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Social Psychology


Social psychology is about understanding individual behavior in a social context.

Baron, Byrne & Suls (1989) define social psychology as ....

'the scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior in social situations' (p. 6).

It therefore looks at human behavior as influenced by other people and the social context in which this occurs.

Social psychologists therefore deal with the factors that lead us to behave in a given way in the presence of others, and look at the conditions under which certain behavior/actions and feelings occur. Social psychology is to do with the way these feelings, thoughts, beliefs, intentions and goals are constructed and how such psychological factors, in turn, influence our interactions with others.

Topics examined in social psychology include: the self concept, social cognition, attribution theory, social influence, group processes, prejudice and discrimination, interpersonal processes, aggression, attitudes and stereotypes.

History of Social Psychology

Early Influences

Aristotle believed that humans were naturally sociable, a necessity which allows us to live together (an individual centered approach), whilst Plato felt that the state controlled the individual and encouraged social responsibility through social context (a socio-centered approach).

Hegel (1770–1831) introduced the concept that society has inevitable links with the development of the social mind. This led to the idea of a group mind, important in the study of social psychology.

Lazarus & Steinthal wrote about Anglo-European influences in 1860. “Volkerpsychologie” emerged, which focused on the idea of a collective mind. It emphasized the notion that personality develops because of cultural and community influences, especially through language, which is both a social product of the community as well as a means of encouraging particular social thought in the individual. Therefore Wundt (1900–1920) encouraged the methodological study of language and its influence on the social being.

Early Texts

Texts focusing on social psychology first emerged at the start of the 20th century. The first notable book in English was published by McDougall in 1908 (An Introduction to Social Psychology), which included chapters on emotion and sentiment, morality, character and religion, quite different to those incorporated in the field today.  He believed that social behavior was innate/instinctive and therefore individual, hence his choice of topics.  This belief is not the principle upheld in modern social psychology, however.

Allport’s work (1924) underpins current thinking to a greater degree, as he acknowledged that social behavior results from interactions between people.  He also took a methodological approach, discussing actual research and emphasizing that the field was one of a “science … which studies the behavior of the individual in so far as his behavior stimulates other individuals, or is itself a reaction to this behavior” (1942: p. 12).  His book also dealt with topics still evident today, such as emotion, conformity and the effects of an audience on others.

Murchison (1935) published The first handbook on social psychology was published by Murchison in 1935.  Murphy & Murphy (1931/37) produced a book summarizing the findings of 1,000 studies in social psychology.  A text by Klineberg (1940) looked at the interaction between social context and personality development by the 1950s a number of texts were available on the subject.

Journal Development

    • 1950s – Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology

    • 1963 – Journal of Personality, British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

    • 1965 – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

    • 1971 – Journal of Applied Social Psychology, European Journal of Social Psychology

    • 1975 – Social Psychology Quarterly, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

    • 1982 – Social Cognition

    • 1984 – Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

Early Experiments

There is some disagreement about the first true experiment, but the following are certainly among some of the most important. Triplett (1898) applied the experimental method to investigate the performance of cyclists and schoolchildren on how the presence of others influences overall performance – thus how individual’s are affected and behave in the social context.

Lewin et al. then began experimental research into leadership and group processes by 1939, looking at effective work ethics under different styles of leadership.

Later Developments

Much of the key research in social psychology developed following World War II, when people became interested in the behavior of individuals when grouped together and in social situations. Key studies were carried out in several areas.

Thus the growth years of social psychology occurred during the decades following the 1940s.

Summary Table

Key Features Methodology
Basic Assumptions Areas of Application
  • All behavior occurs in a social context, even when nobody else is physically present
  • A major influence on people's behavior, thought processes and emotions are other people and the society they have created
Strengths Limitations
  • Scientific
  • Emphasizes objective measurement
  • Many experiments to support theories
  • Ignores biology (e.g. testosterone)
  • Underestimates individual differences
  • Provides only 'superficial snapshots of social processes' (Hayes, 1995)

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Social psychology. Retrieved from

Conformity (including Sherif's 1935 Study)



Prejudice and Discrimination

Social Facilitation

Minority Influence

Attribution Theory

Social Roles

Self Concept

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