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The Elusive Definition of Social Psychology

Aristotle observed that man is a social animal and proposed principles of social influence; however, as Elliot Aronson (1972; 2008) points out, Aristotle was not likely the first person to observe and comment on the social nature of humans. Philosophy, religion, and conventional wisdom developed almost unlimited perspectives on the human as a social being before the field of social psychology emerged in the early 1900s. Observation and experience serve as the foundation for traditional perspectives of social behavior. These perspectives propagate through family, tribe, and culture; resulting in a diverse array of disparate religious and philosophical perspectives. In comparison, social psychology emerged as a discipline that scientifically explores social phenomena to find truth. However, the truths in the field of social psychology seem as disparate as those that drive countless ideological perspectives in the traditional realm, causing Aronson (1972) to declare, “There are almost as many definitions of social psychology as there are social psychologists” (p. 4). To the outsider, the field of social psychology may seem to be little more than people with competing perspectives applying fancy words to truths that have been known throughout history.

A classical definition of social psychology proposed by field pioneer Gordon W. Allport (1954) is that “social psychology is the scientific attempt to explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other human beings" (Allport, 1954a, p. 5). By “implied presence”, Allport was referring to behavior people exhibit because of their roles in society and their membership in cultural groups. Fiske (2010) summarizes this classical definition as a formula that depicts others influencing the individual, as follows:

Actual, imagined, or implied presence of Others --> Individual thoughts, feeling, and behavior (p. 5).

The foundation of this definition is the influence of others on the individual, implying that the “others” influence “individual” to do something he or she would not have done alone. Influence from the actual presence of others is “enormously powerful” (Fiske, 2010, p. 4), but even the imagined or implied presence of others can influence individuals. Differentiating between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors helps to identify three key variables that explain social psychology phenomena: cognition, affect, and action. Cognition represents thought; affect means feelings; action is behavior.

From the perspective of Allport’s definition, social psychology attempts to explain how interaction influences the way people think and behave. Key questions social psychologists explore from this definition are how others influence people, why people allow others to influence them, what influences the effectiveness of social influence, is influence permanent or temporary, why do people like or dislike others, and why does prejudice develop. A key limitation of Allport’s definition is that it shows human social interaction as a unidirectional process; however, this perspective remains influential. For example, writers like Kenrick, Neuberg, and Cialdinia (2007) built their textbook on the definition that social psychology is “the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by other people” (p. 5).

Using Allport’s model, the Kenrick, et al. definition shows as “people <-- other people”. Aronson (2008; 1972) expands on these definitions by suggesting that influence is not only from others to individual but can also be from group to group; offering a definition of social psychology as “the influences that people have upon the beliefs, feelings, and behavior of others” (p. 6); also a unidirectional process, “people --> others”.

While establishing “influence” as a common theme throughout all definitions of social psychology, these classical definitions are insufficient for understanding the dynamic and reciprocal process of human interaction. David Meyers (2008) approaches a more feasible definition by defining social psychology as “the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another” (p. 4), “people <--> others”. In his later works, Aronson (2008) considers a contextual dimension to the definition by proposing that the situation—time, history, culture—also influence social behavior of individuals and groups. Research from field pioneers like Zimbardo (1972; 2007) and Milgram (1963) went beyond offering context as a dimension in human social behavior to inferring that the context is the behavior. This “extreme situational determinism” (Reicher & Haslam, 2006, p. 3) holds that the social context contains powerful forces that overwhelm the power of the individual to exercise free will. Individuals become the groups to which they belong and the roles that they fill.

From outside the social psychology field, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1969) offered the biological system as a metaphor that provides a dynamical perspective for understanding humans as social beings. Through the systems theory framework, a living organism is a complex open system, meaning that it maintains itself and the environment by continuously exchanging matter with the environment (p. 156). Metabolism, growth, development, and survival of an organism are the consequence of a dynamic interaction between system and environment (p. 149). The dynamical systems model, also known as complexity theory, allows psychologists to interpret the dynamically interacting individual and social environment in context. Internal forces influence how the individual chooses to interpret, behave, and adapt in a social context; simultaneously, individuals change the social context (Kenrick, Maner, Buner, Li, Becker, & Schaller, 2002). The open systems framework would become an “anchor” for applying social psychology applications in organizations (McShane & Von Glinow, 2005). For example, adapting the organism metaphor from dynamical systems theory as the basis for explaining the social psychology of organizations, Katz and Kahn (1966; Jex, 2002) would propose that individuals and groups dynamically interact within the boundaries of the organization to ensure mutual and organizational survival by exchanging resources with, adapting to, and influencing the competitive environment.

Considering the varied definitions, the following key elements emerge: individual, others, context, dynamics, influence, adaptation, and science. Integrating these elements presents this definition:

Social psychology is the scientific study of how individuals and others dynamically and continuously interact and adapt over time.

Attempting to define a dynamic process, even this more expansive definition is insufficient, but it provides a more complete understanding of social psychology than unilaterally static definitions like in the “others --> individual” framework. Then again, dynamic or not, it is just another definition through the eyes of the beholder.


Aronson, E. (1972). The social animal (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA, USA: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Aronson, E. (2008). The social animal (10 ed.). New York, NY, USA: Worth Publishers.

Bertalanffy, L. V. (1969). General system theory. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jex, S. M. (2002). Organizational psychology: A scientist-practitioner approach. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York, NY: Wiley.

Kenrick, D. T., Maner, J. K., Buner, J., Li, N. P., Becker, D. V., & Schaller, M. (2002). Dynamical evolutionary psychology: Mapping the domains of the new interactionist paradigm. Personality and Social Psychology Review , 6 (4), 347-356.

Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Social psychology: Goals in interaction (4th ed.). New York, NY: Allyn and Bacon.

McShane, S. L., & Von Glinow, M. A. (2005). Organizational behavior: Emerging realities for the workplace revolution (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology , 67, 371-378.

Myers, D. G. (2008). Social psychology (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. The British Journal of Social Psychology , 45, 1-40.

Zimbardo, P. (1972). Pathology of imprisonment. Society , 9 (6), 4-8.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, NY: Random House.