Psychobiology and Social Psychology

There are at least two big trends in social psychology, or at least ones that may great affect social psychology. Currently, at least according to Berntson and Cacioppo (2000), one of the fastest growing trends in psychology as a whole is psychobiology. This trend is also seen in social psychology. Another movement is that of the internet (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). As the legitimacy of the internet grew, there was more research interest in it and more interest in using it for research purposes. I will first discuss psychobiology and then the internet. I will finish with my prediction of where social psychology is going.

I think psychobiology is a growing area in part because of the many technological advances that are being applied to psychology (namely, brain imaging and computer modeling). Psychology is becoming a technology-driven science. I think that social psychology will all move this way because of the new ways to study the concepts of social psychology. In part, it provides new ways to research “old” topics, not that anything in social psychology is that old.

Researchers can now look at biological foundations of social behavior and perception. For example, maybe there is a certain area of the brain that is activated when people name racial stereotypes. Also, there could be a different area activated when people are asked what stereotypes they believe, if any. Maybe people who say they do not believe the stereotypes still have the same area of the brain activated as those who do believe them, but in addition they could have additional brain activity associated with suppressing those stereotypes. Knowing this would help us understand that stereotypes really are prevalent, but some people are just really good at suppressing them and don’t even know that they are doing it. I know this was a slightly vague hypothesis, but my point is that psychobiology has a lot to add the social psychology.

This also shows one of the problems with psychobiology though. It would be really easy and even logical to reduce all behavior, including social, to merely neural activity. This would take us back to behaviorism, in that all behavior is determined and there is nothing we can really do about it. After all, it would be matter that really matters. Thus behavior and even thinking would only be meaningful because there is something happening in the brain physically. This could lead to drugs that influence the neurons and thus even disregard the social aspect of psychology: “Here’s your altruism pill for the day so you don’t fall into the chemical imbalance of bystander effect! Ha, Latane was just naïve, it is not the presence of others that makes people less likely to help, it is this neurotransmitter that is insufficiently produced when others are around which in turn leads to inaction when people need help.” Ok, so this is a bit extreme but if behavior and social influences are reduced to simply biology, then there might not be a need to understand behavior any other way. So, my critique of psychobiology is that some may take it too far, to the point of disregarding everything else. This, however, is not the belief of Berntson and Cacioppo. They want there to be great rapport between social psychology and psychobiology. Both have a lot to learn from one another. Klein and Kihlstrom (1998) also feel similarly, especially when it comes to things that social psychologists can learn from neuropsychology.

The other large area of upcoming influence is the internet. Again, this is a technology-based influence. McKenna and Bargh point out how much the internet can help us learn about interpersonal behavior and attitudes. It not only provides quick access to large numbers of people but also, it provides a new medium to study interpersonal relationships. We can extend the research on the effects of anonymity on social behavior because the internet is largely anonymous. It also makes studying anti- and pro-social behavior interesting since there is ample evidence of both over the internet. Group formation theories may be modified since proximity does not necessarily matter over the internet. Everyone is a neighbor. Another positive aspect is that there are new relationships (e.g., virtual) that can be studied. Are these as real as more traditional face-to-face ones? Researchers have studied this.

One problem with internet research, or at least use in research, is that samples from internet users are not very representative. For one thing they are self-selected and for another, larges groups of people are potentially underrepresented. Although as more people gain internet access and it becomes more integral to life, this second failing disappears. The first – that of self-selection or convenience sampling, is more difficult to overcome. That is probably the biggest hindrance to internet social psychological research (but a lot of research is based on quite unrepresentative samples, so this critique is somewhat moot).

As far as the direction that social psychology will take, I think it will go towards psychobiology. Even though internet research has much more potential initially of extending previous research (especially cross-culturally) without requiring a radical revision of current theories, psychobiology is more popular. It is also view as more legitimate because it is more like the “hard sciences.” I think that psychology as a whole and maybe even especially social psychology is vying for legitimacy and equal status with the natural sciences. Psychobiology provides another way for this believed advance. This prediction of mine is also based on the recent popularity of evolutionary psychology, which often goes hand-in-hand with biology. It is also the fight for money and money typically goes to the hard sciences. Thus, if social psychologists want the big money they need to take a more psychobiological approach to research. That is why social psychology will take on a more psychobiological perspective in the next decade.

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