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.
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.
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
- What Is a Social Psychologist?
- Social Psychology Basics
- Major Perspectives in Social Psychology
- Research Topics in Social Psychology
Topics Within Social Psychology
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.