Blue line illustration on a black background of head outlines with green light glow in the brain space on one

The past, present and future of social psychology

Posted on: June 29, 2021

Have you ever wondered how people’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs are formed? Have you thought about why prejudice, discrimination and stereotypes develop, and how they can be overcome? These, amongst other investigations into social behaviour and influence, are questions that social psychology examines.

Social psychology is the study of individual behaviour and how or why it is influenced by the social environment in which that behaviour occurs.

The history of social psychology

Early social psychology theories stretch all the way back to Aristotle and Plato, when Aristotle believed humans were naturally sociable and that sociability was a necessity for humans to live together, whereas Plato believed the state controlled individuals and encouraged social responsibility through social context.

However, it wasn’t until centuries later when the first text on social psychology was published by William McDougall in 1908. Much like Aristotle, he favoured an individual-centred approach and believed social behaviour was innate. This belief is not the principle upheld in modern social psychology, with many modern researchers swaying towards a socio-centred approach: that social behaviour is formed by social influence.

The work of Floyd Henry Allport in 1924 suggested that behaviour results from social interactions between individuals, and he covered topics such as emotion, conformity and effects of an audience on others. It is this viewpoint which underpins a large proportion of current thinking.

Following World War II, people became interested in the behaviour of individuals when put together in social situations, and how attitudes are formed and changed by social contexts. Much of the key research in social psychology was developed following this historic event.

Famous social psychology experiments

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, carried out a famous social psychology study on obedience after examining justifications for acts of genocide during World War II at the Nuremberg War Criminal trials, when those accused claimed to be just following orders from their superiors. The Milgram Shock Experiment (1963) was devised to investigate whether Nazi killings could be explained as obedience to authority figures.

Male participants were recruited by newspaper advertising and each participant was paired with another person, one of whom would become the ‘learner’ and one the ‘teacher’. Though they drew lots, the draw was always fixed so that the participant would be the teacher and the learner was played by someone who wasn’t really a participant but pretending to be one. The learner was taken to a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher went to another room with the researcher and was sat in front of an electric shock generator with switches marked from 15 volts to 450 volts.

In the teacher position, the participants were asked to test the learner by naming a word and asking the learner to recall it’s pair from a list of choices. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was told to administer an electric shock. The learner gave wrong answers on purpose, and the teacher was ordered to continue when they refused to administer the electric shock by the researcher. All participants continued to 300 volts, and 65% continued to the highest level of 450 volts, finding that people tended to obey orders from other people if they recognised them as an authority figure, even if their actions could be fatal to another person.

Another famous social psychology experiment was The Stanford Prison Experiment (1973). Philip Zimbardo predicted that the social environment in prisons was situational, rather than guards and prisoners acting the way they did because of their personality dispositions. 

By studying these roles in this environment, Zimbardo converted the basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison and interviewed the 75 applicants through personality tests. The 24 judged to be the most physically and mentally stable, most mature, and least involved in antisocial behaviours were chosen to participate and were randomly assigned roles of either guard or prisoner.

Aiming to deindividualize all participants, when the prisoners arrived at the prison they were stripped naked and had their personal possessions removed. They were given a uniform and an ID number to replace their name, which each was called throughout the experiment. Guards were given identical khaki uniforms, a whistle, a police baton, and sunglasses to make eye contact impossible, and were instructed to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain order and respect, bar physical violence.

Participants slipped into their roles quickly, with prisoners taking rules very seriously and guards handing out insults and petty orders. On the second day, a rebellion broke out amongst prisoners, and throughout the days following, the relationship between prisoners and guards changed as prisoners became more submissive and guards more assertive. 

The experiment had intended to run for two weeks, but was terminated on the sixth day following emotional breakdowns of prisoners and the excessive aggression displayed by guards. Zimbardo claimed the experiment revealed how people will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, as the guards began to act in ways they would not usually behave in their normal lives.

How does social psychology explain behaviour?

Psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that social psychology uses scientific methods to ‘understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of human beings’. 

The actions and behaviours we exhibit when home alone compared to those in social situations are often markedly different. Further still, how we behave when we’re amongst a close group of friends compared to work colleagues will also differ. Amongst social groups, people may display group behaviour when it comes to expressing certain attitudes or beliefs, though at work, they may conform to what is expected of the professional environment.

The basis of social psychology suggests that different versions of ourselves are dependent on who is around us – the people around us shape our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and perceptions.

Take, for example, the rise in recent years of ‘fake news’. On social media, it is highly likely that users follow and connect to people of similar thought processes to them. If fake news is shared by someone in a person’s network who they trust and have previously agreed with, it is no surprise that the fake news is believed and spread further. 

From another perspective is the example of sports teams. All teammates are working towards a common goal, and have trained and practiced in order to achieve that. When a team is created, there is always importance on ensuring they work well together, as a positive group dynamic is more likely to achieve desired outcomes as a result of working as a cohesive unit.

Become the future of social psychology

On the University of Wolverhampton’s BPS-accredited MSc Psychology, you could gain a further insight into the fundamental principles of social psychology. You will learn how people construct a notion of who they are and how they operate in a social world, whilst applying critical thinking assessing the roles of persuasion and conformity in modern behaviour.

Our MSc Psychology has been developed to prepare you for a career in psychology or psychological research, and as it is studied part-time and 100% online, you can fit your learning around your life.

No. 1 Ranked in the UK For Teaching first generation students
85% of research 'world-leading' or 'internationally important' (latest REF)
Online Psychology Master’s accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS)
22,000 A university of 22,000 students
1827 Providing education and opportunity since 1827