What does the science of social psychology entail? – Chapter 1


In this summary, the focus will be on the social side of life. Social psychology is a branch of psychology that examines all aspects of our social existence.

What is social psychology?

Social psychology is the branch of psychology that seeks to understand the nature and causes of behaviour and explains the thoughts of individuals in social situations in a scientific way.

Social psychology is scientific by nature

Social psychology applies scientific values and methods to research. Social behaviour and thoughts cannot effectively be explained with common sense or intuition, these factors are influenced by prejudice. Science refers to a range of values and multiple methods that can be used to research a wide range of topics. Four of the most important core values are:

  • Accuracy: a commitment to the collection and evaluation of information about the world (including social behaviour and thinking) in a way that is as accurate, carefully, and error-free as possible.

  • Objectivity: a commitment to the ac acquisition and evaluation of such information in a way that is free of bias and as humane as possible.

  • Skepticism: a commitment to accept findings as accurate only if they have been repeatedly verified.

  • Open-mindedness: a commitment to even change your vision, even when strongly adhered to, when existing evidence suggests this vision to be inaccurate.

These values are important because humans are not perfect information processing machines. For example, a common mistake or illusion is the planning fallacy: the strong tendency to believe that plans will take less time than they actually do.

Social psychology focuses on the behaviour of individuals

In social psychology, we mainly look at the behaviour of individuals and how this behaviour is influenced by various factors. For example, it is important to look at individual behaviour and to what extend it is influenced by a group, by culture and by emotions and mood. More and more attention is being paid to how factors such as culture and ethnicity influence the formation of an individual’s behaviour.

Social psychology seeks to understand the causes of social behaviour

As previously indicated, social psychologists are interested in the causes that influence the social behaviour and thinking of an individual in response to a social environment. The following characteristics play a role: actions and characteristics of other people; cognitive processes (such as memories and interpretations); environmental variables (i.e. the weather, a certain odor); the cultural context and its associated norms and values’ and finally biological and genetic factors. Biological factors are particularly emphasized by psychologists who focus on evolutionary psychology, a branch of psychology that states that species are subject to biological evolution. Interesting here, is the distinction between the effects that evolution has on men and women.

The search for basic principles in a changing social world

A core goal of science is to develop basic principles that are accurate regardless of where or when they are tested or applied. Social psychologist to do not develop mathematical formulas, instead they look for the basic principles that guide social life. Although they acknowledge that cultures are very different and that the social world is constantly changing, they are looking for basic principles that apply over time and across different cultures.

What are the characteristics of modern social psychology?

Social psychology is constantly evolving and changing. A number of developments that have arisen over time are described below.

Cognition and behaviour: two sides of the same social coin

Nowadays, social psychologists are convinced that social behaviour cannot be viewed separately from social thoughts (cognition). Behaviour (how people behave in social situations) and thoughts (how people think about themselves and others) constantly influence each other in a complex way.

The role of emotion in the social side of life

Social psychologists are always interested in emotions and states of mind because they are known to play an important role in several aspects of social life. For example, research has demonstrated that positive moods increase our tendency to help others.

The importance of social relationships for well-being

The influence of relationships on our social life is great, hence the great interest of social psychologists in understanding the social nature of relationships. Relationships are our social ties with other people, they can range from superficial acquaintances to intense long-term relationships such as marriage, or lifelong friendships.

Social neuroscience: the intersection of social psychology and brain research

Modern social psychology is eclectic in nature today and that is reflected in its use of very different research methods. This is how social psychologists in recent years have become more interested in neurosciences as a way to explain social behaviour and thoughts. In social neuroscience, neural and biological causes for social processes are researched and investigated. For example, neuroscientists study brain events, other neural activities and even changes in the immune system to determine how they relate to important social processes. MRI and other brain scans are used for this studies.

The role of implicit (nonconscious) processes

Another important new theme of modern social psychology is research in the role of implicit (unconscious) processes on social behaviour and thinking. Often behaviours and thoughts are influenced by factors of which the person is not aware. An important comment here is that research into implicit processes finds itself on the border of social psychology.

Taking full account of social diversity

Today, people researching social psychology are convinced of the fact that cultural and ethnic factors have a major influence on social behaviour and thoughts. This multicultural perspective has led to important changes in the focus of social psychological research. Cultures, including different social classes within cultures, can both enable and encourage people to experience the social world differently and increased recognition of this is a hallmark of modern social psychology – i.e. recognizing these differences is very important.

Which research methods are used in social psychology?

Social psychologists try to get answers to questions about behaviour and thinking by using different research methods.

Systematic observation: describing the world around us

An important research method for studying social behaviour is systematic observation, where behaviour is systematically observed and recorded. In naturalistic observation behaviour is investigated in the environment where it would occur naturally (i.e. no interference/manipulation) another method is to give out questionnaires to a large number of people, asking about their attitude and behaviour (survey method). The people interviewed must be a good representation of the larger population group to which they belong, the population group that the researcher is investigating and ultimately wants to be able to conclude/infer results about.

Correlation: the search for relationships

In the correlational method, two or more variables are systematically observed in order to determine whether a change in one variable will result in a change in the other variable. It is therefore investigated whether the variables are related to each other. The method of research in which correlations are investigated is useful when it comes to being able to make accurate predictions. However, the existence of correlations between variables does not automatically imply that a causal link is also present. This is a shortcoming of this method of investigation. This method also fails to provide an explanation. Therefore, many researchers prefer other forms of research such as the experimental method, where researchers also hope to provide explanations for certain relationships.

The experimental method: knowledge through systematic intervention

In the experimental method knowledge is acquired through systematic intervention. In this method one or more factors (the independent variables) become systematic to determine whether changes in those factors have an effect on certain aspects of behaviour (dependent variable). The independent variable is the variable that is manipulated throughout the experiment. The dependent variable is the variable that is measured in the experiment. In social psychology, the presence or power of a variable, which is suspected to be on social behaviour or thinking, has been systematically changed. Next, the effects of these changes (if there are any) are carefully measured. An important condition for obtaining valid data is that the participants must be randomly allocated to the experimental conditions (they must all have the same chance of ending up in a certain condition). Another important condition for successful research results is keeping all other variables constant (everything except for the independent variables), as they may be confounding variables influencing your dependent variable without your knowledge. The external validity is also a point of attention in the experimental method. Because research takes place in an unnatural setting (research area like a lab), it begs the question whether the findings can be generalized to situations in real life and whether they can be generalized also to people who did not participate in the study. Furthermore, the experimental method can sometimes not be used for practical or ethical reasons.

Further thoughts on causality: the role of mediating variables

A mediating variable is an indirect variable, it is influenced by an independent variable and in turn also affects the dependent variable. Mediating variables help explain why or how specific variables influence social behaviour or thoughts in a certain way.

Meta-analysis: assessing a body of knowledge

It is important that research can be repeated and replicated. Only when research results are confirmed across multiple replications and studies (by different researchers in different research situations) can one really trust those results. Meta-analyses combining research data from independent investigations, to determine whether specific variables (or interactions between variables) have significant effects throughout all studies.

What is the role of theory in social psychology?

In social psychology people don’t just want certain things described, they are looking for explanations just like in other sciences. To be able to give explanations, theories are posed. Theories are statements outlining possible explanations for certain events or processes. Theories play an important role in social psychology. the procedure for setting up a theory is as follows: first of all, a theory is proposed based on already existing evidence. This theory helps to organize existing data and makes predictions about observable events. These predictions that are made are called hypotheses, this is the subject of investigation. If results show evidence supporting the hypothesis, confidence in the theory grows. Eventually the theory is accepted or rejected. Finding evidence for a theory never means research can be completely conclude it. It is always open to further investigation and can be always be built upon or more or less substantiated. To conclude, research never seeks to prove a theory, but to find evidence relevant to a theory.

How is balance found between the search for knowledge and the rights for individuals?

Social psychologists are often reluctant to tell the real reason for research to participants, as this could influence the behaviour of the participants (resulting in biased results). This is called deception. Deception raises ethical questions. Two procedures must be followed to reduce the dangers of deception:

  1. First of all, the procedure of informed consent. This implies that participants receive as much information as possible about the research before the decide to participate or not. They can make an informed decision about whether to give their consent of participation.
  2. Secondly, debriefing is of great importance. This means that the purpose of the research is made clear afterwards and that any deceptions or withheld information is revealed.
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