Overview of Social Psychology Research Paper Starter

Overview of Social Psychology

(Research Starters)

This article offers a primer on social psychology, or the study of an individual's behavior within a group context. Classic social psychological studies are described, including Stanley Milgram's experiment on obedience, Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Bystander Effect, along with social implications and the integration of relevant literature. Furthermore, cognitive dissonance is addressed, which is a social psychological concept that helps reconcile the disconnection between incongruent ideals. In conclusion, the conceptualization of deviant behavior is examined through a social psychological or maladaptive group lens.

Keywords Bystander Effect; Cognitive Dissonance; Diffusion of Responsibility; Milgram's Obedience Experiment; Self-Justification; Stanford Prison Experiment

Overview of Social Psychology


Psychology, or the study of human behavior, is an amply sized, expansive field that encompasses several distinct factions, each of which offers its own unique brand of specialization (Gibson, 1994). For example, psychology students who aspire to secure a position as a helping professional by acquiring therapeutic dexterity might study counseling psychology, clinical psychology, or school psychology (Fuller, 2008; Maddux, 2008; Hart, 2007). Additional branches of psychology include cognitive psychology, which emphasizes mental processes such as language acquisition and memory recollection, and forensic psychology, or the specialization of criminal justice matters such as antisocial behavior and crisis intervention (Johnson, 2002; Lightbown, 2008; Packer, 2008). Developmental psychology focuses on the normative milestones that humans attain throughout each stage of their life, ranging from mother-infant levels of attachment, the functions of play in childhood, moral development, love, retirement, as well as matters that emerge during the transitions between each life stage (i.e., infant to child, child to adolescent, adolescent to adult, adult to elderly) ("The Developmental Perspective," 1984).

Amid the many diverse psychological classifications lies social psychology, or the study of people within the context of the various groups they inhabit (Berkowitz & Devine, 1997; Riecken, 1960; Trope, 2004). According to Allport (as cited in Thoits, 1995), "social psychologists attempt to understand how the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others influences the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals." In other words, social psychology extrapolates beyond that of the individual, in and of himself, and examines how he integrates into various situations. Under what circumstances does he comply with authority, and under what instances does he refute such authoritative domination? Why does he feel at ease while intermingling with his friendship group, but stiffens around his family members? These scenarios pique the intrigue of social psychologists, who seek to unearth interactional dynamics that are elicited within each person, along with the variance that often exists between a person's social self versus his private self. Additional topics of interest among social psychologists include group processes, conformity, aggression, and the indoctrination of attitudes, and perceptions (Gibb, 1984; Bond, 2005; Deffenbacher, 2008; Eagly, 1992; Baron, Markman & Bollinger, 2006).

Further Insights

Classic Studies

There is a broad spectrum of "classic" social psychological studies that have greatly contributed to the field, and the following three will be highlighted in this section: Stanley Milgram's experiment on obedience, Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Bystander Effect, which was initiated by Darley and Latané.

Stanly Milgram's Experiment on Obedience

The inception of Stanley Milgram's study, titled "Behavioral Study of Obedience," was shrouded in the legacy of the Nazi Holocaust, and sought to unveil information surrounding the darker side of human behavior. The widespread annihilation that was orchestrated by Hitler reflects a resounding level of evil that is eternally etched into the collective consciousness of humanity. In the early 1960s, Milgram was moved by the course of events that had transpired several decades earlier, although his incredulity stemmed less around Hitler's autocratic dictatorship and instead focused on the blind compliance that was executed by his military regime. Certainly, Milgram surmised, the collective inhabitants from any given region, in this case the Germans cannot be cumulatively dissolute. Rather, he postulated that enveloping acts of evil in such circumstances must be derived from some sort of adverse group dynamic. Such a group process was what Milgram set forth to study, or more specifically, how the ostensibly "moral" layperson would respond to an authority figure that demanded submission from a situation that clearly overstepped the bounds of integrity.

The Milgram experiment was devised under a false guise; there were fictitious actors assuming various roles within the context of a man-made scenario in order to glean psychological insight toward obedience and authority. More specifically, Milgram posted a newspaper advertisement, which erroneously petitioned volunteers to participate in a study that alleged to examine memory and learning. Each of the 40 volunteers arrived individually to a laboratory alongside another man who was impersonating as an additional volunteer; in reality, this second "volunteer" was a part of the study. The two men were greeted by a "researcher," who was an additional prop that facilitated implementation of the study's false pretense. The researcher explained that the two volunteers would embark upon an experiment that examined how the role of punishment affected the learning process. Further, the researcher explained that he had written on two slips of paper the words "teacher" and "learner," which the two volunteers would indiscriminately draw upon in order to ascertain their assigned roles. The truth of the matter was that both slips of paper read "teacher," in order for the actual volunteer to secure this position.

From that point, the researcher relayed the instructions. He wired the "learner" to an electronic contraption and asked that the "teacher" read a series of words, of which the learner was required to memorize. Upon responding inaccurately, the teacher was instructed to impart a mild electric shock; with each additional blunder, the shock voltages steadily increased. They proceeded with the study, despite the learner's wary disclosure of a mild heart condition. As the study progressed, the learner's accumulation of wrong answers elicited shocks that magnified in intensity. As the shocks became unbearably painful, the learner incessantly bemoaned that his agony was insufferable and begged that they discontinue the study. Upon demanding such reprieve, the researcher prompted the teacher to persist with the study by providing him with one of four prods (Miller, Collins, & Brief, 1995, p. 3):

• Prod 1-Please continue, or please go on.

• Prod 2-The experiment requires that you go on.

• Prod 3-It is absolutely essential that you continue.

• Prod 4-You have no other choice, you must go on.

To Milgram's surprise, 65% of the teachers endured the course of the experiment in its entirety, most of whom appeared conflicted between their internal principles and their desire to comply with authority, although their blind adherence to authority was the ultimate victor. Nevertheless, the internal struggle with which participants contended is highlighted through the following illustration:

I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe, and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: 'Oh god, let's stop it.' And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter, and obeyed to the end (Milgram, as cited in Miller, Collins, & Brief, 1995, p. 4).

The implications of the Milgram experiment are considerable, and at the offset of this pivotal study, social psychologists scrutinized the compelling sway that those in positions of power (e.g., police officials, military personnel, workplace supervisors may demand, solely by virtue of their roles, which may be exacerbated by extraneous factors such as personality traits, and environmental considerations [Hodson, Roscigno & Lopez, 2006; Liqun & Bu, 2000; O'Hara, Doyle & Branswell, 1998]).

Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment

Another landmark social psychology experiment, which also consequently tapped into authority-oriented issues, originated as a means to investigate the effects of imprisonment. Philip Zimbardo was the lead researcher who initiated the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, which was designed as a two-week investigation and utilized 24 college students to serve as the primary participants. These students were administered psychological and physical screens to ensure that only those deemed "hardy" would participate, and then they were randomly assigned the role of either "prisoner" or "guard." The study began with a mock arrest in which the prisoners were apprehended, handcuffed, and hauled off to their simulated jail cells, where they received standard prison garb furnished with an imprinted prison identification number; this moniker became their new form of identity that replaced their actual names. At the same time, prison guards were equipped with customary guard uniforms accompanied by accoutrements such as shaded sunglasses, which served to curtail eye contact, and batons. At this point, Zimbardo set forth on his expedition to clarify the following questions: what is the nature of hierarchical role differentials between people? What happens when morally upright individuals are placed in devastating conditions; do they rise to the occasion by drawing upon their strengths and positively influencing each other, or do they sink to the depths of disparity? ("Think You're Above," 2007)

The events that occurred throughout the course of the Stanford Prison Experiment were exceptionally demoralizing, and fully surpassed the expectations that even Zimbardo, himself, had initially anticipated. Each prison guard instantly assumed the identity of a brash, authoritative despot whose sole function was to ensure that the prisoners did not deviate from the prescribed set of rules that the guards had previously drafted; even imperceptible infractions were met with the harshest of consequences. The prisoners, in turn, also internalized their roles by initially rallying together to stage a group retaliation, but when their efforts were overthrown they eventually succumbed to the oppressed realm of coercion and victimization. As of late, Zimbardo has retrospectively reflected upon the course of events that took place during the Stanford Prison Experiment, and drew striking comparisons to the melee that occurred in the prisons of Abu Ghraib. In particular, he said:

The reason that I was shocked but not surprised by the images and stories of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib "little shop of horrors" was that, three decades earlier, I had witnessed eerily similar scenes as they unfolded in a project that I directed: naked, shackled prisoners with bags over their heads, guards stepping on prisoners' backs as they did push-ups, guards sexually humiliating prisoners, and prisoners suffering from extreme stress. Some images from my experiment are practically interchangeable with those from Iraq ("Think You're Above," 2007, p. 68).

Even Zimbardo found himself acquiescing to the role of "prison superintendent," a surprising occurrence given that it was he who conceptualized the project and would subsequently interpret the findings, which would seem to function as an automatic barrier that would enable an appropriate level of objective distance. Inevitably, the Stanford Prison experiment was terminated after only six days of operation, due to the escalating levels of forceful domination on behalf of the guards, and the nonstop subjugation and tyranny that was imposed onto the prisoners. Although Zimbardo's Stanford Prison experiment has endured criticism surrounding its unethical parameters and impartment of undue psychological damage onto participants, many pertinent questions have arisen that examine the nature...

(The entire section is 5532 words.)