What is Social Psychology? Definition, History, Topics, and Careers

What is Social Psychology?

Social psychology is a field of study that explores how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are shaped by the presence and actions of others. It delves into the complex ways in which we interact with the social world around us.

Whether it’s the actual presence of people, the imagined scenarios we create, or the cultural norms we internalize, social psychology investigates how these factors influence us. Through scientific methods and experiments, social psychologists examine the individual’s perspective and seek to understand how their beliefs, intentions, and goals are constructed within a social context.

They explore diverse topics like self-concept, social cognition, group dynamics, prejudice, aggression, and attitudes. By studying social psychology, we gain insights into how our behavior and experiences are molded by the social environment and learn ways to improve interpersonal relationships and promote positive change.

At its core, social psychology helps solve the complicated connections between our minds, our interactions with others, and the larger societal organization in which we exist.

What is Sociology?

Sociology is the study of how society works, how people interact with each other, and how social structures shape our lives. It examines the patterns, relationships, and dynamics within groups, communities, and larger societies.

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Sociology helps us understand social issues, inequalities, and the ways in which individuals are influenced by their social environment.

What is Psychology?

Psychology is like a window into the human mind and behavior. It explores the thoughts, emotions, and actions that make us who we are. It delves into the mysteries of why we think, feel, and behave the way we do, helping us understand ourselves and others better.

Psychology cracks the complexities of our thoughts and offers insights into how we can lead happier, healthier lives.

Linkage Between Social Psychology and Sociology

Sociology and social psychology are two interconnected fields that shed light on the complex relationship between individuals and society.

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While social psychology explores how individuals’ thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are influenced by their social environment, sociology examines the broader social structures and processes that shape human behavior. Social psychologists delve into topics like attitudes, stereotypes, and interpersonal relationships, focusing on the individual within social contexts.

Sociologists, on the other hand, analyze social structures, social roles, and cultural factors, investigating phenomena such as social inequality, group dynamics, and social change.

Despite their distinct perspectives, both disciplines contribute to our understanding of how society impacts individuals and how individuals contribute to the larger social fabric. They complement each other in unraveling the complexities of human behavior within the intricate web of social interactions.

A Brief History of Social Psychology

Social psychology emerged as a distinct field of study at the beginning of the 20th century, focusing on understanding how human perceptions and interactions shape behavior. Early researchers like Pavlov, Maslow, and Jung delved into the exploration of human behavior and its underlying influences. Subsequently, social psychology developed as a specialized branch, examining the impact of social factors on individual and group behavior.

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Norman Triplett’s study in 1898 on “social facilitation” observed that cyclists performed better when competing against others. This research paved the way for further investigations on the effects of social context on performance. World War II brought attention to the influence of propaganda on population behavior.

In 1963, Bandura introduced social learning theory, demonstrating how behavior can be modeled through observation and reinforcement. Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory highlighted the discomfort experienced when holding conflicting beliefs, motivating individuals to reduce the inconsistency.

Tajfel’s social identity theory revealed how division into groups leads to prejudice and in-group favoritism. Weiner’s attribution theory focused on how people explain behavior based on internal/external, stable/changeable, and controllable factors.

Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment, conducted in 1963, showcased the extent to which people obey authority figures, even when their actions may harm others. This study raised questions about the role of obedience and compliance in social behavior.

The roots of social psychology can be traced back to Plato’s concept of the “crowd mind” and early ideas like social loafing and social facilitation. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that extensive research on social influence and conformity emerged, driven by a desire to understand why people engaged in atrocities like the Holocaust.

Throughout the 20th century, social psychology expanded, shedding light on social experience and behavior. The discipline began in the United States and grew with contributions from Gestalt psychologists who fled Nazi Germany. Social problems like gender issues and racial prejudice became research interests. The 1960s witnessed a surge in topics such as cognitive dissonance, bystander intervention, and aggression.

By the 1970s, social psychology faced challenges related to ethics, the predictive power of attitudes, and the cultural context of research. Collaboration between psychology and sociology was prevalent but diminished over time. Ethical standards now govern research practices, and pluralism and multicultural perspectives have enriched the field.

Modern social psychology explores phenomena like attribution, social cognition, and self-concept. Applied research addresses areas such as health psychology, environmental psychology, and the psychology of the legal system. Overall, the history of social psychology showcases its evolution into a crucial field for understanding the complex dynamics of human social behavior.

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Topics in Social Psychology

The following are the main topics that are studied in social psychology. The topics provide a glimpse into the diverse areas of research within social psychology, addressing various aspects of human social behavior and its underlying processes.


The study of how individuals perceive and evaluate themselves, including their beliefs, values, and self-esteem. It explores how self-concept influences behavior and interactions with others.

Social Cognition

Examines how people perceive, process, and interpret social information, such as attitudes, stereotypes, and judgments. It focuses on how individuals think about themselves and others in social contexts.

Group Dynamics

Investigates how individuals behave in groups and how group structures and processes influence behavior. It explores topics such as group decision-making, leadership, conformity, and intergroup relations.


Explores attitudes and beliefs individuals hold towards members of specific social groups. It investigates the causes, consequences, and reduction of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes.


Examines the factors that contribute to aggressive behavior, including both physical and verbal aggression. It investigates the individual and situational variables that influence aggression and explores ways to prevent and manage aggressive behavior.


Focuses on the evaluation of people, objects, and ideas. It explores the formation, change, and measurement of attitudes, as well as the role attitudes play in guiding behavior.

Social Perception

Investigates how individuals form impressions and make judgments about others. It explores the processes involved in perceiving and interpreting social cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and verbal communication.


Studies the qualities, behaviors, and effectiveness of leaders. It examines different leadership styles, the impact of leadership on group dynamics, and the factors that contribute to successful leadership.

Nonverbal Behavior

Explores the communication cues expressed through body language, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. It investigates how nonverbal behavior influences social interactions and conveys meaning.


Examines the tendency to adjust one’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to match those of a group. It explores the reasons behind conformity, the role of social norms, and the impact of group pressure on individual decision-making.

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What Do Social Psychologists Do?

Social psychologists are professionals who study the complicated relationship between social factors and human behavior. They explore various areas such as group dynamics, attitudes, interpersonal relationships, implicit bias, prejudice, and criminal activity. Through research methods like experiments, surveys, and observations, social psychologists examine human behavior in social contexts. They apply their findings to fields such as business, law, education, healthcare, and public policy, aiming to solve social problems and enhance people’s lives.

To become a social psychologist, advanced education is necessary. Starting with a bachelor’s degree in psychology is a crucial first step toward this career. Social psychologists also work in applied settings, collaborating with organizations to apply their understanding of human behavior. They assist in employee selection, training, and leadership development within companies or nonprofits. In the education sector, they analyze social dynamics in classrooms, advise on administration, and provide insights to improve the learning environment.

Social psychologists can also work in various other fields, including government, medical facilities, social service agencies, and private organizations. They contribute their expertise in research, marketing, and design, focusing on understanding group dynamics.

Training and education requirements for social psychologists typically involve completing a doctoral degree in psychology with a specialization in social psychology. This involves several years of graduate study and research.

Regarding salary, the median annual income for social psychologists was $81,040 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The job outlook for psychologists, including social psychologists, is expected to grow by 6% from 2021 to 2031, which is the average rate of growth for all professions.


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