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What is Social Psychology?

Social psychology is a branch of psychology that studies individuals in the social context. In other words, it is the study of how and why people think, feel, and do the things they do depending upon the situation they are in. Social psychology is related to sociology in this regard, but instead of focusing on group factors such as race and socioeconomic class, it focuses on the individual. Also, it relies on the scientific research to generate the theories of social behavior.

Why is social psychology important to us?

In studying how people act in certain situations, we can better understand how stereotypes are formed, why racism and sexism exist, how a person can seem like an entirely different person in different situations, and even how people fall in love. (Social psychology can't explain all of our social problems, of course. There are always different ways to explain a social phenomenon.)

Social Perception


There are many important factors in how one perceives oneself. One is self-esteem,a person's positive and negative evaluations of his or her self. People who have low self-esteem can get caught in cycles of self-defeating behavior, leading to depression or other mental disorders. There are theories concerning how low self-esteem develops. One is a result of large discrepancies between one's actual self and desired self. A serious manifestation of this example is anorexia nervosa, which usually results from distorted perceptions of one's own body. Self-awareness can encourage people to notice self-discrepancies. In general, people spend little time thinking about themselves, but mirrors, audiences, etc. can put the focus on oneself and cause people to notice their self-discrepancies. Most people find ways to keep up their self-esteem through self-enhancement techniques. These include (but are not limited to) taking credit for success but making excuses for failure, comparing oneself to less fortunate people, and self-handicapping, which is purposely handicapping oneself in order to excuse an anticipated failure. Research suggests that such positive illusory thinking can maintain mental health, but that too much of it can be self-defeating.

Perceiving Others

In regards to how people perceive others, there are a group of theories, called Attribution Theory, which describe how people attribute the cause of a behavior. A personal or internal attribution is an attribution to a person's characteristic that is from within, such as intelligence or effort. A situational or external attribution is an attribution something outside the individual, such as luck or God. The Fundamental Attribution Error states that in perceiving other people's behavior, people tend to focus on personal causes and underestimate situational causes. Such thinking can lead people to hold on to bad first impressions as well as stereotypes.

Perceiving groups

A stereotype is a set of beliefs that associates a whole group of people with a few certain traits. They are formed through 2 different processes: categoration, sorting individual objects or people in groups, and outgroup homogeneity effect, which is a tendency of people to overestimate to similarity of people in the outgroups than people in the ingroup. Although categorization and other short-cut methods of thinking can be very helpful, they also contribute and arise from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination.

Social Influences


Aside from unjust court verdicts, hot weather can contribute to aggression, as well as lack of personal space (crowded cities), and smog. Other more significant factors include viewing aggressive behavior or pornographic material, frustration, and highly arousing stimuli.


So when do people help? Aside from self-interest, empathy has been found to be a major factor in influencing altruistic behavior in people. It has even been shown that a baby, when put near another baby who is crying, will start to cry as well. However, it's been argued that it since helping the other person reduces his or her distress, it reduces one's own stress (from empathizing with the other person) that it really stems from self-interest.

Attraction and Love

The old proverb "opposites attract" has in recent times been found to be just an old wives' tale. In fact, similarity breeds attraction. Such similaries include, demographics, mood ("misery loves company"), personality, physical attractiveness, and attitudes. Other forces that encourage attraction are familiarity (like that bad song they keep playing on the radio 'til you find yourself singing it one day), close encounters, and proximity. So "Birds of a feather" really do "flock together." But it takes a lot more than feathers to develop into love.

Social Interaction
Group Processes

When in a group discussion or debate with similar but not identical opinions, people's beliefs, whether they are moderate or not, become more extreme. (Ever had a discussion with an extremely conservative person and felt like you were a radical liberal?)

Comformity and Individuation

There is a lot of pressure in society to conform to a group. In America, majority rules, but the minority plays an important part in our society. The majority has more influence on direct overt measures of conformity while the minority influence impact private covert measures of conformity. Minorities encourage other people to resist comformity and practice more individuation.


Cognitive dissonance is a state in which one feels tension because one's attitudes are different from one's behavior. In order to alleviate the discomfort, people will often change one's attitudes to justify the behavior (like paying $50 to see a bad concert and then convincing yourself that it wasn't that bad).

Social Psychology in Action


In coping with a stressful situation, women tend to focus on their negative feelings and are more likely to become depressed. Men in the same situation are more like to engage in self-destructive distractions. Research has shown that both confronting one's feelings and distractions, in moderation, can help with coping.


Death qualification is a procedure in which judges may exclude prospective jurors in capital cases who say they would not vote for the death penalty. Although this eliminates bias in sentencing, it has been found that people who would vote for the death penalty are also more likely to give a guilty verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the evidence that death qualification interfered with a defendent's right to a fair trial.


Although there have been gains for women and minorities in the workforce in recent years, they are still very underrespresented in positions of leadership. Despite affirmative action, women and minorities are subject to gender and race stereotypes. Furthermore, many people devalue ther own performance and feel devalued by others when they think they were chosen because of affirmative action.

Related Articles

1997 APA Miniconvention and National Conversation: Psychology and Racism
Raising Children to Resist Violence: What You Can Do
What You Should Know About Women and Depression
Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality
Sexual Harassment: Myths and Realities


American Psychological Association PsychNET

Brehm, S. S. and Kassin, S. M. (1996). Social Psychology 3rd Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Maslach, C. (1995). Lecture Notes from Psychology 160 at the University of California at Berkeley.

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