Page 1 of5
Chapter 1: What Is Social Psychology?
WHAT IS SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY?
Defining Social Psychology
• Social psychology is the scientific study of how individuals’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours are
affected by other people (the social context).
o Scientific study: Scientific method of systematic observation, description and measurement
o How individuals think, feel and behave: Investigating a wide variety of as beliefs, attitudes,
emotions and behaviours towards certain topics in order to establish general principles of attitude
formation and change that apply to multiple domains. Focus on the psychology of the individual
instead of groups of people.
o Social context: The thoughts, feelings, or behaviours that either a) concern other people, e.g.
does heat increase aggression; or b) are influenced by other people, e.g. endorsements by
o The social context does not have to be real or present – even the implied or imagined presence
of others can have important effects.
• Social psychology is the branch of psychology that treats people as both stimuli and respondents: on
how people influence people.
Social Psychological Questions and Applications
• Learning about social psychology is learning about ourselves and our social worlds, with the scientific
method providing insights that would be impossible to gain through intuition or experience alone.
• Social perception: what affects the way we perceive ourselves and others? Social influence: how do
we influence each other? Social interaction: what causes us to like, love, help, and hurt others?
Applications: how does social psychology help us understand questions about law, business, and
The Power of the Social Context: An Example of an Experiment
• Our perceptions of something can be influenced more by the reactions of others than by the thing itself.
• CNN coverage of 2008 presidential debate between Obama and McCain showed a graph depicting
second-by-second opinions of a small group of undecided voters from Ohio. Did the reactions of these
couple dozen individuals influence millions of viewers at home?
• Fein et al (2007): Students watched video of 1984 presidential candidates’ debate between Ronald
Reagan and Walter Mondale. Did Reagan’s one-liners, which elicited much laughter from audience, help
him win the election despite being a tiny part of the 90 minute debate?
• 3 conditions: 1) Debate as is; 2) Debate without one-liners or laughter; and 3) Debate with one-liners
but without laughter. Can analyze impact of both presence of jokes and presence of audience response
• Students judged performance of candidates on scale: the presence of the jokes themselves did not
cause much change in the rating for Reagan (between conditions 1 and 2), but condition 3 had a much
lower rating than the other two groups.
• This negativity may be caused by the editing-out of the laughter indicating that Reagan’s attempts at wit
were inept, thus causing them to see Reagan in a much less positive light.
• Conclusion: reactions were more influenced by other people’s reactions to what Reagan said (whether
the audience laughed or not) than by the content of what he said (whether the one-liners were present or
not). Furthermore, these “other people” were not really present with the students, only sounds on an old
video. Page 2 of5
Social Psychology and Related Fields: Distinctions and Intersections
• Sociology: Sociology tends to focus on the group level, while social psychology focuses on the
individual, e.g. racial attitudes of the middle class vs. factors that make individuals more or less likely to
behave in a racist way.
• Sociology often studies the relation between people’s behaviours and societal variables, like social
class; social psychology studies the relation between people’s behaviours and more specific, immediate
variables (e.g. manipulations of mood) by performing experiments in which they manipulate these
variables and precisely measure the quantitative effects.
• An intersection can lead to a more complete understanding of important issues: combining role of both
societal and immediate factors on attitudes and behaviours.
• Clinical Psychology: Clinical (abnormal) psychology seeks to understand and treat people with
psychological difficulties or disorders, while social psychology focuses on the more typical ways in which
individuals think, feel, behave and influence each other.
• An intersection can lead to insight in, for example, how people cope with anxiety in social situations,
how depressed individuals differ in the way they perceive and act towards others, etc.
• Personality Psychology: Personality psychology is concerned with differences between individuals
that remain relatively stable over different situations, whereas social psychology is concerned with how
social factors affect most individuals regardless of their different personalities. E.g. “Is this person
outgoing and friendly almost all the time, in just about any setting?” vs. “Are people in general more likely
to seek out companionship when they are made anxious by a situation than when they are relaxed?”
• The two areas complement each other very well, with studying how certain situational and often social
factors (e.g. receiving negative feedback) can affect people depending individual-difference factors (e.g.
high or low self-esteem).
• Cognitive Psychology: Cognitive psychology studies mental processes like thinking, learning,
remembering and reasoning. Social psychologists are interested in these same processes, but with
respect to social information and their relevance to social behaviour.
Social Psychology and Common Sense
• Common sense may explain many social psychological findings, but it is hard to distinguish common-
sense fact from myth since there are often equally sensible-sounding opposite notions (“birds of a feather
flock together” vs. “opposites attract”).
• Social psychology uses the scientific method to put its theories to the test, while common sense can be
wildly inaccurate and misleading in its simplicity.
FROM PAST TO PRESENT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOCIAL
The Birth and Infancy: 1880s – 1920s
• Norman Triplett in 1897-1898 is credited with publishing the first research article in social psychology,
with his scientific approach to studying how cyclists race faster in the presence of others than against the
• Max Ringelmann conducted research in the 1880s but did not publish until 1913, also studying the
effects of the presence of others on performance, but looked at how performance at simple tasks often
• McDougall, Ross and Floyd Allport wrote the first 3 textbooks in social psychology, helping establish
it as a distinct field of study. Allport’s book in particular helped establish social psychology as the
discipline it is today.
A Call to Action: 1920s – 1950s Page 3 of 5
• Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the ensuing turmoil caused people worldwide to look desperately for
answers to social psychological questions about what causes violence, prejudice and genocide,
conformity and obedience, and many other social problems and behaviours.
• Many soc