Social Psychology/Introduction

What is social psychology?Edit

Social psychology is the study of how individuals perceive, influence, and relate to others. According to Gordon Allport's classic definition, social psychology is an attempt to understand and explain how the thought, feeling, and behavior of individuals is influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. By imagined or implied presence, Allport is suggesting that the effects of social influence are felt even when there are no other people about.

Psychological and sociological emphasesEdit

Social psychology is usually considered as subfields of psychology or sociology, which concentrate on the relative importance of individual or social influences and effects respectively. Some of the differences are organizational (e.g., psychological and sociological social psychologists tend to publish in different journals) whilst other differences include the type of processes emphasized by the respective disciplines.

Psychological social psychologists tend take an interactional approach to human social behavior which emphasizes factors both within the person (cognition, affect, motives, neurophysiology, and personality traits), and the immediate social situation. Sociological social psychologists tend to emphasize processes outside of the person at a more distant macro-level, such as social structure and a more immediate micro-level, such as social interaction. Both include the use of the individual and the group as units of analysis in their research.

Sociological social psychology Looks at the social behavior of humans in terms of associations and relationships that they have. This type leans toward sociology. One offshoot of this perspective is the Personality and Social Structure Perspective, which emphasizes the links between individual personality and identity, and how it relates to social structures. Sociological social psychologists tend to publish in Social Psychology Quarterly. Sociological social psychologists usually are members of social psychology section of the American Sociological Association (ASA).
Social Psychology subfields
Psychological social psychology Looks at social behavior of humans in terms of the mental states of the individuals. Psychological social psychologists tend to publish in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Experimental Social Psychology. Psychological social psychologists usually are members of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, an affiliate of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Relation to other fieldsEdit

Social psychology has close ties with the other social sciences, especially sociology and psychology. It also has very strong ties to the field of social philosophy.

  • Sociology is the study of group behavior and human societies, with emphasis on the structures of societies and the processes of social influence. Includes all organizational behavior.
  • Psychology is the study of the underlying psychological processes that make all behaviors and experiences possible. Some examples of the things it seeks to explain are: the attribution of mental states to others, the notion of a unitary 'self', sight and perception, personality and identity, warfare and violence, love, being hungry, waking up, etc.
  • Philosophy of the social sciences is the study of theoretical questions about the experience and behavior of persons and the justifications involved with how they are studied in the social sciences. It involves questions related to the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, social epistemology, and many other fields.


The discipline of social psychology began at the dawn of the twentieth century. Landmark moments include the publication of Charles Horton Cooley's "Human Nature and Social Order" in 1902, which sought to explain the social order by use of the concept of a looking-glass self. The first textbooks in social psychology would be published six years later by E. A. Ross and William McDougall.

John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte and others laid the foundation for social psychology by asserting that human social cognition and behavior could and should be studied scientifically like any other natural science.

The concerns of social psychologyEdit

General research interestsEdit

Social Psychology Diagram

Social psychology attempts to understand the relationship between minds, groups, and behaviors in three general ways.

First, it tries to see how the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other(s) (Allport 3). This includes social perception, social interaction, and the many kinds of social influence (like trust, power, and persuasion). Gaining insight into the social psychology of persons involves looking at the influences that individuals have on the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of other individuals, as well as the influence that groups have on individuals. This aspect of social psychology asks questions like:

  • How do small group dynamics impact cognition and emotional states?
  • How do social groups control or contribute to behavior, emotion, or attitudes of the individual members?
  • How does the group impact the individual?
  • How does the individual operate within the social group?

Second, it tries to understand the influence that individual perceptions and behaviors have upon the behavior of groups. This includes looking at things like group productivity in the workplace and group decision making. It looks at questions like:

  • How does persuasion work to change group behavior, emotion or attitudes?
  • What are the reasons behind conformity, diversity, and deviance?

Third, and finally, social psychology tries to understand groups themselves as behavioral entities, and the relationships and influences that one group has upon another group (Michener 5). It asks questions like:

  • What makes some groups hostile to one another, and others neutral or civil?
  • Do groups behave in a different way than an individual outside the group?

In European textbooks there is also fourth level called the "ideological" level. It studies the societal forces that influence the human psyche.

Underlying issuesEdit

In social psychology, as in any other discipline, there will be a number of underlying philosophical predispositions in the projects of scientists. Some of these predispositions involve the nature of social knowledge itself, the nature of social reality, and the locus of human control in action (Cote and Levine, 2002; Slife and Gantt, 1999).

One main and lasting crisis has been the debate over positivism and phenomenology. In the former, the research focus has been an attempt to find overarching, universal laws to social behavior and history. In the latter, by contrast, the emphasis is upon a focus of empirical study, and making accurate descriptions of social reality, regardless of whether or not they fit a grand theory or explanation. These two forms have tended to lend themselves to favor either quantitative or qualitative methods, respectively. In addition to these two orientations, there is a third outlook: a kind of social rationalism, which makes use of axiomatic presuppositions in order to explain social reality.

One underlying problem for the social psychologists is whether or not their studies can or should ultimately be understood in terms of the meaning and consciousness behind social action, as with folk psychology, or whether or not more objective materialist and behavioral facts are to be given exclusive study. This problem is especially important for those within social psychology who study meaning and language, and for those in the sociological social psychology tradition who favor symbolic interactionism, because a rejection of the study of meanings would lead to the reclassification of such research as unempirical.

Three persistent themes in the philosophy of the social sciences, and which directly affect social psychology, have been the structure-agency debate, and the related arguments over determinism and free will.

First, especially important among sociological social psychologists, the structure-agency debate (sometimes referred to by the terms "individualism" and "holism") involves questions about the nature of social behavior: whether it is ultimately predictable in terms of the creative volition of the individual, or is largely a product of socialization, interaction, and greater social structures. (Bunnin and Tsui-James, 2003)

The concern over free will has often been posed as philosophical and methodological, and not empirical, usually in the tradition of incompatibilism. However, some compatibilists see the issue as itself being something which can be investigated empirically by social psychologists. The work of Benjamin Libet is one example of research that has been taken to be an empirical refutation of the notion of free will.

Research ethicsEdit

Social psychologists are concerned with ethical issues, and there are certain ethical controversies that are especially apparent in this area. The goal of social psychology is to understand naturally occurring cognition and behavior in a social context, but the very act of observing people in social contexts tends to 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. This practice has been challenged by some psychologists who maintain that deception under any circumstances is not ethically correct, 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), and this has also been criticized for ethical reasons.

To protect the rights and wellbeing 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 as by routine psychological testing or normal daily activities.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Last modified on 1 October 2012, at 07:15