The 9 Major Research Areas in Social Psychology

Crowd of people walking down a city sidewalk

Mitchell Funk / Getty Images

Social psychology is a branch of psychology that studies a wide range of subjects related to social behavior. This includes studying how people interact, factors that affect social perceptions, the formation of attitudes, and how groups influence individuals.

Research in social psychology is often focused on subjects that fall within three broad areas:

  • Social influence: Social influence refers to the ways in which our opinions and behavior are affected by the presence of others. This includes studies on topics such as conformity, obedience, and social pressure.
  • Social perception: Social perception refers to the ways in which we form impressions of other people. This includes research on topics including first impressions, stereotyping, and prejudice.
  • Social interaction: Social interaction refers to the ways in which we interact with other people. This includes research on topics such as communication, aggression, and altruism.

This article discusses some of the major areas of research in social psychology. It also explores some examples of the types of research that social psychologists might conduct within these subject areas.

Social Cognition

Social cognition is concerned with the processing, storage, and application of social information. For example, research in this area of social psychology may focus on the development and use of social schemas. 

Schemas are our general ideas about the world, how things are, and how things work. In the case of social schemas, these ideas relate to how we expect people to behave in different situations.

These mental categories allow us to function without constantly stopping to interpret everything around us. We also develop associations between related schemas, which play an important role in the thought process and social behavior.

One area of social cognition research concerns person perception, which is how people form impressions of others. 

First impressions are the judgments we form about someone based on limited information. Studies have shown that first impressions happen within mere milliseconds and are based on several cues, such as facial expressions, body language, voice, and the beliefs held by the observer. 

Recap

Understanding how people acquire and process social information allows researchers to better explain how it can affect social interactions and individual behavior.

Attitudes and Attitude Change

Another major research area in social psychology involves the study of attitudes. Social psychologists are interested in the components of attitudes, how attitudes develop, and how attitudes change.

Attitudes are evaluations of people, objects, or issues. They can be positive (e.g., "I like chocolate") or negative (e.g., "I dislike taxes"). Various factors contribute to the development of attitudes, including upbringing and experiences, although genetics also appears to play a role in shaping them.

Researchers have identified three core components of attitude: an affective component, a behavioral component, and a cognitive component. Often referred to as the "ABCs of attitude," these elements describe how we feel, behave, and understand.

Some other characteristics of attitudes that researchers may be interested in include:

  • How they are best measured: Some attitudes can be measured through self-report questionnaires, but others might be better measured using tools like facial expression or arousal levels.
  • Factors that affect their strength: Attitudes can vary considerably in terms of their intensity. The strength of these attitudes directly impacts the degree to which they will guide their actions. Direct experiences and frequent exposure to the attitude can impact its strength.
  • How attitudes affect behavior: Researchers are also interested in understanding how and when these attitudes influence people's actions. For example, social psychologists might explore how attitudes develop through exposure to social media sources and how those attitudes relate to real-world actions.

Recap

Attitudes are an important research topic in social psychology because they impact how people view and interact with others.

Violence and Aggression

What causes violence and aggression? While many different factors play a role, social psychologists are interested in understanding the social influences that shape violent behavior.

Research in this area looks at numerous social factors that may cause aggression, including:

  • Situational variables that might contribute to aggression
  • Non-physical types of aggression such as name-calling or gossiping
  • How aggression is learned via modeling, such as witnessing adults or children engage in aggressive or violent behaviors
  • How violence in the media affects behavior in the real world
  • Strategies that can be effective in the reduction of aggression and violence
  • The role social learning plays in producing aggressive behaviors and actions
  • How public policy can be used to curb violent behavior

Research into the epidemic of gun violence is an example of how social psychologists are trying to understand the variables that contribute to a problem, and then utilize that knowledge to come up with actionable solutions.

Prosocial Behavior

Prosocial behavior is another major research area in social psychology. Prosocial behaviors are those that involve helping and cooperating.

Researchers often look at why people help others, as well as why they sometimes refuse to help or cooperate. The bystander effect is an example of a social phenomenon in the subject area of prosocial behavior.

Much of the research in the area of bystander effect was prompted by the murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese. This case captured national attention when reports suggested that neighbors had witnessed her attack and murder but failed to call the police for help.

Later reviews of the case indicate that few (if any) of the neighbors had a clear view of the scene and were unaware of what was happening. Nevertheless, the case became mythologized in psychology textbooks and prompted a surge of interest in prosocial behaviors.

Research inspired by the Genovese case produced a great deal of information on prosocial behavior and how and why people choose—or sometimes refuse—to help others.

Prejudice and Discrimination

Prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes exist in any social group. Social psychologists are interested in the origins, causes, and effects of these attitudes and social categorizations.

Some questions that social psychologists explore include:

  • How does prejudice develop?
  • Why are stereotypes maintained in the face of contrary evidence?
  • How can prejudice be measured?
  • What factors contribute to the formation of prejudice and discrimination?
  • Are there effective ways to reduce prejudice and discrimination?

For example, researchers have found that several factors contribute to the development of prejudice, including stereotypes, social categorization, and social influences. Another factor that plays a part is the outgroup homogeneity bias, or the tendency to view people outside of our social group as being more homogenous than members of our own group.

Recap

By learning more about the psychology of prejudice and discrimination, researchers can look for solutions to help help prevent it from happening.

Self and Social Identity

Our perceptions of social identities and ourselves are another important research area in social psychology. Some of the questions that researchers explore include:

  • How do people come to know and understand themselves?
  • How do these self-perceptions affect our social interactions?
  • How does belonging to different social groups shape individual identity?
  • How do intersecting group members influence self-perception and self-identity?

Social psychologists are interested in learning more about how this inner life influences our outer lives and social world. Self-awareness, self-esteem, self-concept, and self-expression are only a few factors that influence our social experience.

For example, social comparison is a process that can impact how people view themselves. Upward social comparison involves comparing the self to others who are perceived as higher in status and ability, while downward social comparison focuses on making comparisons to those who are lower in status or ability.

Upward comparisons can leave people feeling like they don't measure up, damaging self-esteem. Downward comparisons, on the other hand, can help enhance self-esteem.

Recap

By learning more about how social identities and self-perceptions interact, social psychologists are better able to understand how social factors can influence how individuals feel about themselves and their identities.

Group Behavior

Group behavior is defined as the actions, feelings, or thoughts of a collective of people. Such groups involve two or more people who share something in common such as identity, purpose, and belief.

The behavior of groups is one of the largest research areas in social psychology. Most people realize that groups tend to behave differently than individuals. These group behaviors are sometimes beneficial but can also be detrimental.

Social psychologists often look at topics such as:

  • Group dynamics
  • Leadership
  • Group decision making
  • Conflicts
  • Cooperation
  • Group influence

Norms are an example of an aspect of group behavior that can guide how group members think, behave, or act. Norms are standards that emerge and guide how another member judge one another.

Social Influence

Social psychologists are also interested in the role of social influence on behavior and decision-making. Topics such as the psychology of persuasion, peer pressure, conformity, and obedience are only a few of those studied in this area of social psychology.

One example of research in this area of social psychology was Milgram's obedience studies conducted during the 1960s. The experiments found that when ordered by an authority figure, participants were willing to deliver what they believed were dangerous and painful electrical shocks to another person. While the shocks were staged, the research suggested that many people were willing to go to great lengths to obey authority.

Recap

Research has helped reveal the power of social influence and has uncovered ways to help people resist influence.

Interpersonal Relationships

Social relationships play a major role in shaping behavior, attitudes, feelings, and thoughts. Social psychologists study how these interpersonal relationships affect people by looking at attachment, liking, love, and attraction.

Some research questions that social psychologists might explore include:

  • How important are interpersonal relationships to individual well-being?
  • What factors play a role in attraction?
  • How do interpersonal relationships influence helping behaviors in groups?
  • How do close relationships affect individuals?

Close relationships are relationships in which we feel a strong sense of connection and intimacy with another person. Studies on close relationships have shown that they are associated with many benefits, such as increased happiness and satisfaction with life.

A Word From Verywell

Social psychology is a rich subject that explores how social perception, social interaction, and social influence affect both groups and individuals. Researchers in this field are interested in various topics, including attitudes, attraction, close relationships, and helping behavior. By learning more about these subjects, social psychologists can add to our understanding of social behavior and its effect on individual well-being.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Venta A, Hatkevich C, Mellick W, Vanwoerden S, Sharp C. Social cognition mediates the relation between attachment schemas and posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychol Trauma. 2017;9(1):88-95. doi:10.1037/tra0000165

  2. Stolier RM, Hehman E, Keller MD, Walker M, Freeman JB. The conceptual structure of face impressions. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018;115(37):9210-9215. doi:10.1073/pnas.1807222115

  3. Markovitch N, Netzer L, Tamir M. Will you touch a dirty diaper? Attitudes towards disgust and behaviour [published correction appears in Cogn Emot. 2016;30(3):i]. Cogn Emot. 2016;30(3):592–602. doi:10.1080/02699931.2015.1020049

  4. Olson JM, Vernon PA, Harris JA, Jang KL. The heritability of attitudes: A study of twins. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2001;80(6):845-60. PMID: 11414369.

  5. Van Ryzin MJ, Dishion TJ. From antisocial behavior to violence: a model for the amplifying role of coercive joining in adolescent friendshipsJ Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2013;54(6):661–669. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12017

  6. Kassin SM. The killing of Kitty Genovese: What else does this case tell us? Perspect Psychol Sci. 2017;12(3):374–381. doi:10.1177/1745691616679465

  7. Rhodes M, Mandalaywala TM. The development and developmental consequences of social essentialismWiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci. 2017;8(4):10.1002/wcs.1437. doi:10.1002/wcs.1437

  8. Hjerm M, Eger M, Danell R. Peer attitudes and the development of prejudice in adolescenceSocius Sociolog Res Dynamic World. 2018;4:1-11. doi:10.1177/2378023118763187

  9. American Psychological Association. Outgroup homogeneity bias.

  10. Drury J, Carter H, Cocking C, Ntontis E, Tekin Guven S, Amlôt R. Facilitating collective psychosocial resilience in the public in emergencies: Twelve recommendations based on the social identity approach [published correction appears in Front Public Health. 2019 Jun 27;7:181]. Front Public Health. 2019;7:141. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2019.00141

  11. Rahman T. Extreme Overvalued Beliefs: How Violent Extremist Beliefs Become "Normalized"Behav Sci (Basel). 2018;8(1):10. doi:10.3390/bs8010010

  12. Russell NJC. Milgram's obedience to authority experiments: Origins and early evolutionBr J Soc Psychol. 2011;50:140-162. doi:10.1348/014466610X492205

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.