Five Social Psychology Essentials

Social psychology teaches critical thinking about social behavior, or at least that's what we teachers like to think. It's comforting to believe that the field we've spent years studying will help our students see the world anew. We're glad when students show signs of internalizing a social psychological perspective. More often than we like to admit, though, students have trouble seeing the point. Sometimes they tell us the subject matter is obvious. Sometimes they think it's irrelevant. And sometimes they have trouble seeing how the field’s disparate collection of seemingly unrelated details fit together in a coherent approach to social life. All this reduces the appeal of more advanced courses, seminars, and graduate school. For many students who are not psychology majors, introductory social psychology course is the last psychology course they ever take.

My own teaching experience leads me to suggest that most students will get more out of the course if they keep in mind several underlying themes that their instructors do not always make explicit. Identifying connections among the course’s bewildering array of topics makes the whole more understandable even when some parts are difficult to grasp, and it makes the relevance of those parts more apparent. Students who keep their eye on overall themes, thus, are more likely to learn valuable lessons about social life and, more important, to retain those lessons long after they forget every experiment, definition, and theory.

The choice of themes is somewhat subjective and even political, but a good case can be made for these five in particular: (a) identifying and questioning empirical assumptions; (b) imagining and exploring alternatives; (c) understanding that behavior has multiple interacting causes; (d) emphasizing the centrality of both individuality and community; and (e) recognizing social psychology as a form of technology. My exploration of these themes reflects several influences: the appreciation for social psychology I first developed as an undergraduate four decades ago, before discovering the field’s “crisis of confidence” (Pancer, 1997); my later immersion in critical psychology’s analysis of mainstream psychology’s values and practices (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997); and a recent effort to explain to skeptical students what the course might actually teach them. Courses defined as critical social psychology (Hepburn, 2003) that go further afield are well worth searching out, but the framework suggested here can easily be identified within the mainstream course most students take. Even when instructors do not themselves emphasize broad themes, intellectually curious students can use them to pose questions for discussion and essays that go beyond the conventional. They can even challenge social psychologists to look at things anew.

I. Identifying and Questioning Empirical Assumptions

Social psychology’s most valuable lesson may be that assumptions about human behavior and human nature are often wrong. Although the distinction between common sense and science is sometimes exaggerated, it’s good to learn how cultural, historical, political, and other variables affect both everyday behavior and our interpretations of that behavior. After graduation, students should more easily distinguish empirical statements from value statements and question arguments that rely on hidden or questionable empirical foundations.

Because assumptions about human behavior have policy ramifications far beyond the personal and interpersonal, however, the traditional social psychology course should stretch its boundaries. Most texts already apply social psychological theory to real-world arenas such as health and the environment. Important topics such as aggression and prejudice are standard. Yet the introductory course could go much further to dissect widespread empirical assumptions about human behavior that dominant ideologies make use of to legitimize capitalism, nationalism, injustice, and similar components of modern society. Every political and economic system incorporates preferred views about what makes people tick and what steps societal elites can take to maintain the status quo. Social psychologists should be at the forefront of sorting out the degree to which these empirical assumptions are disseminated primarily because they are politically convenient for those in power.

The course should also consider more directly the assumptions guiding social psychologists’ decisions about which issues to investigate and how to approach them. Although some social psychologists still maintain that their political views have little bearing on their work, many have come to acknowledge that social science can never be truly value free. The typical textbook’s presentation of research findings, anecdotes, and suggestions for real-world application frequently lead to the reasonable conclusion that the author’s choice of research and writing projects is motivated by politically liberal assumptions and priorities. That makes sense, because the field’s emphasis on cautious societal reform is more compatible with liberal views than with those of either conservatives to the right or radicals further to the left. This moderately liberal bias is evident more broadly through organizations representing social psychologists and psychologists more generally (Fox, 1993).

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