Social psychology is the study of individuals within groups, or as they are affected by others. So, while groups are important and often studied, it is really the individual who ultimately receives the focus. It is different from other subdisciplines in that interpersonal relationships are taken into account. In other words, people’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are affected by their relationships to and with others. This differs from cognitive psychology, for example, because cognitive theorists typically are just looking at mental processes and trying to understand the basic nature of thought, without [much] regard to the influence that others have on cognition. I say “much” because social and cognitive psychology have had a long relationship so there is some overlap between the two.
Social psychology is different from behaviorism in that social psychologists look at underlying cognitive processes and behaviorists do not. Although, they are similar in that both look at external influences on behavior (after all, behaviorism is that all behavior is learned from others). So, really the biggest difference between social psychology and all other subdisciplines of experimental psychology is the focus on self and other influences on affect, behavior, and cognition.
These three main components of social psychology—affect, behavior, and cognition—are all areas of psychology where social psychology has provided key and keen insights. One aspect of the uniqueness of social psychological research is how often researchers get surprising results from their studies. First, I’ll address the insights we’ve gained from social psychology about affect (i.e., emotion), behavior, and cognition.
Schachter studied romantic love and found that if a person feels physically aroused and then attributes those feelings to love for the person he is with, they will think or feel that they are in love. In effect, Schachter theorized that people need to first feel arousal which then can lead to feelings of love. It is pretty much a cognitive (of sorts) appraisal of physiological arousal that leads to love. “Oh, I’m aroused, I must love X.” Dutton and Aron (1974) also researched along these lines. They conducted the now famous shaky bridge experiment. When males had to walk across a shaky and high bridge, they were subsequently more attracted to a female experimenter than males who interacted with her without being physically aroused due to the stress of crossing the shaky bridge. Again, somewhat surprisingly, social psychologists found that any physiological arousal can be misattributed as feeling of love.
Feelings and thoughts are not always connected though. Devine in 1995 showed that as far as stereotypes are concerned, people can know the stereotypes about groups of people but not personally believe them.
They may not feel any negative emotions towards another ethnic group, but they may still know the stereotypes. This research just showed that affect and cognition are not always the same (of course that really is one of the main points of social psychology—that emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are not always “in synch”).
One of the big and early examples of social psychological research into behavior was Latane and Darley’s study of what is now called the bystander effect. Their research in the late 1960s, based largely on the Kitty Genovese murder in New York, produced somewhat unexpected results. They found that people are most likely to help someone when there are not other people around. In fact, with large groups of people many times no one will help because everyone assumes someone else will help (diffusion of personal responsibility).
Other researchers have looked into even more macro-level influences on behavior. Nisbett (1993) found that culture can play a large part in how people act in specific situations. Namely, that those from the South belong to a culture of honor and are more aggressive when their honor is insulted (e.g., insults to manliness, family, competence, etc.). He proposes his findings as explanations of why there are typically more violent crimes in the South than in the North. Violent retribution is culturally encouraged when you honor has been violated.
In another study concerning violence, Milgram (1963) conducted probably one of the most disturbing studies in psychological history. His methods have been criticized but really people are probably just upset with his findings. He found that proximal authority figures and distal consequences can greatly impact behavior. The majority of people in his study gave what they thought were extremely dangerous and possibly fatal shocks to another participant in the study simply because they were told to (albeit fairly forcefully) by the experimenter. These findings shocked everyone. People acted in very a very anti-social manner simply because of the instructions of a man in a white lab coat.
In connecting research between behaviors and cognitions, Festinger and Carlsmith found in the late 1950s that when people were forced to promote a dull task to someone else and if they had received little monetary compensation for the task, then they actually liked the task more than people who had been paid a lot of money to complete the task. This study was based on Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory and their results supported that theory. These are unique and surprising results because people did not expect that something as simple as saying that a task was actually enjoyable would make people actually like that task more. The theory is that people will change their attitudes (or sometimes behaviors) to match their behaviors (or attitudes) if the two clash, or are dissonant.
Another important finding of social psychology is Bem’s theory of self-perception. He stated that we learn our attitudes by appraising our thoughts (although I don’t know if he stated that we always do this, or just sometimes). In other words, if we want to learn our attitude about something we think back on our thoughts about that subject and from our review of those thoughts solidify our attitude.
Lastly, one of the other main discoveries of cognitive-related social psychological research is Lee Ross’s fundamental attribution error. He based this theory on Jones and Harris’s study where people were randomly assigned to give a speech for or against Fidel Castro. Others rated those giving the pro-Castro speeches as more supportive of Castro in their attitudes even when those others knew that that assignment to speak had been randomly assigned. The error is that we take people’s actions as representative of their attitudes. We make this error in everyday life when we attribute traits to people. For example, “She’s obnoxious,” without knowing the circumstances that she’s breaking a social norm on purpose to get extra credit for a social psychology class.
We have learned a lot from social psychological research and many findings have been unique and surprising. We have learned how many external influences there are on people’s emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.