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The Evolution and Impact of Social Psychology Through Time

Since human beings thrive on social connections, social pressure is an omnipresent force that often shapes our beliefs and sense of self. Once you’re in the society’s spotlight, you must navigate a complex landscape of norms, expectations, and judgments. Whether it’s conforming to societal standards, building the perfect life on social media, or fearing to […]

Author Generic Image By Therese de Liz
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Updated on May 21, 2024

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Since human beings thrive on social connections, social pressure is an omnipresent force that often shapes our beliefs and sense of self. Once you’re in the society’s spotlight, you must navigate a complex landscape of norms, expectations, and judgments. Whether it’s conforming to societal standards, building the perfect life on social media, or fearing to be different, the weight of social pressure can be suffocating. 

It can drive you to prioritize other people’s thoughts and feelings when making a decision, even when it goes against your values and judgment. Typically, your social environment exerts a huge influence on how you feel, think, and behave. The toll the social influence takes on individuals makes social psychology a crucial discipline in understanding human behavior, shaping societal norms, and empowering individuals. 

This piece seeks to demystify social psychology, delve into its history, highlight its impact on society, and explore available career options.

Understanding Social Psychology

Social psychology is a scientific study of the social influence on people’s behavior. It uses a systematic approach to understand how people influence each other’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Social psychologists seek to understand the influence that social situations exert on a person’s behavior.

Typically, having people around dramatically influences your choices and actions. You’re more likely to behave a certain way when you have company than alone. But even then, your conduct depends on the social groups — close friends and family vs. strangers and colleagues — you will behave differently in each scenario.

Social influence spans the spectrum from obvious to subtle and almost unnoticeable. A menacing bully and an advertiser will influence your decisions but in a different way. The bully uses threats of violence, while an advertiser is more subtle—they use sticky images or jingles—to influence your purchases.

Other times, social influence is almost invisible. For instance, a flashback of your parent’s proud smile may influence your handling of a moral dilemma, even when alone.  Social psychology seeks to understand the extent to which elements such as culture, social expectations, national standards, and community norms influence your behavior.

Concepts of Social Psychology

Social psychology uses various concepts to understand how social interactions influence your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The concepts provide a framework that helps social psychologists to study factors that shape human behavior. Social psychology concepts allow researchers to explore scenarios ranging from interpersonal relationships to deep-rooted societal issues.

Typically, concepts of social psychology fall into three broad categories that influence social behavior:

Social psychology seeks to understand social behavior because how you perceive yourself and others influences your actions, decisions, and behavior. The people around you will determine your mood and attitude, shape your thoughts and feelings, and color your perception.

Common concepts of social psychology include:

You’re more likely to make uncharacteristic choices and decisions when you have company than alone. That’s because there’s an innate need to conform to the group’s norms to fill a psychological need to belong. Unfortunately, the pressure to conform may force you to go against your core values or identity to avoid ruffling feathers within your social circle.

Social behavior is a double-edged sword that exerts positive and negative influence at the personal and community levels. Some peer pressure may galvanize you to embrace positive change and improve your quality of life. Conversely, persistent negative peer influence may drive you to make wrong choices.

Social Psychology vs. Sociology

Although both disciplines investigate how society shapes and influences human behavior, social psychology and sociology are remarkably different.

Unlike social psychology, cognitive psychology examines how people acquire, process, and use information. It seeks to understand mental processes such as attention, memory, perception, and problem-solving.

History of Social Psychology

The history of social psychology reflects a continuous effort to refine ideas, theories, and experiments to understand human behavior within social contexts. It’s a journey spanning decades and involving various influential figures and pivotal events that explore how people feel, think, and behave in a social setting. Here’s an annotation of the crucial milestones in the history of social psychology:

Late 1800s: The Roots of Social Psychology

The origin of social psychology traces back to the late 19th century, after scholars sought to understand how social factors influenced individual behavior. Gustave Le Bon, a French psychologist, set the stage for studying crowd psychology and collective behavior.  

Early 1900s: The Emergence of Social Psychology

The growing interest in social psychology allowed the discipline to emerge as a separate discipline.

1930s to 1950s: The Classic Era

The emergence of critical theories and experience, driven by World War II events, championed significant social psychology development during the classic era.

1960s to 1970s: Social Cognition and Cognitive Revolution

The sixties marked a shift towards cognitive processes and social cognition as social psychologists sought to understand how people perceive, process, and interpret social information. Alberta Bandura’s social learning highlighted the value of observational learning and identified how modeling and imitation influence behavior.

1970s – 1980s: Social Cognition and Heuristic Processing

During this era, social psychological research focused on studying mental processes involved in decision-making, social judgment, and processing information.

Late 20th Century: Expansion and Diversification

Social psychology embraced new methodologies, including surveys, experiments, and complex social phenomena. It started diversifying by incorporating interdisciplinary perspectives and drawing insights from other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, and neuroscience.

Early 21st Century: Contemporary Social Psychology

Social psychology continues to evolve and adapt to technological advancements and societal changes as it seeks to reduce bias and promote inclusivity and social justice. Social psychologists use the internet to investigate social media and online behavior, implicit biases, intergroup relations, and self-perception.

The Impact of Social Psychology

By deepening the understanding of human behavior within the societal context, social psychology helps build a more informed and equitable society. It generates insights that help inform policies and interventions that help improve the quality of life, including:

Understanding Human Behavior

Social psychology provides a framework that allows scientists to study the intricate factors that influence and shape human behavior in a social context. It seeks to understand the factors influencing an individual’s attitude, actions, and beliefs and offers valuable insights into the complex interplay between individual and social forces. These insights are invaluable in promoting positive behavioral change, addressing social issues, or seeking societal and interpersonal interactions.

Driving Social Change and Public Policy

Research in social psychology plays a central role in shaping public policy and driving social change. It helps study sensitive topics such as discrimination, prejudice, and social justice to shape the development of policies that help reduce social inequities and promote fairness. Social psychologists may help uncover psychological processes driving discrimination and prejudice.

They can investigate the origin of bias and stereotypes and uncover the psychological roots of prejudice. Policymakers can use these insights to develop comprehensive interventions targeting the underlying factors. They may also use the resultant knowledge to create policies and training programs that promote diversity and inclusion and help mitigate implicit biases.

Deepening Interpersonal Relationships

Social psychology generates a wealth of knowledge and provides practical guidance to help people navigate the complexities of interpersonal relationships. It can help people understand attachment styles, improve conflict resolution, and promote effective communication. People can use these insights to build healthier, more fulfilling romantic, familiar, personal, or professional relationships. Mental healthcare professionals may use social psychological principles to provide valuable support and guidance to their clients.

Promoting Health and Well-being

Social psychology has built an immense knowledge of the influence of social factors on health and well-being. Scientists have connected stress, social support, and health psychology. Such breakthroughs champion the formation of effective interventions that improve public health and well-being. For instance, studies show that people with strong social support systems experience better mental health.

Healthcare providers, policymakers, and public health professionals can apply these psychological insights to design interventions to champion healthier behaviors and improve overall well-being. Since they account for social factors, these findings may also inform efforts to reduce health disparities between communities and populations.

Understanding Media and Technology

Social psychology can help you understand the impact of the media and technology on your daily life. It provides insights into how online communication, social media, and innovative technology shape and influence human behavior

For instance, study findings may help show how people behave and interact online. Or identify the mechanism of social influence, such as social norms, peer pressure, or group dynamics manifest in the digital spaces. 

Such understanding is invaluable to developers, digital marketers, policymakers, and people looking to use the digital landscape ethically and effectively. Social psychological insight helps create technology that aligns with human values, needs, and behaviors.

Katia Arroyo-Carrion, a psychologist on the Grow Therapy Network weighs in on the impact of social media on human behavior: 

“When considering the impact of social psychology in human behavior and perception of self, it is important to analyze the impact that social media has on this. People are feeling pressured to meet expectations established by influencers, reality TV stars, and other public figures. They find themselves spending money and engaging in unhealthy behaviors trying to achieve an impose standard that has a tendency to be irrational. Unfortunately, this increases the practice of comparisons and self-invalidation, increasing in turn, the number of clients seeking psychotherapy services to address challenges with self-esteem and anxiety. As a trauma therapist, I address the negative impact that social media can have in their perception of the trauma and the behavior of minimizing symptoms when comparing themselves to other trauma survivors.” 

Careers in Social Psychology

Social psychology offers diverse professional career opportunities spanning from academia to research and mental healthcare. Bachelor’s degree holders may typically pursue careers in market analytics, human resources, and survey research. Still, you’ll need a master’s degree or a doctorate to pursue a role in academia and research or work in various capacities as a social psychologist.

Common career paths for social psychologists include:

Successful professionals in this field are passionate about improving human behavior in social contexts. They also possess strong communication, analytical, and research skills.  

Social Psychology and Mental Health

Although social psychology leans towards research and academia, it offers lucrative opportunities for mental healthcare professionals. Therapists with advanced degrees in social psychology make excellent counselors. The background training allows you to make the elusive connection between a client’s behavior and societal influences.

You can provide clients with practical solutions they can implement immediately and safeguard their mental health. At the community or national level, social psychologists may help develop programs and initiatives that protect at-risk groups from negative influences such as crime, alcohol and drug use.

Help Build a Better World

Social psychologists have the tools and skills to understand how societal issues exert powerful influence at the personal and community levels. Isolating and identifying pressing concerns such as prejudice, substance abuse, public health, and crime allows for effective corrective measures. Leaders, policymakers, and mental healthcare professionals depend on researchers to provide results that identify influential factors that influence physical and mental health well-being.  

Grow Therapy, an online therapy platform with more than 4,000 certified therapists, seeks to help mental health professionals build a thriving practice. We handle all the logistics, including billing and scheduling, to let you grow your offerings to include online and in-person sessions without huge upfront costs. Join Grow Therapy today!

FAQs

  • Social psychology studies the impact of social interactions on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It explores topics such as attitudes, perceptions, and interpersonal relationships to explain social behavior and provide practical solutions to real-world problems.

  • Solomon Asch's conformity experiments required participants to judge the length of a series of lines. The results demonstrated that people succumbed to social pressure and supported the wrong answers offered by people in the group to avoid rocking the boat.

  • Social psychology covers a diverse range of concepts grouped around four broad concepts—social influence, social perception, social interactions, and cognitive dissonance. These concepts help explain social behavior and society's role in shaping people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

About the author
Author Generic Image Therese de Liz

Therese De Liz is a licensed mental health counselor with 17 years of experience treating patients using psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral methods and has received specialized training on OCD and ERP (Exposure-Response-Prevention therapy). She specializes in treating anxiety, depression, transition, acculturation difficulties, and culture shock for young adults, families, and individuals. Therese offers international online counseling for communities in Florida and the European Union.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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