57 Key Concepts in Social Psychology

social psychology examples and definition

Social psychology is the scientific study of how individuals think, feel, and behave in social contexts. It examines the influence of interpersonal and group dynamics on human behavior, beliefs, and emotions.

Key theorists in social psychology include Albert Bandura, who demonstrated how children mimic influential adults through his Bobo Doll Experiment, and Lev Vygotsky, who demonstrated how ‘more knowledgeable others’ can influence children’s learning and development.

This approach contrasts with a purely cognitive approach from the likes of Jean Piaget, which fails to acknowledge the role of social interaction in influencing thought processes.

Fact File: Social Psychology’s Origins

The birth of social psychology can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It emerged as a field of study seeking to understand how individual behavior, thoughts, and feelings are influenced by social factors.

Notably, the pioneering works of psychologists like Gustav Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde contributed to the surge of interest in it. They used emerging theories of evolution and adaptation to explain social behavior.

In the 20th century , notable figures like Kurt Lewin, known as the “father of social psychology,” and Leon Festinger made further strides in understanding group dynamics and social influences during this time.

By the mid-20th century, the field was maturing, with experiments like the Stanford Prison experiment and Milgram’s obedience experiment emerging as fundamental studies demonstrating the value of the study of the nexus between society and the mind.

Key Concepts in Social Psychology

  • Anchoring and Adjustment: Anchoring refers to the cognitive bias where an initial piece of information is used to make subsequent judgments. If we’re adjusting, it means changing our judgement in light of new information. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered this concept.
  • Attribution Theory: This term, introduced by Fritz Heider, argues that people intuitively attribute events and behaviors to certain factors in an attempt to explain and understand the social world.
  • Availability Heuristic: Another term coined by psychologists Tversky and Kahneman, the availability heuristic means making judgments based on what’s readily available in our memory, rather than looking at all the alternatives.
  • Bobo Doll Experiment: This experiment, conducted by Albert Bandura, demonstrated that children can learn aggressive behaviors simply by observing an adult acting aggressively toward a Bobo doll (an inflated, five-foot-tall doll).
  • Bystander Effect: This social phenomenon, documented by social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley, argues that the more people present in a situation, the less likely any individual is to help a person in distress.
  • Chronosystem: Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory includes the chronosystem, which encompasses the dimension of time in relation to a person’s development.
  • Conformity: This is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group or societal norms, largely studied by Solomon Asch.
  • Cultural Tools: In the theory of sociocultural development, these are the socially created constructs (e.g., language, writing systems) that enhance cognitive development.
  • Deindividuation: Coined by Leon Festinger, deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that’s concerned with the loss of self-awareness in groups, which can lead to anomalous behavior.
  • Discrimination: Unjustified negative or harmful actions toward a member of a group simply because of their membership in that group. Discrimination is a major topic within social identity theory.
  • Downward Social Comparison: This is a concept proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger as part of his social comparison theory, where individuals compare themselves to others who are less proficient or worse off in order to feel better about themselves.
  • Exosystem: According to Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, the exosystem refers to the larger social setting in which a person does not actually participate, but still experiences the effects of.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error: This is the tendency to overestimate the influence of personal traits and underestimate the effects of the situation when explaining the behavior of others. Lee Ross introduced this concept.
  • Group Dynamics: This term describes how an assembly of individuals interact, behave, and perform collectively. Group behavior is often different from individual behavior, and social psychologists explore why this is the case.
  • Groupthink: Irving Janis introduced the concept of groupthink, where homogenous, highly cohesive groups are at risk of making poor decisions because individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the course of group solidarity.
  • Halo Effect: Proposed by Edward Thorndike, it refers to the cognitive bias where the perception of one positive characteristic influences other perceived characteristics in a positive way.
  • In-group Bias: This bias refers to the systematic favorability of members in one’s own group over those in other groups and is embedded in the social identity theory formulated by Henri Tajfel and John Turner.
  • Internalization: Internalization involves adopting society’s standards or behavior as one’s own. It’s a major part of social learning theory and psychoanalysis.
  • Just-world Hypothesis: Coined by Melvin Lerner, this refers to the belief that the world is fair and that people generally get what they deserve.
  • Macrosystem: Is the highest and farthest removed level of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, and includes the broad cultural and societal mindset.
  • Mediated learning: This term refers to how our social and psychological embodiments influence the way information is processed, often relying on cultural tools for interpretation and understanding.
  • Mesosystem: According to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, the mesosystem is the system of microsystems, meaning it’s the linkages between home and school, between peer group and family, etc.
  • Microsystem: Following Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, the microsystem is the closest environment individuals are directly involved in, like their family or school.
  • Modeling: In social cognitive theory proposed by Albert Bandura, modeling is a process where people learn by observing others.
  • Obedience: This is a social behavior defined by complying with instructions or orders from an authority figure, an aspect of social influence heavily studied by Stanley Milgram.
  • Observational Learning: A form of social learning where individuals learn by watching and imitating others. Albert Bandura, with his Bobo doll study, contributed heavily to the understanding of observational learning.
  • Out-group Homogeneity: This is the tendency to see members of out-groups (groups that we don’t belong to) as very similar to each other, whilst viewing members of our in-group as more diverse. This principle is derived from the social identity theory.
  • Persuasion: This denotes the process of changing attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors through communication. Robert Cialdini’s work on influence has contributed substantially to the understanding of persuasion.
  • Prejudice: Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect bias towards an individual based solely on their membership of a social group. The understanding of prejudice is centered around social identity theory and stereotyping.
  • Private Speech: In Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, private speech is when people speak out loud to themselves, usually as a way to help guide their behavior and thought processes.
  • Prosocial Behavior: This describes any behavior that helps others, ranging from altruism to cooperation. Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis is the leading model for understanding prosocial behavior.
  • Proximal and Distal Processes: Brofenbrenner introduced these ideas in his ecological systems theory. Proximal processes are the forms of interaction between the organism and its immediate environment systems, while distal processes are the relations between the context and the individual that exist over time.
  • Reciprocal Determinism: A concept of Bandura’s social learning theory, it holds that a person’s behavior is both influenced by and influences personal characteristics and their environment.
  • Relative Deprivation: This is the feeling of disadvantage or deprivation when comparing oneself to others in terms of possessions, societal status, or rights. This concept is intrinsically connected with social comparison theory by Leon Festinger.
  • Representativeness Heuristic: Introduced by Tversky and Kahneman, it refers to making decisions based on how much a new situation or case resembles our existing mental prototypes.
  • Scaffolding: Founded on Vygotsky’s work, scaffolding refers to the process where teachers or other skilled individuals help learners accomplish tasks they could not achieve on their own.
  • Self-Concept: The self-concept is an individual’s understanding and evaluation of their own behavior and abilities. Key contributions to the understanding of self-concept were made by psychologist Carl Rogers.
  • Self-Efficacy: Bandura defines self-efficacy as the belief in one’s abilities to succeed in a given endeavor. It forms a central concept in his social cognitive theory.
  • Self-Esteem: This indicates the degree to which one feels competent and valuable and is connected to Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation in the hierarchy of needs.
  • Self-fulfilling Prophecy: Robert K. Merton coined this term to explain how an individual’s expectations about another person or entity eventually result in that person or entity behaving in ways that confirm the expectations.
  • Self-Serving Bias: This is the tendency to attribute one’s successes to personal characteristics and failures to factors beyond one’s control. This concept is significant within the study of attribution theory.
  • Situated Learning: This is a learning theory developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, which proposes that learning is naturally tied to authentic activity, context, and culture.
  • Social Behavior: This refers to any behavior that has influence or is influenced by organisms living within a social system.
  • Social Cognition: Social cognition represents an individual’s capability to think and make sense out of the social world. It is the study of how people process social information, particularly its encoding, storage, retrieval, and application to social situations.
  • Social Development Theory: Lev Vygotsky developed the social development theory which emphasizes that cognitive development is a social process, and one’s cognitive competence is the result of social interactions.
  • Social Exchange Theory: This theoretical framework, proposed by George Homans, suggests that social behavior is a result of an exchange process where individuals weigh the costs and benefits of any action.
  • Social Facilitation: Norman Triplett is credited for this concept where an individual’s performance improves due to the presence of others.
  • Social Identity Theory: This theory, proposed by Tajfel and Turner, suggests that individuals have a desire to improve their self-esteem, leading to bias and prejudice among different social groups.
  • Social Influence: This refers to the way individuals change their behavior to meet the demands of a social environment. It encompasses subtopics of compliance, obedience, conformity, persuasion, and group dynamics.
  • Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura developed the social learning theory, which emphasizes the role of observational learning, imitation, and modeling in behavior acquisition.
  • Social Loafing: Max Ringelmann initially identified the social loafing phenomenon, which denotes that individuals tend to decrease their effort when working in groups as compared to working individually.
  • Social Norms: These are the accepted standards of behavior within a society or group and play a central role in social influence research.
  • Socialization: This involves the lifelong process in which individuals learn and internalize the values, beliefs, norms, and social skills appropriate to their society or social group. The process starts from childhood and continues throughout life, affecting our self-identity, worldview, and social competence.
  • Stereotyping: This term describes the process of attributing specific behaviors or traits to individuals based on their membership in a particular group. Stereotypes can lead to biased decision-making and prejudice.
  • Upward Social Comparison: A concept part of Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory. In an upward social comparison, individuals compare themselves with others who are better off or superior in some way, which can motivate self-improvement or lead to feelings of envy.
  • Vicarious Reinforcement: A concept from Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, vicarious reinforcement refers to learning via the observation of consequences for others’ behavior, rather than directly experiencing the consequence oneself.
  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): A term coined by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the ZPD represents the difference between what a learner can do without help and what they can achieve with guidance from a more experienced individual. The assistance provided within the ZPD helps equip learners with strategies to apply independently in the future.

Before you Go

To dive deeper into social psychology, I recommend reading the following guides:

It’s also worth checking out some of the other sub-fields of psychology;

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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