Open main menu

Nicole Merchant

Joined 26 July 2008

An Introduction to Social PsychologyEdit

A DefinitionEdit

It is interesting to begin to understand the huge scope of social psychology as a discipline. When asked in our tutorial to attempt to create our own definition for social psychology ideas such as how people react to situations began to emerge. However, we found it difficult to come up with a definition that encapsulated social psychology in its entirety. Therefore, I will use the definition presented to us in the first lecture based on Allport’s explanation of social psychology.

Social psychology is the study of how the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others.

The ABC of Social PsychologyEdit

As mentioned in the above definition social psychologists are concerned with the effect of other people (real or imagined) on an individual’s thoughts, feeling and behaviours. These building blocks of social psychology are known as the ABC triad.

A – Affect (Feelings) – Social Psychologists are interested in how people feel about themselves, others and various issues.

B – Behaviour (Actions) – Social psychologists are interested in all behaviours people engage in.

C – Cognition (Thoughts) - Social psychologists are interested in what people think about themselves, others and various social world problems and issues.


Norman Triplett (1897 – 1898) conducted one of the first social psychology experiments at Indiana University. His experiment came about when he noticed cyclists competing against other riders who were quicker than when competing against the clock. He tested his hypothesis by having children wind up a fishing reel, first alone and then side by side. The results showed that winding time was faster when working side by side. Another early social psychology experiment was conducted by Frenchman Max Ringelmann. He had men pull on a rope alone and as part of a group. He measured the amount of effort exerted by each participant and found that as the group size increased, individual effort decreased. These experiments stimulated many subsequent studies and obviously had a great impact on social psychology.

In the early twentieth century various ideas of how people relate to each other began to emerge. Two ideas from this period have had lasting impact on social psychology. The first being Gordan Allport’s observation that attitudes were the most useful and important concept in social psychology. The other impacting idea was Kurt Lewin’s formula that behaviour is a function of the person and the situation.

In the 1950s and 60s Social Psychology had gained momentum and by the 70s and 80s social psychologists had found a way of using scientific methods whilst also trying to study thoughts and feelings. Attribution theory emerged and evolved into a large study of social cognition that is still of interest today. A growing interest in biology and evolutionary psychology in the 1990s gave social psychology further momentum and the study of the self (that had been a central theme of social psychology since the 1970s) became of particular importance.

My ThoughtsEdit

With the Beijing Olympics about to commence, and therefore having sport on my mind, the competitive, sporting nature of the early social psychology experiments led me to think about the impact social psychology has had on competitive sport particularly at a professional level. Most professional athletes seek advice from sports psychologists and because of the social nature of sport I would imagine that much of sports psychology is influenced by social psychology. The Olympics, in particular, is an interesting sporting event from a social psychology perspective. It is not uncommon to hear commentators discuss athletes’ increased levels of anxiety competing at Olympics compared to any other sporting event. Furthermore, athletes often report achieving a personal best at the Olympic Games so how does competing at the Olympics affect an athlete’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours?

After the first week, it has become clear just how wide and varied the applications of social psychology are. As a student studying Primary Education my key interests lie in applications to curriculum and the classroom. However, as a person I am intrigued by it all and want to know more.

Culture and NatureEdit

It is important for social psychologists to understand and explain how the human psyche works. In order to do this one must understand nature, culture and the link between them because these are what made the psyche the way it is. Nature is defined as the physical world around us, including its laws and processes. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on nature determining an individual’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Therefore, evolutionary psychology applies a ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to psychology.

Culture is defined as an information-based system that includes shared ideas and common ways of doing things. Humans are social animals, in that we seek connections to others and prefer to live, work and play with other humans. Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that larger brains are generally linked to having bigger and more complex social structures. Animals with small brains often live alone or in small groups. Thus, the human brain mainly evolved to enable people to have rich, complex social lives. We are not the only social animals but we are the only cultural animals. Evolution has shaped the human psyche to enable humans to create and take part in culture.

Being cultural has many advantages. One benefit of culture is language. Language improves the powers of the brain because it enables the brain to hold and access information, use logic and reasoning, infer abstract causes, and generally think more effectively. Progress is another advantage of culture. Animals generally learn from their own experience either through trial and error or by observing and copying the behaviour of another. Humans however, not only mimic one another but also share information with one another. Humans are the only animal that has institutions to teach knowledge to the next generation. A third benefit of culture is division of labour. Each person is highly skilled in one area rather than attempting to do many tasks well. Thus, people rely on the expert in a field to carry out tasks and as a result everything is done at a higher standard. Along with division of labour is the network of trade and exchange. People exchange goods, services or money for other goods and services making the division of labour mutually beneficial.

It is interesting to note here that the progress of human beings is highly affected by the teaching of the next generation. Yet in Australia, teachers, an example of division of labour, are not highly rewarded in terms of money for their services or in terms of esteem in the community. Is this likely to affect future progress? Or is the fact that the teaching profession supports progress for future generations enough for intelligent, passionate and dedicated people to be attracted to the profession with only moderate financial benefit?

The SelfEdit

The self is constantly evolving throughout one’s life. There are three major parts of the self; the interpersonal self, the agent self and self-knowledge.

The interpersonal self, or public self, is the image of oneself that is conveyed to others. People are generally most concerned with this self. Behaviour that seeks to convey some image of self or some information about the self to other people is known as self-presentation. People are constantly attempting to present themselves in a particular way to a particular person or group of people.

The agent self, executive function, is the part of the self involved in control. The control of the agent self refers to both control over other people and control over oneself. High executive function involves the ability to make decisions, take charge of situations and act responsibly.

Self-knowledge, or self-concept, is the set of beliefs about oneself. Humans have a self-concept that is made up of information from a variety of sources and processes. One theory of how people learn about themselves is Cooley’s theory of the looking-glass self which suggests that people learn about themselves by imagining how they appear to others. Mead built on this idea with the notion of the generalised other which states that other people tell you who and what you are. A more intrapersonal view of the development of self-knowledge is introspection. Introspection is the process by which a person examines one’s mental states and mind’s contents. Another way people build self-concept is through social comparison, examining the difference between oneself and others. Another more self reliant method of gaining self-knowledge is the self-perception theory; the idea that people look at examine their own behaviour to discover what they are thinking and feeling.

One area of self-knowledge is self-esteem; how favourably one evaluates oneself. Self-esteem has become a buzz word throughout the world and particularly in education circles. The benefits of self-esteem are well known as demonstrating initiative and feeling good. However, self-esteem can become too high and a person may become narcissistic. Teachers are well aware of the need to build positive self-esteem but in some schools it has gone too far. Californian schools implemented a self-esteem movement where students took part in explicit self-esteem lessons. As part of this movement all competition was eliminated and students even sang songs about how wonderful they are. In my opinion, this movement is promoting narcissism rather than high self-esteem. Research suggests that students involved in these self-esteem programs are actually performing worse academically. An emphasis must be placed on developing skills and appropriately high self-esteem that has some reality base. Students should feel good about themselves and be confident enough to show initiative but also be aware of their strength and weaknesses. Therefore, it is suggested that teachers take a moderate approach to promoting self-esteem.

An interesting article on the failure of the California self-esteem movement is available from the George Street Journal and the United States ABC 2020 program produced a fascinating report on the self-esteem movement, entitled Feel Good About Failure (unfortunately the only link I could find for this report is one to purchase a copy of the TV episode from the ABC News Store).

Social ThinkingEdit

With the rise of cognitive psychology in the 1960s and 1970s social psychology became focused on thoughts about people and social relationships. This is known as social thinking or social cognition.

Social PerceptionEdit

Social perception refers to how people form impressions of and make inferences about other people. People do not simply take in information. Information is gathered, it is then combined with one’s framework of prior knowledge and finally encoded and possibly distorted. There are numerous types of information that may be distorted including; impression formation and management, attribution theory and communication.

Impression Formation and ManagementEdit

People are cognitive misers. Wherever possible people use automatic thought processes to store and manage information because conscious thought consumes large amounts of energy. Furthermore, if the brain is preoccupied people will further rely on automatic thought processes. People are able to rely on such processes because we have pre-existing knowledge structures that we can use as tools and guides to process information. These knowledge structures include schemas, scripts and stereotypes. Schemas represent substantial information about a concept, its attributes, and its relationship to other concepts. Scripts contain information about how people behave in a particular situation. Stereotypes are beliefs that associate groups of people with certain traits.


When unusual events occur schemas and scripts no longer have the information to guide the processing of the information about the new event. In this case people apply attribution theory, which deals with how the social perceiver assigns causal explanations to behaviour and events.


In tutorials this week we discussed the topic of communication. Communication can be, deep or shallow and verbal or nonverbal. Communication may be as simple as shallow small talk about the weather or it could be a deep and meaningful conversation, generally with a person with whom one has a close relationship, about intimate feelings and emotions.

Depth of communication


  • small talk
  • information or facts
  • opinions
  • feelings or emotions


Verbal and nonverbal communication is very interesting. In our group we discussed the importance of all communication cues, verbal and non-verbal, being consistent to avoid sending mixed messages. For example, he is saying he likes the chocolate cake I made but his facial expression is suggesting that he might not be enjoying eating the cake. Another important factor in communication is context, without context a message can have a completely different meaning. Also, in different situations different forms of verbal and non-verbal communication will become more important. However, it is generally agreed that non-verbal communication transmits the major portion of the message.

Attitudes and BeliefsEdit

Attitudes are global evaluations toward a particular object or issue. However, a belief is information about something and may be fact or opinion. Attitudes are useful to help us deal with our complex world, to help make conscious and unconscious decisions and guide initial unconscious evaluations about something. Attitudes are formed through classical and operant conditioning, social learning and the mere exposure effect. Classical conditioning is a type of learning that occurs when a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired to evoke a conditioned response. Another type of learning is operant conditioning. Operant conditioning makes a behaviour more or less likely as a result of reward or punishment. Social learning builds on operant conditioning to state that people are more likely to imitate behaviours they have seen others rewarded for and less likely to imitate behaviours that have elicited punishment for others. The mere exposure effect is the tendency for people to like something simply because they have been exposed to it repeatedly. However, there is debate as to the effect of attitudes on behaviour.


Aggression is any behaviour that intentionally harms another person who is motivated to avoid the harm. Violence is a form of aggression that attempts to inflict extreme harm. Aggression exists cross-culturally however, culture restricts and governs aggression in different ways. From an evolutionary perspective aggression evolved to help social animals deal with their social lives, but culture has provided non-violent ways of resolving conflicts and problems. There are many causes of aggression and these can be intrapersonal, interpersonal or external. If one is feeling frustrated or is in an unpleasant mood then aggression is increased. Aggression is often most apparent in the home with the sibling relationship being the most violent relationship in the world. People will also often displace aggression, replace the actual target of aggression for another. There are also many external causes of aggression such as exposure to violence, presence of a weapon, increases in testosterone, junk food, alcohol, and unpleasant environmental events such as noise, foul odours.

This information has important implications for teachers of aggressive students. Firstly, the external causes of aggression must be examined and to the best of one’s ability the teacher should attempt to eliminate any external causes of aggression in the school environment. The student should also be made aware of the fact that they are more likely to be aggressive if they are in an unpleasant mood or feeling frustrated. This gives the student an awareness of potential precursors for aggression. Then a plan must be made and implemented as to how to deal with the warning signs to avoid possible aggression. Such a plan would typically include calming or mood altering exercises. For some students this may be as simple as engaging in deep breathing when frustration begins to escalate to aggression. However, when working with a student who had repeated violent outbursts he needed to remove himself from the situation into a calm area with things he enjoyed, materials he found relaxing and space from others to avoid engaging in serious aggressive behaviour.


(This section is based on a guest lecture by Melissa Feeney and Baumeister and Bushman’s afore mentioned textbook.)

Prejudice is a negative feeling toward an individual based solely on his or her membership to a particular group. Prejudice can result in discrimination, stereotypes and stigmas. Racism is prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts toward a particular race. People hold an automatic tendency to hold stereotypes because of an innate need to categorise information. It is also innate for people to possess in-group favouritism. However, people have the ability to consciously override these stereotypes.

An example of prejudice, racism and stereotypes in Australian education is the treatment of students in schools with a high Indigenous population. The importance of setting students high expectations is widely known and discussed in education, as the students of teachers who have achievable but high expectations of students, achieve better academically and display more appropriate classroom behaviour. Melissa Feeney discussed the prevalence of teachers having low expectations of students in Indigenous communities and a principal by the name of Chris Sarra who actively sought to increase teacher expectations of students in Indigenous schools. Sarra implemented a program which sought to make Indigenous students proud of their heritage and work towards meeting their full potential. Many teachers in the school were not willing to adjust their attitudes and stereotypes and left the school within a year of Sarra’s appointment as principal. As a result of the program student absenteeism significantly decreased and academic performance improved. For more information see Dare to lead.

In tutorials this week we watched Jane Elliot’s Australian Eye. In this DVD Jane Elliot runs a workshop on prejudice awareness. During the workshop people with brown eyes are given preferential treatment and discriminate against people with blue eyes. It provides interesting insight as to how easily prejudice is created and how quickly people are affected by discrimination.


People have a desire to form and maintain close, lasting relationships with other people. This need to belong makes it relatively easy for people to form relationships, makes people reluctant to end relationships and seek an optimal balance between social contact and solitude. This belongingness consists of regular social contact with others as well as close, stable and mutually intimate relationships. In order to feel a complete sense of belonging one requires both regular social contact and close relationships. However, people do not continuously form relationships. Generally, people seek about four to six close relationships. This is true even in people rich environments where people will form social circles of about six people. If you think about the last time you were at a cocktail party, there are generally small groups of about six people that form around the room. It also holds true at a much smaller dinner party, if you have any more than about six people the table conversation will often divide into two separate conversations. With the need to belong in mind, it is interesting to note that people who marry and stay happily married live longer, happier lives than those who don’t marry or divorce.

Passionate love is important for starting relationships whilst companionate love is important for making the relationship survive. Sternberg explains this in his triangular theory of love. Sternberg argues that there are three ingredients of love; passion, intimacy and commitment. According to Sternberg, these ingredients can be included in the relationship in different quantities to create different shaped triangles. Furthermore, the shape of the triangle may change throughout the relationship.

People are attracted to others that are similar to them. People will often prepare for social interaction by attempting to become similar to the people they will be interacting with. This is one of many methods people use to make others like them. Other methods include performing favours for others, giving compliments and mimicry. Actively trying to make someone like you is known as ingratiation. People are also attracted to others through propinquity and beauty. When all else is equal most people will show a preference for attractive people. The beautiful is good effect states that people assume that physically attractive people have many other superior traits. People are attracted to average and symmetrical faces. Babies and children show a preference for attractive faces. Attractive children are even more popular with peers and their teachers. It is important for teachers to be aware of this more positive attitude toward attractive children so that teachers can actively work to consciously override this favouritism to ensure that students are treated equally.

Groups and LeadershipEdit

Through culture people form groups that allow them achieve far more than working alone. Historically, group formation is beneficial because there is safety in numbers, group members can help each other find food and groups can accomplish tasks that would be too difficult for an individual to achieve. This is evident in the division of labour, discussed in the previous section on culture. Furthermore, cultural groups share and store information to progress future generations.

People’s behaviour changes with the presence of others. Zajonc’s drive theory of social facilitation states that the presence of others increases arousal and which increases the dominant response tendency. Furthermore, social facilitation suggests that with the presence of others people perform better. Also, in the presence of others people may even change their eating habits. The Hawthorne effect argues that this behaviour change is both conscious and unconscious.

Social loafing refers to people reducing effort when working in a group, compared to working alone, especially when the work is not individually identifiable. This is an interesting phenomenon for teachers to be aware of when setting group work activities. One would assume that the implication of social loafing for teachers, is that when planning group activities that individual contributions should where possible be made evident so that students are more motivated to contribute to the activity. However, cooperation, a vital skill fostered in classrooms, decreases when competition amongst the group increases. Another factor that increases competition and therefore decreases cooperation is group size, the larger the group the more competition. Therefore, perhaps teacher presence during small group work activities is the best solution to social loafing whilst still promoting cooperation. The teacher can move around groups listening to discussion and scaffolding activities, whilst gaining insight as to students’ individual contributions, without creating competition within the group.

Prosocial BehaviourEdit

Prosocial behaviour is behaving in a way that is good for others or society. Prosocial behaviour fosters relationships and assists in the functioning of society. Examples of prosocial behaviour include helping others, obeying rules, conforming to socially acceptable behaviour and cooperating with others. The presence of others promotes prosocial behaviour because people feel pressure to conform to the positive expectations or actions of other people. People engage in prosocial for a variety of other reasons as well. Reasons for people engaging in prosocial behaviour include; self-interest, improving social status, reciprocity, conformity, evolutionary reasons and altruistic reasons. However, the bystander effect is the exception to this rule. The bystander effect is the finding that people are less likely to help when they are in a group than when they are alone. Reasons for the bystander effect include; people feeling less responsible for what happens to another person when other people are present and pluralistic ignorance.

There is debate as to whether true altruism every really exists. This debate also exists in education. Alfie Kohn is a former teacher turned author/ lecturer on education, psychology and parenting. Kohn is a strong believer in altruism and considers it part of the role of the teacher to foster altruism and prosocial behaviour. It is Kohn’s belief that a class should be established as a community of learners where cooperation and helpfulness predominate. Kohn suggests that such communities can be established through the building of relationships between teachers and students, enhancing connections among students, the use of class meetings, quality academic instruction and undertaking class and school-wide activities. For more information about Alfie Kohn and his theory of classroom management visit his website.

Environmental PsychologyEdit

Environmental psychology is the study of the interaction between people and their environment. Recently the focus of environmental psychology has centred around the effects of people on the environment. Although most work regarding climate change is left to environmental scientists the issue has become so important and prevalent in society that environmental psychologists have also become involved. Environmental psychologists have begun work on the human behaviours, feelings and attitudes that have an effect on climate change.

However, historically, studies in environmental psychology have focused on the effects of the environment on people. Environmental conditions that negatively affect human functioning include crowding, daily problems, noise and temperature. Creating an environment for optimum learning is of great importance in schools. There is often debate around the above mentioned environmental conditions in education settings. Crowding and density receive great media and political attention in terms of education in the class size debate. There is much debate as to the maximum number of students that should be allowed to form one class. Many politicians campaign on the promise of smaller class sizes in public schools.


I have found the e-portfolio a great way to consolidate my learning in social psychology. It has also provided me an opportunity to draw links between social psychology and education. I believe that as social psychology is so closely linked with education it has been a very worthwhile course to take. Overall, I feel I have become more aware of reasons people behave the way they do which will be of great benefit to me as a teacher, particularly in terms of classroom management.