Area Focus: Social Psychology

Anthony Coy

Psychology is known as one of the most diverse fields in all of science, and social psychology is arguably the most diverse subfield of psychology.  The subfield covers everything from cognition, how we think about ourselves and others, to helping behaviors and the reasons people either help or fail to help in given situations.  Given the breadth of the field the exact definition of social psychology is difficult to produce but for the purposes of this column I shall define it in this way:  Social psychology is the study of a person in her/his social surroundings and the influence those surroundings have on the person and the person has on his/her surroundings.  I feel it of importance to emphasize that social psychology is a two way street where multiple factors come into play.  By this I mean that not only do people influence their surroundings and their surroundings influence them but also that this influence may be direct, through others telling a person how they think and feel, or indirect, through the perceptions of what a person believes others think and expect from him/her.   Since social psychology is such a broad field I will briefly discuss 1) classic studies that have brought the field to where it is today, 2) areas of study that are currently popular and 3) the major journals and publications which publish articles primarily for the area of social psychology to give the most complete overview of social psychology possible.

Classic Studies

One of the most basic studies ever completed is known to many as simply the Asch study of 1951.  Asch completed his study before there was a subfield of psychology called social psychology but it has been the cornerstone of conformity research for years.  The study was quite simple, seven people entered a room, a participant along with six confederates, and sat around a table.  The participant was always positioned so he/she was number six with five confederates before and one after.  Everyone was then shown a card with one line on it and then another with three lines on it, one clearly same as that on the first card, and asked their opinion on which line on the second card best match that on the first (see Figure 1).


Figure 1 – Typical cards used in Asch’s study.

For the first few trials, the confederates would answer correctly along with the participant but then the confederates who stated their opinion before the participant began to answer incorrectly and often times the participant would answer incorrectly as well (Zimbardo, Johnson & Weber, 2006).  This study clearly showed the effects of normative social influence or the desire to be accepted by ones peers and more studies have been built off of Asch’s work to give a better understanding of what conformity is and why people conform so often.

Another classic study was conducted by Zimbardo in 1973 and clearly showed the power social roles can have on individuals.  In his study Zimbardo had students play the roles of prisoners or guards, determined by a flip of the coin, in a mock prison built in the basement of a building on campus.  To be certain who were guards and who were prisoners, guards wore a standard uniform while prisoners wore smocks.   The idea was to have these students act their roles for two weeks while Zimbardo and his colleagues watched how well both groups took to their assigned roles.  What was discovered was that the students began to play the roles all too well, with guards finding unique ways to punish the inmates and many of the inmates becoming upset and withdrawn.  The study had to be ended only six days after it had begun because of the risk of harm to the students (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005).  It is important to remember that these students knew that they were in a psychology study and their role had been determined merely by the flip of a coin but it was clear to see that these roles took over the students personalities showing the power social roles have on people.

Popular Areas of Study

There are many areas of social psychology that are currently popular, most dealing with some major social problems and ways to solve them.  These include prejudice, racism and stereotype threat.  Aggression, especially in the media, has also been of great interest to a number of researchers.  Aggression studies are being conducted in response to an increasing number of violent acts in general and especially those committed by teenagers in schools.  The theory is that this rise in violence is occurring because of the violence everyone watches on television, in movies, and in the video games children and teens play everyday.  Much of the work currently being conducted discusses ways which aggression and violence may be reduced and/or prevented. (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005). 

Work on prejudice and racism is being done in response to the idea that racism is not a major problem in society today, however studies have shown it is still as prevalent, the major difference being that it is shown in more subtle ways which can not be directly linked to a racist person due to the ambiguousness of the situation, such as in job interviews.  This research is especially important since some states in the U.S., such as Michigan, have begun to repeal their affirmative action laws leaving no defense against these subtle forms of racism.

Stereotype threat another area of interest to many researchers mainly because of the influence it is having on education and standardized testing.  In short, stereotype threat is the anxiety a person from a minority group feels when being faced with a situation where the person may confirm that stereotype and that anxiety tends to cause the confirmation of the stereotype (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000).  While researchers know why stereotype threat occurs they have not found a way to guard against and prevent it.  It is important to note that these are just the areas of social psychology which I decided to put forth, there are many areas of social psychology with research being conducted including many of the classical areas I discussed before.

Major Journals and Publications

Many journals publish social psychological articles; the following is a list of the primary ones in the field.

Current Directions in Psychological Science
Group Processes & Intergroup Relations
Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Journal of Language and Social Psychology
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology*
Personal Relationships
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Personality and Social Psychology Review
Perspectives on Psychological Science
Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health
Psychological Science

*Considered by many to be the top journal in the social area.



Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D, & Akert, R.M. (2005). Interpersonal Attraction. In J. Marshall, et. al. (Eds.), Social Psychology (pp. 317-355). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Inzlicht, Michael, & Ben-Zeev, Talia. (2000). A threatening intellectual environment: Why females are susceptible to experiencing problem-solving deficits in the presence of males. Psychological Science, 11, 365-371.
Zimbardo. Philip, G., Johnson, Robert, L. & Weber, Ann, L. (2006). Social Psychology. In Susan Hartman, et. al. (Eds.), Psychology Core Concepts (pp. 565-602). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.\

Anthony Coy is in his final year of undergraduate study at Ferris State University. He is
interested in social psychology and plans to continue his studies and gain graduate degree in
that area. His primary interests include romantic relationships, social cognition, social identity
and social comparisons. Anthony can be reached at: