What is Social Psychology?

Social Psychology Definition

Social psychology explains human behavior concerning other people, how people act in groups and societies, what drives them, and the results of this behavior. It studies social influence and group dynamics.

As stated by Aristotle, people are social animals. Our brains are bigger than most mammals’, and so are our social groups. We can sustain relationships with about 150 people, which gives us 22 350 social interactions between them, which demands a lot of brainpower.

people making a selfie

Since the mid-20th century, social psychology has remained a formal discipline. An early study in 1898 of the study of “social facilitation” commissioned by Indiana University researcher Norman Triplett aimed to explain why bicycle racers appeared to exceed their solo performances at a time when they competed directly.

During WW2, researchers conducted studies on the effect of propaganda on the behavior of all people. Researchers conduct empirical studies in particular for addressing topics as follows.

Today, social psychologists have a substantial quantity of observation data covering a range of topics. Social psychologists work either as a consultant in setting up the social organizing of businesses and psychiatric communities; some work to reduce conflict among ethnic groups and design mass communications.

Learning theories and psychoanalysis were most influential though cognitive and linguistic approaches to research have become more popular.

Social Psychology vs. Sociology

You may wonder how social psychology differs from sociology. Sociologists focus on society as a whole or larger groups and study their interactions. Their research is mostly about statistics and theoretical hypotheses explaining social behavior as a part of a system.

Social psychology focuses on an individual in a group or society and their feelings, behavior and human needs. It gives a more individual and practical perspective on the social behavior of a particular person in a community or a specific group and culture.


In 1924, when both fields were developing, University of Missouri researcher Charles A. Ellwood briefly explained the difference between sociology and social psychology.

Ellwood wrote that sociology is “the science of groups’ origin, development, structure, and functioning.”However, social psychology is “the study of the [individual psychological] origins involved in social groups’ development, structure, and functioning.”

Central concepts in social psychology

Social perception

How people create an opinion about others is one of the most critical questions in social psychology. Interpretation of others’ words and actions is a complicated process.

Initially, researchers thought that peoples’ analysis of others is thorough and thoughtful, and it is based on observing others’ behavior. Currently, we know that impressions are made very quickly and with a small amount of information given.

The supernormal accuracy of a person’s judgments of people they ultimately don’t know indicates that conclusions are drawn immediately based on facial expression and behavior.

This hypothesis was confirmed in a study where participants were shown photographs of the faces of a politician who had won an election for governor of the state and his primary opponent who lost. The respondents were able to identify the winner about 70% of the time though they saw the faces for only 250 milliseconds (Ballew and Todorov, 2007).

Social influence

Social influence is the process by which a person’s behavior, opinions, or feelings are changed due to what other people do, think, or feel. The condition of influence is neither the individual’s awareness of the changes taking place in them nor the intentionality of others’ actions.

Here are the most common examples of social influence:

  • Conformity – succumbing to pressure from the majority in a given situation
  • Compliance – subordination to norms and authority figures
  • Imitation – copying others’ behavior
people protesting

Attribution theory

We described attribute substitution in a dedicated article where we talked about making judgments with more straightforward concepts instead of processing more complicated pieces of information. Nevertheless, it plays a significant role in social interactions.

Attribution is making a judgment based on common sense about the information we think we can quickly process. Attribution can be external when other people make similar judgments or internal when our personal beliefs influence the opinion.

The attribution process can be deformed. Here are some of the most common deformations in judgment about other people and us

  • Basic attribution error consisting of the tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to internal factors while underestimating the role situational determinants of those behaviors
  • False consensus effect causes percieving our views, behaviors, and preferences as relatively common.
  • Attributional egotism is the tendency to explain your behavior in a self-flattering way.
  • Attributional egocentrism is overestimating your contribution to an outcome achieved with other people.
  • Confirmation strategy is seeking information that is more likely to be true under the assumption that the hypothesis being tested is true rather than alternative hypotheses.
  • The self-fulfilling prophecy is making a false judgment and providing data to confirm that judgment. When there’s a behavior confirming a former opinion, we think that, after all, we were right.
people gossiping

Positive and negative inclination

The first is positive inclination – the tendency to formulate positive rather than negative evaluations of other people, oneself, social objects, and the world in general.

Such people usually overestimate the degree of personal control throughout events. Therefore, they remain in a positive rather than a negative mood rather than in a negative mood.

The negative inclination means a more significant influence of negative information than positive information on overall evaluations overall. Adverse events and messages carry more information and are better differentiated by people.

For example, there are more negative than favorable terms for human traits or emotions in natural languages. Negative information leads to subjectively more certain conclusions when it comes from a reliable source.


This article tackled the most important concepts in social psychology like social influence and attribution theory. Social influence is the process by which a person’s behavior, opinions, or feelings are changed due to what other people do, think, or feel.

Attribution theory is making judgments based on common sense about the information you think you can quickly process. Attribution can be external when other people make similar judgments or internal when your personal beliefs cause you to judge in specific ways.

Attributions can be distorted with the false consensus effect or self-fulfilling prophecy which affects our judgment of others.

Make sure to check out our other posts on psychology and marketing.

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