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Key Characteristics and Core Motives of Social Psychology

Updated on March 21, 2014

Social Psychology

People are inherently social and social psychology attempts to explain why they do the things they do, act the way they act, and think the way they think. In this paper social psychology will be defined, the four key characteristics of social psychology (broad scope, cultural mandate, scientific methods, and search for wisdom) will be examined, situationism will be explained, and the five core motives (belonging, understanding, controlling, self-enhancing, and trusting ) will be described.

Social Psychology Defined

The classical definition of social psychology is a scientific effort to clarify how an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the ‘actual, imagined, or implied’ attendance of other human beings (Fisk, pg 4, 2010). According to the American Psychological Association, APA, 2002, social psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the effect of social factors on an individual’s behavior, attitudes, perceptions, and motives as well as on within group and between group experiences. The two definitions are very similar, although there are some differences. First, the APA emphasizes that social psychology is just one branch of psychology. Second, the classical definition includes not only the affect actual social factors have on an individual but also includes imagined or implied social factors.

Four Key Characteristics of Social Psychology

The four key characteristics of social psychology are broad scope, cultural mandate, scientific methods, and search for wisdom. Broad scope is exactly what it sounds like. Social psychology covers a wide range of topics, from altruism to zeal, and many principles are borrowed by other disciplines to help explain concepts in those fields of study. Cultural mandate refers to the expectation of acceptable forms of knowledge by current society and an explanation of human behavior in a language understood and accepted. Social psychology is accepted by most cultures as a way to explain and understand behavior.

There are three ways in which the scientific method is essential to social psychology. First, to improve scientific understanding of human behavior social psychologists develop and test methodical theories to try to predict cause, develop unity, evade excess, and help research. Second, social psychology depends on the scientific method to develop reliable information scientifically proven to be valid. Third, social psychologists carry out experiments, observations, and surveys under controlled conditions before making any claims about how people are influenced as well as how they influence each other. Last, social psychologist study real-world situations and social issues with the aim to understand them better and improve the world. The search for wisdom combines moral, intellectual, and societal concerns with one’s knowledge about people and the world they live in to understand better the social context (Fiske, 2010)

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Situationism in Social Psychology

Situationism is a theory that views personality as a function of an individual’s reaction to different situations (Merriam Webster, 2013). Both personality and social context can influence behavior, but situationism theory states that social context has more influence on behavior than an individual’s personality. According to Fiske, 2010, there are four reasons social psychologists put the emphasis on context over personality. First, the average person uses personality as an explanation for behavior most of the time. Second, they ignore the social context altogether, or put little value on it. Third, personality is a complex concept that even specialist in the area have a hard time agreeing on. Fourth, it is not that personality is not a part of the explanation, but it does not explain everything. Combining personality with the situation has been found to predict certain behaviors while using personality alone only predicts the average behavior for unspecified situations. Because the social situation is often overlooked, social psychologist tries to explain behavior in this context (Fiske, 2010).

Five Core Social Motives

The five core motives are belonging, understanding, controlling, self-enhancing, and trusting. Belonging is not only a core motive but also the foundation of the other core motives. People are innately social and need to develop strong, enduring relationships with other people. Relationships can develop fairly easily, based solely on proximity. A correlation has been found between well-being and possessing close social ties. Motivation to belong is beneficial to the group as well as the individual. If individuals cooperate with each other and want to be accepted than the group will operate more effectively. Although an individual’s motive to belong can help the group survive, belonging to a group can help individuals survive, both psychologically, and physically (Fiske, 2010).

Understanding the environment gives one the ability to predict what may occur in unexpected circumstances. People will share their opinions with others to try to get a consensus as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. Groups function better when members can understand what is going on, have similar knowledge, and members can work together more effectively if the group meaning is established even if it is not accurate. People try to give meaning to random events to understand better them and attempt to resolve them, and they share that understanding with the people they determine to be significant (Fiske, 2010).

Control and ability enable people to feel effective, whereas a lack of control cause individuals to seek out the information needed to restore it. People who have a feeling of being in control tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. This includes the ability to make decisions at work, have some flexibility concerning job duties, and getting support while at work. Mutual control occurs when people in a group influence each other to act in certain ways. This not only allows people to fit into social groups but also encourages helpful behavior between the group members (Fiske, 2010).

The fourth core motive is self-enhancement. The possibility of self-improvement as well as maintaining of one’s self-esteem both fall under this motive. People want to have positive feelings about themselves, be good, lovable, and they tend to feel good when they are complimented. People, who feel good about themselves are happier, more productive, motivated to take on new challenges, meet obligations, are useful in a group setting, and enjoyable to be around. Individuals who feel excluded from social groups are likely to act in a self-destructive or irresponsible ways, which could negatively affect their ability to be a useful group member (Fiske, 2010).

The last core motive is trusting. People need to feel that the world is a safe place and that the people in it are trustworthy. Being disposed to trust others allows people to build relationships and fall in love. Even though trusting others opens individuals up to being hurt, over all people expect others to be worthy of that trust. People are biased to see the best in others that makes them appear more likable themselves. Less trusting people tend to be suspicious, resentful, and lonely which can interfere with the group process. People need to see the world as safe and decent and when events occur that upset this viewpoint; people quickly try to restore their trust in the world again (Fiske, 2010).

These core motives affect social psychology in many ways. First, they give a foundation to the study of individuals in a social context. Second, they allow cultural comparisons to identify differences between and within groups. Last, as social psychology puts emphasis on people and their effect on others as well as how they are affected by others or groups, these core motives run through most of the situations they are analyzing (Fiske, 2010).


Social psychology looks at how the actual, imagined, or implied existence of other people influences the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals (Fiske, 2010). The four key characteristics of social psychology are broad in scope, cultural mandated, use scientific methods, and encourage the search for the wisdom that allows social psychologists to understand individual motives in a situational context. The five core motives of belonging, understanding, controlling, self-enhancing, and trusting facilitate the process of becoming good group members. People are social by nature and want to belong to social groups to give themselves a sense of belonging and increase their feeling of self worth in a safe world (Fiske, 2010).


American Psychological Association, 2002. Glossary of Psychological Terms. Retrieved from

Fisk, S.T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd Ed.). Hoboken, NJ:


Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, 2013. Social Psychology. Retrieved from


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    • JenniferLBlack profile imageAUTHOR

      Jennifer L. Black 

      5 years ago from Normal, Il

      LOL.. Thank you! A friend of mine said she really liked my posts because she didn't really know anything about psychology and they are helping her to understand some of the concepts better. It is always good to hear that what you wrote helped someone get a better understanding of the topic.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I have to be awake to read your work and absorb it. Thankfully this morning I was awake. LOL Well done!


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