Major Research Areas in Social Psychology
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- We all have social connections: it is our instinctual, natural need;
- Social life is a source of support and fun; it brings a sense of security and belonging – all of which help us maintain good physical and emotional health;
- The lack of social life can contribute to your depression, stress, and anxiety. In contrast, reliable social connections make our life a lot easier;
- Maintaining vibrant and purposeful social life requires time, effort, and interest in other people;
- Learn some research-based hacks that will change your life and make your days a bit more joyful!
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Introduction to the Science of Social Psychology and its Applications
What is the science of social psychology in a nutshell? Social psychology seeks to understand how society affects our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is an exciting field of study due to its importance and relevance in everyday life. Social psychologists analyze topics that help understand our roles within groups and society as a whole.
Social psychology is rooted in testing specific theories and hypotheses through the scientific method. Social psychologists work to understand the complex relationships between groups and cultures through varying observation, analysis, and laboratory studies.
In addition to exploring social psychology areas, we will cover psychological “hacks” anyone could use to enjoy a more positive and secure job environment, win over the love of your life, or raise a well-mannered child.
Social Psychology Works Even When Alone
Social psychology focuses on the influence of the actual, imagined, and implicit presence of others at people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Social psychologists examine a wide range of topics that can roughly be divided into three main categories: emotional, social, and psychological areas.
The reference to others’ imagined and implicit presence suggests that we are vulnerable to social influence because of our internalized cultural norms. It’s worth noting that it works even when no other people are physically present.
The core theme of social psychology is the study of attitudes. Attitudes are involved in virtually all disciplines, including personality psychology, social behavior, and social and behavioral psychology. Social psychologists typically attempt to understand human behavior due to mental states interacting in immediate social situations.
Like many sciences, theories and hypotheses in social psychology tend to be specific and focused. Researchers usually test them through the scientific method, allowing for laboratory-based and empirical findings. Social psychology approaches concentrate on particular aspects of human behavior, such as attitudes.
The Interconnection of Various Branches of Social Psychology
Generally speaking, psychology is a science that can be fragmented into many subjects. Some of the social psychology branches focus on social interactions or developmental psychology. It studies how people develop social and emotional skills across the lifespan. Another direction is abnormal psychology – the study of mental illnesses.
All the psychology aspects are interconnected. For instance, the human need for belonging can be considered a part of developmental psychology. It reveals the importance of connecting to a caregiver, feeling protected and supported throughout childhood, and conforming to peer pressure during adolescence.
Similarly, clinical psychologists who study mental disorders point to a sense of belonging as a critical factor in explaining loneliness, depression, and other mental pain. In practice, however, psychologists separate concepts into categories like “clinical,” “developmental,” and “social” out of scientific necessity. It is easier to split, simplify, and study our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to analyze them effectively.
Each subdiscipline within psychology has its unique research approaches. It is how psychology is a typical way of teaching psychology. You may take a course in personality or gender studies and treat them as separate fields.
However, these distinctions do not exist in the real world since there are many overlaps between the various psychology areas.
Different Research Approaches and Levels in Social Psychology
There are varying levels of psychological analysis, whether in social psychology or other psychology areas, such as economics or sociology.
Figure 1 depicts the different levels at which we understand the events.
Figure 1 – The Levels of Psychological Analysis
At the tiniest analysis levels, we might understand the various neurochemical processes in an infant’s brain. We could pull back the scientific lens and see that the cerebellum and other brain parts are activated with electrical energy.
Take a video of a toddler watching his mother on the phone. He is curious and learns how to use a device called the telephone, both by observation and learning. If we unfocus our scientific lens a bit, we will also notice confusion, interest, or jealousy while the toddler watches how to make a phone call.
Moving on to a higher level of analysis, we might notice a change in the toddler’s behavior. He twitched his eyes during the conversation, but before we could even reach out and pick up the phone, he glanced again, this time at his mother’s phone.
At this level of analysis, we could get an idea of how the relationship fits into the equation, but none is the objective truth. Chemical, emotional, behavioral, and social processes take place simultaneously. We can see the toddler reaching out to the phone when his mother was using it or playing and ignoring it when his stepbrothers called. Multiple processes in mind and body provoke various behaviors.
Although social psychologists take care of addressing all levels of analysis, historically, this branch of psychology focuses on the higher levels of analysis. It means that the topics of interests are more closely related to the relationship between groups and culture.
Now, close your eyes and pretend that you are a social researcher who has noticed that older men seem to speak less about their feelings than younger men on average. You would like to test the hypothesis by recording natural conversations between men of various ages.
This approach would let you see if there was evidence supporting your initial observation and investigate factors that could influence this phenomenon. What happens when older men talk to strangers about their best friends, or if two well-educated men interact with two working-class men? What if a man was talking to someone younger or vice versa?
Answering these questions focuses on interactions, behavior, and culture rather than on perceptions, hormones, or DNA.
Focusing on complex relationships and interactions is partly one of the things that make socio-psychological research so tricky. High-quality research often involves the ability to control the environment with laboratory tests. Also, research laboratories are artificial settings that cannot fully reproduce the real-world settings.
Social psychologists have developed their own methods to investigate attitudes and social behavior. For example, scientific observations will determine how people behave when they do not know they are observed. While people may report that they have never held any prejudices during a study, watching how closely they sit next to people of other ethnicities on a bus ride could explain their actual attitudes.
The Primary Research Areas in Social Psychology
Social psychologists sift through a wide range of topics throughout their research. Many of these are related to social influence, perception, and interaction. Here are just a few significant research areas in social psychology, followed by a quick summary of each of them.
- Social Cognition
Social cognition focuses on the processing, storage, and application of social information. This research area is quite similar to the field of cognitive psychology; a research area concentrates mainly on the concept of schemas. Schemas are mental shortcuts to understanding how things are, how they work and function, and they allow us to function without stopping all the time to interpret everything around us. We also develop connections between related schemas, which plays a vital role in the thought process and social behavior.
- Attitudes and Change in Attitude
The study of attitudes is another major research area in social psychology, which focuses on the components of attitude, their development, and how they change over time. So far, we have been able to identify three core components of attitude: affective, behavioral, and cognitive. Such factors help describe how we feel, behave and understand, and they are often referred to as the ABC’s of attitude.
- Violence and Aggression
Social psychologists are interested in the reasons behind people choosing to engage in violence or act aggressively. Research in this area looks at several factors, including race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, and gender identity. Researchers often look at the role of social learning in producing aggressive behaviors and actions.
- Prosocial Behavior
Prosocial behavior is another important research area in social psychology. Prosocial behaviors are those that help explain why people help others, as well as why they occasionally refuse to help or assist. The bystander effect is a well-known example of a type of prosocial behavior.
The research on understanding the bystander effect was mostly initiated by the murder of a young American woman named Kitty Genovese in 1964. This case received national attention when reports revealed that neighbors failed to call the police for help even though they had witnessed her attack and murder. Research inspired by the Genovese case urged a series of researches on prosocial behavior and the reasons behind people choosing—or sometimes refusing—to aid others.
- Prejudice and Discrimination
We will find Prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes in any social group, but why do we continue to perpetuate these stereotypes despite evidence? Social psychologists attempt to understand the origins, causes, and effects of stereotypes on people’s behavior and their relationships with other people in both immediate communities and larger groupings of individuals.
- Self and Social Identity
Our perceptions of social identities are another vital area of research in social psychology. Social psychologists seek to learn more about questions such as: How exactly do people come to understand themselves? How do our self-perceptions go hand in hand with our social interactions? Self-awareness, self-esteem, self-conception, and self-expression only encompass a few factors that influence our social lives.
- Group Behavior
The behavior within groups is one of the largest research areas in social psychology. Most people do arrive at the conclusion that groups tend to behave differently than individuals. In some cases, these group behaviors may be beneficial; however, they may be also detrimental. Social psychologists often look at topics like group decision making, group dynamics, leadership, conflicts, cooperation, and group influence.
- Social Influence
Social psychologists often deal with issues such as the relationship between the emotions and behavior of people. Still, they are also interested in the role that social influence plays in relation to person’s behavior and decision making. Some topics studied in this area of social psychology may include the psychology behind persuasion, obedience, peer pressure, and conformity. Research has helped uncover the power of social influence and has revealed ways to help people resist it.
- Interpersonal Relationships
Social relationships are essential in shaping behavior, attitudes, feelings, and thoughts. Social psychologists study how interpersonal relationships affect people by looking at attachment, sympathy, love, and attraction. The more social psychologists engage, the more they are interested in how closely a relationship affects the individual, how important it is, and its overall effect on human behavior.
Research-Based Hacks for Your Social Life
In this section, you’ll find a few ways to apply psychology tactics in your social life. Considered by some to be only hacks, shortcuts, or even manipulation techniques, they can be socially useful and are based on simple psychological principles.
- People remember the first and last things you do, so make a good impression and end on a high note.
This hint can be explained by one of the best-researched concepts in psychology – the Serial Positioning Effect – and allows for quite an accurate prediction. When we look at lists, we often remember the things at the start and the end, because in a sequence of events, things that are in the beginning and end are easier to remember than what happens in the middle.
- Remember things by “chunking” them together.
Evidence suggests that we can only store about seven (give or take two) individual bits of information in our short-term memories at any given time (see Miller experiment). This means that we can handle anywhere between five and nine numbers or letters at a time. For instance, the sequence A-C-G-F-M-R-T is probably reasonably easy to remember. However, a larger variation like B-D-A-J-F-T-H-S-R-E-N-O-M a bit beyond most of us.
- If you want someone to enjoy something, don’t give them any incentive.
This shortcut may sound extremely counterintuitive, though this trick is purely based on the principle of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to a person’s mental discomfort when they do something that contradicts a belief they have or when a person holds a view that contradicts something they have done. People generally deal with this discomfort by adjusting their way of thinking or behavior so it somehow fits the counterpart’s expectations.
- Give quiet time after a question.
We live in a social world. Many things we do in life will have a strong influence on our ability to interpret, navigate, and adapt to certain social situations and circumstances. Adding to physiological and biological stress, social pressures come to play as essential factors in determining people’s behavior.
- Chew gum before going into nervous situations.
You may have heard about eating an apple when you are on the phone with a romantic interest (popularized on Seinfeld). This tip works similarly, but on a subtler note: by chewing gum, you trick your brain into thinking you are comfortable. Rather than allowing yourself to be nervous, which takes a lot of energy, your mind reasons that since you can still do something unrelated like chewing gum, you probably are not worried or nervous.
- Watch people’s feet during a conversation.
Whether you’ve just joined a standing conversation between two or more people, or you’re having a juicy one-on-one conversation, try to pay attention to the orientation of other people’s feet. A common rule of thumb is that if their feet are pointed to yours, they are probably interested to hold a conversation with you.
Obviously, you don’t want to stare at them—that would be quite odd, and probably make them very uncomfortable—but taking the occasional micro-glance or monitoring them in your peripheral vision is fine, as long as you are subtle.
- Get yourself happy and excited before seeing someone whom you want to like you, as they will reciprocate next time you see them.
Most people have some awareness of emotions being at least a little contagious. It’s tricky to get upset when you are continuously surrounded by joyous individuals. (This doesn’t mean that you should immediately rush to an amusement park to cure your depression, but it can hopefully be more helpful than being alone.)
- When people are angry with you, be calm. They will become even more furious and later be embarrassed by their anger.
If you have ever been in a situation where you were upset with someone, you’ll probably understand how frustrating it is when they remain calm. By not seeming bothered, the person is signaling that the situation isn’t causing them to lose their control over their emotions. When you are on the verge of becoming a screaming ball, you don’t want the other person to just sit there and play it cool.
- Warm your hands before you shake hands (rub them together).
Again, whether in business, social, or romantic settings, first impressions are critical. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company once reportedly said that when choosing between two similarly qualified applicants, he always went with the one that had a better handshake.
- Take your date on a roller coaster ride.
Evolution has ensured that life in the human body is enjoyable, and adrenaline has traditionally been associated with strong positive feelings. It’s exhilarating and causes a surge of energy.
- When speaking with someone, use their name as much as possible.
It’s common knowledge that people absolutely love hearing and talking about themselves. There is an old saying that everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. This may be overstating the truth a bit, but it’s hard to deny that nearly everyone enjoys the extra attention.
- Don’t reward all the time.
Studies have shown that occasional reinforcement is more effective at modifying someone’s behavior than constant reinforcement. When you reward someone for something every time, they become used to it, and so the reward has to keep growing to keep the same effect. Rewarding from time to time is a better option.
- Subtly nod when people are talking to you.
It indicates that you are genuinely interested in what they are saying and will cause them to like you more. People are drawn to other people who convey some kind of interest in them. There is a fine line between being subtle and mildly annoying; learn to tread it.
- To get a girlfriend or boyfriend, have a girlfriend or boyfriend.
People like what other people desire, and we tend to judge the value of something by how much it is in demand. One of the best ways to convince someone to like you, especially romantically, is by demonstrating to them that other people like you as well.
- Fake it till you make it.
Smile to be happy. It tricks your brain into thinking that you are happy indeed. Your mind will probably reason, “Why would I smile unless I was happy?” This is very similar to the chewing-gum trick. The basic idea behind cognitive dissonance is that we tend to feel uncomfortable when our thoughts are not in tune with our behavior.
When you are smiling, it’s much easier for your brain to convince itself that you are happy (consistent with the smiling behavior, no distress) than that you are unhappy (inconsistent with smiling, causes distress). So, if you want to be genuinely happy, faking happiness helps get the engine warmed up, and then your brain does the rest of the work.
- Make requests to individuals instead of groups.
Continuing on the bystander effect, people tend to ignore pleas—especially pleas for help—when they are within a group. Individually appealing to five people will generally get you better results than signaling that same appeal once to the entire group. The point is, within a group, people will tend to dismiss you if they figure that other people could help you, and so they don’t feel personally responsible.
However, making a plea to them directly will cause them to feel more responsive and, there’s a higher chance that they’ll help. The point here is that people are usually friendly and willing to help out, but social pressures and circumstances can sometimes be strong enough to deter them.
Psychology is continuously evolving new knowledge, and new areas and branches continue to emerge. Anyway, it is advisable to remember that all psychology branches are equally important.
Each specific area contributes to the various psychological factors that influence who we are, how we behave, and how we think. Experts in psychology are dedicated to helping us understand our minds better, confront the problems we face, and lead to better lives.
If you happen to find additional helpful resources or know any interesting findings or psychological-based tricks we have not covered, please let us know in the comments below!
Every successful conversation or acquaintance depends on the first impression. Knowing how to start, is necessary to make new social bondings. You should begin every conversation with a little smile on your face. The widespread proverb “Fake it until you make it” will help you. It means charging your mind with positivity that will open your interlocutor to an effective dialog. Try to convince your mind that you are in a good mood even if you’re not.
If the person you’re talking to is negative about the conversation, don’t reply with anger or irritation. Just try to stay calm and confident.
Happiness seems an elusive goal: everyone strives to achieve it, yet few can admit they are happy most of the time. However, a few tips can surely make our life more joyful. When you help others or spend more time outdoors, refer to people by their names or show respect for them. It brings a sense of value to your life and makes your days a bit happier. Do you think enjoying social connections is an essential part of your life?
Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below and share it with people who may appreciate the information above. Was it exciting and beneficial to you? Hope to see you in future articles!