Chapter 10: Social Psychology

Learning Objectives

  • Describe situational versus dispositional influences on behavior
  • Give examples of the fundamental attribution error and other common biases, including the actor-observer bias and the self-serving bias
  • Explain the just-world phenomenon
  • Describe social roles, social norms, and scripts and how they influence behavior
  • Explain the process and the findings of Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment
  • Define attitude and recognize how people’s attitudes are internally changed through cognitive dissonance
  • Explain how people’s attitudes are externally changed through persuasion
  • Compare the peripheral and central routes to persuasion
  • Describe the results of research on conformity, and distinguish between normative and informational social influence.
  • Describe Stanley Milgram’s experiment and its implications
  • Illustrate when the presence of others is likely to result in groupthink, social facilitation, or social loafing
  • Explain the factors that influence human altruism, including reciprocal altruism and diffusion of responsibility.
  • Describe attraction and the triangular theory of love
  • Explain the social exchange theory as it applies to relationships
  • Examine the relationship between romantic ties and the experience of pain or pleasure
  • Examine the relationship between romantic ties and the experience of pain or pleasure
  • Define and provide examples of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination
  • Explain why prejudice and discrimination exist while demonstrating an understanding of scapegoat theory, in-groups, and out-groups
  • Describe aggression and bullying
Two photographs show people holding signs at public events in response to Trayvon Martin’s death. The signs include words and messages such as, “Justice,” “Wearing a hoodie is not a crime,” “Hoodies don’t kill people; guns kill people,” and, “Do I look suspicious?”

Figure 1. Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot to death at the hands of George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, in 2012. Was his death the result of self-defense or racial bias? That question drew hundreds of people to rally on each side of this heated debate. (credit “signs”: modification of work by David Shankbone; credit “walk”: modification of work by “Fibonacci Blue”/Flickr)

Social psychology is the scientific study of how we feel about, think about, and behave toward the people around us and how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are influenced by those people. As this definition suggests, the subject matter of social psychology is very broad and can be found in just about everything that we do every day.

Social psychology is based on the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition. In order to effectively maintain and enhance our own lives through successful interaction with others, we rely on these three basic and interrelated human capacities:

  1. Affect (feelings)
  2. Behavior (interactions)
  3. Cognition (thought)

You can see that these three aspects directly reflect the idea in our definition of social psychology—the study of the feelings, behaviors, and thoughts of individuals in the social situation. Although we will frequently discuss each of the capacities separately, keep in mind that all three work together to produce human experience. Now let’s consider separately the roles of cognition, affect, and behavior.

Social Cognition: Thinking and Learning about Others

The human brain contains about 86 billion neurons, each of which can make contact with tens of thousands of other neurons. The distinguishing brain feature in mammals, including humans, is the more recently evolved cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that is involved in thinking. Humans are highly intelligent, and they use cognition in every part of their social lives. Psychologists refer to cognition as the mental activity of processing information and using that information in judgment. Social cognition is cognition that relates to social activities and that helps us understand and predict the behavior of ourselves and others.

Social Affect: Feelings about Ourselves and Others

Affect refers to the feelings we experience as part of our everyday lives. As our day progresses, we may find ourselves feeling happy or sad, jealous or grateful, proud or embarrassed. Although affect can be harmful if it is unregulated or unchecked, our affective experiences normally help us to function efficiently and in a way that increases our chances of survival. Affect signals us that things are going all right (e.g., because we are in a good mood or are experiencing joy or serenity) or that things are not going so well (we are in a bad mood, anxious, upset, or angry). Affect can also lead us to engage in behaviors that are appropriate to our perceptions of a given situation. When we are happy, we may seek out and socialize with others; when we are angry, we may attack; when we are fearful, we may run away.

Social Behavior: Interacting with Others

Because we interact with and influence each other every day, we have developed the ability to make these interactions proceed efficiently and effectively. We cooperate with other people to gain outcomes that we could not obtain on our own, and we exchange goods, services, and other benefits with other people. These behaviors are essential for survival in any society (Kameda, Takezawa, & Hastie, 2003; Kameda, Takezawa, Tindale, & Smith, 2002).