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Social Psychology: a topical Outline

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Social Psychology: A Topical Outline

George Edw. Seymour

While the modern social psychologist does indeed need experimental, statistical, and computer skills, he needs also historical perspective.  He needs immersion in theories (both macro and micro).  Above all, he needs an ability to relate his problem to the context in which it properly belongs.  Sometimes the context lies in the traditions of academic psychology, often in sociology or anthropology, sometimes in philosophy or theology, occasionally in history or in economics, frequently in the political life of our day.  Sometimes the science of genetics or clinical experience provides the context.” Gordon Allport

Today, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) 1 is recognized widely as the father of social psychology. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Berlin in 1916 (before Fisher’s publication), and in 1935 became a professor at the University of Iowa where he published A Dynamic Theory of Personality. In 1944 he established a research center at MIT. He stressed the importance of both personal characteristics and the environment in causing behavior. Here are a few of his more famous quotations:

  • "There is nothing so practical as a good theory."

  • "If you want truly to understand something, try to change it."

  • "Experience alone does not create knowledge."

Social psychology, seemingly, has a wider scope than any other field of psychology. Unlike some psychological disciplines like personality which generally seek large inclusive theories, social psychologists tend to focus on a larger set of specific variables or mini-theories that center on various types of cognitive and behavioral social phenomena. Visit several university social psychology websites and you will discover a truly diverse set of research topics. That is because social psychology faculty everywhere necessarily have developed relatively narrow research specialties, and because no social psychologist could master the wide range of topics descriptive of the discipline. Nevertheless, there are a set of core social psychology topics and research findings identified in most introductory texts. The social psychology topics identified below is representative and should not be considered as definitive. Yet this list should inspire you to look further if necessary and to identify a topic for your paper.

Likewise, the research agenda of Social Psychology has changed substantially during the past several decades. Given the hundreds of thousands of experiments reported in the social science literature, contemporary social psychologists seldom seek to perform research on or test grand theories. Instead, they are content to examine the relationships between several variables that will contribute to our better understanding of a social behavioral model or theory. Moreover, no topic that social psychologists study is unique to Social Psychology. For example, all social psychology courses teach attitudes, attitude change, and persuasion. But so do other disciplines including Communication and Marketing. Modern science is more complex than we can imagine, and Social Psychology has seen fit to tackle some of human behaviors’ most puzzling aspects.

Selected Social Psychology Theories

Leon Festinger

Cognitive dissonance 2 is a psychological term which describes the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs. More precisely, it is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, where "cognition" is defined as any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief, or behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance states that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions.” “Leon Festinger first proposed the theory in 1957 after the publication of his book When Prophecy Fails, observing the counterintuitive belief persistence of members of a UFO doomsday cult and their increased proselytization after the leader's prophecy failed.” See notes page for Mrs. Keech.

Stanley Milgram

Obedience to Authority: Milgram “a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on "obedience" - - that they were just following orders of their superiors. In the experiment, so-called "teachers" (who were actually the unknowing subjects of the experiment) were recruited by Milgram. They were asked administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to a "learner" for each mistake he made during the experiment. The fictitious story given to these "teachers" was that the experiment was exploring effects of punishment (for incorrect responses) on learning behavior. The "teacher" was not aware that the "learner" in the study was actually an actor - - merely indicating discomfort as the "teacher" increased the electric shocks. When the "teacher" asked whether increased shocks should be given he/she was verbally encouraged to continue. Sixty percent of the "teachers" obeyed orders to punish the learner to the very end of the 450-volt scale! No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts!” See:

Philip Zimbardo

Deindividuation 3 to Power of Social Situations: Zimbardo “ is most “recognized for his Stanford prison experiment, in which he had volunteer participants either take upon the role of prison guards or prisoners in a real life prison setting.  The participants were asked to act accordingly to their roles, and within days the experiment had to be stopped to ensure the physical and psychological health of the participants who had taken their roles to an extreme.” Zimbardo states, “Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress?” Here is a slide show that describes the event:

Solomon Asch

Conformity: “Asch's conformity experiments show how group pressure can persuade an individual to conform to an obviously wrong opinion.” “The participants — the real subject and the confederates — were all seated in a classroom where they were told to announce out loud their judgment of the length of several lines drawn on a series of displays. They were asked which line was longer than the other, which were the same length, etc. The confederates had been prearranged to all give an incorrect answer to the tests.” 4 37 Percent conformed.

“One difference between the Asch conformity experiments and the Milgram experiment as carried out by Stanley Milgram (also famous in social psychology) is that the subjects of these studies attributed their performance to their own misjudgment and "poor eyesight", while those in the Milgram experiment blamed the experimenter in explaining their behavior.” See:

Albert Bandura

Social Learning Theory by Bandura (aka Social Cognitivism) and Self Efficacy are his prime contributions. He is particularly noted for the Bobo doll experiment early in his career. He is often considered a “father” of the cognitive movement! Prior to Bandura what was the most researched topic for human behavior?


“The most common (and pervasive) examples of social learning situations are television commercials. Commercials suggest that drinking a certain beverage or using a particular hair shampoo will make us popular and win the admiration of attractive people. Depending upon the component processes involved (such as attention or motivation), we may model the behavior shown in the commercial and buy the product being advertised.”

Why Children? Why Bobo? See:

Jack Brehm

Reactance Theory: Jack Brehm (1966). A Theory of Psychological Reactance. “Did you hear about the Great Detergent Riots? This one is amazing. In the 1960s a city in Florida banned the sale of detergents that contained phosphates. You could not own Tide or Cheer or Whisk if it had phosphates in it. Now, it is important to note that phosphates have no impact whatsover on the cleaning effectiveness of the detergent. The phosphates were banned for environmental reasons. Here's the amazing part. In the weeks before the ban went into effect, stores reported a run on phosphate-containing detergents. Not the "clean" detergents. Just the ones with phosphates. And, after the ban when into effect, stores in the city limits reported a drop in the sale of their detergents. Instead, stores outside the city limits reported increases in the sales of their phosphate-laden detergents!”

Attribution Theory (too many authors and variants) “is concerned with the ways in which people explain (or attribute) the behavior of others. The theory divides the way people attribute causes to events into two types. External or "situational" attributions assign causality to an outside factor, such as the weather. Internal or "dispositional" attributions assign causality to factors within the person, such as ability or personality.”

The fundamental Attribution Error:

  • We exaggerate the importance of disposition (or personality) when making attributions.

  • This makes behavior seem more predictable than situational attributions.

  • It may be due to greater perceptual salience (prominence) of the person over the situation.

Sir Frederick Bartlett

Schema Theory is really a theory of learning: Bartlett in 1932 “focuses on "schemas" which are cognitive structures that organize knowledge and guide information processing. They take the form of generalized beliefs that can operate automatically and lead to biases in perception and memory.” “John wanted to do well on the exam, but his pen ran out of ink and his pencil broke. He tried to find a pencil sharpener, but there wasn't one in the room. Finally he borrowed a pen from another student. By then he was so far behind he had to rush, and the teacher took off points for poor penmanship. To understand this story, you have to understand the writing schema because the text itself leaves unstated the connection between John running out of ink and his not being able to work on the exam.”

It all started with Chinese Whispers, a children’s game played by eight year old children.


“The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the groups and do not raise objections.

It was observed by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:” 5

Robert Zajonc, Stanford University

See Interview:


1 Kurt Lewin (pronounced either “Levine” or “Loo in”). The “July 2002 issue of the Review of General Psychology created a ranking of the 99 most influential psychologists. The rankings were mostly based on three factors: the frequency of journal citations, introductory textbook citations, and the survey responses of 1,725 members of the American Psychological Association.” Source: In addition, he was « one of the first researchers to study group dynamics and organizational development. In the aforementioned empirical study by Haggbloom et al which used six criteria such as citations and recognition, Lewin was found to be the 18th most eminent psychologist of the 20th Century.” See: The complete list of 99 psychologists can be found here:

2 Cognitive Dissonance:

3 Deindividuation: Zimbardo’s “experiments supported the hypothesis of deindividuation as a "process in which a series of antecedent social conditions lead to a change in perception of self and others, and thereby to a lowered threshold of normally restrained behavior”

4 Conformity: “Fein, Goethals & Kassin (1998) - when participants were asked to view a political debate among George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, it was found the presence of a confederate who cheered for one of the candidates influenced the participant's evaluation of that candidate in a positive manner.” Source:

5 Abilene Paradox:

© 2007: George Edw. Seymour Page of

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