The Bonds that Hold Us Together: A Tour of Social Psychology

Broadly speaking, psychology isn’t just one “thing”; there are many disciplines and subdisciplines that fall under the umbrella of psychology. Developmental psychology, gestalt psychology, and personality psychology are all but a few examples. But one area of psychology that took root in the 1960s was social psychology, and this branch of psychology has been blossoming ever since.

The timing of why social psychology became dominate in the 1960s remains an interesting case study in history. In the aftermath of World War II – and especially the holocaust in Nazi Germany – many academics in the west began to ask: “How could this have happened?” Psychologists such as Stanly Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo, among others, conducted now-famous investigations into particular aspects of social psychology.

That said, however, certain areas within the field of social psychology remain controversial.
“Many social psychologists feel that their field is usually subject to fads,” writes author Morton Hunt. “Many ‘hot topics’ have come and gone in its fifty-odd years as a leading discipline, and certain subjects that once seemed the very essence of social psychology have been regulated to storage.”

Morton, who wrote a beefy 800-plus history of psychology called, “The Story of Psychology,” says, on the other hand, some aspects of social psychology have been scientifically validated through experiments and research. Some of these findings, according to Morton, include:

• The harder it is to gain membership in a group, the more highly the group is valued by the person who is accepted.
• When people behave in ways that are likely to see as either stupid of immoral, they change their attitudes so as to believe that their behavior is sensible or justified.
• People who hold opposing views are apt to interpret the same news reports or factual material about the disputed subject quite differently.
• When people who think of themselves as reasonable humane are in a situation where they hurt innocent others, they reduce the resulting dissonance by derogating their victims.

Other areas of social psychology that have been explored include why individuals submit to authority, cognitive dissonance, the psychology of imprisonment, the bystander effect, and conflict resolution.

Social psychology, then, has strong historical foundations, and research continues to this day.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, however, the vogue for artful, ingenious, and daring deceptive experiments waned, although deceptive research remains a major device in the social psychologists’ toolbox,” Morton writes (referring to some of the earlier, more controversial research conducted by Milgram and Zimbardo in the 1970s). He continues: “The currently ongoing inquires though they cover a range of subjects, have one characteristic in common: relevance to human welfare.”

Hunt, M. (2007). The story of psychology. Anchor Books, New York, NY.