Social Psychology: What Is It And Why Is It So Important

Social psychology: what is it and why is it so important

Within the domain of psychology we can distinguish between applied psychology and ordinary psychology. On the one hand, ordinary psychology studies simple psychological processes such as perception, attention, memory, language, and learning. On the other hand, applied psychology focuses on the study of other psychological traits related to problem solving. Within applied psychology there are several aspects, including social psychology.

Social psychology can be defined as the study of how people interact, especially in social groups and situations. It also emphasizes the influence of social situations on human behavior. More specifically, social psychology focuses on the scientific study of how people’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings are influenced by the real, imagined, or implied presence of other people (Allport, 1985).

What does social psychology research?

Social psychology aims to study social relationships (Moscovici and Markova, 2006). It is argued that social psychological processes differ from individual psychological processes.  Social psychology seeks to understand both group behavior and individual behavior when it comes to reacting to or thinking about the social environment.

Hands and feet in a circle

It tends to study people’s behavior at the group level. It tries to describe and explain human behavior by reducing it to psychological variables. For example, social psychology tries to determine theories about human behavior. These theories help predict patterns of behavior before they occur. This way, action can then be taken. By knowing which factors promote certain behavior, it is possible to intervene to change these patterns in some way.

Topics within social psychology

The themes covered by social psychology are broad and varied (Gergen, 1973). By focusing on some of the key topics, we can determine its identity. For example, social identity (Taylor and Moghaddam, 1994), or the extent to which people identify and share characteristics within groups, is a factor often studied by social psychology. Social identity often determines people’s behavior. For example, when a person strongly identifies with a group, his behavior will match the values ​​of that group.

Paper dolls

Another classic theme of social psychology is stereotypes (Amossy and Herschberg Pierrot, 2001). Stereotypes are the image of another group. This is usually a simplified and generalized picture, which aims, among other things, to categorize all members of a specific group. For example, a common stereotype in Europe is that Spaniards are lazy. So people who have this idea of ​​Spaniards, when they happen to come into contact with each other, will assume that they are lazy before getting to know them.

Social psychology and prejudice

Prejudice is closely related to stereotypes (Dovidio, Hewstone, Glick, & Esses, 2010). Prejudice is biased attitudes that make us make quick decisions about a person or situation.  These are statements that are based on incomplete information and, moreover, are usually negative.

Today, many people mistakenly believe that all Muslims are violent and even condone terrorism. Even with clear evidence against this erroneous judgment, many people persist in believing in it. These beliefs also influence their feelings and behavior towards people who practice this religion.

Another area of ​​study within social psychology is values ​​(Ginges and Atran, 2014). Values ​​are a set of guidelines that societies establish and that people must adhere to. Values ​​tend to have social approval and vary from culture to culture. Also, values ​​are so important that they are sacred to some people. Despite the irrationality of some values, people will defend them to the extreme and even make great sacrifices for them.

Given the wide variety of topics studied in social psychology, we cannot cover all of them. Examples of topics not covered are aggression and violence, socialization, teamwork, leadership, social movements, obedience, conformism, and interpersonal and group processes.

Army of lego dolls

Important people in the world of social psychology

Within the field of social psychology there are people who have left a big impression. Here are some of them:

  • Floyd Allport: Best known as the founder of social psychology as a scientific discipline.
  • Muzafer Sherif: Known for conducting the experiment known as the ‘cave of thieves’ where a group of Boy Scouts was divided into two groups to explore prejudice in social groups. The experiment created the Realistic Group Conflict Theory.
  • Salomon Asch: devoted his life to the study of social influence. His studies on conformity are his best-known work, in which he used lines of different lengths to see if the participants would give the wrong answers. They did indeed give the wrong answer, not because they thought the answers were true, but simply to agree with the answers other people gave.
  • Kurt Lewin: Known as the founder of modern social psychology. He made contributions to Gestalt theory, studied the concept of social distance and formulated field theory . The latter shows that it is impossible to get to know real human behavior if they are outside their own environment.
  • Ignacio Martín-Baró: Besides being a psychologist, he was a priest with the Jesuits. He proposed that psychology should be related to the social and historical conditions of the area where it develops. It must also be related to the aspirations of the people who live there. He is the creator of the Social Psychology of Liberation.
Light bulbs with a face

Other important persons

  • Stanley Milgram: Conducted experiments on dubious ethics. The best known is his experiment on obedience to authority. In this case, electric shocks were applied by one participant to another in the presence of someone in authority. He also owns the small world theory , also known as the six degrees of separation.
  • Serge Moskovici: studied social representations. This is the way knowledge is reformulated when groups take over, distorting it from its original form. He is also known for his studies on the influence of minorities.
  • Philip Zimbardo: Best known for conducting the  Stanford Prison Experiment . In this experiment, he divided voluntarily registered students into two groups. One group was given the role of prison guards and the other group the role of prisoners. He then placed them in a counterfeit prison in the basement of the university. They concluded that it was the situation that caused the participants’ behavior and not their own personalities.
  • Albert Bandura:  He has shown that violence in the media encourages aggressive behavior in those who see it. He conducted an experiment in which a model performed aggressive behavior on a doll, which was then imitated by children. This is known as the Bobo Doll Experiment. Bandura is also the creator of the Theory of Independence .


As mentioned, social psychology focuses on our social behavior. This is a great unknown to outsiders and one of the most surprising revelations for people who decide to study psychology. We often underestimate the power that other people have over us, directly or indirectly. In this sense, we like to see ourselves as completely independent, able to act and feel what we want, without our environment influencing us too much.

But these studies on social psychology have shown us that this is not the case at all. That is why they are so interesting, and that is why this psychological area can enrich us with its discoveries.


Allport, G. W. (1985). The Historical Background of Social Psychology.

G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.). The Handbook of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Amossy, R., Herschberg Pierrot, A. (2001). Stereotypes and Clichés. Buenos Aires.

Eudeba. Dovidio, JF, Hewstone, M., Glick, P. and Esses, VM (2010) «Prejudice, Stereotyping and Siscrimination: Theoretical and Empirical overview».

Dovidio, JF, Hewstone, M., Glick, P., and Esses, V.M. (eds.) The SAGE handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Gergen, KJ (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.

Ginges, J. and Atran, S. (2014) “Sacred values ​​​​and Cultural conflict”,

Gelfand, MJ, Chiu, CY, and Hong, YY (eds.) Advances in Culture and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 273-301.

Moscovici, S. & Markova, I. (2006). The making of modern social psychology. Cambridge, UK: Police Press.

Taylor, D., Moghaddam, F. (1994). “Social Identity Theory”. Theories of Intergroup Relations: International Social Psychological Perspectives (2nd edition). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. pp. 80-91. 

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