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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2018–19

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2018–19 | Volume 23 | Issue 2


An Introduction to Social Psychology (Or, How to Become a Famous Scientist)

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD,
Western Oregon University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Welcome back Contemporary Psych readers. For this edition of my extremely informative and wildly entertaining column on the various areas, fields, branches, subareas, subfields, and subbranches (?) of psychology, I want to start out by asking you a question. If you had to describe one famous psychological study to one of your psychologically ignorant friends or family members (your Great Aunt Marsha, let’s say),1 which study would you describe? Think about that for a moment . . . I’ll wait.

Now, although I’m not one for gambling, I would like to make a bet. I bet that you selected a study from the broad area of social psychology. No, you say. Well, was the study you selected the Stanford prison experiment (1973)? Was it the Milgram obedience study (1963)? How about Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment (1961)? Or, perhaps it was Asch’s line study on conformity (1955). If so, then you have indeed selected a social psychological experiment, and I won the bet. Now, pay me.

Social psychology is the empirical study of how individuals’ thoughts, emotions, and behaviors influence and are influenced by other people and the social environment. Given that humans are social creatures and live within a social context, a key assumption of social psychology is that all behavior is impacted to some degree by other people. In what follows, we will cover the history of modern social psychology, its current state, social psychology-relevant career opportunities, typical educational paths and train¬ing, and of course how to conduct a famous experiment that people will describe to their parents, aunts, and cousins over a dry turkey at what was an otherwise monotonous Thanksgiving dinner.

History (Or, How to Push Ethical Boundaries and the Limits of Human Decency for Over 100 Years)

The idea that society influences people is an old one that permeates classic philosophical texts from both the West (e.g., Plato’s Republic) and the East (e.g., Al-Farabi’s Madina al-Fadila). But, social psychology in its more contemporary form did not emerge until the early 20th century. Triplett (1898) is credited with the first published study in social psychology, examining social facilitation in a sample of cyclists. During World War II, with the support and encouragement of the U.S. military, a large number of social psychologists studied several useful topics including persuasion and propaganda, and the notorious Milgram experiments on obedience were motivated in part by a desire to understand the social factors that encouraged the atrocities committed by the Nazis. During the 1950s and 1960s, research within social psychology began to examine social problems such as prejudice, discrimination, and gender issues, and also articulated many concepts that are central to psychology such as cognitive dissonance, groupthink, and social learning. Indeed, the mid-20th century was arguably the golden age of social psychological research, and much of this early work has remained highly influential to this day.

Yet, the scientific endeavors of social psychologists were not without controversy, as many both within psychology and without became concerned that some studies encouraged untoward, unethical, and risky behavior . . . such as the beating of an inflatable clown with a hammer (by children, no less). Additionally, many of the topics studied by social psychologists required an extensive use of deception in their research protocols. Moreover, although a strength of social psychology is its consistent use of lab-based empirical methodologies, many questioned the validity of these findings and whether they would generalize out in the real world. Despite these concerns, however, many findings have proved robust. The topics under inquiry, although at times perhaps examined in a provocative manner, are of critical import, and the field has blossomed into a vigorous and varied area of both basic and applied research.

Social Psychology Today (Or, How to Round Out Your Research Portfolio by Studying Everything)

At this point, social psychology is one of the main subfields of psychology that examines many different topics. I’ll list several, but before I do, I should warn you that if you are reading this out loud (for example, to a small child at bedtime), you should probably take a deep breath. Areas of inquiry within social psychology include those on attitudes, interpersonal attraction, person perception, attributions, heuristics, persuasion, self-serving biases, self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy, compliance, group dynamics, social exchange, obedience, conformity, decision making, and identity, among many others. Additionally, the social psychological perspective is general enough that it can be applied to and/or combined with other major subfields of psychology such as those focusing on social development and social cognition. But, perhaps the most interesting integration of social psychology with another broad area of research is the seemingly unlikely partnership of social and personality psychology. Indeed, these two areas of psychology are now so closely linked that they arguably represent a single subfield, with the combination of the two being emphasized in some of the most prestigious academic journals (e.g., the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) and largest professional organizations (e.g., the Society for Personality and Social Psychology).

As mentioned above, social psychology has historically been and continues to be an empirically oriented area of research, and correspondingly much of this research could be best classified as basic in nature. However, given the subject matter, many of these findings have been applied to addressing real-world issues in a number of different domains. Indeed, findings generated through the efforts of basic social psychologists have been used to better understand human behavior and interpersonal dynamics in political spheres, in business and industry, in the legal system, in health promotion, and so on. For example, a robust area of application concerns how social factors contribute to engagement in health promoting behavior. So, despite any concerns regarding the generalizability of social psychological research outside of the lab, this area has borne fruit in terms of the production of basic scientific findings and the application of these findings to the real world.

Education and Careers (Or, How to Spend a Lifetime Engaged in the Sanctioned Deception of Others)

As with many other areas of psychology, the precise type of training required to work in areas related to social psychology depends on the type of career that one is pursuing. However, most individuals obtain a bachelor’s degree in general psychology or a related field (e.g., sociology) and then pursue a PhD in social psychology. Doctoral-level social psychologists often work in teaching and/or research at colleges and universities, holding positions as professors, university faculty, research scientists or associates, or post-doctoral researchers. Notably, many social psychologists are also employed in the private sector, and the education required for these positions, both in terms of type of education (e.g., major) and degree (e.g., bachelors, masters, versus PhD), is as varied as the different careers one can pursue. For example, many social psychologists work as consultants, nonacademic researchers, managers, marketing directors, human resource specialists, policy advisors, and in other positions. And, because those trained in social psychology often have strong empirically oriented research backgrounds and high levels of quantitative literacy, their skills are often utilized in research-oriented positions such as those involved in project evaluation and assessment.

Summary (Or, How to Come to the Realization That Social Psych Is Not Just Lying, Clowns, and Systematic Electrocution)

That’s it for now. Of course, this article only scratches the surface of all the information available on social psychology, and I strongly encourage my interested readers to examine additional resources on this intriguing subfield of psychology (some provided below). Perhaps you might end up pursuing social psych as a career and then, as one does, write your name into the annals of scholarly history by designing a famous psychological experiment that will probably engage questionable research practices and raise a number of ethical questions about the field as a whole and, more specifically, you as a person. Good luck!

Additional Reading and Resources

Division 8: Society for Personality and Social Psychology (

Perry, G. (2013). Behind the shock machine: The untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments. New York, NY: New Press.

Smith, J. R., & Haslam, S. A. (Eds.). (2017). Social psychology: Revisiting the classic studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, NY: Random House.


Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193, 31–35.

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575–582.

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69–97.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.

Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507–533.

1 Note that I am not calling your great aunt ignorant . . . just unfamiliar with psychology. Other than that flaw, I’m sure she is a lovely person.

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Western Oregon University where he teaches courses in research methods, advanced research methods, and positive psychology. He is passionate about undergraduate education in psychology and has served Psi Chi members in several ways over the last few years, including as a faculty advisor, Psi Chi Western Region Steering Committee Member, Grants Chair, and most recently, as the Western Regional Vice-President of Psi Chi. His research interests focus on hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being, folk conceptions of happiness, and the relationship between nature and human well-being. His recent work examines how exposure to immersive simulations of natural environments impact concurrent emotional state and, more broadly, how regular contact with natural environments may be one route by which individuals achieve optimal feeling and functioning. He has published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, Personality and Individual Differences, and Ecopsychology, among other publications. He completed his undergraduate training at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Wyoming.

Copyright 2018 (Vol. 23, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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