Social psychology is a branch of the study of human behavior that focuses on behavior within a group. Social psychologists focus on the behaviors that members of a group all have in common. They study mental processes that occur in response to social interaction. Within social psychology, theorists use four main perspectives to explain social behaviors and the cognitive processes that influence those behaviors.
According to the evolutionary theory of social psychology, biological and physical factors that are beneficial to society are passed down to subsequent generations. Social behaviors, such as community living and facial recognition, are encouraged through natural selection. Evolutionary theory describes fear as a desirable trait that protected individuals from harm. Those who understood and responded appropriately to fear were able to escape the threat and live to reproduce children who would also have fear of dangerous situations. Mothers' protective behavior toward their infants can also be explained as an evolutionary process designed to protect the species. Social psychologists Gangestad and Thornhill describe an evolutionary theory of attraction that explains how people are attracted to individuals with symmetrical facial features. Symmetrical features, according to their theory, denote good genes and high probability of reproductive success.
The sociocultural perspective was the first theory to enter the field of social psychology in the early twentieth century. One of the first sociocultural theorists, Edward Alsworth Ross, noticed that similar social behavior is found in groups of people. People follow the societal norms in the culture they belong to, forming a group identity. Group identity and social behavior can be found in small groups, such as a neighborhood, and large groups like countries or ethnicity groups. Prejudices, attitudes, political persuasions and preferences are all factors that are influenced by the group. Vygotsky's theory of social interactions describes the influence a caregiver's cultural knowledge has on an infant's development. Infants and children gain cultural knowledge through interactions with caregivers.
Social Cognitive Perspective
Unlike the other theories, the social cognitive theories do not rely on the social environment to explain behavior but rather focus on the actual cognitive processes that occur in an individual. Attention, memory, social interpretation and other mental processes are studied to discern the root of social behavior. The interpretation of social behaviors and interactions are often studied by social cognitive theorists. For example, they suggest that how you code information entering your nervous system is filtered through previous experience and bias that influence the mental processes responsible for interpreting information. The social cognitive perspective seeks to explain how current information is connected to previous experiences. Alfred Bandura, one of the social cognitive perspective's influential psychologists, describes his social cognitive theory as "a model of emergent interactive agency." Cognitive processes are influenced by the environment, which is in turn affected by cognitive processes.
Social Learning Theory
During the 1960s, the social psychology community became dominated by the social learning perspective. Social learning theorists believe that each individual's social behavior is influenced by past social rewards and punishments. For example, a child who is physically abused may grow up to be abusive because violence is what he has learned. Social learning theory combines aspects of behaviorism and social cognitive theories. Alfred Bandura was a predominant social scientist who brought attention to the social learning theory. He believed that individuals learn by observation. He devised a four-step model to describe the process: An individual first notices something in his environment, then he remembers the event, then he reproduces the action or behavior and finally he reacts to the consequence of the behavior. Bandura's social learning theory claims that people learn through observing. He states that humans could not develop without the modeling of other humans.
- Encyclopedia; Social Learning
- "Social Psychology: Goals in Interaction"; Douglas T. Kenrick, Steven L. Neuber, et al.; 2010
- Encyclopedia; Social Psychology; Harold B. Gerard
- University of New Mexico; Sociocultural Theory; Julia Scherba de Valenzuela, Ph.D.
- Emory University; "Annual Review of Psychology"; Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective"; Alfred Bandura; 2001
- Theory Into Practice Database; Social Learning Theory (A. Bandura)
- Photo Credit Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images
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