Social Psychology - Chapter 1

How did social psychology come about and how was the discipline built up? - Chapter 1


In social psychology one deals with the effects of social and cognitive processes, the way in which individuals perceive others, how they influence each other and how they relate to each other. Social psychology is a science, and social psychologists are equally interested in underlying social and cognitive processes as in open, observable behaviors. In everyday life everyone uses common sense, so-called street wisdom, to understand the world around them. The conclusions drawn from this, however, are often inconsistent. For example, in the context of relations we know the saying "attracting opposites", but also "birds of a feather flock together". The scientific method of social psychologists contains less distortion (bias), so that a more adequate picture can be formed of reality than with common sense. This is because the scientific method systematically observes (and is aware of the chance of errors), and is not only observed from its own perspective.

Social processes are the ways in which our thoughts, behaviors and feelings are influenced by the people around us, the groups we belong to, our personal relationships, the upbringing and culture of our parents, and the (social) pressure we experience from others.

Cognitive processes, on the other hand, are the ways in which our memories, observations, thoughts, emotions and motives help us to understand the world around us and our own behavior. Emotion and motivation are an intrinsic part of every cognitive process, just like memories and thoughts. The effects of social and cognitive processes can not be seen in isolation from each other. They work together and affect our behavior, thoughts and feelings. Two points are mentioned from which this appears. First of all, social processes are not only put into operation when others are around, but also when they are absent. As soon as an important decision has to be made, for example, consideration is given to the possible reactions of others, which influences your decision. In addition, once others are physically close, the extent to which social processes affect us depends on the way we see others.

Social psychologists want to understand why people do what they do in social situations. If we understand this, we can come up with solutions for social issues, such as: what causes violence between races? Or: why do so many marriages end up failing?

The past and the present

When scientists started wondering in the late 19th century how social situations could influence an individual's thoughts and behavior, the social approach to psychology came into being.

Tripplet (1898) was one of the first to study social psychology. He showed that performance is influenced by the presence of others. It turned out that people start performing better as soon as other people are present. This was in contrast to Ringelmann's study of just a few years earlier. However, Ringelmann's and Triplett's results are not necessarily inconsistent: later in this book it will become apparent that the presence of others often improves performance when individual contributions are easily identifiable, but that the performance becomes worse when individuals are "lost in the group" .

For the greater part of the 20th century, general psychology was dominated by a movement called behaviorism: a movement in psychology that began with Watson and Skinner, which assumes that behavior is only influenced by external stimuli, and that internal processes do not influence it because they can not be observed. Although social psychologists also pursue the same goal as general psychologists (namely: explaining behavior), they found that understanding and measuring perceptions, beliefs and feelings are essential for understanding behavior. Here, therefore, social psychologists began to separate themselves from general psychology. The rise of Nazism has meant a lot for the development of this branch. In the 1930s and 1940s many European social psychologists fled to America, where they had a great influence on the formation of social psychology. For example, a lot of research was done into prejudices and other processes that became interesting through the rise of Nazism. During this crucial period of research and theories, much research was done by one of these fled psychologists: Kurt Lewin. Lewin (1936) concluded, among other things, that every behavior of an individual depends on the current goals and his / her social environment. Lewin's ideas formed two enduring themes of social psychology: 1) the subjective interpretation of reality is the most important determinant of beliefs and behaviors, and 2) social influences give structure to these interpretations.

After social psychology grew more and more in the 1950s and 1960s, the integration of social and cognitive processes began in the 1970s. This means that European and North American social psychologists increasingly agreed on how these processes jointly influenced human behavior. As the world became more closely connected in the late 20th century, and social psychological research spread throughout the world, people became aware that there are many different basic theories between nations and cultures. Social psychologists were busy integrating these theories with the principles of their own science, in order to be able to form a more complete picture of the aspects of social behavior that are sensitive to cultural contexts. Newer theoretical trends are also integrated into the socio-psychological way of thinking, for example neuroscience. In addition to the integration of social and cognitive processes, as well as the integration of other research trends, it is also possible to speak of an integration of science with social problems. In the past, many psychologists saw science and practice as strictly separate areas, but in the case of social psychology these two are closely connected.

Structure of social psychology

There are eight principles of importance within social psychology, which explain the diversity of man in the social world. All the behavior shown can be explained by one (or more) of these principles. The eight principles can be divided into fundamental axioms. An axiom is an unproven theorem, accepted as the basis of a theory. There are two basic axioms for social psychology, the other axioms are principles with regard to motivation and processing.

The basic axioms of social psychology are:

  • Construction of reality. It is assumed that the view on the reality of each individual is a construction that is brought about by cognitive processes (the way the brain works) and social processes (the actual or imagined influence of others).

  • The pervasiveness of social influence. This means that other people basically influence all our behaviors, feelings and thoughts, regardless of whether they are physically close or not. Sometimes this is experienced as social pressure, but social influence is more profound and is the case when our most fundamental assumptions and beliefs are influenced without our being aware of this.

Principles regarding motivation are:

  • The pursuit of mastery. This is the principle that people are looking for understanding about things that happen in the world in order to be able to predict them. The prediction of these events can lead to rewards and are therefore important.

  • The search for connectedness. This is the principle that one is looking for support, being liked and accepted by the people who mean a lot to one.

  • The appreciation of "me and mine". This is the principle in which people are expected to put themselves and the people and groups they believe belong to (such as friends or family) in a positive light. In this way, even chronically ill people can retain a positive image of themselves by comparing themselves with others who have suffered even worse.

Principles regarding processing are:

  • Conservatism. Once formed views and opinions of both individuals and groups can not be changed quickly. They tend to maintain themselves.

  • Accessibility. Information that is most available at that moment has the most impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This way, not all possibly relevant information is used.

  • Superficiality vs. depth. One can process both superficial and in-depth information. Usually there is superficial processing, because it takes little effort. Processing information deeply takes more effort and time. This often only happens when people are motivated and the issue at hand is important to them.

Eight basic principles of social psychology

In total there are eight basic principles of social psychology (see above). The two fundamental axioms link the person to the social world (reciprocal relationship). The three motivational principles and the three processing principles influence these two fundamental axioms. Combined, these principles are responsible for all social (both useful and destructive) behavior.

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