Evolution of Social Psychology


It is ironic this week’s discussion query requests learners to “select three key points in the evolution of social psychology that you feel are paramount to the field” presupposing three key determinates culminate in the current social psychology field.  The reading resources made it abundantly clear that the field itself inherently has an appreciation for both the importance of context and the “impact of situationism—that is, the importance of examining people’s surroundings when trying to understand individual behavior” essentially making it counter-intuitive to dismantle any one or three points as particularly crucial over and above other points to the development of the field as whole (Fiske, 2010, Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010, Farr, 1991) .  The field of social psychology today is the culmination and evolution of many influences, of which the most important of are often disputed amongst scholars within the field (Fiske, 2010, Farr, 1991) once again proving how critical subjectivism can be to interpretation.

Further, from which vantage point are the pivotal points to be selected?  For instance, according to Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey there are three basic content areas: “the study of intra-group and intergroup processes,” the “study of attitudes, opinions, and beliefs,” and, “the study of social perception and self-perception” (2010, p. 4).  Specific to the basic content areas the three paramount points could be:

  1. 1917 – Kurt Lewin “creates field theory, a theory based on physics but that denotes how internal and external factors influence individual behavior, which in turn had a profound influence on the field of social psychology (Laureate, 2011, p. 1).  Lewin is further linked to the study of intra-group and intergroup processes (Fiske et al., 2010, p. 4).
  2. 1920’s – “Attitude research becomes understood as a central concept within social psychology” (Laureate, 2011, p. 1).
  3. 1944 – “Fritz Heider publishes first organized construction of attribution theory” (Laureate, 2011, p. 1).

However, if we are to consider the question from the three central themes perspective described as “the power of the group as a normative influence, … centrality of subjective meaning or interpretation…, an emphasis on ‘non-obvious experimental demonstrations” (Fiske et al., 2010, p. 5), then the three paramount points could be as follows:

  1.  1917 – Kurt Lewin.  See above.
  2. 1931: Gardner Murphy and Lois Murphy “publish Experimental Social Psychology reviewing over 800 studies of social psychological functioning” (Laureate, 2011, p. 1).
  3. 1957 – Leon Festinger “publishes work on deindividuation with group behavior… begins work on cognitive dissonance theory” (Laureate, 2011, p. 2).

Specific to the perspective of Fiske (2010) and the five core motives for our behavior, being “belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing the self, and trusting,” other than Lewin being credited as a founding father, the other mentioned researchers and contributors is relatively recent.

Utilizing a strictly historical perspective, as outlined by Fiske et al. (2010, p. 14), yields more of a context by timeline approach through the decades, each influenced by major events beginning in the 1930s and each uniquely contributing to the current social psychology paradigm.  It seems unreasonable to omit any of these influences as paramount contributors.

My particular, subjective preferences for pivotal points in the short history of social psychology chosen from the resource media (Laureate, 2011) are as follows:

1.         1917 – 1950’s Kurt Lewin.  The one seemingly incontrovertible influence listed in all histories is Kurt Lewin and his pivotal research in field theory, leadership, and reflecting situationism in his equation explaining psychological functioning: B = f (P, E): behavior is a function of the person and their environment.  Please note, situationism was defined in 1951 as “social behavior understood by a person’s response to his/her social environment and not a function of individual personality” (Laureate, 2011, p. 1).  It would be great if we knew who mentored Lewin back in the day.

2.         1957 – Leon Festinger “begins work on cognitive dissonance theory” (Laureate, 2011, p. 2).  Cognitive dissonance theory deals with a person’s psychological recalibration to perceptions of their environment, what they have, do not have, what they can have and what they cannot have.  Like many others, I have many personal anecdotes related to experiences in my own life where I have literally convinced myself I no longer liked something because it created issues for me.  For instance, prior to beginning my Master’s program I had participated in many online games with people all over the world.  Upon beginning the program I quickly discovered that there was very little time for playing games, studying, working and spending time with the family.  It was not long before I lost all interest in the game, much to my husband’s dismay.  He enjoyed playing the game with me.

3.         1984 – Shelley Taylor “Social Cognition text is published, reflecting the burgeoning field of social cognition research to include work in social inference, schemas, person memory, attention and consciousness, and social identity” (Laureate, 2011, p. 2) all of which are directly related to a foundation of connecting a person’s responses to their environment.  Although I am quite sure Taylor’s work was influenced by many others before her, she put many different influences together combining them with current social cognition research.

Current and Future Endeavors Influenced by Situationism

Clearly, as situationism relates to every type of context and situation, everything I do is related to it.  My personal, academic and professional experiences are all influenced by the context and/or situation in which they occur, which directly or indirectly influence my behavior and interactions with others.  My academic and educational background colors my experiences and perceptions.  Many difficult personal experiences have also altered my perspective in many situations, especially social situations.  Lastly, my professional experiences, good and bad, have directly influenced my perception of myself, others and different professional arenas.

I am confident, however, that my academic experiences in this program will directly benefit my future should I go back to teaching or even if I choose to stay within the legal field.  A clear understanding of others’ behaviors in social situations can never be a bad thing.  My simple B.A. in Psychology has fared me well all these years.  This new adventure can only bring more enlightenment.



Farr, R. M. (1991). The long past and the short history of social psychology. European Journal of Social Psychology, 21(5), 371-380. http://dx.doi.org/http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2420210502/abstract

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Fiske, S. T., Gilbert, D. T., & Lindzey, G. (Eds.). (2010). The handbook of social psychology (Vol. 1, 5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). The history of social psychology . Available from Walden University.

Reis, H. T. (2008). Reinvigorating the concept of situation in social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(4), 311-329. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1088868308321721


2 thoughts on “Evolution of Social Psychology

  1. Pingback: Cognitive Dissonance « Illuminutti

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