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History of Social Psychology

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“What social psychology has given to an understanding of human nature is the discovery that forces larger than ourselves determine our mental life and our actions – chief among these forces [is] the power of the social situation” ― Mahrzarin Banaji

The Banaji quote is the perfect description of social psychology and the intellectual forces behind the journey of its discovery. From the days of the great Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to the nineteenth century scientists, they all have pondered about the human nature of man and people’s influence on each other. These historical philosophers and scientists have provided guidance to the discovery of sociology psychology (Goethals, 2007). This paper will define social psychology, provide a brief historical journey to include the researchers who contributed to the field, and will conclude with its relevance to the science industry today.

Defining Social Psychology
In 1839 Auguste Comte, a French philosopher and founder of positivism, had identified sociology as a separate discipline although it wasn’t a documented discipline or science as of yet (Goethals, 2007). Comte would further expound on his predictions in the last days of his life when he said, “beyond sociology another true science would emerge” (Goethals, 2007, p. 3). Comte called this science “la morale positive,” but researchers believe it was really psychology (Goethals, 2007, p. 3). In some years to come, researchers would combine both disciplines to create social psychology (Goethals, 2007). Gordon Allport (1985) describes social psychology as “a discipline that uses scientific methods to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings” (p. 3).

After Comte’s death, other philosophers and scientists alike began to share the same inquiries regarding the human condition, free will, situational influences, etc. and when they began to address these inquiries, the “true final science” emerged-Psychology. A German neural scientist named Hermann von Helmholtz came onto the scene and further developed the psychology concept. His research on the nervous system, visual and auditory acuity, perception, as well as his application of scientific methods to human behavior and mental processes provided the incubator for psychology to grow (Goethals, 2007). However, it was in 1862 when German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt further explored the depths of psychology and was instrumental in the early development of social psychology.

Historical Journey
Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt suggested there should be two categories of psychology: physiological psychology and social or folk psychology (Völkerpsychologie) (Goethals, 2007). By 1900, social psychology in Germany became prominent due to Wundt’s scholarly writings. Although Wundt’s work was very influential in Europe, his writings had minimal effect on American social scientists because his writings presented as a language barrier. Furthermore, his belief of psychology as the science of the mind was contrary to the new behaviorist theories that were emerging in the United States during the same time (Mcleod, 2007).

In 1875 as Wundt was working in Germany, William James an American physician and philosopher in Cambridge, Massachusetts erected a laboratory in his basement and taught the first course in psychology at Harvard University (Goethals, 2007). By 1883, G. Stanley Hall erupted on the scene and founded the first American psychological laboratory at Johns Hopkins University (Goethals, 2007). By 1890, William James published his classic two-volume Principles of Psychology, followed in 1892 by a shorter, revised version of the same work (Mcleod, 2007). The earliest forms of psychology dealt mostly with questions outside the realm of social psychology, but shortly scientific methods were applied to social questions (Mcleod, 2007).

The first experimental social psychological study was performed by Dr. Norman Triplett, an American psychologist at Indiana University in 1895. Triplett had proposed a research study relating to task changes in a person’s performance when they were being observed by others. Triplett’s question was predicated on what he observed during a bicycle race (Strube, 2005). Published in 1897, this study put Dr. Triplett on the map as one of the first to introduce experimental methods into the social sciences. Another researcher who made an impact and conducted experiments was Floyd Allport.

By 1924, Floyd Allport had a social psychology text published. His words still echo today in the field of social psychology: I believe that only within the individual can we find the behavior mechanisms and consciousness which are fundamental in the interactions between individuals…. There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals…. Psychology in all its branches is a science of the individual. (Allport, 1924, p. 4)

Allport’s concept of social psychology was proposed nearly eleven years after the behaviorist era in American psychology. His concept focused on how individuals responded to social environmental influences, including group settings. Allport continued to contribute to the American social psychology footprint by applying the experimental method in other topical areas such as conformity, nonverbal communication, and social facilitation (Goethals, 2007).

By the 1930s, social psychology as a scientific discipline had taken root and was well established. Muzafer Sherif in 1935 began to perform studies of social norms and how individuals behave according to the rules of society (Goethals, 2007). Sherif was readdressing questions presented decades earlier by McDougall and Floyd Allport. Additional studies were conducted on social norms in groups by Kurt Lewin and his colleagues based on Lewin’s experiences in a Nazi concentration camp (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939). Kurt Lewin became very instrumental in the history of social psychology, although he was not a social psychologist at the beginning of his career as other researchers were.

During and after WWII, social psychology was alive and well and at the forefront with studies focusing on group dynamics, attitudes, and person perceptions. Lewin was leading the charge and following in his footsteps were Heider (Gestalt psychology), Festinger (Social-Comparison Theory and Cognitive Dissonance), and Solomon Asch (Prestige Influence and Conformity) (Mcleod, 2007). By the 1960’s and onward, experiments continued to further test theories of social influence and conformity. Greats studies such as Stanley Millgram Electric Shock study (Obedience to Authority), Zimbardo Prison study (Conformity and De-individuation), Bandura Bobo doll study (Modeled Behavior), Tajfel (Social Identity Theory), and Weiner (Attribution Theory) were part of the social psychology explosion (Mcleod, 2007).

Relevance for Today
Social psychology has exceeded in becoming a well-regarded discipline within the context of the scientific community. Social psychology covers a gamete of social topics relating to leadership, group behavior, perception, conformity, gender, and self to name a few. If social psychology is to stay true to itself and remain relevant it must expand its reach and theoretical framework to include trends addressing social change. Some researchers fear that social psychology has become a discipline of research and scientific methods on behavior and social interactions. Researcher and philosopher Muzafer Sherif (1970) said it best: “A relevant social psychology should be concerned with the study of social movements produced by social problems, for it is these movements that are groping toward the shape of the future” (p. 154). This reader would surmise that as social psychology began with a vision from an imaginative and revolutionary researcher, it will continue its journey along that same path.

Allport, F.H. (1924). Social Psychology. Boston, MA.: Houghton Mifflin.
Allport, G. W. (1985). The historical background of social psychology. In G. Lindzey, and E. Aronson, (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology, 1, (3), 1-46.
Goethals, G. (2007). A Century of Social Psychology: Individuals, Ideas and Investigations. M. Hogg, & J. Cooper (Eds.). The SAGE
Handbook of Social Psychology (pp. 23-43). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Lewin, K., Lippitt, R., & White, R.K. (1939) Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created Social Climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10:271-299.
McLeod, S. A. (2007). Social Psychology – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-psychology.html Sherif, M. (1970). On the relevance of Social Psychology. American Psychologist, 25, 144-156.
Strube, M. (2005) The American Journal of Psychology, 118(2), 271-286

Published by: University of Illinois Press

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