Introduction to Social Psychology

Why do we do things in groups that we would normally not do alone? And how might the behavior of the people in this photo differ if the setting was less posh? These are some of the questions social psychology seeks to answer. calisto_620_group_conference_crop by Plantronicsgermany. CC BY-ND 2.0
Why do we do things in groups that we would normally not do alone? And how might the behavior of the people in this photo differ if the setting was less posh? These are some of the questions social psychology seeks to answer. calisto_620_group_conference_crop by Plantronicsgermany. CC BY-ND 2.0

Many of my future posts will draw from the field of social psychology. As such, a brief introduction to the subject is in order.

My old social psychology textbook defines this discipline as: “The scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another” (Myers, 2008, p. 4). And while that is technically correct, it does not capture the true scope of this field.

The various factors that influence human behavior can be divided into three major domains. The most internal of these, our dispositions, refer to the qualities that each individual possesses. This includes our personalities, worldviews, personal histories, and more. The situation is the immediate context a person is in. It can involve their physical surroundings, social pressures they are subject to, their current role, etc. The system refers to broader societal factors. Economics, politics, and superordinate cultural forces (those that encompass multiple subgroups) can contribute to this sphere (Zimbardo, 2008).

All of these categories are interwoven. The system determines which situations are likely to occur, and the situation interacts with dispositional factors to shape our behavior (Zimbardo, 2008). But it is not a one-way street. Our choices help determine which situations we are likely to encounter, and through collective action we can alter the system.

Our behavior results from the interaction of dispositional, situational, and systemic factors. Occasionally one of these domains will take on heightened significance.
Our behavior results from the interaction of dispositional, situational, and systemic factors. Occasionally one of these categories will overshadow the others.

This constant interaction means it is difficult to tell which of the above domains is most important. However, social psychology focuses on the situation.

People frequently underestimate how powerful situational forces can be. We often attribute others’ behavior to something about them, while failing to realize that external factors also play a role. This tendency is known as the fundamental attribution error (Myers, 2008). For example, imagine you are driving on a moderately busy road. All of a sudden, someone cuts you off. Your first reaction might be to call the other driver a jerk; and that might be true.

Driving tends to bring out the worst in many of us. Moscow traffic congestion by Nevermind2. CC BY-SA 3.0
Driving can bring out the worst in all of us. Moscow traffic congestion by Nevermind2. CC BY-SA 3.0

But it is also possible that his or her behavior was influenced by their situation. For instance, suppose they left for work late (which could be due to a host of reasons). Their heightened anxiety level may have led them to perceive the road as being more congested than it was, creating a feeling of desperation. This, in turn, may have made the driver more prone to risky behavior.

Social psychology’s main goal is to understand how contextual factors influence individuals. Special, but not exclusive, emphasis is placed on the social context. To this end, it has uncovered some startling results.

One of the most intriguing findings to come out of social psychological research is that certain situations can overpower our normal dispositions. I would provide some examples, but the following TED talk does this better than I ever could.

WARNING: This video contains graphic images of violence. If you do not wish to see them, skip from 5:15 to 6:45.

While parts of Dr. Zimbardo’s presentation may have been hard to watch, it illustrates the importance of social psychology. The less we know about situational forces, the more susceptible we will be to them. Conversely, understanding how the context influences human behavior will allow us to create situations (and systems) that bring out the best in each other.

Further Reading:

Gladwell, M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Jacquet, J. (2015). Big oil and baboons: On culture, conscience, and climate denial. Retrieved from http://www.humansandnature.org/culture-big-oil-and-baboons-on-culture-conscience-and-climate-denial.

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