Social Psychology

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Social Psychology

The general approach and methodology

Perceptual processes

Social comparison processes

Communication and consensus in groups

The conformity conflict

Attitude change

Social interaction



Although its intellectual origins extend back into antiquity, social psychology as a scientific discipline has only recently come of age. Our purpose in this brief survey will be to provide a rough sketch of the current status of the field by outlining the problems, approaches, and methods of contemporary research. Specific content areas are treated in more detail in other articles.

The set of problems on which social psychology has been focused, problems that have intrigued thinkers since ancient times, concerns the social nature of man and the manner in which this social nature develops. The awesomeness of whatever processes are involved in the development of man as a social animal are put into bold relief by such accounts as the Wild Boy of Aveyron by Itard (1801). This and similar accounts of so-called feral children suggest that without human contact the infant human organism will never develop his full biological and psychological capacities. Clearly, important events occur in the early, primitive contact that the infant human has with his parents. The nature of these events, the socialization process, has become one of the central focuses of social psychology. If we conceive of socialization in its broadest sense as a process whereby the individual learns the beliefs and values of his social group and learns to adjust his behavior so that it meets the expectations of others in the group, then social psychology can be regarded as the study of socialization and its products. [SeeSOCIALIZATION.]

Some historical background

There are several traditions that represent different approaches to the study of social behavior, which we can touch on only briefly. The sociological tradition developed by such men as Tarde, Le Bon, Ross, Cooley, and Mead has been concerned primarily with processes mediated by face-to-face interaction. In one way or another this tradition has relied upon one or more of the triumvirate of concepts: suggestion, imitation, and sympathy [SeeSUGGESTION; IMITATION; SYMPATHY AND EMPATHY; and the biographies Of COOLEY; LE BON; MEAD; ROSS; TARDE]. Another important contributor from the sociological side was Simmel, who attempted to distill the forms of social relationships (e.g., superordina-tion and subordination) from the widely different settings in which they appear [SeeSIMMEL]. A figure who stands alone in importance in the early development of social psychology is the French sociologist Durkheim [SeeDURKHEIM]. He conceived of the interaction situation as generating emergent norms, or“collective representations,”as he called them [SeeNORMS]. These norms, in turn, act with“exteriority and constraint”in controlling subsequent behavior. This intellectual tradition in sociology has melded into the approach of many contemporary social psychologists.

On the psychological side there have been three major influences: psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and gestalt theory. The psychoanalytic approach conceives of the socialization process as curbing and redirecting the infant’s natural appetites, thereby producing an adult with a complex unconscious life, as well as with a conscience that operates to constrain subsequent behavior. Identification, which occurs both in the very early months of life andin the resolution of the Oedipus conflict, represents, in psychoanalytic theory, one of the principal mechanisms of socialization. The behaviorist approach attributes social learning to the establishment of stimulus-response connections that are mediated primarily by drive reduction; social behavior is seen as a set of ingrained habitual responses and response patterns. The gestalt school, with its emphasis on the organization of the perceptual world of the individual, has focused its study on the meaning of a percept, as well as on the cognitive, conscious thought processes that are involved in interaction. The modern representatives of this school of social psychology, such as Festinger (1957) and Heider (1958), have stressed the tendency for a person to come to see his world and his own behavior and beliefs in a consistent way. [SeeGESTALT THEORY; IDENTITY, PSYCHOSOCIAL; PSYCHOANALYSIS; THINKING, article on COGNITIVE ORGANIZATION AND PROCESSES.]

In the past these approaches produced a great deal of sectionalism, but much blending is visible today. Workers in the field have come to realize that the various approaches need not be mutually exclusive. Social psychology is coming to be viewed as a general approach to the study of human behavior that rests, on the one hand, on certain basic facts of perception, cognition, motivation, and learning and, on the other hand, on certain basic facts that have to do with the social context which sets boundary conditions for the behavior in the form of the expectations of others. Accordingly, social psychology is in a position to borrow both from traditional psychology and from traditional sociology.

The general approach and methodology

Any approach to behavior can be cast in the S-O-R paradigm. A stimulus (S) impinges on the organism (O) and produces behavior, a response (R). The ways in which various approaches differ is in how the S, the O, and the R are characterized. Contemporary social psychology differs from traditional psychology in this characterization. Within traditional behaviorism, for example, the characterization of the stimulus and the response have tended to be made in physicalistic terms. For example, in studies of learning, a stimulus is described as a buzzer with a particular frequency or a light with a particular wave length and the response elicited might be a bar-press or the raising of a paw. In general, social psychologists have implicitly assumed at least a two-stage process mediating responses to stimuli. The first is a perceptual stage in which meaning is attributed to some external stimulus configuration and a second stage in which the meaningful stimulus generates subsequent behavior. The emphasis is on the meaning to the person of both the stimulus situation and the response.

Social psychologists have worked in two distinct settings, the everyday world and the laboratory, and have developed a research armamentarium appropriate to both of these settings. By the everyday world we mean the study of social behavior in vivo, in some existing social milieu. Social psychologists have studied behavior in factory settings, in military organizations, in housing communities, in delinquent gangs, and so on. Of course, it is impossible to study every aspect of the behavior of the individuals who are enmeshed in such complex situations as these. The social psychologist, therefore, narrows his sights to include only a limited number of aspects of any given everyday-life situation. He may focus on behavior in response to certain aspects of the total stimulus situation, such as the power structure of the group or the communication network that connects the individual member to others in the group. The researcher-observer is typically not in a position to control or alter features of these complex situations and is therefore limited in what he is able to infer with confidence from his observations. If a certain kind of behavior seems to be associated with a particular aspect of the total situation pinpointed by the researcher, it is impossible for him to know, without adequate control over the total situation, whether the behavior was indeed produced by this aspect of the situation or by some other aspect which the researcher failed to take into account. Furthermore, it may be that the behavior itself subsequently served in some way to generate the stimulus conditions; causal direction is difficult to infer. It may also be the case that some unknown set of stimulus conditions is generating both the observed set of stimulus conditions and the observed behaviorthat is, the observed relationship between the stimulus and the response may be spurious. These are some of the methodological shortcomings to which research in field situations is heir. [SeeEXPERIMENTAL DESIGN.]

Much of the field research in social psychology has been devoted to the study of such specific problems as the way in which supervisory practices affect morale in a particular organization or how certain propaganda appeals affect the vulnerability of a particular audience. Field methods are eminently suited to finding answers to specific, pressing problems of this kind. The laboratory serves or should servea different purpose. Because of his ability to manipulate, control, and purify the stimulus conditions confronting the person who is serving as a subject in the experiment, the experimenter acquires the ability to study behavior in more general terms. His ability to infer causal connections between the stimulus conditions that he creates and the behavior of his experimental subjects helps in developing theories regarding the underlying psychological processes the nature of the O. He attempts to do this both by establishing specific stimulus conditions confronting his experimental subject and by limiting the response alternatives available to the subject. His inferences are generally made by comparing the effects on behavior of variations in the stimulus conditions with the same set of response alternatives available to the subject.

The fact that the laboratory is often used to create a minuscule social world has led some people to assume mistakenly that the main purpose in fact, the sole purposeof the laboratory is to try things out on a small scale before applying them to a larger, real-world context or to understand the large complex situation by re-creating a smaller situation that has the same order of complexity as the larger one, a rather ambitious program to say the least. The laboratory research worker who is investigating basic social psychological processes is not concerned with making empirical generalizations relating a specific set of stimulus conditions to a specific response, but rather with establishing conceptual laws about behavior. The mistaken testing-ground view of the laboratory is a source of much confusion. For example, it leads to the expectation that the laboratory worker should provide people in policy-making positions with immediately useful insights and specific empirical predictions concerning some specific aspect of their particular world. The field setting and the laboratory are geared to answering quite different questions. The field setting is much richer in content, but this richness also makes for tenuous inferences.

The technology used in any field study or laboratory experiment will be dictated by the specific problem at hand. Typically, a field study involves a combination of careful observation of behavior with some form of verbal report, questionnaire, or interview responses. Whereas social psychologists who engage in field studies devote a great deal of effort to refining these response measures, the laboratory worker devotes the greater part of his efforts to refining the stimulus conditions. This difference in emphasis is due to the distinct differences between the two settings. In the field study, the investigator studies responses to existing stimulus conditions over which he has no control, whereas in the laboratory he sets out to create the stimulus conditions and usually permits only a narrow latitude of possible responses. As we review some of the research we shall see examples of individual items of technology. [SeeINTERVIEWING, article on SOCIAL RESEARCH; OBSERVATION, article on SOCIAL OBSERVATION AND SOCIAL CASE STUDIES.]

The action sequence

A general approach to behavior that incorporates aspects of a number of other approaches is that of the action sequence. Any action engaged in by the person is designed to come to terms with his changing stimulus environment so that his outcomes (satisfactions) will be maximized. He will want to transact with objects having positive value for him and will avoid objects having negative value. As compared with lower organisms, the stimulus vista of the human being is extremely broad, consisting of a wide variety of potentially satisfying and potentially punishing objects and events. Much of this complex set of value-object relationships, or attitudes, is acquired through the socialization process.

Any given act involves a decision, however simple and quickly it is made, between alternatives, each having consequences for the person. His decisioneven if it is between acting or maintaining the status quowill be predicated upon how the person sizes up the outcome potential of each alternative. A postdecisional accommodation process occurs after he commits himself to one of the action alternatives. Behavioral economy and the exigencies involved in dealing with the world around him require that the person make relatively quick decisions and then follow through. He learns to live with his decisions, since undoing them is often costly, if not impossible. Also, a decision implies giving up the positive outcomes associated with the nonchosen alternative and suffering the negative outcomes, if any, associated with the chosen alternative. A decision is forced upon the person, since he is unable to simultaneously enjoy the values associated with the various alternatives that are open to him. Vacillation is not an efficient solution. Postdecisional accommodation has been studied extensively by Festinger (1957) and others. The person’s predecision stance toward information about the alternatives is an open or vigilant one, whereas his postdecisional stance is selective and defensive. This basic antinomy between vigilance and defensiveness is a fundamental characteristicof behavior. We shall review the general field of social psychology within this action-sequence framework which considers both the predecisional and postdecisional phases of the act.

Perceptual processes

Social psychologists have tackled the age-old and difficult problem of perception. The problem stated simply is: How is the welter of stimulus information that impinges on the person at every moment organized by him and made meaningful? The act of perception is a decision to classify some stimulus event in some particular category. This response will be determined by the total behavior context in which the perceptual act occurs. A configuration conveying stimulus information of a round red object with a stem sticking out of a small depression on the surface may in one context be perceived primarily as something to eat and in another context as something to throw. The person’s“definition”of the situation will be determined, in part, by prior social learning. This situa-tional definition consists of a set of expectations as to what stimulus objects are likely to be present within the general behavioral context and the values that the person holds as he contemplates transaction with the stimulus. A percept is a decision and as such can be analyzed within the action-sequence framework. In Bruner’s terms (1957) a percept is a “solution”to a problem, the constituent parts of which are the cues provided by the object and the expectations and desires provided by the person. A good solution is defined pragmatically as one in which subsequent transaction with the object confirms the original expectation and, hence, provides satisfaction for the original desire. The perceptual process serves not only to facilitate transaction with positively-valued objects but also to prepare the person to avoid negatively-valued ones. He is continually alert to changes in his stimulus environment that may signal positively-valued or negatively-valued consequences for him.

Most of the research has been in the form of demonstrating the interaction between the stimulus and the person’s values in one or another behavior context. There has been little work, however, on the exact nature of the interaction that would help to define the limiting conditions under which the interaction will take place and those conditions under which the interaction will be maximum. The findings that support this view of the perceptual process are reviewed in detail elsewhere [seePERCEPTION, articles on PERSON PERCEPTION and SOCIAL PERCEPTION].

A particular relationship deserves special mention here since it highlights the functional, decisional nature of perception. Under conditions of impoverished stimulation, the subject’s visual threshold for positively-valued stimuli is lower than it is for neutral stimulithat is, less stimulus information is required by the subject to recognize positively-valued objects. The findings for threatening, negatively-valued stimuli show a somewhat different pattern. Negatively-valued stimuli that can be avoided show a lower threshold than neutral stimuli, whereas negatively-valued stimuli that cannot be avoided show a raised threshold. Both of these tendencies can be interpreted as attempts at avoidance. Where the subject can take action, he is vigilant toward the threatening event, whereas where he can do nothing to avoid it he is ostrichlike in this tendency to deny its existence. [SeeATTENTION; PERCEPTION, article on PERCEPTUAL DEPRIVATION.]

Person perception

The study of person perception is, of course, of special interest to social psychologists. The way in which one person’s acts are interpreted by another will determine the course of their future interactionthat is, whether or not mutual dependence and mutual influence develop. The general findings in this area are consistent with our functionalist view of perception. The total stimulus-and-value context appears to induce expectations as to the qualities or traits possessed by the stimulus person as well as to induce attributed intentions. The fact that a person is known to possess a particular characteristic induces the expectation that he will possess other characteristics that are usually related to the one that he is known to possess. The inference made about the stimulus person from any given act is made in terms of the context of the act. Was the act justified in the eyes of the perceiverthat is, was the act appropriate to the stimulus situation attributed by the perceiver to the stimulus person? For example, if the stimulus person behaved aggressively within a context that appeared to the perceiver as one in which aggression is a perfectly appropriate response, the stimulus person might not be perceived as aggressive. He would tend to be perceived as aggressive only if another, nonaggressive response seemed more appropriate to the stimulus context. On the other hand, if the context is one in which an aggressive response seems particularly appropriate and the person responded in a nonaggressive way, the perceiver might attribute meekness to the stimulus person. The general principle operating here is that the intention attributed to the stimulus person will be inferred from the stimulus person’sbehavior judged in terms of the behavioral alternatives open to the stimulus person (as seen by the perceiver). Various aspects of the total situation will determine the judgment by the perceiver as to the response alternatives open to the stimulus personfor example, the status of the stimulus person vis-a-vis the person toward whom he is acting, the sequence of interactions immediately preceding the segment of behavior in question, and idiosyncratic qualities of the perceiver himself.


Man’s social nature is presumably molded through interaction. Since interaction is between persons as each is perceived by the other, knowledge of the process of person perception is an important and basic key. We form an impression of a person from his interaction with us or with others and our impressions in turn condition our interaction with him. The research on social influence and other group processes, which we shall review below, starts either by assuming that the actors have certain impressions of each other or by experimentally inducing the impression, de novo, as an independent variable. The student of person perception examines the process in reverse by treating interaction as the independent, experimental variable and examining aspects of the interaction situation that produce various impressions. Both of these approaches complement each other, and knowledge gained from each will add to our understanding of the nature and substance of social life.

Social comparison processes

Other persons can act as sources of information or as direct mediators of reward. The child’s parents provide him with food, warmth, and shelter and also with certain knowledge he requires to engage in the business of living within his social milieu. All problems in social psychology reduce to studying implications of either one or the other kind of dependence for information and for directly mediated effects (outcomes, rewards, satisfaction).

A given act involves a beginning state, a desired end state, and a path or sequence of behaviors designed to move the individual from start to finish. Any act, however trivial, can be analyzed within this framework. Kurt Lewin referred to the possible action sequences existing for the person at any given moment as the person’s“life space.”There may be a considerable amount of uncertainty attached to various aspects of an action sequence. The person may be uncertain as to whether his present level of satisfaction is reasonable or whether the end state of the sequence will indeed furnish him with a higher level of satisfaction. He also may be uncertain as to whether or not he has the ability to act in the manner required to realize the end state or to transact with the end state in order to derive the satisfaction he anticipates. To the extent that the situation is novel, his uncertainty will be high. The person’s world is in constant and irregular motion, usually taking unpre-dicted turns. In trying to reconcile these changes with his own desires, he is continually confronted with decisions and tries to choose the action alternative that he hopes will yield him the most pleasure or the least pain. To the extent that he is uncertain about what to do or how to do it he will be oriented toward getting information to reduce his uncertainty.

The person may be uncertain about his present outcome levelthat is, whether or not he is receiving adequate satisfaction in his present situation. What kind of measuring stick does he use to determine how satisfied he is? There appear to be three bases upon which he may “measure”his satisfaction: his own past experience, the various alternative outcome states potentially available to him, and the experiences of other people in the same or similar situations. It is this last basis that is of particular interest to us here. Where comparison persons are available as points of reference against which he can compare aspects of his own situation, he will make use of this information to the extent that more reliable information is lacking.

Reference persons

There are three basic kinds of information other persons can provide: advice, impressions, and knowledge as to relative standing. Advice is any information given to another through “instruction.”Impressions are given about the person’by another through a process we shall, call“reflected appraisal.”Standing refers to the person’s relative position in a group, with regard to some attribute, and the process whereby he determines his standing we shall call“comparative appraisal.”Most of the research on social influence has been concerned with the last-mentioned process, comparative appraisal.

Two general types of reference persons can be distinguished: the“expert”and the“co-oriented peer.”An expert is someone who, by virtue of his experience, has special knowledge as to how the person might effect a favorable change in outcome level. A co-oriented peer is someone who shares the life situation of the person, someone who has a similar outlook and value orientation. In measuring his present or future satisfaction level the person tends to refer to others like himself. Merton and Kitt (1950) demonstrate this rather well with data on the degree to which certain groups of en-listed men felt deprived during World War II. They found, for example, that married soldiers felt more deprived as a result of being in the army than did single soldiers. This, they discovered, was attributable to the fact that married soldiers, in measuring their outcome level, compared themselves with other married men, whereas single soldiers compared themselves with other single men. Since all able-bodied single men were in the army, the single soldier did not feel deprived relative to his co-oriented peer group. Married soldiers, on the other hand, knew that a large proportion of their peer group had evaded the draft and were enjoying the comforts of home life. They therefore felt deprived. The co-oriented peer helps the person to measure his present or potentially available outcome states, whereas the expert is a source of information on how to move from one state to another. [SeeREFERENCE GROUPS.]

Social influence

The research on social influence has been conducted in three very different laboratory settings, and our review will examine each of these in turn, within the general framework outlined above. The first setting is one in which the subject finds himself in a face-to-face confrontation with other people with whom there is some sort of a discrepancy. The second setting is one in which the subject is merely informed that he is in disagreement with others and has little or no opportunity to communicate with them. The third setting is one in which a single communicator attempts to persuade an audience.

Communication and consensus in groups

The work of Allport (1920) brought the study of group effects on individual judgments into the laboratory. Allport’s work was preceded by a tradition dating back to the turn of the century, in which group effects on individual performance were demonstrated. Allport found that a person’s judgment about an ambiguous stimulus can be influenced by the judgments of other people about that stimulus. In subsequent work, Sherif (1935) found that this modified judgment, the norm, tends to persist even in the absence of these other people. We can see the close connection here with Durkheim’s concept of collective representation. [SeeGROUPS, article on GROUP FORMATION.]

The advent of World War n spurred the development of social psychology, especially in the area of social-influence processes. The next important milestone was provided by the work of Kurt Lewin and his students. Lewin realized very early the importance of systematic theory in studying behavior, and he also had an abiding faith that even complex social behavior could be studied systematically in the laboratory. Of particular concern to us here are his studies of group decisions. These studies, which were undertaken during World War n, suggested that when an individual reaches a decision in a group situation, the decision appears to have a compelling quality in sustaining certain consequences of that decision (Lewin 1947). Some doubt has been cast on the conclusions reached in these early experiments, by some more recent work of Bennett (1955). In her attempt to replicate with more careful controls the earlier group-decision experiments, Bennett found that it was the decision itself that carried the day rather than the fact of having reached a decision in a group. Bennett discovered, however, that the individual’s attitude toward the decision was positive to the extent that there was consensus in his group. This, then, may have been the crucial mediating factor in Lewin’s experimentsnamely, that where a group decision was made, the individual group member was made aware of the group consensus. [SeeCONFORMITY;CONSENSUS; GROUPS.]

Attraction of the group

Lewin’s “discovery”of the power of the group inspired the work of a number of his students. One set of studies that was so inspired was undertaken by a group working with Lewin that was led by Festinger. The first of these was a field study by Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950) of social pressures in a student housing community in the Boston area. Within the community,“natural”groups were created by the architectural design of the community; families were thrown together because of the way in which the individual apartments were arranged. The central finding of the study grew out of the fortuitous occurrence of an important, controversial issue that arose while the study was in progress. The investigators found that the degree of unanimity of opinion on the issue within each of the architecturally circumscribed groups was a direct function of the over-all attraction of the individual members to these groups. There is a strong suggestion here that the more attractive a group is for an individual member, the greater will be the tendency for the member to be influenced by the opinions of others in the group. This interpretation led to more general speculation about the nature of social influence processes and eventuated in a program of laboratory research that occupied Festinger and his students for a number of years. Typically, the experiments used college-student subjects engaged in a discussion during which their behavior was carefully observed and meas-ured. Three types of behavior were recorded: an attempt by the subject to influence someone else in the group, an attempt by the subject to reject someone in the group, and a change of opinion by the subject on the issue that was being discussed. The amount of each of these three kinds of behavior, it was reasoned, would indicate the strength of the tendency for the group to reach a consensus. With these behaviors as the dependent variables, various aspects of the group situation were manipulated experimentally. The suspected relationship found in the housing study mentioned abovenamely, that the greater the attraction of a group for its individual members, the greater will be the tendency for members of the group to reach a consensuswas verified (e.g., Schachter 1951; Festinger et al. 1952). It was also found (e.g., Schachter 1951) that the greater the relevance of the issue to the purpose of the group, the greater will be the attempts to reach consensus. To the extent that the members of the group are able to refer their opinions outside the group for validation, there will be a weakened tendency to achieve consensus in the group (Festinger & Thibaut 1951). Studies by Festinger and Thibaut (1951) and Gerard (1953) found that the greater the discrepancy in opinion between members of a group, the greater will be the tendency for them to influence each other. To the extent that a given group member is close to the modal opinion in the group, he will attempt to influence those who are deviates to change their opinion, so as to achieve greater group consensus (Festinger et al. 1952; Gerard 1953). Reaching consensus in a group involves getting deviates to change their opinions. When such attempts fail, consensus can be achieved by rejecting these deviates. Any basis that may exist for conceiving of the deviate as not being a relevant reference person will tend to enhance rejection as a method for achieving consensus (Festinger & Thibaut 1951; Gerard 1953). There is also evidence that the individual will be more vulnerable to influence from someone who is an expert than from someone whose ability is equal to or less than his own (Festinger et al. 1952).

All of these experiments growing out of the housing study were designed to study information dependence that is engendered when the individual is uncertain about some belief or opinion that he holds. Other people, it was assumed, are used merely as reference points against which the person may check his opinion. The process based on this kind of referral, comparative appraisal, can occur with or without actual face-to-face confrontation. When, however, people do confront each other face-to-face, reflected appraisal may also take place. Here the person is responding to what the other person may think of him for being a deviate; he will respond not in order to reduce uncertainty, but in order to maintain or improve his status in the other person’s eyes. In these experiments the subjects were confronting each other face-to-face, and it is likely that their responses were in part due to reflected appraisal. It is not clear, for example, why attraction to others in the group should increase the person’s tendency to refer his opinions to that group, unless we assume that reflected appraisal is operatingthat is, that individual members are concerned with maintaining their status in the group. Where the person is concerned with reducing the uncertainty with which he holds a belief, referral should be based upon how much expertise the person attributes to the reference person and not to how attractive he is. There is another possibility that may account for the relationship between comparison and attraction. Insofar as the aspect or judgment being compared with others in the group has anything to do with present or future satisfactionsthat is, outcome perspectivethere will be a greater tendency to rely upon the judgments of others to the extent that they are perceived as co-oriented in this respect. It may be that where a person is highly attracted to others in the group, he assumes that they are co-oriented peers. Another possibility that was addressed experimentally by Berkowitz (1957) is that an individual will attribute expertise to someone he likes. In any event the original problem with which these studies began namely, the relationship between the tendency to reach a consensus in a group and attraction by the members to the group must be mediated by either attributed co-orientation or attributed expertise. A great deal of work remains to be done in order to understand the nature of the mediational processes involved. [SeeCOHESION, SOCIAL.]

Further studies of social comparison

An important field study conducted by Newcomb (1943) in the middle and late 1930s at Bennington College, a women’s college, offers striking evidence regarding the attainment of consensus in an existing group. Newcomb traced the changes in attitudes toward political affairs that occurred among Bennington students during their four years of college. The typical Bennington freshman in 1935, the year the study began, came from a wealthy northeastern conservative home and reflected this background in her attitudes upon entering Bennington. Most of the faculty were left of center in their political attitudes. As the situation developed, it was“in”to be a liberal, and most of the upperclassmen expressed liberal attitudes. The longer the student remained at Bennington, the more liberal her attitudes became. That this was not a mere overt public avowal, but a reflection of her actual attitudes, is attested to by a follow-up study of the attitudes held by these Bennington students thirty years later (Newcomb 1963), in which it was found that there was very little reversion to the conservative attitudes held by these women when they were entering Bennington freshmen nearly three decades earlier.

A series of experiments initiated by Schachter (1959) studied comparative appraisal as mediated by attributed co-orientation. Whereas the earlier experiments were concerned primarily with the comparison of beliefs, Schachter’s experiments were concerned with comparison of emotions. Emotions are strong attitudes and, as such, have a belief and a value component (see the discussion below on attitudes). The value component has associated with it a substrate of physiological arousal. Since the value component is paramount in the case of an emotion, a person who is uncertain about some aspect of an emotional experience he is having will seek out co-oriented peersthat is, others undergoing or about to undergo the same emotional experience. Schachter found evidence for this in an experiment in which he threatened subjects with a strong electric shock. In subsequent experiments additional evidence was found that emotional uncertainty does lead to information dependence on co-oriented peers.

There is also evidence to indicate that the performances of other people are sometimes used by the person to estimate the quality of his own performance. A study by Chapman and Volkmann (1939) demonstrated a“group effect”on the person’s aspiration. Where the subject had no clear expectation as to what his performance would be on an unfamiliar task, he utilized information about the scores others had made on the task, in setting his own level of aspiration. On the other hand, where the subject had had considerable experience with a particular type of task and could therefore estimate fairly accurately how he would perform on a similar task, knowledge of the scores others had made had little or no effect on his performance aspiration.

Other studies have shown that when a task is a competitive one, the person will seek his own level in choosing a competitor. This finding is taken by Festinger (1954) as evidence for a tendency on the part of the person to compare his performance to the performance of others as a way of evaluating his ability.

The conformity conflict

The research on consensus attainment in groups was, for the most part, concerned with events taking place in the group as a whole and did not pay specific attention to the individual member’s reactions to a discrepancy confrontation. And elegantly simple experimental situation designed by Asch (1956) provides a technique for bringing the individual’s reaction into sharper focus. This is accomplished by confronting the subject with unanimous disagreement from a group of peers (who are actually accomplices of the experimenter) on a very simple, unambiguous visual judgment. The judgment involves matching the length of a single line to one of a number of comparison lines. The subject confronts repeated disagreement from“the others”on a series of trials. Asch found that there was a tendency for some subjects to yield to the group judgment.

In a situation like this the subject assumes that the others possess approximately the same perceptual capacities as he does and are able and willing to report accurately what they see. How, then, can there be a discrepancy like this? These considerations make up the informational side of the conflict. There is also the problem of standing out like a sore thumb, the subject’s concern with the kind of impression he is making on the others if he assumes that they expect him to agree with them. If he disagrees with them he may lose status in their eyes. We can anticipate, then, that both comparative and reflected appraisal will be operating in the situation. An attempt to separate these two processes was made by Deutsch and Gerard (1955), by comparing a treatment in which the subject made his judgments in full view of the experimental accomplices with a treatment in which the subject made his judgments within the privacy of an isolation booth. Less yielding was found when the subjects were isolated from each other than when they were face-to-face, suggesting that reflected appraisal is a strong component process of the face-to-face situation. A number of other experiments have substantiated these results. [SeeCONFORMITY; CONSENSUS.]

Information dependence on others appears to increase with increasing ambiguity of the judgmental material (e.g., Asch 1956). If we assume that an ambiguous stimulus will lead to uncertainty, this finding supports the basic assumption underlying comparative appraisal: uncertainty leads to information dependence. When there isinformation dependence a clear“expert effect”has also been foundnamely, that when confronting an ambiguous situation, the subject is dependent upon the others to the extent that he perceives them to be expert in the kind of judgment he made (Samelson 1957). One might be led to assume by the results of these experiments on relative ability that the person with high ability has little difficulty in remaining steadfast, that he simply discounts the discrepant information as being unreliable, and that it is the low-ability person who is in trouble. An attempt to explore the psychological impact that disagreement has on individuals of different ability was made (Gerard 1961), using physiological responses to measure the impact of disagreement. The findings in these studies indicate that the greater the person’s ability, the greater will be the impact of disagreement with a group of peers. This result may be interpreted by assuming that the higher the person’s ability, the greater the conflict between the two sources of information available to him, the information from his own senses and the group consensus. The greater his ability, the more credibility will he attach to his own judgments which are in disagreement with another highly credible source of information, the group consensus.

In an experiment involving relatively strong attitudes, Kelley and Woodruff (1956) found that disagreement with a group of co-oriented peers was more effective in changing the subject’s attitude than disagreement with a group that was represented as not being co-oriented with the subject.

In a number of investigations, explicit effect dependence was induced by making the subjects dependent upon one another for certain outcomes (Deutsch & Gerard 1955). This effect dependence produced greater conformity to a false consensus, an outcome presumably mediated by the subject’s desire for acceptance in situations where the others are potential mediators of satisfaction for him. A particularly crucial finding that is relevant here comes from a study by Kelley and Shapiro (1954), in which a negative correlation was found between conformity and the acceptance of the subject as a group member. Evidently, the less the subject’s acceptance, the more anxious was he to please the other members of the group. Additional supporting evidence was found by Harvey and Consalvi (1960), in whose study the most and least accepted members of a group conformed less than a member who was only partially accepted. We can interpret these results by assuming that the person of highest status does not conform because he is assured of his status, whereas the person of lowest status does not conform because he sees no possibility of improving his status.

Other studies have been concerned with the role of commitment in the conformity conflict. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) discovered that when the subject committed himself to his judgment before being apprised of the judgments of the others in the group, he yielded much less to the group consensus.

In terms of the action sequence, we would expect that the decision to yield to the group or remain steadfast would have postdecisional consequences. Evidence reported by Gerard (1965) suggests that postdecisional accommodation does indeed take place. A conformer will accommodate both by increasing the degree to which the group is attractive to him and by attributing expertise to them, whereas a deviate will tend to reduce the perceived attractiveness of the group and attribute lower expertise to them as a way of justifying his own behavior.

Attitude change

We will attempt a brief but broad overview of the area of attitude change in order to show how our general framework applies to this area as well. We shall examine, in turn, characteristics of the three aspects of the persuasion situation: the communicator, his message, and his audience. This is the framework used by Aristotle in his Rhetoric and by Hovland Janis, and Kelley (1953) in their classic work. [SeeATTITUDES, article on ATTITUDE CHANGE.]

An attitude designates the outcome potential the person associates with some object or class of objects. He consequently has a tendency either to approach or avoid that class of objects. The structure of an attitude can be represented as a syllogism in which the minor premise is a belief, the major premise is a value, and the conclusion is the attitude itself. Thus, a prejudiced person might be characterized by the following syllogism as part of the structure underlying his attitude:

Negroes are lazy.
Laziness is bad.
Therefore, Negroes are bad.

An analysis of this syllogism shows that“Negroes”is the minor term, “laziness”is the middle term, and“bad”is the major term. Many attitudes, such as anti-Negro prejudice, have complex structures that include sets of parallel syllogisms all having the same conclusion and a “deep”vertical structure with interlocking premises—that is, working backward we may find that the premises in a first-order syllogism may be conclusions of one or more second-order syllogisms, and so on. There has as yet been no attempt to describe systematically the structure for a given person, although case studies such as those reported in Smith, Bruner, and White (1956) represent a start in that direction.

The communicator

Propaganda appeals are directed toward changing either the belief or value premises underlying an attitude. The credibility attached to a message will depend upon the degree of expertise or co-orientation attributed to the communicator, expertise being more important where a belief is a target of the message and co-orientation being more important when a value is the target. Experiments (e.g., Aronson et al. 1963) have demonstrated a positive relationship between the credibility of a message and the amount of expertise attributed to the communicator. An experiment by Weiss (1957) provides indirect evidence for the relationship between credibility and co-orientation of the communicator.

An aspect of the situation that is closely related to co-orientation has to do with the intent attributed to the speaker by his audience. If he is perceived as wanting to influence them, it may be in pursuit of some value he holds that his audience perceives as inimical to their own values. Therefore, to the extent that the communicator is seen as not attempting to influence his audience, the effect of any attributed lack of co-orientation would be minimized. An experiment by Walster and Festinger (1962) compared the effectiveness of a communication when it was accidentally overheard with a situation where the communicator was aware of his audience (and his audience of him) and found that there was greater attitude change in the direction of the message when it was merely overheard. [SeeCOMMUNICATION, MASS.]

The communication

An aspect of the message that has been given some attention concerns the question of whether it is more effective for the communicator to present only his side of the argument or to present the other side of the issue as well. The results of this research are inconclusive. There does seem to be some evidence, however, that when a person changes his attitude in response to a two-sided communication, this change will be more likely to sustain itself than if he changes in response to a one-sided communication. It may be that a two-sided communication presents the person with a definite decision, and the communication’s ability to sustain a change may be due to postdecisional accommodation. [SeePERSUASION.]

Primacy versus recency

When presenting both sides of an argument, is it more effective for the communicator to present his side first or second? This question reduces to whether a“primacy”or a“recency”effect will dominate. Again, the research findings do not offer unequivocal support for the predominance of either effect. Some studies have shown a primacy effect, whereas others have shown a recency effect. When the subject commits himself to an opinion after hearing one side of the issue before hearing the other side, a strong primacy effect occurs (Hovland, Campbell, & Brock 1957). This effect can be interpreted as being caused by postdecisional accommodation to the“premature”opinion commitment. A study by Miller and Campbell (1959) suggests that some of the contradictory evidence has been due, in part, to methodological problems that arise in presenting the messages and measuring their effects. As with a number of other problems we have discussed, a great deal more research remains to be done.

Implicit versus explicit conclusions

Another question for which there is no satisfactory answer is whether or not the communicator should draw his conclusion explicitly at the end of his talk or whether he should let his audience participate by“putting two and two together”for themselves. Aristotle suggests that a message that allows the audience to draw its own conclusion will be more effective. In our terms, conclusion drawing is a decision which, because of postdecisional accommodation, will sustain the effect of the message if the audience draws the intended conclusion. A study by Hovland and Mandell (1952), however, suggests that conclusion drawing by the communicator is the more effective technique. Cooper and Dinerman (1951), on the other hand, find that conclusion drawing by the communicator blunts the effectiveness of a message. It is probable that particular circumstances will determine which technique is more effective, and the job of future research is to learn what these circumstances are.

Conditioning effects

Staats and Staats (1958) used a classical conditioning situation to manipulate the belief premise of an attitude and then measured the degree to which the middle term transferred value to the minor term that had originally been associated only with the major term. The results show that mere contiguity with positive or negative values will impart a positive or negative value to a term that was neutral to start with. Razran (1940) conditioned subjects to respond positively or negatively to formerly neutral stimuli, with a subtle technique of associating the neutral term with faint, but perceptible, unpleasant odors or the circumstance of munching away onan appetizing free lunch. Powerful effects such as these are probably being induced without our awareness during the course of a normal day. These effects, which appear to occur without our awareness, are paralleled by effects that are based on conscious, cognitive inference. Where beliefs are shown by the communicator to further certain values, attitude change can be produced (e.g., Di Vesta & Merwin 1960).

Boomerang effects

There is evidence that messages that embody very strong emotional appeals may boomerang (e.g., Leventhal & Kafes 1963). The reasons for this are not very clear, although there is some suggestion in the data that strong value appeals induce defensiveness, especially where the attitude is difficult to change.

The audience

Obviously, the effectiveness of any message will be determined by the degree to which it is successfully tailored to its intended audience. A communication intended to induce new toothbrushing habits in an audience of eight-year-olds would not have the same impact on an adult audience. Factors such as the pre-exposure attitudes of members of the audience, the degree of familiarity with opposing points of view, their education and background, and their degree of commitment to their initial positions will all affect the degree to which they will be susceptible to a given message.

Pre-existing attitudes and forewarning

Hovland (1959) points out that one of the features distinguishing field studies from laboratory experiments on attitude change is the lack of forewarning of the audience that exists in the laboratory situation. In the“real world”a person selectively exposes himself to one or another propaganda missive, whereas the laboratory subject is a captive audience. Hovland suggests that this difference may be one of the factors accounting for the greater relative effectiveness of propaganda attempts studied in the laboratory, where the subject can be caught off guard, so to speak. Studies (e.g., Freedman & Sears 1965) have demonstrated that a forewarned audience is a forearmed audience and is less vulnerable to the communicator’s message than an audience that has not been forewarned. An ingenious experiment by Festinger and Maccoby (1964) indicates that partially distracting the audience while the message is being presented will tend to increase the audience’s vulnerability to the message.

Research by Cooper and Jahoda (1947) suggests that the prior attitude of an audience will affect how a message is interpreted. This is in line with Asch’s suggestion (1948) that the context in which a statement is heard will, in part, determine its meaning for the person. Since the effectiveness of a message hinges on its getting across to the audience, interpretation operates as an important influence in the situation. A study by Hovland, Harvey, and Sherif (1957) demonstrates that one of the factors involved in the interpretation process is the degree of extremity of the message from the subject’s own attitude. Messages that are close to the subject’s own position tend to be assimilated to that position, whereas messages that are inconsistent with his position are seen as even more discrepant than they actually are.

In a series of studies McGuire (1964) has shown, using an immunological analogy, that small doses of the propaganda prior to an actual full-scale attack will stimulate the person’s defenses against the message. McGuire used cultural truisms such as“You should brush your teeth at least twice a day”as the opinions that were attacked. He points out that the average person’s prior preparation to defend these truisms is minimal, that they have grown up in a“germ-free”environment and are therefore particularly vulnerable. Whether small doses of propaganda are able to stimulate a person’s defenses regarding controversial issues remains to be seen.

Role playing

A procedure that has been used extensively both in training and in psychotherapy requires that a person play the role of someone else. This experience presumably gives the trainee or the patient some idea of what it is like to be the person whose role he has taken. He is able to develop an approximate version of the other person’s world and in so doing comes to develop something of an understanding of what it is that is producing the other person’s attitudes and behaviorthat is, he becomes co-oriented with him. The first systematic attempt to investigate the effect of role playing was made by Janis and King (1954). The question they asked was, Is it the fact of verbalizing statements having to do with the other person’s point of view or is it simply a matter of being exposed to that point of view that produces the change in attitude claimed for role playing? They were asking, in effect, whether role playing is really any more effective than the typical attitude change procedure that exposes the subject to an opposing viewpoint. Their data suggest that role playing does add something over and above merely being exposed to the message. The decision to play a role, like any other decision, involves all of the elements of the action sequence. The person is confronted with a choice of whether or not to play the role. If he chooses to play the role, he must somehow come to terms with this decision. The efficacy of role playing may, therefore, hinge on the process of postdecisional accommodation. [SeeROLE.]

We would expect attitude change to be greater to the extent that there was little other justification for playing the role. The person with little justification would be hard put to justify taking a discrepant viewpoint. One way of justifying the roleplaying decision is to accommodate by finding the role itself attractive. This would tend to induce a positive attitude toward the discrepant viewpoint being advocated. Evidence that attitude change is inversely proportional to the incentive given to the person for playing the role is provided by Brehm and Cohen (1962). These experiments used monetary incentives to induce the subject to advocate an opinion that was discrepant from the subject’s private opinion and found that the subject changed his private opinion more with a lower incentive. Other experiments have used inducements such as helping the experimenter in his research or the warmth and friendliness of the experimenter and found the same inverse relationship between attitude change and the amount of incentive. The principle operating here is that the greater the incentive, the less will be the necessity for the person to justify his decision. Other studies, using negative incentivesthat is, coercionhave discovered that the greater the perceived freedom of choice in playing a role, the greater the amount of postdecisional attitude change. An important experiment by Mills (1958) found that when a person engages in forbidden behavior, the less the incentive for doing so, the more lenient does he become in his attitude toward the forbidden behavior. If the person decides not to engage in the forbidden behavior, the greater the original incentive for engaging in the behavior, the more severe does he become in his attitude toward the forbidden behavior. Festinger and Freedman (1964) suggest that behavior justification of this kind may be an important mechanism in the development of moral values. When a child engages in behavior prescribed for him by his parents or when he decides not to engage in behavior that is forbidden by his parents, to the extent that justification for his decision is low he may subsequently justify the behavior by coming to believe that it is the morally correct way to behave.

Social interaction

The study of social influence shades over into the more general study of interaction. In the research discussed above, the focus has been limited to an influence attempt by one person upon another with no influence being exerted in return. Where two individuals confront each other face-to-face, typically the behavior of one is influenced, at least in part, by the behavior of the other in a seriatim fashion. Each, to some extent, controls either information or effects (rewards, outcomes) for the other. It is through this control, as we have seen above, that both behavior and attitudes are shaped.

There have been several approaches to the study of the seriatim situation. A line of investigation started by Greenspoon (1955) has proved fruitful. The paradigm in these experiments is for the experimenter to reward the subject for saying certain kinds of words by either a nod of his head or saying“Good”or“Mmmmm.”This is done in such a way that the subject is usually not aware that he is being rewarded in this way. For example, the subject might be rewarded for saying plural nouns or naming types of fruit. The subject’s tendency to say these words after the experimenter no longer rewards him for doing so is shown to increase as a function of reward. Cohen, Greenbaum, and Mansson (1963) have shown that a period of prior social deprivation enhances the effect of this kind of reward. We can conclude from the considerable work carried out in this tradition that mutual control is probably governed in part by the administration of social reinforcements.

Sidowski, Wyckoff, and Tabory (1956) designed a“minimal”social situation in which to study ihe applicability of learning principles derived primarily from animal studies to the social contingencies that exist in mutual human interaction. The situation utilizes two interdependent subjects, each being unaware of the presence of the other. Each subject makes a choice between two possible responses. One choice rewards and the other choice punishes the other subject. Subjects soon learn, in spite of their being unaware of each other, to choose the mutually rewarding pair of responses. Further studies (e.g., Kelley et al. 1962) have explored factors that enhance or detract from the two subjects hitting on mutually rewarding responses. Informing the subject that his behavior affected the rewards of someone else and that someone else affected his rewards appears to enhance the rapidity with which the mutual contingency is“solved.”These ..periments seem to have abstracted the minimal elements involved in cooperative behavior, where the person can best serve himself by helping the other. Responses that reward another will tend to be reciprocated and will therefore be rewarded in turn.

Studies of a more complex nature have been carried out in which the joint payoff is arranged so that mutual trust is necessary in order for responses to be mutually rewarding. It is possible in these“games”for each player to“double-cross”the other and, if he is successful, to achieve a reward that is larger than the reward that would result from a mutually cooperative response. Thus, there is a temptation to be asocial. Also, in the process, the other player suffers at the expense of the first player getting a very large reward. A number of investigators (notably Deutsch 1958) have studied conditions under which a social, cooperative response will be made in spite of the temptation that exists to make an asocial response that is, conditions under which mutual trust will develop. Some factors that appear to foster trust are the possibility for communication, benevolent behavior on the part of the other person, the presence of a common enemy, the absence of mutual threats, and a balance of power.

In a programmatic attempt to study techniques of augmenting one’s power in an interaction situation, Jones (1964) has examined conditions under which one person in a relationship will tend to be ingratiating. Ingratiation is illicit behavior in which the person attempts to improve his status in the relationship by appealing to extrarelational values held by the other person. Any relationship is denned by the kinds of rewards each person supplies for the other. To the extent that one of the parties cannot supply the rewards expected of him, the other will tend not to reciprocate. If he is badly in need of the outcomes the other person can potentially provide, he may resort to illegal means in order to obtain them, ingratiation being one possible strategy. The person will attempt to make himself attractive to the other by being a“yes man,”by flattering the other, or by attempting to emphasize additional values that he may be able to offer the other. He may resort to any one or all of these tactics. The research indicates that a low-status person will tend to resort to ingratiation to the extent that it is important that the person please the other and to the extent that he perceives that the other may be manipulated by such techniques. [SeeINTERACTION.]

We have confined this survey to a general overview and to a specific consideration of certain basic processes of perception and social influence. Extrapolation from these processes can be made to a number of problem areas that come within the domain of the social psychologist. The proliferation of the two-person situation generates social structures in which each person’s relationship to others in the structure is denned by behavioral expectations and rewards to be acquired by the person and by the rewards that he is expected to provide for others. He may enter into a relationship of mutuality with one or more other persons within the structure. In order for a structure to function effectively, certain norms of belief and conduct peculiar to the structure tend to develop. Situations arise in which it is necessary for one person to assume the responsibility for coordinating the behaviors and interactions of the others. These considerations have brought the study of leadership within the purview of the social psychologist. Social psychologists have also been involved in the study of large-scale organizations, in which subgroups are articulated into an over-all structure. [SeeORGANIZATIONS.]

Harold B. Gerard


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Social Psychology

views updated May 18 2018


Social psychology is the study of individual behavior and psychological structures and processes as both outcomes of and influences on interpersonal relationships, the functioning of groups and other collective forms, and culturally define macrosocial structures and processes. Social psychologists vary in the theoretical orientations and methods they use, the conceptual distinctions they draw, and the substantive causal linkages they study. Much of the variability in these areas is accounted for by the academic tradition in which a social psychologist has been trained.

Contemporary social psychology has intellectual roots in both psychology and sociology. Psychological social psychologists are guided by social learning theory as well as by orientations such as exchange and role theories. For the most part, their methods consist of laboratory and field experiments, and data analysis is accomplished with quantitative techniques. They discriminate between individual behavior and psychological structures and processes and interpersonal settings. The primary interest of psychological social psychology is the influence of the perceived social environment on individual cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses (Gilbert et al. 1998).

Contemporary sociological social psychology encompasses two major perspectives: symbolic interactionism and personality and social structure. Within symbolic interactionism, other distinctions are drawn according to the degree to which the proponents emphasize consistencies in human behavior as opposed to creative and emergent aspects of behavior, the influence of social structure in placing constraints on social interaction through which concepts of the self and others are formed, and the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Considering these perspectives together, sociological social psychologists are influenced most frequently by symbolic interactionism, role theory, and exchange theory. They employ a range of research methods, including social surveys, unstructured interviews, observational techniques, and archival research methods; laboratory and field experiments also are used on occasion. Data analysis is accomplished with both qualitative and quantitative techniques. Distinctions are drawn between individual behaviors, psychological structures, groups and other interpersonal systems, and culturally defined macrosocial structures and processes. Sociological social psychologists focus on the reciprocal causal influences between individual psychological structures and macrosocial structures and processes or those between psychological processes and ongoing interpersonal systems (Cook et al. 1995; Michener and DeLamater 1994).

Implicit in the explanatory constructs sociologists use in investigating patterns of social behavior are individual-level psychological constructs. The concept of culture, for example, frequently is defined in terms of shared normative expectations that are learned and transmitted in the course of social interaction. This definition implies subjective probabilities, evaluative judgments, and processes of symbolic communication through which normative expectations are transmitted and shared. Further, the substantive referents of culture relate to individual-level phenomena such as systems of values, beliefs, and perceptual orientations. In short, definitions of sociological explanatory constructs and the substantive referents of those constructs tend to be abstractions from individual-level psychological responses and systems, including those relating to cognition, affect, and goal orientation. A full understanding of most, if not all, sociological constructs depends on comprehension of the psychological responses and systems that the sociological constructs connote and from which the soiological concepts can be generalized.

The current state of social psychology is best understood through a description of the range of theoretical orientations and research methods used, the conceptual distinctions that are drawn, and the causal linkages that are investigated by representatives of the two social psychological traditions.


Social psychologists use a broad range of theoretical perspectives and research methods to study the reciprocal causal linkages between individual-level and social-level variables.

Theoretical Perspectives. Among the more frequently used theoretical perspectives are symbolic interactionism, role theory, exchange theory, and social learning theory.

Symbolic interactionism. From this perspective, people are perceived as acting toward others on the basis of the meaning those others and their behaviors have for the actors. Those meanings are derived and modified during social interaction in which people communicate with one another through the use of shared symbols. Symbolic interactionism encompasses the notion that people's ability to respond to themselves as objects permits them to communicate to themselves, through the use of symbols, the meanings that are given to people and objects by the persons who perceive them. Thus, people interpret the world to themselves and respond according to that interpretation. The interpretation of a situation occurs in the course of ongoing social interaction. In short, persons become objects to themselves, interact with themselves, and interpret to themselves ongoing events and objects in the environment.

Proponents of symbolic interactionism vary in the extent to which they focus on the influence of a stable social structure on these processes. Those who deny the significance of a social structure concentrate on the process of cognitive interpretation and the creative construction of behavior that grows out of a person's interpretation of the ongoing interactive situation. Appropriate to this emphasis, empirical investigations employ observation and in-depth interviewing to the exclusion of experimental and quantitative, nonexperimental methods (the Chicago School). Derivatives of this approach to symbolic interactionism include the dramaturgical school, in which the metaphor of the theater is used to study how people create impressions of themselves during face-to-face interaction, and ethnomethodology, in which theoretical perspective students study the implicit rules governing interaction in particular situation to understand how people construct reality through social interaction.

For those who focus on the significance of social structures to symbolic interaction, the meanings of the behaviors in social interaction depend on the relevance of those behaviors for the social-identity-related standards by which people evaluate themselves. Individuals interact within a framework that defines the social identities of the interacting parties and the normative expectations that are applicable to each identity as it relates to the other identities in that situation. The behaviors that have the most meaning are relevant for highly placed standards in a person's hierarchy of values. The more a behavior of a person or the others with whom he or she is interacting validates or contradicts the social identity (male, father) that is important to that person, the more meaningful that behavior will be to him or her. To the extent that the behaviors of others toward a person signify evaluatively significant aspects of the self, it is important to anticipate responses from others. The others whose responses are more likely to signify evaluatively relevant information about the self are significant others (Charon 1998; Couse 1977 Kaplan 1986; Michener and DeLamater 1994; Stephan and Stephan 1990).

Role theory. From this perspective, human social behavior is viewed in the context of people playing roles (that is, conforming to normative expectations) that apply to people who occupy various social positions and interact with people in complementary social positions. As individuals change from one social position to another in the course of a day, they play different roles (as a father, for example, and then as an employer). The roles individuals play also change as they interact with people in different positions (a professor interacting with a colleague, with the dean, and with a student). As people shift roles, they also change the ways in which they view the world, the attitudes they hold toward different phenomena, and their behaviors. Although people identify more with some roles than with others, their ability to play their preferred roles is limited by the contradictory demands made on them by the other roles they are called on to play (Biddle 1986; Turner, 1990).

Exchange theory. This perspective is relevant to the investigation of the conditions under which individuals enter into and maintain stable relationships. One is most likely to do this when the rewards gained from the relationship are perceived as high, the costs are low, and the reward–cost differential is favorable compared with the perceived alternatives. Rewards (power, prestige, material goods) and costs (interpersonal hostility, great expenditures of money, long hours of work) are defined by personal values. Attraction to relationships is also a function of the extent to which the participants perceive each other as receiving outcomes (rewards) that are appropriate to their inputs (costs). In the absence of such equity, the participants adjust their behavior or way of thinking in an attempt to restore the fact or appearance of equity in a relationship (Molm and Cook 1995; Stephan and Stephan 1990).

Social learning theory. This orientation addresses how individuals learn new responses that are appropriate in various social situations. The primary processes through which social learning occurs include conditioning, by which one acquires new responses through reinforcement (that is, the association of rewards and punishments with particular behaviors), and imitation, by which one observes the reinforcement elicited by another person's behavior (Bandura 1986; Taylor 1998).

Methods. Social psychological research employs a variety of methods, including social surveys, naturalistic observation, experiments, and analysis of archival data. Social surveys may be conducted by personal or telephone interviews or by self-administered questionnaires. For the most part, naturalistic observation involves observing ongoing activity in everyday settings (that is, field studies); in participant observation, the investigator plays an active role in the interaction. Experimental research involves the manipulation of independent variables to assess their effects on outcomes. Subjects are assigned at random to the independent conditions. The experiments may be conducted in the laboratory or in natural settings; in the latter case, the experimenter has less control over theoretically irrelevant variables but the experimental conditions are more realistic for the subjects. Archival research involves the use of existing data to test hypotheses. In some instances, the data can be used exactly as they appear, as with some statistical data. In other instances, such as newspaper stories, the data must be converted into another form, for example, for use in content analysis, which involves categorizing and counting particular occurrences (Cook et al. 1995; Gilbert et al. 1998; Michener and DeLamater 1994).


The pursuit of the goals of social psychology by scientists from psychological and sociological traditions has entailed the differentiation between concepts at the individual level and the social level.

Individual-Level Concepts. Social psychologists have focused on dynamic psychological structures, intrapsychic responses, and individual behaviors as outcomes of or influences on social structures and processes.

Psychological structures. At the individual level, psychological structures have been represented as dynamic organizations of dispositions to respond at the intrapsychic level or the behavioral level. More inclusive concepts, such as the personality, reflect the organization of psychological dispositions in terms of a structure of relatively stable cognitive, evaluative, affective, and behavioral tendencies. The concept of the person has been understood in terms of a structure of predispositions to respond at the intrapsychic or behavioral level that are organized around a hierarchically related system of situationally defined social identities. The self has been treated as an inclusive structure of dispositions to respond reflexively at the cognitive, evaluative, affective, and behavioral levels. Less inclusive structures refer to organizations of particular psychological dispositions, such as personal value systems, treated as the hierarchy of situationally applicable criteria for self-evaluation; the structure of attitudes or generalized evaluative responses; and the system of concepts and schemas (structures of related concepts) a person uses to order stimuli (Kaplan 1986).

These structures are treated as components that are related to one another in a stable dynamic equilibrium and at the same time as having the potential to change. The structures of predispositions, when stimulated by internal or external cues, respond at the intrapsychic level or the behavioral level. The predispositions are inferred from the observed behaviors and self-reports of intrapsychic responses to recurrent stimuli in particular situations.

Intrapsychic responses. These are cognitive (including awareness and conceptual structuring), evaluative, and affective (or emotional) responses to contemporary stimuli, including one's own or others' behaviors in particular situational contexts. The current situation may stimulate one to attend to particular aspects of oneself, classify others in terms of group-membership concepts, attribute others' failures to external rather than internal causes, evaluate oneself as a failure, or experience attraction to other people. Intrapsychic responses are inferred from one's perceptible behaviors or self-reports of percepts, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings relating to the current situation.

Behavior. Individual behavior refers to the class of responses that are perceptible to others as well as to oneself. Behavior is distinguished from intrapsychic responses and the stable organization of dispositions to respond (person or personality) that are perceptible only to the self. Behavior includes purposive or unintended communications about oneself or others, helping and hurtful responses, affiliation and disaffiliation with other individuals or groups, conformity to or deviation from one's own or others' expectations, cooperation and competition, positive and negative sanctioning of one's own or others' behaviors, and the myriad other perceptible responses one may make to oneself, others, or other aspects of one's environment (Kaplan 1986; Michener and DeLamater 1994; Stephan and Stephan 1990). Behavior is conceptualized as the outcome of socially influenced psychological structures and intrapsychic processes and as influencing social-level variables.

Social-Level Concepts. These concepts include interpersonal systems and culturally defined macrosocial structures.

Interpersonal systems. Interpersonal systems are defined as those in which two or more individuals interact with each other or otherwise influence each other over a brief or extended period. The interaction or mutual influence is governed by shared normative expectations that define appropriate behavior for individuals who occupy complementary or common social positions in the course of the interaction or mutual influence. The shared expectations may exist before participation in the interpersonal system and reflect the common culturally defined macrosocial structure or may be refined or emerge during the ongoing social interaction or mutual influence in response to the unique characteristics of the interacting individuals or other situational demands. The social positions a person occupies and the interpersonal systems in which a person participates as a consequence may be given at birth or may be adopted later in life according to stage in the life cycle and current situational demands. Interpersonal systems include interpersonal relationships, groups, and collective forms.

Interpersonal relationships are those in which two individuals have an ongoing interaction that is governed by their shared normative expectations. These expectations are derived from social definitions that delineate appropriate behavior for people occupying the social positions that characterize the individuals and emerge in the course of the ongoing social interaction. For example, a married couple's shared expectations depend on a common understanding of the obligations and rights of a husband and a wife in relation to each other, and the same is true of friends; in addition, in the course of social interaction, specific evaluative expectations regarding what each person in the relationship will and should do in various circumstances develop. Individuals may interact with one another in the capacity of having the same status (such as group member or friend) or complementary statuses (such as husband and wife) or in the capacity of representing conflicting or cooperating groups. Relationships develop through predictable stages. Intimate relationships develop from the awareness of available partners, to contact with those who are thought to be desirable, to various stages of emotional involvement. The accompanying increases in emotional involvement represent increases in self-disclosure, trust, and mutual dependence (Berscheid and Reis 1998; Michener and DeLamater 1994).

A group consists of a number of individuals in ongoing interaction who share a set of normative expectations that govern the behavior of the members in relation to one another. Normative expectations may refer uniformly to all group members as they interact with one another and with nongroup members or to different individuals in their various social relational contexts. Individuals share an identity as members of a group as well as common goals; these goals may include the personal satisfaction gained from the intrinsically or instrumentally satisfying intragroup relationship or from a group identity that evokes favorable responses from extragroup systems. Group members may share norms from the outset and refine or change their expectations over time, or the norms may emerge in the course of member interaction. Groups include friendship networks, work groups, schools, families, voluntary associations, and other naturally occurring or purposively formed ad hoc associations. Groups vary in size, stability, the degree to which interaction among the members is regulated by preexisting role definitions, and complexity of role differentiation as well as the extent to which a group is embedded in more inclusive groups. Groups also vary according to whether the gratifications achieved from participation in a group are intrinsic to the social relationships and are diffuse as opposed to instrumental to the achievement of other ends and delimited.

Over the course of time, groups develop structures characterized by status hierarchies and functional role differentiation, or those structures may be predefined for new members. Status hierarchies reflect the values placed by group members on positions within the group. The individuals who occupy those positions are more or less esteemed depending on the valuation (status) of a position. Individuals who have higher-status positions and are consequently more highly esteemed ordinarily receive greater rewards (as these are defined by group members) and exercise greater influence over group decisions. In formal groups, functional differentiation is indicated by the formal role definitions associated with the various social positions that make up a group. In informal groups, over time some individuals come to be expected to perform certain functions, such as leading the group toward solving a problem (the task leader) or accepting responsibility for relieving tensions and maintaining group solidarity (the social-emotional leader) (Levine and Moreland 1998; Ridgeway and Walker 1995).

Collective forms include publics, audiences, crowds, and social movements. Collective forms are characterized by the mutual influence of individuals in responding cognitively, affectively, and behaviorally to a common focus. Individuals are undifferentiated according to social position: They share the social position defined by their common attention to an idea, person, object, or behavior. The common stimulus, previously learned dispositions to respond to that stimulus, and mutual influences through social contagion, social observation, and emergent norms that govern mood, action, and imagery lead to collective behaviors. Collective behaviors by large numbers of individuals who are not physically proximate in response to mass media and interpersonal stimulation include mass expressions of attitudes (public opinion), attraction (fads, fashions, crazes), and anxiety (panics). Crowd behaviors are collective responses by large numbers of physically proximate individuals who are influenced by social contagion, observation, and the resultant emergent norms. Social movements are expressions of dispositions to behave similarly with regard to a social issue (Michener and DeLamater 1994).

Culturally defined macrosocial structures. The inclusive sociocultural structure provides shared meanings and defines relationships among individuals depending on their social positions or identities in a situation. The social structure is made up of the stable relationships between social positions or identities that are culturally defined in terms of the rights and obligations people who occupy one position have in interacting with people who occupy another position. In the course of the socialization process, individuals learn the rights and obligations that apply to those who occupy the various social positions, and those rights and obligations constitute the role that defines a social position. The inclusive social structure is a system consisting of components that are related to one another in a relatively stable dynamic equilibrium but may change over time as changes in structural positions and their role definitions become prevalent in interpersonal settings throughout the society. The culturally defined inclusive macrosocial structure encompasses systems of stratification, social differentiation according to race or ethnicity, and major social institutions as well as other consensually defined social structures (Kerckhoff 1995).


Within a social psychological framework, a person's psychological structure, intrapsychic responses, and behaviors are viewed in terms of the profound influence exerted on that person by his or her past and continuing participation in interpersonal and social systems. In turn, the person behaves in ways that have consequences for the interpersonal systems and social structures in which he or she participates. Implicit in this framework is a general causal model. Social structural arrangements define systems of shared meanings that in turn define the role expectations that govern behavior in interpersonal systems. A person is born into functioning interpersonal systems and throughout the life cycle participates in other interpersonal systems that together reflect culturally defined macrosocial structures and processes. In the course of a person's life in the context of dynamically evolving interlocking interpersonal systems, biogenetically given capabilities are actualized; the person learns to view the world through a system of concepts, internalizes needs, symbolizes those needs as values, accepts social identities, and develops emotional cognitive and behavioral dispositions to respond. These relatively stable psychological structures are stimulated by contemporary social situations that have symbolic significance for the individual and thus evoke predictable personal responses. Over time, the same social situations stimulate personal change.

The development of language skills, along with a person's experiences as the object of others' responses to him or her in the course of the socialization process, influences the development of a person's tendencies to become aware of, conceive of, evaluate, and have feelings about herself or himself as well as dispositions to behave in ways that are motivated by the need to protect or enhance the self. The nature of a person's responses to herself or himself are influenced by past and present social experiences. Those responses in turn influence the relationships and groups in which a person participates and indirectly influence the more inclusive social system, thus intervening between social influences on the person and her or his influence on interpersonal systems and the culturally defined social structure (Corsaro and Eder 1995; Fiske et al. 1998; Elder and O'Rand 1995; Kaplan 1995; Kerckhoff 1995; Krauss and Chiu 1998; Maynard and Whalen 1995; Miller-Loessi 1995).

The substantive concerns of social psychological theory and research reflect detailed consideration of these general processes. These concerns address (1) the influence of culturally defined macrosocial structures and processes or interpersonal systems on psychological structures, intrapsychic responses, and individual behaviors or (2) the influence of psychological structures, intrapsychic responses, and individual behaviors on interpersonal systems and culturally defined macrosocial structures and processes.

Social Influences on Psychological Structures. Substantive concerns with social influences on individual psychological structures, intrapsychic responses, and behaviors have focused on long-term social structural influences through socialization processes and contemporary interpersonal influences in interpersonal settings.

Social structural effects. Social structural arrangements define the content, effectiveness, and style of the socialization experience and thus influence a person's psychological structures. Individuals occupy social positions by being born into them or achieving them later in life. Each social position is defined in terms of role expectations that specify appropriate behavior for people who occupy that position in the context of particular relationships. As a result of occupying positions, people become part of interpersonal systems that consist of themselves and those who occupy complementary positions. In these relationships and groups people become socialized. Socialization is the lifelong process through which an individual learns and becomes motivated to conform to the norms defining the social roles that are played or might be played in the future that individual and those with whom she or he interacts. Socialization occurs in a variety of social contexts, including the family, school, play groups, and work groups, through the experience of rewards and punishment consequent to performing behaviors, observation of the consequences of behaviors for others, direct and intended instruction by others, and self-reinforcement. The acquisition of language skills permits one to be rewarded and punished through the use of symbolic responses, communicate with others about the appropriateness of different responses, and reinforce responses through the process of becoming an object to oneself and disapproving or approving of one's past or anticipated behaviors. The cognitive structures used in coding and processing information about one's own behavior and the hierarchy of self-evaluative criteria also are learned in the course of socialization.

The content of role definitions and the centrality of particular roles for a person's identity structure depend on stage in the life cycle, role definitions associated with other social positions, and the historical era. The roles that are most central to a person's identity and contribute most to self-esteem depend on that person's position in the social structure, including age and gender. During a particular historical period, for example, men may base their self-esteem more on success in the occupational sphere whereas women in the same stage of life base theirs on adequate performance of family roles.

The effectiveness of the socialization process is influenced by more or less invariant Developmental stages of cognitive and emotional development in interaction with the varying demands made on the individual at various stages in life as well as by discrepancies between the demands made on a person and the resources that would permit her or him to meet those demands (Corsaro and Eder 1995; Elder and O'Rand 1995; Miller-Loessi 1995).

The social structure affects the style of the socialization process as well. Higher-socioeconomic-status parents are more likely than are lower-class parents to base rewards and punishment on a child's intentions than on actual behavior and to rely on reasoning and the induction of shame and guilt rather than physical punishment. As a family becomes larger, parents are more likely to exercise autocratic parenting styles, while children elicit less attention from parents and develop more independence (Michener and DeLamater 1994).

The end result of the social-structure-influenced socialization process is the development of psychological structures that are stimulated by social-identity-related situations or are evoked more generally in the course of social interaction. Depending on whether persons are born into male or female social positions, they develop different achievement orientations and evaluate themselves in accordance with the success their in approximating the standards of achievement they set for themselves. Individuals in higher socioeconomic classes tend to value a sense of accomplishment and family security more highly than do those with lower socioeconomic status, who tend to put more emphasis on a comfortable life and hope of salvation. More specifically, individuals who are born into a higher social class are more likely to be socialized to value educational achievement and aspire to higher levels of education. Those who achieve at higher levels in school are more likely to interact with others who respond to them in ways that reinforce academically oriented self-images and values that reflect an achievement orientation. Individuals whose occupational status involves self-direction tend to develop a high valuation of responsibility, curiosity, and good sense, while those in occupational positions characterized by close supervision, routine activities, and low levels of complexity in work tasks tend to develop a high valuation of conformity (Heiss 1981; House 1981; Kohn et al. 1983; Rokeach 1973; Sewell and Hauser 1980).

In general, in the course of socialization people become disposed to identify others in their environment, anticipate their responses, imagine aspects of themselves as eliciting those responses, behave in ways calculated to elicit those responses, and value the responses of others and the aspects of the self that elicit those responses. Radical resocialization, by which an individual unlearns lifelong patterns and learns new attitudes, values, and behaviors, may occur in circumstances in which the agents of socialization have uniform and total control over the individual's outcomes, as in some psychiatric hospitals, penal institutions, traditional military academies, and prisoner-of-war camps (Goffman 1961).

Interpersonal effects. The contemporary interpersonal context stimulates self-conceptions and self-evaluative, affective, and behavioral responses. Each social situation provides participants with physical cues that allow them to make inferences about the social identities of the other participants, the role expectations each person holds of the others, and the perceived causes of the behaviors of the interacting parties. These conceptions regarding the situated identities are in part responses to the demand characteristics of the situation and in part the outcomes of the need of one party to project a particular social identity on the other person so that the first party can play a desired complementary role (Alexander and Wiley 1981). The situational context provides symbolic cues that specify the relevance of particular traits, behaviors, or experiences for one's current situation; it also provides a basis for comparing one's characteristics with those of other people.

The current social situation defines the relevance of some self-evaluative standards rather than others. The presence of other people, cameras, or mirrors makes people more self-aware and thus stimulates their disposition to evaluate themselves. Certain responses of others (sanctions), in addition to constituting intrinsically value-relevant responses, communicate to persons the degree to which they have approximated self-evaluative standards. In the early stages of development of a group, individuals may be assigned higher-status positions on the basis of status characteristics (such as those relating to age, sex, ethnicity, and physical attractiveness) that have evaluative significance in the more inclusive society. Although these characteristics may not be relevant to the ability to perform the functions for which the group exists, the high valuation of these status characteristics may lead to the assignment of individuals to high-status positions in the group through a process of status generalization (Berger et al. 1989; Ridgeway and Walker 1995). As a consequence of culturally defined preconceptions regarding the merits of various status characteristics, persons with those characteristics are expected to perform better on a group task.

With regard to affective responses, social stimuli evoke physiological reactions that are labeled as specific emotional states, depending on the cues provided by social circumstances (Kelley and Michela 1980). In turn, individuals who label an experience as a particular emotional state selectively perceive bodily sensations as cues that validate that experience (Leventhal 1980; Pennebaker 1980). Social stimuli that evoke psychological distress include contexts in which a person is unable to fulfill role requirements because of the absence of personal and interpersonal resources and the presence of situational barriers to fulfilling the obligations associated with the social positions that person occupies. Other such stimuli are represented by intrinsically distressing aspects of social positions. People may be distressed not only because they cannot do their jobs well but also because of the absence of meaning that their jobs have for them and because of other noxious circumstances correlated with the position (time pressures, noise, lack of autonomy, conflicting expectations) (Kaplan 1996).

Situational contexts define expectations regarding appropriate and otherwise attractive behavior and thus stimulate behavior that anticipates fulfillment of the expectations and achievement of the goals (including avoidance of noxious states such as social reception). In collective forms of interpersonal systems, emergent norms govern actions as well as moods and imagery for publics and crowds and so lead to mass behaviors such as crazes and panics and crowd behaviors such as rioting. The motivation for participation in social movements is influenced by expectations regarding the value and likelihood of the success of a movement (Michener and DeLamater 1994).

In interpersonal relationships as well, shared expectations govern attraction to others, helping behavior, and aggressive behavior. An individual tends to be attracted to those with whom interaction is facilitated, those who are characterized by socially appropriate and desirable traits (including physical attributes), those who share tastes with and are otherwise like that individual, those who manifest liking for him or her, and in general those who may be expected to occasion rewarding outcomes. Helping behavior is evoked by situational demand characteristics, such as role definitions that define helping behavior as appropriate for people who occupy particular social positions, or by interpersonal expectations that helping behavior by the other person should be reciprocated. The likelihood of conforming to these situational demand characteristics increases when a person perceives that the rewards for doing so will be forthcoming (including personal satisfaction in helping others, a sense of fulfillment in doing what one is called on to do, and approval by others) and that failure to do so will bring negative sanctions (social disapproval, a self-evaluation of having failed to do the right thing). Conformity to demand characteristics that require helping behavior may be impeded if a person perceives that it would involve costs, such as hindering the achievement of other goals. The awareness of potential rewards or costs for engaging or failing to engage in helping behavior is facilitated by situational characteristics such as the presence of observers and circumstances that produce self-awareness. The need to help others is increased by experiences that evoke negative self-evaluations. The resulting negative self-feelings motivate helping behavior as a way of improving one's self-evaluation (Michener and DeLamater 1994).

Aggressive behavior may arise in response to situational demand characteristics such as perceiving oneself as playing a role that requires aggressive behavior either as a response to intentional aggressive behavior directed toward one by others or simply as a communication of an aggressive stance. Reinforcement by rewards increases the frequency or continuity of aggressive patterns. Rewarding outcomes of aggression include the related rewards of social approval, an improved position in the prestige hierarchy of the group, self-approval, and material gain. Individuals are inhibited from engaging in aggressive behavior when they perceive the act as contrary to normatively proscribed roles or otherwise anticipate adverse consequences of the behavior. These inhibiting effects may be obviated by the reduced self-awareness that results from being part of a crowd, for example, or by the administration of psychotropic drugs (Bandura 1973; Baron 1977; Kaplan 1972; Singer 1971).

In group contexts, role definitions and influences on self-awareness affect individual behavior. The assignment of individuals to higher-status positions in a group and concomitant expectations of higher levels of performance or of the adoption of particular functional roles frequently motivate people to conform to those expectations or lead to the provision of resources that permit them to do so (Berger et al. 1989). When socially induced self-awareness causes people to attend to public aspects of themselves, they tend to be responsive to group influences. When self-awareness causes them to attend to their personal standards, they tend to direct their behavior to conform with those values even when they conflict with group standards. Thus, exposure to cameras induces public self-awareness and increases social conformity, while exposure to mirrors evokes private self-awareness and an increase in self-direction (Scheier and Carver 1983).

The effects of social stimuli on deviant, as opposed to conforming, behavior have been addressed from a variety of theoretical frameworks, including structured strain theory, differential association and deviant subculture theories, control theory, self-theory, and the labeling perspective. Attempts to integrate or elaborate any of these approaches encompass the following ideas (Gibbs 1981; Hollander 1975; Kaplan 1984; Messner et al. 1989; Moscovici 1985). First, individuals who experience rejection and failure in conventional social groups lose their motivation to conform to conventional norms and are motivated to deviate from those norms. At the same time, these individuals are disposed to seek alternative deviant patterns to attain or restore feelings of self-worth. Second, individuals who participate in groups that endorse behaviors that are be defined as deviant in other groups (whether because they seek alternative deviant patterns through which they can improve self-worth or because of long-term identification with a deviant subculture) positively value the "deviant" patterns and are provided with opportunities and the resources to engage in the deviant behavior. Third, individuals with the motivation and opportunity to engage in deviant behavior are deterred by anticipated negative responses from groups that define that behavior as deviant and to which they remain emotionally bonded. Individuals tend to conform to the normative expectations of a group to the extent that they are made aware of the deviant nature of their behavior or attributes, are attracted to the group and therefore are highly vulnerable to the sanctions the group may administer for deviant behavior, are prevented from leaving the group and so freeing themselves from vulnerability to the group's negative sanctions, identify with the group and thus adopt its normative standards, and internalize the normative standards and regard conformity as intrinsically valuable. Fourth, individuals who evoke negative social sanctions in response to initial deviance continue or increase the level of deviant behavior as a result of the effects of the negative social sanctions on increased alienation from the conventional group, increased association with deviant peers, and increased motivation to justify the initial deviance by more highly evaluating a deviant act. Continuity or escalation of deviant behavior also is likely to occur if motives that ordinarily inhibit the performance of deviant acts are weakened and if a person perceives an association between the deviant behavior and satisfaction of preexisting needs (including the need to enhance one's self-esteem).

Psychological Influences on Social Systems. The consequences of socially influenced psychological processes may be observed at the interpersonal level and at the more inclusive, culturally defined macrosocial-structure level (Kaplan 1986).

Interpersonal systems. Intrapsychic responses and behaviors influence interpersonal systems in a wide variety of ways. Among the more salient consequences are those relating to the stability and functioning of groups, intragroup influences, group membership, and intergroup relationships.

Individuals affect both the stability and the functioning of their groups through their behavior. The stability of a group is enhanced to the extent that individuals conform to the expectations other people have of them and thus validate those expectations. An individual contributes to group functioning by playing the roles other people expect her or him to play in the group, permitting others to play their complementary roles. Conformity is influenced by the need for self-approval and the approval of others when the criteria for approval are the group standards. If personal and group standards reflect the value of scholarship, individuals may study hard; if approximation to the standards of a particular social identity (such as male) is a salient basis for self-evaluation, people strive to conform to what they perceive as the role expectations associated with that position. More generally, persons may evaluate themselves in terms of conforming to others' expectations. A salient value may be to evoke approving responses from others. To that end, a person may behave in number of ways, including conforming to others' expectations and presenting oneself to others in ways calculated to evoke approving responses. However, a person will strive to conform to group standards in order to approximate self-values only to the extent that success or failure is attributed to the degree of personal effort rather than to circumstances (Kaplan 1995). Conformity is also an outcome of the need for others' approval. In a group in which the members are highly attracted to the group, conformity to group norms, including those related to productivity, is high. In such cohesive groups, members have greater power over one another than they do in groups where the individuals are less attracted to and dependent on the group (Cartwright and Zander 1968; Cialdini and Frost 1998; Hare 1976). The need for others' approval is reflected in the use of disclaimers and excuses to mitigate others' responses to personal behaviors (Hewitt and Stokes 1975; Karp and Ybels 1986; Spencer 1987). A perceived threat to the group increases members' attraction to the group and conformity to shared norms while decreasing tolerance of deviance.

Interpersonal influence occurs through the use of both overt and covert behaviors. Overt methods of persuasion include the use of information or arguments, the offering of rewards, and the threat of punishment. Covert attempts to influence others are reflected in self-presentation in order to create the impression of oneself as likable or in other ways to manipulate the impression others have of one. Attempts at persuasion are more or less effective depending on the characteristics of the source of the communication, the message itself, and the target of the communication. For example, communications are more persuasive if they come from a number of independent sources each of which is perceived to be expert, trustworthy, or otherwise attractive to the target of the communication, than they are if they occur in mutually exclusive circumstances. The effectiveness of threats and promises in influencing others depends on the magnitude and certainty of the proffered rewards and punishments. When the parties involved in the influence process all have the capacity to reward or punish one another, changes in opinions or behaviors are influenced by bargaining and negotiation processes. Among the possible outcomes, depending on a number of circumstances, are mutual influence, escalation of conflict, accommodation of one person to the demands of the other, and failure of the parties to agree (Michener and DeLamater 1994). In the course of group interaction, individuals develop more extreme attitudes than they held as individuals. This may be due to the pooling of arguments, which adds new reasons for the initially held attitude, or to the social support provided by other group members, which permits the person to be more extreme in his or her opinions with less fear of group rejection (Brandstatter et al. 1982).

Persons are motivated to present themselves in ways that evoke desired responses from others. This is accomplished through a variety of tactics. A significant feature of self-presentation is an individual's social identity in a situation. By projecting a particular identity, the individual effectively imposes complementary identities on others; if the other people perform the roles associated with those identities, they in effect endorse the identity that the individual wishes to project. This imposition of social identities on others (altercasting) has the desirable effect of affirming the social identity the individual wishes to project. For example, by complying with a reason's demands or following her or his lead, the others affirm that person's position of authority or leadership. In addition, people's favorable responses are intrinsically valued, other rewarding outcomes are contingent on them, and they indicate to a person that her of his public image reflects her or his personal ideals. Self-presentation may be used to create false as well as true images of oneself. The creation of false images (impression management) also is used to evoke responses from others that serve one's personal needs. Tactics involving the false presentation of self include pretenses that one admires other individuals or share their opinions and presenting oneself as if one had admirable qualities that one does not in fact possess (Baumeister 1982; Tedeschi 1981).

The attraction and maintenance of group membership are a function of the perception by members that group participation is intrinsically desirable or instrumental to the achievement of shared or individually defined goals (Evans and Jarvis 1980). Relationships, as well as larger groups, grow and become resistant to dissolution as the partners become increasingly dependent on each other for need satisfaction, which may lie in the relationship itself or in the role the partner plays in facilitating the satisfaction of other needs outside the relationship (that is, by providing social support). Primary relationships dissolve to the extent that the costs come to exceed the rewards—whether in absolute terms or relative to the cost-benefit ratio that may be obtained from alternative relationships—and to the extent that the costs of remaining in the relationship outweigh the costs (including social disapproval) associated with terminating it (Cialdini and Frost 1998; Kelley and Thibaut 1978; Kerckhoff 1974). Among the costs are perceptions of inequity. Group members tend to compare the relationship between their own contributions to the group and the rewards they receive with other members' contributions and rewards. Judgments of inequity are made when members perceive rewards to be out of proportion to contributions. Judgments that inequitable states exist stimulate responses to reduce the inequity or at least the perception of the inequity. The inability to redress or tolerate inequitable relationships may lead to eschewing membership in a group (Walster et al. 1978). In general, people select group memberships, when they have a choice, and maintain them in accordance with their value in facilitating self-approving responses. People maintain relationships by whose standards they may evaluate themselves positively and tend not to associate with groups by whose standards they would be considered failures (Kaplan 1986).

The nature of the responses that groups evoke from nonmembers is influenced by the nonmembers' perceptions, evaluations, and feelings toward themselves and others. Negative emotions, such as anger, and consequent aggressive behavior may be directed toward groups when individuals' interests cannot be served except at the cost of frustration of the objectives of another group or when individuals associate the other group with past experiences of failure. Among the benefits persons may experience at the cost of the other group's outcomes is increased self-esteem. Aggressive behavior directed toward others deflects anger that might have been directed toward oneself. When the basis of one's feelings of accomplishment are judged relative to the achievements of another group, aggressive behaviors that lead to the failure or destruction of the other group enhance feelings of pride in one's own group. Stronger levels of identification with one's group or social category increase the need to enhance one's group identity at the cost of adverse outcomes for other groups (Bobo 1983; LeVine and Campbell 1972; Worchel and Austin 1986). The tendency to devalue others as they deviate from one's own group's standards increases the justification for negative attitudes and hostile actions toward the other group. The need to justify aggressive attitudes toward another group also frequently leads to biased perceptions that reinforce or validate preexisting attitudes toward that group. Reversal of the process is impeded by the decreases in communication that accompany negative attitudes toward that group. Frequent experiences of observing aggressive responses desensitize a person to the effects of these responses and establish a normative judgment that they are within the expected range of responses.

Other individuals or groups may be the objects of helping behavior, depending on the actor's intrapsychic responses. Negative affect (particularly negative self-feelings) decreases helping behavior by focusing attention inward and away from the plight of other individuals. Thus, some individuals are less likely to empathize with or even be aware of others' needs. At the same time, distressful self-feelings motivate an individual to behave in ways that will earn self-approval. Helping behavior may serve this function by fulfilling others' expectation that helping behavior be offered, conforming to role definitions of helping behavior as appropriate for particular social identities, and conforming to self-values regarding altruistic behavior and thus compensating for feelings of rejection and failure (Dovidio 1984).

Macrosocial structures . Psychological structures, intrapsychic responses, and behaviors influence the substance of the social structure at any given time and social change over time. Dimensions of personality that reflect evaluative standards affect the positions an individual has in the social structure. High value placed on educational attainment and achievement orientation lead ultimately to educational achievement and high occupational status. Similarly, studies of the relationship between the occupational structure and personality suggest that workers may be selected into jobs because of the fit between their personality characteristics and the requirements of the work situation (Kerckhoff 1989). Individuals who value self-direction select occupations that permit the exercise of self-direction, that is, ones that involve less routine, more complex tasks, and low levels of supervision. Persons who place a high value on conformity tend to opt for occupations that are closely supervised, routine, and noncomplex.

The effects of persons as products of past socialization experiences and as stimulated by contemporary social situations on interpersonal social systems and the more inclusive social structure are mediated by the responses of those persons to themselves. An individual influences the current and future functioning of interpersonal systems by becoming self-aware and conceiving of the self in particular ways, evaluating the self as more or less closely approximating personal standards, and experiencing self-feelings that stimulate self-protective and self-enhancing responses, some of which directly and indirectly affect the functioning of the interpersonal or social systems in which that individual participates.

If a person fails to behave in ways that meet self-imposed demands, that person will experience negative self-feelings that motivate him or her to behave in ways that will reduce the self-rejecting feelings. If the person identifies the self-rejecting experiences with particular social identities, she or he may reject the group and define it as a negative reference group, overidentify with the group and reevaluate formerly denigrated attributes as desirable ones, or project undesirable characteristics onto other groups or social categories and act with hostility toward them. Negative self-feelings also may lead to reduced levels of socioeconomic aspirations, occupational change, withdrawal from political participation or association with political activism, and changes in patterns of religious affiliation and participation (Kaplan 1986; Rosenberg and Kaplan 1982). If the circumstances that hinder a person from behaving in ways that earn self-approval and the self-protective responses they stimulate are widespread, the inclusive social structure will be affected. The person's responses directly affect interpersonal systems, that is, individuals who interact in the context of social relationships and groups that are governed by shared situation-specific, identity-specific, or person-specific expectations. If the individual is motivated to withdraw from or otherwise disrupt the functioning of the interpersonal systems in which she or he participates, the functioning of the other individuals will be similarly disrupted, since others' performance is contingent on the individual's conformity to their expectations. However, the functioning of the interpersonal system willbe facilitated if the individual is motivated to conform to the normative expectations that the participants in the interaction situation view as applicable to the person in that particular situational context. If the disposition to deviate from normative expectations is prevalent, disruptions of social relationships will be widespread and the social structure will be less resistant to changes in patterns of response over time. While widespread conformity to shared expectations in particular social contexts has stabilizing influences on the broader social structure, widespread innovation or deviation from them influences the development of new social structural arrangements and definitions.

(see also: Affect Control Theory and Impression Formation; Aggression; Attitudes; Attribution Theory; Behaviorism; Cognitive Consistency Theories; Collective Behavior; Decision-Making Theory and Research; Extreme Influence; Field Theory; Game Theory and Strategic Interaction; Identity Theory; Intelligence; Interpersonal Attraction; Personality and Social Structure; Personality Theory; Persuasion; Prejudice; Role Theory; Self-Concept; Small Groups; Social Perception; Socialization; Symbolic Interaction Theory)


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Howard B. Kaplan

Social Psychology

views updated May 18 2018

Social Psychology








Social psychology is the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another. By studying social thinking, social psychologists examine how, and how accurately, we view ourselves and others. By studying social influence, social psychologists examine subtle forces related to conformity, persuasion, and group influence that pull our strings. By studying social relations, social psychologists examine what leads people to hate and hurt one another, or to love and help one another.

Social psychology as a field lies between personality psychology and sociology. Metaphorically speaking, personality psychologists study boats, sociologists study the ocean, and social psychologists study how those boats float. When a person (boat) arrives in an environment (ocean), social psychologists want to understand how they move on the winds and currents.

Social psychology considers many of the same questions as those sociology considers but favors answers that focus on the individual actors (such as the way they perceive their situations) rather than on answers that apply to the group level (such as poverty or family cohesion). It is also distinct from personality psychology, being less interested in individual differences (such as in aggressiveness or unhappiness), though it often considers individual differences that interact with situations (such as when a person with high self-esteem responds to a relationship threat by liking his or her partner more).

Compared to other social sciences, social psychology has few grand theories or revered old masters; it has no Freud or Durkheim. Instead it interweaves smaller, more focused studies that cover topics as diverse as the self, culture, persuasion, group dynamics, prejudice, and eyewitness identification. Despite its enormous scope, social psychology has several themes running through it, including:

  • We construct our social reality
  • Our social intuitions are often powerful but sometimes perilous
  • Social influences shape our behavior
  • Personal attitudes and dispositions also shape behavior
  • Social behavior is also biological behavior
  • Social psychologys principles are applicable in everyday life

As practiced in North America, social psychology is overwhelmingly experimental. It has also exhibited a willingness to engage social issues such as prejudice, violence, and public health.


Norman Tripletts 1898 experiments are generally regarded as the first social psychological studies. He showed that people would wind reels faster when others were present, an effect now referred to as social facilitation. Social psychology remained a small field until World War II, at which point the U.S. Armys sudden interest in personnel selection and stress responses led it to sponsor some highly innovative work. In the decade after the war the field exploded: Gordon Allport wrote an enormously influential book called The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Solomon Asch (1951) conducted experiments on conformity, Stanley Milgram (1974) conducted his famous experiments inducing people to give supposedly powerful electric shocks to a mild-mannered man, and Leon Festinger (1957) proposed his influential cognitive dissonance theory.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, social psychology was dominated by a cognitive perspective that asked how we process social information. During the 1990s and beyond, it also has had a growing interest in warmer motivational processes and broad cultural influences.


Modern social psychology favors experimental research, with many published articles describing two to seven experiments or quasi-experiments that explore and refine some central idea. Correlational studies are also used, but often given short shrift in favor of experimental evidence. The field also puts great stock in meta-analyses that combine many previous empirical studies. Experiments use diverse manipulations, ranging from the subliminal presentation of words, to interaction with confederates, to false feedback on IQ tests.

Social psychological research is now subject to oversight by institutional review boards that safeguard ethical standards. While these are widely regarded as necessary in light of the ethical controversies that centered on some prominent early studies, social psychological experiments are almost never, in any real sense, hazardous.


Psychologists separate affect (emotions), from behavior, from cognition (thoughts), then study how they interact. Affect has broad consequences. People who are in a good mood tolerate more frustration, choose long-term rewards over immediate small payoffs, and see others in a more optimistic light. A growing movement in psychology known as positive psychology focuses specifically on well-being and how it can be enhanced.

Attitudes, in social psychological parlance, are the affect people bear toward some object or activity. Social psychologists study how attitudes form and change, how strong and durable they are, and how much they predict actual behavior. The answer to the latter question, under many circumstances, is somewhat, but not as much as you might think.

Since the 1980s cognition has increasingly become a focal point for social psychologists. They study when cognitions are activated (come to mind), how they are organized into schemas, and when people are motivated to think things through systematically as opposed to using heuristic mental shortcuts. Some influential models, such as the theory of reasoned action, describe how a persons beliefs about an object (its big, loud, and emits black smoke) are combined to produce an overall attitude (I hate it).

Affect and cognitions influence behavior, but behavior can also influence affect and cognition. Under the right conditions, both saying and doing can lead to belief (if you say that you like something enough, or just keep buying it, and you might really end up liking it). Even just arranging your face muscles into the shape of a smile can make you feel happier.

Although affect, behavior, and cognition are social psychologists central organizing principles, other parts of the mind have also been of interest, such as memory and physiological arousal. The self is an enormous area of study, encompassing thoughts about who one is (self-concept or identity) and attitudes toward oneself (self-esteem).

People organize knowledge about themselves into well-integrated pictures, or self schemas, that help them quickly sift and sort the world. People better remember things that are relevant to their self schema, and spontaneously make social comparisons between themselves and others. Self-serving biases describe the ways we distort the world to make ourselves look better (for example, by taking more responsibility for our successes than our failures). Self-monitoring describes peoples tendency to engage in impression managementaltering their social identity to fit different roles in different places (friend at school, son at home, employee at the office). Manipulations that affect peoples self-awareness (the presence of mirrors, seeing ones own name) encourage people to act more in line with their stated attitudes.


Scholars have devoted much attention to social influencethe ways in which individuals and groups come to change others thinking or behavior. Early dramatic studies showed that people seemed remarkably vulnerable to social influence. In Aschs famous experiment, they doubted their own eyes when others claimed to see things that were patently untrue, and in Milgrams experiment, they gave extremely painful electrical shocks on command. People can, however, resist social influence. Even in these seminal studies compliance was far from universal, and rates of conformity were rapidly deflated by small changes, such as a lack of unanimity among influencers and a greater distance from authority figures. Much work has gone into who conforms to what, when, and why, with several important factors identified in the study of persuasion. These include who (attractive person, authority figure) says what (reasoned vs. emotional message, one- or two-sided appeals) to whom (audience pays close attention or not).

In the 1990s social psychologists started directing their attention more towards warm or motivated cognitionpeoples attempts to arrive at the answers they would like to. People bring this convenient brand of reasoning to many tasks, including forming impressions of themselves and others, attributing motives for actions, and judging the desirability of various outcomes. They do this, though, with some constraints imposed by realitymost consider themselves more moral than average, but few claim saintliness.

Scholars have become increasingly interested in automatic processing, in which judgments, associations, or even actions are made quickly and efficiently with little conscious guidance. For example, work has focused on negative stereotypes that rapidly come to mind when people encounter minority groups. A number of dual-process models have been proposed for processes like impression formation, attitudes, persuasion, and stereotyping. In these models people first have a fast, efficient, automatic and uncontrolled reaction that is later adjusted, if the person is so motivated, by conscious thought. Upon seeing a stranger fall over, for example, a fast, effortless inference might be drawn that this person is clumsy. If one liked the person, however, within less than a second one might start searching more deliberatively for outside factors and conclude that the person was pushed, or that the floor was slippery, overruling (at least partly) ones initial verdict.

Attraction and intimacy form another major dynamic of interest. Liking is influenced by factors such as proximity, familiarity (the mere exposure effect), physical attractiveness, and the sharing of things about ones self. One of the more prominent models of intimate relationships, Robert Sternbergs triangular theory (1988), describes any given relationship in terms of passion (infatuation), intimacy (liking), and commitment (a desire to stick it out). Sternberg argues that a relationship may have only one of these (friends typically have intimacy but no passion), two (good friends would add commitment), or all three (which he calls consummate love).

When people get together, the resulting groups take on dynamics of their own. People in them work harder when their contributions are visible (social facilitation), but coast when their contributions are unidentifiable (social loafing). Group discussions also sometimes accentuate initial attitudes and actions (group polarization). Sometimes large groups of people will engage in behaviors that none of their members would have contemplated doing on their own (such as chanting for suicidal people to jump), partly because the individual members become deindividuatedthey lose the self-awareness that anchors them to their personal standards.


Social psychological work has been applied to a great many real-world settings. Researchers have brought it to the study of health behaviors, such as smoking and use of condoms, and in doing so have offered practical advances. They have spearheaded, for example, graphic pictures of decayed teeth and lungs on boxes of cigarettes in Canada. Political psychologists have, likewise, been interested in models of persuasion and attitude formation and change. Organizational psychologists have applied social psychological theories of group processes, satisfaction, and enjoyment to the context of the work place.

Law is another area that has seen widespread application of social psychological research. Psychological work has revealed that eyewitness identification, long a linchpin of legal evidence, is often flawed. It is often very difficult for people to accurately identify even those at whom they have had a good long look. Research has been used to improve identification lineup procedures to produce fairer results with fewer false positives, for example by instructing witnesses that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup. Social psychologists have also been involved in great controversies over the accuracy of recovered memoriesrecollections of past abuse that people believe they have rediscovered later in life. Research shows that, though some such cases may be genuine, some are almost certainly not, as it is not difficult to create false memories in people.


As brain imaging technology advances, rapid strides are being made into understanding the brain functioning associated with attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. Early attempts were sometimes dismissed as color phrenologyattempts to put people in a scanner and simply catalogue which areas lit up. Newer work compares the known functions of brain regions with their activation during social behaviors. For example, researchers might note that in some types of people subliminal exposure to African American faces simultaneously activates areas associated with alarming stimuli and areas associated with cognitive control. They might infer from this that an emotional reaction is taking place, alongside an effortful attempt to control it.

SEE ALSO Allport, Gordon; Asch, Solomon; Cognition; Conformity; Emotion; Experiments, Shock; Festinger, Leon; Groupthink; Herd Behavior; Lay Theories; Milgram, Stanley; Neuroscience; Persuasion; Prejudice; Psychology; Role Conflict; Schemas; Self-Consciousness, Private vs. Public; Social Facilitation; Social Science; Socialization; Sociology


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Aronson, Elliot. 2004. The Social Animal. 9th ed. New York: Worth.

Asch, Solomon. 1951. Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgment. In Groups, Leadership and Men, ed. M. H. Guetzkow, 117190. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie.

Bargh, John A., and Tanya L. Chartrand. 1999. The Unbearable Automaticity of Being. American Psychologist 54: 462479.

Cialdini, Robert B. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Eagly, Alice H., and Shelly Chaiken. 1993. The Psychology of Attitudes. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College.

Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.

Sternberg, Robert J. 1988. The Triangle of Love. New York: Basic Books.

Zanna, M., ed. 2004. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 36. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Alexander J. Gunz

David G. Myers

Social Psychology

views updated May 23 2018

Social psychology

The study of the psychology of interpersonal relationships.

Social psychology is the study of human interaction, including communication, cooperation, competition , leadership , and attitude development. Although the first textbooks on the subject of social psychology were published in the early 1900s, much of the foundation for social psychology studied in the 1990s is based on the work of the behavioral psychologists of the 1930s. Behavioral psychologists were among the first to call for scientific measures and analysis of human behavior, an emphasis on which social psychologists continue to focus. Social psychologists also study the way individuals behave in relationship to others, and, alternatively, how groups act to shape the behavior of individuals.

As do other scientists, social psychologists develop a theory and then design experiments to test it. For example, Leon Feistinger, an American social psychologist, theorized that a person feels uncomfortable when confronted with information that contradicts something he or she already believes. He labeled this uneasiness cognitive dissonance . Other social psychologists subsequently conducted research to confirm Feistinger's theory by studying individuals who believed themselves to be failures. The psychologists found that such people avoid success, even when it would be easily achieved, because it would conflict with their firmly held belief that they are unsuccessful.

Social psychologists work in academic settings, teaching and conducting research. They also work with businesses and other organizations to design personnel management programs based on their knowledge of interpersonal relations. Social psychologists also contribute their expertise to market research, government agencies, and educational institutions.

Further Reading

Argyle, Michael. The Social Psychology of Everyday Life. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1995.

Bandura, Albert. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social and Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Baron, Robert A. Exploring Social Psychology. Boston, MA Allyn and Bacon, 1989.

social psychology

views updated Jun 27 2018

social psychology Field that studies individuals interacting with others in groups and with society. Topics include attitudes and how they change, prejudice, rumours, aggression, altruism, group behaviour, conformity, and social conflict. There is some overlap with sociology.

social psychology

views updated May 23 2018

social psychology See PSYCHOLOGY.

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