What is Social Psychology?

Social psychology, at its core, is the study of how we think, feel and behave when influenced by the people and environment around us. By studying how we act when impacted by outside influences, scientists can examine how human beings are shaped by the perceptions and attitudes they encounter.

For example: have you ever committed to a healthy diet, then later indulged in a late-night fast food run? The uneasiness and guilt settling in your stomach are more than the grease from the French fries you’ve consumed. You’re also experiencing cognitive dissonance, a theory defined by social psychologist Leon Festinger.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress experienced when holding two contradictory beliefs, values or ideas, performing an action that contradicts one’s beliefs, values or ideas, or acquiring information that contradicts one’s beliefs, values or ideas. It is just one popular theory that has emerged from social psychology.

Defining Social Psychology

The science of social psychology considers a range of influences, such as group behavior, nonverbal behavior, conformity, aggression and prejudice, to name a few. Social interactions and perceptions can be important influences in identifying and documenting social behavior.

According to, this branch of psychology differs from other disciplines such as sociology, personality psychology and organizational psychology because it focuses on situational influences of behavior and the behavior of individuals and small groups rather society as a whole. Unlike organizational psychology, it does not focus specifically on the behavior of individuals within a particular organization.

The History of Social Psychology

Social psychology dates back to Aristotle and Plato, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that the science of social psychology began to take form through the study of personality and its development in terms of cultural and community influences, according to psychology instructor and creator of the Simply Psychology website, Saul McLeod.

By the 1930s and 1940s, a lot had been written on the science of social psychology, including some of the earliest experiments. After World War II, the study of how attitudes formed and were changed through social context gave way to the introduction and examination of social perception, aggression, decision making and other factors influencing an individual’s behavior within his or her environment.

Today, social psychologists investigate a wide array of behaviors and influences in determining their findings. They also study specific attitudes, and how they form and change through affective, behavioral and cognitive components.

Topics in Social Psychology

A range of topics falls under the umbrella of social psychology. Most are related to social interaction, perception and influence. Some of the most noteworthy topics include:

  • Social cognition, which examines the processing, storage and application of information people receive through social interaction.
  • Violence and aggression, which are two reactions social psychologists look at to determine the root cause of certain behaviors along with any social variables or media influences that play a role.
  • Prejudice and discrimination, which are targeted by social psychologists through the lens of how they are influenced by social interaction.
  • Prosocial behavior, which is the study of why people choose to help one another and what behaviors and influences initiate cooperation as well as those that make people choose not to help when needed.
  • Self and social identity, which form the basis for trying to understand how people perceive themselves and how that perception impacts social interactions.
  • Group behavior, which examines the influence of group dynamics, leadership and decision making related to the behavior of a large gathering of individuals.
  • Interpersonal relationships, which look at the impact, both negative and positive, of close relationships and emotional triggers such as love and attraction.

What Can Social Psychology Do?

By better understanding how people perceive themselves in the world, and how the opinions of others can impact that perception, social psychologists learn how attitudes are formed and can help develop possible solutions for changing negative behaviors.

As a science, social psychology can assist companies and corporations with hiring and training employees. It also can help organizations to evaluate educational efforts, such as encouraging individuals to behave a certain way, and adopt better ways to provide advice on dealing with potential conflicts that develop in the workplace.

Social psychologists provide these potential benefits to universities, government entities, nonprofit organizations, healthcare facilities and private corporations.

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