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What Is Social Psychology?

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Social Psychology looks at human behavior in the social sphere.

Social psychology focuses on social behavior, including group behavior.

Image courtesy Michal Zacharzewski
Question: What Is Social Psychology?
What is it that shapes our attitudes? Why are some people such great leaders? How does prejudice develop and how can we overcome it? These are just a few of the big questions of interest in the field of social psychology. What exactly is social psychology and what do social psychologists do? Continue reading to learn more about this important branch of psychology.
Answer:

According to psychologist Gordon Allport, social psychology is a discipline that uses scientific methods "to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings" (1985).

Social psychology looks at a wide range of social topics, including group behavior, social perception, leadership, nonverbal behavior, conformity, aggression, and prejudice. It is important to note that social psychology is not just about looking at social influences. Social perception and social interaction are also vital to understanding social behavior.

Brief History of Social Psychology

While Plato referred to the idea of the "crowd mind" and concepts such as social loafing and social facilitation were introduced in the late-1800s, it wasn't until after World War II that research on social psychology began in earnest. The horrors of the Holocaust led researchers to study the effects of social influence, conformity and obedience.

The U.S. government also became interested in applying social psychological concepts to influencing citizens. Social psychology has continued to grow throughout the twentieth century, inspiring research that has contributed to our understanding of social experience and behavior. Our social world makes up such a tremendous part of our lives, so it is no wonder that this topic is so fascinating.

How Is Social Psychology Different From Other Disciplines?

It is important to understand how social psychology differs from other disciplines. Social psychology is often confused with folk wisdom, personality psychology, and sociology. What makes social psychology different? Unlike folk wisdom, which relies on anecdotal observations and subjective interpretation, social psychology employs scientific methods and the empirical study of social phenomena. Researchers do not just make guesses or assumptions about how people behave; they devise and carry out experiments that help point out relationships between different variables.

While personality psychology focuses on individual traits, characteristics and thoughts, social psychology is focused on situations. Social psychologists are interested in the impact that the social environment and group interactions have on attitudes and behaviors.

Finally, it is important to distinguish between social psychology and sociology. While there are many similarities between the two, sociology tends to looks at social behavior and influences at a very broad-based level. Sociologists are interested in the institutions and cultures that influence how people behave. Psychologists instead focus on situational variables that affect social behavior. While psychology and sociology both study similar topics, they are looking at these topics from different perspectives.

Learn More About Social Psychology

The Basics

Topics Within Social Psychology

References:

Allport, G. W. (1985). The historical background of social psychology. In G. Lindzey, and E. Aronson, (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology, 1, (3), 1-46.

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