Stephen L Franzoi. Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Editor: Roy F Baumeister & Kathleen D Vohs. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2007.
Social psychology is only a bit older than 100 years, with most of the growth occurring during the past 6 decades. In discussing the discipline’s history, it should be noted that there are two social psychologies, one in psychology and the other in sociology, with the larger of the two being the psychological branch. The central focus of psychological social psychology is how the individual responds to social stimuli, whereas sociological social psychology focuses on larger group or societal variables, such as people’s socioeconomic status, their social roles, and cultural norms. Although there have been calls to merge the two branches into a single field—and even a joint psychology-sociology doctoral program at the University of Michigan from 1946 to 1967—their different orientations make it doubtful that this will transpire in the foreseeable future. In this historical overview, the psychological branch of the discipline will be highlighted.
Individualism as a Cultural Belief System Shaping Social Psychology
The most important cultural factor shaping social psychology has been the ideology of individualism, which is a cultural belief system asserting that society is a collection of unique individuals who pursue their own goals and interests and strive to be relatively free from the influence of others. In individualism, the focus is on the person, and individual needs are judged more important than group needs. In contrast, the belief system of collectivism asserts that people become human only when they are integrated into a group, not isolated from it. From this perspective, group needs are more important than individual needs. Approximately 70% of the world’s population lives in cultures with a collectivist orientation. However, social psychology developed primarily within individualist societies, and as a result, the discipline has a distinct individualist orientation.
Dawning of a Scientific Discipline: 1862-1895
German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who is widely regarded as the founder of psychology, had a hand in the early development of what would become social psychology. Beginning in the 1870s, European and North American scholars and students came to the University of Leipzig to learn about Wundt’s research on the components of the conscious mind. Among these visitors were Émile Durkheim, Charles Judd, Willy Hellpach, and George Herbert Mead, who later developed some of the theoretical underpinnings of the new discipline of social psychology.
Early in Wundt’s career, he predicted that there would be two branches of psychology: physiological psychology and social or folk psychology (Völkerpsychologie). His reasoning in dividing psychology into two branches was his belief that the type of individual psychology studied in the laboratory by physiological psychologists could not account for the type of higher mental processes exhibited during social interaction. Although social behavior consists of distinct individuals, Wundt argued that the product of this social interaction is more than the sum of the individuals’ mental activities. Because of this distinction, Wundt asserted that while physiological psychology was part of the natural sciences, aligned with biology, social psychology was a social science, with its parent discipline being philosophy. He further argued that whereas physiological psychologists should conduct experiments in studying their phenomena, social psychologists should employ nonexperimental methods because such an approach best captured the complexity of social interaction. Wundt devoted the first half of his career to physiological psychology and the second half to social psychology, with his study of language and the group mind preparing the ground for later collaborative work between psychologists and social anthropologists. Largely due to Wundt’s influential writings and the works of philosopher Moritz Lazarus and humanist Heymann Steinthal, by 1900 Germany’s annual bibliography of the psychological literature listed more than 200 articles per year under the heading “social psychology.”
Despite the fact that Wundt’s 10 volumes of writings on social psychology influenced scholars in Europe, his work remained largely inaccessible to American social scientists because it was not translated into English. Part of the reason for this intellectual freezing out of his ideas was that Wundt’s strident support for German nationalism before and after World War I effectively cut him off from his many former students in America. Further hindering Wundt’s ability to effectively shape the ideas of young American scholars was the fact that these young scientists were much more interested in being identified with the natural sciences than with continuing an alliance with philosophy. Although Wundt’s notion that social psychology was a social science was compatible with the 19th-century conception of psychology as the science of the mind and was embraced by a number of European scholars, it was incompatible with the new behaviorist perspective in the United States that emerged during the early years of the 20th century.
Underlying behaviorism was a philosophy known as logical positivism, which contended that knowledge should be expressed in terms that could be verified empirically or through direct observation. This new science of behavior had little use for Wundt’s conception of social psychology and his admonition that social scientists rely on nonexperimental methodology. An emerging American brand of social psychology defined itself in terms of both behaviorist principles and the reliance on the experiment as its chosen research method. This was especially true for the social psychology developing in psychology, but less so for sociological social psychology. Psychological social psychology in America, which would become the intellectual core of the discipline, developed largely outside the realm of Wundtian influence. In contrast, American sociological social psychology was indirectly affected by Wundt’s writings because one of its intellectual founders, George Herbert Mead, paid serious attention to the German scholar’s Völkerpsychologie. Today the Meadian-inspired symbolic interactionist perspective remains an active area of theory and research in American sociology.
The Early Years: 1895-1935
An American psychologist at Indiana University, Norman Triplett, is credited with conducting the first empirical social psychological study in 1895. Investigating how a person’s performance of a task changes when other people are present, Triplett asked children to quickly wind line on a fishing reel either alone or in the presence of other children performing the same task. As predicted, the children wound the line faster when in the presence of other children. Published in 1897, this study formally introduced the experimental method into the social sciences. Despite this accomplishment, Triplett did nothing to establish social psychology as a distinct subfield of psychology.
Credit for establishing social psychology as a scientific discipline is traditionally given to the first authors of textbooks bearing that title, namely, English psychologist William McDougall and American sociologist Edward Ross, who each published separate texts in 1908. Consistent with the contemporary perspective in psychological social psychology, McDougall identified the individual as the principal unit of analysis, while Ross, true to the contemporary sociological social psychology perspective, highlighted groups and the structure of society. Ross’s focus was consistent with previous work on crowd psychology by French social scientist Gustave Le Bon. Unfortunately for McDougall, his brand of social psychology proposed that social behavior was rooted in instincts and Darwinian evolutionary processes, a theoretical assumption soon opposed by the emerging behaviorist perspective that emphasized learning and the importance of the immediate environment in shaping behavior. Thus, McDougall’s social psychology did not gain an adequate foothold among American psychologists to become an effective orientation toward theory and research. Indeed, evolutionary-based explanations of social behavior remained largely outside the theoretical domain of social psychology for the next 80 years.
If McDougall failed to properly rally fellow social scientists around his explanation of the root cause of social behavior, who is generally recognized as providing this emerging discipline with a specific focus? The common answer is Floyd Allport. In 1924, Allport published a third social psychology text that went a long way in establishing a distinct identity for psychological social psychology in America. Reading his words today, one can see the emerging individualist perspective that would soon permeate the psychological branch of the field:
I believe that only within the individual can we find the behavior mechanisms and consciousness which are fundamental in the interactions between individuals…. There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals … Psychology in all its branches is a science of the individual. (p. 4)
Allport’s conception of social psychology was proposed 11 years after John Watson ushered in the behaviorist era in American psychology. His brand of social psychology emphasized how the person responds to stimuli in the social environment, with the group merely being one of many such stimuli. Beyond this emerging individualist and behaviorist stamp, Allport further shaped the identity of American social psychology by extolling the virtues of the experimental method in studying such topics as conformity, nonverbal communication, and social facilitation. Allport’s call for the pursuit of social psychological knowledge through carefully controlled experimental procedures contrasted with the more philosophical approach that both Ross and McDougall had taken 16 years earlier.
The advantage of the experiment for social psychology was that it allowed the researcher to systematically examine the effects of single variables, either alone or in selected combination, while holding all other variables constant. However, by stressing laboratory experiments in the study of social phenomena, Allport’s conception of social psychology downplayed or altogether ignored cultural and historical levels of reality and, instead, emphasized how individuals respond to the presentation of social stimuli. The individual was studied as an object that was either on the receiving end of these social influences or on the manipulating end of them. In such analyses, there was little consideration given to the possibility that people’s social behavior was influenced by their actively considering how the present situation was understood based on their previous social and cultural experiences. During this same time period, the less experimentally focused version of American sociological social psychology was much more likely to consider the cultural and historical context of social behavior.
During the 1920s, one notable indication that social psychology had become a legitimate area of inquiry within the larger discipline of psychology was Morton Prince’s decision in 1921 to change the name of the publication, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, to that of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and to add Floyd Allport as a cooperating editor. At this time, the personality perspectives employed by American psychologists to understand mental disorders reflected both European psychoanalytic ideas and American formulations (such as the trait and behaviorist approaches) that expressly rejected Freud’s basic assumptions concerning infantile conflicts and unconscious motives. Including social psychology within this discussion was a public recognition within American psychology that a more complete understanding of human interaction would be achieved by studying both personality and situational factors. Furthermore, this alignment of Allport’s behaviorist brand of social psychology with the area of clinical or abnormal psychology was another means of strengthening the behaviorist stamp on American psychology.
As Allport’s conception of social psychology gained adherents, one of his basic assumptions about the social group did not go unchallenged. In the early 1930s, Turkish-born Muzafir Sherif’s research on social norm development was partly spurred by his disagreement with Allport’s belief that a group was merely a collection of individuals and that no new group qualities arise when individuals form into a collective entity. Perhaps influenced by his culture’s collectivist orientation, Sherif countered that a group was more than the sum of its individuals’ nongroup thinking, and he tested this hypothesis by studying in the laboratory how norms develop in a group. These now-famous autokinetic experiments identified important social dynamics underlying socialization and the more general process of social influence. Ten years later, Theodore Newcomb extended Sherif’s findings outside the laboratory with his longitudinal field studies of reference group influence at Bennington College. Sherif’s social norm research was also important in the history of social psychology because it was one of the first demonstrations of how complex and realistic social situations could be studied in a laboratory setting.
Overseas, German social psychology was being shaped by the Gestalt perspective, which rejected both the existing European-inspired notion of a group mind and the American individualist stand that groups were not real in themselves. Instead, Gestalt social psychologists contended that the social environment is made up not only of individuals but of relations between individuals, and these relationships have important psychological implications. Thus, Gestalt social psychologists promoted an understanding of groups as real social entities, which directly led to the tradition of group processes and group dynamics that still exists today. These two schools of thought within psychological social psychology, one in America and the other in Germany, which were developing independent of one another, would soon be thrust together due to events on the world scene.
The Coming of Age: 1936-1945
During the first three decades of the 20th century, Allport’s conception of social psychology emphasized basic research, with little consideration given to addressing specific social problems or broader issues bearing on reform. However, by the mid-1930s, the discipline was poised for further growth and expansion. The events that had the greatest impact on social psychology at this critical juncture in its history were the Great Depression in the United States and the social and political upheavals in Europe generated by World Wars I and II.
Following the stock market crash of 1929, many young psychologists were unable to find or hold jobs. Experiencing firsthand the impact of societal forces, many of them adopted the liberal ideals of the Roosevelt New Dealers or the more radical left-wing political views of the socialist and communist parties. In 1936 these social scientists formed an organization dedicated to the scientific study of important social issues and the support for progressive social action. This organization, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), had as members many social psychologists who were interested in applying their theories and political activism to real-world problems. One of the important contributions of SPSSI to social psychology was, and continues to be, the infusion of ethics and values into the discussion of social life. Its immediate impact on social psychology in the 1930s was to infuse a more applied character to research. New areas of research spawned during this decade were intergroup relations, leadership, propaganda, organizational behavior, voting behavior, and consumer behavior.
In other countries, world events triggered changes that further distinguished American social psychology from its scientific cousins abroad. For example, the communist revolution in Russia at the end of World War I led to a purging of individualist-oriented research and theorizing, a development that stood in stark contrast to the increasing focus on the individual within American social psychology. In 1936, the Soviet Union’s Communist Party forbade the use of psychological tests in various applied settings, which effectively prohibited the study of individual differences. At the same time, the rise of fascism in Germany, Spain, and Italy created a strong anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic atmosphere in these countries. To escape this persecution, a number of Europe’s leading social scientists, such as Fritz Heider, Gustav Ichheiser, Kurt Lewin, and Theodor Adorno, emigrated to America. When the United States entered the war, social psychologists, both American and European, applied their knowledge of human behavior in a wide variety of wartime programs, including the selection of officers for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency), persuading housewives to cook with less desirable meat products, and developing propaganda to undermine enemy morale. The constructive work resulting from this collaboration demonstrated the practical usefulness of social psychology to those governmental and philanthropic bodies that would later fund research.
During this time of global strife, the most influential social psychologist was Kurt Lewin, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Lewin was instrumental in founding SPSSI and served as its president in 1941. He firmly believed that social psychology did not have to choose between being either a pure science or an applied science. His oft-repeated maxim “No research without action, and no action without research” continues to influence social psychologists interested in applying their knowledge to current social problems. By the time of his death in 1947 at the age of 57, Lewin had profoundly shaped the future course of social psychology.
With the end of the war, prospects were bright for social psychology in North America. Based on their heightened scientific stature, social psychologists established new research facilities, secured government grants, and, most important, trained graduate students. These future social psychologists were predominantly White, male, and middle class. As in other professions, many of these graduate students were returning soldiers whose education was funded by the federal government under the new GI Bill. Having grown up during the Depression and influenced by the politics of New Deal Democrats, many young social psychologists held liberal values and beliefs that shaped their later research and theories. Many of their mentors were the European scholars who had fled their native countries and then remained in America following the war. Dorwin Cartwright suggests that the political leanings of these young social psychologists may partly explain why, up until the 1960s, it was difficult to establish strong social psychology programs in the Old South where firmly entrenched social conservativist and segregationist policies directly opposed liberal social reforms.
While social psychology was flourishing in America, the devastating effects of the world war seriously hampered the discipline overseas, especially in Germany. In this postwar period, the United States emerged as a world power, and just as it exported its material goods to other countries, it exported its social psychology as well. Beyond the influence exerted by the liberal leanings of its members, this brand of social psychology also reflected the political ideology of American society and the social problems encountered within its boundaries.
Rapid Expansion: 1946-1969
With its infusion of European intellectuals and the recently trained young American social psychologists, the maturing science of social psychology expanded its theoretical and research base. To understand how a civilized society like Germany could fall under the influence of a ruthless demagogue like Adolf Hitler, Theodor Adorno and his colleagues studied the authoritarian personality, which analyzed how personality factors emerging during childhood shape later adult obedience and intolerance of minorities. Some years later, Stanley Milgram extended this line of research in his now famous obedience experiments, which examined the situational factors that make people more likely to obey destructive authority figures. Other social psychologists, inspired by Lewin’s interpretation of Gestalt psychology, focused their attention on the dynamics of small groups.
At Yale University, Carl Hovland and his colleagues relied on behaviorist principles in investigating the power of persuasive communication. To a large degree, the impetus for this research came from concerns aroused during World War II about propaganda, military morale, and the integration of ethnic minorities into the armed services. Social psychology’s overall attention to research and theory involving social influence and social dilemmas during the 1950s were undoubtedly shaped by anxieties over the stifling of political dissent precipitated by a more general fear of communism and issues surrounding the international conflict with the Soviet Union.
Social psychology’s concern with societal prejudice continued to assert itself during the 1950s. For example, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision to end the practice of racially segregated education was partly based on Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark’s research indicating that segregation negatively affected the self-concept of Black children. In that same year, Gordon Allport (brother of Floyd Allport) provided a theoretical outline for how desegregation might reduce racial prejudice. What came to be known as the contact hypothesis was a social psychological blueprint for reducing hostility between groups by manipulating situational variables. This perspective toward understanding and “fixing” prejudice better fit the behaviorist social psychology practiced in America than the earlier developed authoritarian personality approach.
Another significant line of research begun during the 1950s was Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. Festinger, a former graduate student of Lewin, asserted that people’s thoughts and actions were motivated by a desire to maintain cognitive consistency. The simplicity of the theory and its often-surprising findings generated interest both inside and outside of social psychology for many years. However, the sheer volume of dissonance research declined during the latter part of the 1960s principally because the main propositions of the theory had been sufficiently confirmed in numerous studies.
The decade of the 1960s was a time of social turmoil in the United States, with the country caught in the grip of political assassinations, urban violence, social protests, and the Vietnam War. People were searching for constructive ways to change society for the better. Following this lead, social psychologists devoted more research to such topics as aggression, helping, attraction, and love. The groundbreaking research of Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Berscheid on interpersonal and romantic attraction, for example, not only was important in widening the scope of social psychological inquiry, but it also generated considerable controversy outside the field. A number of public officials and ordinary citizens thought social scientists should not try to understand the mysteries of romance. Less controversial was the bystander intervention research conducted by Bibb Latané and John Darley, which was inspired by the 1984 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City.
Crisis and Reassessment: 1970-1984
During the 1960s, as the federal government expanded its attempts to cure societal ills with the guidance of social scientists, the number of social psychologists rose dramatically. Among these new social scientists were an increasing number of women and, to a lesser degree, minority members. Whole new lines of inquiry into social behavior commenced, with an increasing interest in the interaction of the social situation with personality factors. Today this interactionist perspective is reflected in the titles of social psychology’s two premier journals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The explosion of research in the 1960s played a part in another explosion of sorts in the area of research ethics because a few controversial studies appeared to put participants at risk for psychological harm. The most controversial of these studies was the previously mentioned obedience experiments conducted by Milgram in the 1960s, in which volunteers were ordered to deliver seemingly painful electric shocks to another person as part of a learning experiment. In reality, no shocks were ever delivered—the victim was a confederate and only pretended to be in pain—but the stress experienced by the participants was indeed real. Although this study and others of its kind asked important questions about social behavior, serious concerns were raised about whether the significance of the research justified exposing participants to potentially harmful psychological consequences. Spurred by the debate surrounding these issues, in 1974 the U.S. government developed regulations requiring all institutions seeking federal funding to establish institutional review boards that would ensure the health and safety of human participants.
At the same time that concerns were being raised about the ethical treatment of human participants in research, social psychologists were questioning the validity of their scientific methods and asking themselves whether their discipline was a relevant and useful science. When social psychology first emerged from World War II and embarked on its rapid expansion, expectations were high that social psychologists could work hand in hand with various organizations to solve many social problems. By the 1970s, when these problems were still unsolved, a crisis of confidence emerged. Indeed, Kenneth Gergen argued that social psychology should be regarded as a historical discipline, not a scientific enterprise, because the psychological principles underlying social behavior often change over time and across cultures. When this disappointment and criticism of social psychology was followed by accusations from women and minorities that past research and theory reflected the biases of a White, male-dominated view of reality, many began to reassess the field’s basic premises. Fortunately, out of this crisis emerged a more vital and inclusive field of social psychology, employing more diverse scientific methods while also having more diversity within its membership.
The 1970s is also important in the history of social psychology because it was the decade in which a theoretical shift occurred in a recurring debate concerning the nature of human behavior. Over the years, some social psychologists assumed that people are moved to act primarily due to their needs, desires, and emotions. This “hot” approach to understanding human nature argues that cool, calculated planning of behavior is secondary to heated action that fulfills desires. The alternative viewpoint is that people’s actions are principally influenced by the rational analysis of choices facing them in particular situations. Followers of this “cold” approach assert that how people think will ultimately determine what they want and how they feel. In the 1950s and 1960s, the hot perspective was most influential, but by the 1980s the cold perspective dominated the thinking within social psychology due to the importing of ideas from cognitive psychology and the resulting ascendancy of social cognition.
Attribution theory represented one of the early attempts by social psychologists to test models in which social judgments were thought to be determined by rational and methodical cognitive processes. The various attribution theories developed during this time drew considerable inspiration and insight from the separate earlier works of Austrian-born social psychologists Gustav Ichheiser and Fritz Heider. Whereas Heider’s work has long been widely recognized as shaping the development of attribution theory, Ichheiser battled mental illness and his contributions are only recently being recognized. Beyond attribution theory, additional social cognitive theories began providing numerous insights into how people interpret, analyze, remember, and use information about the social world, and this perspective infused new energy into areas such as attitudes, persuasion, prejudice, intimacy, and aggression. It remains the dominant perspective within contemporary social psychology.
Accompanying the social cognitive emphasis and the increased interactionist orientation of research was renewed interest in the concept of the self, which previously had been the focus of only sociological social psychologists. Although the self had been an implicit notion in attitude research and other areas of social psychological inquiry for many years, the radical behaviorism infusing American psychology since 1913 had relegated the study of the self into a Dark Age of sorts in academia. With the waning influence of behaviorism, psychological social psychologists rediscovered the insights of founding social scientists such as William James, John Dewey, Charles Horton Cooley, and George Herbert Mead. This renewed attention to the self was a fulfillment of a wish expressed by Gordon Allport in his 1943 presidential address to the American Psychological Association, in which he stated, “One of the oddest events in the history of modern psychology is the manner in which the self became sidetracked and lost to view.” Thirty years after this pronouncement, the self was on its way in becoming a central concept within psychological social psychology.
Expanding Global and Interdisciplinary View: 1985-Present
By the 1970s, both European and Latin American social psychological associations had been founded, and in 1995, the Asian Association of Social Psychology was formed. The social psychology that developed overseas placed more emphasis on intergroup and societal variables in explaining social behavior than did its American cousin. For example, French social psychologist Serge Moscovici examined the process by which shared cultural experiences shape people’s social perceptions and how minority groups trigger social innovation and change. Similarly, Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s analysis of group processes and social perception contended that social psychologists should analyze the relations between groups and how group life shapes the social identity and thinking of the individual. Tajfel’s work on categorization was also used to understand the process of stereotyping. The contributions of these European social psychologists are best seen as intellectual descendants of 19th-century scholars such as Durkheim and Wundt and more directly as the intellectual offspring of early 20th-century Gestalt psychology.
By the mid-1980s, the growing influence of social psychology beyond the borders of the United States was well on its way in reshaping the discipline, as scholars throughout the world actively exchanged ideas and collaborated on multinational studies. Many of the new ideas about social behavior were generated by scholars from collectivist cultures who were raised within societies that have a very different perspective on the relationship between the individual and the group than that within the societies of traditional social psychologists. Subsequent cross-cultural research found that certain social beliefs and behaviors that were previously considered universal were, in actuality, specific to the socialization practices of individualist cultures. Based on these findings, considerable research attention was devoted to determining which aspects of human behavior are culture specific—due to conditions existing within a particular culture—and which aspects are due to humans’ shared evolutionary heritage.
This renewed interest in examining the evolutionary basis for human social behavior not represented only a second look at McDougall’s call for an evolutionary-based social psychology but also an attempt to exchange ideas with biologists. Although evolutionary explanations were often presented as direct assaults against sociocultural explanations, a number of social psychologists understood that these two theoretical perspectives were not necessarily incompatible. Instead, they believed that a more complete understanding of social behavior could be achieved by acknowledging that evolutionary forces may have left humans with particular capacities (such as the capacity to behave helpfully) and by recognizing that current social and environmental forces encourage or discourage the actual development and use of those capacities.
Despite the dominance of social cognition in the 1980s, some social psychologists raised concerns about the relative lack of focus on emotions and motives in explaining social thinking. These critics of existing social cognitive theories argued that to think of motives and affect as merely end products in a central processing system was to dehumanize social psychology. In the early 1990s, a number of social psychologists sought to establish a more balanced view by blending the traditional hot and cold perspectives into what some have termed the warm look. These revised social-cognitive theories proposed that people employ multiple cognitive strategies based on their current goals, motives, and needs. Theorists typically developed dual-process models, meaning that social thinking and behavior are determined by two different ways of understanding and responding to social stimuli. One mode of information processing—related to the cold perspective legacy—is based on effortful, reflective thinking, in which no action is taken until its potential consequences are properly weighed and evaluated. The alternative mode of processing information—related to the hot perspective legacy—is based on minimal cognitive effort, in which behavior is impulsively and unintentionally activated by emotions, habits, or biological drives, often below the radar of consciousness. Which of the two avenues of information processing people take at any given time is the subject of ongoing research.
This attention to both explicit and implicit cognition has recently prompted social psychologists to explore how neural activity in the brain is associated with various social psychological processes, including self-awareness, self-regulation, attitude formation and change, group interaction, and prejudice. Although the numbers of social psychologists who pursue such research is still relatively small, the knowledge they acquire concerning the biology of social behavior will undoubtedly play a role in reshaping existing theories. Indeed, the U.S. federal government’s National Institute of Mental Health, which has an annual budget of $1.3 billion, has recently given priority to research grants that combine social psychology and neuroscience.
Finally, relative to applied work, contemporary social psychologists have continued the legacy of Lewin and SPSSI by applying their knowledge to a wide arena of everyday life, such as law, health, education, politics, sports, and business. This interest in applying the principles and findings of social psychology is a natural outgrowth of the search for understanding. However, in this quest for scientific insight, some social psychologists contend that the discipline has focused too much attention on negative social behavior and the flaws in human nature. There are those in the profession who disagree with this critique, but others reply that focusing on the problems humans have as social beings will result in more long-term benefits than would focusing on human strengths.
If the life of a science is analogous to a person’s life, then contemporary social psychology is best thought of as a young adult in the social sciences. Compared to more established sciences, social psychology is “barely dry behind the ears.” Yet it is a discipline where new and innovative ideas are unusually welcome, where new theoretical approaches and scientific methods from other scientific disciplines are regularly incorporated into the study of social thinking and behavior, and where members of the discipline regularly question the social significance of their findings. In this ongoing critical self-assessment, most social psychologists are confident that their still-young science will continue revealing important insights into how humans function as social creatures.