Human behavior is a vast and complex area of study and research. Social psychology focuses on how interactions in social groups affect individual behavior. Plato called it the “crowd mind.” He observed that humans derive ideas of how to conduct themselves from what wider society thinks. Social psychologists seek answers about behaviors that shape human perceptions, thoughts, and moods. These behaviors not only impact our attitudes and actions but overall health and well-being, too.
Many underlying psychological mechanisms occur in social interactions. Social psychologists examine themes like stereotyping, persuasion, the need for approval, and impression formation. They also research the features of healthy, stable relationships and ways that others can either undermine or promote an individual’s motivation to perform a task.
Social psychologists study three phenomena of intrapersonal interactions that pertain specifically to the individual, not to interactions with others.
Social psychologists may focus on interpersonal phenomena — the social associations, connections, and affiliations between two or more people. These events may be memories of past experiences, or they could have occurred alongside other events. In some cases, they are fantasies or experiences that the individual expects for the future. Social psychologists determine how individual interpretation of these interactions influences feelings, behaviors, and thought processes.
A social psychologist uses a variety of perspectives to determine the reasons behind social behavior.
Social psychologists determine the influence of social interaction on human behavior. Not only are social psychologists’ findings pertinent to other sciences and fields, but they are also crucial tools for health, political, educational, and organizational policymakers. With this knowledge, people who oversee programs and govern agencies can develop ways to improve human behaviors. These solutions help them address universal problems such as environmental issues and unhealthy lifestyle choices by striving to change existing behaviors.
Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel theorized that the groups with which a person is affiliated create a sense of social identity and belonging. A group may be a family, a social class, a skin color, a sports team, a religious affiliation, among many. Tajfel believed humans create a world of "us" and "them". The "us" group or in-group is the one to which an individual belongs. The "them" group is the out-group. Examples include Jews and Nazis in World War II Germany, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and even fans of two opposing sports teams. Tajfel surmised that stereotyping is not only an exaggeration of the differences between groups, but it also brings to light the similarities in a single group.
Conformity is a behavior that occurs when an individual changes a belief or behavior merely to fit in with a group due to real or imagined social pressure. The psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of social psychology experiments on conformity in the 1950s. He showed participants three lines, then asked them to select those lines with matching lengths. Beforehand, Asch instructed some participants to intentionally choose the wrong line. Most of the participants conformed, following the lead of those who chose the wrong line. The results showed that humans are much more susceptible to conformity than they might believe.
In 1971, a psychologist named Philip Zimbardo from Stanford University set up a social psychology experiment to determine the effects of a prison environment on behavior. The study facilitators created a functional simulation of a prison. They recruited a group of 24 college-age, male participants to play the role of prisoners or guards. The study, slated for a two-week period, ended after only six days. Some of those playing the role of guards became abusive and sadistic. Prisoners started to withdraw and behave in pathological ways. Though some researchers question the study’s methodology, others argue it proved how much a person’s situation can affect their behavior. Additionally, some researchers say the study spurred prison officials across the U.S. to change the way they ran their institutions.
Social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané began studying a concept called the bystander effect in 1964 following the stabbing death of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman in New York City. According to reports, several onlookers witnessed the stabbing, yet failed to assist the woman, although some did call the police. Latané and Darley conducted a series of experiments focusing on the amount of time it took for participants to take action in an emergency. When alone, 70% of the participants offered assistance. But only 40% stepped up when others were present. This illustrates the diffusion of responsibility. When others are nearby, an individual may not feel it is their responsibility to do anything. The researchers say the experiments also showed the human need to conform and follow the actions of others.
In 1978, 912 people died in a mass suicide in Guyana, South America. The victims were followers of Jim Jones. Social psychologists who examined the event say the charismatic Jones exerted mind control over his followers through techniques he learned from social psychology research and depictions from George Orwell’s book, 1984. Investigations show that Jones gained influence over followers through self-incrimination, using past mistakes and personal fears to humiliate them in front of their peers. He encouraged followers to spy on each other and used loudspeakers to constantly barrage them with his messages night and day.
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