It is important to note that social psychology is not just about looking at social influences. Social perception and social interaction are also vital to understanding social behavior. The way that we see other people (and the way we think they see us) can play a powerful role in a wide variety of actions and decisions. Just think for a moment about how you sometimes act differently in a public setting than you might if you were at home by yourself. At home, you might be loud and rambunctious, while in public you might be much more subdued and reserved.
Why is this? Because the people around us shape our thoughts, feelings, moods, attitudes, and perceptions. The presence of other people can make a difference in the choices we make and the actions we take.
While social psychology tends to be an academic field, the research that social psychologists perform can and does have a powerful influence on our understanding of various aspects of mental health and wellbeing. For example, research on conformity has contributed to our understanding of why teenagers sometimes go to such great lengths to fit in with their social group—sometimes to the detriment of their own health and wellness.3 As a result, psychologists are able to develop public health programs and treatment approaches aimed at helping teenagers resist potentially harmful behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and substance use.
How Did People Become Interested in Social Psychology?
While Plato referred to the idea of the “crowd mind,” and concepts such as social loafing and social facilitation were introduced in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until after World War II that research on social psychology began in earnest.
The horrors of the Holocaust led researchers to study the effects of social influence, conformity, and obedience. What could explain why so many people participated in such terrible and evil actions, social psychologists wondered? Were people only following orders and bowing to social pressure, or were there some other forces at work that led people to engage in such devastating actions? By investigating these questions, social psychologists were able to gain a greater understanding of the power of societal forces such as authority, compliance, and obedience.4
Social psychologist Stanley Milgram, for example, was able to demonstrate just how far people are willing to go to obey authority figures. In a series of now infamous experiments, Milgram and his colleagues ordered study participants to deliver what they believed was a potentially dangerous shock to another person. In reality, the shocks were not real and the other individual was only pretending to be hurt by the electrical pulses—but a whopping 65 percent of those who took part in the study delivered the maximum level of shock simply because an authority figure told them to do so