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Social Psychology: Definition, Nature and Subject Matter



Social Psychology tries to understand how individuals act and behaves in particular situations. It is the scientific attempt to interpret the causes of individuals thinking processes and behavior in social situations.

Baron et el(2006) defines Social Psychology as the “scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior and thought in social situations”. In other words, we could say that, it investigates the ways in which thoughts, feelings and actions are influenced by the social environment in which we live.

Aronson, Wilson and Akert (2007) define social psychology as the “scientific study of the way in which peoples’ thoughts, feelings; and behaviours are influenced by the real and imagined presence of other people”.

Franzoi (2000) also defines Social Psychology as the “scientific attempt to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of other individuals are influenced by the actual(real), imagined or implied presence of presence others;

Actual (Real)

Actual or real presence of others may be seen in the visible, covert presence of supporters, or people;

For instance in the covert presence of such people you may be uncomfortable, jittery, shy, confident depending on how you think you are being assessed.

Imagined Presence

Imagined presence of others refers to the remembrance of past events or incidents or even individuals;

For instance, imagination of the attainment of a prize can influence motivation to work hard.

Implied Presence

Implied presence of others refers to phenomena that suggests or act as pointers that others (physical or spiritual) are watching us influencing our behavior;

For instance, in traditional societies, the belief that ancestors or gods are able to punish evil and reward affects us.

Scientific Nature of Social Psychology

Social Psychology is scientific due to it application of specific values and methods to study specific social phenomena; There are Four Values that all fields must employ to be scientific namely:

—Accuracy: adopting a means of obtaining and evaluating information in a precise, exact manner;

—Objectivity: obtaining and assessing information without any bias whatsoever or the absence of subjectivity;

—Skepticism implies having a critical mind and a questioning attitude and not accepting things on face value;

Open-Mindedness: absence of myopic view of things and willing to change stance on a subject

Goals of Social Psychology

Social Psychology involves Describing social phenomena, Understanding it, Predicting the factors that trigger it and putting in place measures to ensure positive influence and correction of the situation

The main effort of Social Psychology is to obtain knowledge that helps us to:

—Describe : Social Psychological studies begins with description of the event and obtaining information;

—Understand: After description Social Psychology is interested in Understanding why this behavior occurs;

—Predict: Having described, explained and understood a phenomenon, Social Psychology tries to Predict behavior or actions;

—Influence: Social Psychology attempts to influence behavior in desirable or beneficial ways, by ensuring that it does not happen again or is controlled.

Subject Matter of Social Psychology and its Influencing Variables

Individual as the Subject Matter

—The Individual is the emphasis and interest of Social Psychology;

—The focus is to understand the factors which shape the their thought, feelings and actions;

The Individual within the group (how the individual impacts the group say Leadership); and how the group impacts the individual i.e. Conformity;

—Social Psychology does not study humans in isolation but examines the individual in the context of the social situation in which they live.

Variables that Influence Individual Behavior

Social Psychology seeks to understand the many factors or conditions that shape the thoughts and behaviour of individuals;

Factors affecting Individual’s behavior includes;

1. The Behavior of other Persons;

2. The Characteristics of Others;

3. Biological Factors;

4. Cultural Factors;

5. Ecological/Environmental Factors and;

6. Cognitive Processes

The Behavior of Other People

—Imagine the following scenarios;

You are in a queue to purchase a ticket to attend a concert when a person from nowhere jumps the queue ahead of you;

You board a taxi with others and a person receives a call and begins a loud conversation;

  • You would say some angry and harsh words to the persons in both scenarios or think of it in a different way
  • The behaviour of others influence our thoughts, actions

The Characteristics of Others

—The outwards characteristics of others influence individual social behavior;

—An individual’s physical appearance/attractiveness determines how others relate to them;

—For instance, how will you respond/react to a sane/mad person; a sober/drunk or an attractive salesperson;

—Would you find these features attractive or repulsive?

Biological Factors

—Our preference, emotions and attitudes are affected significantly by our biological inheritance;

—The view that biological factors influence social behavior is Evolutionary Psychology;

—For instance, is there a relationship between biology and an individual’s cognitive abilities (IQ);

—Or can we draw any link between the high/low emotions we experience and our hormonal changes;

—Though biology plays a significant role in social behavior, its influence can be altered.

Cultural Factors

—Individuals are shaped by their learning experiences with others in their culture;

—An individual’s beliefs about right/wrong, food preferences, language and religious beliefs are all culturally defined;

—For instance, cultural norms spell out when people should marry, whom they can marry;

—How many they can marry, how the marriage should be performed and how many children they can have;

Ecological/Environmental Factors

—Research suggests that our physical environment largely influences our feelings, moods, thoughts and behavior;

—For instance, how will you respond to a hot and steamy weather as compared to a cold or breezy weather?;

—Or how will it feel being exposed to sweet smelling fragrance or a foul smell?;

—Our environment have effects on our behavior/actions

Cognitive Processes

—Cognitive processes play a crucial role in our thought, behavior and relationship with others;

—Suppose you have a dinner with a friend and he didn’t show up and an hour later he came and said he forgot; surely you will be upset;

—But you may react differently if he said there was an accident on the way;

—Our perceptions, inferences and thoughts or meaning we attach to others behavior determine how we think and behave.


—In summary, Social Psychology focus mainly on understanding the causes of social behavior and social thought;

—Identifying factors that shape our feelings, behavior, and thought as individuals in social situation;

—It seeks to accomplish this goal through the use of scientific methods;

—It takes careful note of the fact that individual’s social behavior and thoughts are influenced by a wide range of Social, Cognitive, Environmental, Cultural and Cognitive factors.

References and Reading List

Baron, Branscombe and Byrne(2006) 12th edition 

(Baron, Branscombe and Byrne (2009). Social Psychology (12th Ed.) New York: Pearson Education Inc. (Pages 36-60)

Baron, Branscombe and Byrne (2007). Mastering Social Psychology. New York: Pearson Education Inc. (Pages 29-45).

Lecture Slides from Samson Obed Appiah Ghana Institute of Journalism

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