Social psychology helps us to understand ourselves and the world around us. In contrast to other disciplines, the social psychological approach focuses on the individual rather than large scale societal processes. (Taylor, S. E., Peplau, L. A., & Sears, D. O., 2003). This essay will look at some specific areas of social psychology, including the concept of the self, impressions, attitudes and helping behaviours, and attempt to explain how it relates to our understanding of human behaviour. Social psychology is the scientific study of how people relate to others. It is, therefore, important to look at how impressions of others are formed and how it affects our behaviour.
Impressions of people are usually formed quickly, on the basis of minimal information. We then go on to ad general traits to them. Processing information involves perception of meaning in their behaviour. We often use the context of one’s behaviour to infer its meaning rather than interpreting their behaviour in isolation. The knowledge we have and the expectations we hold of someone are determined by the impressions we form of them. (Taylor, Peplau & Sears, 2003)
When social interaction occurs, individuals take the roles of others toward themselves and so become objects to themselves and others. The various participants in a social situation tend to co-ordinate their conduct well enough so that stable situated selves develop. This happens because the definition of the situation establishes a shared framework of roles for constructing one’s conduct and interpreting that of others. The concept of the self is thus a social object whose existence and continuity depends heavily on the roles that situations make available. Situations and their roles provide individuals with ‘selves’. (Hewitt, J. P., 2000)
In 1902, Cooley developed the idea of that the feedback we receive from other people is also an important part of the self-concept. Cooley described the self-concept as the ‘looking glass self’, arguing that what we believe other people think of us is crucial to how we see ourselves. When confronted by an unfamiliar situation we are often as much concerned with what others are thinking of us as what we are actually doing. (Cited in Hayes, N., 1993)
Like Cooley, Mead (1934, cited in Hayes, 1993) felt that the self concept developed as a result of the individuals’ social interactions with people and their concern about other people’s reactions. Based on this, Mead also argued that a person learns to interpret the social environment, and internalises their ideas about what is acceptable behaviour. These ideas are then applied to the self when others are not present.
In Goffman’s view (1959, cited in Hayes, 1993) the self comprises of a number of different aspects which are adopted during the course of brief ‘episodes’, thus meaning that, for example, the role of a passenger on a bus is as much a part of the self as the role of a student in lectures. As the individual takes their place in society, Goffman argued that the range of roles available to them develops and the different aspects of their ‘self’ which they present in everyday living become more highly developed and more sophisticated.
People spend a lot of time thinking about others. We form impressions of people we meet, have described to us or see in the media. According to the Configural Model defined by Asch (1946, cited in Hogg, M. A., & Vaughan, G. M., 1998) we latch on to certain pieces of information called central traits, when forming impressions of people. These central traits have a disproportionate influence over our final impression. Other pieces of information, known as peripheral traits, have much less influence on the impression formation process.
Critics, however, have questioned how we decide what is a central trait. Gestalt theorists believe that the centrality of a trait rests on the correlation with other traits. Other theorists have argued that centrality is a function of context, for example; Wishner, 1960 and Zanna and Hamilton, 1972 (cited in Hogg & Vaughan, 1998). There tend to be two main dimensions that people use to evaluate people; Good/ bad social and good/bad intellectual. For example traits such as “generous”, “wise” and “happy” are good/bad social and traits such as “intelligent”, “skilful” and “practical” are good/ bad intellectual.