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Five Social Psychology Essentials

In-Mind Magazine

July 2007


In-Mind Magazine, or Inquisitive-Mind, is an effort by European social psychology graduate students to generate interest in social psychology and offer an outlet primarily, but not only, for graduate student writing. Although their approach seems embedded in mainstream social psychology, the editors seem open to publishing alternative and critical perspectives.

I posted early drafts of pieces of this last year on my blog as I wrote them, while I was teaching social psychology.

Related 1992 paper: A Political Framework for the Introductory Social Psychology Course



Many students who take an introductory social psychology course never study social psychology again. To help make sense of the course, these students and their instructors should focus on five themes, ways of thinking about the social world and general principles applicable to a broad range of social behavior: identifying and questioning empirical assumptions; imagining and exploring alternatives; understanding that behavior has multiple interacting causes; emphasizing the centrality of both individuality and community, and recognizing social psychology as a form of technology. Suggested expansion of these themes reflects a perspective from within critical psychology that is easily manageable within a mainstream social psychology course.

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. Sometime 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).

II. Imagining and Exploring Alternatives

The next step is imagining and exploring alternatives. The structure and purpose of the standard college classroom, the nature of work and family life, the forces that maintain national and global political and economic power - everything is up for discussion if we take social psychology's subject matter seriously. If our world is neither optimal nor inevitable, then every course should spend time imagining a better one and exploring how we might achieve it. This means contemplating possibilities beyond the relatively minor reforms social psychologists typically suggest.

Half a century ago Abraham Maslow (1971) taught a course in Utopian Social Psychology. He described it as focused on "the empirical and realistic questions: How good a society does human nature permit? How good a human nature does society permit? What is possible and feasible? What is not?" (p. 203). That topic is at least as urgent today. What does social psychology's knowledge base say about current societal arrangements? How could social psychologists expand that base to facilitate alternatives? In addition to its pedagogical benefits, this discussion might encourage students to challenge common justifications for an imperfect status quo and even, perhaps, work to make things better.

III: Understanding that Behavior has Multiple Interacting Causes

Social psychology's landscape is important even if many of the details are not. We hope that when students try to understand aggression and competition, prejudice and obedience, they will remember that social behavior has many causes; that, because behavior reflects an interaction between person and setting, at least some of those causes are changeable; and that variation is inevitable, so that behavior is rarely completely predictable even when experimental manipulations reach statistical significance.

Students who know that behavior has multiple interacting causes are likely to remember Eliot Aronson's "first law" noted in his classic text The Social Animal (2004): People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy. Instead of dismissing as irrational suicide bombers in Iraq or repressive guards at Guantanamo Bay, they should wonder about the context that makes such behavior seem reasonable to those who carry it out. Perhaps even more important, when considering how public policy might be changed to reduce repressive and unjust behavior, they should wonder about the context that leads some to resist those changes and about how to facilitate positive change despite opposition. Raising the level of analysis toward the societal and global should be part of every social psychology course.

IV. Realizing the Centrality of Both Individuality and Community

An obvious connection among many of social psychology's distinct topics is the tension between the individual and the community. Despite frequent mention of this link, however, textbooks increasingly de-emphasize group activity and emphasize its drawbacks as they narrow their gaze toward the interpersonal and intrapersonal. Aronson's Social Animal, for example, doesn't have a chapter squarely on group dynamics; group structure, the roles of group actors, and factors that make groups effective, satisfying, or cooperative appear in other chapters, but rarely as a core concern. In Social Psychology, David Myers (2002) adds in a postscript that groups have benefits as well, but his advice - "we had better choose our group influences wisely and intentionally" (p. 322) - reinforces the dangers. Importantly, community interaction beyond the small group is rarely considered.

The introductory course should emphasize how social psychology's body of knowledge demonstrates the importance of both individuality and community and should consider more carefully how both might be enhanced. By assessing how competing political and philosophical perspectives attempt to balance the two, social psychology can encourage students to consider how those perspectives reflect competing empirical assumptions (Fox, 1985). The course should also consider whether social psychology's inward turn can be explained, at least in part, by our era's individualistic, entrepreneurial, competitive ethos. It should assess the societal implications of this decreased focus on how to create and maintain better functioning groups and communities.

V. Recognizing Social Psychology as a Form of Technology

When considering the researcher's responsibility for developing techniques of social control that can be used in negative ways, introductory textbooks generally conclude that most researchers today appropriately balance the pros and cons and that, in any case, scientists are not personally responsible for what others do with their findings. Thus, with institutional oversight and within the law, social psychologists can legitimately manipulate subjects for experimental purposes, and they can legitimately manipulate members of the public afterwards. Not surprisingly, the introductory course emphasizes the positive (resolving environmental problems, resisting deceptive advertising, reducing prejudice) and minimizes the negative (deceiving consumers, increasing obedience, maintaining injustice). Ironically, it is often the more hidden uses that bring home to students just how relevant social psychology really is. If market researchers and the CIA are recruiting social psychologists, there must be something to it! ("The Central Intelligence Agency can provide a fulfilling career for the curious and skilled researcher. Immediate openings are available for generalists in applied behavioral research. Duties will involve the practical application of professional knowledge and experience to exciting real-world situations...." - CIA, 2007).

An introductory class should consider more directly the assumptions that social psychological knowledge is neutral and that the benefits outweigh the harms. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the societal and global consequences of many forms of technology have been predominantly negative (Fox, 1986). Even positive technologies, though, transform society without democratic debate and decision making. The lack of public input gains additional significance when the technology in question is explicitly created to shape behavior without our awareness or permission.


Many students would find introductory social psychology more interesting and its important lessons more memorable if the course emphasized general themes crucial for an informed public rather than an amalgamation of disconnected research findings. Those who plan to become professional social psychologists would also benefit from thinking about the field's broader implications. It makes sense, thus, for discussion of behavior's context to routinely consider societal assumptions about which behaviors are natural and expected, about who benefits and who loses from existing institutional arrangements, and about how and why those assumptions and institutions differ across cultures. It's comforting to assume social psychology will help improve our world, and especially reassuring to find examples such as Ignacio Martín-Baró's (1994) Latin American liberation psychology. Success, however, is more likely if students and teachers explore together just what social psychology is, and what it should be, about.


Aronson, E. (2004). The social animal (9th. ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
CIA (2007), June 8, 2007
Fox, D. R. (1985). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commons. American Psychologist, 40, 48-58.
Fox, D. R. (1986). Technology, productivity, and psychological needs. In J. W. Murphy & J. T. Pardeck (Eds.), Technology and human productivity: Challenges for the future (pp. 59-66). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Fox, D. R. (1993). Psychological jurisprudence and radical social change. American Psychologist, 48, 234-241.
Fox, D. & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.). (1997). Critical psychology: An introduction. London: Sage.
Hepburn, A. (2003). An introduction to critical social psychology. London: Sage.
Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology (A. Aron & S. Corne, Eds.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Penguin Books.
Myers, D. G. (2002). Social psychology (7th. ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pancer, M. (1997). Social psychology: The crisis continues. In D. Fox & I. Prilleltensky (Eds.), Critical psychology: An introduction (150-165). London: Sage.


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