5 Important Concepts in Social Psychology

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Social psychology is a branch of psychology concerned with how social influences affect how people think, feel, and act. The way we perceive ourselves in relation to the rest of the world plays an important role in our choices, behaviors, and beliefs. Conversely, the opinions of others also impact our behavior and the way we view ourselves.

Understanding social psychology can be useful for many reasons. First, we can better understand how groups impact our choices and actions. There are some basic aspects of social behavior that play a large role in our actions and how we see ourselves.

Social Behavior Is Goal-Oriented

Our interactions serve goals or fulfill needs. Some common goals or needs include the need for social ties, the desire to understand ourselves and others, the wish to gain or maintain status or protection, and the need to attract companions.

The way people behave is often driven by the desire to fulfill these needs. People seek friends and romantic partners, strive to gain social status, and attempt to understand the motivations that guide other people's behaviors.

Situations Help Determine Outcome

In many instances, people behave very differently depending upon the situation. To fully understand why people do the things they do, it is essential to look at individual characteristics, the situation and its context, and the interactions among all these variables.

For example, someone who is normally quiet and reserved might become much more outgoing when placed in some type of leadership role. Another example is how people sometimes behave differently in groups than they would if they were by themselves. Environmental and situational variables play an important role and have a strong influence on our behavior.

Social psychology allows us to gain a greater appreciation for how our social perceptions affect our interactions with other people.

Social Situations Form Self-Concept

Our social interactions help form our self-concept and our perceptions. One method of forming self-concept is through the reflected appraisal process, in which we imagine how other people see us. Another method is through the social comparison process, whereby we consider how we compare to other people in our peer group.

Sometimes we engage in upward social comparison where we rate ourselves against people who are better off than us in some way. In other instances, we might engage in downward social comparison where we contrast our own abilities to those of others who are less capable.

We Analyze the Behavior of Others

One common phenomenon is the expectation confirmation, where we tend to ignore unexpected attributes and look for evidence that confirms our preexisting beliefs about others. This helps simplify our worldview, but it also skews our perception and can contribute to stereotyping.

If you expect people to behave in a certain way, you might look for examples that confirm your belief while at the same time ignoring evidence that conflicts with your existing opinions.

We Believe Behavior Reflects Personality

Another influence on our perceptions of other people can be explained by the theory of correspondent inferences. This occurs when we infer that the actions and behaviors of others correspond to their intentions and personalities. For example, if we see a woman helping an elderly person cross the street, we might assume that she is kind-hearted. While behavior can be informative, it can also be misleading.

If we have limited interaction with someone, the behavior we see may be atypical or caused by the specific situation rather than by the person's overriding dispositional characteristics. In the previous example, the woman might only be helping the elderly person because she has been employed to do so instead of out of the kindness of her heart.

A Word From Verywell

Learning more about social psychology can enrich your understanding of yourself and the world around you. By learning more about how people view others, how they behave in groups, and how attitudes are formed, you can gain a greater appreciation for how social relationships influence individual functioning.

5 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.
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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."