Traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century, social psychology is a field of empirical science that attempts to answer questions about human behavior and how it is affected by social interaction.
The focus is to identify thoughts, feelings, mental states, and behaviors, and explain how they both influence and are influenced in social situations and interactions between people.
Examples of social psychology include studies of group behavior (e.g. the Stanford prison experiment) , delayed gratification (e.g. the Marshmallow test), and the role of observation in learning (e.g. Bandura’s social learning theory).
Social Psychology Definition and Overview
Social psychology explores how humans are fundamentally social beings. It explores how sociality affects our behaviors and values.
As Goethals (2007) explains:
“Basic questions about social behavior go back to the ancients. Are men and women capable of governing themselves? Is their behavior governed by internal dispositions or the requirements of society and culture? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about human potential and human performance? Are people rational or irrational? What hope is there for independent thought and action in the face of group pressures?” (p. 19)
While these are only a handful of questions that social psychologists have sought to study throughout the last 100 years, the relatively young scientific field contains multitudes of scientists who can be credited. Some key founders included:
- Norman Triplett (1861-1934): Triplett has been said by some to be a point of reference for the birth of social psychology. His work in 1895 included hist studies of human competitiveness. He noticed that the presence of other people (in this case, sport cycling) enhanced the performance of competitors greatly.
- Floyd Allport (1980-1979): Allport is also credited with advancing studies in behaviorism. He explored methods of stimulus and response in data collection.
- Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) Lewin is acclaimed as the father of action research. He developed equations to explain human behavior. His method of linking theory with concrete data advanced research on group norms in various social systems (Goethals, 2007, pp. 3-9).
Key Theories in Social Psychology
|Social Identity Theory||The social identity theory explains how people develop their identities. Its main argument is that people develop their identity through interaction with society. We attach our identity to groups linked to categories such as religion, sport, nation, and ethnic affiliations. We may also conduct our identities in opposition to people in our out-groups (Brown, 2000; Tajfel & Turner, 1986).||Henri Tajfel and John Turner|
|Social Learning Theory||Social learning theory states that people can learn by observing others and can therefore learn through non-associative learning. It demonstrates how modeling, demonstrating, and being a role-model are vital in both the parenting and educational processes.||Albert Bandura, Barbara Rogoff|
|Cognitive Dissonance Theory||People experience discomfort and confusion when confronted with conflicting beliefs or attitudes that both make sense. They seek to reduce this discomfort by changing their beliefs, justifying their behavior, or adding new beliefs that reconcile the conflict in processes called accommodation and assimilation to achieve cognitive equilibrium (see more: cognitive dissonance examples).||Leon Festinger, Jean Piaget|
|Social Exchange Theory||Social exchange theory is a cold analysis of relationships that postulates that people form a relationship through simple cost-benefit analysis. According to the theory, self-interested actors connect with other self-interested actors to reach individual goals that they can not attain on their own.||George Homans, Peter Blau|
|Self-perception Theory||Self-perception theory holds that people observe themselves and people’s reactions to them in order to achieve self-development. The theory emphasizes the role of self-observation in shaping one’s self-concept and behavior.||Daryl Bem|
- Self-determination theory
- Learned helplessness theory
- Locus of control theory
- Labeling theory of deviance
- Cultural deviance theory
- Attribution theory
- Schemata theory
- Social exchange theory
- Social penetration theory
Examples of Social Psychology
1. The Stanford Prison Experiment
Conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971, the Stanfor Prison Experiment was a shocking reveal of how humans can be cruel to other humans when placed in positions of power.
The study examined how the research participants (who were university students) adapted to roles of power and powerlessness within a simulated prison environment.
Despite knowing they were randomly assigned positions, the people assigned to the prison guard positions became increasingly cruel to the participants assigned prisoner roles.
2. The Milgram Experiment
The Milgram experiment was an experiment that measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to do immoral things. For this experiment, it was electric shocks.
The research participants were told that they were participating in a study on learning and memory. They were asked to play the role of a “teacher” who was supposed to administer an electric shock to a “learner” every time the learner made a mistake in a memory test. They weren’t actually shocking anyone – the people being shocked were actors.
During the study, the “learner” began to protest and show signs of distress while the authority figure (the experimenter) encouraged the participants to continue with the shocks. Milgram found that most participants continued to obey the experimenter and administer the shocks.
This study not only raised ethical concerns in psychological research (i.e. for the flaws in their research participant debriefing), it also makes us think deeply about the nature of the human condition and why dictators manage to convince entire armies to fight for immoral causes.
3. Asch Conformity Experiments
Conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, this experiment studied how people conform to group norms, even if they personally believe the group norm is wrong.
In this experiment, a group of participants were shown three numbered lines of different lengths and asked to identify the longest of them all. However, only one true participant was present in every group and the rest were actors, most of whom told the wrong answer.
Results showed that the participants went for the wrong answer, even though they knew which line was the longest one in the first place. When the participants were asked why they identified the wrong one, they said that they didn’t want to be branded as strange or peculiar.
This study goes to show that there are situations in life when people prefer fitting in than being right.
4. Robbers Cave Experiment
The Robbers Cave experiment (1945) investigated intergroup conflict and cooperation between two groups of boys at a summer camp.
The researchers formed two groups of 11-year-old boys who did not know each other and had similar backgrounds. The groups were kept separate. Then, two situations were set up:
- A competitive situation was set up whereby the researchers introduced competitions such as baseball, tug-of-war, and treasure hunts. In this phase, the groups developed in-group and out-group mentalities, even to the point of verbally and physically attacking members of the other group.
- A cooperative situation was also set up whereby both groups were required to work together to achieve a common goal (an example is fixing a water supply problem). During this phase, the boys began to develop friendships across group boundaries.
The Robbers Cave experiment introduced a few key insights. One was that intergroup conflict arises even among relatively heterogenous groups. Another was that cooperation and shared goals can help reduce group prejudice.
5. The Kitty Genovese Case
The Kitty Genovese Case is a phenomenon where individuals tend not to intervene in an emergency situation when others are present.
Kitty Genovese was murdered in the neighborhood of Kew Gardens, New York in 1694. Despite there being up to 38 witnesses and onlookers in the vicinity of the crime scene, none of them took action to stop the murder or seek help.
This tragic event served as a catalyst for social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley to formulate the social psychology concept of bystander effect or bystander apathy. They conducted an experimental study to test bystander intervention, asking participants to complete a questionnaire inside a room with smoke coming out from under the door.
Participants were either alone or with two other participants who were actually actors or confederates in the study.
The study found that participants who were alone in the room reported the smoke faster than those who were with two passive others, suggesting that the more bystanders present in an emergency situation, the less likely someone will step up to help.
6. The Marshmallow Test
Conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s, the marshmallow experiment examined children’s ability to delay gratification.
The test involved presenting a marshmallow to children aged 4-6 and asking them to wait for 15 minutes before eating it to receive a second marshmallow.
Roughly one-third of the 600 participants managed to delay gratification and were later found to have more success in life, including higher SAT scores, supporting the self-control theory.
However, a 2018 replication study by Tyler Watts and colleagues, which had a larger group of participants (900) and a more diverse representation of the population in terms of race and ethnicity, challenged the classic marshmallow experiment. The study found that the ability to wait for the second marshmallow was influenced more by the economic background and social status of the participants rather than just their willpower.
7. The Blue-eyed/Brown-eyed Exercise
Third-grade teacher Jane Elliott conducted an experiment in her class. The experiment involved dividing the class into two groups, the blue-eyed children and the brown-eyed children.
For a day, Elliott gave preferential treatment to the blue-eyed students, showering them with extra attention and rewards. The next day, the brown-eyed children were given the same treatment.
The outcome of the experiment was that whichever group received preferential treatment scored higher on quizzes and participated more frequently in class, while the group that was discriminated against felt humiliated, performed poorly on tests, and became uncertain when answering questions in class.
This experiment shows how prejudice and mistreatment causes damage to people’s self-confidence and ability to contribute to social situations.
8. The Bobo Doll Experiment
Conducted by Albert Bandura in 1961, this experiment studied how children learn through observation and imitation.
In the Bobo Doll Experiment, children were divided into three groups:
- The first group was shown a video where an adult was aggressive toward the Bobo Doll.
- The second group was shown a video in which an adult play with the Bobo Doll.
- The third group served as the control group where no video was shown.
The children were then led to a room with different kinds of toys, including the Bobo Doll that they saw in the video.
Results showed that the children tend to imitate the adults in whichever video they watched:
- Children who were presented the aggressive model in the video acted aggressively toward the Bobo Doll.
- Children who were presented the passive model showed less aggression.
While the Bobo Doll Experiment can no longer be replicated because of ethical concerns, it has laid out the foundations of social learning theory and helped us understand the concept of observational learning.
9. The False Consensus Effect
This phenomenon studied by social psychologists refers to the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others share their beliefs and behaviors.
This leads us to spout our own views in social situations expecting others to agree with us when, in reality, they are probably less likely to agree than we think.
There are many social psychology studies into the false consensus effect. One example is a study by Alicke and Largo (1995) where participants were asked to rate their own attitudes and the attitudes of others towards various issues, such as the death penalty.
he researchers found that participants consistently overestimated the extent to which others agreed with their own attitudes.
10. The Halo Effect
The Halo Effect illustrates how a positive perception of one attribute of a person can spill over to other attributes.
In product ads, for example, attractive celebrities are often viewed as intelligent and knowledgeable about the product, despite not having the technical expertise.
Edward Thorndike first introduced the concept of the Halo Effect in a classic study in the early 1900s. He asked military commanders to evaluate their subordinates based on various traits, such as intelligence, dependability, leadership, and physical appearance.
The results showed that high ratings of a particular trait led to high ratings of other traits, creating an overall positive impression or “halo effect.” Conversely, a negative rating in one trait was linked to negative ratings in other traits.
Subsequent experiments on the Halo Effect have supported Thorndike’s original theory, revealing that our perception of a person’s overall personality is significantly influenced by the trait we focus on.
Other Examples for Further Reading
Social psychology is one of the most influential domains of research in academia. It helps us to understand and interpret both individual and societal behaviors, helping us to understand ourselves in nuanced ways.
Goethals, G. R. (2007). A Century of Social Psychology: Individuals, Ideas, and Investigations. The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology: Concise Student, 3– 23. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781848608221.n1
Haddock, G., & Maio, G. R. (2008). Attitudes: content, structure and functions. Blackwell Books. https://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/30465/
McDougall, W. (2015). An introduction to social psychology. New York: Psychology Press.
Myers, D. G., & Twenge, J. M. (2012). Exploring social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Brown, R. (2000), Social identity theory: past achievements, current problems and future challenges. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30, 745-778. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/1099-0992(200011/12)30:6%3C745::AID-EJSP24%3E3.0.CO;2-O
Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel and W. G. Austin (eds.). Psychology of Intergroup Relations. (pp. 7–24). Nelson-Hall