The History of Social Psychology
From its humble beginnings to its divergent future
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It is common knowledge that social psychology is an integral part of any general psychology class. However, social psychological research has become so prominent that it has made its way into our everyday lives. Have you ever been in a situation where your closest friend in the world had a completely different interpretation of an event than you did? Did that surprise you? Social psychology could predict and explain that happening. Have you ever found yourself in an emergency situation, such as a medical emergency, and didn’t know if you should respond? Social psychology addresses that question too. Did you ever hear of a person committing a heinous act like murder for no reason at all? Did you wonder how that could occur? Social psychology can also answer that question. If you have encountered any of these situations, social psychology has had an influence on your day-to-day life.
What Is Social Psychology?
Social psychology is the scientific study of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how they were influenced by the real or imagined presence of others (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014). Social psychology is a very broad field that examines concepts such as how we observe and interpret the behaviors of other people as well as ourselves. Social psychology studies a large variety of concepts including conformity, obedience, prejudice, and aggression, as well as attraction, love, altruism, and empathy. Where did this field begin? While it is difficult to find an exact date or place where social psychology began, the field certainly has origins in research that was conducted in Europe as well as the United States. Some of the early researchers date back to before the 1900s and include famous psychologists such as William James and Wilhelm Wundt.
William James was a Harvard-trained physician who later taught at that same university. In 1890, James published the book, Principles of Psychology, which earned him the “father of psychology” title (Kassin et al., 2021). Although James was not a social psychologist, he believed in functionalism, the idea that our beliefs and behavior were deeply tied to the environment around us. This concept remains true today as a core belief in the field of social psychology.
Wilhelm Wundt is best known for creating the first psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1879. He introduced the idea that psychology should be a science and must be based on observable evidence. Although he was not a social psychologist, his views on the empirical nature of psychology helped develop the underpinnings of social psychology as an evidence-based research field (Kassin et al., 2021).
Another key milestone for the field was when social psychologist Kurt Lewin immigrated to the United States from Germany, bringing the ideas of Max Wertheimer and Gestalt psychology to the United States. Gestalt psychology is a school of thought designed to help us understand our perceptual processes and how the brain organizes information. Here is a visual example:
Figure 1.2: What do you see in this image? Is there really a triangle here? Is this a subjective contour? Read about this image and the definition of a subjective contour in the article tilted The Whole is Other than the Sum of the Parts. (Source: http://www.intropsych.com/ch04_senses/whole_is_other_than_the_sum_of_the_parts.html)
Gestalt is best known for the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Finkel & Baumeister, 2019). Lewin incorporated the ideas of Gestalt into the emerging field of social psychology.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the roots of social psychology had now been firmly planted in the United States. Social psychology has only continued to grow since those days and has delivered to us such famous researchers as Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Solomon Asch, Bibb Latané, and John Darley, to name just a few. This course will delve into this classic research as well as look at some of the more contemporary research that has made the field what it is now.
What do you do with social psychology research?
Part of the popularity of social psychology is that its research can be used to reduce major social problems such as aggression and prejudice, and to aid people in becoming more helpful in situations where help is needed. Some of the goals of social psychology include:
- Helping people to predict and understand their own behaviors as well as the behaviors of others
- Understanding the causes of social problems including racism, sexism, violence, and discrimination
- Increasing people’s positive behaviors, such as empathy and helping
By using ethically based research methods and treating participants in all studies according to the APA guidelines for research participants, social psychology has grown into one of the most popular fields in all of psychology. By the end of this course, you will have a firm grasp of the classic and current social psychological theories as well as where the field is currently headed.
Note on Research and Writing for This Course
Social psychology is a research-oriented field that relies on data and evidence to advance. In this course, your work should reflect the basis of the field. Your writing should employ an objective, reasoned voice, with claims supported by evidence from the course readings or other reliable, research-based sources. At times, you will be asked to state your opinion, but this opinion should be supported, and checked, by evidence from research in social psychology.
While you may be accustomed to doing research on the internet and relying on popular sources meant for a wide audience, peer-reviewed research published in academic journals or book-length studies of peer-reviewed research published by reputable presses should form the basis of your research in this course. The Shapiro Library is the best place to find this type of research and is the “go-to” site for materials for this course. APA style is used for style, formatting, and documentation of sources for the writing projects in this course.
Finkel, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2019). Advanced social psychology: The state of the science (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Jhangiani, R., & Tarry, H. (2014). Principles of social psychology: 1st international H5P edition. BCcampus OpenEd. https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/
Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2021). Social psychology (11th ed.). Cengage.
Kurt Lewin quote. AZ Quotes. (n.d.). https://www.azquotes.com/quote/533578
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