History of Social Psychology Past and Future Essay

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  • Subject: Psychology
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History Of Social Psychology: Past and Future Directions

The fields of psychology and social psychology owe their existence to the earlier philosophical thinkers including Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant. However, the recognized founder of the field (by most historians) is the German scientist Wilhelm Wundt (Farr, 2003). In 1862 Wundt proposed that there psychology should consist of two branches: a social branch and a physiological branch of psychology (Farr, 2003). From Wundt's view psychology was more concerned with studying immediate conscious experience as opposed to studying overt behavior. However, in 1890 Wundt published the first volume of a classic 10-volume set of social psychology which described and analyzed a wide variety of social thought and social behaviors. Although Wundt's ideas and writings carried significant influence in Europe, his writings were not translated into English until sometime later. The behaviorist view became the more influential paradigm in the United States. The U.S. behaviorists espoused the notion of logical positivism maintaining that all knowledge should be verified empirically. Thus, European and American social psychologists initially took different perspectives on what and how to study. Europeans tended to focus more on a sociological approach; Americans focused on a psychological approach.

In the shadow of logical positivism then, the American Norman Triplett is most often credited with conducting the first empirical social psychological study. Triplett was interested in why bicycle racers' speed was faster when they were paced by other cyclists as opposed to when they rode alone. In his seminal study Triplett (1898) had children quickly wind a fishing reel either by themselves or in the presence of other children performing the same task. As he had predicted based on his observations of cyclists, the children wound the line faster when they were in the presence of others. Besides being the first empirical social psychology study, his initial research is also credited with introducing the experimental method into the social sciences. While this research seems surprisingly simple on the surface today it took a full generation of research to actually understand the underlying implications and dynamics of Triplett's seminal findings (the research on social loafing and social facilitation that followed years later). And despite the weight given to the significance of his study, Triplett did very little after this experiment to establish social psychology as a divergent area of study.

Most historians give the credit for the establishment of social psychology as a distinct area of study to two authors: sociologist Edward Ross and psychologist William McDougall. Both of these men published separate texts in 1908 concerning social psychology. McDougall's work, in the spirit of psychology, placed emphasis on the individual as the principal unit of analysis in his social psychology, whereas the sociologist Ross stressed the group aspect. However, some years later a third social psychology text published by Floyd Allport, the brother of famous psychologist Gordon Allport, set the perspective that would eventually become the main area of focus for American social psychologists. Allport (1924) did not believe that groups could have consciousness or mechanisms of action apart from the individuals that comprised them. Therefore, his brand of social psychology placed the emphasis on how the individual responded to stimuli in the social environment. Groups were merely one of these environmental stimuli, much in the same tradition that behaviorists emphasized stimulus-response behaviors. In addition, Allport, like the behaviorists of the time, preached the virtues of the experimental method in studying behavior. In contrast social psychologists in Europe were influenced by the Gestalt perspective and emphasized a more holistic view that conceptualized groups as being composed of individuals as well as the relations between these individuals. According to this view these relationships offered important psychological implications and suggested that groups were social entities. Much of the study of group processes and group dynamics owes its existence to this perspective and to European social psychologists such as Gustave Le Bon.

Harris (1986) believed that an important turn of events in the history of social psychology involved several important world events including the Great Depression of 1929 and World Wars I and II. Prior to these events a great deal of social psychology research was not concerned with social problems or broader issues; however, after the stock market crash of 1929 many psychologists were left unable to find work. The bleak economy and unemployment led to many psychologists adopting more liberal ideals including socialist views. In 1936 social scientists formed the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) an organization devoted to the study important social issues. Social psychologists in the SPSSI wanted to employ many of their theories to world problems and this led to interests in the areas of intergroup relations, leadership, organizational behavior, and other areas commonly studied by social psychologists today.

During this same period the rise of fascism in Germany and other parts of Western Europe led to anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic attitudes in these countries. Many leading scientists left Europe for America. One of the most influential of these was social psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin, a Jewish refugee, was influential in founding the SPSSI and he was also committed to establishing social psychological research as both scientific and practical. Lewin is also often thought to be the "Father of Modern Social Psychology" by many historians given his empirical methods of investigation and his many contributions to the field (Allport, 1985). His many contributions include his field theory of personality and research on styles of leadership (Lewin, 1935; 1936). Also during this period Gordon Allport's Handbook of Social Psychology was first published in which Allport posited the notion that attitudes could affect the behavior of individuals (Allport, 1935). This opened a whole area of attitude and motivation research for social psychologists, research that continues today. The basis for the measurement of ethereal qualities like attitudes in psychological research had been provided by people like Louis Thurstone and Rensis Likert to advance attitude scale development (Allport, 1985).

Following the WWII there was a rapid expansion in social psychological research, especially in areas of personality, persuasion, and group influence, much of which was inspired by the aftermath of WWII and social psychology's pursuit of understanding psychological principles driving social issues and relating its research to relevant social issues. For example, some of the most famous work in social psychology such as the study of the authoritarian personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950), the influence of the group on the individual (e.g., Asch, 1956), the power of persuasive communication (Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield, 1949), the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), and the famous Milgram (1963) research on obedience all occurred during this period. All of these studies are considered classics and have inspired numerous other areas of research in addition to contributing to social reform. In addition, in the 1950's and beyond there was a wealth of research on racial prejudice. The research of Clark and Clark (see Clark, 1965) was partly responsible for U.S. Supreme Court decision to end racially segregated education. Gordon Allport (1954) provided a theoretical summary, known as the contact hypothesis, of how desegregation could reduce racial prejudice in society.

The decade of the 1960s was a time of change and social psychologists began to focus on domestic issues like altruism, aggression, and attraction in addition to maintaining studies in the aforementioned areas. Social psychology became a much more overarching discipline with these pursuits. One of the effects of this expansion was generating some public controversy over its chosen subject matter after studying romantic attraction (e.g., Berscheid & Hatfield, 1969). Some public officials voiced the opinion that social scientists should not try to study romance and love. Nonetheless, social psychological research became important during this period in its investigation of societal issues. Also during this time there became an increasing number of diversity in the ranks of social psychologists, who had previously been mostly Caucasian males. Of course in the 1970s this led to an inevitable number of accusations from women and minorities that past research reflected the biases of white male-dominated views and many of the new social psychologists began to reassess past findings. The 1970s also saw the "cognitive revolution" (Allport, 1985) and cognitive psychology greatly impacted all areas of social psychology leading to the development of paradigms such as schema theory (Markus, 1977) and a decline in the focus on behaviorism and behaviorist principles.

Meanwhile the focus of the social psychology that developed in Europe and Asia continued to emphasize intergroup and societal variables in explaining behavior. In the 1980s this influence began to restructure the field as social psychologists began to exchange ideas across countries and perform multinational studies (Allport, 1985). This exchange of ideas led to the notion that that certain social beliefs/behaviors previously considered to be universal were specific to the socialization of individuals occurring in specific cultures. As a result, new research to identify aspects of human behavior that are culturally specific became increasingly popular, an area of research still important today. The dominance of models…

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