Four young people sat around a low table laughing together

The psychology of social interaction

Posted on: February 7, 2022

The effect of social interaction and society on the psyche and the theory of individual differences are contrasting and complementary schools of thought, which it could be argued go all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. Personality psychology, such as the study of individual differences, focuses on intrapersonal factors (e.g. personality traits), whereas social psychology, such as the study of social interaction, focuses on interpersonal factors (e.g. social networks).

What is the definition of social interaction?

The definition of social interaction according to the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology is, “any process that involves reciprocal stimulation or response between two or more individuals.” This could be through family relationships such as between parent and child; personal relationships between friends; or work relationships between colleagues. These kinds of interactions between two people are referred to as dyads. If the interaction is between three people, it is referred to as a triad. Social groups are made up of any number of people higher than three.

Social interaction within its reciprocal relationships encompasses the development of cooperation or competition, the influence of status and social role, as well as the dynamics of group behaviour, leadership, and conformity. Through these examples of human interaction, social structure is created.

What are the five types of social interaction?

There are many kinds of social behaviours, but they are usually grouped into five types of social interactions:

  • Exchange
  • Competition
  • Cooperation
  • Accommodation
  • Conflict

These are all ways in which we interact in a social context. Our social groups can be families, friends, teams, schools, companies, political parties, or countries, for example. Obviously exchange, cooperation, accommodation, and healthy competition are preferable. However, conflict can easily arise in social environments. To add to this, seemingly positive interactions such as cooperation can have negative connotations depending on the social context. In a famous experiment carried out by Stanley Milgram, cooperation became obedience with disturbing consequences.

The Milgram Experiment

A renowned experiment that played an important role in understanding social influence was carried out in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. The aim of the experiment was to show the social influence on obedience to authority. In the experiment, a group of men aged between 20 and 50 were instructed by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to another participant referred to as the “learner”. Unbeknownst to the participating group of men, the shocks were not real, and the learner was an actor. The authority figure, the “experimenter” asked the participants to carry out a series of tests involving the pairing of words, which the learner had to answer correctly. If he answered them incorrectly, the participant would have to then administer an electric shock. They were told that the shocks increased in 15-volt increments with every wrong answer, reaching a strength of 450 volts, which would have been fatal had it been real.

As the voltage of the shocks were seemingly increased, the learner would scream in protest and if the number of wrong answers reached the level of voltage that would be fatal, the learner fell silent. The participants were placed in a separate room to the learner so that they could not see the actor or the supposed pain they were inflicting. If a participant asked to stop the experiment at any time, he was given the following responses in sequence from the experimenter:

  • Please continue/go on
  • The experiment requires that you continue
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue
  • You have no other choice; you must go on

If the participant still wanted to stop after all four responses were given, the experiment was halted. If not, the experiment only stopped after the participant had given the learner the maximum 450-volt shock three times in a row.

Before carrying out his experiment, Milgram polled some students at Yale about what they thought the result would be. They thought that only a small percentage of a group would obey such orders – between 0 and 3 of a hypothetical 100 participants. He also asked a group of forty psychiatrists what their prediction was. The consensus was that “only a little over one-tenth of one percent of the subjects would administer the highest shock on the board.”

The results were as shocking as the apparent punishment being administered: 65% of participants (26 out of 40) went as far as to administer the final 450-volt shock. All of the participants gave the learner shocks up to 300 volts which, in theory, could cause ventricular fibrillation. Milgram observed that all of the participants displayed physical and mental discomfort when carrying out the increasing punishment, some even descending into nervous laughing fits.

The experiment was originally formulated because Milgram wanted to try and explain the psychology of genocide. He wondered in what social situations would people claim that they were “just following orders” as many Nazis were claiming in war crime trials at the time. Thomas Blass, who was professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Maryland, performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated rounds of the experiment. In these replications, although the percentage of participants who inflicted the higher-voltage, potentially fatal, shocks ranged between 28% to 91%, the average percentage for US studies was 61% and 66% for non-US studies at the time.

The implications of this famous experiment on our understanding of human behaviour were and are impactful. Social groups tend to conform, and although we may think we would behave differently in certain social situations, our decision-making in the moment does not always correlate with what we predict we would do.

The experiment also raised questions about whether it was ethical to put participants under such duress while believing they were affecting someone’s physical health. Even though Milgram had received their consent, it was still his responsibility to ensure their wellbeing as argued three years after the experiment, by Diana Baumrind in an article for the American Psychologist. Many of the participants were observed to sweat, tremble, groan, dig their fingers into their skin, and bite their lips as they continued on with the experiment. A complete revision of the ethical standards of psychological research followed the experiment.

There’s never been a better time to study social interaction

Understanding people’s behaviour in everyday life and how they relate to social norms is a fascinating field of study. We live in particularly polarised times, with so-called “culture wars” playing out around us. Much of this has been precipitated by social media and the proliferation of fake news, as well as the questioning of authority figures such as scientists.

What causes people’s mistrust of previously accepted knowledge? How does the creation of groups and “groupthink” affect people’s behaviour? What effect does this have on social structure? 

A 100% online Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Wolverhampton can help you to explore these intriguing questions and many more. Find out how you can begin your part-time study and improve your qualifications with an MSc Psychology today.

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