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Social Psychology

Social Psychology

The general approach and methodology

Perceptual processes

Social comparison processes

Communication and consensus in groups

The conformity conflict

Attitude change

Social interaction



Although its intellectual origins extend back into antiquity, social psychology as a scientific discipline has only recently come of age. Our purpose in this brief survey will be to provide a rough sketch of the current status of the field by outlining the problems, approaches, and methods of contemporary research. Specific content areas are treated in more detail in other articles.

The set of problems on which social psychology has been focused, problems that have intrigued thinkers since ancient times, concerns the social nature of man and the manner in which this social nature develops. The awesomeness of whatever processes are involved in the development of man as a social animal are put into bold relief by such accounts as the Wild Boy of Aveyron by Itard (1801). This and similar accounts of so-called feral children suggest that without human contact the infant human organism will never develop his full biological and psychological capacities. Clearly, important events occur in the early, primitive contact that the infant human has with his parents. The nature of these events, the socialization process, has become one of the central focuses of social psychology. If we conceive of socialization in its broadest sense as a process whereby the individual learns the beliefs and values of his social group and learns to adjust his behavior so that it meets the expectations of others in the group, then social psychology can be regarded as the study of socialization and its products. [SeeSOCIALIZATION.]

Some historical background

There are several traditions that represent different approaches to the study of social behavior, which we can touch on only briefly. The sociological tradition developed by such men as Tarde, Le Bon, Ross, Cooley, and Mead has been concerned primarily with processes mediated by face-to-face interaction. In one way or another this tradition has relied upon one or more of the triumvirate of concepts: suggestion, imitation, and sympathy [SeeSUGGESTION; IMITATION; SYMPATHY AND EMPATHY; and the biographies Of COOLEY; LE BON; MEAD; ROSS; TARDE]. Another important contributor from the sociological side was Simmel, who attempted to distill the forms of social relationships (e.g., superordina-tion and subordination) from the widely different settings in which they appear [SeeSIMMEL]. A figure who stands alone in importance in the early development of social psychology is the French sociologist Durkheim [SeeDURKHEIM]. He conceived of the interaction situation as generating emergent norms, or“collective representations,”as he called them [SeeNORMS]. These norms, in turn, act with“exteriority and constraint”in controlling subsequent behavior. This intellectual tradition in sociology has melded into the approach of many contemporary social psychologists.

On the psychological side there have been three major influences: psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and gestalt theory. The psychoanalytic approach conceives of the socialization process as curbing and redirecting the infant’s natural appetites, thereby producing an adult with a complex unconscious life, as well as with a conscience that operates to constrain subsequent behavior. Identification, which occurs both in the very early months of life andin the resolution of the Oedipus conflict, represents, in psychoanalytic theory, one of the principal mechanisms of socialization. The behaviorist approach attributes social learning to the establishment of stimulus-response connections that are mediated primarily by drive reduction; social behavior is seen as a set of ingrained habitual responses and response patterns. The gestalt school, with its emphasis on the organization of the perceptual world of the individual, has focused its study on the meaning of a percept, as well as on the cognitive, conscious thought processes that are involved in interaction. The modern representatives of this school of social psychology, such as Festinger (1957) and Heider (1958), have stressed the tendency for a person to come to see his world and his own behavior and beliefs in a consistent way. [SeeGESTALT THEORY; IDENTITY, PSYCHOSOCIAL; PSYCHOANALYSIS; THINKING, article on COGNITIVE ORGANIZATION AND PROCESSES.]

In the past these approaches produced a great deal of sectionalism, but much blending is visible today. Workers in the field have come to realize that the various approaches need not be mutually exclusive. Social psychology is coming to be viewed as a general approach to the study of human behavior that rests, on the one hand, on certain basic facts of perception, cognition, motivation, and learning and, on the other hand, on certain basic facts that have to do with the social context which sets boundary conditions for the behavior in the form of the expectations of others. Accordingly, social psychology is in a position to borrow both from traditional psychology and from traditional sociology.

The general approach and methodology

Any approach to behavior can be cast in the S-O-R paradigm. A stimulus (S) impinges on the organism (O) and produces behavior, a response (R). The ways in which various approaches differ is in how the S, the O, and the R are characterized. Contemporary social psychology differs from traditional psychology in this characterization. Within traditional behaviorism, for example, the characterization of the stimulus and the response have tended to be made in physicalistic terms. For example, in studies of learning, a stimulus is described as a buzzer with a particular frequency or a light with a particular wave length and the response elicited might be a bar-press or the raising of a paw. In general, social psychologists have implicitly assumed at least a two-stage process mediating responses to stimuli. The first is a perceptual stage in which meaning is attributed to some external stimulus configuration and a second stage in which the meaningful stimulus generates subsequent behavior. The emphasis is on the meaning to the person of both the stimulus situation and the response.

Social psychologists have worked in two distinct settings, the everyday world and the laboratory, and have developed a research armamentarium appropriate to both of these settings. By the everyday world we mean the study of social behavior in vivo, in some existing social milieu. Social psychologists have studied behavior in factory settings, in military organizations, in housing communities, in delinquent gangs, and so on. Of course, it is impossible to study every aspect of the behavior of the individuals who are enmeshed in such complex situations as these. The social psychologist, therefore, narrows his sights to include only a limited number of aspects of any given everyday-life situation. He may focus on behavior in response to certain aspects of the total stimulus situation, such as the power structure of the group or the communication network that connects the individual member to others in the group. The researcher-observer is typically not in a position to control or alter features of these complex situations and is therefore limited in what he is able to infer with confidence from his observations. If a certain kind of behavior seems to be associated with a particular aspect of the total situation pinpointed by the researcher, it is impossible for him to know, without adequate control over the total situation, whether the behavior was indeed produced by this aspect of the situation or by some other aspect which the researcher failed to take into account. Furthermore, it may be that the behavior itself subsequently served in some way to generate the stimulus conditions; causal direction is difficult to infer. It may also be the case that some unknown set of stimulus conditions is generating both the observed set of stimulus conditions and the observed behaviorthat is, the observed relationship between the stimulus and the response may be spurious. These are some of the methodological shortcomings to which research in field situations is heir. [SeeEXPERIMENTAL DESIGN.]

Much of the field research in social psychology has been devoted to the study of such specific problems as the way in which supervisory practices affect morale in a particular organization or how certain propaganda appeals affect the vulnerability of a particular audience. Field methods are eminently suited to finding answers to specific, pressing problems of this kind. The laboratory serves or should servea different purpose. Because of his ability to manipulate, control, and purify the stimulus conditions confronting the person who is serving as a subject in the experiment, the experimenter acquires the ability to study behavior in more general terms. His ability to infer causal connections between the stimulus conditions that he creates and the behavior of his experimental subjects helps in developing theories regarding the underlying psychological processes the nature of the O. He attempts to do this both by establishing specific stimulus conditions confronting his experimental subject and by limiting the response alternatives available to the subject. His inferences are generally made by comparing the effects on behavior of variations in the stimulus conditions with the same set of response alternatives available to the subject.

The fact that the laboratory is often used to create a minuscule social world has led some people to assume mistakenly that the main purpose in fact, the sole purposeof the laboratory is to try things out on a small scale before applying them to a larger, real-world context or to understand the large complex situation by re-creating a smaller situation that has the same order of complexity as the larger one, a rather ambitious program to say the least. The laboratory research worker who is investigating basic social psychological processes is not concerned with making empirical generalizations relating a specific set of stimulus conditions to a specific response, but rather with establishing conceptual laws about behavior. The mistaken testing-ground view of the laboratory is a source of much confusion. For example, it leads to the expectation that the laboratory worker should provide people in policy-making positions with immediately useful insights and specific empirical predictions concerning some specific aspect of their particular world. The field setting and the laboratory are geared to answering quite different questions. The field setting is much richer in content, but this richness also makes for tenuous inferences.

The technology used in any field study or laboratory experiment will be dictated by the specific problem at hand. Typically, a field study involves a combination of careful observation of behavior with some form of verbal report, questionnaire, or interview responses. Whereas social psychologists who engage in field studies devote a great deal of effort to refining these response measures, the laboratory worker devotes the greater part of his efforts to refining the stimulus conditions. This difference in emphasis is due to the distinct differences between the two settings. In the field study, the investigator studies responses to existing stimulus conditions over which he has no control, whereas in the laboratory he sets out to create the stimulus conditions and usually permits only a narrow latitude of possible responses. As we review some of the research we shall see examples of individual items of technology. [SeeINTERVIEWING, article on SOCIAL RESEARCH; OBSERVATION, article on SOCIAL OBSERVATION AND SOCIAL CASE STUDIES.]

The action sequence

A general approach to behavior that incorporates aspects of a number of other approaches is that of the action sequence. Any action engaged in by the person is designed to come to terms with his changing stimulus environment so that his outcomes (satisfactions) will be maximized. He will want to transact with objects having positive value for him and will avoid objects having negative value. As compared with lower organisms, the stimulus vista of the human being is extremely broad, consisting of a wide variety of potentially satisfying and potentially punishing objects and events. Much of this complex set of value-object relationships, or attitudes, is acquired through the socialization process.

Any given act involves a decision, however simple and quickly it is made, between alternatives, each having consequences for the person. His decisioneven if it is between acting or maintaining the status quowill be predicated upon how the person sizes up the outcome potential of each alternative. A postdecisional accommodation process occurs after he commits himself to one of the action alternatives. Behavioral economy and the exigencies involved in dealing with the world around him require that the person make relatively quick decisions and then follow through. He learns to live with his decisions, since undoing them is often costly, if not impossible. Also, a decision implies giving up the positive outcomes associated with the nonchosen alternative and suffering the negative outcomes, if any, associated with the chosen alternative. A decision is forced upon the person, since he is unable to simultaneously enjoy the values associated with the various alternatives that are open to him. Vacillation is not an efficient solution. Postdecisional accommodation has been studied extensively by Festinger (1957) and others. The person’s predecision stance toward information about the alternatives is an open or vigilant one, whereas his postdecisional stance is selective and defensive. This basic antinomy between vigilance and defensiveness is a fundamental characteristicof behavior. We shall review the general field of social psychology within this action-sequence framework which considers both the predecisional and postdecisional phases of the act.

Perceptual processes

Social psychologists have tackled the age-old and difficult problem of perception. The problem stated simply is: How is the welter of stimulus information that impinges on the person at every moment organized by him and made meaningful? The act of perception is a decision to classify some stimulus event in some particular category. This response will be determined by the total behavior context in which the perceptual act occurs. A configuration conveying stimulus information of a round red object with a stem sticking out of a small depression on the surface may in one context be perceived primarily as something to eat and in another context as something to throw. The person’s“definition”of the situation will be determined, in part, by prior social learning. This situa-tional definition consists of a set of expectations as to what stimulus objects are likely to be present within the general behavioral context and the values that the person holds as he contemplates transaction with the stimulus. A percept is a decision and as such can be analyzed within the action-sequence framework. In Bruner’s terms (1957) a percept is a “solution”to a problem, the constituent parts of which are the cues provided by the object and the expectations and desires provided by the person. A good solution is defined pragmatically as one in which subsequent transaction with the object confirms the original expectation and, hence, provides satisfaction for the original desire. The perceptual process serves not only to facilitate transaction with positively-valued objects but also to prepare the person to avoid negatively-valued ones. He is continually alert to changes in his stimulus environment that may signal positively-valued or negatively-valued consequences for him.

Most of the research has been in the form of demonstrating the interaction between the stimulus and the person’s values in one or another behavior context. There has been little work, however, on the exact nature of the interaction that would help to define the limiting conditions under which the interaction will take place and those conditions under which the interaction will be maximum. The findings that support this view of the perceptual process are reviewed in detail elsewhere [seePERCEPTION, articles on PERSON PERCEPTION and SOCIAL PERCEPTION].

A particular relationship deserves special mention here since it highlights the functional, decisional nature of perception. Under conditions of impoverished stimulation, the subject’s visual threshold for positively-valued stimuli is lower than it is for neutral stimulithat is, less stimulus information is required by the subject to recognize positively-valued objects. The findings for threatening, negatively-valued stimuli show a somewhat different pattern. Negatively-valued stimuli that can be avoided show a lower threshold than neutral stimuli, whereas negatively-valued stimuli that cannot be avoided show a raised threshold. Both of these tendencies can be interpreted as attempts at avoidance. Where the subject can take action, he is vigilant toward the threatening event, whereas where he can do nothing to avoid it he is ostrichlike in this tendency to deny its existence. [SeeATTENTION; PERCEPTION, article on PERCEPTUAL DEPRIVATION.]

Person perception

The study of person perception is, of course, of special interest to social psychologists. The way in which one person’s acts are interpreted by another will determine the course of their future interactionthat is, whether or not mutual dependence and mutual influence develop. The general findings in this area are consistent with our functionalist view of perception. The total stimulus-and-value context appears to induce expectations as to the qualities or traits possessed by the stimulus person as well as to induce attributed intentions. The fact that a person is known to possess a particular characteristic induces the expectation that he will possess other characteristics that are usually related to the one that he is known to possess. The inference made about the stimulus person from any given act is made in terms of the context of the act. Was the act justified in the eyes of the perceiverthat is, was the act appropriate to the stimulus situation attributed by the perceiver to the stimulus person? For example, if the stimulus person behaved aggressively within a context that appeared to the perceiver as one in which aggression is a perfectly appropriate response, the stimulus person might not be perceived as aggressive. He would tend to be perceived as aggressive only if another, nonaggressive response seemed more appropriate to the stimulus context. On the other hand, if the context is one in which an aggressive response seems particularly appropriate and the person responded in a nonaggressive way, the perceiver might attribute meekness to the stimulus person. The general principle operating here is that the intention attributed to the stimulus person will be inferred from the stimulus person’sbehavior judged in terms of the behavioral alternatives open to the stimulus person (as seen by the perceiver). Various aspects of the total situation will determine the judgment by the perceiver as to the response alternatives open to the stimulus personfor example, the status of the stimulus person vis-a-vis the person toward whom he is acting, the sequence of interactions immediately preceding the segment of behavior in question, and idiosyncratic qualities of the perceiver himself.


Man’s social nature is presumably molded through interaction. Since interaction is between persons as each is perceived by the other, knowledge of the process of person perception is an important and basic key. We form an impression of a person from his interaction with us or with others and our impressions in turn condition our interaction with him. The research on social influence and other group processes, which we shall review below, starts either by assuming that the actors have certain impressions of each other or by experimentally inducing the impression, de novo, as an independent variable. The student of person perception examines the process in reverse by treating interaction as the independent, experimental variable and examining aspects of the interaction situation that produce various impressions. Both of these approaches complement each other, and knowledge gained from each will add to our understanding of the nature and substance of social life.

Social comparison processes

Other persons can act as sources of information or as direct mediators of reward. The child’s parents provide him with food, warmth, and shelter and also with certain knowledge he requires to engage in the business of living within his social milieu. All problems in social psychology reduce to studying implications of either one or the other kind of dependence for information and for directly mediated effects (outcomes, rewards, satisfaction).

A given act involves a beginning state, a desired end state, and a path or sequence of behaviors designed to move the individual from start to finish. Any act, however trivial, can be analyzed within this framework. Kurt Lewin referred to the possible action sequences existing for the person at any given moment as the person’s“life space.”There may be a considerable amount of uncertainty attached to various aspects of an action sequence. The person may be uncertain as to whether his present level of satisfaction is reasonable or whether the end state of the sequence will indeed furnish him with a higher level of satisfaction. He also may be uncertain as to whether or not he has the ability to act in the manner required to realize the end state or to transact with the end state in order to derive the satisfaction he anticipates. To the extent that the situation is novel, his uncertainty will be high. The person’s world is in constant and irregular motion, usually taking unpre-dicted turns. In trying to reconcile these changes with his own desires, he is continually confronted with decisions and tries to choose the action alternative that he hopes will yield him the most pleasure or the least pain. To the extent that he is uncertain about what to do or how to do it he will be oriented toward getting information to reduce his uncertainty.

The person may be uncertain about his present outcome levelthat is, whether or not he is receiving adequate satisfaction in his present situation. What kind of measuring stick does he use to determine how satisfied he is? There appear to be three bases upon which he may “measure”his satisfaction: his own past experience, the various alternative outcome states potentially available to him, and the experiences of other people in the same or similar situations. It is this last basis that is of particular interest to us here. Where comparison persons are available as points of reference against which he can compare aspects of his own situation, he will make use of this information to the extent that more reliable information is lacking.

Reference persons

There are three basic kinds of information other persons can provide: advice, impressions, and knowledge as to relative standing. Advice is any information given to another through “instruction.”Impressions are given about the person’by another through a process we shall, call“reflected appraisal.”Standing refers to the person’s relative position in a group, with regard to some attribute, and the process whereby he determines his standing we shall call“comparative appraisal.”Most of the research on social influence has been concerned with the last-mentioned process, comparative appraisal.

Two general types of reference persons can be distinguished: the“expert”and the“co-oriented peer.”An expert is someone who, by virtue of his experience, has special knowledge as to how the person might effect a favorable change in outcome level. A co-oriented peer is someone who shares the life situation of the person, someone who has a similar outlook and value orientation. In measuring his present or future satisfaction level the person tends to refer to others like himself. Merton and Kitt (1950) demonstrate this rather well with data on the degree to which certain groups of en-listed men felt deprived during World War II. They found, for example, that married soldiers felt more deprived as a result of being in the army than did single soldiers. This, they discovered, was attributable to the fact that married soldiers, in measuring their outcome level, compared themselves with other married men, whereas single soldiers compared themselves with other single men. Since all able-bodied single men were in the army, the single soldier did not feel deprived relative to his co-oriented peer group. Married soldiers, on the other hand, knew that a large proportion of their peer group had evaded the draft and were enjoying the comforts of home life. They therefore felt deprived. The co-oriented peer helps the person to measure his present or potentially available outcome states, whereas the expert is a source of information on how to move from one state to another. [SeeREFERENCE GROUPS.]

Social influence

The research on social influence has been conducted in three very different laboratory settings, and our review will examine each of these in turn, within the general framework outlined above. The first setting is one in which the subject finds himself in a face-to-face confrontation with other people with whom there is some sort of a discrepancy. The second setting is one in which the subject is merely informed that he is in disagreement with others and has little or no opportunity to communicate with them. The third setting is one in which a single communicator attempts to persuade an audience.

Communication and consensus in groups

The work of Allport (1920) brought the study of group effects on individual judgments into the laboratory. Allport’s work was preceded by a tradition dating back to the turn of the century, in which group effects on individual performance were demonstrated. Allport found that a person’s judgment about an ambiguous stimulus can be influenced by the judgments of other people about that stimulus. In subsequent work, Sherif (1935) found that this modified judgment, the norm, tends to persist even in the absence of these other people. We can see the close connection here with Durkheim’s concept of collective representation. [SeeGROUPS, article on GROUP FORMATION.]

The advent of World War n spurred the development of social psychology, especially in the area of social-influence processes. The next important milestone was provided by the work of Kurt Lewin and his students. Lewin realized very early the importance of systematic theory in studying behavior, and he also had an abiding faith that even complex social behavior could be studied systematically in the laboratory. Of particular concern to us here are his studies of group decisions. These studies, which were undertaken during World War n, suggested that when an individual reaches a decision in a group situation, the decision appears to have a compelling quality in sustaining certain consequences of that decision (Lewin 1947). Some doubt has been cast on the conclusions reached in these early experiments, by some more recent work of Bennett (1955). In her attempt to replicate with more careful controls the earlier group-decision experiments, Bennett found that it was the decision itself that carried the day rather than the fact of having reached a decision in a group. Bennett discovered, however, that the individual’s attitude toward the decision was positive to the extent that there was consensus in his group. This, then, may have been the crucial mediating factor in Lewin’s experimentsnamely, that where a group decision was made, the individual group member was made aware of the group consensus. [SeeCONFORMITY;CONSENSUS; GROUPS.]

Attraction of the group

Lewin’s “discovery”of the power of the group inspired the work of a number of his students. One set of studies that was so inspired was undertaken by a group working with Lewin that was led by Festinger. The first of these was a field study by Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950) of social pressures in a student housing community in the Boston area. Within the community,“natural”groups were created by the architectural design of the community; families were thrown together because of the way in which the individual apartments were arranged. The central finding of the study grew out of the fortuitous occurrence of an important, controversial issue that arose while the study was in progress. The investigators found that the degree of unanimity of opinion on the issue within each of the architecturally circumscribed groups was a direct function of the over-all attraction of the individual members to these groups. There is a strong suggestion here that the more attractive a group is for an individual member, the greater will be the tendency for the member to be influenced by the opinions of others in the group. This interpretation led to more general speculation about the nature of social influence processes and eventuated in a program of laboratory research that occupied Festinger and his students for a number of years. Typically, the experiments used college-student subjects engaged in a discussion during which their behavior was carefully observed and meas-ured. Three types of behavior were recorded: an attempt by the subject to influence someone else in the group, an attempt by the subject to reject someone in the group, and a change of opinion by the subject on the issue that was being discussed. The amount of each of these three kinds of behavior, it was reasoned, would indicate the strength of the tendency for the group to reach a consensus. With these behaviors as the dependent variables, various aspects of the group situation were manipulated experimentally. The suspected relationship found in the housing study mentioned abovenamely, that the greater the attraction of a group for its individual members, the greater will be the tendency for members of the group to reach a consensuswas verified (e.g., Schachter 1951; Festinger et al. 1952). It was also found (e.g., Schachter 1951) that the greater the relevance of the issue to the purpose of the group, the greater will be the attempts to reach consensus. To the extent that the members of the group are able to refer their opinions outside the group for validation, there will be a weakened tendency to achieve consensus in the group (Festinger & Thibaut 1951). Studies by Festinger and Thibaut (1951) and Gerard (1953) found that the greater the discrepancy in opinion between members of a group, the greater will be the tendency for them to influence each other. To the extent that a given group member is close to the modal opinion in the group, he will attempt to influence those who are deviates to change their opinion, so as to achieve greater group consensus (Festinger et al. 1952; Gerard 1953). Reaching consensus in a group involves getting deviates to change their opinions. When such attempts fail, consensus can be achieved by rejecting these deviates. Any basis that may exist for conceiving of the deviate as not being a relevant reference person will tend to enhance rejection as a method for achieving consensus (Festinger & Thibaut 1951; Gerard 1953). There is also evidence that the individual will be more vulnerable to influence from someone who is an expert than from someone whose ability is equal to or less than his own (Festinger et al. 1952).

All of these experiments growing out of the housing study were designed to study information dependence that is engendered when the individual is uncertain about some belief or opinion that he holds. Other people, it was assumed, are used merely as reference points against which the person may check his opinion. The process based on this kind of referral, comparative appraisal, can occur with or without actual face-to-face confrontation. When, however, people do confront each other face-to-face, reflected appraisal may also take place. Here the person is responding to what the other person may think of him for being a deviate; he will respond not in order to reduce uncertainty, but in order to maintain or improve his status in the other person’s eyes. In these experiments the subjects were confronting each other face-to-face, and it is likely that their responses were in part due to reflected appraisal. It is not clear, for example, why attraction to others in the group should increase the person’s tendency to refer his opinions to that group, unless we assume that reflected appraisal is operatingthat is, that individual members are concerned with maintaining their status in the group. Where the person is concerned with reducing the uncertainty with which he holds a belief, referral should be based upon how much expertise the person attributes to the reference person and not to how attractive he is. There is another possibility that may account for the relationship between comparison and attraction. Insofar as the aspect or judgment being compared with others in the group has anything to do with present or future satisfactionsthat is, outcome perspectivethere will be a greater tendency to rely upon the judgments of others to the extent that they are perceived as co-oriented in this respect. It may be that where a person is highly attracted to others in the group, he assumes that they are co-oriented peers. Another possibility that was addressed experimentally by Berkowitz (1957) is that an individual will attribute expertise to someone he likes. In any event the original problem with which these studies began namely, the relationship between the tendency to reach a consensus in a group and attraction by the members to the group must be mediated by either attributed co-orientation or attributed expertise. A great deal of work remains to be done in order to understand the nature of the mediational processes involved. [SeeCOHESION, SOCIAL.]

Further studies of social comparison

An important field study conducted by Newcomb (1943) in the middle and late 1930s at Bennington College, a women’s college, offers striking evidence regarding the attainment of consensus in an existing group. Newcomb traced the changes in attitudes toward political affairs that occurred among Bennington students during their four years of college. The typical Bennington freshman in 1935, the year the study began, came from a wealthy northeastern conservative home and reflected this background in her attitudes upon entering Bennington. Most of the faculty were left of center in their political attitudes. As the situation developed, it was“in”to be a liberal, and most of the upperclassmen expressed liberal attitudes. The longer the student remained at Bennington, the more liberal her attitudes became. That this was not a mere overt public avowal, but a reflection of her actual attitudes, is attested to by a follow-up study of the attitudes held by these Bennington students thirty years later (Newcomb 1963), in which it was found that there was very little reversion to the conservative attitudes held by these women when they were entering Bennington freshmen nearly three decades earlier.

A series of experiments initiated by Schachter (1959) studied comparative appraisal as mediated by attributed co-orientation. Whereas the earlier experiments were concerned primarily with the comparison of beliefs, Schachter’s experiments were concerned with comparison of emotions. Emotions are strong attitudes and, as such, have a belief and a value component (see the discussion below on attitudes). The value component has associated with it a substrate of physiological arousal. Since the value component is paramount in the case of an emotion, a person who is uncertain about some aspect of an emotional experience he is having will seek out co-oriented peersthat is, others undergoing or about to undergo the same emotional experience. Schachter found evidence for this in an experiment in which he threatened subjects with a strong electric shock. In subsequent experiments additional evidence was found that emotional uncertainty does lead to information dependence on co-oriented peers.

There is also evidence to indicate that the performances of other people are sometimes used by the person to estimate the quality of his own performance. A study by Chapman and Volkmann (1939) demonstrated a“group effect”on the person’s aspiration. Where the subject had no clear expectation as to what his performance would be on an unfamiliar task, he utilized information about the scores others had made on the task, in setting his own level of aspiration. On the other hand, where the subject had had considerable experience with a particular type of task and could therefore estimate fairly accurately how he would perform on a similar task, knowledge of the scores others had made had little or no effect on his performance aspiration.

Other studies have shown that when a task is a competitive one, the person will seek his own level in choosing a competitor. This finding is taken by Festinger (1954) as evidence for a tendency on the part of the person to compare his performance to the performance of others as a way of evaluating his ability.

The conformity conflict

The research on consensus attainment in groups was, for the most part, concerned with events taking place in the group as a whole and did not pay specific attention to the individual member’s reactions to a discrepancy confrontation. And elegantly simple experimental situation designed by Asch (1956) provides a technique for bringing the individual’s reaction into sharper focus. This is accomplished by confronting the subject with unanimous disagreement from a group of peers (who are actually accomplices of the experimenter) on a very simple, unambiguous visual judgment. The judgment involves matching the length of a single line to one of a number of comparison lines. The subject confronts repeated disagreement from“the others”on a series of trials. Asch found that there was a tendency for some subjects to yield to the group judgment.

In a situation like this the subject assumes that the others possess approximately the same perceptual capacities as he does and are able and willing to report accurately what they see. How, then, can there be a discrepancy like this? These considerations make up the informational side of the conflict. There is also the problem of standing out like a sore thumb, the subject’s concern with the kind of impression he is making on the others if he assumes that they expect him to agree with them. If he disagrees with them he may lose status in their eyes. We can anticipate, then, that both comparative and reflected appraisal will be operating in the situation. An attempt to separate these two processes was made by Deutsch and Gerard (1955), by comparing a treatment in which the subject made his judgments in full view of the experimental accomplices with a treatment in which the subject made his judgments within the privacy of an isolation booth. Less yielding was found when the subjects were isolated from each other than when they were face-to-face, suggesting that reflected appraisal is a strong component process of the face-to-face situation. A number of other experiments have substantiated these results. [SeeCONFORMITY; CONSENSUS.]

Information dependence on others appears to increase with increasing ambiguity of the judgmental material (e.g., Asch 1956). If we assume that an ambiguous stimulus will lead to uncertainty, this finding supports the basic assumption underlying comparative appraisal: uncertainty leads to information dependence. When there isinformation dependence a clear“expert effect”has also been foundnamely, that when confronting an ambiguous situation, the subject is dependent upon the others to the extent that he perceives them to be expert in the kind of judgment he made (Samelson 1957). One might be led to assume by the results of these experiments on relative ability that the person with high ability has little difficulty in remaining steadfast, that he simply discounts the discrepant information as being unreliable, and that it is the low-ability person who is in trouble. An attempt to explore the psychological impact that disagreement has on individuals of different ability was made (Gerard 1961), using physiological responses to measure the impact of disagreement. The findings in these studies indicate that the greater the person’s ability, the greater will be the impact of disagreement with a group of peers. This result may be interpreted by assuming that the higher the person’s ability, the greater the conflict between the two sources of information available to him, the information from his own senses and the group consensus. The greater his ability, the more credibility will he attach to his own judgments which are in disagreement with another highly credible source of information, the group consensus.

In an experiment involving relatively strong attitudes, Kelley and Woodruff (1956) found that disagreement with a group of co-oriented peers was more effective in changing the subject’s attitude than disagreement with a group that was represented as not being co-oriented with the subject.

In a number of investigations, explicit effect dependence was induced by making the subjects dependent upon one another for certain outcomes (Deutsch & Gerard 1955). This effect dependence produced greater conformity to a false consensus, an outcome presumably mediated by the subject’s desire for acceptance in situations where the others are potential mediators of satisfaction for him. A particularly crucial finding that is relevant here comes from a study by Kelley and Shapiro (1954), in which a negative correlation was found between conformity and the acceptance of the subject as a group member. Evidently, the less the subject’s acceptance, the more anxious was he to please the other members of the group. Additional supporting evidence was found by Harvey and Consalvi (1960), in whose study the most and least accepted members of a group conformed less than a member who was only partially accepted. We can interpret these results by assuming that the person of highest status does not conform because he is assured of his status, whereas the person of lowest status does not conform because he sees no possibility of improving his status.

Other studies have been concerned with the role of commitment in the conformity conflict. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) discovered that when the subject committed himself to his judgment before being apprised of the judgments of the others in the group, he yielded much less to the group consensus.

In terms of the action sequence, we would expect that the decision to yield to the group or remain steadfast would have postdecisional consequences. Evidence reported by Gerard (1965) suggests that postdecisional accommodation does indeed take place. A conformer will accommodate both by increasing the degree to which the group is attractive to him and by attributing expertise to them, whereas a deviate will tend to reduce the perceived attractiveness of the group and attribute lower expertise to them as a way of justifying his own behavior.

Attitude change

We will attempt a brief but broad overview of the area of attitude change in order to show how our general framework applies to this area as well. We shall examine, in turn, characteristics of the three aspects of the persuasion situation: the communicator, his message, and his audience. This is the framework used by Aristotle in his Rhetoric and by Hovland Janis, and Kelley (1953) in their classic work. [SeeATTITUDES, article on ATTITUDE CHANGE.]

An attitude designates the outcome potential the person associates with some object or class of objects. He consequently has a tendency either to approach or avoid that class of objects. The structure of an attitude can be represented as a syllogism in which the minor premise is a belief, the major premise is a value, and the conclusion is the attitude itself. Thus, a prejudiced person might be characterized by the following syllogism as part of the structure underlying his attitude:

Negroes are lazy.
Laziness is bad.
Therefore, Negroes are bad.

An analysis of this syllogism shows that“Negroes”is the minor term, “laziness”is the middle term, and“bad”is the major term. Many attitudes, such as anti-Negro prejudice, have complex structures that include sets of parallel syllogisms all having the same conclusion and a “deep”vertical structure with interlocking premises—that is, working backward we may find that the premises in a first-order syllogism may be conclusions of one or more second-order syllogisms, and so on. There has as yet been no attempt to describe systematically the structure for a given person, although case studies such as those reported in Smith, Bruner, and White (1956) represent a start in that direction.

The communicator

Propaganda appeals are directed toward changing either the belief or value premises underlying an attitude. The credibility attached to a message will depend upon the degree of expertise or co-orientation attributed to the communicator, expertise being more important where a belief is a target of the message and co-orientation being more important when a value is the target. Experiments (e.g., Aronson et al. 1963) have demonstrated a positive relationship between the credibility of a message and the amount of expertise attributed to the communicator. An experiment by Weiss (1957) provides indirect evidence for the relationship between credibility and co-orientation of the communicator.

An aspect of the situation that is closely related to co-orientation has to do with the intent attributed to the speaker by his audience. If he is perceived as wanting to influence them, it may be in pursuit of some value he holds that his audience perceives as inimical to their own values. Therefore, to the extent that the communicator is seen as not attempting to influence his audience, the effect of any attributed lack of co-orientation would be minimized. An experiment by Walster and Festinger (1962) compared the effectiveness of a communication when it was accidentally overheard with a situation where the communicator was aware of his audience (and his audience of him) and found that there was greater attitude change in the direction of the message when it was merely overheard. [SeeCOMMUNICATION, MASS.]

The communication

An aspect of the message that has been given some attention concerns the question of whether it is more effective for the communicator to present only his side of the argument or to present the other side of the issue as well. The results of this research are inconclusive. There does seem to be some evidence, however, that when a person changes his attitude in response to a two-sided communication, this change will be more likely to sustain itself than if he changes in response to a one-sided communication. It may be that a two-sided communication presents the person with a definite decision, and the communication’s ability to sustain a change may be due to postdecisional accommodation. [SeePERSUASION.]

Primacy versus recency

When presenting both sides of an argument, is it more effective for the communicator to present his side first or second? This question reduces to whether a“primacy”or a“recency”effect will dominate. Again, the research findings do not offer unequivocal support for the predominance of either effect. Some studies have shown a primacy effect, whereas others have shown a recency effect. When the subject commits himself to an opinion after hearing one side of the issue before hearing the other side, a strong primacy effect occurs (Hovland, Campbell, & Brock 1957). This effect can be interpreted as being caused by postdecisional accommodation to the“premature”opinion commitment. A study by Miller and Campbell (1959) suggests that some of the contradictory evidence has been due, in part, to methodological problems that arise in presenting the messages and measuring their effects. As with a number of other problems we have discussed, a great deal more research remains to be done.

Implicit versus explicit conclusions

Another question for which there is no satisfactory answer is whether or not the communicator should draw his conclusion explicitly at the end of his talk or whether he should let his audience participate by“putting two and two together”for themselves. Aristotle suggests that a message that allows the audience to draw its own conclusion will be more effective. In our terms, conclusion drawing is a decision which, because of postdecisional accommodation, will sustain the effect of the message if the audience draws the intended conclusion. A study by Hovland and Mandell (1952), however, suggests that conclusion drawing by the communicator is the more effective technique. Cooper and Dinerman (1951), on the other hand, find that conclusion drawing by the communicator blunts the effectiveness of a message. It is probable that particular circumstances will determine which technique is more effective, and the job of future research is to learn what these circumstances are.

Conditioning effects

Staats and Staats (1958) used a classical conditioning situation to manipulate the belief premise of an attitude and then measured the degree to which the middle term transferred value to the minor term that had originally been associated only with the major term. The results show that mere contiguity with positive or negative values will impart a positive or negative value to a term that was neutral to start with. Razran (1940) conditioned subjects to respond positively or negatively to formerly neutral stimuli, with a subtle technique of associating the neutral term with faint, but perceptible, unpleasant odors or the circumstance of munching away onan appetizing free lunch. Powerful effects such as these are probably being induced without our awareness during the course of a normal day. These effects, which appear to occur without our awareness, are paralleled by effects that are based on conscious, cognitive inference. Where beliefs are shown by the communicator to further certain values, attitude change can be produced (e.g., Di Vesta & Merwin 1960).

Boomerang effects

There is evidence that messages that embody very strong emotional appeals may boomerang (e.g., Leventhal & Kafes 1963). The reasons for this are not very clear, although there is some suggestion in the data that strong value appeals induce defensiveness, especially where the attitude is difficult to change.

The audience

Obviously, the effectiveness of any message will be determined by the degree to which it is successfully tailored to its intended audience. A communication intended to induce new toothbrushing habits in an audience of eight-year-olds would not have the same impact on an adult audience. Factors such as the pre-exposure attitudes of members of the audience, the degree of familiarity with opposing points of view, their education and background, and their degree of commitment to their initial positions will all affect the degree to which they will be susceptible to a given message.

Pre-existing attitudes and forewarning

Hovland (1959) points out that one of the features distinguishing field studies from laboratory experiments on attitude change is the lack of forewarning of the audience that exists in the laboratory situation. In the“real world”a person selectively exposes himself to one or another propaganda missive, whereas the laboratory subject is a captive audience. Hovland suggests that this difference may be one of the factors accounting for the greater relative effectiveness of propaganda attempts studied in the laboratory, where the subject can be caught off guard, so to speak. Studies (e.g., Freedman & Sears 1965) have demonstrated that a forewarned audience is a forearmed audience and is less vulnerable to the communicator’s message than an audience that has not been forewarned. An ingenious experiment by Festinger and Maccoby (1964) indicates that partially distracting the audience while the message is being presented will tend to increase the audience’s vulnerability to the message.

Research by Cooper and Jahoda (1947) suggests that the prior attitude of an audience will affect how a message is interpreted. This is in line with Asch’s suggestion (1948) that the context in which a statement is heard will, in part, determine its meaning for the person. Since the effectiveness of a message hinges on its getting across to the audience, interpretation operates as an important influence in the situation. A study by Hovland, Harvey, and Sherif (1957) demonstrates that one of the factors involved in the interpretation process is the degree of extremity of the message from the subject’s own attitude. Messages that are close to the subject’s own position tend to be assimilated to that position, whereas messages that are inconsistent with his position are seen as even more discrepant than they actually are.

In a series of studies McGuire (1964) has shown, using an immunological analogy, that small doses of the propaganda prior to an actual full-scale attack will stimulate the person’s defenses against the message. McGuire used cultural truisms such as“You should brush your teeth at least twice a day”as the opinions that were attacked. He points out that the average person’s prior preparation to defend these truisms is minimal, that they have grown up in a“germ-free”environment and are therefore particularly vulnerable. Whether small doses of propaganda are able to stimulate a person’s defenses regarding controversial issues remains to be seen.

Role playing

A procedure that has been used extensively both in training and in psychotherapy requires that a person play the role of someone else. This experience presumably gives the trainee or the patient some idea of what it is like to be the person whose role he has taken. He is able to develop an approximate version of the other person’s world and in so doing comes to develop something of an understanding of what it is that is producing the other person’s attitudes and behaviorthat is, he becomes co-oriented with him. The first systematic attempt to investigate the effect of role playing was made by Janis and King (1954). The question they asked was, Is it the fact of verbalizing statements having to do with the other person’s point of view or is it simply a matter of being exposed to that point of view that produces the change in attitude claimed for role playing? They were asking, in effect, whether role playing is really any more effective than the typical attitude change procedure that exposes the subject to an opposing viewpoint. Their data suggest that role playing does add something over and above merely being exposed to the message. The decision to play a role, like any other decision, involves all of the elements of the action sequence. The person is confronted with a choice of whether or not to play the role. If he chooses to play the role, he must somehow come to terms with this decision. The efficacy of role playing may, therefore, hinge on the process of postdecisional accommodation. [SeeROLE.]

We would expect attitude change to be greater to the extent that there was little other justification for playing the role. The person with little justification would be hard put to justify taking a discrepant viewpoint. One way of justifying the roleplaying decision is to accommodate by finding the role itself attractive. This would tend to induce a positive attitude toward the discrepant viewpoint being advocated. Evidence that attitude change is inversely proportional to the incentive given to the person for playing the role is provided by Brehm and Cohen (1962). These experiments used monetary incentives to induce the subject to advocate an opinion that was discrepant from the subject’s private opinion and found that the subject changed his private opinion more with a lower incentive. Other experiments have used inducements such as helping the experimenter in his research or the warmth and friendliness of the experimenter and found the same inverse relationship between attitude change and the amount of incentive. The principle operating here is that the greater the incentive, the less will be the necessity for the person to justify his decision. Other studies, using negative incentivesthat is, coercionhave discovered that the greater the perceived freedom of choice in playing a role, the greater the amount of postdecisional attitude change. An important experiment by Mills (1958) found that when a person engages in forbidden behavior, the less the incentive for doing so, the more lenient does he become in his attitude toward the forbidden behavior. If the person decides not to engage in the forbidden behavior, the greater the original incentive for engaging in the behavior, the more severe does he become in his attitude toward the forbidden behavior. Festinger and Freedman (1964) suggest that behavior justification of this kind may be an important mechanism in the development of moral values. When a child engages in behavior prescribed for him by his parents or when he decides not to engage in behavior that is forbidden by his parents, to the extent that justification for his decision is low he may subsequently justify the behavior by coming to believe that it is the morally correct way to behave.

Social interaction

The study of social influence shades over into the more general study of interaction. In the research discussed above, the focus has been limited to an influence attempt by one person upon another with no influence being exerted in return. Where two individuals confront each other face-to-face, typically the behavior of one is influenced, at least in part, by the behavior of the other in a seriatim fashion. Each, to some extent, controls either information or effects (rewards, outcomes) for the other. It is through this control, as we have seen above, that both behavior and attitudes are shaped.

There have been several approaches to the study of the seriatim situation. A line of investigation started by Greenspoon (1955) has proved fruitful. The paradigm in these experiments is for the experimenter to reward the subject for saying certain kinds of words by either a nod of his head or saying“Good”or“Mmmmm.”This is done in such a way that the subject is usually not aware that he is being rewarded in this way. For example, the subject might be rewarded for saying plural nouns or naming types of fruit. The subject’s tendency to say these words after the experimenter no longer rewards him for doing so is shown to increase as a function of reward. Cohen, Greenbaum, and Mansson (1963) have shown that a period of prior social deprivation enhances the effect of this kind of reward. We can conclude from the considerable work carried out in this tradition that mutual control is probably governed in part by the administration of social reinforcements.

Sidowski, Wyckoff, and Tabory (1956) designed a“minimal”social situation in which to study ihe applicability of learning principles derived primarily from animal studies to the social contingencies that exist in mutual human interaction. The situation utilizes two interdependent subjects, each being unaware of the presence of the other. Each subject makes a choice between two possible responses. One choice rewards and the other choice punishes the other subject. Subjects soon learn, in spite of their being unaware of each other, to choose the mutually rewarding pair of responses. Further studies (e.g., Kelley et al. 1962) have explored factors that enhance or detract from the two subjects hitting on mutually rewarding responses. Informing the subject that his behavior affected the rewards of someone else and that someone else affected his rewards appears to enhance the rapidity with which the mutual contingency is“solved.”These ..periments seem to have abstracted the minimal elements involved in cooperative behavior, where the person can best serve himself by helping the other. Responses that reward another will tend to be reciprocated and will therefore be rewarded in turn.

Studies of a more complex nature have been carried out in which the joint payoff is arranged so that mutual trust is necessary in order for responses to be mutually rewarding. It is possible in these“games”for each player to“double-cross”the other and, if he is successful, to achieve a reward that is larger than the reward that would result from a mutually cooperative response. Thus, there is a temptation to be asocial. Also, in the process, the other player suffers at the expense of the first player getting a very large reward. A number of investigators (notably Deutsch 1958) have studied conditions under which a social, cooperative response will be made in spite of the temptation that exists to make an asocial response that is, conditions under which mutual trust will develop. Some factors that appear to foster trust are the possibility for communication, benevolent behavior on the part of the other person, the presence of a common enemy, the absence of mutual threats, and a balance of power.

In a programmatic attempt to study techniques of augmenting one’s power in an interaction situation, Jones (1964) has examined conditions under which one person in a relationship will tend to be ingratiating. Ingratiation is illicit behavior in which the person attempts to improve his status in the relationship by appealing to extrarelational values held by the other person. Any relationship is denned by the kinds of rewards each person supplies for the other. To the extent that one of the parties cannot supply the rewards expected of him, the other will tend not to reciprocate. If he is badly in need of the outcomes the other person can potentially provide, he may resort to illegal means in order to obtain them, ingratiation being one possible strategy. The person will attempt to make himself attractive to the other by being a“yes man,”by flattering the other, or by attempting to emphasize additional values that he may be able to offer the other. He may resort to any one or all of these tactics. The research indicates that a low-status person will tend to resort to ingratiation to the extent that it is important that the person please the other and to the extent that he perceives that the other may be manipulated by such techniques. [SeeINTERACTION.]

We have confined this survey to a general overview and to a specific consideration of certain basic processes of perception and social influence. Extrapolation from these processes can be made to a number of problem areas that come within the domain of the social psychologist. The proliferation of the two-person situation generates social structures in which each person’s relationship to others in the structure is denned by behavioral expectations and rewards to be acquired by the person and by the rewards that he is expected to provide for others. He may enter into a relationship of mutuality with one or more other persons within the structure. In order for a structure to function effectively, certain norms of belief and conduct peculiar to the structure tend to develop. Situations arise in which it is necessary for one person to assume the responsibility for coordinating the behaviors and interactions of the others. These considerations have brought the study of leadership within the purview of the social psychologist. Social psychologists have also been involved in the study of large-scale organizations, in which subgroups are articulated into an over-all structure. [SeeORGANIZATIONS.]

Harold B. Gerard


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Social Psychology

Social Psychology








Social psychology is the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another. By studying social thinking, social psychologists examine how, and how accurately, we view ourselves and others. By studying social influence, social psychologists examine subtle forces related to conformity, persuasion, and group influence that pull our strings. By studying social relations, social psychologists examine what leads people to hate and hurt one another, or to love and help one another.

Social psychology as a field lies between personality psychology and sociology. Metaphorically speaking, personality psychologists study boats, sociologists study the ocean, and social psychologists study how those boats float. When a person (boat) arrives in an environment (ocean), social psychologists want to understand how they move on the winds and currents.

Social psychology considers many of the same questions as those sociology considers but favors answers that focus on the individual actors (such as the way they perceive their situations) rather than on answers that apply to the group level (such as poverty or family cohesion). It is also distinct from personality psychology, being less interested in individual differences (such as in aggressiveness or unhappiness), though it often considers individual differences that interact with situations (such as when a person with high self-esteem responds to a relationship threat by liking his or her partner more).

Compared to other social sciences, social psychology has few grand theories or revered old masters; it has no Freud or Durkheim. Instead it interweaves smaller, more focused studies that cover topics as diverse as the self, culture, persuasion, group dynamics, prejudice, and eyewitness identification. Despite its enormous scope, social psychology has several themes running through it, including:

  • We construct our social reality
  • Our social intuitions are often powerful but sometimes perilous
  • Social influences shape our behavior
  • Personal attitudes and dispositions also shape behavior
  • Social behavior is also biological behavior
  • Social psychologys principles are applicable in everyday life

As practiced in North America, social psychology is overwhelmingly experimental. It has also exhibited a willingness to engage social issues such as prejudice, violence, and public health.


Norman Tripletts 1898 experiments are generally regarded as the first social psychological studies. He showed that people would wind reels faster when others were present, an effect now referred to as social facilitation. Social psychology remained a small field until World War II, at which point the U.S. Armys sudden interest in personnel selection and stress responses led it to sponsor some highly innovative work. In the decade after the war the field exploded: Gordon Allport wrote an enormously influential book called The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Solomon Asch (1951) conducted experiments on conformity, Stanley Milgram (1974) conducted his famous experiments inducing people to give supposedly powerful electric shocks to a mild-mannered man, and Leon Festinger (1957) proposed his influential cognitive dissonance theory.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, social psychology was dominated by a cognitive perspective that asked how we process social information. During the 1990s and beyond, it also has had a growing interest in warmer motivational processes and broad cultural influences.


Modern social psychology favors experimental research, with many published articles describing two to seven experiments or quasi-experiments that explore and refine some central idea. Correlational studies are also used, but often given short shrift in favor of experimental evidence. The field also puts great stock in meta-analyses that combine many previous empirical studies. Experiments use diverse manipulations, ranging from the subliminal presentation of words, to interaction with confederates, to false feedback on IQ tests.

Social psychological research is now subject to oversight by institutional review boards that safeguard ethical standards. While these are widely regarded as necessary in light of the ethical controversies that centered on some prominent early studies, social psychological experiments are almost never, in any real sense, hazardous.


Psychologists separate affect (emotions), from behavior, from cognition (thoughts), then study how they interact. Affect has broad consequences. People who are in a good mood tolerate more frustration, choose long-term rewards over immediate small payoffs, and see others in a more optimistic light. A growing movement in psychology known as positive psychology focuses specifically on well-being and how it can be enhanced.

Attitudes, in social psychological parlance, are the affect people bear toward some object or activity. Social psychologists study how attitudes form and change, how strong and durable they are, and how much they predict actual behavior. The answer to the latter question, under many circumstances, is somewhat, but not as much as you might think.

Since the 1980s cognition has increasingly become a focal point for social psychologists. They study when cognitions are activated (come to mind), how they are organized into schemas, and when people are motivated to think things through systematically as opposed to using heuristic mental shortcuts. Some influential models, such as the theory of reasoned action, describe how a persons beliefs about an object (its big, loud, and emits black smoke) are combined to produce an overall attitude (I hate it).

Affect and cognitions influence behavior, but behavior can also influence affect and cognition. Under the right conditions, both saying and doing can lead to belief (if you say that you like something enough, or just keep buying it, and you might really end up liking it). Even just arranging your face muscles into the shape of a smile can make you feel happier.

Although affect, behavior, and cognition are social psychologists central organizing principles, other parts of the mind have also been of interest, such as memory and physiological arousal. The self is an enormous area of study, encompassing thoughts about who one is (self-concept or identity) and attitudes toward oneself (self-esteem).

People organize knowledge about themselves into well-integrated pictures, or self schemas, that help them quickly sift and sort the world. People better remember things that are relevant to their self schema, and spontaneously make social comparisons between themselves and others. Self-serving biases describe the ways we distort the world to make ourselves look better (for example, by taking more responsibility for our successes than our failures). Self-monitoring describes peoples tendency to engage in impression managementaltering their social identity to fit different roles in different places (friend at school, son at home, employee at the office). Manipulations that affect peoples self-awareness (the presence of mirrors, seeing ones own name) encourage people to act more in line with their stated attitudes.


Scholars have devoted much attention to social influencethe ways in which individuals and groups come to change others thinking or behavior. Early dramatic studies showed that people seemed remarkably vulnerable to social influence. In Aschs famous experiment, they doubted their own eyes when others claimed to see things that were patently untrue, and in Milgrams experiment, they gave extremely painful electrical shocks on command. People can, however, resist social influence. Even in these seminal studies compliance was far from universal, and rates of conformity were rapidly deflated by small changes, such as a lack of unanimity among influencers and a greater distance from authority figures. Much work has gone into who conforms to what, when, and why, with several important factors identified in the study of persuasion. These include who (attractive person, authority figure) says what (reasoned vs. emotional message, one- or two-sided appeals) to whom (audience pays close attention or not).

In the 1990s social psychologists started directing their attention more towards warm or motivated cognitionpeoples attempts to arrive at the answers they would like to. People bring this convenient brand of reasoning to many tasks, including forming impressions of themselves and others, attributing motives for actions, and judging the desirability of various outcomes. They do this, though, with some constraints imposed by realitymost consider themselves more moral than average, but few claim saintliness.

Scholars have become increasingly interested in automatic processing, in which judgments, associations, or even actions are made quickly and efficiently with little conscious guidance. For example, work has focused on negative stereotypes that rapidly come to mind when people encounter minority groups. A number of dual-process models have been proposed for processes like impression formation, attitudes, persuasion, and stereotyping. In these models people first have a fast, efficient, automatic and uncontrolled reaction that is later adjusted, if the person is so motivated, by conscious thought. Upon seeing a stranger fall over, for example, a fast, effortless inference might be drawn that this person is clumsy. If one liked the person, however, within less than a second one might start searching more deliberatively for outside factors and conclude that the person was pushed, or that the floor was slippery, overruling (at least partly) ones initial verdict.

Attraction and intimacy form another major dynamic of interest. Liking is influenced by factors such as proximity, familiarity (the mere exposure effect), physical attractiveness, and the sharing of things about ones self. One of the more prominent models of intimate relationships, Robert Sternbergs triangular theory (1988), describes any given relationship in terms of passion (infatuation), intimacy (liking), and commitment (a desire to stick it out). Sternberg argues that a relationship may have only one of these (friends typically have intimacy but no passion), two (good friends would add commitment), or all three (which he calls consummate love).

When people get together, the resulting groups take on dynamics of their own. People in them work harder when their contributions are visible (social facilitation), but coast when their contributions are unidentifiable (social loafing). Group discussions also sometimes accentuate initial attitudes and actions (group polarization). Sometimes large groups of people will engage in behaviors that none of their members would have contemplated doing on their own (such as chanting for suicidal people to jump), partly because the individual members become deindividuatedthey lose the self-awareness that anchors them to their personal standards.


Social psychological work has been applied to a great many real-world settings. Researchers have brought it to the study of health behaviors, such as smoking and use of condoms, and in doing so have offered practical advances. They have spearheaded, for example, graphic pictures of decayed teeth and lungs on boxes of cigarettes in Canada. Political psychologists have, likewise, been interested in models of persuasion and attitude formation and change. Organizational psychologists have applied social psychological theories of group processes, satisfaction, and enjoyment to the context of the work place.

Law is another area that has seen widespread application of social psychological research. Psychological work has revealed that eyewitness identification, long a linchpin of legal evidence, is often flawed. It is often very difficult for people to accurately identify even those at whom they have had a good long look. Research has been used to improve identification lineup procedures to produce fairer results with fewer false positives, for example by instructing witnesses that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup. Social psychologists have also been involved in great controversies over the accuracy of recovered memoriesrecollections of past abuse that people believe they have rediscovered later in life. Research shows that, though some such cases may be genuine, some are almost certainly not, as it is not difficult to create false memories in people.


As brain imaging technology advances, rapid strides are being made into understanding the brain functioning associated with attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. Early attempts were sometimes dismissed as color phrenologyattempts to put people in a scanner and simply catalogue which areas lit up. Newer work compares the known functions of brain regions with their activation during social behaviors. For example, researchers might note that in some types of people subliminal exposure to African American faces simultaneously activates areas associated with alarming stimuli and areas associated with cognitive control. They might infer from this that an emotional reaction is taking place, alongside an effortful attempt to control it.

SEE ALSO Allport, Gordon; Asch, Solomon; Cognition; Conformity; Emotion; Experiments, Shock; Festinger, Leon; Groupthink; Herd Behavior; Lay Theories; Milgram, Stanley; Neuroscience; Persuasion; Prejudice; Psychology; Role Conflict; Schemas; Self-Consciousness, Private vs. Public; Social Facilitation; Social Science; Socialization; Sociology


Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Aronson, Elliot. 2004. The Social Animal. 9th ed. New York: Worth.

Asch, Solomon. 1951. Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgment. In Groups, Leadership and Men, ed. M. H. Guetzkow, 117190. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie.

Bargh, John A., and Tanya L. Chartrand. 1999. The Unbearable Automaticity of Being. American Psychologist 54: 462479.

Cialdini, Robert B. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Eagly, Alice H., and Shelly Chaiken. 1993. The Psychology of Attitudes. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College.

Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gilbert, Daniel T., Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, eds. 1998. The Handbook of Social Psychology. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.

Sternberg, Robert J. 1988. The Triangle of Love. New York: Basic Books.

Zanna, M., ed. 2004. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 36. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Alexander J. Gunz

David G. Myers

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"Social Psychology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Social Psychology

Social psychology

The study of the psychology of interpersonal relationships.

Social psychology is the study of human interaction, including communication, cooperation, competition , leadership , and attitude development. Although the first textbooks on the subject of social psychology were published in the early 1900s, much of the foundation for social psychology studied in the 1990s is based on the work of the behavioral psychologists of the 1930s. Behavioral psychologists were among the first to call for scientific measures and analysis of human behavior, an emphasis on which social psychologists continue to focus. Social psychologists also study the way individuals behave in relationship to others, and, alternatively, how groups act to shape the behavior of individuals.

As do other scientists, social psychologists develop a theory and then design experiments to test it. For example, Leon Feistinger, an American social psychologist, theorized that a person feels uncomfortable when confronted with information that contradicts something he or she already believes. He labeled this uneasiness cognitive dissonance . Other social psychologists subsequently conducted research to confirm Feistinger's theory by studying individuals who believed themselves to be failures. The psychologists found that such people avoid success, even when it would be easily achieved, because it would conflict with their firmly held belief that they are unsuccessful.

Social psychologists work in academic settings, teaching and conducting research. They also work with businesses and other organizations to design personnel management programs based on their knowledge of interpersonal relations. Social psychologists also contribute their expertise to market research, government agencies, and educational institutions.

Further Reading

Argyle, Michael. The Social Psychology of Everyday Life. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1995.

Bandura, Albert. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social and Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Baron, Robert A. Exploring Social Psychology. Boston, MA Allyn and Bacon, 1989.

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social psychology

social psychology Field that studies individuals interacting with others in groups and with society. Topics include attitudes and how they change, prejudice, rumours, aggression, altruism, group behaviour, conformity, and social conflict. There is some overlap with sociology.

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social psychology

social psychology See PSYCHOLOGY.

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