What Is Social Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 24, 2022
5 min read

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Your behavior doesn't happen in a vacuum. You live within a society. Your environment and the people in it affect your psychology. That's when social psychology comes in. 

Social psychology is the study of your mind and behavior with other people. Social psychology looks at your personality, interpersonal relationships, and group behavior.

Humans have always been social creatures, but particular interest in social psychology popped up in the 18th-century. 

Formal research and writing about social psychology didn't appear until the 1930s.

The people around you influence your personality and behaviors. Think of how you act around your family at a holiday dinner versus coworkers at a work event. 

These social adjustments are minor, but some social psychology concepts can influence your entire belief system. The following are just a few.

Conformity. Conformity occurs when you're influenced to change your beliefs and behaviors to fit into a group. Real pressure like being around other people or imagined pressure like social norms can influence you to conform.

There are three types of conformity. 

Internalization is when you accept the group norms around you. This type typically occurs when you believe that the people around you are more informed.

Identification is a form of conformity where you retain your personal beliefs regardless of the majority. For example, a police officer may have to criminalize a specific action even if they believe otherwise. 

Ingratiational conformity is when you conform to the majority to earn favor or acceptance. It's typically motivated by the desire for a social reward.

Obedience. Obedience occurs when you follow commands and a person's ability to influence you. When researching it, social psychologists specifically look at the relationship between perceived authority figures and other people.

Obedience and conformity are similar. The main difference is that obedience needs a hierarchy that includes commands. 

An authority figure can be anyone in power. Your boss, teacher, doctor, or someone in a better-informed position can be perceived as an authority figure. 

Self-concept. Your self-concept describes how you perceive, think of, and judge yourself. Part of having a self-concept is understanding that you're part of a world with a set of expectations. 

Self-concept has many facets. Each one works together to determine how you engage with a larger group.

Your self-concept ultimately influences how you behave around other people. 

Discrimination. Discrimination describes behaviors and actions toward a group of people. The behaviors are typically negative and target the group's sex, race, class, or other traits. 

People often confuse discrimination with prejudice, but the two concepts are slightly different. Discrimination is a behavior, whereas prejudice is a belief that isn't necessarily acted on. 

Bystander effect. This social psychology theory poses that you're less likely to help a person in need when other people are present. A person feels less personally responsible in an emergency the more people there are.

Many factors influence how you react to an emergency, though. The type of situation, the people involved, and your capabilities play a part in how you react to a situation.

Many influential studies have shaped social psychology, starting in 1898. 

Social facilitation and inhibition experiment. Social psychologist Norman Triplett investigated how cyclists responded to being around other people.

Triplett determined that people tried harder when in front of other people or if it was implied that other people were witnessing their performance.

Triplett speculated that their performance improved, but follow-up studies determined that the presence of others can inhibit performance

Autokinetic effect experiment. Muzafer Sherif experimented with the concept of conformity in 1935. He presented the participants with a visual illusion and asked them what they saw.

Regardless of what the illusion showed, the participants eventually agreed on what they saw—even if it was wrong. The experiment demonstrated that people in ambiguous scenarios would look to the people around them and conform.

Later experiments showed slightly different results. For example, one experiment determined that members of western cultures are less likely to conform than eastern cultures.

Obedience experiment. Social psychology developed quickly after World War II as German soldiers claimed they were "obeying orders" during their post-war trials. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram examined the concept of obedience.

The Milgram shock experiment in 1961 determined how far an ordinary person is willing to go based on the demands of a perceived authority figure. Participants were told to electrocute another (fake) participant if they answered a question incorrectly.

The electrocution grew in intensity with each wrong answer, and the (fake) authority figure became more demanding throughout the experiment. 

Milgram found that many people would dangerously shock the other participant when they were told to by the fake doctor in the experiment, regardless of their beliefs.

Milgram determined that people don't typically follow blindly, though. They make critical judgments before obeying an order.

For an ordinary person to obey an authority figure, there are two requirements:

  • The person believes that the person giving orders is qualified to do so
  • The person believes that the person giving orders will take responsibility for whatever their orders are 

Bystander effect. The clearest example of the bystander effect was the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. Onlookers saw or heard Genovese attacked but relied on others to help.

This tragic event displayed the bystander effect. It's opened discussions about decision-making, perception of emergencies, and more. 

Social psychologists focus on human behavior, but it's not all research. Social psychology has extended into many fields as an applied strategy. 

Employees and social psych. Social psychologists apply their understanding of human behavior to help organizations like companies or nonprofits. They help the organizations hire, train, and lead their employees using social psychology.

School and social psych. Schools are complicated social environments. Social psychologists look at education programs critically, help teachers understand the social dynamics of their classroom, teach about the authority of administration, and so much more. 

Other options for applied social psych. A social psychologist is practical anywhere that humans form groups. They may work in research, marketing, and design for groups like:

  • Government
  • Medical facilities
  • Social service agencies
  • Private organizations 

Wherever humans go, social psychology goes with them!