Social Psychology – What is it and Why is it So Important?
Within the area of psychology we could make a division between applied psychology and basic psychology. Basic psychology studies simple psychological processes such as perception, attention, memory, language and learning. On the other hand, applied psychology focuses on the study of other psychology characteristics more related to problem solving. Within applied psychology there are different aspects, with social psychology being one of these.
Social psychology could be defined as the study of the interaction of human beings, especially in social groups and situations, and highlights the influence of social situations on human behavior. More specifically, social psychology focuses on the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the real, imagined or implicit presence of other people (Allport, 1985).
What does social psychology investigate?
Social psychology aims to study social relationships (Moscovici and Markova, 2006). It is argued that social psychological processes differ from individual psychological processes. Social psychology tries to understand group as well as individual behavior when reacting to or thinking about the social environment.
Social psychology tends to study the behavior of people at group level more than anything else. It tries to describe and explain human behavior by reducing it to psychological variables. In this way, social psychology seeks to establish theories about human behavior that help to predict behavior patterns before they occur and then to intervene. Knowing what factors promote certain behaviors, it aims to intervene and change these patterns in some way.
Topics within social psychology
The themes that social psychology embraces are wide and varied (Gergen, 1973). By focusing on some of the issues that are its main focus, we can designate its identity. Social identity (Taylor and Moghaddam, 1994) or the degree to which people identify and share characteristics within groups is a factor that social psychology frequently studies . Social identity will often determine how the people will behave. For example, when a person heavily identifies with a group, then their behavior will correspond to the norms and values of that group.
Another classic theme of social psychology is stereotypes (Amossy and Herschberg Pierrot, 2001). Stereotypes are the image we hold of another group. This is usually a simplified and generalized image that seeks to categorize all the members of a specific group. For example, a common stereotype in Europe is that Spaniards are lazy. People who have this stereotype of Spaniards, whenever they happen to interact with one, will think that they are lazy before even getting to know them.
Social psychology and prejudices
Prejudices are closely related to stereotypes (Dovidio, Hewstone, Glick and Esses, 2010). Prejudices are preconceived attitudes that cause us to make quick decisions about a person or situation.. They are judgments that are made based on incomplete information, and are usually negative.
These days, many people mistakenly believe that all Muslims are violent and even sympathetic towards terrorism. Even faced with clear evidence against this erroneous judgment, many people insist on believing it. These beliefs influence their feelings and behavior towards people who practice this religion.
Another area of study in social psychology is values (Ginges and Atran, 2014). Values are a set of guidelines that societies establish in order for them to be fulfilled. Values tend to have a social consensus and vary between cultures. Values are so important that for some people they become sacred. Despite the irrationality of some values, people will defend them to the utmost and even make great sacrifices for them.
Given the great variety of topics that are studied in social psychology, we cannot comment on all of them. Some that have not been discussed are aggression and violence, socialization, teamwork, leadership, social movements, obedience, conformism, and interpersonal and group processes.
Important people in the world of social psychology
Within the field of social psychology there have been people who have left a great impression. Here are some of them:
- Floyd Allport: Best known for being the founder of social psychology as a scientific discipline.
- Muzafer Sherif: Known for conducting the experiment of the “cave of thieves” where a set of boy scouts was divided into two groups in order to explore prejudice in social groups. The experiment created the Realistic Group Conflict Theory.
- Solomon Asch: Devoted his life to the study of social influence. His studies on conformity are his best-known work, in which he used lines of different sizes to see if the participants would give the wrong answers. They did indeed give the wrong answer, not because they thought the answers they gave were true, but simply to agree with the answers other people gave.
- Kurt Lewin: Known as the founder of modern social psychology. He made contributions to the Gestalt theory, studied the concept of social distance and formulated the field theory. The latter shows that it is impossible to get to know true human behavior if they are outside of their own environment.
- Ignacio Martín-Baró: Besides being a psychologist, he was a Jesuit priest. He proposed that psychology should be related to the social and historical conditions of the area where it develops. It should also be related to the aspirations of the people who reside there. He is the creator of the Social Psychology of Liberation.
Other important figures
- Stanley Milgram: Conducted experiments of dubious ethics. The best known is his experiment on obedience to authority. In it, one participant applied electric shocks to another in the presence of figure of authority . The Experiment of the Small World is also his own; this is also known as the six degrees of separation.
- Serge Moskovici: Studied social representations. This is the way in which knowledge is reformulated when groups take it over, thus distorting it from its original form. Serge is also known for his studies on the influence of minorities.
- Philip Zimbardo: Best known for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment he took some students and divided them into two groups – one group of prison guards and the other of prisoners. He then put them into a mock jail in the basement of the university. They reached the conclusion that it was the situation that caused the behavior of the participants and not their own personalities.
- Albert Bandura: Demonstrated that violence in the media encourages aggressive behavior in those that watch it. He conducted an experiment where a model carried out aggressive behavior on a doll, which was then in turn imitated by children. This is known as the Bobo Doll Experiment. Bandura is the also the creator of the Theory of Self-Efficacy.
As we can see, Social Psychology focuses on our social behavior. This is a great unknown for those on the outside, and is one of the most surprising revelations for people who decide to study psychology. This is because we often underestimate the power that other people have on us, either directly or indirectly. In this sense we like to see ourselves as fully independent, able to act and feel as we want, without our surroundings influencing us too much.
But, these studies on social psychology have shown us that this isn’t at all the case. This is why they are of such interest, and is why this area of psychology can enrich us so much with its discoveries.
Allport, GW (1985). The Historical Background of Social Psychology.
G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.). The Handbook of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.
Amossy, R., Herschberg Pierrot, A. (2001). Stereotypes and Clichés. Buenos Aires.
Eudeba. Dovidio, JF, Hewstone, M., Glick, P. and Esses, VM (2010) «Prejudice, Stereotyping and Siscrimination: Theoretical and Empirical overview».
Dovidio, JF, Hewstone, M., Glick, P., and Esses, VM (eds.) The SAGE handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.
Ginges, J. and Atran, S. (2014) “Sacred values and Cultural conflict”,
Gelfand, MJ, Chiu, CY, and Hong, YY (eds.) Advances in Culture and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 273-301.
Moscovici, S. & Markova, I. (2006). The making of modern social psychology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Taylor, D., Moghaddam, F. (1994). «Social Identity Theory». Theories of Intergroup Relations: International Social Psychological Perspectives (2nd edition). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. pp. 80-91.