Social Psychology

What Is Social Psychology?

Human beings are highly social animals. Our behavior is greatly influenced by our social environment. Our behavior is changed by the behavior of others, and our behavior in groups differs from our behavior on our own. The study to the various influences of other people is the realm of social psychology.

Social psychology is the scientific study of human social behavior — i.e., how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the physical presence of others.

Social psychologists are concerned primarily on the scientific study of the mental processes and structures which mediate the dialectical relationship between stimuli and behavior.

Thus, social psychology is regarded as an empirical science which adopts an array of methods to discover the mental processes involved in the complex dialectical relationship between stimuli and human behavior.

Allport's Definition of Social Psychology

    Gordon AllportOpens in new window defines social psychology as:
  • ‘an attempt to understand and explain how the thought, feeling, and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others’ (Allport 1968:3).

With ‘imagined presence’ Allport referred to the influence of reference persons (e.g. our parents) whose expectations might influence our behavior. With the ‘implied presence’ he acknowledged the fact that much of our behavior is shaped by social roles and cultural norms.

One characteristic of social psychology, which Allport implied but did not mention specifically, is the use of scientific methods. Indeed, social psychology is a science by virtue of its scientific methods of enquiry (e.g., field and laboratory experiments) used in the studies of human social behavior.

Obviously, the use of scientific methods is not a characteristic that allows one to distinguish social psychology from other social sciences, as by definition all social sciences use methods they consider scientific, and for many of them, experiments are the method of choice.

A more distinctive characteristic introduced by Allport is the fact that social psychology is concerned with social influence, and that it examines the way individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are affected by the physical presence of others.

Social psychologists attempts to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of their participants were influenced by the presence of other human beings.

A final characteristic of social psychology emphasized in Allport’s definition is that social psychologists study the impact that the implied or actual presence of others has on the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of individuals.

Thus, even when we study social groups, we examine the impact groups have on the individual group members. For example, in the classic study of conformity with group majorities, Asch (1956) examined the impact of the majority opinion on the judgements of individual participants.

Similarly, Tajfel and colleagues (1971) studied the impact of the mere categorization of others into ingroup and outgroup on the way individuals distributed money between them. This emphasis on the individual is actually a very important point which had already been made by the elder brother of Gordon Allport, Floyd Allport, in his classic textbook of social psychology:

  • ‘There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals. Social psychology must be placed in contrast distinction to the psychology of the individual; it is a part of the psychology of the individual, whose behavior it studies in relation to that sector of his environment comprised by his fellows’ (Floyd Allport, 1924, p.4).

The emphasis on the individual does not deny the importance of the social context as a determinant of individual behavior, but it rejects the existence of a group consciousness or a collective mind as separate from the minds of the individuals who comprise the group.

A Brief History of Social Psychology

The term social psychology was coined by the Italian journalist and politician Carlo CattaneoOpens in new window in an article published in 1864 in Il PolitecnicoOpens in new window, a journal he had founded himself (Jahoda, 2007).

However, the article was not really about social psychology in general, but attempted to apply Hegel’s ideas to interpersonal interactions and argued that in all spheres of human endeavor, the clash of conflicting ideas resulted in the generation of new ones (Jahoda, 2007).

Since Il Politecnico was not a widely read journal, Jahoda suggests that the wider adoption of the concept should probably be traced back to Gustav Adolph Lindner (1871), professor at Prague University, who used the term in his book Ideen zur Psychologie der Gesellschaft als Grundlage der Sozialwissenschaft (translated Ideas for a Psychology of Society as Foundation of Social Science).

Lindner’s discussion of the position of social psychology is reminiscent of later definitions by Floyd AllportOpens in new window and therefore is worth citing:

  • “The task of social psychology is the description and explanation of those phenomena that depend on the mutual psychic effects of individuals, and on which the total mental life of society rests. Society is nothing apart from individuals; hence its mental life cannot be other than that which occurs within the individual consciousness of its members” (1871, p. 14; translation Jahoda).
  • However, Lindner continues somewhat inconsistently:
  • “Yet that social psychology none the less has its own sphere different from that of individual psychology arises from the fact that the mutual psychological effects, which constitute its subject matter, can only be observed in society” (1871, p. 14).

Although important contributions to social psychology were made in the following four decades by Gustave Le BonOpens in new window and Gabriel TardeOpens in new window in France, Georg SimmelOpens in new window in Germany, and James Mark BaldwinOpens in new window and George Herbert MeadOpens in new window in the USA, the recorded beginning of scientific social psychology is often traced to the year 1908, when the first two textbooks of social psychology were published—one by a sociologist (Ross, 1908); the other by a psychologist (McDougall, 1908). An alternative, even earlier, date is the 1898 publication of a study by Norman TriplettOpens in new window, generally believed to report the first social psychological experiment.

Triplett had young boys and girls pull in a fishing reel as fast as possible and they had to perform this task either in pairs or alone. Rather than randomly assigning his participants to the two conditions, Triplett had each participant do three trials alone and three in pairs, alternating these conditions (i.e., within-subject design).

A few children were slower in completion, some were unaffected, but the majority was faster and the experiment is usually cited as demonstrating the effects of what later became known as social facilitation, the phenomenon whereby the performance of simple tasks is facilitated by the presence of an audience or of others working on the same task.

Haines and Vaughan (1979) have argued that there were other experiments before 1898 deserving to be called social psychological, such as studies on suggestibility (e.g., Binet, Philipe, Coutier, & Henri, 1894). But social psychological experiments may have been performed even earlier by the French agricultural engineer, Max Ringelmann, who between 1882 and 1887 conducted investigations into the maximum performance of workers who pull a load horizontally (Kravitz & Martin, 1986).

Although the comparison of individual and group performance was of secondary interest to him, he found the first evidence of productivity loss in groups— a phenomenon that was later named ‘social loafing.’ Ringelmann found that eight men who pull at a rope together achieve only about 50% of the pulling power that could be expected on the basis of their pulling measured individually. However, since Ringelmann only published this research in 1913, Triplett predates him certainly as far as publication is concerned.

Though the 1908 date is significant, a more meaningful date for the emergence of scientific social psychology is the year 1924, because it marks the appearance of Floyd Allport’s seminal textbook, which explicitly delineates the domain of social psychology as the experimental study of social behavior. He defined social behavior as ‘behavior in which the responses either serve as social stimuli or are evoked by social stimuli’ (p. 148).

Significantly, Allport postulated that social psychology “is part of the psychology of the individual, whose behavior it studies in relation to that sector of the environment comprised by his fellows” (p. 4). He had noted earlier, in the same volume, ‘For ... only within the individual can we find the behavioral mechanisms and the consciousness which are fundamental in the interactions between individuals’ (p. vi).

The Critique that Led to Crisis in Social Psychology

Social psychology encountered a crisis of confidence in the late 1960s that led to years of infighting about the right course of social psychology. Instrumental to the launching of the crisis were, arguably, two critical papers published in 1967 and 1973.

Kenneth Ring’s 1967 paper was provocatively entitled “Experimental social psychology: Some sober questions about some frivolous values,” and it contrasted the vision of Kurt Lewin of a social psychology aimed at solving important social problems with what Ring called the “fun and games” attitude of the social psychology of his own days.

Ring, although a respected researcher, was not a very central figure in the social psychology of his days; accordingly, the paper stimulated some discussion but did not really have a serious impact on the field. However, in 1973, a rising star of experimental social psychology as history” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Unlike Ring’s paper, which questioned social psychology’s values, Gergen’s questioned its scientific status and its very potential to elucidate human social behavior. His two most important arguments were:

  1. that knowledge of social psychological principles could change our behavior in ways that would negate these principles, and
  2. that since the basic motives assumed by many of our theories are unlikely to be genetically determined, they might be affected by cultural change. Gergen’s (1973) critique evoked a spirited and thoughtful reaction from Barry Schlenker (1974), and the debate raged on.

At that time, the collective self-esteem of social psychologists had been undermined by other developments as well. For one, there was an attack on the attitude concept, and the notion that attitudes can predict behavior.

In a reveiew of studies that empirically assessed the attitude-behavior relation, the sociologist Alan Wicker (1969) drew the devastating conclusion that considerable bodies of research belie the major raison d’etre for studying attitudes in the first place, namely the expectation that attitudes are meaningfully related to behavior.

Around the same time, a series of papers were published that were highly critical of the experimental method used in social psychological studies. Thus, Orne (1962) had suggested that most experimental situations contained “demand characteristics” that would help research participants to guess the hypothesis to be tested in a given study.

Since participants typically tried to be “good subjects,” One argued, they would then do their best to support these hypotheses. Even more damaging was the suggestions of Rosenthal (Rosenthal & Fode, 1963) that the expectations of the experimenter might influence the behavior of research participants, even without their knowledge.

The impact of these expectations on the behavior of research participants could, for example, be mediated by experiments reacting positively to responses that supported their hypotheses and negatively to responses that were inconsistent with expectations. Critiques of the social psychology experiment were responded to, and their specific allegations reconsidered in several papers devoted to this topic (e.g., Kruglanski, 1975, 1976; Weber & Cook, 1974).

In addition, numerous conferences were organized in which the crisis was being discussed, sometimes in rather heated language. although these conferences resulted in a number of crisis books (e.g., Srikland, Aboud, & Gergen, 1976), they failed to bridge the theoretical and methodological chasm that separated the critics from mainstream social psychology.

The critics finally founded their own social psychological schools, such as social constructionism in the US (e.g., Gergen, 1999) and discourse analysis in Great Britain (e.g., Potter & Wetherell, 1987), which developed their own methodologies to address these problems (see Gergen, this volume).