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Social Psychology

Social psychology (or the social approach) is interested in studying individuals in a social context, such as family, friends, institutions, and wider society. Social behaviour may involve activity within a group or between groups.


According to social psychologists our behaviour is influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others.


One of the debates in psychology is whether an individual's behaviour is a result of their personality or their social context. As you will see from looking at the three core studies in this section of the course, the authors of the studies emphasise the importance of the social context in shaping behaviour.


The social influence which the Milgram study (1963) is concerned with is the demands of an authority figure.


The study by Reicher and Haslam (2006) demonstrates the importance of how social identity influences our behaviour.


The field experiment carried out by Piliavin, Rodin and Piliavin (1969) examines the social influences on the decisions we make about whether we help people in emergency situations.


A main strength of social psychology is the attempt to use real life situations when studying behaviour. Because social psychology is interested in human interaction this is best studied in real situations where participants have the opportunity to interact such as with the field experiment method used by Piliavin et al. or a simulated situation such as that carried out by Haslam and Reicher. Field experiments are experiments carried out in a real world situation. Field experiments are usually high in ecological validity and may avoid demand characteristics as the participants are unaware of the experiment. Simulated situations such as the BBC prison study are high in experimental realism because even though the situation is not high in ecological validity the participants still did believe in the situation. However with field experiments it is not possible to have the same level of control as with laboratory experiments. When laboratory experiments though are used by social psychologists such as the experiment carried out by Milgram we have to be careful generalising the findings as participants may behave differently in the real world.


Another strength of the social approach is the contributions it makes about understanding social behaviour. Social psychology makes useful applications because it can explain and even offer solutions to problems in the real world. For example, Haslam and Reicher demonstrate how the breakdown of groups can lead to conditions under which tyranny can flourish and Milgram identifies many situational factors which can lead to obedience. However we do have to recognise that studies which measure social behaviour may be specific to the time they were done. For example obedience rates in the 1960s might be different to obedience rates in the noughties.


A problem which arises when studying social behaviour relates to ethics. It is difficult to study social behaviour without negatively affecting the participants in the study. Nowadays psychologists have strict ethical guidelines which they should follow when conducting studies. The Milgram study is often criticised for the way in which participants may have been harmed in the study. For example it can be argued that Milgram did not take adequate measures to protect his participants from the stress and emotional conflict they experienced. However, the ethical guidelines that psychologists nowadays must follow were not introduced when Milgram carried out his study and Milgram did not expect the results that he found. Reicher and Haslam did anticipate that their study could have a negative effect on their participants but ensured that their study was monitored by independent psychologists and believed that their study demonstrates that large scale social psychological studies can be ethical.


A further problem with the social approach is related to the generalisability of the findings. The social approach attempts to make generalisations about social behaviour but often the samples used are very restricted. Both the Milgram study and the study by Reicher and Haslam were carried out on male participants and therefore we would have to be careful generalising these findings to females. Furthermore both of these studies used a self-selected sampling technique which may mean that participants who volunteer may not be representative of the target population for a number of reasons. For example, they be more obedient, more motivated to take part in studies and so on. This is in contrast to the Piliavin et al. study where participants were an opportunity sample of males and females.