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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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eeding social psychology may have been originated from big conflicts such as wars, famines, and more catastrophes. “According to the field’s first historian, F.B. Karpf, the answer is affirmative: The social turbulence surrounding the Civil War motivated the development of the field” (Morawski, 2000, p. 427). Largely in response to whatever historic event was taking place at the time, social psychological theories were developed to explain these events with concrete, usable data. People needed a method to understand the “social features of (their) psychological experiences” (Morawski, 2000, p. 429) and to standardize social establishments.

In 1890, William James constructed a theory to explain the human need for attention and favorable interaction with others. “James posed a radical addendum that the social self is not a singular self but plural selves: Properly speaking, a man has many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind” (Morawski, 2000, p. 428). According to James, the self plays many roles and can adjust in response to conflicting conditions and collective interactions. James’ landmark theory inspired future theorists to explore the issue of social psychology and its consequences for individuals and society as a whole. In 1897, James Mark Baldwin used his theory to explicate the progress of human insight and character traits. Baldwin declared that the self can only be developed and explained through exchanges with other human beings. The individual their actions are in fact the result of some interaction with society as a whole. “A man is a social outcome rather than a social unit” (Morawski, 2000, p. 428). With the influence of James and Baldwin, other psychologists proposed the rationale that social psychology was ‘needed’ by society and made many attempts to create more contemporary commentaries on the social self and on social psychology. Near the end of the 19th century, a desire formed for social psychology to be “based on the likes of evolutionary theory, anthropological views, or the mechanical philosophy of science” (Morawski, 2000, p. 428). Following evolutionary principles, J.O. Quantz’s theory (1897) described the attachment of humans to trees. To explain the human psyche, Quantz said that while humans progress as individuals , they can and will regress to former evolutionary states in reaction to certain social situations. In his earliest days of existence, man would rely on trees for protection from predators and for shelter. Today, in difficult social conditions, man will retreat to a ‘safe place’ in much the same way as his early ancestors did. Quantz’s premise stated that to explain our social existence, we must include historic and evolutionary standards. In later years, psychologists aimed for more ‘mechanistic and deterministic’ means of explaining social and individual reactions. Sheldon (1897) found in his study of children interacting in a social context, that there was an inherent risk of “social psychological regression to earlier social forms” and justified the need for systematic data to standardize society (Morawski, 2000, p. 429). Due to data contributions by Sheldon and other psychologists, the 19th century established the need for social psychology to help predict once totally unpredictable social behavior and to standardize individual actions.

According to David Kipnis, social psychology’s role is to explain and calculate human behavior. Throughout the decades, with the advances in theoretical research and the desire for more explanatory data of human behavior, social psychology “has taken on the task of changing social behavior” (Kipnis, 1994, p. 165). Social psychology’s effort to change human behavior results from many needs. The definitive fact is that behavior technologies are used to gain some kind of benefit. For example, some behavior is modified to help a politician win more votes while other behaviors are changed to sell more of a product. In the 1940s and 1950s, the ultimate goal of behavior technologies was to make the world a better place. In response to wars, hunger, and more societal ills, Allport (1947) desired the use of social psychological research to create harmony among individuals. “Although Allport was not specific about how social psychologists were to cure the social woes created by technology, his use of terms such as treatment and means to redirect human actions suggests some kind of engineering of human behavior…” (Kipnis, 1994, p. 166). Allport created a following of sorts through the 1930s to the 1950s. There was a great desire to mend the ills of humanity and use psychological awareness to cure society’s dilemmas. Krech and Crutchfield wrote on how to reduce bigotry through the empowerment of knowledge. Harvey, White, Hood, and Sherif studied how forcing people to come together in a crisis could help calm their intergroup contentions. A major contribution of social psychology to society and individual citizens was the testimony of psychologists at the U.S. Supreme Court about the need of desegregating educational institutions.

Early in the 1950s, social psychology began to fixate more on theoretical research that aimed to explain social behavior. Instead of centering on ways to solve social ills, more practical research “focused on helping people who could already help themselves” (Kipnis, 1994, p. 167). Kurt Lewin’s idea that “real world events became less important than how these events were perceived and then acted on” helped change social psychology’s focus from an acquisitive one to an abstracted one (Kipnis, 1994, p. 167). Lewin said it was and individual, not a societal responsibility to solve social problems.Now the focus was not on how society could solve hunger or unemployment, but instead it was on how the individual reacted to these crises. To uphold his ideas, Lewin advocated for the use of experimentation to explain social performance. This marked a great change for people because now social psychologists could go from only watching and recording individual behavior, to actively manipulating it. The result of such experiments were multiple behavior technologies that could alter the influence of one’s actions in a predetermined, desired manner. Certainly, such manipulation of human behavior has consequences. A main concern is the issue of those in power using behavior technologies to exert their control over those who have little to no power. “Most (behavioral technologies) are developed to strengthen existing social institutions, not to change them” (Kipnis, 1994, p. 168). The social institutions that are being strengthened are usually controlled by members or groups in society who have the money and power to do so. This imbalance of resource control can create more social ills instead of solving them. People or groups in power are not going to support social psychological research that would allow the advancement of people who are currently powerless. “He (Foucault) argued that what the underclass knows, values, believes, and wants threatens the stability of the existing society” (Kipnis, 1994, p. 169). Simply put, Allport’s desire for social psychology to influence people to come together to resolve social problems failed because he did not account for the overwhelming desire for social control and power. Kipnis argues that by creating new methods of controlling behavior social psychologists can exert even more influence on individuals and society. For example, Kipnis describes how therapists are employing new techniques that more closely control their clients , which allows the therapist to reap additional benefits. Marketers use techniques on unsuspecting consumers to sell more of their product, while those in the government employ means to sway partisans. A far cry from the early days of social psychology that called for the dissolution of social problems, the development of behavior technologies radically changed how people were observed and treated. “A consistent criticism of technology has been that it deprives the ordinary citizen of the ability to behave as he or she might want” (Kipnis, 1994, p. 170). In contrast, some argue that behavior technologies are not all coercive and most go completely unnoticed. One example is how social psychology benefits an individual by the manipulation of their thoughts and actions during psychotherapy sessions. Methods are used to change one’s behavior, but the person desires these changes and typically becomes more well-adjusted because of them.

Regardless of whether one believes that social psychology has been beneficial or detrimental for individuals and society, there is evidence of a definite impact on both. Classical theories tended to evolve from large scale crises and people’s inability to react appropriately to or fully explain them. Early theorists provided research to explain social interactions and human evolution. Contemporary theorists began with a focus on solving social ills for the greater good of humanity, but soon a more popular attitude of individualistic responsibility took hold. Societal power played a great role in which research and behavioral technologies were advanced into society for use and who benefited from them. Despite an early attempt to bring humans together in harmony, social psychology soon revolved around the “haves” and the “have nots.” From its earliest days to modern times, social psychology has not only influenced the individual but has also created an impact on society as a whole.

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