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Social psychology may be deﬁned as the scientiﬁc study of how people perceive, inﬂuence, and relate to other people. Explicit in this deﬁnition are the ﬁeld’s modus operandus—empirical, data-based investigations of theories and hypotheses derived from those theories—and its goal of understanding the processes by which people think about and interact with others. Traditionally, this very broad umbrella incorporates diverse speciﬁc topics, including, but not limited to, attitudes, social cognition, decision-making, social motivation, prejudice and stereotyping, social identity, persuasion, altruism, aggression, interpersonal attraction, close relationships, conformity, group dynamics, group productivity, and conﬂict resolution.
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Because social interaction is fundamental to most human behavior, it is useful to consider how the perspective of social psychology ﬁts with that of the other behavioral and social sciences. Although in its early development social psychology was closely aligned with sociology, primarily because of the shared interest in social interaction, since the 1960s these ﬁelds have become largely independent of each other. The social psychological perspective is fundamentally psychological; it tends to focus on the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals, whereas the sociological perspective is more immediately concerned with the analysis of social structure and the operation of social and societal systems. Similarly, social psychology tends toward a relatively individual centered analysis of certain questions that other disciplines such as anthropology, economics, and political science generally address at more systemic levels of analysis (although the recent emergence in those ﬁelds of such specialties as game theory and behavioral economics suggest growing commonalities).
In contrast, social psychology’s interest in situations (discussed below) and normative patterns of behavior diﬀers from that of personality psychology, which tends to be concerned with individual diﬀerences and their ramiﬁcations. Whereas personality psychologists seek to understand consistencies of a single individual’s behavior across varying situations, social psychologists seek to understand consistencies across persons in their responses to particular situations. Thus, the social psychological level of analysis may be regarded as a mid-station between those theoretical systems that conceptualize behavior on the one hand in terms of the individual’s unique internal properties and on the other hand in terms of the external social structure.
1. Core Principles Of Social Psychology
1.1 The Situational Context Of Behavior
Social psychology traditionally has emphasized the latter term in Kurt Lewin’s classic dictum, B f(P,E)—behavior is a function of the person and the environment—to reﬂect the fact that behavior varies, often profoundly so, depending on the social environment in which it occurs (see also: Lewin, Kurt (1890–1947)). The term social environment typically is used in a very broad manner, encompassing not only patently interpersonal examples (e.g., whether there is conﬂict or commonality of interest between partners, whether or not a new acquaintance is a member of one’s in-group, and whether performance feedback is supportive or controlling) but also its relatively more impersonal features (e.g., whether persuasive appeals are based on style or substance, whether induced behavior is logically consistent or inconsistent with personal beliefs, and whether circumstances encourage deliberate or automatic processing of social information). Regardless of which variables are included under the heading of situational context, however, social psychology’s published literature is replete with abundant evidence demonstrating that context is responsible for clear, substantial, and theoretically informative diﬀerences in behavior.
Although situationism is sometimes positioned conceptually as if it were the logical antithesis of the inﬂuence of personality, in reality nearly all contemporary social psychologists believe not only that both the situational context and individual diﬀerences matter, but that each aﬀects the other interactively and continuously. For example, situations must be perceived and interpreted by the individual to possess relevant features in order for inﬂuence to occur; these interpretations are often shaped signiﬁcantly by person factors (which are not limited to traits but may also include goals and motives). Similarly, personality traits are likely to be inﬂuential only to the extent that the situation aﬀords relevant opportunities for their expression (e.g., social anxiety may have relatively little impact during interaction with close friends, but substantial eﬀects with strangers). Individual diﬀerences also play an important role in determining which situations the individual enters or avoids. Thus, it is most appropriate to view social psychology as emphasizing the complex interplay of forces within the person and in the outside situation in casting an individual’s interpretation of, and response to, situational contexts.
1.2 A Process Approach Is Most Informative
Phenomena may be regarded in terms of their distinctive and unique features or as the product of more general processes. Social psychologists, because they believe that certain general principles underlie many speciﬁc behaviors observed in everyday social life, typically focus their attention on these processes shared in common. For example, a social psychologist interested in prejudice likely would consider psychological mechanisms responsible for negative aﬀect toward members of outgroups, rather than the details of prejudice toward one or another particular outgroup (except, of course, insofar as those details might be informative about the general process). Similarly, social psychologists study interaction between spouses less so to understand marriage per se and more so to discern how high degrees of interdependence inﬂuence social interaction. This emphasis does not imply that social psychologists are disinterested in the relevance of their research to particular instances; rather it denotes their belief that theoretical analysis grounded in broadly applicable principles is likely to be most revealing.
The ﬁeld’s emphasis on general processes is evident in the concerted attention routinely invested to identify causal mechanisms responsible for a given phenomenon. That is, once a phenomenon has been demonstrated, researchers almost invariably seek to explain its operation by ascertaining the relevant underlying mechanisms—in other words, to know when, why, and how something occurs. Typically such investigations address questions of moderation—establishing conditions under which a phenomenon is augmented or diminished—and of mediation—determining the speciﬁc step-by-step operations by which one variable produces changes in another variable. In recent years, the ﬁeld has been particularly attentive to mediation by cognitive and aﬀective processes, as described below. Considerable attention also is devoted toward ruling out alternative explanations; that is, toward conducting ﬁne-grained experimental tests capable of distinguishing among alternative, often somewhat similar, explanations for a given phenomenon.
1.3 Basic Theory And Its Application
Kurt Lewin’s other classic dictum was that ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory.’ Many social psychologists, in fact, initially were attracted to the discipline because of its potential for generating solutions to the pressing social problems of the day. Thus, the oft-cited distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research is to many social psychologists somewhat misleading in the sense that basic research is often triggered by contemporary events and societal needs, and in turn may produce important evidence not only for better understanding these problems but also for generating interventions. The credo that sound theory and rigorous empiricism provide the ﬁrmest possible foundation for social application underlies Lewin’s conviction, one that is shared by many current researchers. Eﬀective applications require good theory, and good theories have real-world relevance.
As the social psychological literature has grown, so, too, has the dissemination of its principles and ﬁndings into the culture at large. As a result, the impact of social psychology is sometimes diﬃcult to trace, although numerous examples are readily apparent, ranging from concrete interventions derived explicitly from experimental ﬁndings to more amorphous inﬂuences on prevailing public opinions. Documented impact of social psychological research can be found, for example, on such contemporary social issues as prejudice and intergroup relations, sex discrimination, healthcare, the operation of the legal system, and family violence.
2. A Brief History Of Social Psychology
Social psychological thinking has deep roots. Rudimentary versions of contemporary theories are evident in many ancient sources, such as the Bible and the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and the other Greek philosophers. But it was not until the turn of twentieth century, with the ﬁeld’s ﬁrst experimental studies and publication of the ﬁrst textbooks explicitly bearing the name, Social Psychology, that the scientiﬁc study of human social interaction began to cultivate its own disciplinary identity. Although the ﬁeld’s development has been more or less continuous since then, two distinct and noteworthy trends mark its intellectual progression.
Much of the ﬁeld’s most inﬂuential early work was concerned with social inﬂuence, namely the processes by which the real or imagined presence of others aﬀects belief and behavior. Research by Muzafer Sherif and Solomon Asch are considered landmarks, but the most durable and widespread impact came from Lewin’s elegant Field Theory, which conceived of social relations in terms of interdependent force ﬁelds, such that each organism (i.e., person) acts on and responds to the other organisms in its space. As compelling as Lewin’s conceptual model was his emphasis on experimentation as a formal method for evaluating theoretical propositions, an emphasis that became increasingly popular during the heady post-World War II expansion of psychological science. Field theory, especially in its application to investigating longstanding questions about group dynamics and social inﬂuence, and its accompanying experimental method quickly became a dominant theme in the ﬁeld’s growth.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, social psychology’s purview began to widen, such that social inﬂuences on the mental life of individuals came to occupy centerstage. Notable in this trend were studies of the impact of social feedback on self-appraisals, including Leon Festinger’s theory of social comparison processes, Stanley Schachter’s studies of self-attribution of emotion, and Festinger’s subsequent theory of cognitive dissonance, which concerned self-perceived consistencies and inconsistencies between one’s beliefs and behavior. In several respects, this movement set the stage for the so-called cognitive revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, in which principles of cognitive psychology were applied to social stimuli (i.e., other people, groups) and phenomena. Fundamental to the original conception of social cognition, as this subdiscipline came to be called, was the idea that many cognitive processes are designed to enable people to contend with the basic interpersonal tasks of everyday life. In their processing of social information, it was argued, people often function as naive scientists, seeking, within human limits, to comprehend cause-and-eﬀect associations among the many pieces of social information encountered. The earliest emphasis in social cognition research was on understanding people’s attributions of causality, led by the inﬂuential theories of E. E. Jones and Harold Kelley. Subsequent work has broadened this purview considerably.
More recent trends in social psychology balance the emphasis on cognitive processes with a functionalist perspective, or as Fiske (1992) put it, ‘thinking is for doing.’ For social psychology, the doing, of course, is relating to others in the social world. Social cognition is thus best considered as a mediating process between the individual’s interpersonal goals and circumstances on the one hand, and his or her social behavior on the other hand. Embodying this perspective, contemporary research has increasingly emphasized aﬀect in mediating the individual-social behavior link as well as the importance of the self and its motives. The logic of this latter work assumes that because action is functional and purposive, reactions to particular situations may help reveal the social motives operative in that context. Also, there is increasing recognition of the nature of ongoing relationships as part of the interpersonal context of behavior.
3. Methods Of Social Psychological Research
It is no accident that social psychologists pride themselves on being rigorous, broad, and clever methodologists. The ﬁeld’s domain is wide—ranging from society-wide intergroup relations to intimate dyads—and its principled emphasis on identifying cognitive and aﬀective mediators—ranging from cultural norms to idiosyncratic emotions—dictates that its research methods be ﬂexible and diverse, yet suitable to uncovering and disentangling often subtle phenomena. One reason why social psychologists are in demand across a variety of disciplines and applied settings is their deftness in balancing the demands of experimental rigor, the necessity of adapting methods to diverse questions, and the various methodological issues inherent in studying human behavior.
Social psychology’s favored method is the laboratory experiment, in which research participants are randomly assigned to one of several conditions deﬁned by an experimenter so as to permit evaluation of a prespeciﬁed hypothesis about cause-and-eﬀect. This emphasis follows directly from the high priority ascribed to establishing an eﬀect’s internal validity: laboratory manipulation allows experimenters to construct conditions whose carefully controlled diﬀerences explicitly contrast alternative explanations for a phenomenon while ruling out experimental artifacts. Contemporary social psychology has myriad other strategies and techniques in its toolkit, reﬂecting the realization that many questions are more appropriately addressed by diﬀerent methods and the further realization that, because all methods are limited in one way or another, the validity of a research program ultimately depends on its methodological diversity. Other popular methods include quasi-experiments (when manipulation is not possible), surveys and questionnaires, daily event recording, behavioral observation, and meta-analysis.
Technological innovation, both from within the ﬁeld and by expropriating advances in other disciplines, has facilitated researchers’ ability to ask more sophisticated questions of their data, and to answer those questions with a greater degree of precision. Examples of these include computerized methods for investigating cognitive or aﬀective mediation of basic social processes, especially when such mediation occurs outside of the individual’s conscious awareness (e.g., priming and response latency methods), methods for assessing psychophysiological systems that underlie social behavior, internet-based data collection, and videotape-based protocols for ﬁne-grained analysis of observable behavior in dyads and groups. The social psychologist’s readiness to capitalize on new methodologies that provide fresh perspectives on the ﬁeld’s longstanding conceptual interests is further demonstrated by the eager acceptance of new statistical procedures in the literature. Recent and noteworthy examples include structural equation modelling, multilevel models, and methods for analyzing data in interdependent groups and dyads.
4. The Future Of Social Psychology
Because an understanding of social relations is in one way or another fundamental across all of the social and behavioral sciences, social psychology is a cross-roads discipline. Managing that position, that is, acquiring theoretical insights and new methods from neighboring disciplines while exporting its own theories, ﬁndings, and tools to those disciplines, represents an important challenge for social psychology. Several boundaries seem particularly promising at this juncture: neuroscience, with its ability to identify markers of social psychological phenomena in the brain; cognitive psychology, which enhances the ﬁeld’s understanding of mental representation of social entities; evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, with particular reference to identifying and understanding the specialized mechanisms created by evolution in making humans the most social of animals; and the study of culture, a contextual variable whose speciﬁc cognitive, aﬀective, and interpersonal manifestations ultimately inﬂuence all social behavior.
At the same time, in its zeal to embrace related disciplines, social psychology must remain focused on its core phenomena. Despite the numerous important empirical ﬁndings and theoretical insights of the past century, many more questions remain to be asked and answered. The reasons underlying the importance of building bridges with related disciplines are one and the same as the reasons why social psychology must maintain its commitment to continued investigation of the ﬁeld’s core processes: that many of the most important unresolved questions about human functioning and well-being concern the processes by which people perceive, inﬂuence, and relate to other people.
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