Social Psychology:
An Introduction

James Neill

Centre for Applied Psychology

University of Canberra

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Social Psychology Photo Gallery

What is Social Psychology?

Social Thinking - Questions






Attitude Change

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Social Influence - Questions


Asch's Conformity Experiments

Asch's Conformity Experiments

Predictors of Conformity

Milgram's Obediance Studies

Milgram's Obediance Studies


Group Interaction

  • Group Polarization
  • Group Think
  • Minority influence

Social Relations - Questions

  • Qhat causes us to harm or to help or fall in love?
  • What causes prejudice and aggression?
  • How can we develop prosocial relationships?

Perceiving Others

  • Stereotypes: Generalized (often exaggerated) beliefs about a group of people.
  • Prejudice: Unjustifiable pre-judged bias against a group and its members, e.g., gender, race, age, class


  • Behavior which intends to cause hurt or harm.
  • Frustration-Aggress Hypothesis:
    • Frustration in achieving a goal -> Anger -> Aggression


  • Perceived incompatibility of actions, goals, or ideas.
  • Social Trap: Conflicting parties each rationally pursue self-interest and become caught in mutually destructive behavior.


  • Positive feelings toward another e.g., liking, friendship, admiration, lust, love).
  • Passionate relations are arousing and absorbing.
  • Companionate relations involve deep affection and can be further divided into intimate or committed (Sternberg)


  • Mere Exposure Effect (Zajonc): Repeated exposure to a novel stimuli -> great liking
  • Some components of what is attractive vary across culture e.g., skin color.


  • Usually starts as passionate, shifts to companionate if relationship lasts.
  • Sociobiological view: "Love is a diry trick on us to achieve the continuation of the species." (Somerset Maugham)


  • Unselfish behavior and attitude towards the welfare of others.
  • Is there really altruism? Altruism is often for self-benefit e.g., power, status, reward, psychological gain.
  • What matters in judging the act is the actor's intented outcomes.

Bystander Effect

  • 75% help when alone vs. 53% in presence of others


  • Social psychology is about how we:
    • Think about others, e.g., Attributions
    • Are influenced by others, e.g., Conformity
    • Interact with others, e.g., Relationships


Social Psychology studies...

  • Social Thinking, i.e., people’s attitudes and how these influence behaviour.
  • Social Influence, i.e., the influences of others, people’s behaviour in groups and individually.
  • Social Relations, including stereotypes, prejudice, aggression, attraction and what makes relationships work.
  • Culture and its influences, including self-presentation and person perception.

Attitude Change

  • Research has indicated that there are many factors at play in attitude change. A source of persuasion who is credible, expert, trustworthy, and likable, tends to be relatively effective in stimulating attitude change.
  • Although there are some situational limitations, two-sided arguments are more effective in persuasive messages. Repetition is helpful, as the validity effect shows (simply repeating a statement causes it to be perceived as more valid).
  • Persuasion is undermined when a receiver is forewarned, when the sender advocates a position that is incompatible with the receiver’s existing attitudes, or when strong attitudes are targeted.
  • Attitudes may be shaped through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.
  • Reciever: Festinger’s dissonance theory asserts that inconsistent attitudes cause tension and that people alter their attitudes to reduce cognitive dissonance.
  • Receiver: Self-perception theory posits that people infer their attitudes from their behavior.
  • Receiver: The elaboration likelihood model holds that central routes (when people carefully ponder the content and logic of persuasive messages) to persuasion yield longer-lasting attitude change than peripheral routes (persuasion depends on nonmessage factors such as attractiveness of the source).

Cognitive Dissonace

  • A notion put forward by Festinger based on Heider’s cognitive consistency notion (there is a psychological force that impels people to make their cognitions (beliefs) about something balanced)
  • Occurs when we have two psychological inconsistent cognitions (beliefs) as a result of which we experience a state of arousal that is unpleasant (i.e., provokes anxiety) and we try to reduce it by altering one or more of our cognitions. We try to be rational in our thinking, however many of the experiments carried out on cognitive dissonance theory show how irrational people are, e.g., When we go through an embarrassing situation we change our beliefs in order to feel less embarrassed. Here's some more examples of cognitive dissonance driving changes in attitudes:
    • A person believes that Howard is an idiot but believes in the liberal party. This leads to dissonance so the options are to try to think of Howard being less of an idiot or to believe less in the liberal party.
    • Someone just has sex for first time, but doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, yet really likes this guy, therefore changes belive that sex before marriage isn’t that bad or that she doesn’t really like this guy.
    • Attitude that drinking makes people look stupid, talking a drink at a party due to peer pressure, drinking isn’t really that bad. Asked to do something at work that goes against your values, change values for the situation.

Milgram's Obediance Experiment

  • Obedience is a form of compliance that occurs when people follow direct commands, usually from someone in a position of authority.
  • Stanley Milgram, like many people, was troubled over the Nazi war criminal defense “I was just following orders.” He designed a landmark experiment to determine how often ordinary people will obey an authority figure, even if it means hurting another person.
  • His experiment consisted of 40 men from the local community recruited to participate in a psychology experiment, supposedly on the effects of punishment on learning. The men were given the role of “teacher” in the experiment, while a confederate was given the role of “learner.”
  • The teacher was seated before an apparatus that had 30 switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts, with labels of slight shock, danger: severe shock, and XXX etc. Although the apparatus looked and sounded real, it was fake. The learner was never shocked.
  • Milgram found that 65% of the men administered all 30 levels of the shock, even though they displayed considerable distress at shocking the learner.
  • Milgram’s experiments were extremely controversial, as his method involved considerable deception and emotional distress on the part of subjects.
  • Can you think of an example where you go along with what you’re told to do even though it might cause you distress?

Person Perception

  • Person perception is the process of forming impressions of others.
  • Perceptions of others can be influenced by a variety of factors, including physical appearance. People tend to attribute desirable characteristics such as sociable, friendly, poised, warm, competent, and well adjusted to those who are good looking. People use social schemas, organized clusters of ideas about categories of social events and people, to categorize people into types.
  • Stereotyping is a normal cognitive process involving widely held social schemas that lead people to expect that others will have certain characteristics because of their membership in a specific group. Gender, ethnic, and occupational stereotypes are common.
  • Person perception is a subjective process. Stereotypes may lead people to see what they expect to see and to overestimate how often they see it (illusory correlation).
  • Evolutionary psychologists argue that many biases in person perception were adaptive in our ancestral past, for example, automatically categorizing others may reflect the primitive need to quickly separate friend from foe.


  • Physical appearance influences are significant in attraction and love, particularly in the initial stages of dating. Being physically attractive appears to be more important for females than males. The matching hypothesis proposes that males and females of approximately equal physical attractiveness are likely to select each other as partners.
  • Research: Byrne’s research suggests that similarity causes attraction, particularly attitude similarity, although Davis and Rusbult (2001) have shown that attraction can also foster similarity, with dating partners experiencing attitude alignment. Couples tend to be similar in age, race, religion, social class, personality, education, intelligence, physical attractiveness, and attitudes. Personality similarity has been shown to be associated with marital happiness.
  • Reciprocity involves liking those who show that they like you. When a partner helps one feel good about oneself, a phenomenon called self-enhancement occurs. Studies suggest that people seek feedback that matches and supports their self-concepts, as well, a process known as self-verification. In romantic relationships, reciprocity often extends to idealizing one’s partner–people view their partners more favorably than the partners view themselves. Research on the degree to which a partner matches a person’s romantic ideal indicates that evaluations according to ideal standards influence how relationships progress.
  • Berscheid and Hatfield have distinguished between passionate and companionate love, with passionate love being a complete absorption in another that includes tender sexual feelings and the agony and ecstasy of intense emotion. Companionate love is warm, trusting, tolerant affection for another whose life is deeply intertwined with one’s own. These may coexist, but not necessarily. Passionate love is gradually replaced by compassionate love.
  • Robert Sternberg has expanded the distinction between passionate and companionate love, subdividing companionate love into intimacy (warmth, closeness, and sharing) and commitment (intent to maintain a relationship in spite of the difficulties and costs).
  • Going back to developmental psychology, Hazen and Shaver’s theory suggests that love relationships in adulthood mimic attachment patterns in infancy, with those with secure attachments having more committed, satisfying relationships.
  • Cultures vary in their emphasis on love as a prerequisite for marriage, with marriage for love more common in Western cultures. Cross-cultural similarities in characteristics that males and females seek in prospective mates support an evolutionary perspective on love. According to this theory, certain characteristics are attractive because they are indicators of reproductive fitness.

Bystander Effect

  • The bystander effect (BE) is a well studied, phenomenon (Darley and Latane and colleagues)
  • BE is that people are less likely to provide needed help when they are in groups than when they are alone.
  • Reviews of studies on over 6,000 subjects in a variety of helping situations indicate that subjects who are alone help about 75% of the time, while subjects in the presence of others help about 53% of the time.
  • The bystander effect is believed to occur because of diffusion of responsibility – when the responsibility is divided among many, everyone thinks that someone else will help.

Group Studies

  • Studies also show that productivity decreases as group size increases. This is believed to be due to 2 factors: loss of efficiency resulting from a loss of coordination of effort and social loafing. Social loafing is a reduction in effort by individuals when they work in groups as compared to when they work alone.
  • Decision making processes can be influenced by groups as well. Group polarization occurs when group discussion strengthens a group’s dominant point of view and produces a shift toward a more extreme decision in that direction.
  • Groupthink occurs when members of a cohesive group emphasize concurrence at the expense of critical thinking in arriving at a decision. Research indicates that cohesiveness (strength of the liking relationships linking group members) is a significant contributor to groupthink.



Annenberg (1989). The Power of the Situation (Program 19). [27 min video] Annenberg: Santa Barbara, CA.

Lewis, V. (2004). Social Thinking. Powerpoint presentation to Psychology 102. Canberra: University of Canberra.

Myers, D. G. (2001). Social Psychology (Ch. 18). In D. G. Myers (2001). Psychology (6th ed.) (pp. 643-688). New York: Worth.