The History of Social Psychology

The history of social psychology began when scientists started to measure the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of human beings (Kruglanski & Stroebe, 2011). Social psychology dates back to 1898 with psychologist, Norman Triplett. Triplett wrote the first published study in the field of social psychology. His study was done on the social facilitation theory. The results of his study indicated that a person’s performance can improve just by the simple presence of others.

Some consider the work of French agricultural engineer, Max Ringelmann to be the first psychological study, because Ringelmann began his work in 1882 through 1887. However, Ringelmann did not publish his results until 1913. Like Triplett, Ringelmann showed how a person’s performance is affected by others.

Social psychology developed slowly due to a lack of researchers and theories. In 1924, American psychologist, Floyd Henry Allport influenced all future works with his book Social Psychology. He is considered by many to be the founder of social psychology. He played a key role in establishing social psychology as a legitimate field of behavioral science.

Social psychologist, Kurt Lewin first presented his work in 1929 on barriers and field forces. He is known as the father of modern social psychology because of his influential work that used scientific methods and experimentation to analyze social behavior. Lewin’s influence on psychology made him one of the leading psychologists of the twentieth century.

In 1934, social psychologist, Richard LaPiere contributed his study of attitudes and behavior, demonstrating that there is little to no relationship between attitudes and behavior. Psychologist, Muzafer Sherif promoted the growth in 1936 when he conducted a classic study on conformity to demonstrate that norms form quickly and naturally among groups of people. He is also known for his famous theory the Realistic Conflict Theory. This theory explains inner group conflict, negative prejudices, and stereotypes as a result of actual competition between groups for desired resources (Stock, 1999).

In 1939, anthropologist, John Dollard and psychologist, Neal Miller published an article on aggression presenting what is known as the Frustration-Aggression Theory. This theory influenced present thinking on aggression more than any other particular publication, guiding developmental research regarding human aggression.

Australian psychologist, Fritz Heider is most known for his book published in 1946 The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations where he demonstrates two theoretical frameworks, Balance Theory and Attribution Theory. His theory dominated social psychology in the 1960s. Heider’s Balance Theory proved that individuals have a desire to maintain psychological stability, the reason we create relationships that balance our likes and dislikes.

Social psychologists and research in this field increased quickly during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of its key research developed after World War II when people became interested in the behaviors of those when grouped together and in social situations. An area of study during this time was to explain the violent happenings leading up to and during World War II. The subjects of focus were to determine the causes of aggression, group actions, and individual actions. Many psychologists escaped Europe during this time which also contributed to the field’s growth within the United States.

In the 1960s, psychology began focusing more on individual thinking processes instead of only on visible behaviors. In recent research regarding the self, studies showed the way a person thinks about themselves greatly impacts the way they manage the world. Modern technologies now afford us with the ability to look inside of the brain to understand more clearly how it works as it relates to the social characteristics of an individual.

In more recent periods, social psychologists also consider the influences of cultural differences of an individual. Studies show that people may interact with others in a different way depending on their culture. Research also shows that a person’s belief of themselves and their relationships may differ depending on culture.

The critical role social psychology has played in helping us to understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals throughout its evolution is that it encouraged research that added to our understanding of social involvement and behavior.

The method social psychology uses to analyze an individual is what makes it different from other fields of study. Social psychologists use the scientific method to study humans. Social psychology is unique in its interest of how individuals interact and affect one another.

Two fundamental principles that are essential in social psychology are the Person and the Social Situation which indicates that individual behavior at any given time is a function of both the characteristics of the person and the influence of the social situation, and the ABCs of social psychology, whereas affect relates to feelings, behavior relates to interactions, and cognition relates to thoughts.

Informed consent is a major ethical issue in conducting research. Informed consent is a voluntary agreement made by a mentally competent individual to participate in a research study. Informed consent encompasses the rights of independent people through choice. It also prevents attacks against the integrity of the individual, and protects individual freedom and truth. Another possible ethical issue is the principle of beneficence which emphasizes doing what is best for the individual participating in the study. This principle means to be of benefit, do not cause harm, and comprises the professional directive to do effective and significant research in order to better serve and support the wellbeing of citizens. The potential problem with this principle is when research finds the study was not beneficial as was expected. Another potential ethical risk for researchers is the matter of confidentiality. Privacy is protected when an individual cannot be connected with their personal responses. If the researcher cannot guarantee privacy, they must address confidentiality where they control the individual’s private information to ensure protection of their identity. Deception is also an ethical risk factor.

An example of an ethical violation that occurred in a human research study involves the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that began in 1932 by the United States Public Health Services. This study was intended to determine the normal course of untreated dormant syphilis in about 400 African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama. The participants were registered without informed consent with deceptive assurances of a specific free treatment. In reality, this treatment consisted of spinal taps without anesthesia to analyze the neurological effects of syphilis. Penicillin became known as an effective therapy for the disease in the 1940s and 1950s, yet participants were deprived of this antibiotic treatment. In 1972, reports of the study appeared in the news which resulted in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare putting an end to the experiment. There were several ethical violations present among this study, informed consent, deception, and the withholding of treatment for research purposes to name a few. The methodology used in this study was the experimental method. This is a research method that involves manipulating one variable to study whether the manipulated variable causes change in a second, measured variable (Feenstra, 2013).

Some changes that could have been made to improve the ethical nature of this research would have been to offer the men the penicillin that was proven to effectively treat the disease. They should have provided the men with informed consent. They should have obeyed the law passed in Alabama in 1927 which required medical personnel to report certain sexually transmitted diseases, and their treatment which included syphilis.



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