Psychological Foundations

The Social and Personality Psychology Domain

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the basic interests and applications of social psychology and personality psychology

Social Psychology

Social psychology is the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. This domain of psychology is concerned with the way such feelings, thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and goals are constructed, and how these psychological factors, in turn, influence our interactions with others.

Image of five pillars, showing the biological, cognitive, developmental, social and personality, and mental and physical health.
Figure 1. Social and personality psychology includes the study of human groups and interaction, the development and analysis of personality, the experience and interpretation of emotion, and motivation.

Social psychology typically explains human behavior as a result of the interaction of mental states and immediate social situations. Social psychologists, therefore, examine the factors that lead us to behave in a given way in the presence of others, as well as the conditions under which certain behaviors, actions, and feelings occur. They focus on how people construe or interpret situations and how these interpretations influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Ross & Nisbett, 1991). Thus, social psychology studies individuals in a social context and how situational variables interact to influence behavior.

Some social psychologists study large-scale sociocultural forces within cultures and societies that affect the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals. These include forces such as attitudes, child-rearing practices, discrimination and prejudice, ethnic and racial identity, gender roles and norms, family and kinship structures, power dynamics, regional differences, religious beliefs and practices, rituals, and taboos. Several subfields within psychology seek to examine these sociocultural factors that influence human mental states and behavior; among these are social psychology, cultural psychology, cultural-historical psychology, and cross-cultural psychology.

An advertisement reads: “Public Announcement. We will pay you $4.00 for one hour of your time. Persons Needed for a Study of Memory. We will pay five hundred New Haven men to help us complete a scientific study of memory and learning. The study is being done at Yale University. Each person who participates will be paid $4.00 (plus 50 cents carfare) for approximately 1 hour’s time. We need you for only one hour: there are no further obligations. You may choose the time you would like to come (evenings, weekdays, or weekends). No special training, education, or experience is needed. We want: factory workers, city employees, laborers, barbers, businessmen, clerks, professional people, telephone workers, construction workers, salespeople, white-collar workers, and others. All persons must be between the ages of 20 and 50. High school and college students cannot be used. If you meet these qualifications, fill out the coupon below and mail it now to Professor Stanley Milgram, Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven. You will be notified later of the specific time and place of the study. We reserve the right to decline any application. You will be paid $4.00 (plus 50 cents carfare) as soon as you arrive at the laboratory.” There is a dotted line and the below section reads: “TO: PROF. STANLEY MILGRAM, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY, YALE UNIVERSITY, NEW HAVEN, CONN. I want to take part in this study of memory and learning. I am between the ages of 20 and 50. I will be paid $4.00 (plus 50 cents carfare) if I participate.” Below this is a section to be filled out by the applicant. The fields are NAME (Please Print), ADDRESS, TELEPHONE NO. Best time to call you, AGE, OCCUPATION, SEX, CAN YOU COME: WEEKDAYS, EVENINGS, WEEKENDS."
Figure 2. Stanley Milgram’s research demonstrated just how far people will go in obeying orders from an authority figure. This advertisement was used to recruit subjects for his research.

There are many interesting examples of social psychological research, and you will read about many of these later in this course. Until then, you will be introduced to one of the most controversial psychological studies ever conducted. Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist who is most famous for research that he conducted on obedience. After the Holocaust, in 1961, a Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, who was accused of committing mass atrocities, was put on trial. Many people wondered how German soldiers were capable of torturing prisoners in concentration camps, and they were unsatisfied with the excuses given by soldiers that they were simply following orders. At the time, most psychologists agreed that few people would be willing to inflict such extraordinary pain and suffering, simply because they were obeying orders. Milgram decided to conduct research to determine whether or not this was true.

As you will read later in the text, Milgram found that nearly two-thirds of his participants were willing to deliver what they believed to be lethal shocks to another person, simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure (in this case, a man dressed in a lab coat). This was in spite of the fact that participants received payment for simply showing up for the research study and could have chosen not to inflict pain or more serious consequences on another person by withdrawing from the study. No one was actually hurt or harmed in any way, Milgram’s experiment was a clever ruse that took advantage of research confederates, those who pretend to be participants in a research study who are actually working for the researcher and have clear, specific directions on how to behave during the research study (Hock, 2009). Milgram’s and others’ studies that involved deception and potential emotional harm to study participants catalyzed the development of ethical guidelines for conducting psychological research that discourage the use of deception of research subjects, unless it can be argued not to cause harm and, in general, requiring informed consent of participants.

Personality Psychology

Another major field of study within the social and personality domain is, of course, . Personality refers to the long-standing traits and patterns that propel individuals to consistently think, feel, and behave in specific ways. Our personality is what makes us unique individuals. Each person has an idiosyncratic pattern of enduring, long-term characteristics, and a manner in which they interact with other individuals and the world around them. Our personalities are thought to be long-term, stable, and not easily changed. Personality psychology focuses on

  • construction of a coherent picture of the individual and their major psychological processes.
  • investigation of individual psychological differences.
  • investigation of human nature and psychological similarities between individuals.

Several individuals (e.g., Freud and Maslow) that we have already discussed in our historical overview of psychology, and the American psychologist Gordon Allport, contributed to early theories of personality. These early theorists attempted to explain how an individual’s personality develops from his or her given perspective. For example, Freud proposed that personality arose as conflicts between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind were carried out over the lifespan. Specifically, Freud theorized that an individual went through various psychosexual stages of development. According to Freud, adult personality would result from the resolution of various conflicts that centered on the migration of erogenous (or sexual pleasure-producing) zones from the oral (mouth) to the anus to the phallus to the genitals. Like many of Freud’s theories, this particular idea was controversial and did not lend itself to experimental tests (Person, 1980).

More recently, the study of personality has taken on a more quantitative approach. Rather than explaining how personality arises, research is focused on identifying , measuring these traits, and determining how these traits interact in a particular context to determine how a person will behave in any given situation. Personality traits are relatively consistent patterns of thought and behavior, and many have proposed that five trait dimensions are sufficient to capture the variations in personality seen across individuals. These five dimensions are known as the “Big Five” or the Five Factor model, and include dimensions of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion (shown below). Each of these traits has been demonstrated to be relatively stable over the lifespan (e.g., Rantanen, Metsäpelto, Feldt, Pulkinnen, and Kokko, 2007; Soldz & Vaillant, 1999; McCrae & Costa, 2008) and is influenced by genetics (e.g., Jang, Livesly, and Vernon, 1996).

A diagram includes five vertically stacked arrows, which point to the left and right. A dimension's first letter, name, and description are included inside of each arrow. A box to the left of each arrow includes traits associated with a low score for that arrow's dimension. A box to the right of each arrow includes traits associated with a high score for that arrow's dimension. The top arrow includes the trait “openness,” which is described with the words, “imagination,” “feelings,” “actions,” and “ideas.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “practical,” “conventional,” and “prefers routine,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “curious,” “wide range of interests,” and “independent.” The next arrow includes the trait “conscientiousness,” which is described with the words, “competence,” “self-discipline,” “thoughtfulness,” and “goal-driven.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “impulsive,” “careless,” and “disorganized,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “hardworking,” “dependable,” and “organized.” The next arrow includes the trait “extroversion,” which is described with the words, “sociability,” “assertiveness,” and “emotional expression.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “quiet,” “reserved,” and “withdrawn,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “outgoing,” “warm,” and “seeks adventure.” The next arrow includes the trait “agreeableness,” which is described with the words, “cooperative,” “trustworthy,” and “good-natured.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “critical,” “uncooperative,” and “suspicious,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “helpful,” “trusting,” and “empathetic.” The next arrow includes the trait “neuroticism,” which is described as “tendency toward unstable emotions.” The box to the left of that arrow includes the words, “calm,” “even-tempered,” and “secure,” while the box to the right of that arrow includes the words, “anxious,” “unhappy,” and “prone to negative emotions.”"
Figure 3. Each of the dimensions of the Five Factor model is shown in this figure. The provided description would describe someone who scored highly on that given dimension. Someone with a lower score on a given dimension could be described in opposite terms.

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