Social Psychology BPS205

Introduction to Social Psychology Online Course

So What is Social Psychology?
Social psychology is the study of how social conditions affect human beings. Social psychology is an interdisciplinary area. Both psychologists and sociologists will work in this field. However, social psychologists tend to look at both the individual and the group as their units of analysis. The two approaches of psychology and sociology are similar but they tend to have different goals, methods, approaches and terminology. They will also use separate journals and societies.

Most social psychologists are trained in psychology. They focus on the individual and try to explain how the feelings, behaviours and thoughts of individuals are influenced by other people. Social psychologists are interested in things such as social cognition, cognitive dissonance, obedience, compliance, interpersonal behaviours, such as aggression and altruism.

Social psychologists look at the immediate situation and how the individual and their situation interact.


The course is divided into ten lessons as follows:

1. Social cognition

2. The self

3. Attribution and perception of others

4. Attitudes and attitude change

5. Prejudice, discrimination and stereotypes

6. Interpersonal attraction

7. Helping behaviour

8. Aggression

9. Groups

10. Cultural influences


  • To determine how physical characteristics and non-verbal behaviour affect our formation of impressions of others, and how that information is processed;
  • To understand the sociological perspective of the self and how we relate to others;
  • To discuss attribution theory, the internal and external causes, and its role in self-perception and the perception of others;
  • To understand the emergence of attitudes, changes in attitude, and the effect of attitudes upon behaviour and use as predictors of behaviour;
  • To discuss the emergence of prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination from the perspective of social psychology and attitudes;
  • To understand the influence of physicality, similarity, familiarity and proximity on interpersonal relationships;
  • To understand helping behaviour through the influences of conformity, compliance, obedience and diffusion of responsibility;
  • To define social psychological theories of aggression and to apply those theories;
  • To understand the nature of group behaviour and to demonstrate awareness of group cognition;
  • To understand the effect of culture on behaviour of individuals and groups.


  • Define ‘social cognition’;
  • Determine the possible impression a jury might have of defendants and the social basis of those impressions;
  • List the three general biases that may affect the jury’s “attributions and explanations” and briefly describe each one;
  • Different types of schema;
  • Explain why people are motivated to justify their own actions belief and feelings;
  • Explain ‘cognitive dissonance’;
  • Explain how can the desire for self-consistency influences our self-perception;
  • Determine the purposes served by dissonance -reducing behaviour;
  • Identify factors that form self-concept;
  • Describe attribution theory;
  • Describe how discounting principles relate to our perception of others;
  • Identify the fundamental attribution error;
  • Discuss how we use attribution to protect our self esteem;
  • Discuss how consistency, consensus and distinctiveness help to form our explanations of another
  • person’s behaviour;
  • Explain how attitudes develop;
  • Discuss how attitudes affect behaviour;
  • Explain what makes people prejudiced;
  • Explain how physicality influences our behaviour;
  • Discuss the principle of similarity;
  • Explain how familiarity and proximity influence the development of friendship;
  • Explain why people conform;
  • Discuss Millgram’s experiment on obedience;
  • Explain why is a lone person more likely to help than a person in a group;
  • Discuss how conformity, compliance, obedience and diffusion of responsibility influence helping behaviour;
  • List the causes of aggression;
  • Explain the concept of group polarization;
  • Discuss how group decision-making influences conformity;
  • Examine the influence of culture and society on each other.

Duration: 100 hours

What is in each lesson?

1. Social Cognition

  • Introduction to social psychology
  • What is social psychology
  • Impression formation
  • Behaviour
  • Appearance
  • Expectations
  • The primary affect
  • Attribution
  • Schemas and social perception
  • Central traits
  • Stereotypes
  • Social inference and decision making
  • Case Study: social psychology and law

2. The Self

  • Introduction
  • Self concept
  • Present and ideal selves
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Experiments into cognitive dissonance
  • Reducing cognitive dissonance
  • Self efficacy
  • How does the self develop
  • Self and social feedback
  • Socialisation
  • Types of socialisation
  • How are we socialised

3. Attribution and Perception of Others

  • Attribution theory
  • Attribution and Consensus, consistency, distinctiveness
  • Attribution errors
  • Culture and attributional style
  • Criticisms of the theory
  • Practical uses of attribution theory

4. Attitudes and Attitude Change

  • Defining attitude
  • Characteristics of attitudes
  • ABC of attitudes
  • Affective elements of attitude
  • Behavioural elements of attitude
  • Self attribution
  • Specificity
  • Constraints
  • Cognitive elements of attitude
  • Attitude formation
  • Factors affecting attitude change

5. Prejudice, Discrimination and Stereotypes

  • Introduction
  • What is prejudice
  • Functions of prejudice
  • How we measure prejudice
  • In groups and out groups
  • Reducing prejudice
  • Stereotypes
  • Functions of stereotypes
  • Dangers of using stereotypes
  • Changing stereotypes
  • Discrimination

6. Interpersonal Attraction

  • Introduction
  • Theories of attraction
  • The social exchange theory
  • The reinforcement affect model
  • Factors affecting interpersonal attraction
  • Physical appearance
  • Biological underpinnings
  • Similarity
  • Familiarity
  • Positive regard
  • Mis attribution of emotions
  • Proximity
  • Attachment styles
  • Cultural similarities
  • An evolutionary perspective
  • The cost of sex

7. Helping Behaviour

  • Bystander intervention
  • Diffusion of responsibility
  • Social facilitation
  • Compliance
  • Obedience
  • Conformity
  • Why do people conform
  • Factors affecting conformity
  • Desire for affiliation
  • Reinforcement and punishment
  • Obedience to authority
  • Why does social influence work

8. Aggression

  • Introduction
  • Types of aggression
  • Theoretical approaches to aggression: Freudian, Drive theories, Social learning theories, Biological and evolutionary theories
  • Aggression against outsiders
  • Aggression in a species
  • Aggression in humans
  • Environmental influences on human aggression
  • Imitation or modelling
  • Familiarity
  • Reinforcement
  • Aggression and Culture
  • Other factors

9. Groups

  • What is a group
  • Kinds of groups; recreational, social, work, family, sporting features of groups
  • Factors relating to groups: productivity, social loafing, insufficient coordination, social facilitation
  • Group decision making: group think, group polarisation, minority influence
  • Deindividualisation

10. Cultural Influences

  • Defining culture
  • Culture and social exchange
  • Individualistic vs reciprocal societies
  • Cross cultural psychology vs cultural psychology
  • Culture bound syndromes
  • Trance and possession disorder



Applying an Understanding of Social Psychology: How Can We Help Socialisation?

Just as people’s natural desire to help can be inhibited in the presence of others, their performance can also be enhanced by the presence of others. Triplett (1897) and later, Zajonc (1965) investigated this phenomenon. Triplett found that when others were present, people performed tasks more energetically, for longer, and with apparently greater concentration. Other research has also shown the converse, that we can be distracted by the presence of others, and our performance can drop.

According to Zajonc, when the task is simple and we feel capable of performing it well, our performance improves in the presence of others, whereas if we feel less capable or the task is challenging, our performance declines in the presence of others. This is due to the arousal caused by the presence of others, resulting in either better performance, or increased anxiety. Later studies have supported this. Studies by Sanna and Shotland (1990) also found that our perception of how the other people would evaluate us either stimulated us to perform well in expectation of approval, or to perform poorly in expectation of negative evaluation.

Research on social facilitation can help us understand why, when we do help in group situations, we extend ourselves to do our very best. Freed from our initial inhibition, we are prompted to superior effort by our natural desire to aid another, by group solidarity, and by the additional arousal provided by the presence of others – and maybe, a little guilt at not having been the first to take action.

Compliance in psychology means yielding to group pressure. The person may often disagree privately with the view that they express publicly.

Examples of encouraging compliance include –

Foot in the Door – make a small request, which most people would agree with, then make a larger request for a similar behaviour, that will require more effort.

Door in the Face – make a large request that most people will refuse, then when the person is feeling guilty about the refusal, make a smaller request that most people will accept.

Bait and Switch – Gain someone’s agreement to one thing, then switch to something else at the last minute.


Obedience is compliance with commands given by an authority figure. Stanley Milgram did some research in the 1960s which considered that people have a strong tendency to comply with authority figures. This was shortly after World War II when people considered the German people to be “different” for being willing to follow the orders of Hitler. Milgram’s research showed that many people are capable of quite significant acts if told to do so by an authority figure.

Milgram told forty male volunteer research subjects that they were participating in a study about the effects of punishment on learning. He assigned each of the subjects to the role of teacher. Each subject was told that his task was to help another subject learn a list of word pairs.

Whenever the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to give the learner an electric shock by flipping a switch. The teacher was told to increase the shock level each time the learner made a mistake, until a dangerous shock level was reached.

During the experiment, the experimenter firmly told the teachers to follow the instructions they had been given. In reality, the learner was not an experiment subject but Milgram’s confederate, and he never actually received an electric shock. However, he pretended to be in pain when shocks were administered.

Prior to the study, forty psychiatrists that Milgram consulted told him that fewer than 1 percent of subjects would administer what they thought were dangerous shocks to the learner. However, Milgram found that two-thirds of the teachers did administer even the highest level of shock, despite believing that the learner was suffering great pain and distress. Milgram believed that the teachers had acted in this way because they were pressured to do so by an authority figure.

Milgram found that subjects were more likely to obey in some circumstances than others. He found that obedience was highest when –

  • experiments were done in a prestigious institution e.g. University
  • the learner was in another room
  • commands were given by an authority figure rather than a volunteer
  • the authority figure was present in the room
  • the subject does not see other subjects disobeying commands

In day to day situations, people obey orders because they want to get rewards, because they want to avoid the negative consequences of disobeying or they believe an authority if legitimate.

In more extreme situations, people may obey even though it violates their own values or even commit crimes. Researchers argue that there are several factors that cause people to carry obedience to extreme –

  • They justify their behaviour by assigning responsibility to the authority rather than themselves.
  • People define the behaviour that’s expected of them as routine.
  • People don’t want to be rude or offend the authority.
  • People obey easy commands first and then feel compelled to obey more and more difficult commands. This is called entrapment.


Conformity is the process of giving in to real or imagined pressure from a group. In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch did a famous study that demonstrated that people often conform.

Asch recruited male undergraduate subjects, telling them that he was doing research on visual perception. Each subject was placed in a room with six of Asch’s accomplices. The subject thought that the six people were also subjects in the experiment. The seven people were then given a series of easy tasks. In each task, they looked at two cards, one with a single line on it and the other with three lines of different lengths. The people were asked to decide which line on the second card was the same length as the line on the first card. On the first two tasks, the accomplices announced the correct answer to the group, as did the subject.

On the next twelve tasks, the accomplices picked a line on the second card that was obviously the wrong answer.

Asch found that, when put in this situation, more than 1/3 of the subjects conformed to the choices made by the accomplices.

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