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What is Social Psychology? How Social Environments and Relationships Help Define Who We Are.
Everyone is Connected
People do not live in isolation, locked away in remote and desolate corners of existence without the presence of other people. Instead of isolation human life is woven together by threads of social interactions and connections which join all people together. Understanding the complexities of social environments, how relationships are formed and affect people, how people view themselves and their peers and how the myriad elements of society converge to influence individual human behavior is the goal of social psychology.
What is Social Psychology?
Myers (2010) defines social psychology as “the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another” (p. 4). This definition outlines three distinct parts. The first of these parts is the concept of social thinking which includes how people think about themselves and other people, their personal beliefs, judgments and attitudes (Myers 2010). The second part is the concept of social influence. The culture in which a person lives, the religious groups, political or professional organizations he belongs to, his family, friends and professional peers are what creates the social influence within that person's life (Myers 2010). The last of these parts is social relations which is how people relate to one another and includes concepts such as attraction, intimacy, social prejudice, and aggression (Myers 2010).
The Biological Side of Social Psychology
Social relations also includes behaviors which are biologically based (Myers 2010). Nature has predisposed people evolutionarily to behave in those ways with enabled their ancestors to survive and reproduce (Myers 2010). Many behaviors, such as giving support to a stranger have a evolutionary biological bases which supports the survival of the species as a whole (Myers 2010).
How Social Psychology Compares to Other Fields of Psychology
Social psychology is it's own animal. It is as distinctly different from other disciplines such as sociology, general psychology and clinical psychology as leopard is from a tiger, a mountain lion or a cougar. There are overlaps between each discipline just as each of the animals share certain traits in common.
Sociology is the study of people in groups and societies while social psychology is concerned more with the individual than the group and makes more use of experimentation (Myers 2010). A sociologist would be interested in the collective behavior of a group. A social psychologist would focus more on an individual’s experience and behavior as part of that group.
Kowalski and Westen (2005) define general psychology as “the scientific investigation of mental processes (thinking, remembering, feeling, etc.) and behavior” which lie at “the intersection of biology and culture” (para. 8). Social psychology shares commonalities with general psychology in the emphasis of a scientific approach toward understanding a person's behavior in both a biological and cultural context. Social psychology is more specific though in that it seeks to explore only those mental processes and behaviors of an individual which either shape or are shaped by that individual's social interactions.
Clinical psychology as well has it's own specific emphasis. The goal of clinical psychology is to improve the lives of individuals with maladaptive behaviors through the understanding of the interactions between mental functions, behaviors and where needed medications. While social psychology might consider maladaptive behavior it would be in the context is either a result of or affects social interactions.
The Role of Research in Social Psychology
The role of research in any field is to gather process data into information which can increase the understanding of the field and at the same time produce usable theories based upon the information gathered which can be applied to real life situations. The role of research in social psychology holds these same goals. The methods of research which social psychologist use in their pursuit of these goals generally fall into the categories of correlational research or experimental research (Myers 2010).
Correlational research finds connections between two variables such as gender and the ability to throw a curve ball. Correlational research may find that there are more boys in America who know how to throw a curve ball than there are girls. This does not mean that boys are more capable of preforming the feat. Myers (2010) explains that “knowing two things are naturally related is valuable information, but it is not a reliable indicator of what is causing what—or whether a third variable is involved” (p. 29). If there are more boys in America who are capable of throwing a curve ball than there are girls it is possible that other variables exist outside the scope of the research conducted, such as cultural expectations, peers, and the amount of time dedicated to the task. That a cause and effect relationship is often not indicated with correlational research is the main disadvantage of this method (Myers 2010). The advantage of using correlational research is that it can reveal connections between variables and it can often be preformed in the real world instead of in a laboratory setting (Myers 2010).
Experimental research has an advantage in that the researcher has the ability to explore cause and effect relationships by controlling the variables in the experiment (Myers 2010). The downside to experimental research is that not all variables can be studied with experiments (Myers 2010). The goal of experimental research as Myers (2010) asserts is to “enable social psychologists to test ideas gleaned from life experience and then to apply the principles and findings to the real world” (p. 29).
Social psychologist use research methods to gain insight into a very specific field of psychology which deals with the behavior of individuals within a social context. In the pursuit of this goal social psychologist must consider an individual's social thinking, the groups the person belongs to which influence his behavior and the way in which this person relates to those around him. By studying the convergence of these elements social psychologist are able to understand the relationships between an individual's behavior within the context of a social environment.
Myers, D. (2010). Social Psychology (10th ed.) Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.
Kowalski, R. and Weston, D. (2005) Psychology (4th ed.) Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.
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