A Definition and History of Social Psychology

An essay that includes a definition, in own words, and history of social psychology, at least six major theorists, the types of issues this field considers, the five major variables of interest to social psychologists, and major contemporary research trends in the field.

This is a science that aims to accurately, objectively, open-mindedly and continuously research why and how people are in social settings (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2005). Some theorists that contributed to advancement of social psychology are French gentleman Gabriel Tarde, with the imitation concept, Gustave LeBon and Emile Durkheim with the theory on society’s influence on the individual. In 1874, Herbert Spencer extended Darwin’s concepts from biology into sociology. He coined the term “survival of the fittest.”

Spencer influenced many early 20th century American psychologists, such as William James, and sociologists, such as Edward Ross, Lester F. Ward and William G. Sumner, who introduced social psychology. J. Mark Baldwin, in 1897, used social psychology in a thesis on children. William McDougall published “Social Psychology” in 1908.

In 1897, Norman Triplett made the first experiment of this science, on how groups competed and set the pace for individual performance. In the mid-1920s social psychology took a firm hold in psychology. In 1924 Floyd Allport wrote “Social Psychology,” a scholarly book used in academia to this date.

In the 1930s, Gardner Murphy, Lois Barclay Murphy and Theodore Newcomb wrote “Experimental Social Psychology” and Carl Murchison “Handbook of Social Psychology”. They defined social psychology as experimental, instead of as naturalistic observations. Sociologists started studying the individual in society.

During the Depression and World War II, Thurstone and Likert researched changes in attitudes. Kurt Lewin and Gestalt psychology studied political groups, frustration and aggression in children. Lewin worked on group dynamics and conflict resolution from the 1940s through the 1970s.

Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif researched small group dynamics in summer camps in the 1940s and 50s. After World War II, the field searched for problems. John Dollard and Neal Miller worked on “Social Learning and Imitation” with learning and rats, in 1941.

In 1950, their “Personality and Psychotherapy” explained psychoanalysis as social learning. In 1946, Fritz Heider preceded Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory, claiming that there is an imbalance when perceptions of a relationship do not match reality, which causes a change in either perceptions or reality to regain balance. In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience set up subjects to believe they were shocking a stranger for incorrect responses. That deception raised ethical concerns. Self-identity, self-esteem and self-image have been researched towards the end of the last century. Social psychology is part of the psychological mainstream.

This science recognizes the connection between social thought and social behavior. Social neuroscience studies social and social behavior in relation to the brain and biology. Modern social psychology focuses on the unconscious and multicultural parts of social thought and behavior.

In naturalistic observations, versus systematic observations, behaviors occur naturally.

There are several methods used in social psychology. One is the survey method. Another one is the correlational method that investigates the possible correlations, not causes, on studied variables.

In this science’s experiments, there is the systematic alteration of independent variables, to study their effects on dependent ones. Successful experiments randomly assign participants to experimental conditions and hold everything else constant to avoid confounding variables.

To determine validity, social psychologists use inferential statistics. They use meta-analysis to determine the effects of independent variables across studies. They also rely on theories to advance their work.

Deception, or withholding information from participants about the scope of an experiment, is often used in social psychology. Social psychology safeguards experiments by using informed consent and meticulous debriefing. To conclude,this science is cutting edge and its five major areas and variables of interest are: attitudes, group processes, social learning and cognition and self-perception (APA, 1999).

Baron, R. A., Byrne, D. R., & Branscombe, N. R. (2005) Social Psychology. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
APA (Dec 1999) Social psychology: Once overlooked, now a staple. APA Monitor Online Author 30 (11).

Thank you.

Elena Pezzini, M.S., C.P.C.

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