The History Of Social Psychology

Social psychology is a subfield of psychology that studies the social interactions among people. The subject can trace back its roots to the Ancient Greeks. Charles Darwin made extensive contributions to social psychology with his book Origin of Species and his evolutionary findings. Darwin influenced social thinkers who in return voiced their opinions on the society and the social mind. Norman Triplett was the first person to conduct the first experimental study of social psychology. Max Ringlemann conducted his experiment that involved social psychology earlier but did not announce it until after Triplett’s experiment was already announced. McDougall published the first social psychology book in 1908 entitled, Introduction to Social Psychology. Between the two World Wars there was an increased interest in the research of social psychology. Many advancements in social psychology were made at this time and after the wars occurred. Social psychology has become a major influence to solve many controversial world problems.

Keywords: social psychology, experiment, psychology

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The History of Social Psychology


Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to determine human behavior. Psychology also has a history that has been written by many psychologists and scholars throughout time. These people and ideas have come together to form what we know today as psychology. New ideas were manifested and soon so did the field of social psychology. Social psychology has many origins and cannot be traced back to just one origin. The following will tell about how this field of psychology was first formed and how it has evolved over time.

What is Social Psychology?

Psychology is a science that has grown in the past hundreds of years since it was first founded. The history of psychology dates back to the ancient Greeks. It was a branch of philosophy until the 1870s and was developed separately in the United States and Germany. Hermann Ebbinghaus, a notable German psychologist, had a famous statement about the history of psychology, Psychology has a long past, but only a short history. Throughout the years psychology has even added subdivisions of the field to be studied. The subject of psychology is a lengthy and fairly vast topic. As a result, a number of fields of psychology have emerged to transaction with the many subtopics within the study of the mind, brain, and behavior. Social psychology is about understanding an individual’s behavior in a social environment. This subtopic like the many other fields of psychology has a defined course of history. Social Psychology is a science that has been rapidly growing during the past five decades. It is a relatively new science by most standards.

Early Influences: Ancient Greeks

The early influences of psychology started with ideas from the ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Plato believed in a socio-centered approach. This meant that the state controlled the individual and encouraged social responsibility through social context. Plato’s thoughts of social context can be explained in his book entitled, Republic. According to Plato, the basic foundation of man’s innate tendencies is influenced by education. Man’s personality is formed by the kind of education he/she receives and his/her conduct in social situations. He believed that an individual’s behavior is the outcome of the social system in which he/she has developed. Another one of Plato’s greatest contribution to social psychology is his book Symposium. The book is the seminal description of love and it also introduces the concept of platonic love. Symposium is the first and the most cited taxonomy of the varieties of love.

Unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle believed that no change can be introduced to the individual’s behavior through education. Aristotle believed in an individual centered approach. This meant that humans were naturally sociable. One of his most famous quotes is the statement: man is by nature a social animal. This means that society is used for protection of the individual through group force. He believed humans needed other humans to survive. In the Nicomachian Ethics, Aristotle proposed that friendship based on reciprocity of affection was an essential component of the good life (Sharma, 2004). According to Aron & Davies (2009), other Aristotelian ideas that are germane to modern relationships research include a threefold taxonomy of friendship (friendships can be based on utility, enjoyment, or concern for each other’s wellbeing) and the notion that friendship incorporates shared cognition (Aron & Davies, 2009). His teachers Plato and Socrates also established important concepts for later social-psychological theorizing and research.

Pioneers of Social Psychology

Charles Darwin made a vast contribution to social psychology and to psychology as a whole. In this book entitled, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin (1872) proposed that emotional expressions might serve an adaptive social function. This adaptive social function is to communicate a person’s (or an animal’s) intentions to another person (or animal) (Darwin, 1872).

Herbert Spencer, Bagehot, and Karl Marx were social thinkers who were influenced by Darwin’s findings. They all explained social evolution by using Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Herbert Spencer said that human life is a continuous adjustment of internal and external relations. Thus, in order to understand life, one must understand the social environment. Many geographists saw human behavior as the outcome of climatic factors. Comte theorized three stages in the progress of society, religious, spiritual, and social. He believed that man’s entire behavior is dependent upon society. In 1897, Herbert Spencer criticized this view and stated that changes in the social structure are caused by definite natural laws which dispense with the necessity of control by the administration (Sharma, 2004).

Jahoda (2007) found the term social psychology was coined by the Italian journalist and politician Carlo Cattaneo in an article published in 1864 in the journal, Il Politencio. Catteneo explained Hegel’s ideas to interpersonal interactions and argued that conflicting ideas lead to the generation of new ones (Jahoda, 2007). Since Il Politencio was not a widely read journal, Jahoda suggests that the wider adoption of the concept should be traced back to Gustav Adolph Linder ( Jahoda, 2007). Linder was a professor at Prague University who used the term in his book Ideen zur Psychologie der Gesellschaft als Grundlage der Sozialwissenschaft (Ideas for a Psychology of Society as Foundation of Social Science).

Hegel introduced the concept that society has inevitable links with the development of the social mind. In 1860, Lazarus and Steinhal wrote about Anglo-European influence in their book Folk Psychology (Sharma, 2004). In this journal, the ideas of group mind and folk soul were first analyzed. This theory was called Volkerpsychologie or folk psychology. It focused on the collective mind. It is explained as the concept that personality develops because of cultural and community influences. Because of this discovery, Wundt encouraged the methodological study of language and its influence on the social being. Wundt believed that the social process if best studied in their own social contexts than in the laboratory. He also deeply analyzed the bases of customs, traditions, myths, social organizations and language et cetera (Sharma, 2004).

Advancements of Social Psychology in France, Germany, and the United States

The most important contributions to social psychology were made in the late 1800s by Gustave Le Bon and Gebriel Tarde in France, Georg Simmel in Germany, and James Mark Baldwin and George Herbert Mead in the United States. In France, both Le Bon and Tarde led in similar directions. Le Bon offered rich descriptions and classifications of crowds and their effects on the individual’s mind. Tarde offered laws of social interaction, focusing on reputation, opposition, and adaptation (Jahoda, 2007). Le Bon and Tarde formulized and popularized the idea of the mindless mind. Le Bon (1985/1969) in his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, defined the crowd as a gathering of individuals operating to the law of mental unity. He argued that unity arises through the process of suggestion. The irrationality of crowd favors the acceptance of extreme and absolute ideas and leaves limited room for small measured ideas. Le Bon observed that crowds can be influenced through repetition of extreme ideas, confirmation of crowd interests, and appeals to status (Le Bon, 1985). Le Bon’s analysis of the crowd was later embraced in political circles antagonistic to the democratic social movements in France at the time. Tarde (1903) argued in his book entitled, The Laws of Imitation, that influence flowed top-down, in a rapid dissemination, and primarily in one’s own group. Tarde’s description about the principles of influence was detailed but he discussed less about the process of influence. Both Le Bon and Tarde relied on psychiatry for explanations of social psychological processes.

George Simmel was a German sociologist who wanted to know how to define a society. Simmel’s theory of social development had two different approaches. He saw social differentiation and group expansion based mostly on the point of view of the effects on the individuals. His second approach was considering the process of group expansion and group development. In his first publication entitled Uber sociale Differenzierung: Soziologische und psychologische Untersuchungen, Simmel (1890) stated that the development of organisms is directed by a tendency toward greater efficacy. The tendency is the characteristic and positive consequence of social differentiation.

James Mark Baldwin was an American psychologist who came up with the Baldwin effect. The Baldwin effect occurs when a biological trait becomes innate as a result of being learned. George Herbert Mead established a theory of symbolic interaction. He proposed that the world of psychological meaning comes from being only with a background of relationships (Mead, 1934). Mead (1934) stated that there are no “individual minds” and all thoughts emerge from a process of social sharing.

Experimentalists and the Beginnings of Social Psychology

In 1897, Norman Triplett was the first person to conduct the first experimental study of social psychology (Allport, 1954). Triplett was a psychologist by profession and an amateur bicycle racer. After years of participating and watching bicycle races, Triplett noticed that it seemed that riders went faster when they raced with others than alone. To see if his hypothesis was true, he obtained access to records that revealed the speeds for each racer. The speeds he had obtained were the average speeds for races which people raced alone, speeds for racers racing against another person who merely set a pace for them, and speeds with another person who was racing against them. He discovered that average speeds for bicycle races involving others were faster than those for races against the clock (Allport, 1954). This phenomenon later became known as social facilitation. After he came to this conclusion, Triplett began to conduct smaller experiments to see if it would lead to the same conclusion. Triplett’s experiments on social facilitation led to 30 years of research on the subject. His experiments also led to more research on the individual and groups. Haines and Vaughan (1979) have argued that there were other experiments before 1898 deserving to be called social psychological, such as studies on suggestibility.

Social psychological experiments may have been performed earlier by Max Ringelmann. Max Ringelmann was a French agricultural engineer who conducted investigations into the maximum performance of workers who pull a load horizontally (Kravitz & Martin, 1986). During his investigation, he found the evidence of productivity of loss in his experiment groups. This is a phenomenon that was later called social loafing. At that time, the comparison of the individual and group performance was of secondary interest to him. Since Ringelmann did not publish his findings until 1913, Triplett was recognized as the first person to convey the first social psychology experiment.

Social Psychology of the Early 20th Century

McDougall published the book, Introduction to Psychology, in 1908. His book was the first text in the field of social psychology with the term social psychology in the title. In 1908, McDougall adopted an explicitly evolutionary perspective. He theorized that human behavior was caused by instincts and later introduced the idea of the group mind. McDougall defined an instinct as, an inherited or innate psycho-physical disposition which determines its processor to perceive, and to perceive, and to pay attention to, objects of a certain class, to experience an impulse to such action (Plutchik, 1980) He viewed instincts as linked to seven powerful emotions: fear, disgust, curiosity, anger, embarrassment, pride, and empathy (McDougall, 1911). Including these seven emotions, McDougall added two social motivations that he believed did not have distinct emotions: the reproductive instinct and gregarious instinct. In the early 20th century, McDougall had a famous debate with behaviorist John Watson and was judged by the public according to some sources McDougall lost the argument (Plutchik, 1980).

At the same time, Ross introduced social psychology as concerned with conformity, imitation, and custom, forming theories for people’s thinking. Ross focused on biological foundations, and conventions on the individual. In his book he emphasized on social influence through the processes of imitation and suggestion. Imitation is defined as the influence of other people on human behavior. Suggestion is defined as the influence of others on human thoughts.

At the start of the 20th century, the first empirical investigations were guided by the same type of questions that inspired the early thinkers and philosophers. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of social psychologists challenged the reigning models of the individuals and the empiricism forwarded into emerging experimental program of research. Gardner Murphy, Lois Barclay Murphy, and Gordon Allport designed an alternative perspective based on William James’s radical empiricism and a social activist stance. These researchers, according to Pandora (1997), rejected the image of the laboratory as an ivory tower, contested the canons of objectivity that characterized current research practices, and argued against reducing nature and social worlds to the lowest possible terms. The book Experimental Social Psychology was published by Gardner Murphy and Lois Murphy of Columbia University in 1931. The first studies in this book examined the influence of source factors on attitude change. Most of the book was dedicated to attitudes. Gardner Murphy defined social psychology as an experimental process, which separated it from naturalist observational methods used in sociology.

The First Social Psychology Textbook

The first books written on social psychology by both Ross and McDougall brought more information about the subject to the field thus inspiring other psychologists to further information on the topic. Floyd H.Allport wrote the first social psychology textbook in 1924. The book was entitled Social Psychology. It was widely used book in social psychology classes at American universities. This book defined social psychology as the experimental study of social behavior. Allport arrived at this conclusion from his research program developed from the experimental research on social facilitation. The topic was suggested to him by Hugo Munsterberg and who helped him with the development of the book. Allport’s conception of social psychology has been strongly influenced by the experimental model that had been developed in Germany. Allport’s work was most strongly influenced by the work of Walter Moede. Moede’s book Experimentelle Massenpsychologie: Beitrage zur Experimentalpsychologie der Gruppe (Experimental Crowd Psychology: Contributions to the Experimental Psychology of the Group) as stated by Jahoda (2007) contained the first systemic and detailed consideration as how the methods of general experimental psychology could be adapted to the study of groups. Although the experiments used a great variety of tasks, they all dealt with the effects of the presence of varying numbers of others on performance, mere presence being distinguished from competitive situations. World War I interrupted Moede’s experimental research. Instead he developed and applied amplitude tests for military drivers. His influence did not establish the development in social psychology in Germany at the time. This did not happen until World War II, when German social psychology was developed under American influence.

Social Psychology Years after the Depression

When the stock market crashed in 1929, many young psychologists were unable to find jobs or keep jobs. Many of them adopted the liberal ideas of Roosevelt or more radical left-wing political views of the socialist and communist parties. In 1936 the social scientists formed Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) was an organization dedicated to the scientific study of important social issues and the support for progressive social action (Sharma, 2004). The majority of social psychologists were interested in applying their newly developed theories to solve authentic life problems. This organization created new areas of research in intergroup relations, leadership, propaganda, organizational behavior, voting behavior, and consumer behavior (Sharma, 2004). It also influenced a more applied character to research.

The years between the two World Wars had a significant effect on shaping social psychology. In the 1930s, many Gestalt psychologists fled to the United States from Nazi Germany. Gestalt psychologists took part in developing the field of social psychology. World War II was when most of the key research was developed for social psychology. People became interested in the behavior of individuals when grouped together in social situations. For social psychology, the most important of the immigrants was Kurt Lewin. Lewin’s approach had two characteristics: A problem was only worth studying if it would make a difference in the world. He insisted on studying world problems experimentally and creating in the laboratory powerful situations that made a big difference (Festinger, 1980) He taught these values to his graduate students and his impact was mainly due to these graduate students. Kurt Black, Alex Bavelas, Dorwin Cartwright, Morton Deutsch, Leon Festinger, Harold Kelley, Stanley Schacter, John Thibaut, Eric Wright, and Alvin Zander were among Lewin’s graduate students who spread his scientific philosophy and approach, and whose work greatly shaped the field of experimental social psychology (Marrow, 1969, p.6). Most of Lewin’s graduate students became experimentalists, but they did not all adopt the Lewinian approach of conducting experiments. For example, Festinger’s attitude toward his approach was not doubtful. He also commented that “no one can describe with reasonable precision, all facets that were experimentally varied in those studiesaˆ¦.I still have no conceptual understanding of what all the differences were between these procedures” (Fesinger, 1980, p.239)

Social Psychology of the Late 20th Century

In the late 1960s and 1970s psychological research had expanded tremendously and there was not a psychology department at a top university that did not have a strong social psychology unit. People found history to be a way to get a better understanding about the social sciences. Professional historians also became more interested in the impact social sciences had on the 20th century culture and society. Historians discovered that psychology opened a lot of doors to discover the extension of scientific customs to traditionally humanist subjects such as rationality, sociality, and mind. Early work of culture and personality school was highly influenced by Freud’s theory of how culture and personality are related. Another key contribution to social psychology during this time was the demonstration that even basic differences in psychological processes are not necessary universal. Trandis’s work during this time was arguably the first to incorporate a wide range of social-psychological concepts in the study of culture and thus had an important influence on modern-day cross-cultural psychology. He believed that the basic element of the study of culture is categorization and that members of different cultures have unique ways of categorizing experience. Another belief he had was that the members of each culture have specific ways of associating with each other.

Milgram and Zimbario’s studies

Because of all of the new advancements in social psychology more and more experiments were conducted on different social issues. One famous one was Milgram’s study on obedience. Milgram conducted an electric shock experiment, which looked at the role and authority figure plays in obedience. He wanted to experiment whether Germans were particularity obedient to authority figures because this was a common explanation for the Nazi killing in World War I. Milgram selected his participants for the study by advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. The participant was paired with another individual and they were randomly divided amongst themselves to find out who would be the learner and who would be the teacher. The learner in the experiment was one of Milgram’s confederates pretending to be a real participant and the participant was always the teacher. The learner was directed into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms. The researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches. The teacher was told by Milgram and his confederates to administer an electric shock every time the leaner makes a mistake. Administering a shock to the learner every time the learner would get a question wrong would result with an increase in shock level. The learner gave the wrong answers on purpose and for each wrong answer was administrated a shock. When the teacher refused to give the learner another shock they were told to continue. The result of the experiment was that most participants administrated to the highest level of electric shock. The conclusion from the study was that anyone is likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, no matter how gruesome the act may be.

Another famous study was Zimbario’s prison study demonstrated conformity to given roles in the social world. Zimbardo was interested in finding out whether the brutality reported among guards at American prisons was due to the personalities of the judges or have to do with the prison’s environment. The basement of the Standford University was converted into a mock prison and he advertised students to play the roles of guards or prisoners. Within hours both guards and prisoners were taking on the roles very seriously. Guards were harassing prisoners and prisoners became more dependent. The conclusion of the experiment was found that people will conform to the social roles they are expected to play in their society. It was discovered that the roles that people play can determine their behavior and attitudes.

Present Day Social Psychology

Social Psychology has evolved tremendously since the beginnings of the study of the science. It has had a major influence on a variety of major real world societal problems. The study of social psychology has had many early influencers and it continues to be an evolving subject. Currently there are many social psychological ideas and commentaries in major popular media and books. Social psychological concepts have come a common way in which people talk about and understand individuals and societies. Because of social psychology there are many advancement in health, environmental, and legal psychology. Today social psychology is in all psychology departments at major universities around the world.

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