Social psychology is the practice of trying to understand an individual’s behavior in the context of society. Work in social psychology explained a lot of the reasons why people act the way they do, and how crowds of people can sometimes behave differently to individuals.

For example, social psychology explained how people can be persuaded to go along with orders that they find morally objectionable, or to follow beliefs that they are not sure about – as well as how judgement can be impaired in a crisis, or someone can stand and watch an accident, hoping that someone else will help – but no-one steps up.

The field explores ideas such as the concept of self, attribution theory, prejudice, stereotypes, aggressiveness, attitudes to others, group thought process, social cognition and social influence.

According to Aristotle, humans are naturally social beings. This allows us to live in groups together and connect with each other, and is what fuels our sense of social responsibility. Many other animals take the stance that each animal fends for themselves after adulthood. Humans are unusual in the way that people are valued not just for youth and strength, but for wisdom and other skills too.

In more recent times, other sociologists have explored the theory of the collective mind – which implies that a personality develops because of the culture that the person grows up in, and the community that they are exposed to. A person is a product of their society, as well as their own individual inclinations.

Social psychology did not become a field that was really recognized as a distinct one until the early 20th century, when McDougall published An Introduction to Social Psychology. This book included chapters on morality, religion and character.

Those issues are not usually delved into in-depth in the field today, but he did discuss the issue of whether social behavior was instinctive and innate. McDougall believed that it was – and this goes against the beliefs that are held today.

It was not until 1924 that the beliefs which are now current came into acceptance. A social psychologist called Allport acknowledged the idea that social behavior is caused by interactions between individuals. Allport took a more methodological approach, and looked at a lot of research – he had the belief that the field was a scientific one, and that it was important to study individual behavior, and how people react to that behavior. Allport looked at confirmity and emotion, and how people’s behavior chances when they have an audience. More than ten years later, Murchison published what was the first ‘handbook’ for the field. Over the next 15 years, the field increased massively in popularity.

We have come a long way since the first studies in the field. The early pioneers, such as Triplett, who carried out studies on how the presence of other people affects a person’s performance, were quite primitive by today’s standards.

Studies into social norms, and how they developed, have taught us a lot about how people will behave when they are in groups, and how people can be influenced by authority figures. The ‘electric shock’ experiment carried out by Milgram, and the prison simulation conducted by Zimbardo show that even those who are empathic and generally good people can be influenced to do distateful things by authority figures.

Social perception is an interesting thing, and the way that our relationships build, as well as the way that we attribute behaviors to others. These topics are as important today as they were several decades ago.

One of the concepts introduced by Allport was the idea that the presence of a social group can facilitate certain behaviors. An actor’s performance will improve if they have an audience and are asked to perform easy tasks or once that they know well, but it will decrease if they are asked to perform something that is difficult or that they don’t know well.

From here, the idea was introduced that behavior in the social world can be modeled. Groups of children were shown videos of adults behaving in certain ways, who were then either rewarded for that behavior or punished for it. Children who saw an adult rewarded for certain behavior were more likely to exhibit that behavior themselves than ones who were punished by it.

Social psychology explores dissonance as well – the concept of a person being faced with difficult choices or decisions, where people are made to participate in behavior that is contrary to their own beliefs. Dissonance can be brought on by effort justification – doing something hard to meet a goal, or by induced compliance (because someone is told they must do something), or through free choice if there are a few decisions being weighed up.

Prejudice is something that is learned when people become aware that there are groups. Any form of awareness of groups – even artificially created ones – will create a form of behavior where people are more likely to think and act favorably to people who are in the same perceived group as they are. This social identity is something that people seem to develop in order to support themselves in the distinction between groups, and the unity required for healthy society.

So, there you have it – social psychology explained. This is a fascinating field, and one that we hope you will enjoy exploring.