Social psychology uses several theories in order to help explain and understand how we perceive people and social events, how we influence others, and the nature of our social relationships. It is important when dealing with these theoretical perspectives to assess their strengths and weaknesses when applying them to specific social situations such as media influences or interpersonal attraction.
Cognitive theories in social psychology emphasise that an individual’s behaviour depends on the way they perceive the social situation. According to Kurt Lewin (as cited in Taylor S.E., Peplau L.A., Sears D.O. (2006). Social Psychology), “behaviour is affected by the individual’s personal characteristics and by the social environment as he or she perceives it.” One of the main ideas in the cognitive approach is that people tend to group objects spontaneously according to simple principles such as proximity, similarity and past experiences. For example, a pile of clothes that need to be ironed are viewed by someone as a large heap rather than as individual items of clothing.
Another aspect of the cognitive perspective is that people tend to perceive that some objects are very noticeable and other things blend into the background. Objects that are colourful, noisy and moving stand out to individuals whereas quiet, stationary and bland objects are harder to notice and constitute the background. This principle, along with spontaneously grouping objects, is important in determining people’s perception of physical objects and social situations. Research from Fiske and Taylor (1991) on social cognitions focuses on how individuals put together information about people, social situations and groups to make inferences about them.
An example of how social psychologists use cognitive theories in real life situations is the use of cognitive priming to explain media influences on anti social behaviour. The basic idea of cognitive priming is that the aggressive cues presented in violent television programmes lead to aggressive thoughts and feelings. Evidence for the importance of cognitive priming comes from Josephson (1987). Some Canadian boys were shown a television programme containing violence, in which snipers communicated with each other by walkie-talkies. The other boys watched a nonviolent programme. After this, all of the boys played hockey and it was found that the boys who watched the violent programme and received instructions by walkie-talkie were more aggressive during the hockey game than the boys who had received instructions by tape recording. Therefore, the walkie-talkie acted as a cognitive prime to aggression.
Cognitive theories are very important and useful for studying the mental processes involved with social situations. The theories have proved to be very successful when applied in various ways, including providing advice about the validity of eyewitness testimony. However, the cognitive perspective is rather reductionist as it involves separating the cognitive system from the motivational and emotional systems, and ignores other important aspects such as social and cultural factors. Another important limitation of the cognitive perspective in social psychology is that there are large individual differences in cognitive processes such as memory, thinking and reasoning. But most cognitive theories tend to ignore these individual differences altogether and assume that most people tend to perceive a social situation in the same way.
A second theoretical perspective of social psychology is the learning theory. This approach focuses on how a person’s current behaviour is determined by past experiences. According to Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory, a person learns certain behaviours that eventually become habits over time. There are three mechanisms within this theory by which learning occurs. The first is association which was demonstrated by the well-known study of Pavlov’s dogs, where the dogs learned to salivate at the sound of a bell because they were presented with food every time the bell rung. They soon learnt to salivate to the sound of the bell even when no food was presented because an association was made between the bell and food.
Humans can also learn emotions from association for example, after being traumatically attacked by a German Shepherd , the sight of any type of dog may arouse fear. Skinner studied the second mechanism called reinforcement. This aspect of the theory suggests that learning is based on rewards. People may learn a particular behaviour because it is followed by a reward or something that satisfies a need. For example, children may learn to say “please” when they want something because their parents praise them for saying the word. The final mechanism is observational learning, which is simply learning by watching others. Other people are an important source of information, for example, a young boy may learn to behave aggressively towards his parents from watching his older brother do the same thing.
Social psychologists use learning theories when dealing with real-life situations. This can be shown again with the example of media influence on pro and anti social behaviour. According to Bandura’s social learning theory, one of the factors in media influence will be observational learning. Behaving aggressively or altruistically can be learnt from observing people on television behaving in this manner, and this behaviour may be imitated subsequently. This is especially likely if the behaviours are reinforced or the observer identifies with the character on television.
Many successful applications have derived from learning theories of social psychology. For example, behaviour therapy is clearly successful for certain mental disorders, such as phobias. Social skills training is also related to learning theories and may be the best way to teach some individuals how to acquire certain skills. However, there are limitations with the learning approach. It is based on the assumption that conditioning principles operate in similar ways in all species which drastically underestimates the differences between species. It is also a rather deterministic approach to social psychology as it assumes behaviour is determined almost entirely by external stimuli, especially those signalling rewards and punishments, and therefore minimises the role of internal factors (e.g. goals). The learning theorist is especially concerned with past experiences and somewhat less concerned with the details of current situations. This contrasts with the cognitive approach which focuses on current perceptions rather than on past learning, and therefore might lead some to question how useful it is to merely focus on an individual’s past and ignore the present situation.
Evolutionary theories of social psychology focus on how human behaviour and social life can be explained by the principles of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection (Buss & Kenrick, 1998). The central idea to this approach is that the behaviours we observe around us must be adaptive, otherwise individuals possessing those characteristics would not have lived long enough to pass on those characteristics to their offspring. For example, a behavioural tendency such as eating healthy foods, increases the chance of survival and reproduction and so gradually becomes part of human genetic inheritance. Brewer (2004) and Buss (1996) came up with several ideas that are central to evolutionary social psychology. These include the idea that many evolved psychological mechanisms relate to other people as human beings spend their lives in interdependent social groups. These may include certain psychological mechanisms such as a need for belonging in a group or fear of being rejected by a society.
The evolutionary perspective is used to explain real-life issues in social psychology such as the attraction and formation of relationships. One of the implications of the evolutionary approach is that males and females should both seek sexual partners who are most likely to produce healthy children. This could explain why physically healthy partners are generally preferred to unhealthy ones. Buss (1989) suggested that men tend to prefer women who are younger than themselves as they are more likely to be fertile. However, the notion that romantic relationships have reproduction as their primary goal does not apply to homosexual relationships in which there is no intention to have children.
Evolutionary social psychology provides a powerful general approach within which to understand human social behaviour and combines effectively with the biological approach as both emphasise the importance of genetic inheritance. However, the evolutionary theory is less applicable to human behaviour than non species’ behaviour. This is because human behaviour is more influenced by experience, conscious thought, and by the culture in which we live. The approach is also deterministic as human behaviour is influenced by numerous factors, and it is very limited to focus almost exclusively on ultimate causes at the expense of more immediate ones. The evolutionary perspective also fails to provide an adequate explanation of individual differences.
In conclusion, the theoretical perspectives of social psychology prove to be useful in explaining some social situations, but each theory has its limitations. Therefore it is difficult to fully understand a social situation by using just one theory alone as there is no single correct perspective. Instead, ideas from different theoretical perspectives should be combined together in order to truly understand the interrelationships among behaviours, thoughts and feelings. Middle-range theories should be used as they account for a specific aspect of social behaviour and do not try to generalise and cover all of social life.