What Is Social Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Social psychology is defined as "the scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others." In the realm of social psychology, individual mental states and social situations involving other human beings are regarded as critical factors. In a nutshell, social psychology is a crossover between psychology and sociology; it regards and studies the individual just as much as groups of people. 

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Recurring themes in social psychology

In any broad field of study, there are generally recurring themes that exist and take place. Social psychology is no exception. The recurring themes associated with social psychology provide insight into this scientific study and its impact on the world. Consider the following:

The observation and study of behavior patterns

Studying and observing the behavior patterns of individuals is a common and recurring theme within the realm of social psychology. In many cases, behavior patterns are thought of as indicative of personality traits and character. For instance, someone who regularly comes to the aid of a friend may be regarded as a helpful and caring person. Likewise, someone else who is regularly grumpy and tends to keep other people at a distance might be considered standoffish or unfriendly.

There is no doubt that behavior patterns can often serve as indicators of a person's character or personality. However, there are certain situations where this is not always the case. Someone who regularly comes to the aid of a friend may be doing so for ulterior motives or because they expect something in return. Likewise, individuals who are detached and removed from others may behave this way due to difficult experiences in the past.

Human beings are innately complicated. There are so many reasons why people behave in certain ways. While kindness, generosity, and goodness can serve as motivating factors, there can also be nefarious reasons beneath the surface. It is not uncommon for individuals to alter their behavior patterns to be perceived in a certain manner by various onlookers. This is why it can take lots of time before one gets to understand the personality and character of another individual.


The existence of the expectation confirmation

Another element of social psychology is its unearthing of the expected confirmation. Put simply; human beings tend to seek out information that affirms already existing notions about a person, event, or situation.

How many times have people of various political affiliations ignored the wrongdoings within their parties while vigorously noting the issues on the "other" side of the aisle? This is quite common because many individuals believe that their side is right while the other side is wrong. Therefore, this belief often prompts people to overlook existing evidence that conflicts with their current notions, while directly seeking out supportive confirmation.

The expectation confirmation can be particularly dangerous in certain settings and situations. For instance, a woman who enters a relationship may believe their partner to be kind, loving, and loyal. However, if the partner becomes abusive or neglectful and the woman overlooks these things, that can put their well-being in danger.

When taken to extremes, expectation confirmation can become a type of delusion. No matter how painful it may be, people are not always who we believe them to be. Situations and circumstances are not always as they appear. The ability to objectively observe the evidence and make logical, rational determinations can be paramount. Social psychology has shed light on the existence of expectation confirmation. The knowledge of its existence may encourage individuals to proceed with caution when necessary.

Comparing and contrasting

Comparing and contrasting is a recurring theme in social psychology. In many cases, individuals elect to determine their perceptions and views of themselves based on the feedback from others or the observations they make of others.

For instance, an individual who is frequently lauded as mature, intelligent, and well-spoken is likely to believe themselves to be in possession of these traits. Likewise, a person who is regularly criticized as weak or stupid may eventually grow to view themselves accordingly. Of course, the outside commentary is not always indicative of a person's true inner capabilities or qualities, but it can impact how an individual sees themselves.

Comparing and contrasting also take place in the observations made of other people. Human beings tend to look at others around them or in the world and measure themselves up against their observations. This is common when it comes to socioeconomic backgrounds, talents, abilities, social status, and more. Social psychology directly ties into the individual and how they come about making certain determinations and arriving at various conclusions.

Theories of social psychology

As one might imagine, there are a plethora of theories that stem from social psychology. Some theories are more accepted, while others have more holes or room for people to contest or disagree. Regardless, understanding some of the theories of social psychology can provide great insight into scientific study.

The social exchange theory

In a nutshell, the social exchange theory maintains that human beings tend to view relationships with others in a manner of cost versus benefit. If the benefits of a relationship outweigh the costs, the relationship is likely to remain ongoing. However, if the costs outweigh the benefits, then the relationship might cease to exist with time.

Of course, there are always a variety of factors and dynamics which are involved in relationships. The social exchange theory does not necessarily only pertain to romantic relationships either; it can apply to friendships, ties between family, coworkers, and more.

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The self-verification theory

The self-verification theory states that people wish to be seen by others in the same ways they see themselves. This particular social psychology theory has been criticized, especially since it's more likely to apply to people with confidence, high self-esteem, and other types of positive self-perceptions. For instance, an individual who views themselves as hard-working, talented, and motivated is likely to want others to see them in this manner.

Conversely, other people who see themselves as weak, timid, and unskilled will probably not want the world to also view them in this manner. It is not uncommon for people who feel poorly about themselves to go to extremes for the sake of overcompensating for perceived shortcomings. In situations like this, the self-verification theory could fall short.

The observational learning theory

According to the observational learning theory, human beings often rely upon the observation of others to select certain behavioral patterns. There is a fair amount of evidence to support this theory, particularly regarding young children. Kids tend to model the behaviors to which they are frequently exposed. This can be a positive or unhelpful thing, depending on the conduct of their peers or the adults who care for them.

As children grow into adults, they may continue to model their behavior after others around them or they may not. There are countless factors that affect the quality of a person's behavior. 

Benefits of social psychology

As one might imagine, social psychology plays a large role in understanding ourselves as human beings and groups of people. There are many developments that have come about as a result of social psychology. Furthermore, the many existing theories allow people to step back, think, and consider whether they have participated in any of the behaviors associated with social psychology whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Human beings are innately interesting and complex. Social psychology allows us to take a deeper look at ourselves, our thought processes, decisions, and how we choose to live life.

There will be certain things that apply to us, while other things do not. The beauty of this type of study is that the world is ever-changing, and no two people are precisely the same.

Online counseling with BetterHelp

Regardless of what your situation may be, if you’re struggling in your interpersonal relationships or with individual concerns, it can be helpful to speak with a professional. 

BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that can connect you with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home. You can choose to talk with them through video chats, phone calls, or even in-app messaging. Online therapy removes many of the barriers you might encounter with face-to-face therapy. There are no waitlists, long drives, or high costs associated with BetterHelp’s services. It may provide you with the support and care you need to overcome the challenges you’re facing.

The efficacy of online counseling 

Online counseling can be used by individuals, but it can also be helpful for those who want to improve their relationships with others. Couples therapy is a popular form of counseling that can be sought out online. In one study, researchers found that couples therapy delivered via videoconferencing is “efficacious in connecting a couple and therapist, for the provision of couples intervention.” They also found that the intervention was successful in increasing relationship adjustment and satisfaction. This was maintained at follow-up. 


Social psychology can provide various explanations for why humans think and behave as they do. Understanding this field more in-depth may, in turn, allow you to understand yourself more clearly. Interpersonal relationships are a natural part of life for any human, and it can be important to surround yourself with supportive, encouraging individuals. If you’re struggling with the relationships in your life, it may help to speak with a licensed online therapist. They can act as a guide and source of encouragement as you construct a more positive community and learn more about what makes you, you.

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