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

Psychology as a field of scientific exploration remains relatively new; the first formal psychology course in the United States was initiated at Harvard University by William James in 1875.

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, Jung’s archetypes of the unconscious.

These and other researchers wanted to uncover how human perceptions — of themselves, of others, and of the world at large — influence behavior.

A social psychologist interviews a small and diverse group of people

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.

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, quantitative psychology, and more.

Social psychology is one of the broadest and most complex subcategories 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 a definition, its origins, and topics related to the field. 

Social Psychology Definition

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

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.

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 effect of propaganda on the behavior of entire populations.

Shakespeare’s Take on Social Psychology

Social psychologists explore the power of thought and perception to shape action and cement emotional connections. This is not a new concept; William Shakespeare provided one of the earliest known examples of an insight worthy of a social psychologist in his most psychologically complex play, “Hamlet.”

The beleaguered prince of Denmark explains why he considers his native country a prison, rather than a paradise: “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.

It is an exploration of who we are, who we think we are, and how those perceptions shape our experience as individuals and as a society.

Social Psychology vs. Sociology

The fields of 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. Sociology, Ellwood wrote, is “the science of the origin, development, structure, and functioning of groups.”

Social psychology, according to Ellwood, 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. 

Social Psychology Topics at a Glance

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 interaction.

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.

Today’s Social Psychology Topics

Over time, social psychology research touched on nearly every facet of human personality in an attempt to understand the psychological influence of perception and human interaction. The topics covered by today’s social psychologists 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 behavior communicate?
  • Conformity — What prompts individuals to change their perceptions to match 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 perception?

 What Is 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 perception of their thoughts and motivations.

Social psychologists conduct research into how and why certain life experiences influence our perceptions of ourselves and others. In addition to other factors, researchers seek 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 perception is 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 Definition

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 members of a political party. 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, 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.

 What Is Social Identity Theory?

Polish psychologist Henri Tajfel along with his British colleague 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. 

Pursue a Career in Social Psychology with a Maryville University Online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology

A career in social psychology feeds a passion for understanding what motivates human behavior, and it requires extensive training in empirical research methods.

Social psychologists are recognized experts in human relationships, the development of self-perception, the group dynamic, leadership, and many other areas of psychology. Their research is vital across multiple disciplines, including business, healthcare, economics, political science, and education.

Become immersed in the study of human behavior and psychological research by earning a Maryville University online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.

 

Recommended Readings
Understanding Behavior in Society: The Difference Between Sociology and Social Psychology
Understanding Human Nature: Behavioral Science vs. Psychology Degrees
Careers for Psychology Bachelor’s Degree Graduates

Sources
American Psychological Association, Social Psychology Studies Human Interactions
The Relations of Sociology and Social Psychology,” Charles A. Ellwood
Simply Psychology, “Social Identity Theory”
Simply Psychology, “Social Facilitation”
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”