PYB202 Textbook Reading – Chapter 1
What is Social Psychology?
Social psychology has been defined as ‘the scientific investigation of how the thoughts, feelings and
behaviours of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others’ (Allport 1954)
Social psychologists are interested in explaining human behaviour and generally do not study animals. This
said, some of the general principles of social psychology can be applicable to animals, and research on
animals may provide evidence for processes that apply to people too.
Social psychologists study behaviour because it can be observed and measured. However, the term
behaviour refers not only to obvious motor actions such as kissing or running, but also to more subtle
actions such as a raised eyebrow, what we say or the way we dress.
Behaviour is not the only thing social psychologists are interested in – they also study thoughts, feelings,
beliefs, attitudes, intentions and goals. Whilst these are not directly observable, they can be inferred with
varying degrees of confidence from the behaviour of people.
What makes social psychology social is that it is concerned with the way people are affected by other people
who are either physically present, who are imagined to be present or whose presence is implied.
Social psychology is a science because it uses the scientific method to construct and test theories. The
scientific method dictates that no theory is ‘true’ simply because it is logical and appears to make sense.
Instead, the validity of a theory is based on its correspondence with fact.
Social psychologists construct theories from data and previous theories and then conduct empirical research
in which data are collected to test the theory.
Social Psychology and Its Close Neighbours
Social psychology is situated at a ‘crossroads’ between a number of related disciplines and sub disciplines. It
is a sub discipline of general psychology and is therefore concerned with explaining human behaviour in
terms of processes that occur within the human mind.
Social psychology differs from individual psychology in that it explains social behaviour instead of focusing
on the behaviour of the individual. This means that a great deal of social psychology involves face-to-face
interaction between individuals or members of a group, as opposed to an individual and stimuli.
Social anthropology focuses much on the same group processes as social psychology, but is more concerned
with ‘exotic’ groups such as tribal members who exist largely in developing countries. In contrast, social
psychology works with more ‘mainstream’ and usually westernised groups of people.
The boundary between social psychology and sociology is one that often overlaps, with the both
incorporating concepts from the other. A basic difference is that whilst social psychology tends to look at the
individual within a group, sociology examines the group as a whole.
Social psychology also adjoins the study of sociolinguistics and the study of communication, as the way we
speak to each other in group situations as opposed to individual situations is often of interest. Social psychology’s position at the crossroads of a number of disciplines is part of its appeal, however it also
raises questions about what exactly social psychology constitutes and how it is a distinct scientific discipline.
Leaning too far towards any particular sub discipline runs the risk of social psychologists in fact studying that
discipline instead, and the issue of what exactly social psychology involves is part of an important and
ongoing metatheoretical debate (in other words, a debate about what sort of theories are appropriate for
the study of social psychology).
The Scientific Method
Like other sciences – chemistry, biology etc. – social psychology employs the scientific method.
Under the scientific method we are required to make hypotheses which can either be supported or
unsupported through our research. Hypotheses cannot, however, be proven. They can be falsified.
There are two broad types of methods at social psychology’s disposal for conducting empirical tests of
hypotheses – the experimental and non-experimental methods.
The choice of which method to adopt can be based on a number of factors including the nature of the
hypothesis, the resources available, and the ethics of the method.
The replication of the same or similar studies by a number of different research teams helps reduce
confirmation bias – that is the tendency for researchers to become personally involved in their own theories
to such an extent that they lose objectivity when interpreting data.
Experimentation involves the manipulation of one or more independent variables and then measuring the
effect of this manipulation on the dependent variable.
Laboratory studies are conducted in a specific laboratory setting. These can help us establish cause-effect
relationships between variables. They have been criticised, however, for their low external validity and
mundane realism – their inability to necessarily relate to real-world circumstances. They are instead very
high in internal validity or experimental realism – that is, they are full of psychological and meaningful
impact on the participants.
Unfortunately, laboratory studies are prone to a range of biases. This includes subject effects which cause
the participants to behave unnaturally in response to being experimented on. This can be minimised by
avoiding demand characteristics which may appear to demand a particular response from the participant.
There is also the issue of experimenter effects, in which the experimenter may subconsciously give cues
which hint to the participants what the hypothesis is and therefore they may act accordingly. This can be
minimised through a double blind study in which the experimenter is unaware of which experimental
condition they are running.
Field experiments are another kind of experimental method. They are conducted in more naturalistic
settings outside of the laboratory. These experiments usually demonstrate high external validity as they are conducted specifically in the real
world. They also are usually conducted without the awareness of the participants and therefore serve to
greatly minimise the risks of demand characteristics.
However, field studies also have their drawbacks in that there is very little to no control over extraneous
variables. Random assignment is sometimes difficult, and it can sometimes be hard to accurately measure
subjective feelings (since we can only rely on what we see).
Often we find ourselves unable to actually conduct the experiments we would like to. An example of this
would be if we had developed a theory about planetary systems – we cannot simply move the planets
around to our liking.
Ethical issues can also pose a problem for hypothesis testing as we are not able to conduct an experiment
that is not ethical, limiting our possibilities at times.
Where experimentation is not possible or appropriate, social psychologists have a range of non-
experimental methods at their disposal.
However, because these methods do not allow for us to manipulate independent variables and examine
their effects, it is almost impossible to draw reliable causal conclusions.
Therefore, we can only