Social Psychology

Social Psychology, the scientific study of how people think, feel, and behave in social situations. This area of specialization draws on two disciplines: sociology, which focuses on groups; and psychology, which centers on the individual.
Social psychologists seek to answer a wide variety of questions, among them: Why do we help or ignore others in need? Why are people romantically attracted to each other? How do people form stereotypes about racial and ethnic groups, and how can they overcome them? What techniques of persuasion do advertisers use to sell their products? Why do people usually conform in group situations? What makes someone an effective leader?
As in other branches of psychology, social psychologists use a wide variety of research methods, including laboratory experiments, observations in the real world, case studies, and public opinion surveys. Some social psychologists conduct basic research to test general theories about human social behavior, while others seek to apply that research to solve real-world social problems.
Social psychology and sociology are often confused, because both fields study groups and group behavior. However, their perspectives differ. Whereas sociologists strive to understand group behavior in terms of society and social institutions, social psychologists focus on individuals and how they perceive, interact with, and influence each other. They study how individuals exert influence on groups and how group situations affect the behavior of individuals.

Social psychology is a relatively young discipline whose origin can be traced to experiments conducted late in the 19th century. These experiments, conducted separately by American psychologist Norman Triplett and French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann, investigated whether the presence of other people disrupts or enhances an individual’s performance on various tasks—a question that is still the subject of research today. The first textbooks in social psychology were published early in the 20th century by British psychologist William McDougall in 1908 and American sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross, also in 1908. Another important textbook, published by American psychologist Floyd Allport in 1924, extended the principles of conditioning and learning to account for a wide range of social behaviors.
In the 1930s, German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin introduced the notion that people are largely influenced by how they perceive the world around them. Lewin proposed that behavior is a unique function of the interaction between a person and his or her environment. Lewin conducted pioneering studies of leadership styles. He also advocated the practical application of social psychology in the workplace, the classroom, and other settings. Today, Lewin is considered by many to be the founder of modern social psychology.
A new era of social psychology began after World War II (1939-1945). Driven by a need to understand the horrors of war, many researchers began to study competition and conflict between groups, aggression, stereotypes and prejudice, leadership, group dynamics, obedience to authority, conformity, and the use of propaganda to change attitudes. Others soon became interested in a broader range of topics, such as affiliation with groups, interpersonal attraction, love, the development of close relationships, and the influences of gender, culture, and evolution on social behavior. Still others went on to apply social psychology to studies of physical and mental health, education, business, law, political behavior, and advertising.

Social psychology today is a diverse discipline encompassing a broad range of research topics. This article discusses some of the most important areas of research: processes of social influence, social perception, and interpersonal behavior.

Processes of Social Influence
Although born helpless, human infants are equipped at birth with reflexes that orient them toward people. They are responsive to faces, turn their head toward voices, and mimic certain facial gestures on cue. It seems that human beings are inherently social animals. All over the world, people experience joy when they form new social attachments and react with loneliness and despair when these bonds are broken—as when separated from a loved one by distance, divorce, or death. Research shows that people who have a network of family and friends are happier and healthier and live longer than those who are more isolated. People need people, which is why social situations can have such a profound effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

In 1936 Turkish-American psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted a study of how norms (rules of behavior) develop in small groups. The subjects in his laboratory observed a visual illusion: A fixed point of light in a darkened room appeared to move. Watching alone, subjects differed considerably in their estimates of how far the point of light moved. The next day, however, subjects were assigned to three-person groups. Each time a point of light was flashed, subjects stated their estimates one by one. The same groups returned over the next two days to make additional judgments about the light. Eventually, the subjects within each group converged on a common perception and adopted their group's emerging norm as their own (see the accompanying chart entitled “Formation of Social Norms”). Sherif’s pioneering experiment—one of the first to study a social phenomenon in the laboratory—showed that people often rely on the judgments of others when they find themselves in a state of uncertainty.
In 1951 American psychologist Solomon Asch constructed a very different situation. In his studies, a subject sat at a table with six research confederates (accomplices of the experimenter) posing as fellow subjects. Each person in the group was asked to look at several sets of lines and answer questions about them. For each set, the person was asked to indicate which of three lines was similar in length to a standard line (see the figure below).


During the 1960s, American psychologist Stanley Milgram studied a form of social influence stronger than conformity: obedience to authority. In a famous series of experiments that attracted controversy about human research ethics, Milgram put each of 1,000 subjects into a situation in which they were ordered by an experimenter to administer painful electric shocks to a confederate (who did not actually receive any shocks). The subjects in these studies were led to believe that they were acting as 'teachers' in a study of the effects of punishment on learning. Each time the 'learner' made a mistake on a memory test, the subject was supposed to deliver a shock. The intensity of the shocks was to increase, beginning at 15 volts and continuing in 15-volt increments to 450 volts. In most situations, the subjects could not actually see the learner, but they could hear an audiotaped response that sounded increasingly serious with each successive shock. The learner's protests would begin with grunts of pain, progress to shouting and sometimes even complaints of heart trouble, and eventually turn to agonized screams of “Let me out of here!” After the teacher passed the 330-volt level, the learner would fall silent and give no further responses. Yet at each step, an experimenter ordered the subject to raise the level of shock to the learner.
Many of the subjects in the experiment felt extreme anguish over the pain they thought they were inflicting. They sweated, trembled, bit their lips, or broke into fits of nervous laughter. Despite their distress, an astonishing 65 percent of subjects in Milgram's initial study delivered the final punishment of 450 volts. Other social psychologists conducting similar experiments later observed comparable levels of obedience among men and women all over the world. Apparently, many otherwise decent people will cause intense suffering to others rather than disobey authority.
Milgram designed this experiment in order to understand the obedience of Nazi soldiers and officials in killing millions of Jews and others during World War II. When interviewed after the experiment, many of Milgram’s subjects said that they had obeyed largely because they thought the experimenter would bear responsibility for any harm to the learner. Similarly, Nazi death camp administrator Adolf Eichmann, when tried for murdering thousands of innocent people, attributed his behavior to the fact that he was merely following the orders of his superiors.

Attitudes and Persuasion
While many social psychologists study social influences on behavior, others focus on the changing of attitudes. Attitudes are relatively enduring beliefs or opinions that predispose people to respond in a positive, negative, or ambivalent way to a person, object, or idea. In particular, social scientists study how people are led to change their attitudes—the process known as persuasion. Persuasion is an integral part of human social life. Many people have a direct interest in knowing how to effectively persuade others: politicians trying to win votes, salespeople and advertisers hawking their products, religious leaders seeking converts, trial lawyers arguing before a jury, and fund-raisers seeking donations. Persuasion is neither inherently good nor bad. Whether we see it as beneficial or harmful to individuals depends on whether we approve of the message.
Persuasion can occur in two ways. First, as you might expect, people often change their attitudes in response to strong and logical arguments. However, research has shown that people may also be influenced by a speaker's physical attractiveness, by the arousal of fear and other emotions, by the reactions of others in the audience, and by other superficial cues. Researchers have identified three main factors that contribute to the effect of a persuasive communication: the source, the message, and the audience. In other words, what matters in persuasion is whosays what to whom.
Sometimes people change their attitudes not in response to a persuasive communication but by convincing themselves, a process of self-persuasion. In 1957 American psychologist Leon Festinger proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which says that people often change their attitudes to justify their own actions. According to this theory, people who behave in ways that contradict their own attitudes experience an unpleasant state of internal tension known as cognitive dissonance. To reduce that tension, they adjust their attitudes to be consistent with their behavior.
In a classic test of this theory in 1959, Festinger and his colleague J. Merrill Carlsmith asked college students to engage in an extremely boring, repetitive task for one hour. Afterward, the experimenters offered the students either $1 or $20 to deceive a prospective subject in the experiment (actually a confederate) into thinking that the task ahead would be interesting. Later, the students were asked to rate their enjoyment of the task. Students who did not mislead a confederate admitted the task was boring. So did those given $20—ample justification for their white lie to the confederate. However, those paid only $1 rated the task as somewhat enjoyable. Having lied without a sufficient justification, these subjects felt internally pressured to view the task in more positive terms as a way to reconcile their behavior with their attitude and reduce their cognitive dissonance. Also consistent with the theory, hundreds of more recent studies have shown that people change their attitudes to justify their own investment of effort, money, or time. Thus, we come to love what we strive for.

Social Perception
A second core topic in social psychology is social perception, the process by which people come to know and evaluate one another. Researchers in social perception study how we form impressions of each other, how we explain the causes of our own and other people’s behavior, and how we form stereotypes and prejudices toward social groups.

Forming Impressions and Making Attributions
Research has shown that people form impressions of each other in two ways. Sometimes people make quick and effortless judgments based on others' physical appearance, facial expressions, or body language. Studies have shown, for example, that people who are physically attractive are perceived to be happy, warm, friendly, successful, confident, and well-adjusted. At other times, however, people form impressions based on a careful observation of a person’s behavior. According to this latter view, people act like amateur scientists, gathering and analyzing behavioral evidence before evaluating others. The explanations for behavior that people come up with are called attributions, and the theory that describes the process is called attribution theory.
Over the years, research into attribution has shown that when we explain the behavior of others, we tend to overestimate the role of personal factors and underestimate the influence of situations. This bias is so universal that it has been called the fundamental attribution error. In one demonstration of the fundamental attribution error, experimenters randomly assigned subjects to participate in a quiz show in the role of either questioner or contestant. Then in front of the contestant and an observer, the experimenters told the questioner to devise a set of difficult questions to ask the contestant. Not surprisingly, many of the questions—created from the questioner's own store of esoteric knowledge—stumped the contestant. Yet when asked to rate the general knowledge of both participants, observers consistently saw the questioners as more knowledgeable than the contestants. The observers failed to take the situational roles into account and attributed the behavior they witnessed to each person’s level of knowledge.
In forming impressions of others, people are subject to other biases as well. For example, a great deal of research shows that people are often slow to revise their first impressions of others even when those views are not supported by the evidence. Part of the problem is that once we form an impression of someone, we tend to interpret that person’s later behavior in ways that seem to fit our impression. Another problem is that our first impression of someone may shape the way we treat that person—which, in turn, may influence his or her actual behavior. This process is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a classic illustration of this phenomenon, in 1968 American psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson told a group of elementary school teachers that certain students were on the verge of an intellectual growth spurt (in fact, these students were randomly chosen from their classes). By the end of the school year, these designated students—who had received more positive attention from the teachers—actually had higher average test scores than their peers.

Stereotypes and Prejudice
Seeking to understand the roots of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, many social psychologists study the causes and effects of stereotypes, generalized beliefs that associate whole groups of people with certain traits. Stereotyping is widespread and can be found in all societies. For example, many Americans assume that women are nurturing, African Americans are athletic, librarians are reserved, Californians are laid back, and used-car dealers are untrustworthy. Research shows that we naturally sort other people into social categories such as race, gender, occupation, and socioeconomic class. Furthermore, we see people as part of either “us” or “them”—depending on whether or not they are members of our own groups. In making this distinction, we tend to generalize from a single person to a whole group and to assume that “they” (members of a particular social group outside our own) are all alike. Although stereotypes can help simplify our understanding of the world and may even contain a seed of truth, they are usually overgeneralizations. Research shows that stereotypes can color our judgments of others at an unconscious level.
Another prevalent and disturbing human phenomenon is prejudice, the negative evaluation of others based solely on their membership in a particular group. The tendency to stereotype is one cause of prejudice, but there are at least two other causes as well. First, prejudices often stem from direct competition for valuable but limited resources. This competition between groups can trigger conflict, frustration, and hostility. Second, people may demean others, without realizing it, in order to boost their own sense of self-worth. Research shows that people derive pride from their connections to successful others, and that berating “them” (other groups) can make people feel more secure about “us” (their own group). This finding may explain why people all over the world believe that their own nationality, culture, and religion are better and more deserving than those of other people.

Interpersonal Behavior
A third topic of social psychology concerns interpersonal behavior, the ways that individuals interact with one another. Social psychologists in this area are especially interested in group processes, “antisocial” (aggressive, competitive) behavior, “prosocial” (helpful, cooperative) behavior, and interpersonal attraction.

Group Processes
When people assemble in groups, profound changes often take place in their behavior. Perhaps the most basic question in social psychology is “How does the presence of other people affect an individual's behavior?” Seeking to answer this question, researchers have discovered that the presence of others facilitates an individual's performance on simple, well-learned tasks but impairs performance on new or complex tasks. For example, people asked to solve simple multiplication problems solve them faster with others around than by themselves, but they perform worse on more complex math problems.
Research has shown that people often “loaf” (exert less effort than they could) when they participate in cooperative joint activities such as a tug-of-war. Studies also show that decision-making groups often fall victim to groupthink, a phenomenon in which group members excessively seek group concurrence, suppress dissent to maintain group harmony, and blindly convince themselves that the group’s position is correct. Groupthink is a process that can lead groups to make hasty, often bad decisions.

Over the years, many researchers have studied the interpersonal problem of human aggression. Some research focuses on the ways in which aggression is programmed into human nature by instincts, genes, hormones, and other biological factors. For example, crime statistics all over the world reveal that men commit more violent crimes than women do. One possible basis for this difference is that aggression is linked to the male sex hormone testosterone.
Most social psychologists who study aggression emphasize the roles of family, culture, peers, and other environmental factors. In particular, these researchers have found that aggression can be triggered by frustration, noise, hot weather, physical pain, and other unpleasant states. Other situational factors that may trigger aggression include the sight of weapons, feelings of anonymity in a large faceless crowd, and the consumption of alcohol and other drugs. Over the years, hundreds of studies have also shown that viewing large amounts of television violence can increase aggressive behavior, particularly in children.

Focusing on a brighter side of human nature, many researchers study altruism, helping behavior that is motivated primarily by a desire to benefit a person other than oneself. Interest in this topic began in earnest following the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. Thirty-eight of her neighbors, aroused around 3 a.m. by her screams, came to their windows and watched over the next half-hour as her assailant stabbed and raped her. Yet none of the neighbors came to her aid or even called the police until after the attack was over. As a result of this shocking event, social psychologists conducted experiments in which they staged different emergencies, varied the conditions, and observed what happened. Consistently, these studies revealed that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely anyone is to feel responsible and intervene. In emergency situations, ironically, the presence of other people inhibits helping.
In contrast to studies showing that bystanders often do not assist needy victims when in the presence of others, there are situations in which people do intervene. For example, researchers have found that individuals are more helpful to others when they are in a good mood, when they have time to help, when they see someone else offer help, when they are in a small town rather than a big city, or when they believe that the help-seeker is deserving of assistance. Research also confirms that people sometimes offer help to those who need it for purely altruistic reasons, out of a sense of empathy and compassion.

Interpersonal Attraction
Why are we drawn to some people more than others? What sparks an initial attraction, and what factors then lead two people to form and maintain an intimate relationship? Seeking answers to these questions, researchers who study the process of interpersonal attraction have observed some consistent human tendencies. For example, they have found that familiarity breeds fondness, that people tend to like others who are physically attractive, and that people get along best with others who have similar attitudes and interests. Another research finding agrees with common sense: People tend to stay in relationships that provide relatively more rewards than costs. Rewards may include companionship, love, emotional support, and sexual gratification. Examples of costs are conflict between partners, less independence, and giving up opportunities in order to sustain the relationship.

Findings from social psychology have proven useful for advancing the studies of law, business, health, advertising, politics, religion, sports, and other areas. In law, for example, social psychologists have studied how lawyers select jurors for a trial, how juries deliberate to a verdict, and the ways in which jurors are influenced by pretrial publicity and inadmissible testimony. In the workplace, social psychologists study job interviews and employee selection, how employers can motivate workers, and how managers can become effective leaders. Findings in social psychology about how conflicts arise and how people can best resolve them have relevance to diplomacy and the process of negotiating peace between nations. Researchers interested in health have found that having friends and other social connections promotes both physical health and mental well-being. Today, increasing numbers of social psychologists are becoming interested in practical applications for their work.

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