What is Social Psychology?

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

Psychology is the study of human and animal functioning that examines the manifestation and the relationship between thought, emotion and behavior. This description suggests that psychology as a field has a vast scope, as human (or animal) functioning can be studied in a number of different contexts and from a range of perspectives [1]. Thus, psychologists try to simplify matters by defining branches of psychology based on the perspective taken and the kind of events being studied. One such branch is Social Psychology. Social Psychology studies the individual human being within the social and cultural contexts that he/she functions. It seeks to understand what causes people to behave in particular ways in different social contexts [1, 2]. Social psychology is often confused with sociology; a field that tries to study the society’s impact of the individual. The main difference between the two areas of study is that social Psychology is focused on the experiences of the individual, while sociology attends to the process of the group or society and its role.

What Social Psychology Studies

Social Psychology studies some of the more PR – friendly topics in psychology; and allows people to find answers to questions about their everyday life. Social psychologist have tried to explore the way people perceive the social world around them, the way they interpret social information, and the manner in which people respond to others [1]. The process of interpersonal communication, and the reasons why people listen to others (or don’t) has received a lot of attention. They are also interested in how friendships are formed, what makes people fall in and out of love, and what encourages them to help. In recent times, there has been an emphasis of understanding the nature and causes of aggression and antisocial behavior, and the reasons why some people show prejudice against others. While studying these problems, social psychologists have also tried to find ways to reduce the prevalence of these issues, and ways to encourage people to think differently (in short influence them) for better or for worse [2, 3].

Theories of social psychology have led to research and application for many specific areas of social behavior (which is still a vast field). Thus, applied social psychology has seen the conception and growth of a number of its off-shoots, including Consumer Psychology, Health Psychology, Media Psychology, Environmental Psychology, Organizational Psychology, Evolutionary Psychology, Legal Psychology, Multicultural Psychology and the Psychology of Diversity to name a few. These rather fascinating topics of study have become independent areas of study in themselves over time, and are in many ways now stand – alone fields.

The Nature of Social Psychology

From the topics mentioned, it may seem that studying Social Psychological phenomenon is confined to mooning around hoping to find the data that can explain behaviour. Rather, Social Psychology is a highly scientific field which collects data from not only field observations, but also experiments, both in the laboratory and the field. It attempts to establish it’s theories in a strong empirical (factual) basis, and uses the process of replication of findings before confirming a hypothesis about human behaviour [1]. Social psychologists are painfully aware of the large number of variables that can affect their research, and thus try to control, observe or eliminate the effects of these by collating data across events and locations. Thus, the field has a healthy scepticism that enables the acceptance of only the strongest theories that genuinely have the backing of facts [2].

A number of different factors need to be considered when interpreting social behaviour, thought and emotion of even a single individual. Social psychologists try to include data about as many of these factors as is available, and have identified some salient factors that must be considered each time. First of all, they explore the basic cognitive processes that occur in an individual within the context presented by a social event [2]. Next, they try to understand the impact and significance of the characteristics and actions of other individuals in the situation. These researchers understand that human behaviour does not occur in isolation, but it often is affected by the actions and thoughts of others. Research in social psychology does not forget to consider the impact of the situation itself. There are many ecological variables associated with the environment that mediate behaviour [1, 2]. For example, the same individual will (hopefully) respond very differently to meeting a friend at a library and at a rock concert. The cultural context is an important part of the environment; and researchers studying social psychological phenomenon have realised that cultural norms and expectations can guide much of human behaviour. Finally, social psychologists also consider information from physical and biological sources [1, 3]. With advancements in the field of genetics, it has become apparent that chemical events in the body, physical characteristics of the individual, medical and genetic conditions and other such information is essential in understanding the reasons why a person behaves as he/she does [1].

Thus, in the process of exploring Social Psychological phenomenon, one finds information about how people behave in different situations that has been collected through experimental as well as correlational studies. This information takes into consideration a number of factors, and also explores the issues and concerns in interpreting social psychological phenomena without sufficient context.


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Social Psychology”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 2 – 36.

[2] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “The mission and the Method”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 1 – 24.

[3] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Introduction to Social Psychology”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 1 – 21.