There once was a man whose second wife was a vain and selfish woman. This woman’s two daughters were similarly vain and selfish. The man’s own daughter, however, was meek and unselfish. This sweet, kind daughter, whom we all know as Cinderella, learned early on that she should do as she was told, accept ill-treatment and insults, and avoid doing anything to upstage her stepsisters and their mother.

 But then, thanks to her fairy godmother, Cinderella was able to escape her situation for an evening and attend a grand ball, where she attracted the attention of a handsome prince. When the love-struck prince later encountered Cinderella back in her degrading home, he failed to recognize her.

 Implausible? The folktale demands that we accept the power of the situation. In the presence of her oppressive stepmother, Cinderella was humble and unattractive. At the ball, Cinderella felt more beautiful and walked and talked and smiled as if she were. In one situation, she cowered. In the other, she charmed.

 The French philosopher-novelist Jean-Paul Sartre (1946) would have had no problem accepting the Cinderella premise. We, humans, are “first of all beings in a situation,” he wrote. “We cannot be distinguished from our situations, for they form us and decide our possibilities” (pp. 59–60, paraphrased).



Social psychology is a science that studies the influences of our situations, with special attention to how we view and affect one another. More precisely, it is the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another.  Social psychology lies at psychology’s boundary with sociology. Compared with sociology (the study of people in groups and societies), social psychology focuses more on individuals and does more experimentation. Compared with personality psychology, social psychology focuses less on individuals’ differences and more on how individuals, in general, view and affect one another.  Social psychology is still a young science.

The first social psychology experiments were reported barely more than a century ago, and the first social psychology texts did not appear until approximately 1900 (Smith, 2005). Not until the 1930s did social psychology assume its current form. Not until World War II did it begin to emerge as the vibrant field it is today. And not until the 1970s and beyond did social psychology enjoy accelerating growth in Asia—first in India, then in Hong Kong and Japan, and, recently, in China and Taiwan (Haslam & Kashima, 2010).  Social psychology studies our thinking, influences, and relationships by asking questions that have intrigued us all. Here are some examples:  

•  Does our social behavior depend more on the objective situations we face or how we construe them?  Social beliefs can be self-fulfilling. For example, happily married people will attribute their spouse’s acid remark (“Can’t you ever put that where it belongs?”) to something external (“He must have had a frustrating day”). Unhappily married people will attribute the same remark to a mean disposition (“Is he ever hostile!”) and may respond with a counterattack. Moreover, expecting hostility from their spouse, they may behave resentfully, thereby eliciting the hostility they expect. 

Social Psychology

  • Would people be cruel if ordered?  How did Nazi Germany conceive and implement the unconscionable slaughter of 6 million Jews? Those evil acts occurred partly because thousands of people followed orders. They put the prisoners on trains, herded them into crowded “showers,” and poisoned them with gas. How could people engage in such horrific actions? Were those individuals normal human beings?  Stanley Milgram (1974) wondered. So he set up a situation in which people were ordered to administer increasing levels of electric shock to someone who was having difficulty learning a series of words.nearly two-thirds of the participants fully complied. 
  • To help? Or to help oneself?  As bags of cash tumbled from an armored truck one fall day, $2 million was scattered along a Columbus, Ohio, street. Some motorists stopped to help, returning $100,000. Judging from the $1,900,000 that disappeared, many more stopped to help themselves. (What would you have done?) When similar incidents occurred several months later in San Francisco and Toronto, the results were the same: Passersby grabbed most of the money (Bowen, 1988). What situations trigger people to be helpful or greedy? Do some cultural contexts—perhaps villages and small towns breed greater helpfulness?   

 These questions all deal with how people view and affect one another. And that is what social psychology is all about. Social psychologists study attitudes and beliefs, conformity and independence, love and hate.

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