A significant part of human nature is the inescapable urge to understand and explain human behavior (Myers, 2010). In an effort to sustain the belief that human nature is orderly, predictable, and controllable, people seek to identify and attribute behavior to a specific cause. Social psychology seeks to explain correlational and causal relationships of human nature in a scientific fashion although without hesitating to ask and answer big picture questions such as those referring to the purpose of life and human existence. In the study of social relations, social psychology seeks to understand the human condition and apply scientifically gleaned principles in an effort to assist in the lifelong journey of the human experience.
Definition of Social Psychology
Social psychology is a field of study that incorporates the use of scientific methods to understand and explain human nature and the processes of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of people as they are influenced by other people (Huff, 2001). Social psychology is the scientific study of individuals and their relationships with other individuals. Its main themes focus on how humans construct society and how their social behaviors are shaped by their interactions with others, their personalities, and their biology (Myers, 2010). The aim of social psychology is to understand and apply the principles gained from scientific study to the challenges and difficulties of the human experience.
Social psychology considers social thinking as how humans perceive themselves and others, what they think about social relationships, the judgments they make, and their general attitudes. Social psychology accounts for social influences from culture, conformity pressures, persuasion, and the effect of groups on the individual (Myers, 2010). Social relations are a significant part in the study of social psychology as observed in the human display of prejudice, aggression, intimacy, and altruistic behavior (Myers, 2010).
How Social Psychology Differs from Related Disciplines
Whereas biology emphasizes principles such as natural selection, evolutionary mechanisms, and adaptation, sociology's fundamental parameters are the concepts of social structure and organization (Myers, 2010). Social psychology finds its accommodation
somewhere between the boundary of the two. Sociologists observe social behavior, cultures, and social institutions on a broader level than psychologists who tend to focus on "situational variables that affect social behavior" (Cherry, n.d., para. 2). Comparatively, social psychology addresses individuals and uses scientific experimentation more than sociology, which studies groups of people, cultures, and societies. Although the two study similar topics, they view them from different perspectives (Cherry, n.d.).
In comparing social psychology to personality psychology, the former puts less emphasis on individual differences and more emphasis on the general perspective of how individuals affect each other (Myers, 2010). Personality psychology focuses on the traits, characteristics, and thoughts of the individual, whereas social psychologists attend to the effects of the social environment and its influence on attitudes and behaviors (Cherry, n.d.). As in other disciplines within the science of psychology, the principles of social psychology have significant implications for the health and well-being of the human population. Myers (2010) explains how social psychology accommodates some of the big picture questions that define human existence, such as the meaning of human life, and finding purpose in one's ultimate destiny. These are questions not commonly addressed in psychological science although their significance cannot be diminished.
Role of Research in Social Psychology
To gain insight into the often-secretive character of human nature, social psychologists propose theories, organize observations, and test hypotheses (Myers, 2010). Theories, according to Myers (2010), are "integrated sets of principles that explain and predict observed events" (p. 17). Theories are explanations that account for observations that may not be completely understood. To predict specific behaviors, social psychologists may use correlational studies that may be accomplished in a natural setting. They may conduct experiments in which one or more factors are manipulated under controlled laboratory conditions in an effort to understand behavior. Through systematic processes of forming theories, discoveries are applied to human populations to alleviate common problems and social challenges. Research and observation allows greater understanding of how humans think, relate to, and influence each other (Myers, 2010).
Most of the research conducted by social psychologists is either correlational or experimental. Correlational research asks whether two or more factors are naturally associated. This type of research can be implemented by using systematic survey methods and real-world settings such as a study to determine how social status and level of education are related. When a measure of correlation is demonstrated, this association does not necessarily demonstrate a causal relationship. Although information on correlating variables may be valuable, it is not a reliable indicator of a causal relationship or whether another variable is involved (Myers, 2010).
Experimental research seeks evidence in cause and effect relationships by manipulating one or more independent variables while controlling others (Myers, 2010). According to Myers (2010), one of the most problematic errors made by social psychologists is concluding that one factor is causing the other although their true relationship is merely correlational. Experimental research is designed to explore cause and effect by controlling and manipulating variables and by random assignment (Myers, 2010). Such isolation and manipulation may provide enough evidence to attribute any resulting difference to one or another of the variables.
Social psychology centers around themes usually left untouched by other disciplines. Perhaps central to its core is big picture questions such as the inescapable ones regarding life's purpose and the character of human nature. Social psychology scientifically studies how people consider their relationships, influence others, and relate to each other. It observes how humans socially integrate, and the processes by which they construct and follow the rules of such integration. Human behavior is determined by our personalities, attitudes, biology, and the influences of our fellows and social psychology focuses on and studies the composite of these influences. Research in this discipline is scientifically fashioned into correlational and experimental studies in an effort to create and define principles that find application in daily human lives. These applications aid in creating greater human self-awareness while continually instilling this same cognizance in psychological science and in various disciplines that involve the study of people and their characteristic human nature.
Myers, D. G. (2010). Social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Cherry, K. (n.d.). What Is Social Psychology - An Introduction to Social Psychology. Psychology - Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Retrieved March 25, 2011, from http://psychology.about.com/od/socialpsychology/f/socialpsych.htm
Huff, C. (2001, March 14). Why should we care about Gordon Allport? St. Olaf College.. Retrieved March 25, 2011, from http://www.stolaf.edu/people/huff/misc/Allporttalk.html