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University of Sunderland

An introduction to social psychology

Posted on: November 23, 2021
Illustration of two heads facing each other with different brain patterns

What shapes our beliefs? Why does discrimination occur, and how can we address it? What makes some people better at leadership than others?

The influence of others can have a significant impact on the way we act and the choices we make. Undoubtedly, our behaviour when we are alone is likely different to that of when others are present. Understanding these dynamics is at the heart of social psychology.

What is social psychology?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), social psychology explores all aspects of personality and social interaction, including the influence of interpersonal and group relationships on human behaviour. It uses scientific methods to understand how social groups and wider society affect people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. It teaches us how and why people do what they do. It examines the influence of the presence and behaviour of others, whether actual, imagined or implied.

Published by the APA, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explores the fields of social and personality psychology. Similarly, the Social Psychology Network is a hub of psychological research and teaching from research groups across the world. It’s a broad field, with research topics including prejudice and discrimination, gender, culture, social influence, interpersonal relations, group behaviour, aggression and more.

Social psychologists examine:

  • Social thinking (also known as social cognition). This refers to anything an individual does when in the presence of others, including any activity that requires interpretation and reaction to a social situation. It involves all of the internal and external thought processes – including reading social cues, interpreting the emotions and thoughts of others, and drawing on previous experiences of social contexts – that determine response. For example, observing an individual blushing and avoiding eye contact may lead to a conclusion that they are shy.
  • Social influence. This refers to the intentional and unintentional efforts to change another’s attitudes, beliefs or behaviour. It includes social strategies such as authority, liking and attractiveness, indebtedness, reciprocity, scarcity and social proof. A contemporary, intentional example of this is the interactions that occur between a social media influencer and their followers.
  • Social behaviour. This refers to the interactions that occur between individuals resulting in qualified, modified or altered behaviour. Behaviour stimulated by a society or group in turn stimulates other society or group members. It’s not only powerful, it starts early; developmental psychology indicates that by age two, children begin mimicking the behaviour of others. From that point on, children and adults commonly adapt behaviour to “fit in”, seeking to belong to an in-group rather than an out-group.

Social psychology is a branch of psychological science and also under the umbrella of social sciences. However, it differs from sociology; while similarities do exist, psychologists focus on situational variables that affect behaviour while sociologists focus on cultures and institutions that influence how people behave.

Social psychology research

Two of the most notorious – and controversial – social psychology studies are the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

In the 1960s, the Milgram Experiment set out to test the extent of an individual’s willingness to follow orders given by an authority figure. Individuals were ordered to administer electric shocks to another person; unbeknownst to participants, the shocks were, in fact, fake, and the other person an actor. Most of the study’s participants obeyed, even when the shocks grew increasingly powerful and the recipient screamed in pain.

In 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment explored the behaviour of college students taking part in a prison role-playing simulation, divided into ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ by the toss of a coin. Within the basement of the Stanford University psychology department – rebranded ‘Stanford County Prison’ – behaviour reportedly became so extreme that the two-week experiment was abandoned after six days. As The New Yorker states, “the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty hours of the study’s start.” After an initial attempted rebellion, “the prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalised, taking the abuse and saying little in protest.”

The experiments serve as demonstrations of the effect of social roles and power dynamics. Participants appeared to become subsumed by their roles, losing their sense of themselves as individuals. However, not all participants exhibited the same degree of behavioural response.

The research methods of both experiments have garnered criticism. Were they ethically justifiable? Are the results accurate and, if so, can they be generalised across the rest of the population? Perhaps of most interest, are there any useful learnings regarding use of power, authority and prescribed social roles in the modern workplace?

How can social psychology benefit the workplace?

We can all bring to mind leaders and managers we found inspiring. Those who motivated team members, created a sense of shared purpose and cohesion, and handled more difficult elements of people management with apparent ease. Likewise, we are all too aware of those who did the opposite.

Social perception and interaction are key to understanding social behaviour. Leaders with an understanding of how best to employ these aspects of social psychology can create meaningful change in team environments.

Insights from social psychology can help to:

  • Minimise stereotyping and conscious and unconscious biases
  • Address negative or unwanted behaviours
  • Improve group dynamics, group processes and collaboration
  • Unite team members under a common goal
  • Enhance wellbeing and self-esteem
  • Support decision making – e.g. awareness of individual personality traits can help to assign tasks that play to strengths and counteract lesser strengths
  • Boost social facilitation – e.g. using the presence of others to improve an individual’s performance

These outcomes all serve to improve productivity, staff retention and loyalty – in turn, increasing profit and performance.

Develop skills to succeed in people management and leadership

Are you interested in social identity and intergroup behaviour? Want to use findings from clinical psychology, neuroscience and social psychology in work settings?

With the University of Sunderland’s online MSc Psychology programme, you’ll gain an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and concepts across a breadth of psychological disciplines.

Our experts will teach you how to apply theory and contemporary thinking to practical situations in the workplace. Your studies will include organisational and social psychology, the relationship between psychology and technology, personality differences, learning and memory, and more. Designed for career-switchers and those without a background in psychology, the programme is ideal preparation for careers across the public and private sector – including HR, marketing, research and teaching.

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