Social Psychology Overview

The field of social psychology can be understood as a balancing act between sociology and psychology. Social psychology leans more toward the side of psychology concentrating on the influence of society on the individual, rather than the influence of the individual on society, but a balance must be achieved because the interaction flows in both directions. This paper will help to define the term social psychology, the impact of the four key characteristics of social psychology, and provide a brief overview of the five core social motives. This overview of social psychology should enhance the reader’s understanding of the field and the importance of one person within society.

Social Psychology Defined

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“Social psychology is the scientific attempt to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other human beings” (Allport, as cited in Fiske, 2004, p. 4). The study of the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions is incomplete without understanding the influences and interaction of the society or people surrounding that individual. While researchers may study intricate details of human psychology in individuals such as in neurobiology, those studies will be incomplete when attempting to describe the entire condition of the individual if the individual’s surrounding culture and his or her interaction with that culture is ignored. Social psychologists examine the influence of the individual in society and conversely, the influence of society on the individual. Social psychology is a systematic outline of the principles and rules in which those influences occur (Newcomb ; Charters, 1950).

The Four Key Characteristics of Social Psychology

The influence one person has on others can be understood by examining the four key characteristics of social psychology: situations, motives, adaptation, and culture (Fiske, 2004). The interaction of individuals with society within situations gives context to an individual’s personality. The motives of the individual are tempered in the situations facing the person. The ability of the individual to adapt to change and to meet personal needs by complying with the demands of the surrounding culture is essential to an individual’s survival and success.

Situations and Motives

The first and second key characteristic to consider in social psychology is that of situations and motives. These two keys are complimentary. The influence of situations on the motives of an individual is often more important than the personality of the individual in determining how a person responds to stimuli (Fiske, 2004). For example, given that a person is motivated to plant a garden, the situation of the weather will influence a person to not plant the garden if the weather forecast predicts thunderstorms.

Or given the motivation that an individual is wants to find a sexual companion without the responsibilities of long-term commitment, the situation of having abundant money available may influence a person with an intense sexual desire (a strong motive) to hire a prostitute. Motivation refers to a state of dissatisfaction or disequilibrium in an individual (Newcomb ; Charters, 1950) which can be fulfilled by a particular situation in the environment or by interacting with other people. The intensity of the inner motive (the sexual desire) is directed toward the availability of the outer motive (the prostitute) and given credence by the situation (the availability of money).

Adaptation and Culture

The third and fourth key characteristics of adaptation and culture are also complimentary to one another. Culture does not exist without the interaction of individuals who adapt to and live in that culture. Since every individual is unique, every individual must make some sort of adaptation in order to conform to the norms of a culture. Individuals who adapt to and remain in a culture ultimately pass that culture to the next generation. When adaptation in a culture fails, then that culture becomes extinct (Newcomb ; Charters, 1950), as in the case of many Native Americans cultures at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Concept of Situationism

Fiske (2004) defines situationism as “a response to people’s social situation, not a function of individual personality.” People place too much importance on the power of personality in making decisions (Fiske, 2004). Social situations influence individual behavior. Social psychologist use situationism rather than personality to explain behavior because personality is complex enough to deserve study in a separate field. While personality alone is not accurate in predicting behavior in any situation, the power of both social situation and personality has been shown to be an accurate predictor of behavior.

The Five Core Social Motives

Situation alone is not enough to cause behavior. An individual must be motivated to action in a situation if behavior is to occur. As stated above, motivation is a desire that is both inward and outward, and according to Newcomb and Charters (1950) the term refers both to an inner state of dissatisfaction (or unrest, or tension, or disequilibrium) and to something in the environment (like food, mother’s presence, or the solution to a puzzle) which serves to remove the state of dissatisfaction.” According to Fiske (2004) this motivation occurs in five core aspects which are recurring themes in the field of social psychology: (1) belonging, (2) understanding, (3) controlling, (4) enhancing self, and (5) trusting others.

Belonging

Being part of a group helps individuals survive and succeed (Fiske, 2004). This is considered a motive because people need the companionship of other people in order to survive and to live successfully. According to Maslow’s (cited in Stacey, DeMartino, Stacey, ; DeMartino, 1958) hierarchy of needs, the need of belonging must be preceded by the basic needs of safety and physiological needs. After fulfilling the basic needs first, a sense of belonging provides strength, stability, and cohesive interdependence as people rely on one another for help to get overcome difficult situations.

Understanding

Another basic motivation is in the cognitive realm: understanding the surrounding environment and situation (Fiske, 2004). This motivation gives people consolation during difficult situations, and provides information about things that are perceived to be important (Fiske, 2004). Communicating understanding with the group helps build the cohesiveness of the group ensuring the groups survival, thus ensuring the individual’s survival and functioning within the group.

Controlling

The ability to determine the outcome of behavior is essential to the survival of an individual in a group (Fiske, 2004). The motivation to control events provides a sense of power and competence to an individual (Fiske, 2004). The sense of control is important not just from the standpoint of the individual controlling the group, but the group may also control the individual, providing some form of stability to the individual by providing a stable environment. In many eastern countries, governmental control provides some sense of stability for individuals who have interdependent self-concepts.

Enhancing Self

The concepts of self-enhancement includes both of the terms self-esteem and self-improvement (Fiske, 2004). The combination of those two terms implies that self-enhancement is not a selfish act, but the ability of the individual to improve self and the environment, thereby enhancing both the group and the individual. Self-esteem was listed by Maslow (cited in Stacey, DeMartino, Stacey, & DeMartino, 1958) as one of mankind’s basic needs, followed by self-actualization, both of which are similar to self-enhancement. However, the concept of self-enhancement extends improvements of the individual to the group, making an important and far deeper impact in the interaction of the individual with the group. The motive of self-enhancement improves the group by making the group stronger, and improves the self by increasing self-esteem, providing a good feeling about self.

Trusting

Unless some event or circumstance has occurred to cause an individual to mistrust, the motive of trusting is a foundational motive to individuals within groups. To trust a group means that information can be relied on, that people in the group will not harm or take advantage of others, and that the group is a safe place to be. To violate this trust, which every person assumes until proven otherwise, is to violate a basic need. Maslow’s (cited in Stacey, DeMartino, Stacey, & DeMartino, 1958) need of safety involves the concept of trust. “Trusting people are more successful socially, being less suspicious, vindictive, resentful, and lonely than distrusting people” (Gurtman; Murray & Holmes; Rotenberg; Rotter; as cited in Fiske, 2004, p. 23). Thus, trusting people improve the condition of the group.

Conclusion

The goal of social psychology to understand the impact individuals have on society is a worthwhile endeavor, capable of improving all society. Understanding situations, motives, adaptation, and culture is essential to understanding the success or failure of interaction between individuals and groups. Much more research is needed to comprehend fully the five core social motives of belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing self, and trusting others. When individuals within society comprehend their value, contributions, and importance in their cultural group, then society as a whole will be the beneficiary.