Social Psychology (PSY403)
INTRODUCTION TO SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY
Introducing link of social psychology with other disciplines and tracing the historical roots.
1. Understanding whether social psychological research outcomes are just what we commonly
2. Understanding the relation of social psychology with other disciplines.
3. To understand social psychology as a profession.
4. Understanding the major theoretical roots of social psychology.
Is Social Psychology simply Common Sense?
A common refrain voiced by laypeople and scientists is that most, if not all, of behavioral science "is just
common sense." Social psychology students are particularly likely to make this claim, given that much of
their prior exposure to social psychology probably has taken the form of aphorisms such as "opposites
attract," "absence makes the heart grow fonder," or "two heads are better than one." In a nutshell, it's
difficult to counter the "common-sense" stigma when so much of behavior seems to be explainable at an
intuitive surface level.
People think of social psychology as simply rephrasing what we already know because its subject
matter is so personal and familiar. This is referred to "as if I knew it all along" phenomena. We informally
think about our feelings, thoughts and actions. Why this informal thinking will be different from what
social psychologists achieve through scientific observation? In many ways this is true. Let's look at these
examples, they confirm what many of us already know.
"Attending to people's face leads to the greatest success in detecting their lies"
"People are less likely to blame accident victims if they are similar to them"
"People who are paid a great deal of money to perform a boring task enjoy it more than those who
are paid very little"
"Men express more hostile attitude toward women than women do toward men"
"People think that physically attractive people are less intelligent than those who are physically
"Playing violent video games or engaging in contact sports allows people to "blow off steam"
making them less aggressive"
"Accident victims are most likely to be helped when there are many bystanders nearby"
Interestingly, all of these make sense, but they have been proven wrong by social experiments. Actually
events are far more "obvious" and predictable in hindsight than beforehand. Many a time social psychology
confirms our common sense notions but there are many instances when the scientific findings challenge our
current social beliefs. The problem with common sense is that we invoke it after we know the facts
Experiments reveal that when people learn the outcome of an experiment, the outcome suddenly seems
Activity to demonstrate social psychology as simply commonsense:
You can do a small activity to further understand this commonsense phenomenon. Give half a group one
psychological finding, and the other half the opposite (as given below).
Psychological Finding 1:
"Psychologists have found that when it comes to making friends, or falling in love, we are most attracted
to people whose traits are different from our own. There seems to be wisdom in the old saying that
Social Psychology (PSY403)
Psychological Finding 2:
"Psychologists have found that when it comes to making friends, or falling in love, we are most attracted to
people whose traits are similar to your own. There seems to be wisdom in the old saying that "Birds of a
feather flock together"
Then you ask both groups whether results surprised them, and you will find that both groups will find the
results not at all surprising. In fact, many will state that they already thought the same.
Social Psychology and Related Fields
Social psychologists are keenly interested in how people think about, influence, and relate to one another.
But so are sociologists and personality psychologists. The question is how does social psychologist differ?
Social Psychology and Sociology:
Edward Jones (1998) indicates in Handbook of Social Psychology that two scientific disciplines known as
social psychology are employed in both, one in psychology, and the other in sociology. He suggests that the
larger of the two is psychological branch: psychological social psychology, and sociological social
Social psychology focuses on the influence of people on the individual, whereas
Sociology downplays the role of individual and focuses on societal variables like socio-economic-status
(SES), people's social roles, cultural norms, etc. On the other hand, social psychology concentrates on
individual traits (personality traits and temperament) and processes that occur at individual level
Although there have been calls to merge the two branches into a single field, and a joint
psychology-sociology doctorate program at the university of Michigan from 1946 to 1967- their different
orientation made it doubtful. Despite the fact that an interdisciplinary social psychology may never
materialize, the two fields influence each other. The recent interest of social psychology is on the impact of
culture on social behavior, while sociological social psychology's is becoming increasingly interested in
individual differences. Regardless of the crosspollination that has occurred over the years, both disciplines
will continue to provide important yet differing perspectives on social behavior.
Areas of interest in both disciplines:
Sociologists might study trends in marriage, divorce, etc., while social psychologist might examine how
certain individuals become attracted to one another. Similarly, sociologist studies how racial attitude of
high-class people as a group differ from that of low-class, social psychologist will be interested how racial
attitude develops within the individual.
The following table illustrates differences in both disciplines:
SOCIOLOGICAL SOCIAL PSY
1. Central focus on individual
1. Focus on group/society
2. Variations in behavior
2. Explanations for such
believed to be due to
societal-based problems as
people's interpretation of
poverty, crime, and deviance.
social stimuli and
differences in personality.
Social Psychology (PSY403)
3. Experimentation as the
3. Observational and the
primary research method,
correlational studies as the
followed by correlational
primary method, followed by
studies, and then
Social Psychology and Personality Psychology
These both disciplines can be considered as allies as their focus is on individual.
May be for this reason, American Psychological Association has included both disciplines in same journals:
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Journal of
However, both disciplines are also different from each other on a few dimensions. For example, personality
psychologists are interested in individual differences, while social psychologists focus on common
humanity and in knowing that how people view and affect one another. An illustrative example for the
difference in both disciplines is that Personality psychologist may be interested in that why some
individuals are more aggressive than other, whereas a social psychologist may be interested in knowing that
how social situations can lead most individuals to act kindly, cruelly, to conform. Another difference is that
as compared to personality psychology, social sychology has a brief history. Many famous theorists worked
in the first half of 20th century, like Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney and Rogers.
Social Psychology and Biology
Majority of the scientists agree that nature and nurture together form us. As area of a field is determined by
its length and width, so do biology and experience together create us. There is no doubt that our inherited
human nature predisposes us to behave in ways that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. Nature
also endows us with an enormous capacity to learn. However, social neuroscientists do not regard complex
behaviour like helping and hurting to just neural or molecular mechanism. They hence indicate that to
understand complex behaviour we must consider under-the-skin and between-skins influences
The Profession of Social Psychology
PhD Social psychologists
Majority of PhD level social psychologists (75%) are working in Colleges / universities, while a minority
(17%) works in Business/government setting. The pie chart given below shows this more clearly.
Social Psychology (PSY403)
M.Sc.Social psychologists enjoy job diversity
The work distribution of M.A. level social psychologists is as under:
12%= 4-year colleges
44%= other non-university academic settings
20%= business/ govt.
24%= human service fields (clinics, health agencies, etc.)
The following pie chart illustrates the same figures.
Other educational settings
Currently, social psychologists are involved in different kinds of works, e.g., researching in health
psychology, environmental psychology, legal system, and investigating social factors in clinical
psychology. In Pakistan, however, the role of social psychologist is not that diverse and mainly they are
working in universities, and NGOs.
Applying Social Psychology
Social psychology had always intimate ties to the larger political and cultural spheres. It has addressed
important social problems in past and present. It has always focused on real life problems, e.g., does media
violence contribute to aggression in society; how social factors like family support can influence our
susceptibility to disease, etc. The following examples show how social psychology has responded to
current social problems of the time:
World war II stimulated research on prejudice/conformity
1940-50s Civil war in US initiated work on prejudice/ stereotypes
Higher violence/ crime rates in 1960-70s led to research on aggression.
In 1980-1990s skyrocketing health care costs and growing awareness of behaviors contributing to
disease led to research social factors in health.
9/11 event led to research on terrorism/ suicide bombing.
October 8 2005 earthquake in Pakistan initiated research on social and psychological effects of
disasters, and PTSD.
These examples illustrate that how with the changing trends and circumstances in society, research also
changed its focus.
Social Psychology (PSY403)
History of Social Psychology
Social psychology is a relatively young discipline. Although some work on it started at the end of 19th
century, most of the growth in social psychology occurred after 1950s. The history of social psychology
reveals its American roots. The following periods illustrate the history of social psychology:
The early years (1884-1934)
The coming of age (1935-1945)
Rapid expansions (1946-1969)
Crisis and re-assessment (1970-1984)
An expanded global view (1985-present)
The Early Years: (1884-1934)
Norman Triplett at Indiana University can be considered the first empirical social scientist as he conducted
the first social psychological experiment on that how the performance of a person does change when other
people are present. He noticed that a bicycle racer's speed was faster when he was paced by other cyclists
than when he was alone. Based on this observation, he devised the first exp. To learn what caused these
different racing times, he asked children to wind line on a finishing reel both in the presence of other
children and alone. The results showed that children did faster when with other children. This experiment
was published in 1897. This introduced the Experimental Method in social psychology. However, the credit
to establish social psychology as a distinct discipline goes to William McDougall (an English) and Edward
Ross (an American), who published the first books bearing this title. Although these two published books
on social psychology, Social psychology still lacked a distinct identity. Moreover, there was no answer to
the question that how does social psychology differs from other disciplines, and what are its methods of
Floyd Allport was the person who served this purpose. He wrote a third book on social psychology
and indicated very clearly "I believe that only within the individual can we find the behavior mechanisms
and consciousness which are fundamental in the interactions between individuals. There is no psychology
of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals. psychology in all its branches is
a science of the individual" (1924, p.4). He conducted studies on conformity, nonverbal communications,
and social facilitation and demonstrated in his book that how carefully conducted research could provide
insight into a wide range of social behaviours.
The Coming of Age: 1935-1945
First 3 decades of this century were spent in generating basic concepts and sound research methods in
social psychology. Then two events occurred that played a dominant role in the development of social
psychology at this critical juncture (World War II) in its history:
1. Great depression in the USA
2. Social and political upheaval in Europe
Following the stock market crash in 1929, many young psychologists were unable to find or hold jobs. Due
to social forces, many adopted the liberal ideals of Roosevelt, or more radical views of communist or
socialist parties. In 1936, these social psychologists established Society for the Psychological Study of
Social Issues (SPSSI). They wanted to apply their newly developed theories and political activism to real-
The rise of fascism in Germany, Spain, and Italy created a strong anti-intellectual atmosphere in many of
Europe's educational institutions. As a result, many leading social psychologists like Fritz Heider, Kurt
Lewin, & Theodore Adorno, immigrated to America. There along with American social psychologists
Social Psychology (PSY403)
applied knowledge of human behaviour in a variety of war time programs: undermining of enemy morale;
selection of officers for the office of strategic services, etc.
During this time of global strife, one of the most influential social psychologist was Kurt Lewin who was a
Jewish refugee from Germany. He stood as the most influential social psychologist of his time. He talked
about the debate of two faces of social psychology: pure and applied and indicated that "No research
without action and no action without research". He also served as the president of SPSSI in 1941. By his
death in 1947 he had provided many of social psychology's defining characteristics.
In postwar period, prospects were bright for social psychologists; they had started enjoying high
stature in scientific community. Many of their mentors were European. They established new research
facilities, secured govt. grants, and most importantly started training graduate students. These future social
psychologists were white, male, and middle class
Social psychology, although flourishing in USA but war had virtually destroyed the discipline
overseas. Postwar, USA emerged as the un-challenged world power, exported its material goods as well as
Rapid Expansions (1946-1969)
With its infusion of European intellectuals and recently trained young American social psychologists, the
mature science of social psychology expanded its theoretical and research base. A lot of research started on
new dimensions. For example, Theodore Adorno and his colleagues (1950) wanted to know how a civilized
society like Germany could fall under the influence of a dictator like Hitler. They studied the psychological
parameters of the authoritarian personality. Some years later, Stanley Milgram (1963) extended this line of
research in his now famous obedience experiments, which examined the conditions that make people more
likely to obey destructive authority figures. Some psychologists also focused their attention on the
influence that group had on the individual (Asch, 1956) and of the power of persuasive communication
(Hoveland et al., 1949). Arguably, the most significant line of research and theorizing during this time was
Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance (1957), which maintains that people's thoughts and actions
are motivated by a desire to maintain cognitive consistency.
The decade of the 1960s was a time of turmoil in USA with the country caught in the rip of
political assassinations, urban violence and social protests, and the Vietnam war. People were searching for
constructive ways to change society for the better. Follwing this lead, social psychologists devoted research
time on aggression, love, helping, and attraction. The groundbreaking research of Hatfield and Berscheid
(1969) on interpersonal and romantic attraction was not only important in widening the scope of social
psychological inquiry but it also generated considerable controversy outside the field. A number of public
officials and ordinary citizens thought that social scientists need not try to understand the mysteries of
During the 1960s the federal govt. of USA expanded attempts to cure societal ills with the guidance
of social scientists.
Crisis and Reassessment: 1970-1984
After World War II, Theodore Newcomb (1951) expressed concern that expectations were greater than
anything that could be delivered in the near future. As the usefulness and ethics of experimental research
came under increased scrutiny, a "crises of confidence" emerged (Elms, 1975). At that time, accusations
started coming from women and minorities that social psychology was reflecting biases of a white, male-
dominated view of reality. Out of this crisis more vital and inclusive field of social psychology emerged.
Rigorous ethical standards were established and social psychology began moving toward more responsible
position. Although experimental method still remained the method of choice, researchers started using
correlational methods in research.
One final important development during this time period was the importing of ideas from cognitive
psychology, which greatly enhanced theory and research in all areas of social psychology.
Social Psychology (PSY403)
An expanded global view of social psychology: 1985-Present
In the 1970s both European and Latin American Social psychology Associations were formed. Social
psychology overseas emphasized more on intergroup and societal variables in explaining social behavior,
and began to reshape the discipline. Social psychologists around the world started exchanging ideas, and
collaborated on multi-national studies (Fiske et al., 1998; Vala et al, 1996).
Research question were raised about behaviour as being "culture specific" or due to "shared
evolutionary heritage". Although social psychology's professional centre of gravity still resides in the USA,
European and third world social psychology offers the entire field opportunities to escape what some
consider the limitations of this "gravitational pull" to perceive new worlds of reality (Shinha, 2003; Tam et
Contemporary social psychology continues the legacy of Kurt Lewin and SPSSI by applying knowledge to
a wide arena of everyday life, such as law, health, education, sports and business.
Following a criticism on concentrating too much on negative social behavior and flaws in human nature
(Krueger & Funder, 2004), current research is focusing on both constructive and destructive social
behavior. In Pakistan, some work is also being conducted on positive dimensions of human social
4. Franzoi, S.L. (2006). Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill. Chapter 1.
5. Lippa, R.A. (1994). Introduction to Social Psychology. Belmont: Brooks/Cole Publishing
Company. Chapter 1.
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