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What is Social Psychology?

By: Roger Cook - Updated: 13 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Social Psychology Attitudes Behaviour

Social Psychology, together with Cognitive Psychology, are the two core disciplines within Psychology. If cognitive psychology is the study of how information is stored and recalled from our memories then social psychology is fundamentally about how we operate in group and social settings. As such it is a vast field of study and it touches on other disciplines such as sociology, politics and economics as well as different areas of psychology.

The discipline has tended to be based on research derived in experimental settings (some psychologists have argued this is one the flaws in social psychology). Historically there have been some famous, if ethically dubious, experiments in obedience and group formation.

Topics In Social Psychology

Social Psychologists study a range of issues including:

  • human sexuality;
  • group dynamics and formation;
  • the formation of our individual identities (and how this can vary);
  • conflict, including racism and hatred of those we perceive to be different;
  • altruism and social networks;
  • language as a means to communicate;
  • decision making within groups;
  • obedience, rebellion and group norms.

How We Interpret External Events

When faced with such a huge field it is perhaps a little presumptive to talk about a core idea. Nonetheless, the central theoretical idea in social psychology is the concept of “Attribution Theory”. At the simplest, most people when faced with a good event (passing an exam etc) tend to see this as the result of their own actions whilst an adverse event (e.g. an accident) is seen as having external causes. People who are depressed tend to reverse this and see good things as having external causes and to be down to luck and bad events as their own fault. This simple concept forms the core of the range of psychological approaches to dealing with depression, anxiety and to help victims of crime or accidents.

Obedience And Authority

The Milgram experiments in the early 1960s have been both influential and equally contentious. The experiment was to test what sort of peer pressure would encourage a volunteer (recruited by advert) to apparently apply an electric shock to a human being strapped into a chair. Something like 75% of the individuals continued to do so even after the subject had indicated extreme pain. The experimental results were released in a period shortly after Eichmann’s (who had been an organiser of the Nazi holocaust of European Jews) trial (with its chilling judgement on the “banality of evil”) and at a time when an infamous massacre by the US Army at My Lai in Vietnam became public knowledge. The debate as to the real meaning of his results continues, especially when faced with awareness of the psychological damage done to some of his volunteers, but the experiments appear to indicate a worrying willingness to be obedient to authority.

Group Formation And Conflict

Another 1960s experiment saw children at a summer camp initially allowed to form their own friendships. After several days the children were organised into two teams and separated from each other except for a series of competitive games. The effect very quickly was to lead to very strong identification with members of their own team and the attribution of all sorts of unpleasant opinions on the other. Again, what was indicative was that once the strong group identities had formed, especially when the groups were in competition, how easily this led to real hatred.

Witness Reliability

Social Psychologists have studied the effect of bias on the quality of witness information in courts. Even when people are not lying their evidence can be influenced by existing opinions. For example, some people may believe that drivers of black BMWs are more accident prone than others. If so, they are likely to attribute blame, or to recall an event, based on these views.

Decision Making In Groups

Research has uncovered how our decision making is influenced by existing opinions and prejudices. Equally the urge to maintain group coherence can lead to poor decision making (where people are unwilling to challenge a bad decision for fear of disrupting the group).


Social Psychology is a core discipline and is particularly orientated to the behaviour of individuals in group settings. It is often interested in the formation our opinions and attitudes, how these influence our behaviour and how they alter over time.

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