What is Social Psychology?
Social psychology is the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others (Allport 1998). By this definition, scientific refers to the empirical method of investigation. The terms thoughts, feelings, and behaviors include all of the psychological variables that are measurable in a human being. The statement that others may be imagined or implied suggests that we are prone to social influence even when no other people are present, such as when watching television, or following internalized cultural norms.
Social psychology is an empirical science that attempts to answer a variety of questions about human behavior by testing hypotheses, both in the laboratory and in the field. Such approach to the field focuses on the individual, and attempts to explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by other people.
A relatively recent field, social psychology has nonetheless had a significant impact not only on the academic worlds of psychology, sociology, and the social sciences in general, but has also influenced public understanding and expectation of human social behavior. By studying how people behave under extreme social influences, or lack thereof, great advances have been made in understanding human nature. Human beings are essentially social beings, and thus, social interaction is vital to the health of each person. Through investigating the factors that affect social life and how social interactions affect individual psychological development and mental health, a greater understanding of how humankind as a whole can live together in harmony is emerging.
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Links Between Social Psychology and Sociology
Social psychology is a branch of psychology that studies cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes of individuals as influenced by their group membership and interactions, and other factors that affect social life, such as social status, role, and social class. Social psychology examines the effects of social contacts on the development of attitudes, stereotypes, discrimination, group dynamics, conformity, social cognition and influence, self-concept, persuasion, interpersonal perception and attraction, cognitive dissonance, and human relationships.
A significant number of social psychologists are sociologists. Their work has a greater focus on the behavior of the group, and thus examines such phenomena as interactions and social exchanges at the micro-level, and group dynamics and crowd psychology at the macro-level. Sociologists are interested in the individual, but primarily within the context of social structures and processes, such as social roles, race and class, and socialization. They tend to use both qualitative and quantitative research designs. Sociologists in this area are interested in a variety of demographic, social, and cultural phenomena. Some of their major research areas are social inequality, group dynamics, social change, socialization, social identity, and symbolic interactionism.
Social psychology bridges the interest of psychology (with its emphasis on the individual) with sociology (with its emphasis on social structures). Most social psychologists are trained within the discipline of psychology. Psychologically oriented researchers place a great deal of emphasis on the immediate social situation, and the interaction between person and situation variables. Their research tends to be highly empirical and is often centered round lab experiments. Psychologists who study social psychology are interested in such topics as attitudes, social cognition, cognitive dissonance, social influence, and interpersonal behavior. Two influential journals for the publication of research in this area are The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Read more about Sociological Social Psychology.
History of Social Psychology
The discipline of social psychology began in the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century. The first published study in this area was an experiment by Norman Triplett (1898) on the phenomenon of social facilitation. During the 1930s, many Gestalt psychologists, particularly Kurt Lewin, fled to the United States from Nazi Germany. They were instrumental in developing the field as something separate from the behavioral and psychoanalytic schools that were dominant during that time, and social psychology has always maintained the legacy of their interests in perception and cognition. Attitudes and a variety of small group phenomena were the most commonly studied topics in this era.
During World War II, social psychologists studied persuasion and propaganda for the US military. After the war, researchers became interested in a variety of social problems, including gender issues and racial prejudice. In the 1960s, there was growing interest in a variety of new topics, such as cognitive dissonance, bystander intervention, and aggression. By the 1970s, however, social psychology in America had reached a crisis. There was heated debate over the ethics of laboratory experimentation, whether or not attitudes really predicted behavior, and how much science could be done in a cultural context (Gergen 1973). This was also the time when a radical situationist approach challenged the relevance of self and personality in psychology.
During the years immediately following World War II, there was frequent collaboration between psychologists and sociologists (Sewell 1989). However, the two disciplines have become increasingly specialized and isolated from each other in recent years, with sociologists focusing on macro variables (such as social structure) to a much greater extent. Nevertheless, sociological approaches to social psychology remain an important counterpart to psychological research in this area.
Social psychology reached maturity in both theory and method during the 1980s and 1990s. Careful ethical standards now regulate research, and greater pluralism and multicultural perspectives have emerged. Modern researchers are interested in a variety of phenomena, but attribution, social cognition, and self-concept are perhaps the greatest areas of growth. Social psychologists have also maintained their applied interests, with contributions in health and environmental psychology, as well as the psychology of the legal system.
Social psychology is the study of how social conditions affect human beings. Scholars in this field are generally either psychologists or sociologists, though all social psychologists employ both the individual and the group as their units of analysis. Despite their similarity, the disciplines tend to differ in their respective goals, approaches, methods, and terminology. They also favor separate academic journals and professional societies.
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Social Psychology Experiments
In its simplest form, experimentation is a method of determining the presence or absence of a causal relationship between two variables by systematically manipulating one variable (called the independent variable) and assessing its effect on another variable (called the dependent variable).
Some scholars have questioned the utility of experimentation, noting that the experiments which researchers design sometimes do not resemble the circumstances that people encounter in their everyday lives. However, experimentation is the only research method that allows one to definitively establish the existence of a causal relationship between two or more variables.
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Social Psychology Research Methods
Social psychologists typically explain human behavior as a result of the interaction of mental states and immediate, social situations. In Kurt Lewin’s (1951) Heuristic behavior can be viewed as a function of the person and the environment, B = f(P,E). Experimental methods involve the researcher altering a variable in the environment and measuring the effect on another variable. An example would be allowing two groups of children to play violent or nonviolent videogames, and then observing their subsequent level of aggression during free-play period. A valid experiment is controlled and uses random assignment.
Co-relational methods examine the statistical association between two naturally occurring variables. For example, one could correlate the amount of violent television children watch at home with the number of violent incidents the children participate in at school. Note that this study would not prove that violent TV causes aggression in children. It is quite possible that aggressive children choose to watch more violent TV programs.
Observational methods are purely descriptive and include naturalistic observation, contrived observation, participant observation, and archival analysis. These are less common in social psychology but are sometimes used when first investigating a phenomenon. An example would be to unobtrusively observe children on a playground (with a video camera, perhaps) and record the number and types of aggressive actions displayed.
Whenever possible, social psychologists rely on controlled experimentation. Controlled experiments require the manipulation of one or more independent variables in order to examine the effect on a dependent variable. Experiments are useful in social psychology because they are high in internal validity, meaning that they are free from the influence of confounding or extraneous variables, and so are more likely to accurately indicate a causal relationship. However, the small samples used in controlled experiments are typically low in external validity, or the degree to which the results can be generalized to the larger population. There is usually a trade-off between experimental control (internal validity) and being able to generalize to the population (external validity).
Because it is usually impossible to test everyone, research tends to be conducted on a sample of persons from the wider population. Social psychologists frequently use survey research when they are interested in results that are high in external validity. Surveys use various forms of random sampling to obtain a sample of respondents that are representative of a population. This type of research is usually descriptive or co-relational because there is no experimental control over variables. However, new statistical methods, like structural equation modeling, are being used to test for potential causal relationships in this type of data.
Regardless of which method is used, it is important to evaluate the research hypothesis in the light of the results, either confirming or rejecting the original prediction. Social psychologists use statistics and probability testing to judge their results, which define a significant finding as less than 5% likely to be due to chance. Replications are important to ensure that the result is valid and not due to chance or some feature of a particular sample.
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Social Psychology Ethics
The goal of social psychology is to understand cognition and behavior as they naturally occur in a social context, but the very act of observing people can 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.
The practice of deception has been challenged by some psychologists who maintain that deception under any circumstances is unethical, and that other research strategies (such as 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 (for example, Milgram’s Obedience to Authorities experiments, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment), and this has also been criticized for ethical reasons.
To protect the rights and well-being 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 from routine psychological testing or normal daily activities.
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