Social psychology is the study of how people think about, influence, and relate to others. It emerged at the interface of psychology and sociology in the early 20th century. While Psychology analyses the nature of humans, sociology analyses the nature of society. Social psychology, on the other hand, analyses the nature and the relation of man to society. The sphere of social psychology is social and its focus is individual. It is the study of individuals in social situations. This social situation can be person-to-person interaction, person-to-group interaction, and a group related to another group. A social psychologist uses scientific methods to study how we perceive people and social events, how we influence others and get influenced, social relations and communication, and group dynamics.


The last century witnessed the creation of new sciences and specialized branches for specific needs together with the technological developments that have changed the scenario of education and knowledge. New social realities generated new problems. Social psychology came into existence at a time when the world was undergoing a great upheaval. A significant number of facts in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, ethnography, and archaeology needed interpretation for various facts. This need manifested itself in the development of two sciences regarded as the parents of social psychology: psychology and sociology.

Societies manifest themselves through the activities of people, through communication and interaction and in turn shape the behavior of individuals. The study of social psychology enables us to understand the dynamics of human behavior in social situations what effects these situations exert on individuals and in what ways these situations are changed by the behavior of the individuals. Social psychology intrudes on social life by providing practical recommendations in various areas. The practical needs of the discipline have been increased by the increased demand for efficient management in the areas of industry, education, health, mass communication systems, struggle against anti-social behavior, public services, sports, etc. In this unit, we will discuss the concept and definition of social psychology, its background and developments, and its relation to other social sciences.  Floyd Allport (1924) has defined social psychology as “the scientific study of the experience and behavior of individuals in relation to other individuals, groups and culture”.  A similar definition by Gordon W. Allport (1968) states that social psychology is a discipline “that attempts to understand and explain how the thought, feeling, and behavior of an individual are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others.”

The above definitions include the elements: of scientific study, experience and behavior, individual, group, and culture that throw light upon the nature of the discipline. These elements are elaborated below:

1.      Social Psychology is Scientific in Nature

Social psychology is scientific in its approach to the range of topics it deals. One may find many common-sense explanations and literary works that tell us about interpersonal relations, love, jealousy, aggression, altruism (helping behavior), and the roles of individuals in groups. The difference lies in the approach that a social psychologist adopts. It adopts scientific methods which we will discuss later but in all the methods a three steps basic process has been employed (McDavid and Harari, 1994):

  1. The collection of carefully made observations. Careful observation requires the gathering of information about issues and processes of interest, plus an attitude of skepticism.
  2. The ordered integration of these observations and the statement of general principles.
  • The utilization of these general principles to predict future observations.

As an example, we can take this statement, “When people try to dismiss those who ask the big public questions on being emotional, it is a strategy to avoid debate.”1 How do we proceed to check the validity of the statement? First, we have to see the big national or international issues, big in the sense they raise problems of wider concern, like the displacement of inhabitants of a particular place due to some projects. After this, we will have to select a representative sample population and get their opinions. How many people take it as a serious or not so serious issue? What are the reasons for their opinions? After this, a social psychologist can analyze the causes that lie behind and the socio-psychological mechanisms underlying it. What does it reveal about the nature of people and how people think about the topics of wider social concern when they are not a part of it or is there a difference when they themselves are affected?

2.      Social Psychology Studies the Experience and Behavior of Individuals

Social psychologists typically explain human behavior as a result of the interaction of mental states and immediate social situations. In Kurt Lewin’s (1951) famous heuristic formula, behavior can be viewed as a function of the person and the environment, B = f (P, E), i.e., behavior is a function of the person and environment.

Consider the following questions: Why do people help others? What is jealousy? What are its main causes and effects?

The first question is about the overt behavior i.e., the behavior that can be directly observed. The second is about an emotional state. Social psychology studies both the observable behaviors; and emotions and thoughts that cannot be observed directly. For these behaviors the stimulus situation can be Individual: two persons situation (dyadic)

3.      Causes of Social Behavior and Thought

Social psychology studies the behavior of individuals as well as theorizes about the causes and factors that might lie behind a particular behavior and phenomenon. The following five factors that affect social interaction have been most studied (Baron and Byron 1995)

  1. The actions and characteristics of others.
  2. Basic cognitive processes: memory, reasoning, belief, ideas, and judgments about others.
  • Ecological Variables: direct and indirect influences of the physical environment
  1. The cultural context: cultural norms, membership in various groups.
  2. Biological aspects of human behavior and genetic inheritance relevant to social behavior.

Social psychology focuses on understanding the causes of social behavior and on identifying factors that shape our feelings, behavior, and thoughts in social situations. The basic assumption behind this is: “Accurate and useful information about even the most complex aspects of social behavior and social thought can be acquired through the use of basic methods of science” (Baron & Byron 1995; 13).

Thus, social psychology is the scientific study of the behavior of individuals in social and cultural contexts. It explains and analyses the causes behind behaviors that may be related to one or more factors mentioned above.

Additional Notes:

Social psychology is a subfield of psychology that focuses on how individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the presence, actions, and characteristics of others. It explores the ways in which people perceive and interact with one another, and it seeks to understand the social forces that shape human behavior.

Key concepts in social psychology include:

a.       Social Influence

This concept examines how individuals are affected by the presence and actions of others. It includes topics such as conformity (changing one’s behavior to match that of a group), compliance (responding to a direct request), and obedience (following orders from authority figures).

b.      Social Perception

Social psychologists study how people form judgments and make inferences about others. This includes understanding the processes of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.

c.       Attitudes and Attitude Change

Attitudes are individuals’ evaluations of people, objects, or ideas. Social psychologists investigate how attitudes are formed and changed, and the persuasive techniques that can be used to alter them.

d.      Social Cognition

This refers to the way people think about and process information related to social interactions. It includes topics like attribution (explaining the causes of behavior) and cognitive biases.

e.      Group Dynamics

Social psychologists explore how individuals behave in group settings, including issues related to leadership, decision-making, groupthink, and cooperation.

f.        Interpersonal Relationships

This area examines how relationships form and develop, including the study of attraction, love, aggression, and conflict resolution.

g.       Self and Identity

Social psychology explores how individuals perceive and define themselves within a social context, including self-esteem, self-concept, and self-presentation.

h.      Social Norms

Norms are the unwritten rules and expectations for behavior within a particular social group or culture. Social psychology investigates how individuals conform to or violate these norms.

i.         Social Change

This aspect of social psychology looks at how individuals and groups can influence and promote social change, activism, and collective action.

Social psychology is relevant in various aspects of life, including understanding and improving interpersonal relationships, addressing societal issues such as prejudice and discrimination, and marketing and persuasion strategies. It seeks to uncover the complex interplay between individual psychology and the social environment.

Nature of social psychology

The nature of social psychology is characterized by several key aspects that define its scope and focus. These aspects help us understand how social psychology operates and contributes to the field of psychology:

a.       Social Interaction and Influence

At its core, social psychology is concerned with how individuals are influenced by the presence and actions of others. It examines how people perceive, interact with, and are affected by the social environment and the people in it.

b.      Group and Individual Dynamics

Social psychology explores the interplay between individual behavior and group dynamics. It investigates how individuals behave in social contexts and how group processes impact individual decisions and actions.

c.       Empirical Research

Social psychology relies heavily on empirical research methods to test hypotheses and theories. Researchers use a variety of methods, including experiments, surveys, observational studies, and field research to collect data and draw conclusions about social behavior.

d.      Interdisciplinary Approach

Social psychology draws on insights from various disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, and cognitive psychology, to understand the complexities of human social behavior.

e.      Cognitive and Affective Processes

It explores the cognitive and emotional processes that underlie social behavior, including perception, memory, attitudes, emotions, and decision-making.

f.        Application and Practical Relevance

Social psychology is often applied to address real-world issues, such as prejudice, discrimination, persuasion, and social change. It provides insights that can be used to improve relationships, communication, and social policies.

g.       The Scientific Method

Like all branches of psychology, social psychology adheres to the scientific method. Researchers formulate hypotheses, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions based on empirical evidence. This commitment to scientific rigor distinguishes social psychology from purely anecdotal or speculative approaches to understanding human behavior.

h.      Ethical Considerations

Ethical guidelines are a fundamental part of social psychology research. Researchers must ensure that their studies are conducted with the well-being and informed consent of participants, and they should avoid any harm or deception in their research.

i.         Cross-Cultural Perspective

Social psychology acknowledges the importance of cultural and societal influences on social behavior. It recognizes that social phenomena may vary across different cultures and contexts, and researchers often take a cross-cultural perspective when studying social issues.

j.         Dynamic and Evolving Field

Social psychology is not static; it evolves as society changes and new research emerges. It adapts to address contemporary social issues and continually advances our understanding of human behavior in social settings.

In summary, the nature of social psychology is characterized by its focus on social interaction, group dynamics, empirical research, interdisciplinary approach, cognitive and affective processes, ethical considerations, and its practical applications. It is a dynamic field that seeks to understand and explain the complexities of human behavior in social contexts and contributes to the broader field of psychology.

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