The 20th Century was a time of unusually severe social problems, marked by world wars, social upheaval, violence, religious and political conflict. At mid-century, after World War II, social psychologists felt an urgent need to understand these types of group behavior. The result was a series of classic studies in social psychology focusing factors that led people to mindlessly conform to incorrect standards, follow orders which led to indefensible actions, or join movements which required surrendering individual integrity.
Psychologists also studied more benign, pleasant, and productive social activities of humans, after the post-war decades. Research traditions explored how people formed impressions of each other, how they explained other people's behavior, and how they got to know each other, exchanged personal information, formed friendships, and fell in love. Separate but related specialties studied the role of the individual in organizations such as businesses and educational institutions.
The rise of cognitive psychology in the 1970s and beyond ushered in a new era of social cognitive psychology, focusing on the informationg processing carried out by people to evaluate each other and group situations. Clever experiments showed that split-second social judgments were going on all the time, implicitly, under the surface.
How this chapter is organized
More than most disciplines, social psychology is marked by classic experiments. Say the word "obedience" and social psychologists reply "Milgram." Say "conformity" and they reply "Asch." These experiments are classics because they demonstrate clear and surprising effects. Each is a vivid demonstration of an important pattern of human social behavior. With major portions of social psychology dealt with in other chapters (for example, evolutionary psychology in Chapter 8, Sex, Friendship, and Love in Chapter 16) this chapter concentrates on the classic experiments that defined social psychology after World War II, before turning to modern research on cognitive social psychology.
The opening portion of the chapter highlights research on group influences upon the individual. This research came mostly in a burst of influential studies after World War II. We begin with classic experiments on obedience and conformity and end with a topic that became a national concern in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s: the influence of cults and charismatic movements. We discuss not only how people succumb to external influence but also how they resist it.
The second major portion of the chapter concentrates on social cognition, which became a dominant force in social psychology from the 1970s through 1990s. Topics include attribution: the process by which we decide who is in control of social processes. Social cognition also deals with person perception (such as first impressions), prejudice and stereotyping, and the split-second information processing that influences social interactions.
The last section of the chapter concentrates on the two opposite poles of (1) violent and aggressive behavior and (2) prosocial or friendly behavior. Here we discuss such topics as "bystander apathy" and Zimbardo's prison experiment, plus some research on what makes people helpful or cooperative.
Related topics in other chapters
Social relations between animals are discussed in the Social Ethology section of Chapter 8 (Animal Behavior and Cognition). Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are described in that section as well. Chapter 9 (Motivation) contains a brief introduction to cognitive dissonance theory, plus the topics of psychological reactance and reverse psychology, motivational conflict, and the instinctive analysis of facial expressions. Chapter 10 (Development) discusses some aspects of socialization and development of social competence in childhood. Chapter 11 (Personality Theories) contains the theories of Adler and Horney, which emphasize social influences on personality development and personality disorders. Chapter 16 (Sex, Friendship, and Love) is essentially another chapter on Social Psychology with a special focus on interpersonal relationships.