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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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
- Allport, G. W. (1998). The historical background of social psychology. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309–320.
- Schaller, M., Simpson, J. A., & Kenrick, D. T. (2006). Evolution and social psychology (frontiers of social psychology). New York: Psychology Press.
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