What Is Social Psychology? Definition, Key Terms, and ExamplesWhat Is Social Psychology? Definition, Key Terms, and ExamplesWhat Is Social Psychology? Definition, Key Terms, and Examples

Social psychologists explore the power of thought and perception to shape action and cement emotional connections. William Shakespeare provided one of the earliest known examples of an insight worthy of a social psychologist in his most psychologically complex play, “Hamlet.”

When the beleaguered prince of Denmark explains why he considers his native country a prison rather than a paradise, he reflects: “Why then … there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Whether presented as a trick of the mind (“thinking makes it so”) or as an exploration of everyday thought and action, social psychology is concerned with explaining some of the deepest mysteries of human relationships and behavior.

What is social psychology? It is a scientific exploration of who we are, who we think we are, and how those perceptions shape our experiences as individuals and as a society.

Social psychology is one of the broadest and most complex subcategories of psychology because it is concerned with self-perception and the behavioral interplay among the individuals who make up society. What follows is an overview of social psychology as a science, including its origins, its theories of human cognition and behavior, and the educational pathways to becoming a social psychologist, which can include earning a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology degree.

Social Psychology Definition

Today, researchers and academics examine nearly every aspect of human existence through a psychological lens. The American Psychological Association (APA) lists 15 subfields of psychology, including clinical psychology, brain and cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and quantitative psychology.

Social psychology is the study of how individual or group behavior is influenced by the presence and behavior of others.

The APA defines social psychology as “the study of how an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are affected” by other people, whether “actual, imagined, or symbolically represented.” In essence, even just imagining another person watching you influences how you will process information, behave, and react — and this is something social psychologists strive to understand.

A social psychologist leads a group discussion.

What Questions Does Social Psychology Answer?

The major question social psychologists ponder is this: How and why are people’s perceptions and actions influenced by environmental factors, such as social interaction?

In seeking the answer to that basic question, researchers conduct empirical studies to answer specific questions such as:

  • How do individuals alter their thoughts and decisions based on social interactions?
  • Is human behavior an accurate indication of personality?
  • How goal oriented is social behavior?
  • How does social perception influence behavior?
  • How do potentially destructive social attitudes, such as prejudice, form?

For example, have you ever noticed you act and think differently among people you know than you do among strangers? Have you ever wondered why that is? Social psychologists spend their careers trying to determine the answers to questions like these and what they might mean.

The Origins of the Social Psychology Field

Psychology as a field of scientific exploration remains relatively new, yet its importance as a discipline is clear from the well-known names and concepts of early 20th-century research into human behavior: Pavlov and his salivating dog, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Jung’s archetypes of the unconscious.

These and other researchers wanted to uncover how human perceptions — of oneself, of others, and of the world at large — influence behavior. As the field of psychology matured, researchers began to focus on specialized aspects of the mind and behavior. This gave rise to subcategories of psychology, including social psychology.

Social psychology has been a formal discipline since the turn of the 20th century. An early study in 1898 of “social facilitation” by Indiana University psychology researcher Norman Triplett sought to explain why bicycle racers seemed to exceed their solo performances when they competed directly against others.

Later experiments sought to explain how and why certain artists and performers seemed to shine in front of an audience, while others faltered. During World War II, researchers conducted studies into the effects of propaganda on the behavior of entire populations.

What Is a Social Psychologist?

Social psychology professionals, such as social psychologists, seek to understand the complex interplay between social factors and human behavior. Specific areas of study include:

  • Group dynamics and attitudes
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Implicit bias and prejudice
  • Criminal activity

Social psychologists use a variety of research methods, including experiments, surveys, and observations, to study human behavior in social contexts. They apply their findings to a wide range of fields, including business, law, education, healthcare, and public policy, to help solve social problems and improve people’s lives.

Social Psychologist Salary

Social psychologists had a median annual salary of $81,040, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2021. The BLS estimates that the number of people working as psychologists will grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, as fast as the average growth projected for all professions.

While becoming a social psychologist requires advanced education, starting off with a bachelor’s degree in psychology can be an important first step toward this career. Other professions that must consider social psychology principles include social worker, human resources specialist, and career counselor.

What Is Social Psychology vs. Sociology?

Those interested in what social psychology is should understand the difference between this field and other academic disciplines. For example, social psychology and sociology are sometimes confused. This is understandable, because both fields of study are broadly concerned with the way human behavior shapes and is shaped by society.

The primary difference between the two is this: Social psychologists study individuals within a group; sociologists study groups of people.

As early as 1924, when both fields of study were just beginning to reach academic maturity, University of Missouri researcher Charles A. Ellwood sought to simplify the difference between the two. According to Ellwood:

  • Sociology is “the science of the origin, development, structure, and functioning of groups.”
  • Social psychology is “the study of the [individual psychological] origins involved in the development, structure, and functioning of social groups.”

Different Ways of Looking at Similar Issues

Naturally, the work done by both types of social scientists occasionally overlaps. A sociologist focuses on how the interplay among different groups of people — those with religious beliefs or ethnicity in common — affects the course of civilization.

This information could be considered a starting point for research by a social psychologist, who might use it to formulate a hypothesis about how an individual is affected by the group dynamic over the course of a lifetime.

For example, a sociologist might focus on the potential far-reaching effects on society of a new law, whereas a social psychologist might focus on how the new law might affect a specific person in the short term and long term.

Another way to think about the differences between social psychology and sociology is to consider the perception of the group dynamic.

For instance, a sociologist might conduct research into how a group of people acts as a unit, while a social psychologist might want to investigate how and why groups of people influence individuals — and why individual behaviors can influence groups of people.

Examples of Social Psychology Topics of Today

Early social psychologists concerned themselves with internal and external influences on individual behavior. British-born psychologist William McDougall’s 1908 publication, “An Introduction to Social Psychology,” focused on human instinct as the driving force behind social interactions.

More topics crowded under the social psychology umbrella with the 1920s work of brothers Floyd Henry Allport and Gordon Willard Allport. The Allports are credited with applying rigorous scientific theory and experimentation techniques to social psychology research.

This dynamic duo also conducted important studies into the development of attitudes, religious beliefs, and many other topics.

Social Psychology Examples

What social psychology is focused on is studying changes over time. Social psychology research has touched on nearly every facet of human personality in an attempt to understand the psychological influence of perception and human interaction. Of the topics currently being researched in social psychology, examples include:

  • Leadership — What personality traits define a leader? What is the role of a leader within a group? How do leaders exercise influence on groups and individuals?
  • Aggression — How is aggressive behavior defined? What triggers habitual aggressive behavior? What role does aggression play in self-preservation?
  • Social perception — How does an individual develop self-perception? How is self-perception shaped by environmental factors? What is the difference between the existential self and the categorical self?
  • Group behavior — What characteristics do groups share? How many people constitute a group? What dictates the structure of a group? Why do individuals gravitate to a particular group?
  • Nonverbal behavior — What nonlinguistic actions communicate thought or meaning? How are nonverbal cues developed and interpreted? What emotions do facial expressions, hand gestures, and other nonverbal behaviors communicate?
  • Conformity — What prompts individuals to change their perceptions to match that of a group or another person? How does an individual decide to accept influence from another or a group? What is the difference between outward conformity and internal conformity?
  • Prejudice — What causes someone to harbor prejudice against a member of a different social group? What is the difference between prejudice and discrimination? How are stereotypes used to build perceptions?

Examples of Social Psychology Theories

What social psychology is today can also be described in terms of the theories that social psychology devises to explain human behavior. Consider the following mainstream social psychology theories that include theories of social cognition, group behavior, and identity.

Social Cognition

Social cognition is a subtopic of social psychology. Its focus is the study of how and why we perceive ourselves and others as we do. This is important because, without an understanding of our self-perception, it is impossible to fully grasp how our actions are interpreted by others. Similarly, to understand why others act as they do toward us, we must rely on our perceptions of their thoughts and motivations.

Social psychologists conduct research into how and why certain life experiences influence our perceptions of ourselves and others. This key example of social psychology research seeks to understand how memory is processed and how it influences social cognition.

Early Development of Cognitive Perception

Social cognition research often involves an analysis of environmental factors in the early development of cognitive perception. For example, young children’s perceptions are based on an egocentric view — their views of themselves and the world are shaped by limited experience. They do not yet understand how to interpret their own emotions and actions, let alone those of others.

By adulthood, the ability to perceive emotions and understand behavior has developed with experience. Perceptions are formed and decisions are made based on that experience. A functioning adult can call on experience to answer questions like:

  • Why do I think the way I do about a particular subject or person?
  • How do my actions affect others?
  • How should I respond to the actions of others?

The way individuals learn to answer these and other questions about their self-perception falls under the study of social cognition. Scientists explore the mental processes that affect the interplay among perception, memory, and thought in shaping personality and social interaction.

This information, in turn, helps researchers understand the dynamic between group behavior and the development of an individual’s social identity.

Group Behavior

Why are individuals drawn together to form groups? How does the group influence the behavior of an individual, and vice versa?

A study of group behavior attempts to answer these and other questions related to social cognition. It begins with the basic question: What is a group? There is no set definition of a group, but social psychologists generally agree that a group can be identified as a coherent entity made up of individuals who share certain beliefs or characteristics.

Examples of groups include religious affiliations, scientific societies, and political parties. This definition includes large groups, such as the population of a neighborhood or a city, and smaller groups, such as a nuclear family.

The observable actions of a group make up the definition of group behavior. Social psychologists who study group behavior want to know the underlying motivations of those actions, how they originated, how an individual functions within the group, and the role of leadership in the group dynamic.

For example, how and why do some groups act out of a collective sense of kindness and acceptance, while others seem motivated by prejudice and violence? How does the innate conflict between self-perception and external perception affect an individual’s influence within a group? Not only that, but how and why are individual interests, opinions, and abilities sometimes sublimated to the group’s collective purpose?

Group behavior can be studied through the lens of individual status within the group. The group’s patterns of individual relationships may predict the group’s cohesiveness, and they might help explain how and why one group is more productive than another.

An understanding of group behavior helps explain why individuals might make certain decisions under the influence of a group that they would not have made alone. This kind of personality change — a shift based on group membership — is covered under the topic of social identity theory.

Social Identity Theory

Psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner studied the effects of group membership on self-perception. They formulated social identity theory, which seeks to explain the relationship between group membership and the reinforcement of individual qualities such as pride and self-esteem.

According to Tajfel and Turner, individuals gravitate toward groups that are composed of people they admire or with whom they agree on important matters. Group members perceive themselves, at least in part, through the lens of their membership; they see themselves reflected by other members.

People who belong to groups are linked and governed by similarities. Group members’ self-identity is based on the shared attitudes, beliefs, and moral standards of the group. This explains why individuals in a group might act differently than they would act if they did not belong to the group. They behave as they believe a member of the group should behave, rather than acting out of personal motivation.

Another aspect of social identity theory is the tendency toward tribalism, or embracing “in-groups” while rejecting “out-groups.” The group socialization of an individual takes place in stages, according to Tajfel and Turner:

  • Categorization — Separating individuals based on characteristics such as ethnicity, occupation, or belief system
  • Social identification — Adopting the characteristics of a particular group
  • Social comparison — Seeking to draw favorable contrasts with other groups

Once individuals have thoroughly established their self-perception based on membership in an “in-group,” their mindset and behavior begin to reflect the expectations of the group.

In this way, individual social identity is sublimated to the group. Personal identity is exchanged for a sense of belonging, safety, and well-being.

Typical Social Psychology Curriculum

Social psychologists generally need to earn an advanced degree to work in clinical, counseling, or research contexts. Careers for psychology bachelor’s degree graduates are available in the fields of human resources, market analytics, and survey research. Graduates who go on to earn a master’s degree or higher, such as a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree, may become qualified to work as social psychologists.

The typical social psychology bachelor’s degree curriculum includes courses in psychological research methods, research design, and applied statistics as well as courses in psychological theory, such as in abnormal psychology and developmental psychology across the lifespan.

Some social psychology professionals work in academic settings, conducting research and teaching students, while others work in applied settings, such as in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private corporations. Social psychology professionals may also work as consultants, helping individuals and organizations understand and manage social dynamics in their environments.

Pursue a Career in Social Psychology

A career in social psychology feeds a passion for understanding what motivates human behavior, and it requires extensive training in empirical research methods. What social psychology is has everything to do with the expertise that researchers develop in human relationships, self-perception, group dynamics, leadership, and many other areas of psychology.

Social psychology research is vital across multiple disciplines, including business, healthcare, economics, political science, and education. Are you interested in becoming a social psychology professional and doing this important work? Become immersed in the study of human behavior and psychological research by earning a Maryville University online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.

Recommended Readings

Forensic Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology: Choosing a Path

Marketing Psychology: Inside the Consumer’s Mind

Social Isolation Impact on Cognitive Health


American Psychological Association, Social Psychology

American Psychological Association, Social Psychology Studies Human Interactions

The Mead Project, “The Relations of Sociology and Social Psychology”

Simply Psychology, “Social Facilitation Theory: Definition and Examples”

Simply Psychology, “Social Identity Theory: Definition, History, Examples, & Facts”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

Verywell Mind, “5 Important Concepts in Social Psychology”

Verywell Mind, “An Overview of Social Psychology”

Verywell Mind, “Social Cognition in Psychology: The Way We Think About Others”

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