SYP 5105-01           FALL 2017

Susan Carol Losh



  • Social Psychology is a separate discipline although practitioners may lean more toward one discipline (e.g., psychology) than another (e.g., communication theory)
  • "Person" versus "situation" approaches
  • 3 major global perspectives: structural determinism ("social structure and personality"); interaction processes; individual influence
  • Cognitive versus reinforcement perspectives cover much of the discipline
  • Theories are internally consistent in their logic, typically address some form of cause and effect, are consistent with most organic phenomena that they purport to explain, and testable through systematic empirical means of data collection
  • Most social psychology theories are "mid-range" in scope
  • See below for hallmarks of a "good theory" 
  • Most social psychologists use the rules of science to construct and test theories
  • Social Psychology tends to be nonjudgmental and some studies can be disturbing and appear amoral



NOTE: Italicized, bold, and colored phrases are phrases you should know!


It is best to think of Social Psychology as a separate discipline, drawing heavily upon its two strongest parents, Psychology and Sociology. Other disciplines which use and contribute to Social Psychology include educational psychology, clinical psychology, marketing and management, communication, public administration, and sports psychology or management.


Psychologists focus most intensively on the individual, studying individual and often internal motivations, cognitions, and attributes such as "personality traits" or individual factors in learning. Although most psychologists admit to the influence of social forces in human behavior, they often neither explain nor measure what those forces are. For example, a "personality psychologist" would:

Social Psychologists typically  believe that there are very few, if any, solely individual attributes. The human being is basically a social animal. How we learn, what we "see" are all conditioned by one's location in social structure and the influence of others.
For example, rather than "personality," many social psychologists often use the concept of "the self," a social construction of individual attributes and appearance, social identity, biologically influenced temperament, the self-concept, and so on.

Sociologists most often study groups and institutions, and how these are stratified in society. Through Sociology have come terms such as "social role," "role model," "social identity," or "fraternity culture." For example, a "structural sociologist" would:

    Social Psychologists typically believe that groups and organizations work through patterns of interaction among individuals. For example, we would explain "fraternity culture" in terms of beliefs about the fraternity, socialization of new recruits, the mentoring of new recruits, and how established members interact with pledges.

    The Social Psychological approach typically studies the person IN the situation. We want to know about how people interact in groups, how social factors influence the perception of individuals, and how social characteristics of individuals, such as gender or social class translate into patterns of interaction (e.g., dominance and deference) and individual self-concept. For example, a Social Psychologist would:

  • Explain an individual's achievement in an occupation through mentoring processes, impacts on self-efficacy, and modeling.
  • Wonder how much a sports star's prowess was due, in fact, instead to effective teamwork and coach-player interaction.
  • Explain domestic violence in terms of exchange processes (what each partner's options are) and poor anger management skills.

  • We are even learning that the brain is more malleable than originally thought. Social experiences can and do affect brain structure and chemistry (brain plasticity).

It's not a question of which discipline is "right" or which discipline is "wrong" because, as you can see, the orientation of each discipline is different, and each could be "right," all at the same time. The question is which you may find the most useful, depending on the topic or the circumstances that  you investigate, or your profession.

Three major global perspectives in social psychology are:

(1) Structural determinism (sometimes called Social Structure and Personality), or how aspects of social structure such as social class, social roles or characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, or age affect individuals (e.g., attitudes or self-concept);
(2) interaction processes such as leadership processes in groups, nonverbal communication, or routine "scripts" (e.g., routinized behavior at a job interview); and
(3) individual influence, or how individuals influence social institutions and organizations. The first two perspectives, by far, are used most often among social psychologists.

Most social psychological perspectives are also primarily either
(1) cognitive, stressing the subjective social meaning of events [including symbolic interaction] or
(2) reinforcement oriented (reward, punishment) such as role theory. Role theory, for example, stresses learning new behaviors, and how the individual is rewarded or punished for carrying out role duties. Constructivism, for example, is heavily cognitive.

An area such as the study of emotions could draw on both perspectives.

Evolutionary "theory" is actually a biological application of reinforcement theory, whereby traits that both ensure survival and the survival of one's offspring are "rewarded" by being passed on to future generations. I confess to some skepticism about evolutionary theory. In evolutionary biology, we have physical evidence: we can trace the fossil record or compare DNA profiles. But in "evolutionary psychology," the "proof" that is offered is the persistance of particular behavior patterns. Unfortunately, there are many current competing variables that present potential explanations for the same phernomena.

For example, DeLamater has discussed the case of women seeking to "marry young" while they are still fertile and men preferring "younger women" who can bear children. So what's the matter with that?

The answer is that until the 20th century the average woman did not live long enough to outlive her biological fertility. In this respect, all women were "fertile women" and basically "young" women!

Longevity almost doubled during the 20th century. Unless there was a huge amount of human evolution during the 100 years of the 20th century--which no one proposes--this "theory" simply reveals its neglect of demographic facts. One thing theories need to be is in accordance with facts; if the theory is great but the data fail, you have a theory that doesn't make sense. And indeed age at first marriage (and indeed even marrying at all) rose by over six years for both sexes during the twentieth century and birth rates dramatically fell, currently to their lowest historical levels, calling an "evolutionary" prospective into question. (Just one example why I am not a fan of "evolutionary psychology" and I urge you to read its tenets very carefully.)

Cognitive theories stress the subjective reality that you believe or that is believed by groups you belong to. We are interested in the world as you see it, even if your viewpoint has bias because the reality that you perceive is the only reality that you can know. For social psychologists, your reality is something to be explained, rather than "corrected." Cognitive social psychologists are also interested in how people collectively construct meaning, which often involves studying entire groups.

Reinforcement theories tend to emphasize characteristics of the outside environment, especially rewards and punishments, and how rewards and punishments link to your behavior.

Theories can combine a structural determinism or interactionist approach  with a cognitive  or  reinforcement perspective.


Role theory reflects both structural determinants and reinforcement theories.

Studies of persuasion may stress cognitive and structural determinism approaches.

Self-regulated learning addresses the importance of cognitive factors in making plans and revising plans in terms of later reinforcement (success or failure).
HINT: Keep these major perspectives in mind throughout the semester. They will help you make sense out of a lot of concepts and empirical results.

Most Social Psychologists are empiricists, that is, we test our theories using systematically collected data. Typically this means gathering data to refute and compare alternative hypotheses about social facts.

For example, consider tragedies such as the shooting of elementary school students at Sandy Hook in Connecticut (and colleges such as Virginia Tech or the Colorado "Dark Knight" theater massacre or the South Carolina AME church in 2015 or the Pulse club in Orlando 2016 or the automotive attacker in 2017 Charlottesville, VA...). Were the gunmen [driver] depressed, psychotic or psychopathic (individual interpretations)? Were they simply fighting back against past bullying or a romantic breakup, or want to make headlines in a particularly vicious way (interpersonal explanation)? Were they disoriented and anomic because of a family situation characterized by divorce and remarriage (structural explanation)? A social psychologist would gather data on personal characteristics, the dynamics of interpersonal communication in the family, and family background. For example, s/he might compare students who engage in violence with students who do not. Such a comparison is critical, because often once these kinds of comparisons are undertaken, "deviants" sometimes appear remarkably similar to "normal people."

Most empirical research involves testing hypotheses derived from theories.


A glance at your local newspaper or the World Wide Web will tell you that theories are used in any number of diverse ways, ways that are NOT interchangeable. The word "theory" conjures up the idea of a guess or suspicion. But generally, science theories, although they may ultimately start with "a guess," don't stop there. In the language of science, theories are internally consistent in their logic, typically address some form of cause and effect, are consistent with most organic phenomena that they purport to explain, and they are testable through systematic empirical means of data collection.

Social facts are regularly occurring events or instances. For example, when two Americans meet, they often shake hands. It is a social regularity to say "good" or "fine" when someone asks "how are you?" even if the individual feels terrible at the time. To note that approximately 20 percent of American marriages involve domestic violence is to state a social fact.

(One of my former students was a dental intern who did observations at the Leon County Public Health Dental Clinic. Ninety-five percent of the patients he observed, including children, said "fine" when asked how they were, even when they were in terrible pain from their dental problems.)

Theories are distinct from facts. Often people can agree on facts with enough empirical support (e.g., domestic violence occurs in about one in five marriages) but disagree about the causes for the facts. Theories explain why and how social facts occur and continue.  Thus theories usually address cause and effect. At a very early stage a theory may try to establish social facts. However, since more than one theory could explain the identical social facts, explanations form the focus of a theory. Theories can also refer to general perspectives or paradigms. For example, structural determinism can be applied to role theory, conflict explanations of stereotypes, and which rewards become important in social exchange.

Theories typically consist of abstract concepts ("self-concept" "anomie" "persuasion") and links among abstract concepts. Hypotheses are testable assertions about constructs and the links among them.

Some theories are "mid-range:" these explain a limited number of phenomena and settings. For example, the "foot-in-the-door" technique of persuasion applies to a limited range of actions in which the persuader first makes a small request, then follows it up with a large request. For example, in the original study, a householder was first asked to place a small sign in their window, then was later asked to place a large, ugly sign in the front yard.

Broad paradigms, perspectives or approaches (such as structural determinism) encompass many theories and mid-range theories. For example, Bandura and Walters' model of modeling and vicarious learning has been sucessfully applied to the imitation of filmed aggression and also to altruism or prosocial helpful behavior.

Theories are like road maps. They make some phenomena salient (for example, how filmed aggression affects imitation also alerts us to the cooperative effects of the late Mr Rogers' Neighborhood). But just as following a road map may make us miss those interesting country lanes, so theories may blind us to other possibilities. The dominant reinforcement approach during the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s implied that social behavior was dependent basically on practice (habit) and reward (reinforcement). People appeared relatively mindless and at the mercy of outside forces, rather than able to plan and perform organized sequences of action. The more recent dominant cognitive approach in social psychology, on the other hand, meant that we ignored the study of social emotions until very recently.


It is often assumed  that a "good theory"  is a "correct theory," that is, it accurately describes and predicts facts. Not so! In fact, a good theory may later lead to inaccurate predictions and/or be proven wrong. We learned about the inaccuracies because the theory's predictions were so interesting that researchers were motivated to test the theory empirically. So, what ARE the hallmarks of a good theory (in Social Psychology or elsewhere)?

It is being testable, that sets the science use of the term theory apart from the way other organizations, disciplines or institutions use the term.

Types of theories and the notion of “proof” abound in our society. How do most of these differ from those in Social Psychology? Most social psychologists subscribe to the scientific method. Hypotheses are compared with the actual results from empirical studies. If these results do not support the theory, the theory is typically reformulated and retested.

If the results are consistent with theoretical hypotheses, we do NOT say the theory is proven. Why? Because there are many alternative explanations for the same results and any particular study may be able to test one or two of these alternatives at best.

Most other kinds of theories follow different rules of evidence from scientific theories. For example, attorneys “prove a case” by citing the results of precedent, or the results of prior court cases. Advocacy journalists stake out a position in advance, then “prove their case” by marshalling all the favorable evidence they possibly can that supports their position ("affirming the consequent"). Preachers may prove their point by citing scripture or sacred texts. and some groups believe proof exists in knowing one’s own feelings. some political and social commentators seem to believe something is true merely because they said so. Astrological systems examine your sun signs, your moon signs and your rising signs to “prove” what your personal characteristics are like.

In this course, we will almost entirely accept evidence from “scientific” rules of cause and effect.

Social (and other) scientists use proof differently than attorneys, journalists, debaters, pastors or clairvoyants. Notice that the latter perspectives stake out a position FIRST, then gather evidence to directly confirm or “prove” their position. Basically, this is agenda scholarship, sometimes called "affirming the consequent" in philosophy or "confirmation bias" in cognition and perception. The protangonists take their "theories" from their agendas, then consider selectively only the evidence that supports their position.

It is important to recognize that "agenda scholars" come in all political stripes, to the left or the right of center. For example, advocates who recommended that any parent who spanked their child should be considered a "child abuser" overlooked the fact that nearly all parents (some 96 percent) use some form of physical discipline with small children, nearly all of those use very mild discipline, and mild physical discipline with small children does not seem to have serious long-term effects (NOTE: this is very different from severe physical abuse which causes many long-term problems). Some behavioral scientists who have examined ethnic differences in achievement tests seem to only consider studies where ethnicity made a large difference and ignore those studies where ethnic differences were small or nonexistent.

Agenda scholarship opposes the usual rules of science. In science, no one directly proves a theory (alternative theories could explain the same social facts and more) but we can disprove theories by collecting evidence that is ultimately disconfirming.
SIDE NOTE: We will see these non-science approaches to proof again in the social cognition literature, particularly the literature on heuristics and attribution. The "naive scientist perceiver" originally described by Heider is basically more of an agenda scholar than a "scientist." Social perception scholars believe that human tendencies in perception can create erroneous types of "theories".

Probably one of the most important issues about causality to keep in mind is this: correlation is not causation. Two entities could covary because one caused the other--or because a third variable caused both of the original two. Further, the causal direction may be the opposite to what was originally thought. These tangled causal issues are especially important in non-experimental data. In opinion and attitude surveys or in field observations, we must take the data as nature gave them to us, and frequently this means we honestly don't know what caused what.

A good, recent example of this "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" problem comes from research on spanking. Diana Baumrind and Elizabeth Owens found that mild physical discipline with small children does not seem to produce long-lasting harmful effects. They also noted that in the 4 out of the 100 families that they studied intensively where no physical punishment occurred, the children were unusually well-behaved, But what's the cause? Perhaps the children behaved so well in these families that the parents were never even tempted to spank their kids, that is, the children's behavior was a cause, and not the effect, of the parents' spanking practices.


Social Psychology received its major start during and immediately after World War Two in the early 20th midcentury, approximately 70 years ago, although explicit work in the discipline dates back to the 1890s. During World War Two, Social Psychologists in America were asked to inform the government about how to influence groups (e.g., to accept rationing of many natural resources such as rubber or certain meats,and to motivate previously undesired behaviors such as buying "organ meats"--brains, liver, etc.) and to explain how wide-scale prejudice could result in horrifying tragedies such as the Nazi Holocaust. With the racial desegregation of the United States military in the late 1940s, Social Psychologists were called upon to see how diverse groups can cooperate--an effort which continues to this day. With the advent of television, Social Psychologists have studied the imitation of filmed violence among children, again, a concern that is still with us.

Here are some other applications of Social Psychology:

Social Psychologists are now studying the formation of communities on the Internet, a critical issue in Distance Learning.
also a disorganized one

The GOOD NEWS about Social Psychology is that it is a diverse and interesting field, with many applications.

But the BAD NEWS is that it is usually difficult to describe Social Psychology as a coherent and organized discipline. There are too many mid-range theories, too many "interesting experiments" lacking a sound conception foundation. This is why I urge you to keep the two dimensions of (1) cognitive-reinforcement and (2) structural determinism-interaction processes preeminent in your thinking. They will help you interpret a lot of the data that are to follow this semester.

More than almost any other behavioral science discipline, Social Psychology is objective almost to the point of amorality. Some of the research on impression formation, lying, and persuasion, for example, almost amounts to a primer on manipulation.

Social Psychologists examine some truly awful phenomena:

All of us would like to simply dismiss these results as individual psychologists--these are things that "bad people" do. This is too simplistic an explanation and ignores how and why such events come to pass. Furthermore, people do kind things as well, offering social support and volunteering in schools, playgrounds, or hospitals. Last year, I received a solicitation asking if I wanted to contribute to The Encyclopedia of Lying and Deception (I could not possibly make this one up).

Social Psychologists want to know what turns people in one direction (e.g., volunteering) versus another (walking by someone in pain). This often means either trying to replicate these "good" and "bad" situations in the laboratory or studying them out in the field.

I keep an alert eye to Social Psychology in the news. It appears fairly often--but isn't always accurate! I'll mention it when I encounter an inaccurate portrayal of Social Psychology findings.


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Susan Carol Losh August 26 2017

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