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.

What Do Social Psychologists Do?

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.

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Intrapersonal Phenomena

Social psychologists study three phenomena of intrapersonal interactions that pertain specifically to the individual, not to interactions with others.

  • Structure of knowledge about the self, or self-concept: how people perceive themselves.
  • Attitudes and their influence on an individual’s choices: basic expressions of likes or dislikes or whether an individual views something favorably or unfavorably.
  • Subjective experience of emotion: how humans interpret experiences based on their array of emotional experiences.

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Interpersonal Phenomena

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.

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Perspectives of Social Psychology

A social psychologist uses a variety of perspectives to determine the reasons behind social behavior.

  • Sociocultural perspective focuses on how social norms and culture impact behavior.
  • Evolutionary perspective focuses on the role of biology in behavior with a determination that social behavior is genetic and inherited.
  • Social-cognitive perspective means that a person relies on beliefs they already have to interpret the behavior of others, or they change their current belief system in response to the event.
  • Social learning perspective is a process where an individual adopts behavior by observing or mimicking others.

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Applications of Social Psychology

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.

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Social Identity Theory

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.

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The Asch Conformity Experiments

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.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

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.

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The Bystander Effect

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.

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Social Psychology Gone Awry

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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