Historical Reference of Social Psychology

As a branch of psychology, social psychology studies “the effects of social variables and cognitions on individual behavior and social interactions” (Zimbardo, Johnson, & McCann, 2012, p. 400). Comparing to other scientific disciplines, social psychology is a rather new science. The history of social psychology is just a little longer than one hundred years.

On the other hand, a rich history of thoughts and concepts in social psychology can be traced back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. As Minton (2008) stated, “the modern ideas of twentieth-century social psychology were anticipated and, in some cases, directly influenced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers” (p. 364).

For over a century, the scope of social psychology has been broadened with the central inquiry for understanding the nature and causes of individual behavior, and people’s thinking and feelings in social situations. Social psychology is a dynamic field which changes rapidly. Constant changes in social environments throughout the nineteenth century such as industrialization, urbanization, social services, and public health had become the impetus for social psychologists to develop new methods and theories in studies of this discipline (Lubek, 2000, p. 324). Today, social psychology continues to grow with many talented scholars join the force of social psychological research which has contributed to our understanding of human behavior and social experience.

The Emergence of Social Psychology

In this section, we overview significant milestones in the early stage of the social psychology development.

The Birth of Social Psychology

According to Hogg and Cooper (2007), 1895 was the year when social psychology was born as a scientific discipline. In this year two scholars, Norman Triplett and Gustave Le Bon conducted pioneer research in social psychology.

Norman Triplett, an American psychologist at Indiana University, was also a cycling enthusiast. Triplett observed that riders performed better when racing together than when riding along. This observation inspired him to conduct empirical research to study how an individual’s performance on an assigned work changes with presence of other people.

Gustave Le Bon, a distinguished French social scientist, conducted important pioneer studies on individual behavior in crowds. In 1895, Le Bon published his best-known study in the book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon is often considered the father of social psychology (Bendersky, 2007, p. 258).

The First Social Psychological Study

In psychological community, the credit is usually given to Norman Triplett for conducting the first empirical study in social psychology field. In 1895 Triplett designed the first social scientific experiment in which he compared children’s performance in winding fishing reels when they were alone and when they were competing with other children (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001). His hypothesis was approved in the research results that the children wound the line faster when they were in competition. Triplett’s work was published in 1897. This study is considered as the beginning in applying experimental methods to the social sciences research.

First Textbooks in Social Psychology

American sociologist Edward Ross and English psychologist William McDougall are considered the first authors of textbooks “exclusively devoted to social psychology” (Minton, 2008, p. 364). In 1908, coincidentally they each wrote and published separate textbooks. Both books contain the phrase “social psychology” in the titles. In their books McDougall and Ross presented different perspectives regarding social psychology. McDougall’s book was emphasized on psychological social psychology where the individual was the focus of analysis. On the other side, Ross presented sociological social psychology perspective in the textbook and put focus on the study of groups.

Significant Contributors in Social Psychology

Besides Triplett and Le Bon who marked the birth of social psychology and McDougall and Ross who published the first textbooks, other significant researchers are overviewed along the social psychology development timeline in this section.

Floyd Allport

Floyd Allport is often called the founder of experimental social psychology because of his research with focus on experimental measurement of social phenomenon. In 1920, Allport “coined the term social facilitation and extended the research of that time by attempting to control potentially extraneous influences, such as competition” (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001, p. 169). Allport’s research also demonstrated his theoretical rigor and his popular 1924 textbook Social Psychology marked the beginning of the modern period of social psychology.

Solomon Asch

According to Levine (1999), the psychological community best remembers Solomon Asch for his laboratory research on conformity. Asch’s studies on conformity revealed that most people would conform to a majority position under certain circumstances even when the position was obviously wrong. Asch's work has “had a profound impact on how psychologists think about and study social influence in groups” (Levine, 1999, p. 358). Asch’s studies later inspired Stanley Milgram to conduct his well-known research on obedience and authority.

Muzafer Sherif

The Turkish-born social psychologist Muzafer Sherif is “one of the most influential social psychologists of the twentieth century” (Harvey, 2000, p. 270). Muzafer Sherif studied normative behavior of human beings. Sherif’s idea was that social norms were built from human interactions over time and social norms could influence and motivate human behavior. Extending from his theory of group norms, Sherif also studied values of internalization, attitude change, and key aspects of the self “that, as major internal anchorages, influence cognitive outcomes” (Harvey, 2000, p. 270).

Kurt Lewin

Burnes (2004) acknowledged Kurt Lewin as "the intellectual father of contemporary theories of applied behavioral science, action research and planned change" (p. 978). Lewin was the first scientist to study the group dynamics and group influence on individuals' behavior in the group. Lewin’s pioneering research on group dynamics built the foundation for scientific understanding of human groups. Lewin's contributions in psychology had been applied in modern management science such as organizational changes. In Lewin's theory, a change should be started at the group level with focus on variables such as group norms, role, and interactions. Lewin’work indicates that “it is fruitless to concentrate on changing the behaviour of individuals” (Burnes, 2004, p. 983).

Carl Hovland

American psychology Carl Hovland had done several interesting and predominant research on persuasion, propaganda, and change of attitude. When Hovland was in charge of the new experimental section of the research branch of the War Department’s Information and Education Division in Washington, D.C., he led the research team to evaluate the functions of training programs and study the insights of maintaining moral standards in American army troops. In this project Hovland designed empirical studies to research “factors relating to the communicator, the audience, and the content of the message affected the persuasiveness of mass communications” (Lovie, P. P. & Lovie, A. D., 2000).

Leon Festinger

As the father of cognitive dissonance theory, Leon Festinger was a legend and “a commanding figure in psychology” (Gazzaniga, 2006, p. 89). The most significant contribution by Leon Festinger is the development of the theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory suggests that people are motivated to minimize discomfort when inconsistent beliefs and behaviors cause such discomfort. Social comparison theory is another contribution by Festinger. Social comparison theory, which reveals critical aspects of proximity in social relationships, was developed based on early nonparametric statistical experiments conducted by Festinger.

Fritz Heider

Fritz Header’s predominant work on social perception and attribution processes has made him one of the most influential social psychologists in this field. Header’s famous book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations published in 1958, presented large scope conceptual studies of the psychological processes with human social perception. As Malle (2008) mentioned, Heider’s insights were “deep and numerous about the role of inference in social perception, the principle of cognitive consistency, the impact of folk theories, and the nature of the ‘social mind’ that tries to make sense of other minds” (p. 170).

Stanley Milgram

As Russell (2011) stated, “Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments remain one of the most inspired contributions in the field of social psychology” (p. 140). Milgram’s research showed that a lot of people in the experiment obey an experimenter's order to give potentially dangerous levels of electric shock to a stranger who participated in the experiment. Solomon Asch was the most important intellectual influence in Milgram's career. Inspired by Asch's early work, Milgram’s conducted his doctoral study on a procedural adaptation of Asch’s conformity experiment. Milgram’s adaptation was scientifically more rigorous than Asch’s experiment (Russell, 2011).

Social Psychology Related to Psychology and Sociology

Social psychology was born from empirical research of both psychological and sociological studies therefore many contexts in social psychology are combined with psychology and sociology. The boundary between psychology, social psychology, and sociology was vague until 1930s when “the content and methods of social psychology are well established and the competing disciplinary claims by psychology and sociology are essentially resolved” (Minton, 2008, p. 364).

Even today, social psychology sometimes may be confused with psychology and sociology when social psychology addresses interdisciplinary topics. Because social psychology has grown to an independent discipline, it is important to differ it from other related disciplines.

Social Psychology vs. General Psychology

Psychology is a very broad scientific discipline that studies human behavior. During the long history in the development of psychology, many branches emerged and grew from it. Psychology today covers many specified disciplines such as clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, personality psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, etc., and social psychology is also one branch of psychology.

As a branch of psychology, social psychology has many things in common with general psychology. The most common ground is that both social psychology and general psychology employ scientific methods and the empirical research to study social phenomena. Many social psychologists are scholars “who were trained or employed within psychology departments” (Lubek, 2000, p. 324) thus they intend to apply scientific methods in psychology to social psychological phenomenon. Social psychology and psychology are highly co-related. As stated by Kenneth (1973), "the field of psychology is typically defined as the science of human behavior, and social psychology as that branch of the science dealing with human interaction" (p. 309).

Social psychology is also different from other branches of psychology. For instance, in personality psychology, scientists emphasize on individual traits such as thoughts and characteristics. On the contrary, social psychologists focus on situations. Social psychologists conduct empirical research to study the impacts of social environment and social interactions on individual’s behaviors and attitudes.

Social Psychology vs. Sociology

The development of social psychology was influenced by sociology, which explains why these two disciplines share many similar interests in social studies. Although social psychology and sociology share similar interests and topics of research, they can be distinguished from each other by the focuses and perspectives of the studies. Sociologists desire to discover how cultures and groups influence people’s behavior but social psychologists may look at these topics from different perspectives.

Unlike sociology, social psychology emphasizes scientific studies on how the individual responds and interacts within the group. Social psychology studies social influence of the groups on people with focus on the individual as the studied subject. In contrast, sociology focuses on the group rather than the individual. Sociology places a broad view at social behavior and social influences. On the other side, social psychologists want to study situational variables and how these variables relate to social behavior on personal level.


Social psychology is a young, dynamic, and fast-changing field derived from the combination of psychology and sociology. This discipline was born in 1895 remarked by Triplett’s first empirical study in this field. Same as Triplett, Le Bon’s work had predominant impact on the birth of social psychology. In 1908, McDougall and Ross separately wrote the first textbooks in social psychology.

During the history of development in social psychology, many scholars contributed their knowledge in various areas of this discipline. In this article we briefly reviewed Floyd Allport, Solomon Asch, Muzafer Sherif, Kurt Lewin, Carl Hovland, Leon Festinger, Fritz Heider, and Stanley Milgram and their primary works in social psychology.

Social psychology is closely related to psychology. While psychology answers questions in the science of human behavior, social psychology as discipline of psychology addresses questions of human interaction. Social psychology shares common grounds in research with sociology but has different emphasis. Social psychology focuses on the individual and sociology focuses on the group.


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