Saturday, March 26, 2016

What is Social Psychology: A Taste of What's to Come in April

I'm so excited for the April A-Z Blog Challenge, and am thrilled to get comments from new visitors excited about the topic. A couple of you mentioned that you haven't heard the term "social psychology" before (and trust me, you're not alone - probably half of the people who hear my degree is in social psychology are unfamiliar with the term), so I thought now would be a good time to give a brief overview, and let you know some things to expect in April.

Social psychology is a subfield of psychology. In fact, there are many subfields; just to name a few: developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology, and clinical psychology. All of these subfields are part of the science of how people think, feel, and behave (the overall definition of psychology), but they go about understanding and studying those concepts in different ways.

Social psychology focuses on how people think, feel, and behave in social settings and examines social factors (like other people, groups of people, even societal norms) that impact how people think, feel, and behave. That is, even when you are by yourself, social forces like the media or the groups to which you belong continue to influence you.

Many people ask me how social psychology differs from sociology (an excellent question!). Sociology is about studying very large groups - like race, culture, or country of origin - and the overall behaviors of those large groups. Social psychology, on the other hand, is about individuals and their behavior, and in some cases, small groups, like juries; in fact, jury decision-making is a big topic in social psychology. Sociology and social psychology also use different theories and sometimes different methods to study concepts.

So what are a few key topics in social psychology? As I mentioned above, jury decision-making and the related topic of how small groups make decisions, is a big one. I also mentioned the media as an influence on behavior, which is one of my favorite areas to study in social psychology. In fact, some social psychologists study whether the media encourages aggression or violence. If you've taken introductory psychology, you may remember watching a video about the "Bobo doll" study, a study by Albert Bandura examining whether watching violent media made children more likely to punch a Bobo doll.

Honestly, I'd punch anything that looks like a clown. Clowns are terrifying.

If you didn't take introductory psychology, or don't remember this particular contribution, you're in luck! I'll be talking more about this study and Bandura's work in April!

Another famous social psychological study is sometimes called the "Milgram shock experiment," where Stanley Milgram did what appeared to be, on the surface, a study of learning, in which the teacher shocked the pupil for wrong answers; in actuality, the study was on obedience to authority, because the teacher (the actual participant) was encouraged by the experimenter to shock the pupil (an actor, who was not receiving real shocks) at increasing intensity. If this sounds like a brutal and unethical experiment (and it was, although it wasn't deemed unethical until after the fact), Milgram conducted the study to understand why seemingly good people did horrible things at the behest of a leader (such as what happened during the Holocaust). Once again, more on that study in April!

In both of these cases, someone else is influencing the individual directly: the violent media or the experimenter demanding more shocks. But what about topics where the influence isn't as direct or obvious? For instance, what about the ways in which we associate ourselves with others, to form relationships or attachments? These are also prime topics for social psychologists. One example is the attachments we form with people we haven't met. We have favorite celebrities who we feel as if we "know." Or, if you're like me, you've become so attached to a character from a book or TV show, that you feel genuine emotions about what happens to him/her. We call these "parasocial relationships." This is why we, for example, cry when a character we know and love dies. More on that in April!

Hopefully this post has answered some of your questions about my favorite field. If not, feel free to ask questions in the comments below! I absolutely love getting to tell people more about what I do. And be sure to check back in April!


  1. I didn't have any questions, but after reading this I can't wait to see what comes here in April. I am wanting to go into media studies for a second baccalaureate degree. This will be interesting.

    Under Jazminn Skyes

  2. Checking in on April 1 but am not finding your A post. Sorry.

    1. Hi Stephanie - Thanks for checking in! I work during the day so I'll be posting this evening. Stay tuned!