Social Psychology

Essentially, social psychology’s emphasis is mainly on understanding the causes of social behaviour – on identifying factors that shape our feelings, thoughts and behaviour in social situations (Baron & Byrne, 2000). For example, some of the questions that will be answered in this topic are: Why do human beings act so aggresively and violently towards each other? Why are we attracted to certain people and not others? What motivates us to help others? These questions and more form the core of social psychology. As we discuss the various topics within social psychology, you will become aware of the deep, yet hidden influence socialisation that has on our social behaviour.

Social Influence: Conformity and Obedience

The society and culture in which we grew up in has a deep influence on our behaviour. Society and culture teaches us to believe certain things, feel certain ways and act accordingly. However, the majority of us are largely unaware of the strong influence society and culture play in our lives and in the way we behave, so much so that we find it difficult to recognise them. In this section, we will discuss two kinds of social influence: conformity and obedience.


Imagine that you have volunteered to participate in a psychology experiment on perception. You find yourself in a room with six other participants. First, all of you are shown a card containing three lines labeled A, B and C, and are asked to choose the line that is the closest in length to line X (please refer to figure 10.1). You are then asked one by one to say your answers out loud. At first everyone agrees on the correct answer. However, on the third trial (third card), the first participant responds with an obviously incorrect answer. You know that line A is correct, but she says line B. When the second, third, fourth and fifth participants also say line B, you really start to wonder whether you are wrong and maybe they are right. What do you think you would do at this point in the experiment? Would you stick to your initial answer, line A, or would you go along with the group, conform, and say line B as well?

Asch’s study of conformity

In the original version of this experiment conducted by Solomon Asch (1951), six participants were actually actors or helpers of the experimenter who were asked to answer incorrectly on the third trial. The actual purpose of the experiment was to investigate the degree of conformity, or changing one’s behaviour as a result of real or imagined group pressure. More than one-third of Asch’s participants conformed and agreed with the group’s obviously wrong answer. Why would so many people conform? To the spectator, conformity is often difficult to understand, and even the person who conforms has a tough time explaining his/her behaviour. It is possible to understand conformity better by exploring three factors – normative social influence, informational social influence, and the role of reference groups.

(a)   Normative social influence:

Have you ever asked a friend what he/she is wearing to a party or watched what other people are doing at the party so that you too can follow? Such behaviour reflects your desire to conform and the power of normative social influence. Norms are society’s definition of how we should behave. Normative social influence refers to conformity to group pressure out of a need for approval and acceptance by the group.

(b)   Informational social influence:

Have you ever purchased anything simply because of a friend’s recommendation? In this case, you conformed not to gain their approval, but rather because you assume that they have more information than you. Informational social influence refers to conformity to group pressure out of a need for direction and information. Many governments realise the importance of information in social influence and generally maintain strict control over the information that is available to the masses.

(c)    Reference groups:

We have a tendency to conform to people we admire and like. This is why millions of dollars are paid to celebrities to endorse certain products because advertisers realise the power of reference groups (Davis & Palladino, 2000).


By graffiti artist, Shepard Fairey

Obedience can be defined as a type of social influence in which an individual follows direct commands, usually from someone in a position of authority. Imagine you have volunteered to participate in a psychology experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. You are randomly assigned to either the role of teacher or learner. Your role is teacher. As a teacher, you are instructed by the experimenter to give electric shocks to the learner when the wrong answer is given. The electric shocks start with 15 volts and go up to 450 volts which is extremely painful, but causes no permanent damage to the recipient. Do you think you would follow the experimenter’s instructions and give electric shocks right up to 450 volts?

In the original version of this experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram (1963), 26 out of 40 people obeyed Milgram and gave shocks to the learners right up to 450 volts. Of course, the shocks were fake and the learners were all actors. However, this goes to show that because we have been socialised to obey authority figures, we are willing to go so far as to harm a complete stranger. This is the power of social influence.

What are the factors that influence obedience? Researchers have found that there are a few factors that lead people to absolute obedience:

(i)                 Holding the authority figures responsible instead of themselves

(ii)               Accepting that the behaviour they are engaged in is routine

(iii)             Avoiding being rude or offending authority figures

(iv)             The tendency to obey simple commands first and then feeling obliged to follow more difficult commands later – a process called entrapment or foot-in-the-door phenomenon.


Social cognition: Attitudes & Attribution

Social cognition refers to the way in which we interpret, analyse, remember, and use information about the social world. More often than not, our interpretations of the social world are less than accurate, and our ability to think clearly about other people and reach accurate decisions or judgments about them are far from perfect. In this section, we will discuss attitudes and attribution.


An attitude can be defined as a learned predisposition to respond cognitively, affectively, and behaviourally to a particular object. The object can be anything from a book to people, death and politics. We are not born with attitudes, rather they are learned. Essentially, we form our attitudes through direct experience (e.g. reading a book) and through indirect observation (e.g. listening to our parents talk about politics).

Attitudes have three major components – cognitive, affective and behavioural. The cognitive component consists of thoughts and beliefs, such as “Death is not the end of life”. The affective (emotional) component involves feelings, such as fear of what comes after death. The behavioural component consists of predispositions to act in a certain way towards the object (Baron & Byrne, 2000).

We have a strong need to feel that our attitudes are in sync with each other, and our attitudes and behaviour are consistent. When this harmony is disturbed, we feel troubled and are provoked to change either our attitude, beliefs or behaviour in order to restore the harmony. This concept is known as cognitive dissonance theory. Imagine you have a desire to go to France for a holiday, but you come to realise that you cannot afford it, so you tell yourself that French people are arrogant and it is not worth the money anyway to go to a country full of snobbish people. This example follows a pattern: you desire something, find it unattainable, then reduce your dissonance by changing your attitude towards it.


As we try to understand the world around us, we often look for explanations for people’s behaviour. What are the reasons for the high level of obedience in Milgram’s experiment? When we offer an explanation for behaviour, we attribute it to something. There are a few criteria for attribution.

Essentially, we attribute behaviour either to internal or external causes. Did the person act that way because of personal characteristics, motives or intentions, or from some situational demands or environmental pressures? We can answer the internal-external question by applying three criteria: consistency, consensus, and distinctiveness.

(a)    Consistency: Does the person respond to the same stimulus in a similar manner on other instances?

(b)   Consensus: How do other people respond to the same stimulus?

(c)    Distinctiveness: How does the person respond to different stimuli? Is the person’s behaviour odd or distinctive?

When consistency, consensus and distinctiveness are all high, we tend to make external attributions. Whereas, when consensus and distinctiveness are low, while consistency is high, we tend to make internal attributions. However, how do we make such attributions when we lack time and information? Most of the time, we rely on mental shortcuts.

One common mental shortcut that is used is called the fundamental attribution error. Essentially, people are more likely to attribute behaviour internally rather than externally. This is simply because human personalities are more noticeable (salient) than situational factors. Saliency bias helps to explain why people often blame homeless people for their position. One of the major harms related with saliency bias is the tendency to ‘blame the victim’. Very often when people are victimised by poverty, robbery or rape, they are questioned about why they got themselves into such a situation. We ‘blame the victim’ for his/her misfortune as it helps us maintain our belief of a just world, where bad things only happen to bad people (Baron & Byrne, 2000).

On the other hand, when we explain our own behaviour, we choose internal attributions for our successes and external attributions for our failures. This is known as self-serving bias.


Prejudice can be defined as a negative attitude emotional response towards a particular group and its individual members. Prejudice, like other attitudes, influences our processing of social information (Huffman, Vernoy & Vernoy, 1997). There are examples of prejudice all around us. Why do you sometimes spot advertisements for a room to rent only available to a certain race? This is obviously prejudice on the part of the advertiser, not giving another person the chance simply because they are a member of a different racial group.

(a) Prejudice as a special type of attitude

  • Attitudes often function as schemas. Schemas are cognitive frameworks for organising, interpreting and recalling information.
  • This attitude can induce negative feelings or emotions just by being in the presence of or simply thinking about members of the group they are prejudiced against.

(b) Why prejudice persists?

  • People who hold prejudiced views do so because it allows them to boost their own self-image. When they put down other people, it allows them to feel superior.
  • Holding prejudiced views saves us considerable cognitive (mental) effort. Once attitudes or schemas are formed, we do not have to bother about engaging in careful, systematic processing since we already “know” what members of a given group are like through our preconceived beliefs, prejudices and stereotypes.

You should not confuse prejudice with discrimination. Discrimination is defined as treating members of a particular group unfairly or differently because of their membership in that group. Hence, prejudice refers to a negative attitude directed towards a particular group, whereas, discrimination refers to the behaviour directed against the group. An example of discrimination would be choosing not to rent a room to somebody because they belong to a particular race.

Sources of prejudice and discrmination are as follows:

(i)                 Socialisation: prejudices are often passed down from parents to their children. The media may also potray some groups in a brighter light than others, which brings about prejudices. For example, the media may only potray fair skinned people in their advertisements, leading people to believe that dark skin is undesirable, thus leading to a prejudice against dark skinned people.

(ii)               Conforming behaviours: sometimes we are pressured into forming prejudices or being discriminative fearing that we may lose the support of important people in our life if we act otherwise. For example, we may be prejudiced and discrminative against Jews because we face pressure by members of our group, and fear possible social rejection if we are to act otherwise.

(iii)             Direct intergroup conflict (competition as a source of prejudice): researchers have found that prejudice and discrimination increase when groups are in direct competition with each other for economic benefits, or other valued commodities and opportunities. For example, in the history of Malaysia, our biggest racial disputes happened in May 13th 1969 due to a sharp division of wealth between the Chinese, who were perceived to control a large portion of the Malaysian economy, and the Malays, who were perceived to be more poor and rural.

(iv)             Social categorisation (us-versus-them effect): people have strong tendencies to divide the world into two categories – us and them; and perceive their group to be superior to other competing groups. Each group sees itself as different and better than its rivals, and prejudice and discrimnation arise out of this clash of social perceptions.

Interpersonal  Attraction

Take a minute to think about somebody you like a lot. Now think of somebody you really do not like. Can you explain how you feel? Interpersonal attraction refers to one person’s evaluation of someone else along a dimension that ranges from strong liking to strong dislike. In this section, we will explore a number of factors that explain interpersonal attraction – physical attractiveness, proximity, and similarity.

(a)   Physical attractiveness

One of the first things that attracts us to another person is physical attractiveness (size, shape, and facial features). Studies have shown that even as infants, we favour more attractive faces. Physically attractive people are also more likely to be popular and liked.

(b)   Proximity

A key factor in attraction involves geographic, residential, and other forms of physical proximity (closeness). Studies have shown that the nearer you live or work with someone, the more likely it is that you will like that person simply because of repeated exposure. Just like familiar people become more physically attractive to us, repeated exposure increases overall liking.

(c)    Similarity

We have a tendency to like people that are similar to us (those who share common interests, values and beliefs). Similarity is an important factor in long-term attraction. However, we are also often attracted to people that are very different from us. This is because we have a tendency to seek out people whose qualities we admire, but personally lack.


Aggression refers to the intentional infliction of some form of harm on others. First, we will explore several theoretical perspectives on aggression. Next, we will discuss some important determinants of aggression.

Why do human beings act so aggressively and violently towards each other?

Instinct theories suggest that human aggression stems from innate tendencies to be violent towards each other. This view was supported by Sigmund Freud among others. Freud believed that aggression stems mainly from a powerful death wish possessed by everybody. According to him, this instinct is first aimed at self-destruction, but is soon redirected towards others. A similar view was proposed by Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Lorenz suggested that aggression stems mainly from an inherited fighting instinct that human beings share with many other species. The assumption is that this instinct developed during the course of evolution because it helped ensure that only the strongest individuals will pass on their genes to the next generation. If you have ever watched any documentaries on wildlife, you would know that in order for a male to mate with another female, he first has to fight with other males and show that he is the strongest. However, while competition for mates and territory is typical in the animal kingdom, the role of such factors in human aggression is seriously questionable. Human aggression stems from a very large number of different factors. Hence, the suggestion that human aggression stems primarily from innate tendencies seems inappropriate (Baron & Byrne, 2000).

Drive theories suggest that human aggression stems from external conditions that arouse the motive to harm others. The frustration-aggression hypothesis is one of the more popular drive theories. According to this theory, frustration can arouse a strong motive to harm others. Most social psychologists reject this view and consider it to be false.

Modern theories of aggression do not focus on a single factor as the primary cause for aggression like earlier theories do. In contrast, modern theories draw on  the progress in many fields of psychology in order to gain further understanding of such behaviour. One example of a modern approach is the general affective aggression model (GAAM). According to this theory, aggression is triggered by various input variables – aspects of the current situation and/or tendencies individuals bring with them to a given situation (Morris & Maisto, 2001).

For example, imagine a person who is frustrated (perhaps he/she comes from a low socio-economic background and is struggling just to make ends meet), then he/she is insulted and provoked by other individuals, combined with his/her exposure to aggressive models (perhaps an abusive parent). There are all variables which fall into the first category. Variables which fall into the second category include individual differences such as personality traits which make it more likely for aggression to occur such as high irritability. The person’s beliefs and attitudes about violence (perhaps he/she believes it is normal and acceptable behaviour to be aggressive), values about violence (perhaps violence shows courage or masculinity and is a good thing). Finally, having specific skills related to aggression such as having experience in fights and knowing how to use weapons. According to the GAAM, these individual differences and situational variables can lead to aggression through their impact on three basic processes: arousal (may increase physiological arousal such as faster heart rate), affective states (may arouse hostile feelings and emotions) and cognitions (may arouse hostile thoughts or bring back violent memories).  Finally, depending on the person’s appraisals (interpretations) of the current situation and possible restraining factors such as law enforcement, aggression may or may not occur.

Figure 10.2: General Affective Aggression Model


Try to think back to the last time you really got angry and acted out aggressively. What made you explode? Was it something somebody else did or said? Was it something to do with you – are you irritable, or do you feel unfairly treated? Perhaps it was something about the situation (e.g. being drunk)?  In fact, all of the above can lead to aggression.

Prosocial Behaviour

Have you ever wondered why people sometimes provide help to total strangers and sometimes stand back and do nothing? Social psychologists are interested in identifying the various factors which determine who is most likely to help under what circumstances. Essentially, the goal is to understand and predict prosocial behaviour. A prosocial act can be defined as an act that benefits another person, but has no direct benefits for the person helping (Weiten, 2001).

The major inspiration for investigating prosocial behaviour was the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese of New York in 1964. For more than 30 minutes, 38 people watched a murderer stalk and stab a woman, but did not call the police. Only 20 minutes after the whole incident was over and she was dead, the first call to the police was recorded. The caller was a man who did not want to ‘get involved’. Why is it that people did not help? Was it simply because they were heartless and unkind? The truth is by not helping, you can avoid a lot of potential problems for yourself. Also, bystander effect occurs when there a lot of possible people that could come to the rescue. Most of the time, however, nodody comes to the rescue because everybody assumes that somebody else will do it.

When faced with an emergency, a bystander must go through five crucial steps involving decisions that either inhibit or enhance the likelihood of a prosocial response. He or she must (1) notice the emergency, (2) correctly interpret what is occurring, (3) assume responsibility for providing help, (4) have the necessary skills and knowledge to help,  and (5) decide to provide assistance (Baron & Byrne, 2000).

Another important question that is asked in relevance to prosocial behaviour is – Is any prosocial act truly unselfish? Do we provide help purely on the basis of altruism (an unselfish concern for the welfare of others) or is our motivation to help based at least partly on egoism (concern about one’s own personal welfare)? There is no concrete answer to this question, but researchers have found that empathy is the key to helping behaviour. Empathy refers to our ability to feel what the other person is feeling. For example, when we see another person suffering, we also feel the pain, and try to help them. According to the empathy-altruism hypothesis, if we feel empathy towards others, we will help them regardless of what we can gain for ourselves out of it. When you do not feel empathy, then you start weighing out the benefits of helping against the cost of helping.


Baron, R.A. & Byrne, D. (2000). Social psychology (9th ed.). Allyn and Bacon.

Bab 4: Attitudes: Evaluating the Social World

Bab 6: Prejudice and Discrimination

Bab 7: Interpersonal Attraction

Bab 10: Prosocial Behavior: Helping Others

Bab 11: Aggression

Davis, S.F. & Palladino, J.J. (2000). Psychology (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River,

NJ: Prentice Hall.

 Bab 14: Social Psychology. 

Gazzaniga, M.S. & Heatherton, T.F. (2003). Psychological science: The mind, brain and behaviour. London: W.W Norton & Company.

Bab 16: Social Behavior.

Gerrig, R.J. & Zimbardo, P.G. (2008). Psychology and life (18th ed.). Boston:   Pearson Education.

 Bab 15: Social Psychology.  

Huffman, K., Vernoy, M. & Vernoy, J. (1997). Psychology in Action (Fourth Ed.). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Bab 16: Social Psychology

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-8.

Morris, C.G. & Maisto, A.A. (2001). Understanding psychology (5th ed.).       Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Bab 14: Social Psychology. 

Piliavin, I.M. , Rodin, J. and Piliavin, J.A. (1969). Good Samaritanism: an underground phenomenon? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1 (4), 289-99.

Weiten, W. (2001). Psychology Themes & Variations (Fifth Ed.). Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Bab 16: Social Behavior.


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