What Is Social Psychology?

Social psychology is the area of psychology concerned with social interactions and individual reactions to them. Psychologists who specialize in this area focus on how a person’s thoughts, behaviors and emotions are influenced by others. Researchers in this specialization look closely at attitudes and the effects of social influence, whether or not others are actually present. Common areas of research and observation include:

  • Conformity
  • Interpersonal attraction
  • Social perception
  • Cultural norms
  • Prejudice

The Beginnings

Although some philosophers and other intellectuals began exploring social aspects of the human psyche early on, the discipline practiced by social psychologists today did not emerge until the 20th century. Gestalt psychologists, many of whom migrated to the United States in the 1930s, led the way in research that explored the social aspects of perception and attitudes in small groups. During and after World War II, these psychologists conducted important research concerning persuasion and propaganda that is still referenced today.

Controversy and Development

Throughout much of the 20th century, concerns about ethics in research resulted in great controversy and dissent among social psychologists. Social psychologists studied the influence of perceived authority figures in controversial experiments such as the Stanley Milgram shock experiments. Increasing interest in cognitive dissonance and the bystander effect led to further expansion of this specialization. However, toward the close of the 1980s, new theories and more advanced research methods provided ways for researchers to learn about human social interactions and their psychological implications without causing harm to study participants.

The Practice Today

Social psychology is actively practiced today and continues to change as new technologies and methods of communication such as texting and social media outlets evolve. Social psychologists today are faced with questions such as, “What causes school shootings?” and “What types of social situations give rise to terrorist activity?” Researchers may study the effects of social media on certain populations, or they may work in I-O psychology and focus on helping employers create a productive, nurturing work environment. While some social psychologists work solely as researchers, many also teach in colleges or universities. Others work as consultants for marketing firms, political campaigns and technology companies. They are often involved in policy creation as well as in developing training programs. Many social psychologists work in conflict resolution for various companies and organizations.

Social psychologists study personality and human behavior within a social context. Many research opportunities abound for individuals trained in this field, and several non-research-related careers in this specialization are also available. Humans have lived in social groups for millennia, but the study of how individuals relate to one another and how we react in social settings continues to present new findings and an array of possibilities. While social psychology tends to ignore biological basis for human behavior, it remains a viable course of study and research, especially for individuals interested in applying psychological research to areas of everyday life such as healthcare, environmental protection, education, foreign policy, government and new technologies.