What is Social Psychology?

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As poet John Donne wrote in 1624, “No man is an island.” We don’t experience life separately from each other. Instead, we’re connected through various complex systems that influence our individual thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. The scientific study of this influence is called “social psychology” and social psychologists ask: “How is an individual changed by the actual, implied, or imagined presence of other human beings?”

This question can be summed up by social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s equation: Behavior = f (person, social situation). Essentially, it’s believed that the things we do are a product of both individual and group characteristics. The group characteristics dictate social norms for what is, and isn’t, appropriate in daily life. When we talk about “culture,” this is usually what we mean. The difference in social norms from group to group can mean that smiling is a sign of friendliness in one place, but evidence that you’re a “tricky fool” in another.

Social psychology is a valuable tool for understanding both ourselves and others. It shows us the value of positive influences and the dangers of negative influences. By knowing how others try to manipulate our thoughts, feelings and behaviors — from advertising to political exterminism — we can make adjustments to gain better control and clarity. We can also see how disruptions to our social groups cause long-term mental health issues, and find ways to heal those wounds.

The History of Social Psychology

The question of social influence came to the forefront of psychology research after World War II. Many wondered, “How could so many seemingly ordinary people come together in Nazi Germany and inflict such violent crimes on defenseless people? How could passive bystanders do nothing to stop the Holocaust?” Scientists hoped that research on obedience and conformity would help make sense of the profound events and give us the resources to stop something similar happening in the future.

The most famous studies on these topics are the Milgram experiment (1961) and the Stanford prison experiment (1971). They both revealed that test subjects engaged in Nazi-like behaviours when under stress from authority figures. In recent years, these studies have raised questions about ethics because of the harm that they caused participants and manipulations by researchers that could have affected the results. The studies, however, created a strong argument that social conditions can cause extremes in behavior.

The ongoing research in the field of social psychology addresses a wide variety of topics — from why people join cults to what makes advertising effective. The subject demonstrates that although we might feel like we’re making our own decisions, it is often our desire to be part of an in-group (i.e. people with a shared interest or identity) that subconsciously guides our choices. Just think about it: how many things do we do simply because it’s what our friends are doing? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this — it’s likely a healthy way to function in society. Even so, bringing awareness to this dynamic can help us to live with more intention and avoid being blindly persuaded by others who have something to gain by controlling us.

The Positive Effects of Social Psychology

As we know, social groups can influence our behavior in negative ways, whether it’s violence or influencing us to buy stuff we don’t need. However, this doesn’t mean that we should isolate ourselves to avoid social pressures. In fact, we gain a lot of value from our interactions with others, we just need to be mindful of the ways in which our behavior is impacted to ensure that the influence is mostly positive. There’s a lot of evidence that people with high-quality social relationships have better mental health and lower rates of mortality. These folks also recover from negative events faster and report satisfaction in moving forward through life with purpose.

A common goal of psychotherapy is the strengthening of social relationships to improve overall well-being. This objective can involve repairing or processing negative experiences in the past and present. A history of bullying, for example, could be blocking someone’s ability to connect with social groups in adulthood. Researchers found that being excluded from a social group causes more distress to individuals than physical pain. They also found that we tend to “relive” social pain and dwell on those memories — far more than happy memories. These experiences can lead to distrust of others or socially awkward behaviors that keep us away from the very thing that can help us most: social interaction.

Finding our Place in a Social World

It’s important to note that our identity intersects with our social environment in many ways. Race, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status are just some of the factors that impact our relationships with others. We might feel comfortable with one social group, and then uncomfortable with another, at various times in a single day. Additionally,we might find that we switch our behavior in order to fit in with different groups. It is interesting to note that those who are skilled at adapting might find that they eventually end up sacrificing their own well-being. Those who switch social roles frequently report higher levels of stress and physical health problems.

If you’re stressed out by your social context, it could be helpful to work with a therapist with a background in social psychology and an understanding of your intersectional identity. Therapy can be a place where you are truly understood and don’t have to conform to any expectations. You can explore how your social context affects your mental health and develop better tools for navigating tough situations. If you feel overly influenced by others, or contrarily, too alienated from social groups, the relationship you form in therapy can be an important stepping stone to finding balance in your life.

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