Social Psychology is about the phenomena of social behavior. It attracts a lot of attention because it is about the events and processes that make up our daily lives. It looks at our feelings, our thoughts and our behavior, and tries to describe and explain aspects of the human condition, such as love and hate, happiness and sadness, pride and prejudice, comedy and tragedy. More than any other field of psychology, it is directly about me and you.
We live in a world that is awash with psychological analysis. We are looking to explain why someone is a good contestant on say; THE SUPERSTAR or a good prime minister, and we commonly look to their character and their relationships with other people. This analysis is carried out with varying degrees of scientific rigour and, to be fair, it rarely rises above the level of speculation and gossip. The field of scientific social psychology, however, has over 100 years of research findings to inform our understanding of social behavior.
The start of social psychology is sometimes dated to 1897 and the experimental work of Norman Triplett into the effects of cooperation and competition on performance. Triplett observed that racing cyclists achieved better times on a circuit when they had someone pacing them. In a ride of 25 miles, the average times per mile were 20% quicker when using a pacemaker on practice runs and even quicker in real competition. In his further research, he realised that, children wound fishing reels faster when there were other children also winding fishing reels in the same room.
The main concerns of social psychology commonly reflect the concerns of the time. For instance, at the end of the nineteenth century there were social concerns about the behaviour of crowds. In particular, there was increasing unrest on the part of working people against repressive social conditions, and the emergence of strategies of collective political action, such as mass strikes and demonstrations. These demonstrations frequently led to violence as police and army forces attempted to suppress them. It was during this time that Le Bon (1895/1995) carried out his research and proposed that the source of this violence lay in a kind of ‘mob psychology’.
When people were in a crowd, their individual conscience and autonomy were suppressed, and they reverted to primeval or animalistic state in which they would commit acts of aggression which were unthinkable to the same people when acting as individuals. These ideas have been challenged and developed by modern psychologists. During the middle of the twentieth century, social psychologists carried out some of the great studies that have defined the field for generations of students.
The Milgram study on obedience, the Seligman study of cult membership and the Sherif study on prejudice are just some of the many investigations that had a wide scope and have challenged the ways that we think about ourselves. For many years following these studies, social psychology largely withdrew to the laboratory and carried out clever but very narrow research. More recently, the field has been looking outwards again and dealing directly with real-life behaviour, and sometimes carrying out large -scale studies. There is alsoba strong focus on applied work looking at health behaviors and crimes.
The revolution in social communication over the last 20 years has been a new focus for social psychology. Research has looked at social networking and online behaviors that cause concern, such as bullying. One question concerns whether these digital technologies are providing opportunities for new behaviors or whether we are carrying out the same behaviors we always did but in a new environment.