Social psychology is about understanding individual behavior in a social context.
Baron, Byrne & Suls (1989) define social psychology as .“the scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior in social situations”. (p. 6).
It therefore looks at human behavior as influenced by other people and the social context in which this occurs.
Social psychologists therefore deal with the factors that lead us to behave in a given way in the presence of others, and look at the conditions under which certain behavior/actions and feelings occur. Social psychology is to do with the way these feelings, thoughts, beliefs, intentions and goals are constructed and how such psychological factors, in turn, influence our interactions with others.
Topics examined in social psychology include: the self concept, social cognition, attribution theory, social influence, group processes, prejudice and discrimination, interpersonal processes, aggression, attitudes and stereotypes.
History of Social Psychology
Aristotle believed that humans were naturally sociable, a necessity which allows us to live together (an individual centered approach), whilst Plato felt that the state controlled the individual and encouraged social responsibility through social context (a socio-centered approach).
Hegel (17701831) introduced the concept that society has inevitable links with the development of the social mind. This led to the idea of a group mind, important in the study of social psychology.
Lazarus & Steinthal wrote about Anglo-European influences in 1860. “Volkerpsychologie” emerged, which focused on the idea of a collective mind. It emphasized the notion that personality develops because of cultural and community influences, especially through language, which is both a social product of the community as well as a means of encouraging particular social thought in the individual. Therefore Wundt (19001920) encouraged the methodological study of language and its influence on the social being.
Texts focusing on social psychology first emerged at the start of the 20th century. The first notable book in English was published by McDougall in 1908 (An Introduction to Social Psychology), which included chapters on emotion and sentiment, morality, character and religion, quite different to those incorporated in the field today. He believed that social behavior was innate/instinctive and therefore individual, hence his choice of topics. This belief is not the principle upheld in modern social psychology, however.
Allport’s work (1924) underpins current thinking to a greater degree, as he acknowledged that social behavior results from interactions between people. He also took a methodological approach, discussing actual research and emphasizing that the field was one of a “science … which studies the behavior of the individual in so far as his behavior stimulates other individuals, or is itself a reaction to this behavior” (1942: p. 12). His book also dealt with topics still evident today, such as emotion, conformity and the effects of an audience on others.
Murchison (1935) published The first handbook on social psychology was published by Murchison in 1935. Murphy & Murphy (1931/37) produced a book summarizing the findings of 1, 000 studies in social psychology. A text by Klineberg (1940) looked at the interaction between social context and personality development by the 1950s a number of texts were available on the subject.
- • 1950s Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology
• 1963 Journal of Personality, British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology
• 1965 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
• 1971 Journal of Applied Social Psychology, European Journal of Social Psychology
• 1975 Social Psychology Quarterly, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
• 1982 Social Cognition
• 1984 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
There is some disagreement about the first true experiment, but the following are certainly among some of the most important. Triplett (1898) applied the experimental method to investigate the performance of cyclists and schoolchildren on how the presence of others influences overall performance thus how individual’s are affected and behave in the social context.
By 1935 the study of social norms had developed, looking at how individuals behave according to the rules of society. This was conducted by Sherif (1935).
Lewin et al. then began experimental research into leadership and group processes by 1939, looking at effective work ethics under different styles of leadership.
Much of the key research in social psychology developed following World War II, when people became interested in the behavior of individuals when grouped together and in social situations. Key studies were carried out in several areas.
Some studies focused on how attitudes are formed, changed by the social context and measured to ascertain whether change has occurred. Amongst some of the most famous work in social psychology is that on obedience conducted by Milgram in his “electric shock” study, which looked at the role an authority figure plays in shaping behavior. Similarly, Zimbardo’s prison simulation notably demonstrated conformity to given roles in the social world.
Wider topics then began to emerge, such as social perception, aggression, relationships, decision making, pro social behavior and attribution, many of which are central to today’s topics and will be discussed throughout this website.
Thus the growth years of social psychology occurred during the decades following the 1940s.
Social Psychology Key Figures
Allport introduced the notion that the presence of others (the social group) can facilitate certain behavior. It was found that an audience would improve an actors’ performance in well learned/easy tasks, but leads to a decrease in performance on newly learned/difficult tasks due to social inhibition.