Social Psychology/Psychologists

Social psychology is a discipline that uses scientific methods "to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings" (1985).

Social psychology looks at a wide range of social topics, including group behavior, social perception, leadership, nonverbal behavior, conformity, aggression and prejudice. It is important to note that social psychology is not just about looking at social influences. Social perception and social interaction are also vital to understanding social behavior.

Brief History of Social Psychology

While Plato referred to the idea of the "crowd mind" and concepts such as social loafing and social facilitation were introduced in the late-1800s, it wasn't until after World War II that research on social psychology began in earnest. The horrors of the Holocaust led researchers to study the effects of social influence, conformity and obedience.

The U.S. government also became interested in applying social psychological concepts to influencing citizens. Social psychology has continued to grow throughout the twentieth century, inspiring research that has contributed to our understanding of social experience and behavior.

How Is Social Psychology Different From Other Disciplines?

It is important to understand how social psychology differs from other disciplines. Social psychology is often confused with folk wisdom, personality psychology and sociology. What makes social psychology different? Unlike folk wisdom, which relies on anecdotal observations and subjective interpretation, social psychology employs scientific methods and the empirical study of social phenomena.

While personality psychology focuses on individual traits, characteristics and thoughts, social psychology is focused on situations. Social psychologists are interested in the impact that the social environment and group interactions have on attitudes and behaviors.

Finally, it is important to distinguish between social psychology and sociology. While there are many similarities between the two, sociology tends to looks at social behavior and influences at a very broad-based level. Sociologists are interested in the institutions and cultures that influence how people behave. Psychologists instead focus on situational variables that affect social behavior. While psychology and sociology both study similar topics, they are looking at these topics from different perspectives.

Social psychologists study how social influence, social perception and social interaction influence individual and group behavior. Learn more about what social psychologists do, the training and educational requirements and the job outlook in this brief overview of careers in social psychology.

What Do Social Psychologists Do?

Some social psychologists focus on conducting research on human behavior. These professionals might work in a university setting or they might be employed by businesses or government agencies. Other social psychologists are interested in discovering solutions to real-world problems. Applied social psychologists might help business hire and train employees, evaluate educational programs do determine if intervention strategies are working, search for ways to encourage people to reduce pollution or offer advice to businesses or employees who need help with conflict mediation.

"Social psychologists examine people's interactions with others and with the social environment," explains the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. "They work in organizational consultation, marketing research, systems design or other applied psychology fields. Many social psychologists specialize in a niche area, such as group behavior, leadership, attitudes and perception."

Where Do Social Psychologists Work?

Because social psychologists are trained to combine their knowledge of human behavior with scientific research methods, job options and work settings can be very diverse. Many social psychologists choose to work in educational environments such as colleges and universities where they conduct research, teach classes and run social psychology laboratories. Other social psychologists work for government offices, non-profit organizations, hospitals, social service offices and private corporations.

What Training Is Needed to Become a Social Psychologist?

While some social psychologists find work with a masters degree, most opt to earn a doctorate degree. In most cases, students interested in becoming a social psychologist should start by earning an undergraduate degree in psychology. The next step is to enroll in a graduate program in social psychology. Some programs follow a two-step process by first awarding a masters degree in social psychology and then a doctorate, but other programs may skip the terminal masters degree and go straight to the Ph.D. For most students, it will take at least four to five years of graduate study in order to earn a Ph.D. in Social Psychology.

How Are Social Psychologists Different from Personality Psychologists?

While social psychology shares some similarities with personality psychology, there are important differences that distinguish the two areas. Personality psychologists generally focus on individual differences between people, while social psychologists are more interested in how situational variables influence the behaviors of groups and individuals.

Social psychology is sometimes confused with sociology, but the two (while somewhat related) are not the same. Social psychologists tend to focus on the behavior of individual people or small groups of people, while sociologists look at very large populations such as entire social groups or cultures as a whole.

Job Outlook for Social Psychologists

One survey that looked at job advertisements appearing in the APS Observer Employment Bulletin between 1991-1996 found ads seeking social psychologists made up 10 percent of all job listings for that time period. However, it is important to remember that social psychologists work in a wide variety of job areas, so individuals with a Ph.D. in social psychology are frequently able to find work in related areas.




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