Social psychology is a branch of psychology that studies how individuals think, feel about and affect one another’s thoughts, emotions and conduct. It analyzes the ways in which social circumstances and personal interpretations influence an individual’s behavior in a group setting. In a sense social psychology is the branch of psychology that deals the most with “real life” due to its focus on the variety of social situations that we all engage in daily, whether at home, at work or at school. Because it is an academic subject that is broad in scope it overlaps both with other branches of psychology, like cognitive psychology and developmental psychology and with other social sciences like sociology, anthropology and communication.
Social psychology has a long history, although as an academic discipline it was marginalized for a long time before becoming a standard part of any psychology curriculum. One of the first research forays into social psychology is credited to Norman Triplett, a 19th century scientist who studied the effect of competition on children’s performance in reel-winding. He found that the presence of competitors enhanced individual performance. But the questions raised by social psychology have been explored for much longer–Plato’s writings about “the crowd mind” and the link between persuasion and power foreshadow later empirical research into those same subjects. Scholars and theorists including George Herbert Mead, the author of “The Social Self” (1913) and Sigmund Freud, who analyzed the ego from the standpoint of group psychology, lay groundwork in the early 20th century for social psychology of today.
World War II and the Cold War spurred a renewed interest in social psychology in the United States, as the American government became interested in empirically studying issues of fear, trust, collective identity, obedience and conformity. During this period some of the most famous experiments in social psychology were conducted. These included Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience and authority, during which the test subjects were instructed to perform actions that conflicted with their conscience, like administering electric shocks, and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, which studied the effects of becoming a prisoner or a prisoner guard. Later research in social psychology concerned itself with such topics as implicit discrimination, racism, cults, psychological manipulation and schoolyard bullying.
But not all social psychology research is quite so dark. Social psychology also studies dating behaviors, differences in child rearing attitudes, the development of empathy and altruism, ways to improve self-esteem, gift-giving rituals, workplace relationships and much more. A typical course in social psychology would probably include subjects like social perception and cognition, social influence and persuasion, self-presentation and impression management, and prosocial and antisocial behavior. Social psychology is a necessary part of a general education in psychology, but it can also be useful for businessmen, educators and anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the human condition.