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Psychological social psychology is concerned with social influences on individual behavior. In its century of modern history, psychological social psychology has addressed issues of attitude, perception, memory, prejudice, personality, emotion, conformity, learning, socialization, persuasion, and cognition. In topics, methods, and theory there has been minimal overlap with sociological social psychology primarily because of psychology’s persistent emphasis on the individual as the most important unit of analysis.
One of the more foundational works was accomplished by Floyd Allport in his 1924 Social Psychology. Allport identified social psychology as an exclusive subfield of psychology, and as an experimental science of the individual, dismissing what he saw as sociology’s reliance on imaginary social forces to explain human behavior. In casting social psychology as an experimental science, Allport invited the control and predictability of the laboratory. These central features of early social psychology created a divide between psychological and sociological social psychologies that has lasted to the present. The division becomes sharper in consideration of how Allport set the direction of causal analysis. Phenomena for sociology – contexts, conditions, or structures – in psychological study became relevant only insofar as they influenced individual behavior. Moreover, features of the individual could be formulated as dependent variables. So while sociologists were struggling with the self as dependent upon and determined by social relations, psychologists were able to investigate the impact of social variables on stable entities like personalities.
Survey research and psychological testing found places in social psychology as new, sophisticated tools were invented. Thurstone proposed attitude scaling measures by 1929 (the first publication year of the Journal of Social Psychology), and by 1932 Likert had perfected the simple 1 to 7 continuum of agreement and disagreement. The most memorable stagecraft in experimental social psychology was also a product of this era. A classic example of laboratory experiments in social influence is
Sherif’s study of group convergence in judging the movement of a light. Although the light in his laboratory was stationary, autokinetic effects produced the illusion of movement, and Sherif found that individuals tailored their reports about the distance a light moves to fit a group norm. This study was modeled by many researchers over the next 40 years, and the famous conformity studies of the 1940s and 1950s by Solomon Asch and the obedience studies of the 1960s by Stanley Milgram are often mentioned in tandem with Sherif’s work.
Increasingly complex instances of social influence were managed in laboratories throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century. The acclaimed creative champion was the gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, whose influential field theories and group dynamics characterized psychology as a social science. Lewin felt that psychology should consider the total situation of an individual’s ”life spaces” by attending to environmental and social variables. The energizing work of Lewin and the influence of gestalt principles fostered a new family of cognitive social psychologies. These perspectives are linked by the observation of a basic urge to see consistency in and between thoughts and feelings. Fritz Heider’s balance theories were the first in this generation of contemporary influences. Heider asserted that individuals confronted with incomplete information about others will pattern beliefs, attitudes, or motives of others in consistent and sensible ways. These can be familiar processes such as friends assuming they share attitudes, beliefs, or tastes about things they have not discussed. They can also be complex, as when an individual attributes motives to a stranger. Regardless of the relative accuracy of assumptions and attributions, people will try to balance their elements.
The touchstone for cognitive social psychologies is cognitive dissonance theory. As interest in the processing of conflicting information grew, Leon Festinger’s observations of the consequences of holding contradictory thoughts and feelings were among the most discussed, cited, and developed findings in all of modern psychology. Festinger’s initial assumptions were simple: two cognitive elements in relation to each other will produce consonance or dissonance. Opposing thoughts or feelings produce uncomfortable dissonance in individuals. They will try to reduce it.
In its present incarnation, psychological social psychology is mostly in the business of formalizing and mathematizing theories, and making incremental refinements in perspectives through controlled experimentation. Along with long-term adherence to the study of individuals and to strict scientific protocols, this provides a contrast to sociological social psychology – seen as absent controls, struggling with methods, and grappling with many versions of its basic unit of analysis. At present, social psychological research in the traditions of analyzing individual behavior has had the most impact on exchange, rational choice, and expectation states perspectives – the most psychological of the sociological social psychologies.
- Boutilier, R. G., Roed, J. C., & Svendsen, A. C. (1980) Crises in the two social psychologies: a critical comparison. Social Psychology Quarterly 43 (1): 5-17.
- House, J. S. (1977) The three faces of social psychology. Sociometry 40 (2): 161-77.
- Lewin, K., Lippitt, R., & White, R. (1939) Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created ”social climates.” Journal of Social Psychology 10: 271-99.