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What Is Social Psychology?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Mar 02, 2024

Social psychology is a branch of psychology which examines the impact of social influences on human behavior. This field is vast, encompassing a wide range of fields of study and several disciplines. This branch of psychology is also used in a range of disciplines and industries; many people utilize its principles without even being aware of it when they try to control a group, influence someone's opinion, or explain why someone behaves in a particular way.

The roots of social psychology were laid in the late 1800s, when psychology as a discipline was thriving in Europe. As the First World War drove many psychologists to the United States, social psychology began to arise as a distinct discipline in the 1920s. One of the major influences on the field was Kurt Lewin, who is called the “father” of the discipline by some people; other famous social psychologists include Zimbardo, Asch, Milgram, Festinger, Ross, and Mischel.

A social psychologist looks at the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of both individuals and groups. The field also examines interpersonal interaction, analyzing the way in which someone interacts with other people, whether on a singular basis or in the form of a large group. Social psychology also examines cultural influences like advertisements, books, films, television, and radio, looking at the ways in which these influences impact human behavior.

Like many scientists, social psychologists like to use empirical methods to conduct studies in their fields. These methods often involve experiments which can bring up complex ethical issues. One of the most infamous social psychology experiments was the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was ultimately shut down because it got out of control. Social psychologists rely on the efforts of ethics committees and review panels to ensure that their work is ethically allowable, in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of questionable experiments.

The study of social psychology can explain why people form mobs, how groups make decisions, which social conditions can lead to aberrant behavior, and a wide range of other things. Social psychologists are constantly learning more about human behavior and the science behind human interactions, looking at everything from why people fail to help people in need to what leads people to conform, even in ethically dubious situations.

If you want to learn more about this field of psychology, you may be able to take an introductory course at a local college in your area. You can also consult your library for a number of published texts on the subject, but beware; once you start studying the discipline, it can be hard to stop!

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By greenrings — On Sep 21, 2010

Prayers2Heal-I think you answered your own question! In my opinion, yes, this field would have AN answer to those questions. And I say an answer because I believe there is no correct answer to why people choose to do things.

Our minds are so capable of retaining and inventing information that it’s impossible for someone to answer why they did something and that that answer be the only correct one. I’m not sure what happened at that stop, but maybe that woman’s reaction had a bit of current and past influences.

By AZgirl32 — On Sep 21, 2010

The Stanford Prison experiment is an incredible topic of discussion. This field of study can bring doctors to the breaking point by testing the waters of what’s socially acceptable and what’s not. Of course your natural surroundings are going to have an effect on your daily life, what sentient being is not affected.

But as humans, you can choose to succumb to what those statistics say you’re going to be or you can leave the standard set before you and go your own path. That is what this field is all about, finding out why people made the decisions they did and if their social surroundings played a major role.

By Prayers2Heal — On Sep 21, 2010

Social Psychology sounds like a very broad field to study. I’m a freshman at a local community college and just taking Psychology 101. I was driving around one day and witnessed these weird interactions between people at a bus stop. I found myself wondering why they behaved like that.

What brought that woman to react that way? Was it her personality, the way she was brought up, perhaps her religion or her immediate surroundings? Are these the types of questions this field would answer?

By anon79552 — On Apr 23, 2010

Great article.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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