Social Psychology Research Paper Example

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Social psychology is the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another. By studying social thinking, social psychologists examine how, and how accurately, we view ourselves and others. By studying social influence, social psychologists examine subtle forces related to conformity, persuasion, and group influence that pull our strings. By studying social relations, social psychologists examine what leads people to hate and hurt one another, or to love and help one another.

Social psychology as a field lies between personality psychology and sociology. Metaphorically speaking, personality psychologists study boats, sociologists study the ocean, and social psychologists study how those boats float. When a person (boat) arrives in an environment (ocean), social psychologists want to understand how they move on the winds and currents.

Social psychology considers many of the same questions as those sociology considers but favors answers that focus on the individual actors (such as the way they perceive their situations) rather than on answers that apply to the group level (such as poverty or family cohesion). It is also distinct from personality psychology, being less interested in individual differences (such as in aggressiveness or unhappiness), though it often considers individual differences that interact with situations (such as when a person with high self-esteem responds to a relationship threat by liking his or her partner more).

Compared to other social sciences, social psychology has few grand theories or revered old masters; it has no Freud or Durkheim. Instead it interweaves smaller, more focused studies that cover topics as diverse as the self, culture, persuasion, group dynamics, prejudice, and eyewitness identification. Despite its enormous scope, social psychology has several themes running through it, including:

  • We construct our social reality
  • Our social intuitions are often powerful but sometimes perilous
  • Social influences shape our behavior
  • Personal attitudes and dispositions also shape behavior
  • Social behavior is also biological behavior
  • Social psychology’s principles are applicable in everyday life

As practiced in North America, social psychology is overwhelmingly experimental. It has also exhibited a willingness to engage social issues such as prejudice, violence, and public health.


Norman Triplett’s 1898 experiments are generally regarded as the first social psychological studies. He showed that people would wind reels faster when others were present, an effect now referred to as socialfacilitation. Social psychology remained a small field until World War II, at which point the U.S. Army’s sudden interest in personnel selection and stress responses led it to sponsor some highly innovative work. In the decade after the war the field exploded: Gordon Allport wrote an enormously influential book called The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Solomon Asch (1951) conducted experiments on conformity, Stanley Milgram (1974) conducted his famous experiments inducing people to give supposedly powerful electric shocks to a mild-mannered man, and Leon Festinger (1957) proposed his influential cognitive dissonance theory.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, social psychology was dominated by a cognitive perspective that asked how we process social information. During the 1990s and beyond, it also has had a growing interest in “warmer” motivational processes and broad cultural influences.

Methods And Ethics

Modern social psychology favors experimental research, with many published articles describing two to seven experiments or quasi-experiments that explore and refine some central idea. Correlational studies are also used, but often given short shrift in favor of experimental evidence. The field also puts great stock in meta-analyses that combine many previous empirical studies. Experiments use diverse manipulations, ranging from the subliminal presentation of words, to interaction with confederates, to false feedback on IQ tests.

Social psychological research is now subject to oversight by institutional review boards that safeguard ethical standards. While these are widely regarded as necessary in light of the ethical controversies that centered on some prominent early studies, social psychological experiments are almost never, in any real sense, hazardous.

Parts Of The Social Mind

Psychologists separate affect (emotions), from behavior, from cognition (thoughts), then study how they interact. Affect has broad consequences. People who are in a good mood tolerate more frustration, choose long-term rewards over immediate small payoffs, and see others in a more optimistic light. A growing movement in psychology known as positive psychology focuses specifically on well-being and how it can be enhanced.

Attitudes, in social psychological parlance, are the affect people bear toward some object or activity. Social psychologists study how attitudes form and change, how strong and durable they are, and how much they predict actual behavior. The answer to the latter question, under many circumstances, is “somewhat, but not as much as you might think.”

Since the 1980s cognition has increasingly become a focal point for social psychologists. They study when cognitions are activated (come to mind), how they are organized into schemas, and when people are motivated to think things through systematically as opposed to using heuristic mental shortcuts. Some influential models, such as the theory of reasoned action, describe how a person’s beliefs about an object (“it’s big, loud, and emits black smoke”) are combined to produce an overall attitude (“I hate it”).

Affect and cognitions influence behavior, but behavior can also influence affect and cognition. Under the right conditions, both saying and doing can lead to belief (if you say that you like something enough, or just keep buying it, and you might really end up liking it). Even just arranging your face muscles into the shape of a smile can make you feel happier.

Although affect, behavior, and cognition are social psychologists’ central organizing principles, other parts of the mind have also been of interest, such as memory and physiological arousal. The self is an enormous area of study, encompassing thoughts about who one is (self-concept or identity) and attitudes toward oneself (self-esteem).

People organize knowledge about themselves into well-integrated pictures, or self schemas, that help them quickly sift and sort the world. People better remember things that are relevant to their self schema, and spontaneously make social comparisons between themselves and others. Self-serving biases describe the ways we distort the world to make ourselves look better (for example, by taking more responsibility for our successes than our failures). Self-monitoring describes people’s tendency to engage in impression management—altering their social identity to fit different roles in different places (friend at school, son at home, employee at the office). Manipulations that affect people’s self-awareness (the presence of mirrors, seeing one’s own name) encourage people to act more in line with their stated attitudes.

Dynamics Of The Social Mind

Scholars have devoted much attention to social influence—the ways in which individuals and groups come to change others’ thinking or behavior. Early dramatic studies showed that people seemed remarkably vulnerable to social influence. In Asch’s famous experiment, they doubted their own eyes when others claimed to see things that were patently untrue, and in Milgram’s experiment, they gave extremely painful electrical shocks on command. People can, however, resist social influence. Even in these seminal studies compliance was far from universal, and rates of conformity were rapidly deflated by small changes, such as a lack of unanimity among influencers and a greater distance from authority figures. Much work has gone into who conforms to what, when, and why, with several important factors identified in the study of persuasion. These include who (attractive person, authority figure) says what (reasoned vs. emotional message, one- or two-sided appeals) to whom (audience pays close attention or not).

In the 1990s social psychologists started directing their attention more towards “warm” or motivated cognition—people’s attempts to arrive at the answers they would like to. People bring this convenient brand of reasoning to many tasks, including forming impressions of themselves and others, attributing motives for actions, and judging the desirability of various outcomes. They do this, though, with some constraints imposed by reality— most consider themselves more moral than average, but few claim saintliness.

Scholars have become increasingly interested in automatic processing, in which judgments, associations, or even actions are made quickly and efficiently with little conscious guidance. For example, work has focused on negative stereotypes that rapidly come to mind when people encounter minority groups. A number of “dual-process models” have been proposed for processes like impression formation, attitudes, persuasion, and stereotyping. In these models people first have a fast, efficient, automatic and uncontrolled reaction that is later adjusted, if the person is so motivated, by conscious thought. Upon seeing a stranger fall over, for example, a fast, effortless inference might be drawn that this person is clumsy. If one liked the person, however, within less than a second one might start searching more deliberatively for outside factors and conclude that the person was pushed, or that the floor was slippery, overruling (at least partly) one’s initial verdict.

Attraction and intimacy form another major dynamic of interest. Liking is influenced by factors such as proximity, familiarity (the “mere exposure” effect), physical attractiveness, and the sharing of things about one’s self. One of the more prominent models of intimate relationships, Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory (1988), describes any given relationship in terms of passion (infatuation), intimacy (liking), and commitment (a desire to stick it out). Sternberg argues that a relationship may have only one of these (friends typically have intimacy but no passion), two (good friends would add commitment), or all three (which he calls “consummate love”).

When people get together, the resulting groups take on dynamics of their own. People in them work harder when their contributions are visible (social facilitation), but coast when their contributions are unidentifiable (social loafing). Group discussions also sometimes accentuate initial attitudes and actions (group polarization). Sometimes large groups of people will engage in behaviors that none of their members would have contemplated doing on their own (such as chanting for suicidal people to jump), partly because the individual members become “deindividuated”—they lose the self-awareness that anchors them to their personal standards.


Social psychological work has been applied to a great many real-world settings. Researchers have brought it to the study of health behaviors, such as smoking and use of condoms, and in doing so have offered practical advances. They have spearheaded, for example, graphic pictures of decayed teeth and lungs on boxes of cigarettes in Canada. Political psychologists have, likewise, been interested in models of persuasion and attitude formation and change. Organizational psychologists have applied social psychological theories of group processes, satisfaction, and enjoyment to the context of the work place.

Law is another area that has seen widespread application of social psychological research. Psychological work has revealed that eyewitness identification, long a linchpin of legal evidence, is often flawed. It is often very difficult for people to accurately identify even those at whom they have had a good long look. Research has been used to improve identification lineup procedures to produce fairer results with fewer false positives, for example by instructing witnesses that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup. Social psychologists have also been involved in great controversies over the accuracy of “recovered memo-ries”—recollections of past abuse that people believe they have rediscovered later in life. Research shows that, though some such cases may be genuine, some are almost certainly not, as it is not difficult to create false memories in people.

Hot Areas

As brain imaging technology advances, rapid strides are being made into understanding the brain functioning associated with attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. Early attempts were sometimes dismissed as “color phrenol-ogy”—attempts to put people in a scanner and simply catalogue which areas lit up. Newer work compares the known functions of brain regions with their activation during social behaviors. For example, researchers might note that in some types of people subliminal exposure to African American faces simultaneously activates areas associated with alarming stimuli and areas associated with cognitive control. They might infer from this that an emotional reaction is taking place, alongside an effortful attempt to control it.


  1. Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  2. Aronson, Elliot. 2004. The Social Animal. 9th ed. New York: Worth.
  3. Asch, Solomon. 1951. Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgment. In Groups, Leadership and Men, ed. M. H. Guetzkow, 117–190. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie.
  4. Bargh, John A., and Tanya L. Chartrand. 1999. The Unbearable Automaticity of Being. American Psychologist 54: 462–479.
  5. Cialdini, Robert B. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  6. Eagly, Alice H., and Shelly Chaiken. 1993. The Psychology of Attitudes. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College.
  7. Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  8. Gilbert, Daniel T., Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, eds. 1998. The Handbook of Social Psychology. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.
  10. Sternberg, Robert J. 1988. The Triangle of Love. New York: Basic Books.
  11. Zanna, M., ed. 2004. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 36. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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