Summary and Key Terms

What Is Social Psychology?

Social psychology is the subfield of psychology that studies the power of the situation to influence individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Psychologists categorize the causes of human behavior as those due to internal factors, such as personality, or those due to external factors, such as cultural and other social influences. Behavior is better explained, however, by using both approaches. Lay people tend to over-rely on dispositional explanations for behavior and ignore the power of situational influences, a perspective called the fundamental attribution error. People from individualistic cultures are more likely to display this bias versus people from collectivistic cultures. Our explanations for our own and others behaviors can be biased due to not having enough information about others’ motivations for behaviors and by providing explanations that bolster our self-esteem.


Human behavior is largely influenced by our social roles, norms, and scripts. In order to know how to act in a given situation, we have shared cultural knowledge of how to behave depending on our role in society. Social norms dictate the behavior that is appropriate or inappropriate for each role. Each social role has scripts that help humans learn the sequence of appropriate behaviors in a given setting. The famous Stanford prison experiment is an example of how the power of the situation can dictate the social roles, norms, and scripts we follow in a given situation, even if this behavior is contrary to our typical behavior.

Attitudes and Persuasion

Attitudes are our evaluations or feelings toward a person, idea, or object and typically are positive or negative. Our attitudes and beliefs are influenced not only by external forces, but also by internal influences that we control. An internal form of attitude change is cognitive dissonance or the tension we experience when our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are in conflict. In order to reduce dissonance, individuals can change their behavior, attitudes, or cognitions, or add a new cognition. External forces of persuasion include advertising; the features of advertising that influence our behaviors include the source, message, and audience. There are two primary routes to persuasion. The central route to persuasion uses facts and information to persuade potential consumers. The peripheral route uses positive association with cues such as beauty, fame, and positive emotions.

Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience

The power of the situation can lead people to conform, or go along with the group, even in the face of inaccurate information. Conformity to group norms is driven by two motivations, the desire to fit in and be liked and the desire to be accurate and gain information from the group. Authority figures also have influence over our behaviors, and many people become obedient and follow orders even if the orders are contrary to their personal values. Conformity to group pressures can also result in groupthink, or the faulty decision-making process that results from cohesive group members trying to maintain group harmony. Group situations can improve human behavior through facilitating performance on easy tasks, but inhibiting performance on difficult tasks. The presence of others can also lead to social loafing when individual efforts cannot be evaluated.

Prejudice and Discrimination

As diverse individuals, humans can experience conflict when interacting with people who are different from each other. Prejudice, or negative feelings and evaluations, is common when people are from a different social group (i.e., out-group). Negative attitudes toward out-groups can lead to discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination against others can be based on gender, race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, or a variety of other social identities. In-group’s who feel threatened may blame the out-groups for their plight, thus using the out-group as a scapegoat for their frustration.


Aggression is seeking to cause another person harm or pain. Hostile aggression is motivated by feelings of anger with intent to cause pain, and instrumental aggression is motivated by achieving a goal and does not necessarily involve intent to cause pain Bullying is an international public health concern that largely affects the adolescent population. Bullying is repeated behaviors that are intended to inflict harm on the victim and can take the form of physical, psychological, emotional, or social abuse. Bullying has negative mental health consequences for youth including suicide. Cyberbullying is a newer form of bullying that takes place in an online environment where bullies can remain anonymous and victims are helpless to address the harassment. Despite the social norm of helping others in need, when there are many bystanders witnessing an emergency, diffusion of responsibility will lead to a lower likelihood of any one person helping.

Prosocial Behavior

Altruism is a pure form of helping others out of empathy, which can be contrasted with egoistic motivations for helping. Forming relationships with others is a necessity for social beings. We typically form relationships with people who are close to us in proximity and people with whom we share similarities. We expect reciprocity and self-disclosure in our relationships. We also want to form relationships with people who are physically attractive, though standards for attractiveness vary by culture and gender. There are many types of love that are determined by various combinations of intimacy, passion, and commitment; consummate love, which is the ideal form of love, contains all three components. When determining satisfaction and whether to maintain a relationship, individuals often use a social exchange approach and weigh the costs and benefits of forming and maintaining a relationship.

Key Terms

actor-observer bias
phenomenon of explaining other people’s behaviors are due to internal factors and our own behaviors are due to situational forces
prejudice and discrimination toward individuals based solely on their age
seeking to cause harm or pain to another person
humans’ desire to help others even if the costs outweigh the benefits of helping
Asch effect
group majority influences an individual’s judgment, even when that judgment is inaccurate
evaluations of or feelings toward a person, idea, or object that are typically positive or negative
explanation for the behavior of other people
a person, often an adolescent, being treated negatively repeatedly and over time
bystander effect
situation in which a witness or bystander does not volunteer to help a victim or person in distress
central route persuasion
logic-driven arguments using data and facts to convince people of an argument’s worthiness
cognitive dissonance
psychological discomfort that arises from a conflict in a person’s behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs that runs counter to one’s positive self-perception
collectivist culture
culture that focuses on communal relationships with others such as family, friends, and community
companionate love
type of love consisting of intimacy and commitment, but not passion; associated with close friendships and family relationships
person who works for a researcher and is aware of the experiment, but who acts as a participant; used to manipulate social situations as part of the research design
confirmation bias
seeking out information that supports our stereotypes while ignoring information that is inconsistent with our stereotypes
when individuals change their behavior to go along with the group even if they do not agree with the group
consummate love
type of love occurring when intimacy, passion, and commitment are all present
repeated behavior that is intended to cause psychological or emotional harm to another person and that takes place online
diffusion of responsibility
tendency for no one in a group to help because the responsibility to help is spread throughout the group
negative actions toward individuals as a result of their membership in a particular group
describes a perspective common to personality psychologists, which asserts that our behavior is determined by internal factors, such as personality traits and temperament
capacity to understand another person’s perspective—to feel what he or she feels
foot-in-the-door technique
persuasion of one person by another person, encouraging a person to agree to a small favor, or to buy a small item, only to later request a larger favor or purchase of a larger item
fundamental attribution error
tendency to overemphasize internal factors as attributions for behavior and underestimate the power of the situation
group polarization
strengthening of the original group attitude after discussing views within the group
group members modify their opinions to match what they believe is the group consensus
tendency for people to form social networks, including friendships, marriage, business relationships, and many other types of relationships, with others who are similar
prejudice and discrimination against individuals based solely on their sexual orientation
hostile aggression
aggression motivated by feelings of anger with intent to cause pain
group that we identify with or see ourselves as belonging to
in-group bias
preference for our own group over other groups
individualistic culture
culture that focuses on individual achievement and autonomy
informational social influence
conformity to a group norm prompted by the belief that the group is competent and has the correct information
instrumental aggression
aggression motivated by achieving a goal and does not necessarily involve intent to cause pain
internal factor
internal attribute of a person, such as personality traits or temperament
just-world hypothesis
ideology common in the United States that people get the outcomes they deserve
justification of effort
theory that people value goals and achievements more when they have put more effort into them
normative social influence
conformity to a group norm to fit in, feel good, and be accepted by the group
change of behavior to please an authority figure or to avoid aversive consequences
group that we don’t belong to—one that we view as fundamentally different from us
peripheral route persuasion
one person persuades another person; an indirect route that relies on association of peripheral cues (such as positive emotions and celebrity endorsement) to associate positivity with a message
process of changing our attitude toward something based on some form of communication
negative attitudes and feelings toward individuals based solely on their membership in a particular group
prosocial behavior
voluntary behavior with the intent to help other people
prejudice and discrimination toward individuals based solely on their race
give and take in relationships
romantic love
type of love consisting of intimacy and passion, but no commitment
act of blaming an out-group when the in-group experiences frustration or is blocked from obtaining a goal
person’s knowledge about the sequence of events in a specific setting
sharing personal information in relationships
self-fulfilling prophecy
treating stereotyped group members according to our biased expectations only to have this treatment influence the individual to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming our stereotypic beliefs
self-serving bias
tendency for individuals to take credit by making dispositional or internal attributions for positive outcomes and situational or external attributions for negative outcomes
prejudice and discrimination toward individuals based on their sex
describes a perspective that behavior and actions are determined by the immediate environment and surroundings; a view promoted by social psychologists
social exchange theory
humans act as naïve economists in keeping a tally of the ratio of costs and benefits of forming and maintain a relationship, with the goal to maximize benefits and minimize costs
social facilitation
improved performance when an audience is watching versus when the individual performs the behavior alone
social loafing
exertion of less effort by a person working in a group because individual performance cannot be evaluated separately from the group, thus causing performance decline on easy tasks
social norm
group’s expectations regarding what is appropriate and acceptable for the thoughts and behavior of its members
social psychology
field of psychology that examines how people impact or affect each other, with particular focus on the power of the situation
social role
socially defined pattern of behavior that is expected of a person in a given setting or group
stanford prison experiment
Stanford University conducted an experiment in a mock prison that demonstrated the power of social roles, social norms, and scripts
specific beliefs or assumptions about individuals based solely on their membership in a group, regardless of their individual characteristics
triangular theory of love
model of love based on three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment; several types of love exist, depending on the presence or absence of each of these components


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Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2021 by Southern Alberta Institution of Technology (SAIT) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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