Psychology Topics > Social Psychology


People do not live in isolation (at least most don't), but come in contact or interact with others on a regular basis. As a result, people are influenced by other people. As my mentor stated, "We humans are social species" (Forsyth, 1995, p.2), and as a social species, we are influenced by other people at a variety of levels.

Social Psychology seeks to understand these interactions, and can thus be defined as the scientific investigation of how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of people are influenced by the presence of others. It is important to note that the presence of others does not have to be real; people only have to perceive that others are there.

The underlying premise of Social Psychology is that people are not merely their personalities, not merely a product of their environments, but are who they are as a result of the interaction of the environment and personality. The following formula was presented by Kurt Lewin and expresses the interaction between personality and the environment: B=f(P, E): in this formula, B=behavior, P=person, E=environment, and f=the function of.

There are several perspectives within social psychology, including the Evolutionary Perspective, the Sociocultural Perspective, Social Learning Perspective, and Social-Cognitive Perspective. Some of the major topics within social psychology include Cognitive Dissonance, Social Cognition, Group Dynamics, Attitudes, Persuasion, Obedience, and Interpersonal Attraction.

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Key Figures & Theories

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) was a German-American Psychologist often referred to as the father of social psychology. Most psychologists of his time period argued whether it was nature or nurture influenced behavior. In contrast, Lewin believed that human behavior was a product of the interactions between nature and nurture. He also believed that the present was an important factor, rather than emphasizing the past.

In Lewin's explanation of human behavior, he introduced the term force-field analysis. This meant that in every situation there are blocking forces and driving forces that influence behaviors. The outcome was dependent on the strength of each compared with the other. For example, if a new manager wants to make important changes to a business, but his predecessor drained the budget, he may have difficulty overcoming the blocking forces (no money left) in order to make the changes he wants and the company needs (driving forces).

Lewin also coined the term action research. He stated that action research was a study of the effects and conditions of social interaction that led to change. The steps of action research were circular and consisted of planning, acting (implementing the plan), and observing the effects or gathering data. Then, the process started over based on the new observations and data.

Lastly, Lewin introduced a 3-step model of the change process. He described the first step as unfreezing, i.e. the process of people overcoming defense mechanisms and becoming willing to accept change. The next step consisted of the actual change. The last step was freezing, or crystallizing a new "mind-set."

Leon Festinger (1919-1989) was an American psychologist who studied with Kurt Lewin. He was best known for his theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when an individual has two or more thoughts or ideas that are contradictory. This leads the individual to seek resolution or cognitive congruence. For example, Rick needs work so he applies for a truck driving job to a nearby state. After he applies, however, he learns that he will be transporting cigarettes and tobacco to the local businesses there. Rick does not smoke and is against tobacco use in any form. Therefore, Rick had resulting anxiety and shame (cognitive dissonance) thinking about his situation.

Leon Festinger is also known for his Social Comparison Theory. That is, people compare themselves with others in order to evaluate their abilities, ideas, opinions, and even physical appearance. This is apparent from the news media or even walking in any high school. Individuals tend to conform or model the groups that are popular or "important."

Philip Zimbardo was also interested in Conformity and how the roles of society led to particular behaviors. He devised an experiment, known as the Stanford Prison Study, in which he randomly assigned two student groups to be either prisoners or guards in a mock prison environment. The study was meant to take two weeks, but was stopped after only 6 days due to psychological trauma. During the experiment, the prisoners exhibited depression and anxiety and the guards behaved in sadistic and aggressive ways. The students who were guards took to their roles and punished the prisoners severely. The prisoners became depressed and withdrawn after only a few days or even hours. Although the study would not pass modern day ethics standards, it led to more strict criteria for ethical research and provided insight into cult behaviors and even the holocaust. If you want to learn about it, check out the Prison Study Website.

Like Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram was also curious how people could be coerced to obey orders against their moral code. Subsequent to the Holocaust, Milgram wanted to understand how authority influenced behavior - these studies are now often referred to as Obedience studies. His experiment consisted of three people, an "experimenter", a "teacher" and a "learner." The only study participant was the "teacher" and was asked to administer electric shocks to the "learner." Unbeknownst to the "teacher," the "experimenter" and "learner" were both confederates of the experiment, and the equipment was inoperable. The teacher was told they were going to test the learner's memory by administering shocks in response to incorrect answers to questions. In reality, the goal of the experiment was to test whether someone would obey authority against their moral code.

The results of this study were very disturbing. 65 % of the subjects administered the maximum shock of 450 volts despite wanting to stop. Only one participant refused to administer shocks above 300 volts. Milgram learned that authority was a powerful influence over behavior. Like the Stanford prison study, this experiment was highly unethical and traumatic for the participants.

Another important figure in Social Psychology was Solomon Asch, who conducted the famous Asch Studies on social conformity. Two confederate students and one study participant sat in a classroom and responded to simple comparison questions such as, "Which line is longer?" Researchers were testing the strength of peer pressure. Would the participant agree with the confederates even if they gave an incorrect answer? The answer is yes. 32% of the study participants conformed by answering incorrectly to most questions and 75% of the participants conformed at least once. This was a significant increase from the control group in which only one participant responded incorrectly.

Albert Bandura was a psychologist who studied aggression and Social Learning Theory, meaning individuals learn by watching and modeling the behaviors of others. Bandura did experiments in which children watched adults kicking and hitting an inflated Bobo doll. The results showed that children were more likely to be aggressive and hit the Bobo doll if they saw other adults doing it first. This experiment was important because it led to more studies into the causes of aggression through watching violent films, playing violent games, and just being in an aggressive environment.

Muzafer Sherif was another social psychologist who is most noted for his robber's cave experiments. He took middle class boys and placed them in a "summer camp" environment. Once they arrived, the boys were separated into social groups. In the beginning, the boys got to know each other, develop social norms and a social structure of leaders. Then the groups were led to compete with each other through games and other challenges. As group animosity grew, the counselors of the camp (researchers) tried implementing various interventions to lower anxiety and conflict. They found that the intervention that was the most successful was giving the boys a Superordinate Goal - a challenge that required all of them to cooperate in order to reach a common or shared outcome.

Another notable contribution of Sherif was group influence on perception also called Autokinetic Effect. Sherif placed a group of study participants in a dark room with a tiny light on the wall. After a moment, they would move the light a particular distance along the wall. The subjects were then asked how far they thought the light moved. In every trial, the subjects decided on a single agreed estimate without being prompted to do so. After a week the subjects were brought individually into the room and the researchers repeated the same scenario. They found that the subjects responded the same as their particular group. Sherif concluded that these individuals had internalized the group's perceptions. This provided insight into how cultures perceived social norms involving body sensations such as piercing, tattoos, or even laser hair removal.