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Social psychology

Social psychology is the study of the nature and causes of human social behavior. As the mind is the axis around which social behavior pivots, social psychologists tend to study the relationship between mind(s) and social behaviors. In early-modern social science theory, John Stuart Mill, Comte, and other, 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.

SP's three angles of research

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?

Relation to other fields

Social psychology has close ties with the other social sciences, especially sociology and psychology.

  • Sociology is the study of group behavior and human societies, with emphasis on the structures of societies and the processes of social influence.
  • Psychology is the study of individual behavior, like learning, perception, intelligence, memory, and personality.

On the one hand, Social psychology can be said to try to bridge the gap between disciplines. It can be said to be co-disciplinary with sociology and psychology, providing overlapping theories and research methods in order to form a clearer and more robust picture of social life.

However, social psychologists have different perspectives on what ought to be emphasized in the field. Social psychological work can be approached with the interests and the emphases of both psychology and sociology in mind. As a result, the discipline can be split in three general subfields, which concentrate on the relative importance of some subjects over others.

  • As sociological social psychology, which 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.
  • As psychological social psychology, which looks at social behavior of humans in terms of the mental states of the individuals that comprise the society. This type leans toward psychology. Psychological Social Psychology is also very similar to personality psychology because personality psychology looks at how the personality in people is developed, and how our attitudes and values are influenced and affected.
  • As symbolic interactionism, which looks at social behavior in terms of the subjective meanings that give rise to human actions.

The concerns of social psychology

Some of the basic topics of interest in social psychology are:

  • Socialization (investigates the learning of standards, rules, attitudes, roles, values, and beliefs; and the agents, processes, and outcomes of learning) and Sociobiology (looks at the native faculties of human systems, including genetics, and their effect upon temperament, attitudes, learning skills, and so on)
    • Gender roles - the effects of role schemas on the perceived makeup of gender and the sexes
    • Personal development and life course - the general facets of life in various societies, including personal careers, identities, biological development, and shifts in roles
    • Intelligence
  • Communication - delves into the learning and processing of verbal and non-verbal language, and the effects of social structures and societies on the use of both
  • Social perception and social cognition - looks specifically at the types of schemas that people have; the ways they develop impressions of one another; and the ways that they attribute the causes of social behavior
    • Self and Identity - the schemas that individuals have about themselves and about groups; the impacts that those ideas have on behaviors; the different kinds of identities that people tend to have.
    • Attitudes - delves into the nature, types, and functions of attitudes, and their effects on behavior
    • Attribution - the ways that people attribute causes and responsibilities to persons or situations

Empirical methods

Social psychology involves the empirical study of social behavior and psychological processes associated with social cognition, social behavior, and groups.

It makes use of many methods, including surveys, naturalistic observation, participant observation, content analysis, controlled experiments, mathematical models, and meta-analysis.

Many researchers emphasize the importance of a multimethodological approach to social research.

Perspectives in social psychology

  • Reinforcement theory - understands social actions to follow largely out of direct rewards and punishments.
  • Social learning theory - in contrast to reinforcement theory, social learning theory emphasizes the place of observation and mimicry in learning.
  • Cognitive Theory - places the thoughts, choices, and mental events at the core of human social action, emphasizing in particular the impact of schemas on personal behavior and worldviews.
    • Symbolic interactionism - a version of cognitive theory that demands that mental events be put in the context of social interaction.
    • Role theory - considers most social action in everyday life to be the fulfillment of a certain kind of schema called roles.
    • Game theory
    • Psychosocial theory - explores and emphasizes the role of unconscious mental events on human social thought and behavior. Its psychological foundation is psychodynamic theory.
  • Sociobiology - attempts to explain all of the theories mentioned in terms of biology and physiology.
    • Evolutionary theory - attempts to explain the biology and physiology of persons, as well as their effects on social action, in the context of gene transmission across generations.

Models of social behavior

Hedonistic theory of action

Finding its roots explicitly from the philosophy of Epicurus, followed by philosophers like John Locke and Ludwig von Mises (among many others). The hedonistic theory of action (or psychological hedonism) states that human action occurs when:

  • The actor is compelled to increase their pleasure by achieving a goal, or
  • The actor is compelled to relieve the burden of uneasiness by achieving a goal.
Psychological hedonism has a fundamental place in most theories of action, most notably behaviorism, praxeology, and psychosocial theory.
Psychological hedonism helps to explain the motivations behind all social action.

Psychosocial theory

Erik Erikson conceived of a psychosocial developmental theory as an extention of Freudian psychodynamic developmental theory. The psychosocial model is meant to be used to explain the most important variables in bodily development, and how they might relate to socialization. It includes:

  • The erogenous zones on the body which provide stimulation. For example, the oral, anal, and phallic zones. Can also be expanded to non-erogenous zones of the body, including cerebral-cortical, loco-motor, sensory-motor, respiratory, muscular, and kinesthetic
  • The psychosexual mode, or the actions associated with each zone. For example, retention and elimination for the anal zone
  • The psychosocial modality, or the social analogy that can be associated with each respective mode. For example, "anal-retentiveness"

To which, Erikson added:

  • The meaning, or preferred external objects associated with each mode and zone

With this addition, Erikson made steps towards a developmental theory that was both psychological and sociological.

Psychosocial theory helps to explain what kinds of goals the social actor may develop.

The "unit act"

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons created a model of human social action which stressed that the most basic interesting event to recognize is goal-directed social action. It was further refined by his student Robert K. Merton. In this model, social actions are made up of and involve:

  • The actor or agent performing an action
  • The (immediate) goal, or a future state of affairs that is desired
  • The situation in which action is located, including both:
    • The conditions of action (the things about a situation that the actor cannot influence or change). This includes such things as the normative background (or the relevant norms), and the human ecology of the setting
    • The means of action (which the actor has some degree of control over)
  • And to this, we can also include:
    • the actual consequences of the action
    • the motives of the actor
    • the end-goal, or the broader state of affairs that the actor is trying to reach by means of the immediate goal
This model can be used as a basis for the explanations of anomie theory and realistic group conflict theory. It also overlaps significantly with the semantic tool of thematic roles.

Theories of context

1. Objective Factors in Context

In attempting to understand the objective factors that are in play when people influence one another, the communication-persuasion paradigm begins with this model.

  • The source is the person who is trying to influence another person. What makes a good persuader are how credible, trustworthy, attractive, and competent they are
  • The message is what the source is trying to convince the target of. Relevant factors include how far the message departs from the target's ideas, whether or not there is an appeal to emotion, and whether or not there is a balance of perspectives
  • The target is the person who the source is trying to convince of something. Important to them are the relevance of message to person, their personal desire for cognition, and amount of distractions present
  • The channel is the venu that the message is delivered
  • The impact is the reaction from the target. This may include an attitude change, a rejection of the message, a counterargument, a suspense of judgment, and/or an attack on the source

Trying to explain the conditions where any particular message will have social influence, Latane, Jackson, and Sedikides emphasized the importance of three characteristics of the sources in their social impact theory.

  • Social Strength of the actors involved, for example power and social status
  • Immediacy, or the physical / psychological distance between actors
  • Number of Sources Present

For functionalism, the achievement of goals relative to the normative background is important. To the extent that a) an action is beneficial towards the achievement of a goal, and b) the goal and/or means fit the normative background of some group or society, the act is considered functional in that respect / relative to that goal. Conversely, to the extent that a) the act is an obstacle to achieving a desired goal, and b) the goal fits the normative background of some group or society, the act is considered dysfunctional in that respect.

2. Subjective Factors in Context

Symbolic interactionism stresses the importance of the way the actor subjectively perceives persons in the world.

  • the generalized other - the actor's notion of the normal expectations of others
  • the opinions of significant others - the actor's idea of the expectations of special persons; ie, parents, children, spouse, friends
Theories of context help to explain the normative and situational backgrounds within a social action.

Other models and explanations

  • Psychological social psychology
    • Personality psychology and social identity
      • implicit personality theory
      • the looking-glass self - the idea the actor has of their selves, as seen through the judgments of others (impacts self-esteem and the self-concept)
      • the ideal self - the person that an actor aspires to be (sometimes influenced by role models)
    • Helping - the effects that norms, motives, situations, and psychology of actors have on helping and altruism
      • Arousal/cost reward model - an explanation of helping behavior that claims a decision to aid is based on a weighing of the costs and rewards involved, both for oneself and others
      • Empathy-altruism model - explains helping behavior through the emotions of distress and empathy
    • Interpersonal attraction and relationships - investigates the way that norms, propinquity, familiarity, availability, sameness, attractiveness, trust, and dependence have on friendly relationships.
    • Aggression - the reasons and motives behind acts of hostility initiated by one person on another
      • The frustration-aggression hypothesis - a highly controversial hypothesis that states that all aggression stems from frustration and vice-versa
    • Power - the ability to cause a person to behave or think in a way despite resistance
      • Authority and the authoritarian personality
    • Dependency (sociology) - perceived or actual social dependency of person(s) upon other(s)
    • Trust (sociology) - a belief in the competence and/or benevolence of another actor. In social cognition, it is important to understand how trust impacts how actors behave and think based on the behaviors and words of others.
    • Persuasion - to change one's thoughts or behaviors based on the charismatic and/or reasoned input of others
      • The elaboration likelihood model
    • Indifference - apathy, especially to the suffering of oneself and others, or to norms
    • Anomie, Alienation, Fatalism, and Depression
    • Suicide
  • Sociological social psychology
    • Group cohesion and conformity - looks at the use of roles, an understanding of group structure, and the expectations of all actors involved.
    • Consensus, Group structure , work performance , and decision making - looks at the effects of leadership styles, group size, group goals, communicative interaction, reward distributions, and decision making on the stability or polarization of groups
      • Expectation states theory - proposes that status characteristics cause group members to form expectations over the expected results of a group task
    • Collective behavior, Social movements, and aggregate behavior - the causes, meanings, functions, types, and structures of societies
    • Intergroup behavior
      • Social identity theory of intergroup behavior
    • Social structure, population density and personality - the co-influence of health, alienation, status, and values on one's position in various group structures
    • Dissent, Deviance and reactions to deviance - the role of habitual mindsets and social functions on the existence of norms, as well as the impact of labeling and social controls on deviance
      • Anomie theory - considers some deviance to be a result of persons trying to achieve a cultural goal but lacking the appropriate resources or means
      • Strain theory
      • Differential association theory - understands deviance to occur when the definitions and meanings that support deviant acts are learned
      • Control theory (sociology) - explains deviant behavior as influenced by ties to other persons
      • J-curve theory - predicts social revolutionary change to occur when an intolerable gap develops between people's expected satisfaction of needs and their actual satisfaction of needs
      • Labeling theory - believes that the reaction that people have to rule violations can have a compelling effect on deviants
      • Routine activities perspective - considers how deviance occurs out of the routines of everyday life
    • Intergroup conflict - the reasons and motives behind hostility between groups
      • Realistic group conflict theory - sees group conflict as a conflict of goals
      • Intergroup contact hypothesis - stresses the notion that group conflict could be defused if both groups had more contact with one another

Well-known cases, studies, and related works

Famous experiments in social psychology include:

  • the Milgram experiment, which studied how far people would go to avoid dissenting against authority even when the suffering of others was at stake. (At the time a poll of psychiatrists showed a belief that only 1% of the populace would be capable of continuing to cause pain to an extreme point.) Coming soon after World War II, it suggested that people are more susceptible to control by authority than was then assumed in the Western democratic world .
  • the Asch conformity experiments from the late 1950s, a series of studies that starkly demonstrated the power of conformity in groups on the perceptions/cognitions and behaviors of individuals.
  • The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno - looked at the attitudes, values, and mental habits of what he called the "authoritarian" personality
  • The Open and Closed Mind by Milton Rokeach - a followup on the authoritarian personality that clarified cognitive differences
  • The Kitty Genovese case - looks at aggregate group behavior in a time of crisis — the bystander effect, showing the phenomenon of diffused responsibility .

Related topics

See Also

External links


  • Allport 1968, p. 3 [orig. 1954]
  • Michener, H. Andrew. (2004). Social Psychology. Wadsworth: Toronto.

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