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Module 1: Introduction to Social Psychology

Module Overview                              

In our first module we will examine the field of social psychology and how it relates to personality psychology and differs from sociology by clarifying the level of analysis and differences in methods used. We will then embark upon a historical journey to see where the field has come from and where it is going. Finally, we will examine professional societies and journals as they relate to social psychology and share links to blogs and newsfeeds on current research in this subfield.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Clarify similarities and differences between social psychology, personality psychology, and sociology.
  • Outline the history of social psychology.
  • Describe the status of the subfield today….and in the future.
  • Identify ways in which social psychologists can connect with one another.


1.1. What is Social Psychology?


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define psychology and deconstruct the definition.
  • Define social.
  • Contrast social psychology and sociology.
  • Clarify how social and personality psychology intersect.
  • Describe general methods used by social psychologists.
  • Distinguish between basic and applied science.
  • Compare and contrast how social psychology, sociology, and personality psychology tackle the same general issue by evaluating empirical articles from a journal in each field.


1.1.1. Defining Terms

Our discussion of social psychology will start by defining a few key terms, or what social and psychology mean separately. We will tackle the latter, then the former, and then put it all together. First up, the latter. Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.  Yes, that is correct. Psychology is scientific. Psychology utilizes the same scientific process and methods used by disciplines such as biology and chemistry. We will discuss this in more detail in Module 2 so please just keep this in the back of your mind for now. Second, it is the study of behavior and mental processes. Psychology desires to not only understand why people engage in the behavior that they do, but also how. What is going on in the brain to control the movement of our arms and legs when running downfield to catch the game winning touchdown, what affects the words we choose to say when madly in love, how do we interpret an event as benign or a threat when a loud sound is heard, and what makes an individual view another group in less than favorable terms? These are just a few of the questions that we ask as psychologists.

Now to the former – social. According to Oxford Dictionaries online, social is defined as relating to society or its organization. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “tending to form cooperative and interdependent relationships with others” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/social). Another form of the word implies a desire to be around people such as being a social butterfly. Really, both forms of the word are useful for the discussion to come in this textbook.

We now address their combination. Social psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes as they relate to how people interact with, or relate to, others. Our starting point is on the person, and not society. The latter is the focus of the field called sociology, or the study of society or groups, both large and small. According to the American Sociological Association (http://www.asanet.org/), sociology is a social science which involves studying the social lives of people, groups, and societies; studying our behavior as social beings; scientifically investigating social aggregations; and is “an overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics.”

In contrast, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (Division 8 of the American Psychological Association; https://www.apa.org/about/division/div8.aspx; SPSP) defines social psychology as the “scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.” The study of social psychology occurs in a social context meaning the individual as they relate to others and is affected by others.

Personality and social psychology go hand-in-hand and so we should define personality psychology too. Simply, personality psychology is the scientific study of individual differences in people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how these come together as a whole.  A social psychologist may investigate whether an individual helped another person due to a situational or personal factor, while a personality psychologist would examine whether a certain personality type is more likely to make situational or dispositional attributions or look for traits that govern helping behavior.


1.1.2. How Social Psychologists Do Their Work?

The answer to the question guiding this section is really quite simple – observation. Psychology, as most fields in science, operates by observing the world around the observer. We take note of the actions of others in relation to tragic events such as a natural disaster or school shooting, how lovers behave in public and query them about their actions behind close doors, and a person’s reaction to the opening of a new restaurant or receiving poor service (and subsequent tipping behavior).  Observation alone is not enough.

Once we take note of these different types of behaviors, we have to find a way to measure it and eventually record the behavior. If we want to study public displays of affection (PDAs) we have to clearly state what these displays are or how they will appear so we know for sure that they have occurred. This might be a gentle touch, an embrace, a passionate kiss or maybe just a quick one. Once we know what it is we are observing, we can record its occurrence in a notebook, through the use of a video recorder, in conjunction with another observer, or with a golf stroke counter.

Finally, scientists seek to manipulate the conditions in which people experience the world to see what the effect is on their social behavior. This is the hallmark of experimentation as you will come to see in Module 2.

So how do social psychologists do what they do? They observe the world, measure and record behavior, and then manipulate the conditions under which such behavior may occur so that they can make causal statements about social behavior.


1.1.3. Two Forms Their Work Might Take

Science has two forms – basic/pure and applied. Basic science is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of the knowledge and nothing else while applied science desires to find solutions to real-world problems. You might think of it like this – the researcher decides on a question to investigate in pure science, but an outside source identifies the research question/problem in applied science. Of course, this is not always the case. A social psychologist doing basic research may focus on questions related to people’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings such as why do people treat outgroup members differently than ingroup members, why do first impressions matter so much, why do we help people in some situations but not others, and why are we attracted to some people but not others? Applied social scientists would in turn use this research to develop K-12 programs to promote the toleration of those who are different than us, help people interviewing for a job to make a good first impression, develop stealthy interventions that encourage altruistic behavior, or encourage people to interact favorably with all regardless of our attraction to them.

As the Society for Personality and Social Psychology states on their website, “Of course, the distinction between basic and applied research is often a fuzzy one. One can certainly perform basic research in applied domains, and the findings from each type of research enrich the other. Indeed, it would be fair to say that most personality and social psychologists have both basic and applied interests” (http://www.spsp.org/about/what-socialpersonality-psychology).


1.1.4. Comparing the Approach to Research Across Three Disciplines Exploring a social issue. One way to really understand the differences between the seemingly inter-related disciplines of social psychology, personality psychology, and sociology is to explore how each deal with a specific social issue. For the purposes of our discussion, we will tackle the obesity epidemic. Sociology. Our focus will be on the article “Obesity is in the eye of the beholder: BMI and socioeconomic outcomes across cohorts” written by Vida Maralani and Douglas McKee of Cornell University in 2017 and published in the journal Sociological Science. The study begs the question of whether the threshold for being “too fat” is a static or fluid concept as it pertains to socioeconomic outcomes. The researchers used two nationally representative birth cohorts of Americans from the 1979 and 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The sample from 1979 included 5,890 respondents aged 14 to 22 and the 1997 sample included 6,082 participants aged 12 to 17. The relationship between body mass and the socioeconomic outcomes of wages, the probability of being married, and total family income were studied across the domains of work and marriage. In the two cohorts the authors analyzed the outcomes separately for each of four social groups (white men, black men, white women, and black women).

The results showed that the patterns for those who are considered “too fat” or “too thin” differ systematically by gender, race, and social outcome, and “…the association between BMI and social outcomes is often not constant within the ranges of the standard cutoffs…” (pg. 310). For white men, outcomes were worse at higher BMIs while at low and lower-middle BMIs outcomes improved. For white women, meaningful patterns emerged for being quite thin rather than excessively or moderately fat. As the authors say, “The patterns for all women in the 1979 cohort and white women in the 1997 cohort remind us that norms of thinness dominate women’s lives at work and at home. But, we are also struck by the evidence that a body ideal operates for white men in multiple domains as well” (pg. 313).

For all groups the researchers found that the association between BMI and being married weakens across the two cohorts. It may be that as BMI has increased for all groups, we have become accepting of marrying partners who are larger. One stereotype of black men is that they are more accepting of larger women than are white men. The results did not support this notion and in fact, the data suggested that a body ideal of thinness existed for both white and black women in the 1979 cohort.

And finally, the authors end the article by saying, “The relationship between body size and socioeconomic outcomes depends on who is being judged, who is doing the judging, and in which social domain. Rather than using the medical conceptualization of obesity, it is important to recognize that “too fat” is a subjective, contingent, and fluid judgment in the social world” (pg. 314).

Source: Maralani, V., & McKee, D. (2017). Obesity is in the eye of the beholder: BMI and socioeconomic outcomes across cohorts. Sociological Science, 4, 288-317. Social psychology. Our focus for social psychology will be on the article entitled, “Disgust predicts prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with obesity” written by Lenny Vartanian and Tara Trewarth of UNSW Australia and Eric Vanman of The University of Queensland and published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2016. The authors start by pointing out that there has been a recent shift toward studying the emotions underlying prejudicial beliefs toward individuals with obesity, with a focus on the intergroup emotions of disgust, contempt, and anger. The authors cited research suggesting that the specific emotion elicited by a group was dependent on the threat posed by another group. Since obese individuals are not generally seen as threatening to others or as infringing on the freedom of others, they are less likely to elicit anger as an emotion and more likely to elicit disgust and maybe contempt.

The study by Vartanian et al. (2016) included 598 participants who were predominantly male and Caucasian, had a mean age of 35.88, and a BMI of 26.39. They were randomly assigned to view a photograph of either an obese female or a female with a healthy weight. Information was also given about the target and her daily activities such as being age 35, owning a pet, and enjoying shopping. Participants indicated to what extent they felt disgust, contempt, and anger toward the target individual on a visual analogue scale with possible scores ranging from 0 or Not at all to 100 or Extremely. Attitude was measured on a 7-point scale, the target individual was measured on a series of common obesity stereotypes such as being lazy or lacking self-discipline, social distance or how willing the participant would be to approach the target individual was measured on a 4-point scale, and participants completed an online version of the Seating Distance task as a measure of avoidance.

Results showed that disgust was expressed primarily toward the obese target, and participants held more negative attitudes, negative stereotypes, and saw this person as less competent than the healthy target. There was a greater desire for social distance from the obese target as well. The authors note that obese individuals often report being excluded or ignored, and previous bias-reduction efforts have largely failed. One explanation for these trends might be disgust. In terms of the failed interventions, modifying people’s cognitions are unlikely to change their emotional experiences. Hence a future challenge for researchers will be to find ways to change people’s emotional reactions to individuals with obesity.

Note that this article is a great example of the overlap many researchers have in terms of doing basic and applied research mentioned at the end of Section 1.1.3.


Source: Vartanian, L. R., Trewartha, T., & Vanman, E. J. (2016). Disgust predicts prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with obesity. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(6), 369-375. Personality psychology. And finally, we will examine the article, “Personality traits and body mass index: Modifiers and mechanisms” written by Angelina Sutin and Antonio Terracciano of Florida State University and published in Psychological Health in 2016. The authors start by noting there is growing evidence that personality traits contribute to body weight with Conscientiousness related to a healthier BMI and Neuroticism having a positive association with BMI (meaning as one becomes more neurotic one weights more – higher BMI). Of course, physical activity is linked to lower body weight and individuals high in Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability tend to be more active.

The researchers obtained a sample of 5,150 participants who were on average 44.61 years old and mostly non-Hispanic European American. They completed the Big Five Inventory as an assessment of personality; reported their height and weight as an indicator of BMI; completed a behavioral questionnaire about their eating and physical activity habits over the past 30 days; and reported whether they had ever been diagnosed with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, or high blood pressure.

Consistent with previous research, Neuroticism and Conscientiousness were most strongly related to BMI but more so for women than men, and in the expected direction. Additionally, those scoring higher on Activity, a facet of Extraversion, had a lower BMI. In terms of age, older participants who scored higher on Agreeableness had a lower BMI and though the protective effects of Conscientiousness were present for all, the association was slightly stronger for older participants. The authors explained, “Participants who were more emotionally stable, extraverted, open, agreeable, and conscientious reported eating healthier food, and less convenience food, engaging in more physical activity, and eating at regular intervals at the same time each day” (pg. 7). The study showed that as obesity goes, personality leads people to engage in specific behaviors that increases or decreases their risk of becoming obese and gaining weight.

Source: Sutin, A. R., & Terracciano, A. (2016). Personality traits and body mass index: modifiers and mechanisms. Psychology & health, 31(3), 259-275.


For Further Consideration

Now that you have read about the three different articles, what differences do you notice in how social psychology, personality psychology, and sociology approach the same phenomena (i.e. obesity)? Are there methodological differences? How do they talk about the topic? Is the focus top down or bottom up? How do the different subfields (really psychology and sociology though you can distinguish between personality and social) frame their conclusions and the implications of what they discovered?

If possible, please read the articles. If you cannot obtain the article from your school library, your instructor may be able to.

1.2. Social Psychology…Then


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define philosophy.
  • Outline the four branches of philosophy.
  • Hypothesize possible links between psychology and philosophy based on the four branches.
  • Contrast the methods used by philosophy and psychology.
  • List and describe philosophical worldviews that have impacted the field of psychology and clarify how.
  • Clarify the importance of physiology for the development of psychology as a separate field.
  • Identify the founder of psychology and the importance of his work.
  • Clarify why identifying a clear founder for social psychology is difficult.
  • List and describe the work of noteworthy social psychologists throughout history.


1.2.1. Unexpected Origins Philosophy. Psychology arose out of philosophy, which is defined as the love and pursuit of knowledge. Philosophy divides itself into four main branches, each posing questions psychology addresses today as well. Metaphysics is the study of the nature of reality, what reality is like, what exists in the world, and how it is ordered. Key questions center on the existence of a higher power, what truth is, what a person is, whether all events are governed by fate or we have a free will, and causality or whether one event causes another. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and seeks to understand how we know what we know. Ethics concerns matters related to what we ought to do or what is best to do and asks what is good, what makes actions or people good, and how should we treat others. Finally, logic focuses on the nature and structure of arguments and determining whether a piece of reasoning is good or bad.

So how do these four branches link to psychology? Well, our field tries to understand people and how their mind works. We wonder why they do what they did (as you will come to see we call this an attribution) and look for causal relationships. In terms of fate vs. free will, we ask if what we will be throughout life is determined in childhood, and during a time when we cannot make many choices for ourselves. Consider an adult who holds prejudicial views of another group. Did growing up in a house where such attitudes were taught and reinforced on a near daily basis make it for certain a person would express the same beliefs later in life? Issues such as this show how psychology links to philosophy. As well, we study the elements of cognition such as schemas and propositions, how we learn, and types of thinking which falls under epistemology. As you will see, schemas are important to social identity theory and the assignment of people into groups or categories. Psychologists also study the proper and improper use of punishment, moral development, and obedience all of which fall under the branch of philosophy called ethics as well as decision making and the use of heuristics which involves logic.

The main difference, and an important one, between philosophy and psychology is in terms of the methods that are used. Philosophy focuses on speculation, intuition, and generalization from personal observation while psychology relies on experimentation and measurement, both of which were mentioned in Section 1.1.2, and in Module 2 we will discuss its main research methods of observation, case study, correlation, survey, and the experiment.

Philosophy has several worldviews which have played a direct role in the development of our field and some of its key ideas. First, dualism is the idea that questions whether the mind and body are distinct from one another and Rene Descartes (1596-1650) tackled this issue. Before Descartes it was believed that the mind influenced the body but the body had little effect on the mind. Descartes, on the other hand, said that both mind and body affected one another. This brought about a change in what was studied and how it was studied. Attention shifted away from the soul to the scientific study of the mind and mental processes.

Next, mechanism was the underlying philosophy of the 17th century and remained influential until the mid-1900s. It proposed that the world is a great machine. All-natural processes were thought to be mechanically determined and so could be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Due to mechanism, observation and experimentation became key features of science, with measurement following closely behind. People were thought to be like machines and mechanical contraptions called automata were created to imitate human movement and action. These machines were incredibly precise and regular.

Determinism is another philosophical worldview that has been important to psychology. It is the idea that every act is determined or caused by past events and so it is possible to predict changes that will occur in the operation of the universe. Why might this be important for science? Simply, determinism leads us to causal statements and in research, we seek to make such statements. It tells us that if A occurs, B follows. Prediction is the key here. Also important is reductionism or breaking things down to their basic components which is the hallmark of science itself.

Though other philosophical ideas are important too, we will conclude by mentioning empiricism or the idea that all knowledge is derived from sensory experience. Several famous empiricists were influential on psychology to include Locke, Berkley, Hartley, and John Stuart Mill. Empiricism includes the idea of the tabula rasa or the blank slate upon which experience is written. Hence, there are no innate ideas that we are born with. Mill proposed the interesting idea of a creative synthesis in which there is a combining of mental elements such that the product yields some distinct quality not present in the individual elements themselves. He said it is like a mental chemistry. Physiology. It is important to note that psychology did not just rise out of philosophy, but also from physiology. The mid to late 1800s provided many remarkable findings about the functioning of the human brain. During this time we discovered what the cerebrum, midbrain, cerebellum, and medulla did thanks to the work of Flourens, began using electrical stimulation and the extirpation method (determining function by destroying a specific structure in the brain and then observing changes in behavior), discovered white and gray matter courtesy of Franz Josef Gall, realized that the nervous system was a conductor of electrical impulses, and determined that nerve fibers were composed of neurons and synapses. Key figures included people like von Helmholtz who studied the speed of neural impulse and correctly determined it to be 90 feet per second, Weber who proposed the concepts of two-point thresholds and the just noticeable difference (jnd), and Fechner who founded the field of psychophysics and proposed the absolute and difference thresholds. These figures showed how topics central to the new science of psychology could be studied empirically, provided a method for investigating the relationship between mind and body, and gave psychology precise and elegant measurement techniques.


1.2.2. The Birth of a Field

The field of psychology did not formally organize itself until 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt founded his laboratory at Leipzig, Germany. Wundt studied sensation and perception and began experimental psychology as a science.  He employed the use of introspection, or the examination of one’s own mental state, which is used today after being almost discarded as a method by the behaviorists throughout the first half of the 20th century. This method gave him precise experimental control over the conditions under which introspection was used. He established rigorous training of his observers and focused on objective measures provided by the use of sophisticated laboratory equipment, in keeping with the traditions of physiology. Wundt’s brand of psychology would give rise to the school of thought called Structuralism in the United States under Titchener and eventually stirred a rebellion in the form of Behaviorism and Gestalt psychology, though a discussion of how this occurred is beyond the scope of this book.


1.2.3. The Birth of Social Psychology

So, who might be considered the founder of social psychology? A few different answers are possible, starting with Norman Triplett who late in the 19th century published the first empirical research article in social psychology. He was interested in whether the presence of others might affect a person’s performance on a task. To answer the question, he compared how fast children would reel when alone and when competing with another child. His study showed that the “ bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.” To read Triplett’s 1898 article, please visit: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Triplett/

Another candidate for founder is Maximilien Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, who conducted some of the earliest experiments in social psychology dating back to the 1880s. He found that people become less productive as the size of their group increases. He called this the “Ringelmann effect.”

The findings of these two individuals are interesting, and contradictory. In the case of Triplett, the presence of others improves performance but Ringelmann showed that the presence of others hinders performance. So which is it? As you will come to see it is both. What Triplett described is today called social facilitation while Ringelmann’s work is called social loafing. We will discuss this further in Module 8.

The production of research articles usually does not merit receiving the distinction of being a founder. Sometimes, a better indicator is the production of a textbook bearing the name of that area and to that end, it is necessary to give credit to William McDougall who wrote his textbook, An Introduction to Social Psychology in 1908, Edward Ross who also wrote a book in 1908, and Floyd Allport who completed his book in 1924. Though Allport’s book was written 16 years after Ross and McDougall’s books, it is especially important since it emphasized how people respond to stimuli in the environment, such as groups, and called for the use of experimental procedures and the scientific method which contrasted with Ross and McDougall’s more philosophical approaches.

One final individual is worth mentioning. Kurt Lewin, a noted Gestalt psychologist, proposed the idea of field theory and the life space, and is considered the founder of modern social psychology. He did work in the area of group dynamics and emphasized social action research on topics such as integrated housing, equal employment opportunities, and the prevention of prejudice in childhood. He promoted sensitivity training for educators and business leaders.


1.2.4. Noteworthy Social Psychologists

To round out our discussion of the history of social psychology, we wish to note some of the key figures in the subfield and provide a brief historical context as to when they worked. With that in mind, we begin with Francis Sumner (1895-1954) who was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology, which he earned from Clark University in 1920. Sumner went on to establish the field of Black psychology.

Solomon Asch (1907-1996) is most well-known for his studies on conformity and the finding that a large number of people will conform to the group even if the group’s position on an issue is clearly wrong. He also published on the primacy effect and the halo effect. Gordon Allport (1897-1967), younger brother to the aforementioned Floyd Allport, conducted research on prejudice, religion, and attitudes, and trained famous psychologists such as Milgram and Jerome Bruner. He also helped to form the field of personality psychology.

From 1939 to 1950, Mamie (1917-1983) and Kenneth (1914-2005) Clark conducted important research on the harmful effects of racial segregation and showed that Black children preferred not only to play with white dolls but also “colored the line drawing of the child a shade lighter than their own skin.” Their research was used by the Supreme Court in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 that ended the racial segregation of public schools and overturned the 1892 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson which legitimized “separate but equal” educations for White and Black students. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has the tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

Kenneth Clark was also the first African American to be elected President of the American Psychological Association. For more on the landmark case, please visit: https://www.apa.org/research/action/segregation.aspx

Leon Festinger (1919-1989) is best known for his theory of cognitive dissonance and social comparison theory while Irving Janis (1918-1990) conducted research on attitude change, groupthink, and decision making. Stanley Schachter (1922-1997) proposed the two-factor theory of emotion which states that emotions are a product of physiological arousal and the cognitive interpretation of that arousal. Carolyn (1922-1982) and Muzafer (1906-1988) Sherif are known for the Robbers Cave experiment which divided boys at a summer camp into two groups who overcame fierce intergroup hostility by working towards superordinate goals.

During the Nuremberg trials after World War II, many German soldiers were asked why they would do many of the unspeakable crimes they were accused of. The simple response was that they were told to. This led Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) to see if they were correct. Through a series of experiments in the 1960s he found that participants would shock a learner to death, despite their protests, because they were told to continue by the experimenter. He also did work on the small-world phenomenon, lost letter experiment, and the cyranoid method.

To learn about other key figures in the history of social psychology, please visit: https://www.socialpsychology.org/social-figures.htm


1.3. Social Psychology…Now


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe current trends in social neuroscience as they relate to social psychology.
  • Describe current trends in evolutionary psychology as they relate to social psychology.
  • Describe current trends in cross-cultural research as they relate to social psychology.
  • Describe current trends in technology as they relate to social psychology.


Social psychology’s growth continues into the 21st century and social neuroscience, evolutionary explanations, cross-cultural research, and the internet are trending now. How so?


1.3.1. Social Neuroscience

Emerging in the early 1990s, there is a new emphasis on cognitive processes which has led to the formation of the interdisciplinary field of social neuroscience or how the brain affects our social behavior and is affected by it (Lieberman, 2010). So how do social psychology and social neuroscience form their own separate identities? Cacioppo, Berntson, and Decety (2010) state that social neuroscience studies “neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic mechanisms and, relatedly, to the study of the associations and influences between social and biological levels of organization” and where human beings fit into the broader biological context.” Though social psychology does study biological factors, its emphasis has traditionally been on situational factors and dispositional factors through its collaboration with personality psychologists. Both social neuroscience and social psychology focus on social behavior and so can be aligned and make meaningful contributions to constructs and theories presented in the other. The authors clear up any concern about overlap by saying, “The emphasis in each is sufficiently different that neither field is in danger of being reduced to or replaced by the other, but articulating the different levels of analysis can provide a better understanding of complex social phenomena.”

Specific contributions of social neuroscience include imaging the working human brain through such methods as “multi-modal structural, hemodynamic, and electrophysiological brain imaging acquisition and analysis techniques; more sophisticated specifications and analyses of focal brain lesions; focused experimental manipulations of brain activity using transcranial magnetic stimulation and pharmacological agents; and emerging visualization and quantitative techniques that integrate anatomical and functional connectivity.” These methods have paved the way for increased understanding of the greatest asset human beings have and move us away from having to make analogies from animals to humans courtesy of brain lesion studies and electrophysiological recording and the postmortem examinations of human brains.

Social neuroscience is an effort of biological, cognitive, and social scientists to collaborate in a more systematic way and all share “a common belief that the understanding of mind and behavior could be enhanced by an integrative analysis that encompasses levels of organization ranging from genes to cultures.”  From it, several subareas have emerged to include cultural neuroscience, social developmental neuroscience, comparative social neuroscience, social cognitive neuroscience, and social affective neuroscience.

Cacioppo, Berntson, and Decety (2010) conclude, “The field of social neuroscience, therefore, represents an interdisciplinary perspective that embraces animal as well as human research, patient as well as nonpatient research, computational as well as empirical analyses, and neural as well as behavioral studies.”


To read the whole article, please visit: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3883133/

Citation: Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., & Decety, J. (2010). Social neuroscience and its relationship to social psychology. Social Cognition, 28(6), 675-685.


1.3.2. Evolutionary Explanations

Any behavior that exists today does so because it offers an evolutionary advantage to the species as a whole. Though not its own distinct branch of psychology, evolutionary psychology is impacting all subfields. So what is it? According to David Buss, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, it is based on four premises:

  1. Evolutionary processes have affected and shaped both body and brain, in terms of psychological mechanisms and the behaviors that are produced
  2. Many of these mechanisms are adaptations to solve problems that contribute to the survival of the species
  3. These adaptations are activated in modern environments that differ in important ways from ancestral environments
  4. Psychological mechanisms having adaptive functions is a critical and necessary ingredient for psychology to be comprehensive

Buss goes on to describe specific ways evolutionary psychology has informed the various subfields. In relation to our discussion of social psychology he says it has “produced a wealth of discoveries, ranging from adaptations for altruism to the dark sides of social conflict.” Evolutionary psychology is also helping to discover adaptive individual differences through its interaction with personality psychology. In relation to our previous discussion of social neuroscience, Buss says, “Cognitive and social neuroscientists, for example, use modern technologies such as fMRI to test hypotheses about social exclusion adaptations, emotions such as sexual jealousy, and kin recognition mechanisms.”


For more on Buss’ comments, and those of other researchers in relation to evolutionary theory and psychology, please visit the APA science briefs:



1.3.3. Cross-Cultural Research

Quite possibly the most critical trend in social psychology today is the realization that it is completely cultural.  In 1972, the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology was founded and today has a membership of over 800 individuals in over 65 countries. The group’s primary aim is to study the intersection of culture and psychology. The group publishes the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (to learn more about them, visit: http://iaccp.org/). In 1977, Harry Trandis published the article, “Cross-cultural Social and Personality Psychology” and outlined the study of cultural influences on social behavior.

Singelis (2000) predicted a continued and increasing interest in cross-cultural social psychology due to a rise of a multi-cultural Zeitgeist in the United States courtesy of the civil rights movement, more sophisticated quantitative methods in cross-cultural research which have proven to be more acceptable to those trained in social psychology’s scientific tradition, and a greater acceptance of qualitative methods which is necessary to understanding cultural meanings. This will lead to a redefining of what the self means (the topic of Module 3) since it is shaped by cultural context and influences social behavior through a person’s values, evaluations, and perceptions. The self now includes the East Asian conception of it being interdependent.

Additionally, Singelis (2000) predicts new constructs will emerge that “combine seemingly opposite orientations in an integrative synthesis that is contrary to the typical Cartesian-like dichotomy” and a “shift away from individually oriented constructs toward those that capture social relationships.” Examples include the autonomous-relational self which synthesizes autonomy and human relationships, relational harmony or the degree of harmony in the person’s five most important relationships, and social oriented achievement motivation which includes the Western concept of self-realization and the non-Western idea of achievement motivation including others whose boundaries are not distinct from the self.

Singeleis (2000) concludes, “The increasing interest in culture, the rise in the number of psychologists outside the United Stated, and the willingness to consider many variables and points of view will keep cross-cultural social psychology vital and dynamic into the 21st century.” A more recent trend is multi-cultural research which focused on racial and ethnic diversity within cultures.


1.3.4. The Internet

In Section 1.2.3, and later in this book, we described early work on social loafing. Did you know that employers have recognized that social loafing in the workplace is serious enough of an issue that they now closely monitor what their employees are doing, in relation to surfing the web, online shopping, playing online games, managing finances, searching for another job, checking Facebook, sending a text, or watching Youtube videos? They are, and the phenomenon is called cyberloafing. Employees are estimated to spend from three hours a week up to 2.5 hours a day cyberloafing. So what can employers do about it? Kim, Triana, Chung, and Oh (2015) reported that employees high in the personality trait of Conscientiousness are less likely to cyberloaf when they perceive greater levels of organizational justice. So they recommend employers to screen candidates during the interview process for conscientiousness and emotional stability, develop clear policies about when personal devices can be used, and “create appropriate human resource practices and effectively communicate with employees so they feel people are treated fairly” (Source: https://news.wisc.edu/driven-to-distraction-what-causes-cyberloafing-at-work/). Cyberloafing should be distinguished from leisure surfing which Matthew McCarter of The University of Texas at San Antonio says can relieve stress and help employees recoup their thoughts (Source: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160120111527.htm).

Myers (2016) points out that human beings have a need to belong and when we are alone, we suffer. Today, technology connects us in new and very important ways. He cites research showing that a teenager in the U.S. sends and receives 30 text per day, most teens prefer to use “fingered speech” over talking on the phone, and nearly half of all people in the world use the internet on a daily basis. So what is good about the internet? E-commerce, telecommuting, finding love, and obtaining information are clear benefits. In fact, online romances have been found to last longer since both individuals engage in greater levels of self-disclosure and share values and interests (Bargh & McKenna, 2004; Joinson, 2001a; Joinson, 2001b). How likely are people to give out personal information to someone they do not know? Research shows that trust is key. When we trust we are more likely to accede to a request for personal information (Joinson, Reips, Buchanan, & Schofield, 2010). Costs include deindividuation or faceless anonymity, time lost from face-to-face relationships, self-segregation which leads to group polarization, and what Myers (2016) calls “slacktivism” or, “the effortless signing of online petitions or sharing of prosocial videos may substitute feel-good Internet clicks for real, costly helping.” This ties into the cyberloafing information presented above.

For more on the Myers (2016) article, please visit: http://www.davidmyers.org/davidmyers/assets/SocialPsychologyInternet.pdf


Additional Resources:


1.4. Connecting with Other Social Psychologists


Section Learning Objectives

  • Clarify what it means to communicate findings.
  • Identify professional societies in social psychology.
  • Identify publications in social psychology.


One of the functions of science is to communicate findings. Testing hypotheses, developing sound methodology, accurately analyzing data, and drawing cogent conclusions are important, but you must tell others what you have done too. This is accomplished via joining professional societies and submitting articles to peer reviewed journals. Below are some of the societies and journals important to social psychology.


1.4.1. Professional Societies

  • American Psychological Association à Division 8: Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP)
    • Website – https://www.apa.org/about/division/div8.aspx
    • Mission Statement – “Division 8: Society for Personality and Social Psychology seeks to advance the progress of theory, basic and applied research, and practice in the field of personality and social psychology. Members are employed in academia and private industry or government, and all are concerned with how individuals affect and are affected by other people and by their social and physical environments.”
    • Publication – Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (monthly) and Personality and Social Psychology Review (quarterly)
    • Other Information – “Membership in SPSP is open to students and those whose work focuses largely in social/personality psychology. Members receive discounts to the SPSP Convention, access to three journals, access to the SPSP Job Board, and much more.”


  • Society of Experimental and Social Psychology
    • Website – https://www.sesp.org/
    • Mission Statement – “The Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP) is an international scientific organization dedicated to the advancement of social psychological research. Our typical members have Ph.D.s in social psychology, and work in academic or other research settings.”
    • Publication – Social Psychological and Personality Science
    • Other Information – “One of the main ways that SESP furthers its goal is by holding an annual scientific meeting in the early fall of each year, publishing the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, supporting the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and contributing to advocacy efforts as a member of FABBS (the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences). SESP was founded in 1965 by a group of social psychologists led by Edwin Hollander and W. Edgar Vinacke, as described in Hollander (1968). SESP currently boasts over 1000 elected members.”


  • European Association of Social Sociology
    • Website – https://www.easp.eu/
    • Mission Statement – “The overarching aim of the European Association of Social Psychology is straightforward: to promote excellence in European research in the field of social psychology. As the history of the Association demonstrates, the objectives of those who founded the Association were to improve the quality of social psychological research in Europe by promoting greater contact among researchers in different European countries.”
    • Publication – European Journal of Social Psychology
    • Other Information – It is a tradition of the EASP to honour members who make an outstanding contribution to the discipline. Every three years, on the occasion of the General Meeting, one member receives the Tajfel Medal and is invited to deliver the Henri Tajfel Lecture. This recognizes the contribution of a senior researcher to the field of social psychology over the course of their lifetime. In 2017 we will, for the first time, grant a Moscovici award to honour the author(s) of an outstanding theoretical contribution to the field.”


  • Association for Research in Personality
    • Website – http://www.personality-arp.org/
    • Mission Statement – “Founded in 2001, ARP’s mission is a scientific organization devoted to bringing together scholars whose research contributes to the understanding of personality structure, development, and dynamics. From 2001 through 2008, ARP met annually as an SPSP preconference. Since 2009, we have held a stand-alone biennial conference.”
    • Publication – ARP is a co-sponsor of Social Psychological and Personality Science
    • Other Information – The ARP Emerging Scholar Award is presented biennially to recognize exceptionally high quality work from emerging personality psychologists. To be eligible for the award, nominees must be a graduate student or postdoctoral member of ARP. The ARP Executive Board established this award in 2018.”


1.4.2. Publications

  • The Journal of Social Psychology
    • Website: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/vsoc20
    • Published by: Taylor and Francis
    • Description: “Since John Dewey and Carl Murchison founded it in 1929, The Journal of Social Psychology has published original empirical research in all areas of basic and applied social psychology. Most articles report laboratory or field research in core areas of social and organizational psychology including the self and social identity, person perception and social cognition, attitudes and persuasion, social influence, consumer behavior, decision making, groups and teams, stereotypes and discrimination, interpersonal attraction and relationships, prosocial behavior, aggression, organizational behavior, leadership, and cultural psychology.”


  • The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
    • Website: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/psp/
    • Published by: American Psychological Association
    • Description: “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology publishes original papers in all areas of personality and social psychology and emphasizes empirical reports, but may include specialized theoretical, methodological, and review papers.” The journal has three independently edited sections: Attitudes and Social Cognition, Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, and Personality Processes and Individual Differences.”


  • Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
    • Website: https://journals.sagepub.com/home/psp
    • Published by: Division 8 of APA: Society for Personality and Social Psychology
    • Description: “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), published monthly, is an official journal for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. PSPB offers an international forum for the rapid dissemination of original empirical papers in all areas of personality and social psychology.”


  • Personality and Social Psychology Review
    • Website: https://journals.sagepub.com/home/psr
    • Published by: Division 8 of APA: Society for Personality and Social Psychology
    • Description: “Personality and Social Psychology Review (PSPR) is the premiere outlet for original theoretical papers and conceptual review articles in all areas of personality and social psychology. PSPR offers stimulating conceptual pieces that identify exciting new directions for research on the psychological underpinnings of human individuality and social functioning, as well as comprehensive review papers that provide new, integrative frameworks for existing theory and research programs.”


  • Social Psychological and Personality Science
    • Website: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/journal/social-psychological-and-personality-science
    • Published by: Wiley
    • Description: “SPPS is a unique short reports journal in social and personality psychology. Its aim is to publish concise reports of empirical studies that provide meaningful contributions to our understanding of important issues in social and personality psychology. SPPS strives to publish innovative, rigorous, and impactful research. It is geared toward a speedy review and publication process to allow groundbreaking research to become part of the scientific conversation quickly.”


  • Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
    • Website: https://www.journals.elsevier.com/journal-of-experimental-social-psychology/
    • Published by: Elsevier
    • Description: “The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (JESP) aims to publish articles that extend or create conceptual advances in social psychology. As the title of the journal indicates, we are focused on publishing primary reports of research in social psychology that use experimental or quasi-experimental.”


For a complete list of journals in social and personality psychology, please visit: https://www.socialpsychology.org/journals.htm#social


1.4.3. Online Social Psychology News

If you are interested in keeping up with current research in the field of social psychology, visit SPSP’s Character and Context blog by visiting http://spsp.org/news-center/blog/2018-December-14-ICYMI or take a look at Science Daily’s Social Psychology News page at https://www.sciencedaily.com/news/mind_brain/social_psychology/.


Module Recap

Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes and when we apply a social lens, we examine how people interact with, or relate to, others. Social psychology differs from sociology in terms of its level of analysis – individual people and not the larger group – and is allied with personality psychology which examines how traits affect our social behavior. The history of social psychology is relatively short though many meaningful contributions have already been made. Still more are on the horizon as we branch out into cross-cultural and evolutionary psychology, forge a separate identity from social neuroscience, and engage in a deeper understanding of the effects of technology, and specifically the internet, on us. A snapshot of important professional societies and journals was offered as ways to communicate what individual researchers or teams are learning about social behavior with the broader scientific community and at times the general public.

This discussion will lead us into Module 2 where we discuss research methods used in social psychology. This will be the final module of Part I: Setting the Stage.


2nd edition


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