The purpose of PSYC361: Social Psychology is to gain an understanding of what “social psychologists do!” To accomplish this, you will be shown the kinds of research questions that social psychologists ask (e.g., “Why does advertising work so well?” or “Why do mob riots occur?”).

Social psychologists try to figure out how the environment affects our behavior, and how our behavior affects our environment. To figure out the answers to these questions, social psychologists use a wide variety of research techniques, which you also will learn about.

You will learn about the classic experiments performed by famous social psychologists, who asked questions like “Why did the Nazis do what they did?” and “Why do we believe one thing and do another?”

Finally, by learning about the research questions and how social psychologists try to answer them, you will be able to see how various psychological concepts apply in your own lives.

The major question social psychologists ponder is this: How and why are people’s perceptions and actions influenced by environmental factors, such as social interaction?

In seeking the answer to that basic question, researchers conduct empirical studies to answer specific questions such as:

    How do individuals alter their thoughts and decisions based on social interactions?
    Is human behavior an accurate indication of personality?
    How goal oriented is social behavior?
    How does social perception influence behavior?
    How do potentially destructive social attitudes, such as prejudice, form?

For example, have you ever noticed you act and think differently among people you know than you do among strangers? Have you ever wondered why that is? Social psychologists spend their careers trying to determine the answers to questions like these and what they might mean.

Social psychologists explore the power of thought and perception to shape action and cement emotional connections. This is not a new concept; William Shakespeare provided one of the earliest known examples of an insight worthy of a social psychologist in his most psychologically complex play, “Hamlet.”

The beleaguered prince of Denmark explains why he considers his native country a prison, rather than a paradise: “Why then … there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

Whether presented as a trick of the mind (“thinking makes it so”) or as an exploration of everyday thought and action, social psychology is concerned with explaining some of the deepest mysteries of human relationships and behavior.

It is an exploration of who we are, who we think we are, and how those perceptions shape our experience as individuals and as a society.

Over time, social psychology research touched on nearly every facet of human personality in an attempt to understand the psychological influence of perception and human interaction. The topics covered by today’s social psychologists include:

    Leadership — What personality traits define a leader? What is the role of a leader within a group? How do leaders exercise influence on groups and individuals?
    Aggression — How is aggressive behavior defined? What triggers habitual aggressive behavior? What role does aggression play in self-preservation?
    Social perception — How does an individual develop self-perception? How is self-perception shaped by environmental factors? What is the difference between the existential self and the categorical self?
    Group behavior — What characteristics do groups share? How many people constitute a group? What dictates the structure of a group? Why do individuals gravitate to a particular group?
    Nonverbal behavior — What nonlinguistic actions communicate thought or meaning? How are nonverbal cues developed and interpreted? What emotions do facial expressions, hand gestures, and other nonverbal behavior communicate?
    Conformity — What prompts individuals to change their perceptions to match a group or another person? How does an individual decide to accept influence from another or a group? What is the difference between outward conformity and internal conformity?
    Prejudice — What causes someone to harbor prejudice against a member of a different social group? What is the difference between prejudice and discrimination? How are stereotypes used to build perception?

A career in social psychology feeds a passion for understanding what motivates human behavior, and it requires extensive training in empirical research methods.

Social psychologists are recognized experts in human relationships, the development of self-perception, the group dynamic, leadership, and many other areas of psychology. Their research is vital across multiple disciplines, including business, healthcare, economics, political science, and education.