Social psychology is a field that is interested in a variety of social processes. Social psychology is defined as the scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior and thought in social situations. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). It differs from clinical psychology in that clinical psychology has a main focus on the individual. It differs from sociology in that sociology has a main focus on group behavior. Social psychology is a relatively young branch of psychology, but like many things, it has old roots. Plato talks about being swept along with the crowd in ancient times. The term social psychology was not actually used to describe this type of study until 1908, when the first social psychology textbook was published.
Many of those responsible for the early social psychology movement were European. Gustave LeBon was a French social scientist that actually got his doctorate in medicine. In 1894, LeBon wrote a book called, “The Psychology of Peoples”. In 1895, he wrote a book called: “The Crowd”. This book dealt with his views on crowd behavior. His views in this book were studies by Adolf Hitler and helped lay the foundation for Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf”.
Muzafer Sharif was a Turkish social psychologist. He wrote, “The Psychology of Norms” in 1936. He focused his interest in looking at group processes and understanding group dynamics. He conducted much of his research with his wife, Carolyn. Sherif is known for his realistic conflict theory which accounts for group conflict, stereotyping and negative prejudices as a result of competition for resources. He validated this theory in a famous experiment known as the Robbers Cave. In this experiment, Sherif sent 22 white eleven year old boys to summer camp at Robbers Cave state park. The boys were divided into two groups and assigned to cabins that were apart from each other. The boys did various camp activities together within their own group and chose a name for their group. The researchers set up competitions between the two groups and promised prizes to the winners. As the competition progressed, so did the behaviors of the boys. At the beginning verbal taunting was present, but as the competition wore on, the groups became aggressive and had to be separated by adults.
Another social psychology theory is that of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is associated with Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist and physician as well as psychologist. Pavlov was actually investigating the dog’s digestive system when he discovered classical conditioning. Pavlov would deprive dogs of food for a day and present the dogs with a meat powder. The meat powder made the dogs salivate. Pavlov then presented a bell prior to the meat powder. After a few experiences, the dogs would salivate simply after hearing the bell. This previously negative stimuli had become associated with the food and the response of salivating became conditioned. These conditioned responses were looked at in the socialization process of humans by psychologist John Watson. John Watson was an American psychologist that conducted an experiment on a small child known as Little Albert. Through classical conditioning he conditioned Little Albert to be fearful of small white animals that previously he was not afraid of.
Gordon Allport was an American psychologist. He described social psychology as a scientific discipline that seeks to understand how human behavior, emotions, and thoughts are influenced by others. Allport was one of the first to study a person’s personality. He developed the Personality-Trait Theory. This theory states that our personality traits are the key to our behavior.
Lastly, I’d like to mention Albert Bandura and his contribution to social psychology. His social learning theory suggests that people learn through observing others’ behaviors, attitudes and outcomes of these behaviors. His famous Bobo doll experiment is an experiment is learned aggression. He states that there are conditions for effective modeling. The conditions are: retention, reproduction and motivation. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). Bandura thought that there is a thing called reciprocal determination. Reciprocal determination is essentially that the world and behavior cause each other.
Social psychology is focused on explaining social behavior. What are the many factors and conditions that shape the social behavior and social thought of individuals, their actions, feelings, beliefs, memories and inferences concerning other persons? (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). There are five major variables or interests to social psychologists. The first variable is the actions and characteristics of other persons. Will actions of other people have any type of effect on your own behavior? Of course it depends on the individual and the situation, but the answer is yes. People will behave differently and other people do have an influence in our own behavior. A second major variable in social psychology is that of the cognitive process. This variable supports the idea that cognitive processes play a crucial role in social behavior and social thought. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). This means that our reactions to new experiences depend strongly on our already held beliefs from previous experiences. We recall our memories from instances that have occurred in the past and apply them in analyzing current situations. A third variable is that of the environment. A person’s behavior can be greatly influenced by their environment. Comfortable and cool environments can increase a person’s well being and can make people less irritable than when the environment is hot and steamy. (Baron, et al.). The environment can also include such things as personal space, odors in the air and whether you are at home or at work. Another major variable in social psychology is that of a cultural context. Culture is the enduring behaviors, ideas, attitudes and traditions that are shared by a large group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next. (Myers, 2005). Obviously as time and ideas change, so does the culture. In the 1960’s television shows showed married couples sleeping in separate beds due to culture norms. Today, unmarried people are frequently showed together in bed on one night stands, because the culture today has dictated that it is acceptable behavior. A last variable mentioned in the textbook is that of biological factors. Growing data in the field of social psychology indicates that biological factors do have an important role in shaping our behavior. Evolutionary psychology argues that gene transmission across generations help us deal with important problems relating to survival. The genes are passed through the process of evolution. This process involves three basic components: variation, inheritance and selection. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). Variation refers to the fact that organisms belonging to a given species vary in different ways. Inheritance refers to the fact that some of these variations can be passed from one generation to the next. Selection refers to the fact that some variations give the individual who possesses them an edge in terms of reproduction. Some social psychologists believe that biological factors present in evolutionary psychology do influence some aspects of our behavior.
Social psychology has several methods of research. The method used depends largely on what the research is intended to investigate. One method of research in social psychology is describing the world around us. This is otherwise called descriptive research. The researcher places himself in a natural setting and describes the behavior that already exists. In such an observation, the researcher simply notices what is happening in various contexts; he or she makes no attempt to change the behavior of the persons that are being observed. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). Surveys and opinion polls are examples of this type of research.
Correlational research looking for a way that events change or are related to each other. The term correlation refers to a tendency for one event to change as the other changes. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). Correlations can be positive, negative or neutral. Positive correlation is when one variable increase, the other variable increases as well. Negative correlation is when one variable increases, the other variable decreases. No correlation means that there is no relationship that is found between the variables. The correlational method of research can be very useful to social psychologists. Natural observations, compiling past research to study and surveys are examples of this type of research.
Experimental research is used in social psychology when a researcher wants to explain why something happens. Experimentation involves the following strategy: One variable is changes systematically, and the effects of this change are carefully measured. This is done by having a control group and an experimental group. The experimental group is subject to exposure from an independent variable. The researcher is able to manipulate the level of the independent variable that the experimental group receives. The changes can be measured and a causal relationship can be established in this type of research.
Social psychology lends itself to many different investigative topics. There are several major trends in modern social psychology. The field of social psychology has recently begun to see that cognition and behavior are intimately and continuously linked. We are always making judgments about others and about ourselves. Our judgments are based on our thoughts, memories, beliefs, etc. Who do we want to have as a friend? A person just like us or the complete opposite? Cognition and behavior deal with how our social behavior and our cognitive processes mix and mingle and influence our thoughts and choices in the world.
Social neuroscience is where social psychology and neuroscience meet. It involves how biological processes implement social behavior. Recently, research in the social neuroscience field has grown dramatically. Powerful tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines allow psychologist and other scientists to peer into the human brain as people engage in various activities. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). This collaboration between the two fields can contribute to understanding how the mind works. Social neuroscience is concerned with the relationship of the brain and the body and the social world.
Implicit processes are those processes that are not expressly stated. Our implicit thoughts and actions are ones that we are only dimly aware of at best. They often take place in an automatic manner without any conscious thought or intention on our part. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006). Implicit process forms the basis for decisions that we make that depend on which associations are activated in our minds, almost like a “gut reaction”.
Social diversity is a variety of diverse factors that surround our society. These factors can be race, culture, religion, age and others. Social sciences have long known that there is importance in considering cultural factors and differences when working with people. Social psychologists currently believe that such differences are very important and must be carefully taken into account in our effort to understand human behavior. (Baron, Byrne & Branscome, 2006).
What types of research issues does social psychology investigate? Social psychologists look at attitudes and how they develop and change. They look at how attitudes can affect prejudice and lead to discrimination. They investigate stereotypes and what are the causes and effects of living with these stereotypes. They look at violence toward others. Why do people engage in violent acts and what types of influences produce violence (television programs, video games, etc.). A large amount of research is devoted to looking at groups and decision making. Topics such as persuasion and peer pressure and obedience are studied in this area. Any thoughts, feelings or other reaction that can be measured in humans can be researched by social psychologists.