoming election. Unlike causal and relational studies, descriptive studies cannot determine if there is a relationship between two variables.
Social psychologists use correlational research to look for relationships between variables. Conducting surveys, directly observing behaviors, or compiling research from earlier studies are some of the methods used to gather data for correlational research. While this type of study can help determine if two variables have a relationship, it does not allow researchers to determine if one variable causes changes in another variable. Further Correlational Studies Reading:
Experimental research is the key to uncovering causal relationships between variables. In experimental research, the experimenter randomly assigns participants to one of two groups: the control group and the experimental group. The control group receives no treatment and serves as a baseline. Researchers manipulate the levels of some independent variable in the experimental group and then measure the effects. Because researchers are able to control the independent variables, experimental research can be used to find causal relationships between variables.
Research Areas in Social Psychology
Social cognition is concerned with the processing, storage, and application of social information. Related to the field of cognitive psychology, this research area focuses largely on the concept of schemas. Schemas are our general ideas about the world, how things are, and how things work. These mental shortcuts allow us to function without constantly stopping to interpret everything around us.
We develop associations between related schemas, which plays an important role in social behavior and thinking. 2. Attitudes and Attitude Change:
The study of attitudes is one of the major research areas in social psychology. Social psychologists are interested in the components of attitudes, how attitudes develop, and how attitudes change. Researchers have described three core components of attitude: an affective component, a behavioral component, and a cognitive component. Often referred to as the “ABC’s of attitude,” these elements describe how we feel, behave, and understand. 3. Violence and Aggression:
What causes violence and aggression? Social psychologists are interested in how and why people engage in violence or act aggressively. Research in this area looks at numerous factors that may cause aggression including social variables and media influences. Researchers often look at the role social learning plays in producing aggressive behaviors and actions. 4. Prosocial Behavior:
Prosocial behavior is another major research area in social psychology. What is prosocial behavior? Prosocial behaviors are those that involve helping and cooperating. Researchers often look at why people help others, as well as why they sometimes refuse to help or cooperate. Much of the research in this area was prompted by the murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese. This case captured national attention when reports revealed that neighbors had witnessed her attack and murder, but failed to call the police for help. Research inspired by the case produced a great deal of information on prosocial behavior and how and why people choose—or sometimes refuse —to help others. 5. Prejudice and Discrimination:
Prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes exist in any social group. Social psychologists are interested in the origins, causes, and effects of these types of attitudes and social categorizations. How does prejudice develop? Why are stereotypes maintained in the face of contrary evidence? These are just a few of the questions social psychologists seek to answer. 6. Self and Social Identity:
Our perceptions of social identities and ourselves are another important research area in social psychology. How do people come to know and understand themselves? How do these self-perceptions affect our social interactions? Social psychologists are interested in learning more about how this inner life influences our outer lives and social world. Self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-expression are just a few of the factors that influence our social experience. 7. Group Behavior:
The behavior of groups is one of the largest research areas in social psychology. Most people realize that groups tend to behave differently than individuals. These group behaviors are sometimes beneficial and positive, but they can also be detrimental and negative. Social psychologists often look at topics such as group dynamics, leadership, group decision-making, conflicts, cooperation, and group influence.
Further Leadership Leadership Leadership Style Quiz 8. Social Influence:
Reading: Styles Theories
Social psychologists are also interested in the role that social influence has on behavior and decisionmaking. Topics such as the psychology of persuasion, peer pressure, conformity, and obedience are just a few of those studied in this area of social psychology. Research has helped reveal the power of social influence and has uncovered ways to help people resist influence. Further Persuasion Techniques Reading:
9. Interpersonal Relationships:
Social relationships play a major role in shaping behavior, attitudes, feelings, and thoughts. Social psychologists study how these interpersonal relationships affect people by looking at attachment, liking, love, and attraction. How do close relationships affect individuals? How important are these interpersonal relationships? These are just a few of the questions social psychologists seek to explain.